A Man With No Country: Seeking a Home in Presbyterianism (Part Three)

John_Calvin_1024X768“What do you mean, ‘I don’t have free will’? What sort of Bible denying heretic are you?”

That was my response when my Lutheran pastor (and boss) told me where he landed on the question of the freedom of man’s will.

Needless to say, I’ve lived to eat those words.

My dear brother was awfully kind to me, given how I jumped to the accusation of heresy so quickly; we continued to talk about the subject, and eventually he loaned me a copy of Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and SalvationIt was Luther’s Bondage of the Will bound together with De Libero Arbitrio. After reading Luther on the subject, and doing my level best to prove him wrong, I felt a little like I had gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. Luther just trounced all of my objections.

Little did I know that most Lutheran theologians would argue that in The Bondage of the Will Luther had out-Calvined Calvin himself. But I didn’t discover John Calvin straight away.

Instead, I wound up arriving at Calvinism quite gradually; first though reading Norman Geisler’s wholly unsatisfying Chosen But Free, and eventually discovering Outlines of Theology by A.A. Hodge. (Much, much later I would discover James White’s rebuttal of Geisler’s work in his book The Potter’s Freedom.)

Hodge opened up a whole new world of theology for me; apparently there was once a strange tribe of Presbyterians who actually, you know, believed the Bible. Reading Hodge was like being touched by some lonely, dying unicorn…I just couldn’t believe that there was such a creature, yet I couldn’t deny that I was holding a book by just such an animal in my hands.

It was about this time that I discovered the preaching of John Piper, a gentleman about whom I had one student at Southern Evangelical Seminary say, “He’s like the marijuana of Calvinism; he’s the gateway drug to hard Calvinism.”

I still had a goodly number of quibbles at this point, though. I still wasn’t entirely on board with the third of the five points (Particular Redemption/Limited Atonement). So I picked up a copy of John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. It was Owen’s work that forced me to teach myself Greek, since he regularly appealed to the Greek language in making his arguments. I would work 10-12 hour days, and then come home at night and study J. Gresham Machen’s New Testament Greek for Beginners, and then later Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics by Dan Wallace. Once I had grasped the language I went back to Owen.

It only took two years to pick The Death of Death back up and read it through.

I still wasn’t convinced.

So I decided to exegete my way through Romans 9…in Greek. I didn’t have a desk at the time, just my old dresser with a stool I sat in front of it, and I would quite literally cry myself to sleep at night with my face in my Greek Testament. I fought Paul’s logic in Romans 9 with every ounce of my being. I begged God to show me where Paul was wrong. I wept so hard that most nights I thought I would drown in my own tears.

At the end of it all, I had a wonderfully tear-stained copy of the NA27, and a fully blossomed TULIP with all five petals attached.

But the real war was just starting.

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3 thoughts on “A Man With No Country: Seeking a Home in Presbyterianism (Part Three)

  1. My problem with the Calvinistic reading of Romans 9 — and we should talk through this sometime — is that the argument that Paul seems to make (and I do acknowledge the logical conclusions of taking those words on their own) is inconsistent with statements he makes in the very same letter and in other letters, and with the testimony of the rest of Scripture. I’ve often observed that Protestants build arguments on single passages of Scripture and then try to force all the rest of Scripture into that interpretive framework. I actually found some yahoo who plainly states that that is his method (I’ll post about him sometime): take one passage, and if other things appear to contradict it, it doesn’t matter, we must be misunderstanding those.

    “I wept so hard that most nights I thought I would drown in my own tears.”: This is very much the reaction I had in reading that passage — feeling that it appeared to paint a cold, ruthless, unloving God. I came to a different conclusion.

    I also had a very similar reaction to the Catholic Church when I discovered it — a lost and lonely, bleeding and abused unicorn. I presumed that the majesty and authority of the Early Church I admired so much had been lost — and then, there it was, hidden before my eyes, wrapped up in lies and misconceptions that had blinded me. And I was surprised, too, at how completely the Church believes and teaches Scripture (just the opposite of what the Reformers tried to convince me) — not only believing Scripture completely, but believing the complete wholeness of Scripture.

    • Without having finished my long ago promised exegesis of Romans 9, I would just say that from my perspective, there is no inconsistency in Paul’s argument in Rom. 9 and his statements elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. The difficulty that you mention regarding those who “build arguments on single passages of Scripture” is a real one; however, one of the most basic principles of hermeneutics is that we must interpret unclear passages in light of passages that are more perspicuous. In the case of Romans 9, I believe we are dealing with perhaps the clearest exposition of predestination and preterition in the entirety of Scripture.

      My reaction to Rom. 9 wasn’t due to the fact that I felt it painted the picture of a ruthless, cold, and unloving God; my reaction came from the fact that at the deepest level, I wanted to have some part to play in my own salvation. I needed to believe that somehow I was smarter, or better, or more spiritual—not that God had sovereignly done it all. It was a humbling that I had needed for a long time, and I got it in spades.

      As a side note, I’ve been reading a good bit of the documentation on Vatican II, and I’m wondering if there are any Catholic theologians that have published any in-depth examinations of it. I’m beginning to suspect that Vatican II was something of a paradigm shift for Catholicism, and that the effects of that shift haven’t yet been fully felt. Any help you can offer would be appreciated!

      • Yes, we should discuss this more closely when we both have time. I would say, yes, it’s very clear that Paul is teaching some form of predestination; and he also does so elsewhere. And I would agree with your hermeneutic principle. But what is very clear elsewhere is that God is merciful and loving and forgiving towards all His people. In the Old Testament He sent prophet after prophet to warn and chasten His people, to urge them to turn from their sin and back to Him. Jesus came in the fullness of time, the culmination and fulfillment of prophecy, calling God’s chosen people to follow Him. All of this presumes that those people had the freedom of will to choose or reject Him. How can we presume, on the basis of only a few verses out of the whole of a Scripture, that they do not? In Paul’s larger argument, Romans 9 is an argument to vindicate God from the charge of breaking His covenant promises with Abraham and his descendants, by passing over the Jews to offer salvation to the Gentiles. And it’s true that on the individual level, many Jews were saved and even continued to be saved. But does Paul really mean to say that those Jews who rejected Christ had no free choice in the matter? That they were “prepared for destruction”? Is this not inconsistent with Jesus’s statement that “if [He] had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin” (John 15:22)? It seems to me, in Paul’s larger argument, that he is seeking to justify why the Gentile peoples, who were not chosen, were now a people chosen to receive salvation. Speaking to individual Jews who rejected Christ — they were “branches broken off … because of their unbelief” so Gentiles could be “grafted in” (Romans 11:17–24). God is “severe” to those who have “fallen,” but “kind” to those “grafted in” (the Gentiles), “provided [they] continue in His kindness.” And even the others — those who have rejected Him — “God has the power to graft in again … if they do not persist in their unbelief.” In the end, “All Israel will be saved” (11:26). Even those Jews who have rejected Him “are beloved for the sake of their forefathers … as regards election” (11:28). For “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that He may have mercy upon all” (11:32). None of this sounds very much like an absolute, irrevocable, foreordained election upon individuals either for salvation or destruction: Paul is speaking in large part of the peoples of the Jews and the Gentiles.

        My reaction of despair and hopelessness upon encountering the particular Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 was not even for my own sake, but for others. I didn’t have any doubt that I was “elected”: but what of all the millions of people who, in the Calvinistic understanding of things, were “prepared for destruction”? Did God really create the majority of His own children to be doomed — to have no hope at all for His mercy or salvation, but only the fires of hell? These people, through no fault of their own, no sin, no choice, but arbitrarily before the world was even formed, were damned? They were incapable of loving God or being loved by Him? That does not sound like the work of a loving God to me. If I had continued in that understanding, I could very well have walked away from Christianity entirely. Thank God that I didn’t. Calvinists speak of all the hope and humility and assurance this understanding brings them to, how pleased they are that God chose them; but all I could think of were the billions who were not chosen.

        Regarding Vatican II: I’m pleased that you are reading it. I am reading through the documents, too. I’m not an expert on the council or its literature, but you know, one of the most significant Catholic theologians of the twentieth century was there, was a prolific writer, and as the Lord would have it, was even made our shepherd: Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). I have not read this book, but a quick google found it, and it may be right up the alley you are looking for:

        Theological Highlights of Vatican II

        Some other worthwhile books appear to be in the “Customers Also Bought” section.

        I also have a book, now out of print, by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), who was also at the council, and distinguished himself following it for his splendid implementation of it as archbishop of Krakow. Though not a theologian of Ratzinger’s caliber, he had some brilliant insights into the working out of the council’s teachings.

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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