Calvinism and Deuteronomy 29:29

, posted by Ben Henshaw

“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Calvinists often appeal to Deut. 29:29 when caught in a theological dilemma. Ask a Calvinist how God can exhaustively determine all things and yet not be the author of sin and you might get an appeal to mystery and a quick reference to Deut. 29:29. Ask a Calvinist how God’s unconditional election doesn’t make His choice of some over others for salvation arbitrary and you will likely get more of the same. Yes, Calvinists love Deut 29:29 as it provides such a convenient theological escape hatch when they are called on to explain aspects of their doctrinal system which appear to be hopelessly contradictory. But have they carefully thought about the teaching of Deut. 29:29 and the problem it poses for their peculiar hermeneutic?

Doesn’t the passage teach us that the “secret things” belong to the Lord? Doesn’t this suggest that the secret things do not belong to us? If they do not belong to us then doesn’t that suggest that we should certainly not attempt to build our entire theology on those things which are “secret?” But isn’t that exactly what Calvinism does? Isn’t their entire theological system built on the foundation of eternal “secret decrees” which are nowhere to be found in the pages of Scripture?

It seems to me that Calvinists have put the “secret things” that do not belong to them before the “things revealed.” This is exactly the opposite of the message of Deut. 29:29. For this reason the things revealed (God’s love for the world and desire to save all, the warnings against apostasy, and God’s plain declaration that he does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, etc.) are discarded, rendered essentially meaningless, and made to undergo tortured exegesis for the sake of the “secret things” that Calvinists claim to know so much about.

Walls and Dongell highlight this reality well in Why I Am Not A Calvinist,

      “Pressing this understanding [of God’s secret decree of unconditional election] through the whole of Scripture seems a prohibitively costly project, since at every turn, the words of Scripture must then be read in ways most readers would never imagine. Take, for example, the word of God through Jeremiah to Judah:

‘Hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the Lord has spoken. Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness…But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride, my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive. (Jer. 13:15-17)’

“Knowing that Judah did not turn and listen, the Calvinist concludes that God had already chosen to withhold his transforming grace from them, though he could easily have granted it. So while the text appears to identify Judah’s pride as the root cause of punishment, the Calvinist instead concludes that Judah’s ability to repent depends on God’s eternally fixed plan. Again, although the text seems to identify salvation as God’s deepest desire, the Calvinist must conclude that at a deeper level God never intended to bestow transforming grace on Jeremiah’s hearers. In other words, the true intentions of God cannot be discerned from his words.”

“Somewhere along the way, the burden of reading myriad passages throughout the Bible in such a counterintuitive fashion should anxiously bring us to this sort of question: since the Calvinist view of divine sovereignty routinely requires such an awkward ‘decoding’ of biblical texts, should not we re-examine the Calvinist view of divine sovereignty itself?” (pp. 56, 57, emphasis theirs)

The teaching of Deut. 29:29 has primary reference to the commands of God but it also establishes an important principle. The one who wants to know and obey God need look no further than what He has revealed of His character, intentions and desires in the pages of Scripture. Likewise, in the New Testament, we are admonished not to go “beyond what is written.” (1 Cor. 4:6)

Calvinists, of course, believe that they have gained insight into these secret eternal decrees by what the Bible reveals in passages which discuss depravity, election, and predestination. The obvious problem is that their understanding of these passages leads them to embrace a theology that makes “secret decrees” and “hidden” contrary intentions lurk behind so much that God has revealed (as in Jer. 13:15-17 above). Wouldn’t it be wise for them to carefully re-evaluate whether the secret should determine the revealed or whether the revealed should determine and control their theology? If we take the Lord’s words in Deut. 29:29 seriously the answer should be obvious. But perhaps there is some “secret” meaning hidden behind that passage as well. If that is the case we will need to wait until Calvinists reveal the secret to us, for it would seem that the “secret things” belong not only to “the LORD our God”, but to Calvinists as well.

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