Friday, November 22, 2002

Tough Verses

Occasionally I look at "tough" verses for the Calvinistic view. I always take a pounding in my comments and in my email when I do. The comments are either about how unconvincing I was, or how dare I try to make the bible fit Calvinism rather than other way around.

Both are reasonable points. However, one must look at the big picture. Defined broadly enough, then the Bible teaches either Calvinism or Arminianism. In other words, for the purposes of discussion, let’s say that the Bible teaches that in order to be saved, either:
  • Man does not have to cooperate with God, it is all grace (Calvinism), or

  • While requiring God’s grace, man must assent to God’s offer of his own free will. (Arminiansm)

Now we can argue ad nauseum that this is overly simplistic, especially to the point of attaching labels to simple bullets. However, these bullets do capture the essence of the positions, and most Protestants would agree that God’s salvation plan must be one of these two historic competitors.

These two positions do not cover all the possibilities. Some say it is all God and man must cooperate, which I cannot understand. Neither position is Pelagian which holds that God’s grace is helpful—but not necessary. Furthermore, we are only talking about getting saved—additional differences emerge when we get into staying saved.

Given that all Christians rightly reject full-fledged Pelagianism, then the bible must teach either Calvinism or Arminianism, as I’ve broadly defined (and limited the scope). Once we have established that grace is necessary, then it only remains to determine whether man must cooperate, and the answer to that question distinguishes the two positions as I have defined them.

Futhermore, and this is critical, the Bible must consistently teach one or the other. It cannot be Calvinistic part of the time and Arminian part of the time. On the surface, it might appear to do so, but it cannot actually do so—there are real mysteries in the Bible, and apparent paradoxes, but no bona fide paradoxes. The bible is ultimately self-consistent, even if we cannot always see it.

Yet both sides can trot out isolated verses that support their positions. Somehow, either all the Calvinistic verses have Arminian explanations, or all the Arminian verses have Calvinistic explanations.

To those who say you’ll never reconcile all the conflicting verses, I say: you are probably right.

To those who say you shouldn’t even try, that it is a too systematic and coldly impersonal, logical and analytic approach, I say: phooey. Getting into the Word in an attempt to understand it is always a good thing. Granted, one does not exclusively treat God’s Word as a puzzle to be unraveled, but neither should one shrug his shoulders and claim that none of that matters, only experiencing God is important. God may be above logic, as some like to say, but he is not below it; He is a rational God, and attempts to understand the Bible from a perspective of logic and reason are worthy endeavors.

That still leaves us with the problem that some verses are Calvinistic, and some are Arminian. I (naturally) like what George Müller had to say about this (George Müller (1805-1898) built and supervised four orphanages in England, and supported missionaries around the world—all by prayer alone. He never asked for donations.)
Before this time [1829], I had been much opposed to the doctrines of election, particularly redemption and final persevering grace. So much so, that a few days after my arrival at Teignmouth, [England], I called election a devilish doctrine.

I did not believe that I had brought myself to the Lord, for that was too manifestly false, but yet I held that I might have resisted finally. And, further, I knew nothing about the choice of God's people, and did not believe that the child of God, when once made so, was safe forever. In my fleshly mind I had repeatedly said, "If once I could prove that I’m a child of God forever, I might go back into the world for a year or two, and then return to the Lord, and at last be saved.”

But now I was brought to examine these precious truths by the Word of God. Being made willing to have no glory of my own in the conversion of sinners, but to consider myself merely as an instrument; and being made willing to receive what the Scriptures said, I went to the Word, reading the New Testament from the beginning, with a particular reference to these truths.

To my great astonishment, I found that the passages that speak decidedly for election and persevering grace, were about four times as many as those that speak apparently against these truths. And even those few, shortly after, when I had examined and understood them, served to confirm me in the above doctrines [of election].

As to the effect that my belief in these doctrines had on me, I'm constrained to state, for God's glory, that though I'm still exceedingly weak, and by no means so dead to the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, as I might and as I ought to be, yet, by the grace of God, I have walked more closely with Him since that time.

I never made a reckoning to verify Müller’s numbers, but it sounds about right to me.

So, back to the criticisms I encounter when examining "difficult" verses.

  1. That explanation is unconvincing. Yes, that’s why it is called difficult. If, for example I used 2 Peter 3:9 as a proof-text for Calvinism, then you would rightly proclaim that Calvinism is the weakest of doctrines. No Arminian would look at a Calvinist’s explanation of 2 Peter 3:9 and switch to Calvinism. It must always be considered in the context of given all this other scripture that unambiguously supports Calvinism, then one possible explanation for 2 Peter 3:9 is--.

  2. You are trying to make the bible fit Calvinism. In a sense, this is true. But it is based on the belief that bible is self-consistent. If I find that the bulk of scripture supports Calvinism, then it is reasonable to attempt to "make" all scripture fit the view. The alternative is to conclude that while God mostly has a Calvinistic message, when he inspired Peter to write 2 Peter 3:9, he was in one of his Arminian moods.

This post was actually going to be about another one of those tough verses, 1 John 2:2. But I spent too much time talking about talking about tough verses. So it will have to wait for another day.

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