I really am a rare breed when it comes to the debate over Calvinism/election/predestination/sovereignty. There are a lot of studied Calvinists who were once unlearned (and often non-professing, de facto) Arminians. Likewise, there are enough ex-Calvinists (who are now usually Arminians, Catholics, or unbelievers) who never knew the system well, and still repeat common misunderstandings and misconceptions about what it teaches and how it works. What you have relatively few of are ex-Calvinists who knew the doctrine well, in all of its ins and outs, with nuance, precision, and depth, able to mount detailed and comprehensive arguments both for the 5 points themselves and the basic system of causal determinism that accompanies them so readily, especially ones who are still Christians and don’t hate Calvinism. I fall into this latter camp, and I do not mean by the description I gave to “toot my own horn.” My point is rather to identify where I am coming from. Very little of the normal debate involves people from this place, and it cuts off some of the normal lines of argument.
Anyway, from this unusual perspective I just want to offer two simple Biblical points that I think Calvinism just doesn’t get right. This is not stuff at the theoretical, complex theological, or moral level, just two problems that involve Biblical interpretation. Hopefully this will provide some food for thought, or perhaps even provide a place for constructive dialogue.
- Biblical use of election: Calvinism frames mostly all discussion of election/the elect in terms of an unconditionally chosen collection of individuals destined for eternal salvation. This does not seem to ring true with the actual Biblical use. Bearing in mind that to elect literally means to select or choose, most of the incidents of election do not appear to fall in line with this systematic concept. Election doesn’t usually appear to be about all the individuals who are going to be saved. Instead, it appears as God’s choice of a people or an individual for a specific purpose in redemptive history. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all Israel, Moses, Aaron and his descendants, the Levites, King David and his descendants, even King Cyrus, Jesus, the Twelve, Paul, and the Church all were chosen, selected by God to accomplish particular tasks for God’s design in the midst of history. These people and groups are truly elect, that is, chosen by God. This isn’t to say that God said, “Let’s make sure this person gets to heaven,” but rather that He picked and called them to do His will, bear His word, and share His blessings. Going right along with this, these elect groups and individuals were not chosen merely for their own sake or salvation. Their very election was the grounds of blessing for those who were not elected. Israel was elected to bless the rest of the world (Gen. 12:3, Mic. 4:1-3, cf. Gal. 3:8). Moses was chosen for a role and relationship with God unique in all history (Exod. 3:10, Deut. 34:10), yet this election was for the liberation of all Israel. Jesus is referred to literally as the Elect One of God (Lk. 9:35), and His mission was clearly not for His own benefit, but “for us and for our salvation,” as the Creed says. When taken all together, the picture of God’s choosing is one of graciously bestowing a call, a word, and a blessing on historical persons and groups in order to accomplish His redemptive purpose. This is what I believe the Scriptures generally mean when they speak of God’s chosen ones/elect. (Granted, this does not mean the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and reprobation is false. At most it simply means that, true or false, “election” would be the wrong Biblical word for it. Yet I think that this alternate understanding of the terminology removes much of the weight behind the occurrence of words like “elect” from general Calvinist argument.)
- Limited atonement: I am convinced that limited atonement is the weakest point of Calvinism, and I am convinced of this primarily on exegetical grounds. When it comes to the plain statement of Scripture, I think there are few other doctrines without Christian orthodoxy with as little support. Generally, texts cited in favor of limited atonement rely entirely on deductions. John 10 is applied by extracting certain logical deductions from a certain reading of the text. Phrases like “save His people from their sins” and “gave Himself up for her [His bride]” are taken to imply that what they say is not true in any sense to people besides the immediate referents. Texts worded so that they could mean Jesus only died for the elect are taken as they they must mean so, and on that basis texts worded so that it seems abundantly clear that Jesus died for all are taken as though they cannot mean so. Basically, the most direct statements in Scripture on the matter (e.g. Heb. 2:9, 2 Cor. 5:15, 1 Tim. 2:5-6) are interpreted more difficulty based on logical interpretative deductions from less explicit passages (e.g. John 10, Eph. 5). Yet Scripture interpretation is meant to run in the opposite direction: passages less directly about a particular topic ought to be read primarily in light of the more clear and direct statements on it. In the case of atonement, “He died for all” is much more clear and direct than, “the Bible says Jesus lay down His life for His sheep, therefore He must not have intended to die on behalf of anyone who is not ultimately saved.” The latter sounds like it makes sense, but is a couple interpretive steps down the road, and if those steps don’t mesh with the prior clear statements, they ought to be reevaluated.
Well, those are what I’ve got for now. I could write more on each of these, especially the first, and perhaps I will. Nonetheless, this is a basic overview of two major Biblical objections I see to Calvinism. There is probably one other major Biblical category, all further theological, philosophical, and moral questions aside, but I will get to it some other time.
As always, I do not wish anyone take any offense, for I am not on the offense. I’m mostly writing this to keep you guys informed on where I’m coming from, and to invite anyone who has questions about my views to find answers. I still love Calvinists and respect Calvinism far more than any other ex-Calvinist I’ve met, so make sure to take it all in benevolence. Until next time, may God bless you and keep you.