A brief exchange with a friend about five-point Calvinism ended with them stating:
I wouldn’t think of calvinism as putting God in a box. Quite the contrary, actually. I think it magnifies the supremacy and sovereignty of God. I am not a huge fan of the Calvinist title. Calvin didn’t like it from what I understand. I do believe in the supremacy of God’s word over tradition and that the way to unify believers is to go to the source of scripture together.
To my thinking, such a claim opens several cans that I felt the format of Facebook and the time I had at that moment inadequate to address them. However, there are things that need to be addressed seriously and well. So, with a prayer for God’s mercy and a sense that one must speak with humility…and humility is hard when you feel obliged to say, “you are wrong,” to a whole tradition…I will engage, as Peter says, “as one who speaks oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11)–I’m certain he means with fear and trembling.
The idea that we can read the Bible apart from any tradition is a failure to understand the human condition. We are conditioned…a reality that bucks against the opposing errors of the modern world. There is on the one hand the view that we are free to be whatever we want–that there are no limits preset if we simply have the will and the heart to act. The opposing error is that we are absolutely determined–that the movement of a butterfly in China 1000 years ago had to happen because of something that happened a million years before that and because of those causes I cannot help but type an answer to the statement from my friend on this Dell laptop. Neither of these are true.
The reality is that we start with givens in life. We are given life, a name, a language, a culture, a context over which we have no control to start with, but within which we act and move and make decisions. This is not total determinism. We can and do make decisions and perform actions within the context we are given. The given is good because God is good and “every good and perfect gift comes down from the father of lights” (James 1:17). The given is flawed because humanity is broken and has broken the world which “groans” and longs for the healing that comes with the “revelation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Yet God takes the brokenness of the given upon himself and fulfills his purposes initiated in Abraham through Jesus the Messiah.
Now, my Calvinist friends may think we are in agreement. But if they believe their reading of the scripture is capable of being free from some interpretive tradition, they are quite wrong. Let me illustrate.
Here are a handful of scriptures that are counter to a staunch five-point interpretation. Yet most Calvinist already have an answer. The answer is steeped in a Calvinist tradition. The difficulties are dealt with by subjecting one set of scriptures as secondary to another. So, they must explain away:
“I have no pleasure in the death of him who dies, therefore repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:32). there are many such passages in Ezekiel.
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. – (2 Peter 3:9)
and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. – (1 John 2:2)
(God tells Jeremiah)`Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.’ – (Jeremiah 26:3)
(Jonah is angry in chapter 4 and says) Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. (vs. 2)
Therefore whosoever hears these sayings of mine, and does them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: – (Matthew 7:24)
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. – (Matthew 10:32)
For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother. – (Mark 3:35)
Shall I add John 3:16-17.
There are many more I could bring up. All of which I’m sure a five-point Calvinist can neatly tuck away, but they must do so from within their interpretive tradition of Calvinism.
Let me deal more specifically with a key passage which they often use as the foundation for their interpretive model and ask why they choose it as foundational, and illustrate how they don’t always take the full context of that passage.
The lens through which the five-point Calvinist seems to read all of scripture is Romans chapter nine. However, let us consider a key verse, “What if God…endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (vs. 22) This is an argumentative approach (Romans is very much a legal style document which is likely why Calvin was so drawn to it)…a conditional (not an absolute statement of fact), an “if…then” statement. But it is clearly in relation to the Jews and Gentiles. And, if we follow his argument we come to the point in chapter 11 that God’s purpose in this is not merely to damn some and save some, but, “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” – (Romans 11:32) Furthermore, it comes with a warning to not rest too secure in our own election: Read all of chapter 11, but especially around vs.11-25, “Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear;” – (Romans 11:20)
So, what lens do I propose…what is the foundation upon which we base all of our interpretation? Well, my friend was partially correct in saying we should “go to the source of scripture together” if we take seriously that the “source” is not the Bible, and “together” includes the whole church throughout time…not merely since the reformation.
Don’t get me wrong, scripture is essential. It is “God breathed.” But we cannot simply interpret it like any other book. It has one foundation. This is why we can have translations. If you want to understand the impact of the givens of culture, context, and language, simply look at the Muslims. For them the Quran is the Word of God. But to be so it must be in Arabic. For them, God spoke Arabic, and they are aware that every act of translation is an act of interpretation.
This is not so heavy or binding a matter for us because the Bible is not the Word of God in the same way Muslims understand the Quran to be. No, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word of God came in the human language of the man Jesus the Messiah living a human story that revealed God. Through him and by him all other scripture is interpreted and understood. It is not subject to one’s own interpretation, but only interpreted by the Spirit who indwells his body the church. Christ is revealed in the breaking of bread and in the scriptures. He is the lived out and perfect expression of God. In Him all the fullness of God dwells bodily. So, we must interpret all scripture by what we know of God in Jesus Christ.
He is the self-giving, self-emptying God. His power is revealed on the cross. That is why “it is for freedom he sets us free.” He longs to give us our selves that we may give them back to him in Love. for he is Love and he defines love for us. And Paul lays out the love visible in Christ in a definition in I Corinthians 13…in part “it hopes for all.”
This Love revealed in the person of Jesus the Messiah, this is the interpretive framework upon which we must build all of our understanding of the scriptures. Remember what Jesus himself noted as his interpretive framework when addressing his own actions: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13 and similar elsewhere.) This God who longs for all to repent, this God who comes to seek and save, this God who empties himself…He, as revealed in Jesus, is the source of the scriptures and we must interpret the scriptures in the light of his self revelation as Love.
In opposition to this, a strict five-point Calvinism reads Romans 9 as absolute, not conditional. It reads Roman 9 with the understanding of a lawyer from a world who understood power and authority and sovereignty in terms of some Machiavellian despotism.
To the contrary, God is truly sovereign. But his sovereignty is not the absolute control of some human despot that fears for his rule. He is not some puppet master pulling strings or the maker of automatons who must do every action predetermined by a programmer. His sovereignty, his providential acts are like those of a chess master who sees every possible move on the board…except that God plays with about 6 billion others whose boards are all interconnected and whose moves affect each other. And yet he still knows every possible move on the board and nothing can thwart his plan…he is playing for the abdication of each self as their own king. As their own rulers they destroy themselves and others. So, God works against them…all who will not abdicate and bring their pieces to his governance. “In human terms,” as Paul says in Romans 9, their sense is that God has prepared them for wrath. But he is patient, not willing that any should perish. Every move is for their good, even if they refuse to see it as such.
This of course is but the beginnings of an outline. But I hope it serves to show what I mean by Calvinism putting God in a box…it belittles his sovereignty.