As orthodox Christians, we believe in the inerrancy, truth and guidance of Scripture for informing our lives. As we delve deeper and deeper into the study of the Bible, puzzles present themselves. Do we keep glossing over them? We can’t. We find that we have to “do” some level of theology. The end-game of a pursuit of theology is to develop some confidence in understanding who God is. Intertwined with questions concerning God comes the desire to understand how faith in God comes about, who is “in” and who is “out”, and on what basis. But there also exists universalism, the idea gained from certain scriptural passages that all of humanity will ultimately be saved so that no one is left “out”. I do not believe in universalism because Scripture contains too many references to the ultimate exclusion of the unrepentant from God’s salvation although I can see how particular scriptural passages might be read to support the idea.
The theology of salvation is known as soteriology. Why do we need or desire to understand these things? So that we can have some level of assurance that God is Who we think He is and that Scripture is saying what we think it is saying. This, in turn, informs how we go about our lives as Christians. I would have thought that this is a summary of theology’s purpose. After all, different people, even at elite levels, say many and varied things about God and Scripture. While some can be readily written off, other ideas about God are pervasive and form the backbone of our understanding of God. So we had better know to the best of our knowledge what ideas are true so that we can be confident believers but never obnoxiously so. This pursuit does not seem to be as pressing for some people as for others. If you are one driven by a desire to more fully understand God, you may enjoy reading on as I try taking a look at Paul’s letter to the Romans, specifically Romans 9. Especially note :
Romans 9:6-24 (NASB) 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “ THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is the word of promise: “AT THIS TIME I WILL COME, AND SARAH SHALL HAVE A SON.” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.” 13 Just as it is written, “JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED.” 14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
We need to particularly be careful in trying to understand this passage mainly because certain interpretations appear to run counter to the whole tenor of Scripture, let alone the rest of Romans. To this end I have been reading and re-reading Romans. Writing a million notes on it and going here and there on my quest, I came upon some wonderful resources, from commentary to theological books written for the layperson interested in these issues.
Non-Calvinists such as Arminians hold to varying views on God’s predestination and election of His people. There is Dr Ken Wilson’s view, presented in his book ‘The Foundation of Augustinian Calvinism’, that God foresees a person’s choices without predetermining those choices, a view he believes was the mainstream, orthodox view up to the time of Augustine’s writings of the 5th century AD.
“Early Christian authors unanimously taught relational divine eternal predetermination. God elected persons to salvation based upon foreknowledge of their faith (predestination)…
Some persons triumphantly cite ancient Christian authors claiming they believe Augustine’s deterministic interpretations of scripture, but without reading the entire context or without understanding the way in which words were being used.”
Wilson, Ken. The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism (p. 19, 20). Regula Fidei Press, LLC. Kindle Edition.
Arminian theologian Brian Abasciano mentions this divine foreknowledge view of individuals’ choices in his article, “The FACTS of Salvation: A Summary of Arminian Theology/the Biblical Doctrines of Grace”, available at http://evangelicalarminians.org . He adds another less common Arminian view, that of the corporate view of election whereby God’s elect are comprised of those who have identified with the Elect of God, first with Israel (Old Covenant) and then with Jesus Christ (New Covenant). He is our covenantal head and as we identify with Him through faith, either as true Israelites (some refer to these as the ‘remnant’) or as members of the true (not necessarily visible) Church, we become part of God’s Elect.
“Thus, election is “in Christ” (Eph 1:4), a consequence of union with him by faith. Just as God’s people in the Old Covenant were chosen in Jacob/Israel, so God’s people in the New Covenant are chosen in Christ.”
by Brian Abasciano, adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Boston) and pastor at Faith Community Church in Hampton, NH.
Returning to the Romans 9 passage, Arminian scholar Keith Schooley offers brilliant commentary:
“Rather than being a pleasant assurance of God’s favor, the statement, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated,” forms part of God’s indictment—that even though God had favored Israel, nevertheless Israel had been unfaithful, and was therefore under judgment.
Paul uses these quotations in Romans 9 once again to oppose those Jews who would say that, if Paul’s gospel were correct, then “God’s word had failed” (9:6). His response to them is that God had never made the unconditional promises, based either on “works” or ethnicity, that they were claiming. God sovereignly chose Isaac over Ishmael; He sovereignly chose Jacob over Esau; and by implication, He can sovereignly choose on the basis of faith in Christ, as opposed to works of the law or ethnicity.
To the hypothetical Jewish questioner, of course, God’s apparent change (from law and ethnicity to faith as the criterion of election) would appear to be unjust (v. 14). Note, by the way, that the present interpretation of Paul’s argument makes perfect sense of the questioner’s sense of injustice. No Jew would see injustice in God’s gratuitous election of Isaac over Ishmael or Jacob over Esau as individuals. The only thing about the argument that would have caused them to view God as unjust is the implication that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6), and for Paul, of course, to be a true descendant of Abraham was to follow him in faith (4:11-12, Gal. 3:7-8).”
Available in full from http://evangelicalarminians.org/romans-9-an-arminiannew-perspective-reading/
“Accordingly, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom 9:16). Now if these verses are stripped from their place within the whole argument of Romans 9—11, then they quite easily conform to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional, individual election to salvation. But again the larger context and flow of the argument takes us in another direction.”
Walls, Jerry L.; Dongell, Joseph R.. Why I Am Not a Calvinist (p. 93). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
The authors of ‘Why I Am Not A Calvinist’, Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, are professors repectively of Philosophy of Religion and Biblical Studies. Their book offers helpful biblical exegesis alongside insightful analysis of theological and philosophical error and inconsistency among Calvinists from both intellectual and pastoral perspectives. Several other books with which I have been exploring Calvinism include ‘The Potter’s Promise’ by Professor Leighton Flowers and ‘None Dare Call It Heresy’ by Dr Bob Kirkland. These books were all approaching their critiques of Calvinism from different angles so all offered value from their various perspectives.
Dr Wilson’s book, based upon his 2012 PhD thesis at Oxford University, looked at the dubious pre-conceptions of Augustine, upon whose theology John Calvin heavily leaned. Augustine had dabbled in pagan philosophies prior to his conversion to Christianity but not without long-term and re-emerging effects in his later thinking. We see how these ideas interfered with his understanding of human free will. Far from understanding Augustine as finally getting it right following several centuries of erroneous Christian thought, an idea I have heard promulgated by at least one Calvinist, Dr Wilson lays out Augustine’s processes of thought, revealing his pre-Christian pagan influences. Of course, to Augustine and to the Calvinist, accusations of belief in a fatalistic god could be seen as misunderstanding borne out of humanity’s total depravity.With that in mind, let’s take a look at some excerpts from Dr Wilson’s book:
“Augustine of Hippo was trained in Stoicism and embraced it even after becoming a Christian. He credits his own conversion to Christianity as occurring through the philosophy of Neoplatonism. Augustine spent ten years of his early life in the Manichaean sect. Although he taught Christianity’s traditional general sovereignty with free choice prior to 412 CE, this changed to Stoic/Neoplatonic/Gnostic-Manichaean determinism thereafter. As we will learn in the next chapter, no extant Christian author prior to Augustine taught anything other than genuine free choice in combating the rigid determinism of these pagan philosophies.…
…Irenaeus championed humanity’s free will for four reasons: (1) to refute Gnostic Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies, (2) because humanity’s persisting imago Dei (image of God within humans) demands a persisting free will, (3) scriptural commands demand free will for legitimacy, and (4) God’s justice becomes impugned without free will (genuine, not Stoic “non-free free will”). These were non-negotiable “apostolic doctrines.” Scholars Wingren and Donovan both identify Irenaeus’ conception of the imago Dei as freedom of choice itself. As Donovan relates: “This strong affirmation of human liberty is at the same time a clear rejection of the Gnostic notion of predetermined natures.” Andia clarified that God’s justice requires free choice since Irenaeus believed God’s providence created all persons equally. In refuting Gnostic determinism (Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies), Irenaeus argues that God determines persons’ eternal destinies through foreknowledge of the free choices of persons (Adv. haer.2.29.1; 4.37.2–5; 4.29.1–2; 3.12.2,5,11; 3.32.1; 4.14, 4.34.1, 4.61.2). Irenaeus attacked both Stoicism and Gnostic heresies because DUPIED made salvation by faith superfluous, and made Christ’s incarnation unnecessary. Irenaeus taught God’s predestination. This was based on God’s foreknowledge of human choices without God constraining the human will as in Gnostic determinism.”
Wilson, Ken. The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism (p 18; pp. 24-25). Regula Fidei Press, LLC. Kindle Edition.
I do not believe that God has not endowed us with free will, nor that He removed free will after the Fall. Some Calvinists explain free will (away), claiming that God has predetermined every murder and rape, every war, every disease, every human decision and act, every piece of dust that falls to the ground, none of which is substantiated by a careful study of Scripture. The Calvinist belief in Compatibilism, the idea that God transforms the wills of the elect so that the elect choose God and the things of God, is something Ken Wilson describes as “non-free free will”. God allowing people the real freedom to spit in His face through their actions does not mean that God has orchestrated this sin nor that He is not sovereign. God’s sovereignty does not necessarily need to involve His micromanagement of every detail in the universe although He is omnipotent. He was omnipotent at the Cross but He did not call on legions of angels to rescue Him from going through with His torturous salvific mission. Calvinists might argue that Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity’s salvation WAS God’s plan and nothing got in the way of its fulfillment. It seems to me, though, that with such obsessions over human faith and Who or who is responsible for it, the blood of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice becomes almost a sideline issue. But the objective blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ lies at the heart of why we are free from God’s condemnation. Also note Matthew 23:37-39 (NASB):
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! 39 For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’”
Jesus is expressing a helplessness in the face of these rejectors of His Messiahship. He had come to them to bring them blessing but they killed Him, as they had done to the prophets before. There are many, many more such passages in Scripture.
Some Calvinist ideas appear to alarmingly misrepresent who God is. For example, on the belief that babies will go to heaven only if they are numbered among the elect, such a god appears to me as scripturally unrecognisable. Not even Calvinist John Piper believes that. Nor does Thomas R Schreiner. John MacArthur has written a book on this very question. Entitled, ‘Safe In The Arms Of God’, it explains God’s care and salvation of those whose lives were cut short, often brutally so. When Dr Wilson, in an interview with Professor Leighton Flowers on the latter’s YouTube channel, soteriology101.com, said in exasperated tones, “God doesn’t send babies to hell”, I thought “Amen brother”.
Does my outrage betray a belief in salvation by works? No. It betrays my belief that Jesus’ blood is efficacious to cover people’s sins and sinful natures, including when they are incapacitated from believing with a rational mind, as is the case with babies, young children, the unborn, some of the insane and other-cause mentally incapacitated people. I do not believe that Scripture is always adamant about the state of people who have not heard the gospel or are in no condition to make a statement of faith, while it IS adamant about the damnation of those who positively and persistently reject the gospel right up until death. The main errors I see in Calvinism are extrapolation beyond what the text is saying and interpolating meaning into the text that is not necessarily there. For example, on the issue of God’s “call” in Romans 8:28,
Romans 8:28 (NASB) 28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
compare this passage with Matthew 22:14:
Matthew 22:14 (NASB) 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The same Greek word for “called” is used in both references. In whom do all things work together for good? In those “who love God” (vs 28); in those who are “called”. God calls many more people than accept His gracious offer of salvation. I believe that God calls everyone because everyone is made in His image and God loves the whole world (John 3:16). There are no different callings, one effectual and the other not. The Matthew verse comes at the end of the parable of the wedding feast. The parable describes three types of wedding guest. Some guests, upon receiving the invitation to the wedding, rejected it, even brutalising those through whom the invitation came. Others accepted the invitation. Of these, everyone attired themselves suitably, all but one guest. Here is the fuller context of the passage:
Matthew 22:11-14 (ESV) 11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The ESV SB commentator Thomas R Schreiner offers helpful commentary that suitable wedding attire may have referred either to an ancient world custom of guests being provided with wedding attire by the inviter, in this case, the king as father of the groom, or the guest wearing suitably clean attire.
The guest turning up to the wedding feast unprepared appeared to have no regard for the event or the people hosting it. To be clear, the three sets of people portrayed in the parable include:
- out and out rejectors of the invitation (described in Mt 22:1-10), possibly signifying the Jews
- those who accepted and came appropriately attired
- the type who showed disdain for the inviters by coming along unprepared, being unsuitably attired. The third group (actually one guest in the parable) possibly signified those who would trash the inviter by insult – that is, by not coming on the terms of the inviter or caller. A casual attitude towards God is perhaps the warning here as the king in the parable would appear to represent God.
The main point I wish to emphasise is that of the nature of God’s call. This parable describes not different types of call from God but different responses to the same call. In fact, the word “called” in verse 14 is exactly the same Greek word as “called” in Romans 8:28, as defined by the NASB Strong’s Dictionary:
g2822. κλητός klētos ; from 2564; called:–
We have no right to extrapolate that God makes effectal and ineffectual calls to people, as Calvinists believe. We are talking the true relational God of Israel, a God who describes Himself as patient and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, a God who reasons with us. We can all come to God but on His terms. His terms are not burdensome:
1 John 5:3-5 (ESV) 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
This coming to God on His terms, thus descibed in 1 John, is equivalent to coming to the wedding properly attired, as Jesus described in His parable. There is God’s one and the same call to all, and there is varied human reponse to that call.
The words of my Baptist pastor in his sermon many, many years ago where he said, “Never replace the best with the good”, re-affirmed in me putting the Bible as THE reference book in my life, over the works written about it (ie theology books). Of course, giving priority to the Bible does not mean that theological books need be obliterated from my library. I find them helpful, but they add to my Scripture reading, they don’t replace it. I have heeded my pastor’s words to this day. This servant of God passed away many, many years ago. Giving priority to reading the Bible, along with prayer for God’s help in understanding and interpreting it, are essential. Our theology should be subject to Scripture, not the other way around. Following is a summing up of my own experience of what personal, careful Bible study does to my understanding of Scripture and so of God:
“…scores of Arminians have declined to embrace Calvinism because they judge it to be at odds with the message of the Bible itself. They find that Calvinist theology, though exhaustively keyed to biblical texts and terminology, seems to do violence to the whole message of Scripture. They conclude that too many biblical passages must undergo heavy modification according to Calvinist precepts before they can be understood in Calvinist ways. This is not to say that Arminians find no difficulties of their own in trying to track the ways of God through the biblical story or that they never come to a theological knot that seems to elude explanation. Rather, they have reached the verdict that reading the Bible from a Calvinist viewpoint requires such a degree of adjusting, disrupting or undervaluing biblical passages that the Calvinist system itself must be defective. They have concluded that a more faithful reading of Scripture leads away from Calvinism toward some variety of Arminianism. The Bible itself, they aver, stands as the primary objector to the distinctive claims of Calvinism.”
Walls, Jerry L.; Dongell, Joseph R.. Why I Am Not a Calvinist (p. 47). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.