It was the Scottish philosopher David Hume who famously complained about the weaknesses of arguments based on analogies. Even though I’m English, I have to confess I think he has a point. Let us be clear though. Using an analogy is not a logical fallacy in and of itself and sometimes they can help explain a more abstract point. But one needs to be aware that there are lots of problems related to using them.
Introductions to critical reasoning and logic often point out that analogies need to be careful not to be so disanalogous as to be useless (ironic I know but too often the case). Analogies also need to beware of implying consequences detrimental to the point being made and should also consider what counteranalogies might be offered in reply.
With those things in mind I would like to address an analogy used by the Calvinist theologian Gorden H. Clark. It was brought to my attention on the ‘Calvinism is the Gospel’ website. The article giving the summary of Clark was written by professor Jerry Johnson. The paper is titled ‘The problem of God and the existence of evil – An Introduction’ and the context is Clark’s claim that free will does not solve the problem of evil (he wrote it before Plantinga came on the scene so we can forgive him!). Johnson notes:
“Clark gives an illustration of a lifeguard on a beach:
Picture a lifeguard on a beach who watches as a boy is taken under by a strong undercurrent. The boy struggles violently (a picture of man’s enslavement to sin). The lifeguard has the ability to rescue the boy and he may shout some words of advice, telling the boy to exercise his free will and swim to shore. But the boy drowns as the guard watches from shore. Would the Arminian conclude that the lifeguard has escaped culpability? This illustration shows that permission of evil does not relieve the lifeguard from responsibility. This is even more evident when we consider that the lifeguard (in this case, God) created the beach and the boy. An omnipotent lifeguard could have prevented the boy from entering the beach, or He could have prevented the undertow from occurring, or he could have made the boy a better swimmer, or He could have simply rescued him directly.”
So does this analogy help the Calvinist critique Arminianism? I think the clear answer is no and here’s why.
It appears obvious to me but the Arminian lifeguard (let’s call him ‘Al’ from here on) would not be merely calling from the shore so we have immediate disanalogy. That is, of course, the view of Pelagianism (that man can rescue himself of his own nature and God need not interfere). So Clark has misrepresented the lifeguard as Arminian when he’s actually more Pelagian (a confusion most serious scholars don’t make). Now ‘Pel’ (the Pelagian lifeguard) is more analogous to Clark’s lifeguard since he calls to the swimmer (and perhaps even gives advice on good swimming technique from shore) but the disanalogy now becomes the person drowning because Pelagianism teaches this person can save themselves and therefore they would be a reasonably capable swimmer and can swim back to the shore to a hearty congratulations from Pel and a round of applause from the onlookers.
Now if the lifeguard gets in the water and helps the drowning swimmer so they both make an effort to get to shore together then that would not be Arminian lifeguarding either! Now the lifeguard is semi-Pelagian (let’s call him ‘Spel’). Here it is important that the drowning swimmer assist Spel in the job of getting back to shore. Spel is a decent lifeguard but he’s a touch out of shape and he needs the drowning swimmer to pull his own weight from time to time during the rescue. Spel does a decent job throughout the day but he can’t save those who can’t help themselves (or him)!
Now surely it’s time for the real Arminian lifeguard (‘Al’) to get wet? Al swims out seeing the swimmer is going under and cannot possibly rescue themselves and grabs the drowning swimmer and the swimmer PASSIVELY (shame there’s not double bold with flashing back lights possible) permits the lifeguard to rescue him (after all he could kick and scream and desire to be left alone to save himself in his pride and rejection of Al). Al does this for ALL the drowning swimmers throughout the day by the way. The only ones who drown drown because they refuse to allow Al to save them.
Well hopefully that has demonstrated the shallowness of the analogy? It’s clearly disanalogous to the doctrine it’s attempting to critique. The only reason it might look convincing is either because people don’t tend to think about analogies too much or it is reinforcing an already inadequate understanding of Arminian theology and therefore appears to have potency. But let us now propose the counteranalogy to see if it floats…
So how does the Calvinist lifeguard do (I am referring to the TULIP ‘high’ Calvinist – we’ll call him ‘Cal’)? Cal knew all the swimmers on the beach that day were complete non-swimmers. He didn’t just allow them to get into the water – he determined they would. But before they dipped their toes in the ocean Cal chose a small minority of swimmers to save and decided the vast majority he would allow to drown (this he doesn’t do against their will, by the way, since before they go swimming he (somehow) gives them the desire to drown and resist being saved. During the day only the minority ever struggle not to drown and most accept their fate willingly and drown because they desired it (as determined by Cal). The minority saved by Cal are rescued according to their will but keep in mind this is the will Cal gave them. They are not only passive in being physically rescued but also passive in terms of having no decision to make when Cal turns up.
By the way… in John Calvin’s theology Cal swims out and pretends to save some who were not chosen to be saved just so that when Cal has got them a little closer to shore he can let them drown because they lost faith in their lifeguard and their own ability to assist him! This has caused some of the saved swimmers already on the shore some concern and now they don’t get the towels at the ready until swimmers actually get onto shore and are quite clearly out of the shallow waters.
Worse than this is the fact that Cal is apparently a more glorious lifeguard because he assigned some to eternal ‘drownation’. Their willful drownings bring him greater glory than if he had determined to save them all even though he could have done that without violating their wills.
Are Calvinists quite sure they want to tell the story of the four lifeguards (Pel, Spel, Al and Cal)?
PS. Some Calvinists are not as unfair or as misleading about Arminian theology. Here is Calvinist theologian Michael Horton showing his graciousness toward his Arminian brothers and sisters and warning against misrepresenting Arminianism as semi-Pelagianism:
“How much more should we cherish our fellowship with Arminian brother and sisters with whom we differ! I have never met an evanglical Arminian who would say, “I’m trusting in Christ and in my own effort for salvation.” It is not only unhelpful but erroneous to suggest that Arminians do not take the Bible seriously or entrust their salvation to God’s grace in Christ.”
Michael Horton, ‘For Calvinism’ p.18
“The crucial difference between Arminianism and Semi-Pelagianism is that the former insists upon the necessity of grace prior to all human response. At least as Arminius taught it, Arminianism does not deny original sin or the inability of human beings to save themselves.”
Michael Horton, ‘For Calvinism’ pp. 33,34
And this is from Peterson and Williams’ book ‘Why I am not an Arminian’:
“…we do not think of Arminianism as a heresy or Arminian Christians as unregenerate. You see, calling someone a heretic is serious business. Heresy is not merely doctrinal error; it is a damnable error. The heretic so mangles the gospel of Jesus Christ that it no longer communicates the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Heresy is such a corruption of the grace of God in Christ that it invalidates either Jesus as the Saviour or grace as the way of salvation. The Arminian tradition does neither. The Arminian Christian believes that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh to save sinners and that the saving work of Christ comes to the sinner by way of the grace of God received through faith. Whatever issues relevant to salvation we disagree upon, let us agree on this: the Calvinist and the Arminian are brothers in Christ. Both belong to the household of faith.”
Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, ‘Why I am not an Arminian’ p.13