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.

2 Biblical Issues I Think Calvinism Gets Wrong

Gems from Calvin’s On the Christian Life

I’m working on a cool reading list this year to help stimulate and diversify my reading. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt, with categories like “a book with the word ‘Gospel’ in the title” and “a book with an ugly cover.” I just checked off the first one, “a book on Christian living,” with John Calvin’s On the Christian Life. You can check it out on Amazon or for free on Monergism. Anyway, it was a pretty neat little book, and I decided on finishing it that I would post great bits and pieces from this book, as well as the others I will be reading this year, for everyone to enjoy. So here’s Calvin on the Christian life:

…The object of regeneration is to bring the life of believers into concord and harmony with the righteousness of God, and so confirm the adoption by which they have been received as sons.

For when we were scattered abroad like lost sheep, wandering through the labyrinth of this world, he brought us back again to his own fold. When mention is made of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be the bond; not that by the merit of holiness we come into communion with him, (we ought rather first to cleave to him, in order that, pervaded with his holiness, we may follow whither he calls,) [emphasis mine] but because it greatly concerns his glory not to have any fellowship with wickedness and impurity.

Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart…To doctrine in which our religion is contained we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful.

But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course [toward holiness] with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God.

The old saying is true, There is a world of iniquity treasured up in the human soul. Nor can you find any other remedy for this than to deny yourself, renounce your own reason, and direct your whole mind to the pursuit of those things which the Lord requires of you, and which you are to seek only because they are pleasing to Him.

For so blindly do we all rush in the direction of self-love, that every one thinks he has a good reason for exalting himself and despising all others in comparison. If God has bestowed on us something not to be repented of, trusting to it, we immediately become elated, and not only swell, but almost burst with pride. The vices with which we abound we both carefully conceal from others, and flatteringly represent to ourselves as minute and trivial, nay, sometimes hug them as virtues. When the same qualities which we admire in ourselves are seen in others, even though they should be superior, we, in order that we may not be forced to yield to them, maliciously lower and carp at them; in like manner, in the case of vices, not contented with severe and keen animadversion, we studiously exaggerate them. Hence the insolence with which each, as if exempted from the common lot, seeks to exalt himself above his neighbour, confidently and proudly despising others, or at least looking down upon them as his inferiors. The poor man yields to the rich, the plebeian to the noble, the servant to the master, the unlearned to the learned, and yet every one inwardly cherishes some idea of his own superiority.

Honestly, I could probably go on, but this should be enough for now. This last one in my opinion is particularly powerful. On the Christian Life is a great little book. If your appetite is whetted, check back at the top where I provided links. Deus benedicat!

Gems from Calvin’s On the Christian Life

Very Short Thoughts on the Tower of Babel

These are just the quick notes I took on the Tower of Babel incident while reading through Genesis 10-11 this morning.

  • The motivation for the tower of Babel is interesting. The one people wanted to unite in glory in resistance to God’s intention to bless the earth through their filling and diversification. It appears there was some clear awareness on their part that they were resisting this call.
  • God’s motivation is just as peculiar, if not more so. On one hand, at a prima facie level it appears that God feels threatened by humanity’s united power and wishes to stop them from what powerful things they could accomplish as one people. Yet this reading seems problematic, theology proper aside. It does not take into account what the people said in the previous verse, nor is it coherent. Why would a God who already performed creation and was able to confuse human languages feel threatened by mere mortals? I suspect God was more concerned with their particular plans to build a single metropolitan and continue resisting the call to spread out and diversify. As long as they had one language, nothing would be able to convince them to give up on this project and separate.
  • If we take Babel as mostly the story of God’s plans for blessing and humanity’s ongoing resistance (which would fit well into the Pentateuch as a whole), then there is clear application. God often calls us to do hard and uncomfortable things for our own good; indeed, this is mostly all He says to us! He may ask us to break certain cherished ties and go places, just as He will do to Abram in the next chapter. Yet the plan is always for the consummation and redemption of creation, and so every step is ultimately designed to bless us. The question on our part is if we will have the faith to simply do what He calls us to do, trusting that He actually does have our best interests at heart.
Very Short Thoughts on the Tower of Babel

Narnia and the Cross (An Essay for British Lit)

This is an essay that I wrote for my British literature class last semester. I figure someone might find it interesting. Or a good laugh. Either way.

I Lay Down My Life for Edmund: Atonement Theology in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

“When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (Lewis, ch. 15). With this sentence, every key element to C. S. Lewis’ atonement theology, as portrayed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is laid bare. Although sometimes derided for theological reasons, Aslan’s sacrifice for Edmund is a rich and beautiful scene which lends much power to the book as a whole. Moreover, while this narrative would not fit into anyone’s systematic theology, there are several themes present in Lewis’ atonement story which both shed light on Lewis’ thought in general and might provide some helpful corrective foci for broader evangelical understanding. In particular, the sacrifice of Aslan for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe brings together the essential mysterious, personal, and redemptive-historical dimensions of the atonement in a typology that impresses itself upon the heart in a way few stories can do. Taking note of these themes will not only enable the reader to better appreciate what Aslan did, but what Jesus did to which Lewis intended Aslan’s sacrifice to point.

Before looking at the actual key elements of this Narnian atonement, though, some analysis of what took place in the novel and how Lewis meant these events to be interpreted is probably in order. Anna Blanch in her article “A Hermeneutical Understanding of The Chronicles of Narnia” makes the case that allegory or metaphor is not the right way to understand the Narnia books and events, but rather that typology was Lewis’ intent. The differences are subtle, but the main point is to let the story point somewhere as a story, rather than each element in the story having a specific and consistent symbolic meaning. This was, she claims, how Lewis saw the dying-and-rising god myths leading up to Christ, as “types” that ultimately pointed to Christ the “True Myth.” With this in mind, the basic story is straightforward. After entering Narnia, Edmund ends up giving his allegiance to the White Witch. Eventually, because of his family and Aslan’s efforts, he returns to them and betrays her, which gives her a claim on his life based on “deep magic from the dawn of time.” Yet Aslan convenes privately with the Witch and offers his life in exchange for Edmund’s. The Witch kills him on the Stone Table, but the next day he returns and liberates her prisoners (whom she had turned to stone). Finally, Aslan and his freed creatures battle the Witch and her forces, eventually winning as Aslan kills the Witch. The climax to all of this is clearly Aslan’s death and resurrection, and the function of this event as a type of atonement provides many valuable insights, beginning with its mysterious nature.

Evident first in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the controlling fact of the atonement for Lewis is mystery. Aslan’s death and resurrection, just as Christ’s, does not save in any easily schematized way. Indeed, before his conversion the mechanism of the atonement was a major problem for him, the “how” question leading him away from accepting the reality. In the end as a Christian, mostly due to the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien and another friend showing him the significance of “true myth” to his atonement approach, “Lewis remained reluctant to assume full working knowledge of the atonement, which he saw as wholly mysterious” (Vanderhorst 29). In Narnia, this reality comes across in Aslan’s cryptic and fundamentally magical explanation of why he was alive again after dying in Edmund’s stead:

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know: Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” (Lewis, ch. 15)

A magic deeper than “Deep Magic” is the clearest possible sign that Lewis is signaling away from the “how” instead to focus on the “what.” This also accords with what Lewis states about the atonement in Mere Christianity, namely that, just as one does not need to understand nutritional theory to be nourished by a meal, one needs no understanding of atonement theory to be saved by Christ’s work (55). Surely this is the case for Aslan and Edmund, since no one but Aslan himself understood anything about this deeper magic from before the dawn of time. This fixation on mystery, on an unexpected and inexplicable appearance of grace in self-sacrifice, makes for a brilliant story, and evangelicals would do well to learn from Aslan than the atonement must retain its essentially inscrutable character.

The second essential element to the atonement captured in the Narnia story is personalism, i.e. the framing of the atonement as primarily a reality involving real and particular people, as opposed to abstract individuals or groups. While many evangelical presentations of the atonement take a personal shape (“Jesus died for you because of how much He loves you!”), few evangelical articulations do. The focus is usually on a financial or legal metaphor, which, as useful as such may be, cannot be truly personal. Yet Aslan’s sacrifice is deeply personal, as he steps up specifically to save Edmund by dying in his place. There is no abstract or behind-the-scenes soteriological rationale given. Edmund was going to be killed, so Aslan died in his stead. This was a personal sacrifice, which could not easily be separated meaningfully from the people intimately involved. Again, this theme could well be integrated not only into evangelical Gospel presentations, but into proper theological accounts of the atonement. For indeed, Paul seems to recognize precisely this personal aspect of the atonement when he says that Christ “loved me and gave Himself for me” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Gal. 2:20), just as Aslan loved Edmund and gave himself for Edmund.

The final theme in the Narnian atonement which has probably been mostly ignored in favor of other questions (such the resemblance to ransom theory) is the redemptive-historical function of Aslan’s death. While, as just mentioned, Aslan’s sacrifice was intensely personal, benefitting no more than Edmund directly, or perhaps the whole Pevensie family, Aslan’s death quickly leads to Narnia’s salvation. After his resurrection, Aslan is free to roam and work unhindered by the Witch, since she assumes he is dead. He can go to her castle and breathe new life on all of the creatures which have been turned to stone, and lead a mighty army back to defeat her. This is not the result of any arbitrary or abstract atonement concept, but rather the historical causal result of the atonement for Aslan’s followers. More than the other points, this redemptive-historical element has often been forgotten altogether in Christian atonement theology. Many atonement accounts treat Christ’s work as something which did or could have functioned out of context, by any death under any circumstances, since only an artificial and metaphysical role is involved. Yet, as with Aslan, Christ’s death paved the way for the survival of the people of God. By establishing the new pattern of suffering unto death without violence, and the advance guarantee of personal resurrection, faithful Jews who followed Him were able to survive the impending doom of Jerusalem and the Temple not just physically, but also religiously, as they had moved on to a new Way. Moreover, the rejection of Christ by the Jews historically pushed the gate open to new circumstances in which Gentiles could enter the people of God as Gentiles. In both the case of Aslan’s ransom and Jesus’ crucifixion, there is an irreducible historical core that grounds the benefits of atonement in actual, causal effect. This entire working is mostly forgotten in evangelical theology, but like these other themes might find recovery when the Christian imagination takes a romp through Narnia.

In the final picture, C. S. Lewis portrays a rich and varied view of the atonement in his typological treatment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Not easily identifiable too closely with any one theory, Lewis held open the mystery that the blood on the altar works because grace has provided it (Lev. 17:11). He painted a profoundly personal picture, a type which reveals the love of God in Christ for each person as a person, and quite significantly, perhaps without even realizing he did so, Lewis presented a clear analogy for the redemptive-historical function of atonement. These three elements, even aside from the more obvious and often analyzed themes of substitution and ransom, provide a helpful corrective to the lack evident in many atonement accounts of present-day evangelical theologians. All would do well to drink from this Narnian well, and to find in Aslan a beautiful and ultimately worship-inducing pointer to Jesus Christ.

Works Cited

Blanch, Anna. “A Hermeneutical Understanding of The Chronicles of Narnia.” Bible Society Australia, 2006. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Holy Bible: The Old & New Testaments: Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible, 2011. Electronic.

Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia II: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Vol. 56. 2013. GoodBook Classics. Electronic.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

Vanderhorst, Ariel James. “Mere Atonement.” Touchstone: A Journal Of Mere Christianity 22.3 (2009): 27-31. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

Narnia and the Cross (An Essay for British Lit)