2 Biblical Issues I Think Calvinism Gets Wrong

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

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15 Thoughts to “2 Biblical Issues I Think Calvinism Gets Wrong

  1. Hey there Caleb – Just a couple of questions for clarity:
    Concerning the election of the church – How do you interpret Acts 13:42-52, particularly verse 48?
    Concerning limited atonement – How do you interpret Romans 8:27-30 – Paul’s repeated use of “Whom He”?

    1. Regarding Acts 13:48, I freely admit, and perhaps ultimately to my advantage, that this is probably the most difficult statement in Scripture to interpret apart from a Calvinist-esque doctrine of election. Yet I do see hints that unconditional election may not be the right key to understanding it. For example, it specifies that everyone who was appointed believed. This would mean, from a Calvinistic perspective, that in that crowd every elect person believed that day, and leaving no elect there yet unconverted. That would mean that no one at all who was present there converted at a later date. This isn’t impossible, of course, but seems a bit strange. Moreover, it seems odd that Luke would use the more generic word for arranging/ordering/appointing, tasso, rather than something like proorizo, if he was intending to make a predestinarian point.

      While I don’t have a solid conclusion for this verse, I have two main thoughts. 1) The main thrust of this verse is paradoxically inclusive rather than exclusive in regards to election. The whole surprise and theme of the narrative here is that God has appointed Gentiles, who had formerly been left out, to believe and be saved, while the Jews continue obstinately in their unbelief. The kingdom of God is expanding into new horizons, which makes me doubt that the point is an expansion into simply another race of equally unconditionally elect people over and against equally non-elect people of both races. 2) While I do not hold to a general, unconditional election to final salvation, I think it would be just as unlikely that God never ensures the conversion of anyone. I am not committed to any specific theory of free will, so I am not bothered by the idea that God might on occasion for a particular redemptive-historical purpose ensure the conversions of certain people by some means. For this reason even if there is no other explanation for the statement that its most straightforward appearance, it would not be that uncomfortable in my overall theology of salvation.

      Regarding Romans 8:28-30, I take a generally corporate, Christological view of the election of believers to salvation, and that’s how I would understand this passage. I don’t see “those whom” as a particular total of individuals, but as a corporate body defined by only by relationship to Christ, not their own identities (just as Israel in the Old Testament was not defined by a collection of people with Israelite identities, but by relationship to Abraham their elect father). Moreover, I take the past tense here literally, viewing the whole sequence as something already enacted and made real in Christ’s death and resurrection, so that “He justified” and “He glorified” do not refer to the events of individual believers being converted and later resurrected, but to the once-for-all event of Christ’s own death, resurrection, and ascension. So instead of identifying this group in terms of “which individuals?” I would read it as about “the people who are identified exclusively in relationship to Christ and experience these things by participation in His life by the Spirit.”

      Hopefully this will be enlightening, if only about my capacity for nonsense. Kidding aside, I hope you do find this interesting and clarifying.

  2. I definitely like the emphasis on corporate election in the first point. This is something I find too little of, even in the communitarian, Catholic tradition.

  3. Hi there,

    How do you read John 10 in a non calvinistic manner? Can you explain that some more?

    And are there more thought you can share about acts 13:42-51? Is the gospel also for the jews and where the gentiles irresistably saved or does this text say something else

    1. In regards to John 10, I simply don’t see anything about it which compels a Calvinistic interpretation.

      As for Acts 13:42-51, I have little to say that I have not said in the comment immediately above yours, so I would suggest checking there.

      1. OKAY! Ps. in limited atonement topic you say that 1 tim 2 is a text that says ALL People, in calvinism people often say all KINDS of people. Is that a possible interpretation or is that unlikely?

        1. Grammatically speaking, either is possible. However, taking it as simply “all” is more natural, and I believe it is suggested by the framing verses. They speak of man and God being mediated by Christ the Man, which implies that the “all” refers to mankind.

          1. Hi nerd 😉
            Question: if Christ died for all what is the basis / reason why unbelievers still get judged? Is this because of sin or…? Because Christ died for all sin, how does that work?

          2. My answer to this might vary depending on the exact conceptualization on the atonement being used, as I do believe many can be. But for one potential route, consider Calvinism’s elect man pre-regeneration. Christ died for him indeed, but during this time is He but still under God’s judgment and at enmity with Him until his regeneration? So I might suggest that, though all have been objectively atoned for, some do indeed die in a state like this.

            Of course, this is only one possible conceptual road, but it seems one of the easier ones.

  4. But how is an unconverted person to be hold accountable (calvinist or not :-))… If sin is already paid for by CHRIST?

    1. This is simply a place, I submit, where legal analogies for the atonement reach their limits. Basically, I would argue that forgiveness of sins is not simply a blanket legal reality, but a personal reality enclosed within the sanctified life of Christ. While He has truly borne the suffering for the sins of all people, and took them all down to the grave and replaced their corruption with His resurrection life, this is a reality that exists in no other sphere than His person. So those who never yield to be united to Christ by His Spirit, while fully and objectively atoned for, separate themselves from the atonement and attempt to approach God outside of the safety of Christ, which is of course not a safe path.

  5. If people are going to God outside of CHRIST then on what basis are they judged? Their sins? Unbelief? How does this work?

    1. This is a good question, one for which I am not entirely sure I have an answer. On one hand, there is lots of Biblical evidence that people will be judged by their works, and so presumably condemned on the basis of their sins (Ps. 28:4, Prov. 24:12, Jer. 17:10, Matt. 16:27, Rom. 2:6, Rev. 20:12-13). On the other hand, there is also a not-insignificant thread of evidence in the New Testament that a rejection of Christ is the ultimate cause of final condemnation (John 3:18, Heb. 2:2-3, 12:25, 1 Jn. 5:10). How in detail these two synthesize is not obvious to me. I do, however, favor an emphasis on the latter, if that’s not obvious from my last comment.

So what do you think?