Example 8 – James Ayers Cannot Come to Terms with Calvinist Predestination


Back to Chapter 11 – Examples of Calvinist Interpretive Incoherence


Presbyterian scholar and administrator, James Ayers, provides the explanation of the doctrine of predestination as held by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).[1]  He seeks to address the commonly raised questions, “Are we “elected” to have faith?  Are some doomed to perdition?  How can a loving God allow us not to choose faith?”  He writes,

               “…all Christian thinkers must deal, sooner or later, with the relationship between God’s call and human response. Calvin’s conviction that God is in charge of all events led him to the doctrine that if some people are saved while others are damned, this must be because God chose them for these fates. Having come to that conclusion, Calvin was not shy in stating his view:

               “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or to death.”

               “We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment” (Institutes, III.21.5,7, Beveridge translation).”

            After providing a brief historical survey of the different views on this doctrine (i.e., Calvin, Arminius, Murray (Universalist), Barth), Ayers tells us what this doctrine means for us today.

               “What, then, should the doctrine of predestination mean for people today?  First, we should be confident that God gives to all of us the destiny of being transformed into the children of God.  If God has chosen such a destiny for us before we could choose for ourselves, then we are predestined: predestined by God for good.

               Second, we should not be presumptuous, as though we could disdain others because we suppose God loves us more than them.  Or as though we could presume that because God has destined us for good, we can gleefully rebel against God’s purpose with no risk.  Or as though even the most wicked is beyond the possibility of grace and forgiveness.

               Third, we should be humble, accepting that there are things we do not know. In particular, while we are in the midst of the story, we are not yet in a position to know the end of the story.

               And fourth, we should be hopeful, with prayerful confidence that in the end God’s purpose will indeed be fulfilled, in our own lives, and in the life of all the world.  And why not?  Why should we not trust and pray for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven?  And why not also live on that basis — living lives of hope and faith and joy, as those whose destiny is to be the children of God?”

            In light of his own doctrine of predestination these statements are not merely straining to provide some reconciliation between what Ayers must know about God’s universal love, goodness, compassion, mercy and salvation accomplished for all sinner in Christ on the cross, but are also confusing and contradictory.  And I must add astonishing!  These statements indicate that the Calvinist cannot process their doctrine of predestination biblically, logically or morally. 

            Now Ayers, like “all Christian thinkers,” must deal with “the relationship between God’s call and human response.”  Most Christian thinkers do, and they do not do so in a way that leads to a contradiction.  Ayers is presupposing his Calvinist definition of “call” here as an “effectual call.”  Most Christian thinkers do not find Scriptural support for “two calls” – a “general call” and “effectual call.”  This is a distinction Calvinists invent to preserve and “explain” their theistic determinism.  If the “general call” that goes out to all individuals is anything close to being the “good news” that it should be for sinners, then it would be proclaiming the offer of salvation and its promises to the non-elect, that is, those whom “it was his pleasure to doom to destruction.”  Therefore, it is only the Calvinist that must deal with this duplicity on God’s part and disingenuousness on the preachers part created by the theological determinism reflected in his doctrine of predestination.  Ayers quotes Calvin as saying that “some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.”  Calvin states that God “determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man.”  All people are “predestined to life or to death.”  Ayers asks this question, “What, then, should the doctrine of predestination mean for people today?”  This is a good question, and I take his as referring to “every man” or “all people.”  Ayers answers it by stating, “…we should be confident that God gives to all of us the destiny of being transformed into the children of God.”  Now according to his theology this “all of us’ must mean “all of us elect.”  But Ayers does not say that.  If he did not mean all people then he should have clarified his question to be consistent with his doctrine of predestination and said, “What, then, should the doctrine of predestination mean for the elect today?”  But he did not do this.  He clearly states, “for people today?”  So what does it mean “for people today?”  Ayers clearly states, “…we should be confident that God gives to all of us the destiny of being transformed into the children of God.”  He certainly seems to be meaning to say that God has determined everyone to salvation.

            Now in this context I take this to be referring to salvation because in Scripture “being transformed” or “conformed” refers to what happens to believers.  When he uses the phrase, “being transformed into the children of God,” it certainly sounds as if he is referring to what Paul states is promised to be accomplished in “those who love God” in Rom. 8:29, “For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” (CSB)  He certainly is suggesting Paul’s words to the Corinthian believers in 2 Cor. 3:18, that “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (CSB)  (cf. Rom. 12:2)  Furthermore, the phrase “children of God” certainly refers to those who believe and are saved (Rom. 8:16, 17, 21, 9:8, 11, 26; 1 John 3:1, 10, 5:2; Phil. 2:15; Gal. 3:26, et al.) So again, Ayers certainly seems to be saying everyone is destined to salvation.

            Now, if Ayers means something drastically different by his words here then he should have made himself clear.  For as they stand they are in direct contradiction with his doctrine of predestination.  Ayers, in direct contradiction to Calvin, tells us that God has determined everyone to salvation.  This is astonishing!  Ayers certainly seems to be affirming Universalism, which is in direct contradiction to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination he also affirms.  Not only does Ayers contradict predestination as he has just presented it and as Calvin delineated it and as it is held by his denomination, he also seems to be affirming Universalism.  We can see the quagmire of intellectual and moral turmoil the Calvinist finds himself in due to his theistic determinism. 

            Regarding Ayers’ second point, his warning against disdaining others is well-taken, but it continually lurks behind the scenes given Calvinist predestination.  It is an admonition that is hard to swallow being that Calvinism actually teaches that “All are not created on equal terms.”  And as long as the Calvinist presupposes their own election, while thinking about their friends and loved ones who have died as unbelievers, on Calvinist predestination it is a fact that “God loves us more than them.”  It is a logical entailment of Calvinism that God loves the elect or certain people, and hates the non-elect, or all other people.

            Therefore, Ayers’ statement that “…we should be confident that God gives to all of us the destiny of being transformed into the children of God” is just incoherent with his doctrine of predestination or unconditional election.  His theology undermines the confidence he says we should have in the goodness of God towards us.

            And it is here that Ayers has touched on an important gospel failure in Calvinism.  We are left wondering about God’s salvific will for each of us personally and individually.  Is God kindly disposed towards me or is he not?  Am I among the elect or am I not?  It is an ontological fact that cannot be altered that right now you, me and everyone living are either among the elect or among the non-elect.  And again, that fact is unchangeable.  Therefore, Calvinists have to presume their own election.

            One other important point is that we are left wondering what the content of the message is that the Calvinist brings to those “others” they are not supposed to disdain?  Shouldn’t he preach his “doctrines of grace” which includes predestination (i.e., unconditional election), which is the full and final reason that anyone becomes saved, in the work and message of the gospel as “the good news?”  Of course he should.  But he cannot, for the obvious reason that there isn’t any “good news” in his “doctrines of grace.”

            Ayers’ third point that “we should be humble” is also well-taken, but again, admonitions about what we should be presuppose libertarian freedom not Calvinist determinism.  On Calvinist determinism we all just are God has predetermined us to be – humble or proud.  “Should be” and “ought to be” are not coherent concepts given universal divine causal determinism.

            Ayers’ fourth point is inconsistent in a number of ways with his determinism.  He says that “we should be hopeful, with prayerful confidence that in the end God’s purpose will indeed be fulfilled, in our own lives, and in the life of all the world.”  The sentiment of this statement is incoherent with determinism.  Of course “God’s purpose will indeed be fulfilled, in our lives and in the life of all the world.”  That is what is entailed in determinism.  But to describe this as a hopeful and prayerful confidence, and that we should pray “God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is incoherent with Calvinist determinism.  God’s will alone is always done everywhere.  This very prayer is Jesus’ refutation of Calvinism.  Moreover, there is only hope for those God has elected.  There is no hope for those he has reprobated.  That is the fact of the matter of Calvinism.  Therefore, on what basis can all people be honestly and assuredly be told that they may live a life of hope given Calvinist predestination?  On the basis that we should “trust and pray for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven?”  Rather than embrace this confusion, the gospel as “good news” provides a more sure word that has much more sure word of hope in its free offer of salvation to all sinners who may appropriate it by faith.  But this “good news” cannot be coherently reflected, and is in fact countered, by the doctrine of predestination and “the doctrines of grace.”

            And again Ayers strikes the Universalist chord when he states,

               “…we should be hopeful, with prayerful confidence that in the end God’s purpose will indeed be fulfilled, in our own lives, and in the life of all the world. And why not? Why should we not trust and pray for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven?  And why not also live on that basis — living lives of hope and faith and joy, as those whose destiny is to be the children of God?”

            It appears that Ayers is a Universalist, or, if not, a least a wishful thinker.  We all ought to live “as those whose destiny is to be the children of God.”  But the ontological reality of predestination or unconditional election still remains.  On Calvinism, it is a fact that God has already determined the eternal destiny of every individual.  So to be a child of God may or may not be my destiny.  So is to be a child of God really my destiny?  Do I have to merely pretend that it is or can I know with assurance that I can be a child of God?  Can I be saved?  How so?  On what basis?

What I am pointing out here is the intellectual and emotional struggle that Calvinism generates because of its theistic determinism.  What this piece reveals is that Calvinism is unlivable as a determinism.  It requires thinking about oneself in a manner not consistent with its own theology and soteriology.  It requires the suppression of reason in the midst of incoherence, inconsistency and contradiction.  It resorts to presumption and wishful thinking.  It cannot be intellectually and morally resolved to any satisfaction, and to deal with it intellectually, morally and emotionally requires additional “rationalizations” that only lead to further incoherence.  There is no way out of the vortex of theistic determinism.


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[1] James Ayers, “The Paradox of Predestination,” Predestination II – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Accessed 4/13/2020. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/predestination-ii/ 

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