The Arminian, whether strict, or moderate like Thiessen, will say that man is elect because he believes. The Calvinist asserts that man believes because he is elect. As long as Acts 13:48 and John 10:26 are part of the Bible, the Arminian definition of election which bases that election upon God’s foreknowledge of faith can never be maintained.
-Manfred E. Kober, Th.D.
“Chapter 4: The Demarcation of Modified Calvinism and Historic Baptist Beliefs,” pg 44
Divine Election or Human Effort?
Since they are both short, I blew through the last two chapters of Dr. Kober’s paper just to see how it was going to all get wrapped up. Not only does it come out as “Calvinists are right, Arminians are wrong,” but what’s more, Baptists are at the top of the heap.
OK, I may be exaggerating just a little, but it seems like what we’re really looking at is the continual disagreement between the two Protestant theories on the nature of election and salvation, created four-hundred years ago (sixteen-hundred years or more from the New Testament writers), and tinkered with ever since. Really, are these two perspectives the only way to read and interpret the Bible on this topic? Have we given up actually trying to understand how Paul might have really understood his own letters?
According to Kober and his supporting documentation, both Jesus and Paul were “Calvinists,” but like the doctrine of the rapture, we have to ask ourselves if the original apostolic authors understood the scriptures in an identical manner as latter-day Christian scholars? Remember, many latter-day Christian scholars also support supersessionism and predict that Jewish people have no place in the world to come unless they give up all Jewish practices and convert into Gentile Christians. Somewhere along the line, some Christians have missed a step or two.
I don’t have the theological chops to totally refute Calvinism (really, the whole Calvinism/Arminianism constructed framework), but hopefully, I’ve managed to punch a few holes in it and generated even a little bit of reasonable doubt.
On pages 46 and 47, Kober marries the Calvinist perspective with the “Creeds of the Baptists.” This is one reason why I’ll most likely never join a Christian denomination. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to study and understand the Bible in all its colors and moods. How could I possibly accept the partitioned cardboard box into which any denomination forces the Bible and God?
So much for Chapter 4.
This paper opened with the duty of the theologian and it closes with an exhortation to the expositor of God’s Word. What is the expositor’s task in light of this awesome doctrine?
-Kober, “Chapter 5: The Demand Upon the Expositor”, pg 49
“Awesome doctrine?” Sure, if you’re a die-hard Calvinist and “winner of the game,” you can say it’s “awesome,” but some of us might call it something else. Take the following quote from Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), p. 345:
In the minds of some people, election is a choice that God makes for which we can see no reason and which we can hardly harmonize with His justice…We are asked to accept the theory…which does (not) commend itself to our sense of justice.
Kober goes on to say that Thiessen self-admittedly creates his doctrine as much out of his emotions as any form of Bible study and scholarship, but he ignores the words of Thiessen he quoted. The argument, as presented in the quote, isn’t Election vs. man’s compassion, but Election vs. Justice.
I said in a prior blog post that man very much does have a stake in holding God to His own standard of justice:
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
–Genesis 18:22-33 (NRSV)
Abraham may have been “buttering his own bread” by pleading for Sodom since he knew that his nephew Lot and Lot’s family lived there, but on the other hand, he may really have been begging God to exercise His own standard of justice in not executing the good with the bad. God relented (or appeared to) when He said that He would spare Sodom if ten righteous men were to be found in the city. God was willing to be just for the sake of ten human beings.
Continuing to support his position, Kober quotes Romans 11:33:
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
However, taken out of context, this verse could be applied both ways. Can either Arminianist or Calvinist search the inscrutable judgments of God? What, besides a series of short quotes from different bits and pieces of the Bible and then strung together as if on a piece of fishing line, makes the Calvinist so sure that God must agree with their analysis of how election and salvation works in the Bible? Are you really sure?
Did Kober forget that in the same chapter of Romans, Paul also said, “all of Israel will be saved?” This is based on the idea that all Israel is elected by God, but even Paul laments that Jews who are lost for not knowing Christ, so how does that work?
On page 50, Kober says something curious.
It is never right to misrepresent an opposing view in order that a person’s position may be enhanced. The God of the Calvinist is not an arbitrary God but one who in His infinite wisdom plans every detail of the universe. Neither is the God of the Calvinist a hard God. The Calvinist is quite convinced that a merciful God will redeem as many sinners as is possible without violating His justice and righteousness.
Now who is limiting God’s power, sovereignty, mercy, and justice? As many sinners as possible? I thought all things were possible with God (Matthew 19:26). Kober seems to be saying that there are some things that are not possible with God and that, in order to make them possible, He has to violate His own principles. It is that, or is the concern that if God did make it possible (has made it possible), it would violate Calvinist theory?
I don’t say that God is hard (although He is hard to understand sometimes), but I don’t accept that the Calvinist has one God and the Arminianist has another. God is God. If something has gone haywire, we can’t blame God but we can blame human reasoning and understanding (or the lack thereof).
On page 51, Kober quotes from the preface of Perry Fitzwater’s book, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), p. 7.
There is no mediating position between Calvinism and Arminianism. We shall not vacillate but oscillate between them. Sometimes the viewpoint will be that of a high Calvinist and sometimes that of a low Arminian.
I’ve said before, “Is it too much to ask for both?”
Actually, in my recent blog posts where I look at the Bible from rather different and difficult perspectives, I’m trying to introduce the idea that we can look at the Calvinism-Arminianism debate from a meta point of view, rising above and outside the context of the argument itself so we can observe, not one side or the other as opposing perspectives, but as a unified dynamic that exists as a single entity.
(Speaking of meta, if I attempt to take on Calvinism or Arminianism on their own home grounds, I’d probably “lose” so I choose to meet them outside their usual context. I know that sounds like cheating, but it’s also the only way David beat Goliath. If David and put on armor and carried a sword and shield into battle against the giant, he’d have lost and Israel’s greatest King – this side of Messiah – would never have ascended the throne. David stepped outside the entire context and framework of military battle and, treating Goliath like an invading lion trying to devour his sheep, the young shepherd won the day.)
Within the traditional context which Kober presents, one doesn’t talk of Calvinism without speaking or Arminianism and vice versa. As I’ve also said before, I don’t accept the “either-or-ness” of the argument because both sides are trying to contain God within their own construct rather than letting God be God as sovereign.
I know the Calvinists think they’re letting God be sovereign but only on their own terms. Different Christian denominations do more or less the same thing, defining God in relation to their own theology and doctrine, not imagining that God exists in a way that cannot be “boxed up”.
This last part on page 52 was a real capper for me.
Unfortunately, many pastors shy away from the doctrine of election, so that most Christians have never been clearly instructed in this precious truth.
Precious truth? It may be precious to Kober who no doubt believes he’s among the elect and doesn’t appear to generate a great deal of concern for those who are not. I’ve read all the defenses of Calvinism but here’s what it comes down to if preached from the pulpit (this is just my imagination):
Some of you are saved and others will burn in hell and there’s nothing you can do about it one way or the other.
Kober ends his paper saying there’s no harmful effects to Calvinism but I can tell you that it hasn’t done me a world of good.
There are too many times when Abraham, Moses, or some other prophet or holy person has begged God to uphold justice and mercy and not exterminate people, even when they deserve it. In the majority of cases, God has agreed even though it’s within His rights to wipe everyone out whenever He pleases and start all over again (He did that once by flooding as you may recall). God seems to be OK with humans begging Him to show compassion to other humans and I think it’s something He’s encouraging in us.
Calvinists can come up with many Biblical justifications for their theory and why their opponents are bad Biblical scholars, but I will not let Calvinists and Arminians force me into a choice that flies in the face of thousands of years of God’s interactions with humanity where He has been merciful as well as just, forgiving and relenting as well as sovereign over all.
I’ve talked before about Talmud and Quantum Physics which is a very strange way to approach the Bible, but its one in which people can engage God, talk to God, even struggle with God on difficult moral and ethical issues. God is sovereign. I fully believe that. To believe otherwise is to deny that God is God and that He has the power to be Creator and compassionate savior. But somewhere in the space between the Heavenly Court and the dust of a lowly humanity, God allows us to encounter Him in a place we can’t quite understand and that may not always follow the simple “A, B, C, D” sequencing of a Calvinist. It’s a space where God is absolute and sovereign and where human beings have the opportunity to bring our case before the King and the Judge…and where we know He will listen because He is also a loving Father and supportive Teacher.
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words…
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
At the end of my days, God will judge me and He will mete out whatever consequences, for good or for ill, that it is His pleasure to deliver. I pray for a favorable outcome, but as I look at myself, there’s no guarantee. What man knows if His name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life until it is read aloud by the Lamb himself?
If the Calvinists are right about God, then I may have been conceived and born in hopelessness and everything I’ve said or done is in vain. But if God allows His mercy to even slightly outweigh His justice, then it may still be possible for man to relent, to turn from sin, beg forgiveness, and step into the light.
I pray that can be true for me. I pray that can be true for all of us.