[The following is a response to a YouTube post called “Mere Calvinism” on the Randos United channel. I highly recommend the channel which has grown out of the community that has developed because of the ministry of Paul VanderKlay (and channel of the same name) which started over 3 years ago and is dedicated to understanding “the meaning crisis” through an analysis of (such as) Jordan Peterson within a Christian frame.]
Thanks Kolten (et. al.) for presenting your perspectives on Calvinism. To “put my cards on the table” – I am an “ex-Calvinist” (for lack of a better term). So I want to try and engage you in a “good faith” discussion on what I see as weaknesses (and strengths) in your arguments…
First, a bit of background: I am 67, raised the son of a Baptist Minister, attended the University of Alabama (degree in Religious Studies – and during this time in my early 20’s embraced Calvinism) – went on to Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS (where [during “winterims”] I studied under the likes of J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul).
Please know I say all of this not to prove that I therefore must be “right” in my current perspective – but, at the least, that I have some sense of what Calvinism is and the Biblical argumentation for it.
I must say that you (Kolten) are much more articulate than myself – and obviously possess a sharp mind and wit about you – so I already know I am not your equal when it comes to the intellect! (I am sure, BTW, that Luke and Jedidiah and Shari [all former Calvinists] could engage you far better than me – their intellect and personal experiences of Calvinism is considerable!)
I appreciate that you (at least on a few occasions) acknowledged and appealed to “mystery” (e.g. the state of Adam and Eve pre-fall) – but elsewhere you are quite confident that you understand the propositional truths (as you put it) set forth in Romans 9.
This is where the differences start between us: for me there is more (and increasing) “mystery” as the years have passed…. As never before, “now we see through a glass darkly… now we know in part” and “if any man thinks he knows anything” have become more and more relevant to me. Here are a few reasons why:
When I was first introduced to Calvinism it was Romans 9 that took my breath away! People who were very smart (in my estimation) and studious in Scripture took this chapter at face value – and “the world be damned” if they (the world and lukewarm Arminian Christians) could not come to acknowledge its bold, plain, God-exalting Truth! (BTW – I still believe deeply in the Sovereignty of God – that He has the first and final Word on all things – That He is not beholden to our autonomous claims on “free will” and can supervene and intervene at His pleasure – That He works ALL things after the counsel of His own will, That His Word will not fail Him, but will accomplish ALL that is His pleasure…)
But – after beginning my first pastorate (of 10 years) and raising (with my precious wife) four children… my ready answers from Romans 9 began to feel less and less truthful and resonant with my experience of “real life”… that Romans 9 is not the “complete story”. Eventually (and slowly) I came to realize what was right in front of my face – Romans 9 is NOT the “end of the story” – but that Romans 10 and 11 carried it forward to a greater completion – ending with Paul’s ecstasy of praise (and confession of ignorance), “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?””
I will try and get to the most salient points lest this “comment” become a tome…
I think your take on Romans 9 is misguided for at least two fundamental reasons:
- The conception of election you read “out” of the text fails to bring to it the larger, consistent Biblical idea of “election to service”. Most notable: Israel is “elect” to become a source of blessing for the nations (the non-elect by comparison). If you read chapter 9 in isolation from this larger Biblical frame (and especially Romans 11 where it is borne out) you can tend toward misconstruing Biblical “election”. I do still believe in election – that certain persons/groups are chosen for specific purposes. But the purpose of those who are elect here (in Romans 9) is found in Romans 11: to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles (etc.).
- THIS IS THE CRITICAL POINT THAT LED TO MY DE-CONVERSION FROM CALVINISM’s READING OF ROMANS 9: What of those “hardened” in Romans 9 (assuming an obvious and explicit continuity of Paul’s stream of consciousness and his terminology)?
“Again I ask: Did they [vs. 7: “but the others were hardened”] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!”, “if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” There it is! The Sovereign power of our great God! “GOD IS ABLE”!
Beyond that, what Calvinist fail to see (or gloss over) is the great “mystery” he elucidates (and I have come to see more and more that “mystery” is a key concept in Pauline theology – especially “the Mystery of Christ”!): “Israel (Paul’s hardened Jewish brethren) has experienced a hardening in part until the fullness (pleroma = ALL) of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way ALL Israel will be saved” Paul is approaching a crescendo in his symphony of Mercy! His final “proposition” (before the paen of praise) is: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
So I encourage you to take yet another look at Romans 9 as it stands in rhetorical continuity with the next two chapters. Especially note Paul’s “heart” – the tears he sheds for the “hardened” – the willingness to be accursed for them! Is this not the Spirit of Christ manifest through Paul? Listen closely to his baffling “proposition” that may defy our logic, propositional knowledge and our (mine and yours) very human systematics: “the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19!) What on earth must this mean? I am not sure – but I stand in awe and amazement at our Father!
Beyond this (sorry!) – let me TRY and be brief on a couple of more “points”:
I think Calvin’s anthropology is at best half truth: Total Depravity tends towards a failure to acknowledge the mystery of human nature from a fuller Biblical perspective – it flattens the truth of what we are in our very essence and created nature: We are made in the image of God (this is NOT destroyed, as Calvin understands it) – and (I believe) this is why it can be said of us all (as well as David) “we are fearfully and wonderfully made”! Of course sin has marred it – of course we are in bondage, with our proclivity toward sin and the certainty of death – but it remains and is the ontological grounding of our (even the “lost”) relationship with God. Calvinism emphasizes our alienation from God – but fails to account for our very existential relationship: “we are His offspring” (Paul twice tells the pagans of Athens that God is their Father!) – “He is NOT FAR from anyone of us – for in Him we live and move and have our being”. And if we want to build a robust, faithful and well-grounded doctrine of sin (and fallen human nature) let’s start with the first mention of “sin” in Scripture: “Sin lieth and the door – and it would have you – but you must master it” (Gen 4:7) I don’t claim to fully understand all the implications of this verse – but it sure does NOT sound like “total inability” to me. You are correct in quoting Paul – it is NOT by human effort – salvation is only by God’s Mercy – but who can possibly conceive of even our very existence – every breath we take, all that we are and need – ALL given by grace and mercy constantly sustaining us (even in our rebellion!). “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” John 1:16
I am convinced that God loves us all (not randomly or a select few) – for a reason – that He is passionate (“God SO loved the world..”) because we are no less of a treasure to Him than our own children are a treasure to us. Above all I think he treasures us because we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the Son – that every human bears somehow in their very ontology and created nature the imprint of Jesus Christ, “the express image of God” – Paul bears this out in Romans 5:14 where the first Adam is a “type” (imprint) of the “last Adam”, Jesus Christ. This entire chapter (now, to me) stands in direct contradiction to Calvinism – “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” There again is that “all” that mustn’t be explained away: Christ, the last Adam, will do no less than the first! “Where sin abounded – grace doth much more abound”!
Finally – and what most of all de-Calvinized me was this simple yet infinite Truth: God IS Love. This is in some way the very essence of our Trinitarian God. (and not, “God is Love, BUT…”)
I think it is a very telling thing that Calvin (while quoting many passages of scripture) NEVER quotes this one in his Institutes. Why? And even if this passage is considered by Calvinists it (and its profound implications) is explained away by a convenient appeal to “mystery” – i.e. we just can’t understand what the Love that God “is” is. But I am rather convinced that Love is not so mysterious and “other” that it dies the death of a thousand qualifications and equivocations. It’s meaning, for example, is put on display in 1 Corinthians 13 (with which we are “over familiar”) – and while this may first apply to “human” love – can and will God love less? e.g. Love keeps no record of wrongs – love endures all things – love never fails… “How much more” must it be true of the source of all true Love?
That is the God I now embrace and worship along with Paul! “For from Him and through Him and to Him are ALL things!”
I will stop (much to the relief of your eyes, I am sure) – I had made many more notes after watching the nearly 3 hour discussion. But it’s now 4AM and I guess this old man needs to get some sleep. God alone knows my heart – but I hope what I have said comes from love and genuine concern (not merely being “triggered” into a posture of self-defense).
I acknowledge I just might be wrong – but this is where I am at this point in my journey…
Thanks for enduring my rant – please feel free to correct me or ask any questions or clarifications you might like.
Richest blessings to you, Kolten! I love your passion for God and Truth – I pray it never wanes!
2 thoughts on “Response to a Young Calvinist”
You are missing one of the most fundamental Truths Paul is speaking to the pagan Athenians: none of us are far from God – he is closer to us than we are to ourselves! And he TWICE repeats, “for we are His offspring” – which is no different than saying, “we are His children”. Paul begins NOT with alienation – but the closeness and Fatherhood of God – then he calls for repentance!
Here is what I could never do when I embraced the Reformed systematic: I always had to make verses that didn’t seem to agree to “fit” into my “5 point” understanding – and, I finally realized – it just cannot be done. There are SO many verses that stand in tension – e.g. with “limited atonement”, “total depravity”, etc.
What to do?
I finally came to the place where this is my most fundamental interpretive principle: I always let the “larger” verses swallow up the “smaller” (instead of the reverse which Calvin and his followers do) – e.g. “where sin abounded – grace did MUCH MORE abound” (the Last Adam shall undo all the death and destruction that the first brought into the world).
Another example: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:2 – I will never, any longer let any other passage rob me of this truth – however restrictive it may seem to me on the face of it.
Yes – there are nuances on all these topics/subjects – and it is those very nuances that Calvinism is blinded to…
Finally, there is this one and greatest fundamental Truth of all (so simple the theologian and systematizer balks at it) : “God IS Love”. For me that means that whatever else may be said of God in Scripture – I am sure that everything he does comes from His nature and essence – and Love must not be equivocated – it endures all things and never, ever fails!
So, yes – there will be judgment – even hell to pay!
But He has the final Word over all that we think we understand about “the word” (the Bible):
Christ will be completely and unilaterally victorious and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the Glory of God the Father! He will bring about the unification and reconciliation of ALL things… and finally it will be said,
“God will be all in all”
(as to the question of election I will only say it is grossly misunderstood – a close reading of not only Romans 9 but also Romans 11 reveals that it is the “non-elect” of Israel that can still be grafted in… Election is ALWAYS to service – not just so a remnant can be saved…
I do believe that the “first fruits” of the Church were in some special way “elect” – but they were elect to reach to NON-elect (again as Romans 11 will bear out to some degree)! The ekklesia [in its proper political sense] are those who are mature that are called out of the city to do the city’s business – not so they can be saved and the remainder destroyed or punished for all eternity!)
God bless you, Dustin!
To say “God is Love” is not to speak of attributes – but essence. All other attributes are rooted and grounded in essence. If 1 Corinthians 13 is truly about love – then God can be and do nothing less. To try and reconcile the Love that God is with a being who predetermines that the “mass damnata” (as Augustine called them) (His very own offspring who bear his own image) will spend eternity in hell is immoral and unthinkable. As God said in Jeremiah, “It never entered my mind” (Jer.19:5) for the Israelites to pass their children through the fire… Would he subject his pitiful though rebellious children to an eternity of such? No – I am sure He will not… God IS a consuming fire – and as C.S. Lewis’ great mentor said:
“Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.” – George MacDonald
Why am I so confident that this deep but restorative punishment is not for “eternity”? It all boils down to THE single worst translation in all of scripture: wherever the Greek word aionios is used – it should be translated “eon” – or, as Strong’s puts it, “an age”. That is the root meaning of the word. And only as it refers to God Himself can it have some meaning of “eternal”. So – yes – I believe affirm and embrace all revelations about God’s punishment and justice as long as this one word is not mistranslated as “eternal” (this is a VERY nuanced issue – and I oversimplify it here -and, yes, experts disagree. But I (for myself) always go back to that simple root word in Strong’s: aionios means “age”…)
For instance – here is how Young’s Literal translates this passage from Matthew 25: “And these shall go away to punishment age-during, but the righteous to life age-during.” Yes I know – awkward and wooden – but very revealing. And if the NIV came out tomorrow with a newer version that reflected this truth about this word – their sales would plummet! Why? We don’t like our old systems and beliefs which give us a sense of security and superiority being challenged…
Dustin – as I have said, I am old and tired… I have fielded the same questions and objections you raised many times over. I’m not saying they are not good questions – they are excellent questions! But I fundamentally have come to believe that God’s goodness and Love are greater than we we can ever imagine – Paul said as much in Ephesians, “that you may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge…”
It surpasses knowledge! Not God’s wrath or justice. His anger lasts but a nighttime – but His Mercy endures forever. All doctrinal systems will burst at the seams if they discover this! The greatest testament to this comes for me from Romans 11 – How ironic that the great Calvinist’s “proof” text (Romans 9) is best understood when you actually read to Paul’s conclusion – and his outburst of praise:
“32For God has shut up all in disobedience, so that He may show mercy to all.
33Oh, the depth of the riches, [l]both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!
34For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM, [m]THAT IT WOULD BE PAID BACK TO HIM?
36For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory [n]forever. Amen.”
Verse 36 is the Universal hope in a nutshell: ALL things united (Ephesians 1) – ALL things reconciled (Colossians 1) and God “all in all” (1 Cor.15)!
As a former PCA pastor I was shocked to discover (in Robin Parry’s excellent book, A Larger Hope – Vol.2) that one of the Westminster Divines (who were few in number), Peter Sterry was a Universalist!
These words sum up the heart and understanding of Historic Christian Universalism:
“Dear Soul, whoever, whatever thou art, thou art the Offspring
of God. St. Paul citeth this from a Poet, confirmeth it by a
Divine Testimony, applyeth it Universally to all, maketh it the
ground of Evangelical Truths, and Loves; Acts 17. 28. As some
of your own Poets have said; We are his Off-spring.
St. Paul hath something very like this, Ephes. 3. 9. The Gospel
was hid in God from the Foundation of the World, who made
all things by Jesus Christ.
God had the love of the Gospel in his
Heart, and sowed it as a secret Seed in the Foundations of the
whole Creation, when he made all things by Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the Seed of Nature, as well as of Grace, and so lieth hid in the Bosom of every Creature, as the true Pearl in the Field.
That Divine Image, of which we spake before, was the similitude only, the Mother of Pearl; This is the Substance, the Pearl itself. In the Off-spring of God is the Seed of God. Where the Seed of God is, there is God himself in the Vertue, Power, and fulness of his Divine Nature. For so the Seed of every Plant hath that Plant Virtually, and Spiritually in it.
Be now no more unbelieving; but believe. Believe the love, which
God hath to thee. Believe, that all the Inclinations of the Divine
Will are to thee; that the Eye, and heart of God are turned toward
thee in every place, fixt upon thee with all that intention, and force
of Sweetness in the Divine Nature. For why?
He is drawn irresistibly to his own Seed, his own Son, his own self in
thee. Thou art his Off-spring.”
God bless and keep you, Dustin!
P.S. If you are genuinely interested (if for no other reason than to “answer” the heresy of Christian Universalism 😁) the one book (among many truly excellent works) I would recommend is Thomas Talbot’s “The Inescapable Love of God” – one big reason is that he fields many questions about specific passages like the ones you raised…