William Carnegie and the Question of the Compassion


Teaching about William Carey and his arguments with some members of the Particularist Baptists regarding “the use of means to evangelize the heathen” reminded me of the story of another William. He is William Carnegie, the father of 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie. According to the story, William was attending a local Secessionist Presbyterian Church (in Scotland) and the sermon was on Infant Damnation. In that sermon the fiery preacher gave an equally fiery account of infants, those who died as babies who were not predestined for heaven, screaming in the torments of hellfire. William was horrified by the message. According to the story, he stood up in the middle of the sermon and said loudly, “If that be your religion, and that be your God, I shall seek a better religion and a nobler God.” (J. F. Wall, “Andrew Carnegie,” p. 34)

One could argue that William Carnegie’s complaint was three-fold.

1. He was bothered by a religion that would have as one of its doctrinees that innocent babies would burn for ever in torment because they were, for practical purposes, chosen for hell regardless of their potential merits or sins. Why would we set up a religion to teach that— especially since the Bible doesn’t actually say this… though some belief that it is a logical conclusion based on some verses?

2. He was bothered in what this teaching said about their God. Their God was fickle and sadistic, choosing to create some people with the irresistible end of blessing them for ever, and choosing to create others with the irresistible end of eternal torment. Is this compatible with a God who St. John said was best understood with the term “Love.” After all, if Thanos is called a villain because he wants to randomly cause half of the population of the universe to cease to be, how much more so if God randomly chose to have a majority of humans come to a state of eternal constant torment (ECT) where there is nothing that could have ever possibly been done to avoid that?

3. His biggest concern appeared to be more than this. William Carnegie was deeply bothered that the congregation was not moved by the preaching. How could people listen to stories of children, for no better reason that an essentially random preselection, being brutally tortured and not feel moved by that? How could they not respond with horror? I vaguely recall an old Bloom County cartoon where the gang was watching TV. They weren’t sure it is was a news broadcast of wartime killings, or a movie. They couldn’t decide. Finally one said something to the effect… “Can someone please tell us whether we should be enjoying this or not?” That’s a good question. If it is a movie, it is kind of okay to see death and mayhem. But if it is real life, we should be be disturbed by the horror, and feeling great compassion for the victims. If the preacher was expressing an obvious fiction with no connection to reality, it would be somehow sort of acceptable for the congregation to appreciate the message and (maybe even) enjoy it—- maybe. But if he is expressing reality, how could people not be moved mightily and cry out against such injustice?

William Carnegie brings the question in for thought here. If we have compassion… if we have empathy… how should we react to the idea that some people have no hope— their only future is one of absolute and unending horror.

How does one reconcile a strict form of Calvinism with Missions and how does one reconcile it with Compassion or Empathy? For me, I don’t really consider myself a Calvinist. In college I thought I was maybe a 3.5 or 4-point Calvinist (the 5th point was a matter of sophistry in my opinion… and that has not changed). But over time, I struggled finding much I could agree with. I am maybe a 2-point Calvinist which I suppose is not high enough to make me a Calvinist. I am not Arminian either. I feel there is a lot of healthy space in between those two groups.

But I still wonder. I know people in missions who are Calvinists. They like to say that their Calvinism drives their Missions. Historically, that has not been the case. Historically, such as 18th century England and 19th century America, Calvinism hobbled missions. And even in the case of William Carey, a missionary who came from a Calvinist group, his argument for doing missions was not that his theology informed his missions, but rather that Jesus commanded all Christians to evangelize. One must never use one’s theology to contradict God’s command. I spoke recently with a 5-point Calvinist who was on a short-term mission, and he was trying to explain how his theology “just made sense.” He worded his doctrine in such vague language that almost any Christian could agree with the language. But the language hid valid disagreements rather than informed. I left not knowing if the guy actually understood what he believed, and whether he knew how deceptive his presentation was.

In the end, however, I rather agree with William Carey. It is not really critical the exact details of minor theological points as long as one doesn’t use them to undermine Christ’s clear instructions to us.

Karl Barth was a Calvinist (or maybe post-Calvinist). In his later years he appeared to be a Universalist… believing that all people will, ultimately, be saved by God. A theologian friend of mine had made the suggestion that this was the most obvious way of reconciling a firm belief in strong Calvinism and the clear doctrine of God being Just and Loving. God can be just and loving while ramdomly choosing who to save and who to damn, if He saves everyone. I am not a Universalist, but then I am also not a Calvinist.

But I know many Calvinists do not follow the path of Barth in this area. I also know that the so-called “Neo-Calvinist” movement has been linked to a certain culture of ‘Christian machismo.’ I am not sure what to make of that. However, the macho or machismo quality has some qualities that may be a bit insightful. Machismo is often typified by being Strong, Unwavering, Independent, and Sexually Virile/Active. In Christian circles sexually active may not be seen so positively, but perhaps that has been replaced in being more gender complementarian or maybe being a “guy’s guy” in some way. But one thing that doesn’t really typify the label of “machismo” is being compassionate or empathetic. More often it is seen in being “cool” or a bit emotionally detached. The Westminster Catechism (a doctrinal guide for some Calvinists) describes God as Impassible— not having passions, or at least not being guided by those feelings. Since the most common emotion used to describe Jesus was His compassion (feeling the pain and sorrow of another), and that His compassion actually guided His actions, I struggle to see how Impassibility is a Biblical doctine. But it may be part of the explanation for the growth of Calvinist machismo. It is much easier to deal with death and torture of those we know, if we idealize a general lack of empathy or a lack of compassion.

I don’t have an answer to all of this. As I said, I am not a Calvinist, but I dwell in the tension between different schools of thought. I have found nothing that completely satisfies me. But I feel that all of us should wrestle with the same things that concerned William Carnegie.

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