Islam and Calvinism:an Uncomfortable Comparison

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Islam and Calvinism:An Uncomfortable Comparison

By Phil Congdon

In a packed baseball stadium a few days after 9/11, a Christian minister stood to pray. The minister began: “We pray in the name of our God—the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam…”

Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, politicians and celebrities had been presenting Islam as no different than Christianity, and God as no different than Allah.

Are they right?

Twenty years earlier, while a student in seminary, I spent two summers in Saudi Arabia leading a ministry for high school and college-aged children of Aramco Oil workers. In Dhahran, a community of ex-patriots fenced off from the Saudi population, a small Protestant fellowship met in a community center each week. One night in a service, a man prayed that God would reveal Himself “in this land where You are not known.” Afterward, he was criticized by some who insisted that “Allah is just another name for God.”

Is that true?

While many uncritically equate Allah and Yahweh, informed Christians and Muslims reject it out of hand. The deity Muslims worship is very different from the Biblical Yahweh. And that raises the question: What if a group of Christian theologians conceived of God in a way similar to Allah?

After all, how Christians conceive of God varies greatly (e.g., Calvinists vs Arminians). And how we view God matters. It affects the way we view the world and determines how we will respond to those who follow other religions. The attitudes, emotions, and actions we attribute to God will be reflected in the attitudes, emotions, and actions we live out as followers of our God. While a wrong concept of God is at the heart of every non-Christian religion (e.g., Islam), it is troubling to find that unbiblical views of God are also present in  many strands of Christianity leading to theological and spiritual confusion in many Christians’ lives.

With that in mind, let us compare the concepts of Allah in Islam and God in Calvinism.

The Sovereignty of God

No one will dispute that God is sovereign. He alone possesses the divine attributes of omnipotence (allpowerful), omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (present everywhere), eternality (no beginning or end), immutability (unchanging), and holiness (perfection).

But the implications of the sovereignty of God are open to debate. In particular, how does the sovereignty of God “play out” in His dealings with mankind?

The answer to this question is determined by our conception of what sovereignty entails.

Determinism

The sovereignty of Allah in Islam and God in Calvinism is absolutely deterministic. They are the author of every action, word, and thought, including sin and evil. Moreover, they predetermined before time everything that shall occur in time including who will be given the gift of faith and eternal life, and who will not and be condemned to eternal death.

Calvinist church historian Phillip Schaff writes:

Calvinism…starts with a double decree of predestination, which antedates and is the divine program of human history. This program includes the successive stages of the creation of man, a universal fall and condemnation of the human race, a partial redemption and salvation: all for the glory of God and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice. History is only the execution of the original design… (History of the Christian Church 8.4.114).

Note that Schaff does not shy away from affirming that God Himself decreed the fall of man, and is therefore the author of sin!

The same view was affirmed by Calvin:

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 those ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or death (Institutes, 3.21.5).

Islam teaches the same doctrine as Calvinism. According to Islam, Allah is absolutely deterministic. As Caner and Caner write:

One of the foundational doctrines of Islam is the absolute sovereignty, to the point of determinism, of Allah. Allah knows everything, determines everything, decrees everything, and orders everything. Allah is even the cause of evil (Unveiling Islam, p. 109).

It follows that Allah predestines all who will be saved and all who will be eternally damned. Of those who cannot be saved, Surah 2:6-7 states:

It is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe. Allah has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing. And on their eyes is a veil; Great is the chastisement they [incur].

Fatalism

It follows that Calvinism and Islam are both inherently fatalistic. In Calvinism, the sovereign God elects those who will be saved and rejects all others, as seen repeatedly in Calvin’s writings:

…some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of those ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or death (Institutes, 3.21.5).

[God] arranges all things by his sovereign counsel, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death…(Institutes, 3.23.6).

In the same way, Allah leads astray whom he wills, and saves whom he wills (Surah 14:4):

Allah is exalted and pleased as he sends people to hell: this is the fatalistic claim of Islam. Fatalism is a belief that events are fixed in advance for all time in such a manner that human beings are powerless to  change them. In this case, Allah will send to heaven whomever he pleases, and send to hell whomever he pleases (Unveiling Islam, pp. 31-32).

An old joke tells of a Calvinist who fell down the stairs, got up, and said, “Thank God that’s over!” Interestingly, Caner and Caner recount from their Islamic childhood:

Our father used to say, “If you fall and break your leg, say, ‘Allah wills it,’ because he caused it to happen” (Unveiling Islam, p. 109).

The Love of God

Perhaps the most fundamental of all aspects of God’s character is love. “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) “God demonstrates His own love toward us…” (Rom 5:8). These are just a few of the numerous Biblical texts which affirm the universal, sacrificial, eternal, personal, and unconditional love of God for all mankind. No character of God is more central to the message of the gospel. The incarnation and substitutionary atonement shout it. Everything in God’s saving action toward mankind declares it. But what do we see in Islam and Calvinism?

Love De-Emphasized

In Islam, Allah is virtually devoid of love. Caner and Caner list 99 names of Allah, and only one includes a reference to love (and this only to those who are “his own”). They write:

When Allah is discussed within the Islamic community, the absence of intimacy, atonement, and omnibenevolence becomes apparent. In all the terms and titles of Allah, one does not encounter terms of intimacy. . . Even the most faithful and devout Muslim refers to Allah only as servant to master; Allah is a distant sovereign (Unveiling Islam, p. 117).

But what do we find in Calvinism? God’s sovereignty—His power and holiness—are emphasized at the expense of His love. Dave Hunt observes:

But where is God’s love? Not once in the nearly thirteen hundred pages of his Institutes does Calvin extol God’s love for mankind. This onesided emphasis reveals Calvinism’s primary defect: the unbiblical limitations it places upon God’s most glorious attribute. . . Something is radically amiss at the very foundation of this unbiblical doctrine (Debating Calvinism, p. 47).

Limited Love

As we look closer, we find reasons for this muting of God’s love in Islam and Calvinism. For example, Calvin’s God and Islam’s Allah are both bereft of unconditional love for everyone.

Allah’s heart is set against the infidel (kafir). He has no love for the unbeliever, nor is it the task of the Muslim to “evangelize” the unbelieving world (Unveiling Islam, p. 118).

Caner and Caner note, “This is why so many Muslims quickly disown children who have converted to another religion, especially Christianity. Why love them when almighty Allah will never love them?” (Unveiling Islam, p. 33).

But is this any different than Calvinism? Dave Hunt puts it bluntly:

Never forget that the ultimate aim of Calvinism…is to prove that God does not love everyone, is not merciful to all, and is pleased to damn billions. If that is the God of the Bible, Calvinism is true. If that is not the God of the Bible, who “is love” (1 John 4:8), Calvinism is false. The central issue is God’s love and character in relation to mankind, as presented in Scripture (Debating Calvinism, p. 21).

Conditional Love

While Calvinists (but not Muslims) would object to the idea their God has a conditional love, that is the effect of their doctrine.

This doctrine is openly announced in Islam: “Allah loves not transgressors” (Qur’an 2:190). “For [Allah] loves not any ungrateful sinner” (Qur’an 2:276). “For Allah loves not those who do wrong” (Qur’an 3:57). “For Allah loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious” (Qur’an 4:36).

Within Calvinism, God’s love is declared to be unconditional because He has given it “unconditionally”—i.e., not in response to anything we do. But whether or not one is actually loved in this “salvific” way is ultimately determined by what we do. This fact is enshrined by the last of the Five Points of Calvinism, i.e., the Perseverance of the Saints. Since all who are saved will inevitably persevere in living a faithful life, God’s saving love, in the end, is determined by our works.

Notably, as is always the result with synergism (i.e., salvation by faith and works), no amount of good works can give you assurance of salvation.

Insecure Love

It is impossible in Calvinism and Islam to know that you are loved by God. While Calvinists proclaim their belief in eternal security, what they mean is if you are really saved (which you cannot know with absolute certainty until you die), then you will never lose your salvation. But how can you know that? Based on your works. However, the threat of falling into some sin, and thus finding out that you were never really saved in the first place, is a possibility hanging over the head of every Calvinist.

Similarly, and blatantly, Islam teaches this same doctrine:

The Qur’an hints that the believer in Allah can be confident of his or her eternal destiny, but there is no guarantee, even for the most righteous. . . In Islam, the answer to the question, “What must I do to go to heaven?” is “mysterious and complex. . . Islamic tradition argues that the guarantee ofheaven is as  impossible to find as a chaste virgin and pure speech. Consequently, the devoutMuslim makes every  effort to please Allah and thereby obtain heaven. But fate (kismet) in the hands of the all-powerful Allah will decide the outcome (Unveiling Islam, p. 144).

Clearly, the love of God is at best compromised in both Islam and Calvinism.

The Violence of God

Despite appeals to the contrary, Islam is demonstrably a religion of violence. This should come as no surprise. A god (Allah) who is arbitrary, distant, and devoid of love will naturally demonstrate this in violence toward whoever he chooses. Caner and Caner entitle their chapter on the history of Islam, “A Trail of Blood.” In countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia today, those who defy Islam, especially Christians, are beheaded and mutilated. These “infidels” are given three options: convert to Islam, leave, or face persecution (often death). For Muslims fighting in jihad (holy war), “ethical values [seem] to play little or no role. Whatever the Muslims [do is] justified, since their cause [is] just” (Unveiling Islam, p. 48).

This same kind of violence also showed itself in Calvin’s Geneva, where rejection of Reformed dogma brought three options: convert (to Calvinism), leave (deportation), or face persecution (imprisonment or death). The similarity to Islam is unmistakable. In February of 1555, Calvin and his supporters gained absolute control in Geneva. Those who disagreed with Calvin’s theology were excluded from communion, and fled. Four who failed to escape were beheaded, quartered, and their body parts hung in strategic locations as a warning. Calvin referred to them as “henchmen of Satan,” and justified his barbarity by saying, “Those who do not correct evil when they can do so and their office requires it are guilty of it.” From 1554 until his death in 1564, “no one any longer dared oppose the Reformer openly.” (Debating Calvinism, pp. 22-24).1

While there are many cases throughout history of violence by those claiming to be Christians, when the founder of a religious movement demonstrates a capacity for violence it is more significant. The fact that both Calvin and Mohammed distinguished themselves by their violence toward those who disagreed with them reflects their impaired view of God and His love.

Conclusion

While this will surely be an uncomfortable comparison for most Calvinists to admit, it is undeniably true. At the very least, it should give Calvinists pause to realize that their view of God so closely reflects the view of God within Islam.

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Phil Congdon is Senior Pastor at New Braunfels (TX) Bible Church.

1. See also Francois Wendel, Calvin: Origin and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 2000), p. 100; and Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 198-200

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