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Calvinism and
the Bible
by Fisher Humphreys
Professor of Divinity
Beeson Divinity School, Samford

 
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Introduction

    John Calvin believed what he did because he thought Scripture taught it, and the same is true of Calvinists. On the other hand, the same thing is true of traditional Baptists; they believe what they do because they think Scripture teaches it. Therefore, it is important for us to consider Scripture to see if we can discern what it teaches about these matters.

    Let us begin by reflecting on this fact: There were no Calvinists or traditional Baptists in the era in which the Bible was written. That means that no one raised the questions we are raising in the way we are raising them, and that in turn means that no one in the Bible set out to answer our questions directly.

    That is why, when you listen to Calvinists and traditional Baptists talking about the Bible, they seem soon to descend into proof texts. The trouble with proof texts, of course, is that the intentions of the writers of the Bible are ignored and the texts are treated as free-floating truths, independent of their authors' intentions. We ought to attempt to avoid this mistake.

    We will begin by looking at the largest and most important passage in support of Calvinism. I want to face it candidly. Then, in order to get at its author's intention, I want to consider it in its larger context. I think that when we do this, we get a different reading of it.

    Next, I want to consider five concepts of predestination and two New Testament passages that are of special importance to traditional Baptists.

    Finally, I want to describe what is happening here and to explain why I think it is happening.
 

 

Romans 9-11

 

    I begin with the greatest Calvinist text: Romans 9. The simplest way to appreciate Calvinism is to read Romans 9:6-18.

    My conclusion is this: If we take this passage at face value, we should become Calvinists.

    But there is more to be said. We call this more interpretation. Candidly, we are going to look for a meaning for this passage other than the face value meaning.

    We begin by remembering that Paul was not writing in order to settle a debate between Calvinists and traditional Baptists. Why, then, was he writing?

    This is his only letter to a church he didn't establish himself. He had promised to come to be with them, but he has been delayed by a famine in Jerusalem; in Galatia he had collected some money for the Christians in Jerusalem to help them through the famine, and he felt that he should take that money to them before he went to Rome. So he wrote the church at Rome to tell them his understanding of the gospel, and to give them advice about their life together.

    In Romans 9-11, which all interpreters agree is a single connected passage, Paul is addressing a fact that was fast becoming obvious to everyone: In general, when Jews were hearing the gospel, they were rejecting it, and when Gentiles were hearing the gospel, they were accepting it.

    This created at least three problems for Paul. First, there was a personal problem; he was a Jew, and his heart was breaking because his fellow Jews were rejecting the gospel; that is why he says in Romans 9:2, I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.

    Second, there was a theological problem. Paul believed, and frequently said, that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of God's promises made centuries earlier to Israel. How, then, could Paul account for the fact that the Jews who had those promises resisted the message of their fulfillment in Christ and the Gentiles, who did not have those promises, accepted the message of their fulfillment in Christ?

    Third, there was a church problem. The church at Rome was either exclusively or predominantly a Gentile church, and there seems to have been some anti-Semitism, some anti-Jewish sentiment, in the church. When Paul in Romans 11:17 ff. speaks of Israel as the vine and of Gentiles as a branch grafted into the vine, he is heading off anti-Jewish sentiment.

    That is the fact Paul was confronting, and those are the problems he faced because of that fact. In chapter 9 he is not addressing Calvinist/traditional Baptist disagreement. We need to remember that when we read Romans 9.

    Paul's question was: Why is it the case that, in general, Jews are rejecting the gospel and Gentiles are accepting it? He gave at least five answers to that question.

    The first answer is Calvinistic: God loves some and not others. God loves Jacob, not Esau. Like a potter, God honors some vessels and destroys others. God shows mercy to some and not to others. That is God's prerogative. That is what we see in chapter 9. If that were all, we should become Calvinists, but it is not all.

    Second, the reason that God accepts some people and rejects others is that some people accept the gospel and others reject it. This is the burden of Rom. 10: If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. So this is why so many Jews are not saved: they are rejecting Christ. And this is why many Gentiles are being saved: they are accepting Christ.

    Third, some Jews are being saved. We see this in 11:1: Has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite. There is today, as there always was throughout Israel's history, a faithful remnant who are following God, and who are being saved.

    Fourth, I will simply quote Romans 11:26: All Israel will be saved. Some of those who take Romans 9 at face value are not so comfortable with taking Romans 11:26 at face value. This, of course, resolves Paul's problem fully. His question is: Why are so few Israelites being saved? And this answer is: All Israel will be saved.

    Yet there is still more. Fifth, and finally, it is all a mystery. Romans 11:33-36.

    Now let's try to put this together, taking all five points with equal seriousness. We begin at the end. First, we respect the mystery in all this.

    Second, If we take the first and the second together, this is what we have: God has predestined that Jews will be lost, and Jews are lost because they themselves reject the gospel.

    Third, if we take the first and third together, we have this: God has predestined that the Jews will be lost, but some Jews are not lost.

    Fourth, if we take the first and fourth together, we have this: God has predestined that Jews will be lost, and all Jews will be saved.

    I think that, given these facts, we are entitled to say that Paul's initial affirmation of predestination is not an abstract statement about God's eternal predestining of some people to be damned. It is rather as a way of assuring us that, even though in general Gentiles are being saved and Jews aren't, God is not indifferent what is happening in the world and God has not lost control of the world. Paul then continues by assuring us of the great mystery that in fact the Jews will not be lost.

    For these reasons-Paul's real issues, Paul's five points, and the fact that Calvinists do not take Romans 11:26 at face value-I think that we are not required to understand Romans 9 to teach the Calvinist understanding of predestination.

    On the other hand, let me say again that, on the face of it, that is precisely what Romans 9 teaches. For the reasons I have given, I do not think the face value meaning is the one Paul intended.
 

Five Traditional Baptist Concepts of Predestination

    Now let us consider some concepts that come into play when traditional Baptists interpret New Testament passages that refer to predestination. Here is a representative list.

    One is that the truly elect person is Christ Jesus (Christus means anointed, chosen, elect), and persons are elect if they are in Christ. That is true of Eph. 1:3-4.

    Another is that God predestines groups, not individuals. That may be true of Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.

    Another is that God predestines that those who believe will be saved and that those who do not will not. That is true of Col. 3:13.

    Another is that God foreknows how each person will respond to the gospel and that God predestines that those who will believe will be saved and the others not. This is true of Rom. 8:28-30.

    Another is that God predestines people for things other than salvation, for example, for service. That is true of Gal. 1:15-16. It also is true of Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.

    The point is this: When we see the word predestination in the Bible, we should not assume that it means what Calvinists are saying. There are plenty of other uses of the word.

1 Timothy 2:1-4, and 2 Peter 3:8-10

    Now we will consider two passages that, on face value, support the traditional Baptist view.

    In these texts neither Paul nor Peter is concerned about Calvinism and traditional Baptist theology. They are addressing entirely other issues. Paul's subject in 1 Timothy 2 is prayer for political leaders, and Peter's subject in 2 Peter 3 is the second coming of Christ.

    In both passages the authors say, quite clearly and naturally and without explanation or argument, that God wants everyone to be saved.

    Take these at face value, and you will never be a Calvinist, for Calvinists say that, in fact, God has decreed that some people will not be saved.

    What, we might ask, do Calvinists do about this?

    In a word, they point out that in the Bible all does not always mean all. Here is a quotation about this from the most charming case for Calvinism I have read, namely, A Journey in Grace: A Theological Novel by Richard P. Belcher (Columbia, South Carolina: Richbarry Press, 1990). He is talking about 2 Peter 3:9: "In simple words, "all" is qualified by the term "certain ones," referring to them and them alone. God is not willing that certain ones should perish, but that all of these certain ones should come to repentance" (109).

    Calvinists are content with that interpretation; obviously we are not.

    These two passages deal with our understanding of predestination. There are, of course, many other passages that deal with our understanding of subsidiary points in our discussion with Calvinists. For example, concerning limited atonement, we feel that 1 John 2:2 is decisive: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. However, it is not imperative that we deal with the subsidiary matters, for this reason: If what Calvinists say about predestination is not correct, then Calvinism as we know it is not true.

    That brings us to our final point, namely, what we are all doing with the Bible, and why.

 

What We Are All Doing, and Why

    In the debates in the past, it was conventional for the debaters to claim that their view was biblical and the others' view was not. For example, John Wesley, who did not believe a bit of Calvinism, wrote in an essay entitled "Predestination Calmly Considered" things like this:

    [Calvinists say that] God might justly have passed by all men. Are you sure he might? Where is it written? I cannot find it in the Word of God.

    It is not written, "God is justice," or "God is truth" . . . . But it is written, "God is love." But how is God good or loving to a "reprobate," or one that is not "elected"? . . . You cannot say, he is an object of the love or goodness of God. . . . Can you think that the loving, the merciful God ever dealt thus with any soul which he had made? . . . This is not the God of the Christians (in Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley, 435, 445, 447, 451).

    I agree with Wesley's conclusion but not with the way he arrived at it. Unlike Wesley, I do not think that it is the case that one group believes the Bible and the other does not.

    Let me describe the situation as it appears to me.

    There are two sets of passages in Scripture. Let us call them the "C" (Calvinistic) passages and the "B" (traditional Baptist) passages.

    Here is what we do with the sets. The Calvinists take the "C" passages at face value; they then "interpret" the "B" passages; that is, they try to find some meaning other than the face value meaning.

    We traditional Baptists take the "B" passages at face value, and we then "interpret" the "C" passages; we try to find some meaning other than the face value meaning.

    This is the real, actual situation today. We are wrong to claim that Calvinists have nothing going for them in the Bible; they do; and if we refuse to acknowledge that, we are not being accurate and we will unintentionally hurt our cause with thoughtful people.

    On the other hand, Calvinists are wrong to claim that we have nothing going for us in the Bible; we do, and if they refuse to acknowledge that, they are not being accurate and may hurt their cause with thoughtful people.

    In summary: They have decided to take "C" passages at face value, and we have decided to take "B" passages at face value. (I suppose a Calvinist might rather say "God has foreordained that they take "C" at face value and that we take "B" at face value). Anyway, that is what we are doing.

    That leads to a very important question: How did the two groups arrive at these positions? What guided them to take "C" at face value? What guided us to take "B" at face value?

    Calvinists should answer this for themselves. I can tell you what I think. I think they are guided by a desire to assert the sovereignty of God in the fullest possible way, and I think they have assumed-mistakenly, in my view-that the fullest way to affirm God's sovereignty is to assert that God foreordains everything that happens. R. C. Sproul suggests this when he writes: That God in some sense foreordains whatever comes to pass is a necessary result of his sovereignty. . . . If there is any part of creation outside of God's sovereignty, then God is simply not sovereign" (Chosen by God, 26).

    And a critic of Calvinism, Leonard Hodgson, wrote this about this principle:

    I have noticed, for example, in some Reformed theologians . . . an acceptance as a fundamental principle of an idea of the sovereignty of God which is not derived from . . . revelation but is an a priori notion, taken for granted and unquestioned. My contention is that instead of arguing that God must behave in accordance with our idea of sovereignty we must learn from His revelation what for Him the exercise of sovereignty actually entails (For Faith and Freedom, II 58).

    Whatever may have led Calvinists to accept "C" at face value rather than "B," we know exactly what has led traditional Baptists to accept the "B" passages at face value rather than the "C" passages.

    We do because of John 3:16. We believe God loves the world-all the world, not just the elect. We believe that, because God loves all the world, God would never predestine anyone to be lost. To do that is not compatible with love. We understand why John Wesley asked: Can you think that the loving, the merciful God ever dealt thus with any soul which he had made? Of course, we cannot.

    Often the debate between Calvinists and traditional Baptists has been expressed as a debate about divine sovereignty and human freedom. I think that is a bad idea. If I had to choose between divine sovereignty and human freedom, I'd choose divine sovereignty. My freedom is very important to me, but the fact that God is the sovereign Lord is even more important.

    The debate is rather about whether God loves all the people in the world and wants them all to be saved, or whether God has, in fact, predestined that a certain set of them will be damned. Calvinists believe the latter; we believe the former. Why?

    God so loved the world. This is what guides us in our thinking, and in our evangelism, and in our missions, and in our interpretation of the New Testament. To paraphrase Martin Luther's famous words, Here we stand-we can do no other.

 

 

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