In this final post, I’ll look at the most important reason for believing any theology: why I think Arminianism is what the Scripture teaches. One thing that you may notice though is that I am not always using specific Scriptural passages, but rather looking at biblical themes. I have found that it is usually true for Arminians to argue thusly, and it is usually true that Calvinists focus on individual texts.
Personally, I find thematic arguments from Scripture to be far more important. Passages can be taken out of context, and as we saw in the last post, I believe that most of the “Calvinist” passages do exactly that. Scripture wasn’t meant to be studied piecemeal like that. Most of the books in the Bible were meant to be read as whole works. Even the ones that are compilations (such as Psalms or most of the Prophets) have predetermined sections that should be treated as whole units. To focus in one portion is, to some degree, dishonest to the nature of Scripture. I recognize that we must do it for the sake of practicality in quoting, but it shouldn’t be part of our theology building.
It is also important to note that the biblical themes listed here are not sufficient to develop the Arminian position. Arminianism is a theological system which attempts to balance several different themes in Scripture. No where does the Bible explicitly describe Arminianism (though all of its basic points are either explicit,such as universal atonement, or clearly implicit, such as the freedom of the will), so we need to keep that in perspective. In this post, I am not trying to construct Arminianism from the Bible, but I am demonstrating why I believe Arminianism is more consistent with the Bible than Calvinism is.
- Divine Laments
- Imago Dei
- Potter Metaphor
- Universality of Call/Atonement
- Conditionality of Reward/Punishment
- The Corporate Nature of Biblical Election
There are many divine laments in Scripture. The basic structure of it is that God proclaims that He regrets what it is that His people are doing. Inherent to the structure of most of the laments is the concept that God wanted one thing, yet His people did something else. A short list includes:
- Exodus 32:10
- Number 14:11-12
- Jeremiah 6:9-13
- Jeremiah 7:31
- Jeremiah 13:15-17
- Isaiah 5:1-7
- Matthew 23:37 (and Luke 13:34)
Calvinists argue that everything which happens, God wanted to happen. Indeed, He decreed that it would happen to establish His plans for creation. However, is that really biblical? Though there are many divine laments in Scripture, I would like to focus on a single set (a triad actually) of them from Jeremiah because not only does it cut directly to the heart of my point here, they also are firm proof against the Calvinist position IMO.
They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire–something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. –Jeremiah 7:31
See also Jeremiah 19:5 and 32:35 where Jeremiah repeats the same basic phrase. One question that I must ask is how much clearer does the Bible have to be that there are things which occur that God did not want? I have trouble with a theology that will take a verse like this and say “well it didn’t enter into God’s revealed mind, but it did enter into God’s secret mind”. The statement is pretty blunt: “in no way shape or form did I want this to happen.” I know that Calvinists must interact with this text somehow, but I seem to just lack the imagination to think of how.
With that said, the entire collection of laments makes a similar point: there are things which happen which God does not want, i.e. God regrets. By regret, I don’t mean to imply that God expected anything else, or that God didn’t see things coming. He’s omniscient. What I mean is that things happened that God didn’t want to happen. This seems to me to be a consistent theme throughout Scripture, and especially the prophets. Calvinism must claim otherwise, and the only way to deal with these Scriptures is to argue that somehow God didn’t really mean it (whether it be by accommodation theory, or the two will theory).
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26
It is interesting that the concept of being in God’s image is directly tied to the idea of us ruling over the earth. It is very important to understand that God has given humanity responsibility over creation. We are charged with it. In this, we can understand that God’s leadership style is that of delegation: He assigns responsibilities to various creatures.
This is not something which is in direct opposition to Calvinism, but it does stand in contrast to the Calvinist definition of Sovereignty (See link). We can see this basic delegation style of leadership in the parable of the vineyard. It is interesting that this seems to be the biblical model of divine sovereignty, yet Calvinist’s insist that God must cause all things to happen in order to be sovereign. That simply doesn’t make theological sense, and also has no biblical basis. I contend, as with my Arminian siblings in the Lord, that God is sovereign over His sovereignty, and can rule however He wants.
Where does the concept of God being a potter originate from? Does it come from Romans 9? Actually it comes originally from Jeremiah, whose take on the metaphor is actually rather Arminian.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
5 Then the word of the LORD came to me. 6 He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. – Jeremiah 18:1-10
What Calvinists have right is that the potter metaphor is about God being sovereign. What it is not about though is absolute minute control of all things (something which Calvinists confuse with sovereignty).
The point of the passage and the metaphor is that God is not bound to Israel (indeed, the reverse is true). In the Israelite/God relationship, Israel has all the real obligations. Just because God has established Israel doesn’t mean that Israel is somehow exempt from God’s law (amazingly the same point Paul was making in Romans 9-11). This implies… correction: explicitly states, that Israel can go against the will of God. God intends one thing for Israel, and yet something else happens.
This is the principle of “contrary choice”: that one can do other than what they are instructed or intended to do. This is also the basic definition of libertarian free will. For those who don’t know, libertarian free will is what non-theologians just call free will.
Now, I know what Calvinists would say here: “But there are two wills in God, and just because Israel could go against God’s declared will doesn’t mean that they could go against His secret will.” Now apart from this being one of the most unparsimonious theological ideas ever, I have a couple of problems with this. First, God’s secret will is so secret that He has never bothered to tell us it exists, so how do you know it even exists? Second, where in the Bible does it talk about God having two wills? Yes, God keeps some things a secret, but where does it say that God has a secret will which contradicts that which He has told us He wants? Third, I say that if God tells us He wants one thing, and He secretly wants something else, then He is lying to us (since the secret will is always His true will, since that’s always the basis for what He does).
Ultimately, the 2 will theory is sophistry: an attempt to avoid texts like this where we do something other than what God wants us to do. I know many Calvinists would disagree, but hey, that’s why I’m not a Calvinist.
Ok, time for a bit of prooftexting:
- Isaiah 53:6 – The iniquity of us all was put on Christ.
- Matthew 11:28-30 – Any who come to Christ are welcome.
- Matthew 18:14 – The Father does not wish that any should perish (anti predestined-reprobation).
- John 1:7 – Jesus intended for all, wants all to believe.
- John 1:29
- John 3:16-17
- John 4:42
- John 6:33, 51
- John 12:32, 47
- Romans 3:23-24 – All have sinned and all have access to justification in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 5:6 – Christ died for the ungodly. Since all are ungodly, Christ died for all.
- Romans 5:15 – Since sin spread to all, Christ’s atonement is meant for all.
- Romans 10:13 – Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
- II Corinthians 5:14-15 – All died, yet Christ died for all.
- I Timothy 2:3-6 – God desires all men to be saved, and gave Himself for all
- I Timothy 4:10
- Titus 2:11 – God’s necessary grace that leads to repentance appears to all.
- Hebrews 2:9 – Jesus tasted death for everyone.
- Hebrews 10:10 – Christ offered once for all.
- II Peter 3:9
- I John 4:14
- I John 2:2 – Jesus is the propitiation, not just for believers, but for the whole world.
- Revelation 22:17
Do me a favor and don’t take my word for any of those. Go in and look at the context. A proof-text isn’t proof unless you know the context, so please look it up before being convinced.
Now, this is why limited atonement is the 5th point in 4 point Calvinism. It is really really difficult to justify in the face of Scripture. Mind you, people manage to do so, but you should never underestimate the creativity of the aptly self-deceived mind (a little saying of mine).
This is one of the primary arguments that all Arminians, indeed all non-Calvinists, use, and there’s a reason for that. Calvinists seem to believe that we believe in free will because we want control. I guess this makes sense from those that build their theology on the theme of control. But that isn’t the primary issue for Arminians. Instead it is a matter of us being responsible for our sins, and God being true to His word.
It is important to note that this is distinct from us being responsible for salvation, because we aren’t. Salvation comes to undeserving sinners by the grace of God. Indeed, both Calvinists and Arminians agree on these two basic points: we are responsible for sins and God is responsible for salvation.
However, one basic quality that is necessary (though not sufficient) for responsibility is the ability to do otherwise. It is inherit within the definition of responsibility, and Calvinists believe that human sinners could not have done otherwise.
But when we look at how the law is phrased in Scripture, we get a clear sense that conditionality is built into the law. The Jews were expected to do right, and not to do wrong. This implies some measure of free will.
I’ll give Calvinists the point that implication is not the same thing as the Bible actually saying it. However, the idea that God expects someone who He commands to do something to have the ability to do it… is just a common sense reading of the text. You can try and get around this by man-made philosophical ideas like Calvin’s accommodation theory (God needed to dumb things down for us… because He couldn’t predestine us to understand) or the modern day two-will theory (God really wants us to do good, but really really wants some of us to not do good so He can demonstrate how just He is by condemning us), but none of these theories coincide with the simple reading of the text.
This idea of “the plain sense of Scripture” is known as perspicuity. The most perspicuous reading is not always the most “literal” (whatever that means) but the one which conforms most easily to the common sense of text, especially how it would have been understood by its original hearers. So let us consider the perspicuous reading of the following verses:
- Deut 11:26-28: See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.
- Josh 24:15: And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
- Jeremiah 21:8: And to this people you shall say: ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.
- Ezekiel 18:30-31: Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?
(Again, please check the context of these verses. Do not take my word for it)
So, were the Israelites capable of doing other than what they indeed did? That is the question. In these cases, we see that God gives conditional demands, and then explains what He will do in one case, and what He will do in another. I don’t see how someone can argue that the original hearers would understand this to mean, “Those who I preordain to do good, I will reward. Those who I preordain to do bad, I will punish.” Anyone reading the plain sense of these texts will see this as a king’s edict to His people, explaining how His government works. No king issues decrees explaining how and why he is doing things. He issues decrees on how he expects his subjects to behave.
It is interesting to me how the Calvinist definition of sovereignty fails to coincide with the common sense meaning of the word in English, or in any language for that matter. Likewise, they are forced to take such texts as these, and create some kind of interpretive framework within which they can be placed. However, as an Arminian, I can just take them as they are.
N. T. Wright and the New Perspective of Paul have done a lot in the area of election recently. It is important to note that election is a very minor theme in the New Testament (which raises the question as to why Calvinists focus on it). This means that it is rather inappropriate to try and form our understanding of election from a few isolated passages.
However, in the Old Testament, election is all over the place, if you take the time to remember that ‘elect’ and ‘chosen’ mean the same thing. In “My Basic Stances” (see top of page) I discuss my fundamental hermeneutical assumption (the basic idea upon which I base Biblical interpretation): that one should form a basic worldview from the Old Testament, and then allow the events and words of Christ to come in and challenge, reshape, and edify that worldview. Therefore, when building a biblical theology in regards to any subject, we are to first construct a basic understanding of that subject from the Old Testament, and then see how that subject is modified by the New Testament.
Election is no exception to this. It is interesting to note that there are no Old Testament passages on election that teach a concept of personal unconditional election to salvation. They don’t exist (I don’t really think they exist in the New Testament either, but I recognize that there are a couple that “sound” like they do [see last post]).
It is also important to note that within the New Testament, the concept of election is never explicitly laid out. Indeed, an understanding of election seems to be assumed within the texts, especially within Romans and Ephesians. As such, we must rely on the Old Testament to define the concept, and then see if it can be imported into the New Testament texts.
What results is some sense of corporate election: that God operates by choosing a singular man through whose line a people will be defined as God’s people. In the Old Testament, this chosen one was Abraham; in the New Testament, it is Jesus. Thus, by being in Christ, i.e. the nation of Christ, we become part of the chosen: the chosen people of God.
More can be said on this of course, but if the biblical language of election refers to this corporate sense of election, rather then the defining tenant of Calvinism (individual unconditional election unto salvation) is void of any biblical support. Though I would not say that corporate election is a defining attribute of Arminianism, since it wasn’t even held by Arminius itself, it is compatible with Arminianism. With Calvinism, though it does not contradict Calvinism, it does remove all sense of Scriptural support, making Calvinism nothing more than a free-floating man-made philosophy.