The Word “Elect” Does Not Infer Unconditional Election

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Among John Piper’s “Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election,” he lists, “We embrace unconditional election because God designed it to make us fearless in our proclamation of his grace in a hostile world.” (link) He then quotes the apostle Paul: “If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Romans 8:31, 33) But what is the connection between being, allegedly, “unconditionally” elected by God and being bold in a hostile world? Can non-Calvinists and Arminians not possess Spirit-induced boldness in gospel proclamation of God’s grace in a hostile world? In fact, this happens on a daily basis, rendering unconditional election as a resource without any substantiation whatsoever.

Piper’s connection of Romans 8:31, 33 with benefits of embracing the novel theory of unconditional election infers more than the text will allow, for mere mention of the word “elect” does not infer an inheritance to the concept of unconditional election. Believers are God’s elect; that is biblical beyond question. But the word “elect” does not infer the novelty of unconditionalelection. He states, in this brief article, “All my objections to unconditional election collapsed when I could no longer explain away Romans 9.” (link) He then weaves his way through the chapter as though every verse “proves” his theology point by point. This is poor hermeneutics.

Elsewhere Piper claims the same: “Romans 9 was the watershed text and the one that changed my life forever.” (link) He emphatically states that there are two experiences in his life that “make Romans 9 one of the most important chapters in shaping the way I think about everything, and the way I have been led in ministry.” (emphasis added) (link) So, Romans 9 does not merely inform his views on salvation, or regarding God’s relationship to Israel; but that one chapter, which necessarily includes the method of interpreting that one chapter, is the foremost important chapter in shaping the way he thinks about all of life. His entire view of the world is shaped by his interpretation of Romans 9.

Moreover, we are right to insist that Piper interprets not only world events, but also all of Scripture through the lens of his interpretation of Romans 9. So, where a passage of Scripture does not coincide with his interpretation of Romans 9, from a prima facie reading, of course, then that passage must be interpreted in such a way as to conform and corroborate well with his a priori notions found in Romans 9. His interpretation of Romans 9, then, is his hermeneutic — the methodical lens he uses to interpret all other passages, including even the world itself.

Dr. Piper entered college believing in free will, that it is exhaustively and ultimately self-determining, an extreme view that even Arminians do not hold (link). But when challenged by a Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 in class, he was converted to that interpretation, and now concludes with an insistence that Romans 9 is the death knell for all non-Calvinistic assumptions and interpretations. (link) I think this assertion is naïve, that it is an extension of naïve realism (link), and that no one should be persuaded of Calvinism via Romans 9 by such a naïve epistemology. I realize that Dr. Piper is an accomplished scholar in the view of some, and that I am not, and therefore many will doubt the validity of me calling his view naïve.

Romans 9 (cf. also John 6; Acts 2; 4; Romans 8; Ephesians 1) no more proves Calvinism than it proves Arminianism or any other theological position. No passage from the Bible proves any theological position. God’s word is not a theological textbook proving any system of thought. The primary task of the student of God’s word is to read and obey. We come to know God better through our daily reading. Scripture exists to attest to the glory of God, His salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and for our instruction. The secondary task of the student of Scripture is: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining [teaching, NET; handling, ESV; dividing, KJV] the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15 NRSV) The latter requires hermeneutics.

Simply stated, hermeneutics is the science, art, or method of interpreting any text, religious or otherwise. Hermeneutics is not the act of interpreting, of a first order, but a method or a means of interpreting. For John Piper, his theological conclusions from Romans 9 are the means by which he interprets the rest of Scripture and the entire world, all of its events, including God’s relationship to those events. He is quite right to interpret Scripture through the lens he deems biblical — we all do it. Every person interprets Scripture or other texts through a particular interpretive lens.

Imagine looking at the world around you through a pair of glasses with lenses that distort your view. Imagine also looking at that same world through a pair of glasses with lenses suited to present your eyes with a clear and precise view. Hermeneutics is the pair of glasses through which we interpret what we see in a text. If our vision is distorted then we will hold a distorted conclusion. But whose hermeneutic is the correct one? For fear that the implications of such a question may appear relativistic, even pluralistic, some people are quite content in concluding that their view of a text is the correct view and all other views that contradict their view are “unbiblical” or wrong. They think that all one need do when encountering a text is to read it at face value and one will conclude with a proper interpretation.

This, too, is naïve. For a text is “always a function of the interpretive perspective from which the critic ‘discovers’ it.”1 In other words, even before we engage a text, certain presuppositions are already present in our understanding that will influence our interpretation. This is not to suggest that interpretations cannot change. This happens quite frequently. We are exposed to another interpretive method, and we can be convinced of an alternative method for interpreting, say, Romans 9, or a poem, or a view of a novel. A view once perceived as biblical or right can later be rejected and viewed as unbiblical or inaccurate. Does this not, then, grant warrant to relativism and pluralism?

Stanley Fish, rightly no friend to a naïve realist view, challenges both of these assumptions. We should make no mistake: objectively there are proper and improper ways to view or interpret a text — an assertion which undermines both relativism and pluralism. We cannot, for example, take a familiar verse such as John 3:16 and suggest that a proper interpretation requires we spiritualize it: e.g., “God” refers to the God-consciousness that gave birth to the “son” of the world-spirit, which requires that we all self-sacrificially love one another. There are various appropriate and inappropriate methods for interpreting a text.

Stanley Fish, quoting Wayne Booth, thinks we are right to “rule out at least some readings.”2 What should be our concern, however, is “what gives us the right so to be right.”3 Dr. Fish also agrees with Booth regarding “limits to what we can legitimately do with a text”; yet he states:

Again, I agree, but if, as I have argued, the text is always a function of interpretation, then the text cannot be the location of the core of agreement by means of which we reject interpretations. We seem to be at an impasse: on the one hand there would seem to be no basis for labeling an interpretation unacceptable, but on the other we do it all the time.4

Fish is on to something that makes many very uncomfortable. Many realize that they are naïve realists at heart, that their evangelical upbringing forms them into being naïve realists, and to interpret Scripture through a naïve approach; and also that, when they disagree with someone’s interpretation of a text, they naïvely declare the opposing position as being “unbiblical” merely because it clashes with their own. This is unscholarly.

In my years of debating Calvinists, I have often noticed how Calvinists and Arminians (and other non-Calvinists) often talk past one another. Each party is arguing against the conclusions of the opposing party and using or judging the opponent’s views based upon the hermeneutics, presuppositions, or assumptions belonging to their own views. There is a hint of circular reasoning at work here. “Your view cannot be right because my view is right and my reasons ‘logically’ and ‘biblically’ accord with my interpretation(s) of Scripture.” This method of argumentation is not merely naïve but near insane. Evangelicals need to wise up about hermeneutics and learn to reason consistently, logically and, hence, properly.

That is to say, Romans 9 is not the death knell of Arminianism or non-Calvinistic soteriology, as John Piper posits, and to insist otherwise is naïve, containing an element of circular reasoning, and is unscholarly. The Calvinistic understanding and interpretation of Romans 9 is as much the death knell of Arminianism as the Arminian understanding and interpretation of Romans 9 is the death knell of Calvinism. The time is past due for us all to honestly concede that we interpret Scripture and other texts through a lens — an interpretive grid (hermeneutics) — and that none of us knows objectively that our systematic theological positions are right in an absolute sense.

From what I have observed, most believers are deeply concerned about truth. We each want to believe that our respective denominations teach the truth, as well as our respective theological positions rightly represent the truths of Scripture, and that we are correct in all points of our theology. But I think all too often we mistake certainty for objective truth; and we qualify and justify our certainty by how boldly we stand for our views of truth. Hence, when someone disagrees with our views, we assume that there is something wrong with us as a human being created in the image of God. We confuse our beliefs for our personal worth and humanity. When our views are threatened, we are threatened on a personal level, and we tend to defend our views as if our very lives depend upon it. This ought not be.

Many of us also tend to weigh each of our respective beliefs with equal weight. But, while there are beliefs for which I would willingly lay down my life (e.g., the divinity of Christ, His death on the cross and His subsequent resurrection), there are other beliefs for which I consider my life of greater value (e.g., views of the end-times, proper candidate for baptism and creation theories). For me, as opposed to others I have witnessed, every issue is not a Gospel-, all-or-nothing, do-or-die issue.

I would not, for example, lay down my life or stake my eternity on Arminianism. Christ Jesus is the One who saved me, not Arminianism, and not Jacob Arminius. Daniel Taylor wisely instructs: “Of the many possible avenues to truth, two of the most traveled are reason and faith.”5 Returning to our discussion of John Piper and Romans 9, I think the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 is reasonable, and I have faith that it is biblical. Calvinists disagree. But neither Calvinists nor Arminians can insist that their respective interpretation of Romans 9 is the death knell of their opponent’s positions. We must embrace this fact as reality.

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1 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 341.

2 Ibid., 342.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 66.