The Sovereign God of “Elfland” (Why Chesterton’s Anti-Calvinism Doesn’t Put Me Off)

The Sovereign God of “Elfland” (Why Chesterton’s Anti-Calvinism Doesn’t Put Me Off)

Ever since my days at Wheaton College, when I followed Clyde Kilby’s advice to read G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, it has been one of my favorite books. I think it’s the only book I have read more than twice (except for the Bible).

This is strange. Not only was Chesterton a Roman Catholic, he also hated Calvinism. So what’s up with me and Orthodoxy? I still think at least half a dozen Roman Catholic distinctives are harmful to true Christian faith (e.g., papal authority, baptismal regeneration, transubstantiation, justification as impartation, purgatory, the veneration of Mary). And I think “the doctrines of grace” (“Reformed theology,” “Calvinism”) are a precious and healthy expression of biblical doctrine.

Common Ground (“Elfland”)

But I keep coming back to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. The reason is that we see the world so similarly, and the Calvinism he hates is not the Calvinism I love.

  • We both marvel that we are swimming in the same boundless sea of wonders called the universe.
  • We both are amazed not by sharp noses or flat noses, but that humans have noses at all.
  • We both think it is just as likely that the reason the sun rises every morning is not because of some so-called “law,” but because God says, “Do it again.” And that he says it more like a delighted child than a dour chief.
  • We both believe logic and imagination are totally compatible and that neither will be useful without the other.
  • We both believe that the magic of the universe must have meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it.
  • We both believe that the glories of this world are like goods rescued from some primordial ruin — a ruin whose evidences are everywhere. 
  • And we both believe that paradox is woven into the nature of the universe, and that resisting it drives a person mad. “Poets don’t go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. . . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

These and a hundred other happy, world-opening agreements keep me coming back, because nobody says them better than Chesterton. Like C. S. Lewis, he sees more wonder in an ordinary day than most of us see in a hundred miracles. I will keep coming back to anyone who helps me see and be astonished at what is in front of my face — anyone who can help heal me from the disease of “seeing they do not see.”

Not the Same Calvinism

But how then can Calvinism awaken such joy in me, and such hate in Chesterton? Because they aren’t the same Calvinism. He thinks Calvinism is the opposite of all this happy wonder that we have in common. The Calvinism he hates is part of the rationalism that drives people mad. Exhibit A:

Only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health. . . . He was damned by John Calvin; he was almost saved by John Gilpin.

No, Mr. Chesterton, William Cowper was not driven mad by Calvinism. He was driven mad by a mental disease that ran in his family for generations, and he was saved by John Newton, perhaps the humblest, happiest Calvinist who ever lived. And both of them saw the wonders of “Amazing Grace” through the eyes of poetry. Yes, that was a healing balm. But the disease was not Calvinism — else John Newton would not have been the happy, healthy, holy friend that he was.

The Calvinism that Grows in “Elfland”

Here’s the reason Chesterton’s bowshots at Calvinism do not bring me down. The Calvinism I love is far closer to the “Elfland” he loves than the rationalism he hates.

He would no doubt be baffled by my experience. For me the biggest, strongest, most beautiful, and most fruitful tree that grows in the soil of “Elfland” is Calvinism. Here is a tree big enough, and strong enough, and high enough to let all the paradoxical branches of the Bible live — and wave with joy in the sunshine of God’s sovereignty.

In the shade of this tree, I was set free from the procrustean forces of unbiblical, free-will presuppositionalism — the unyielding, alien assumption that without the human right of ultimate self-determination human beings cannot be accountable for their choices. When I walked away from this narrow, rationalistic, sparse tree, into the shade of the massive tree of Calvinism, it was a happy day. Suddenly I saw that this is what all the poetry had been about. This is the tree where all the branches of all the truths that men have tried to separate thrive.

What About Logic?

It is a great irony to me that Calvinists are stereotyped as logic-driven. For forty years my experience has been the opposite. The Calvinists I have known (English Puritans, Edwards, Newton, Spurgeon, Packer, Sproul) are not logic driven, but Bible-driven. It’s the challengers who bring their logic to the Bible and nullify text after text. Branches are lopped off by “logic,” not exegesis.

Who are the great enjoyers of paradox today? Who are the pastors and theologians who grab both horns of every biblical dilemma and swear to the God-Man: I will never let go of either.

Not the Calvinism-critics that I meet. They read of divine love, and say that predestination cannot be. They read of human choice and say the divine rule of all our steps cannot be. They read of human resistance, and say that irresistible grace cannot be. Who is logic-driven?

For forty years Calvinism has been, for me, a vision of life that embraces mystery more than any vision I know. It is not logic-driven. It is driven by a vision of the ineffable, galactic vastness of God’s Word.

Let’s be clear: It does not embrace contradiction. Chesterton and I both agree that true logic is the law of “Elfland.” “If the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters.” Neither God nor his word is self-contradictory. But paradoxes? Yes.

We happy Calvinists don’t claim to get the heavens into our heads. We try to get our heads into the heavens. We don’t claim comprehensive answers to revealed paradoxes. We believe. We try to understand. And we break out into song and poetry again and again.

From Dilemma to Unicorn

We don’t adjust the brain-baffling categories of Scripture to fit human reason. We take it as one of our jobs to create categories in human minds that never existed in those minds before — a job only God can do — though he makes us agents. For example, we labor to create categories of thought like these:

  • God rules the world of bliss and suffering and sin, right down to the roll of the dice, and the fall of a bird, and the driving of the nail into the hand of his Son; yet, even though he wills that such sin and suffering be, he does not sin, but is perfectly holy.
  • God governs all the steps of all people, both good and bad, at all times and in all places; yet such that all are accountable before him and will bear the just consequences of his wrath if they do not believe in Christ.
  • All people are dead in their trespasses and sins, and are not morally able to come to Christ because of their rebellion; yet, they are responsible to come, and will be justly punished if they don’t.
  • Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, divine and human, such that he upheld the world by the word of his power while living in his mother’s womb.
  • Sin, though committed by a finite person and in the confines of finite time is nevertheless deserving of an infinitely long punishment because it is a sin against an infinitely worthy God.
  • The death of the one God-Man, Jesus Christ, so displayed and glorified the righteousness of God that God is not unrighteous to declare righteous ungodly people who simply believe in Christ.

These are some of the intertwining, paradoxical branches in the tree of Calvinism. They do not grow in the soil of fallen human logic. They grow in the Bible-saturated soil of “Elfland.” Those who live there believe that a Dilemma with two horns is probably metamorphosing into a Unicorn.

I thank God for G. K. Chesterton. His gift for seeing the world and for saying what he sees is peerless. He opens my eyes to wonders of what is there. And what is there is the finger-work of God. He may be dismayed to hear it, but his eyes have helped me see more clearly than ever the God of Jonathan Edwards.

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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.