How is it that so many godly men and women can be so convinced that Calvinism is the clear teaching of scripture? Though I believe to fully answer that question it would take an entire book, in this post I will only give the answer that seems the most obvious to me; namely, several passages of the New Testament seem to teach its primary doctrines. Men and women with a sincere desire to submit their hearts and lives to the plain teaching of scripture have read these “Calvinist verses,” sincerely and prayerfully wrestled over them, and ultimately submitted to that interpretation which seemed obvious to them. I am convinced that if there were no such passages in the Bible there would be no Calvinists in the world today. One of the greatest compliments I can give my Calvinist brethren is that their error does not primarily come from a desire to promote a cherished philosophical belief, but from a sincere devotion to the word of God and an equally sincere misunderstanding of it.
In a previous post, “Calvinism’s Bold Accusation,” we looked at how a disciple is converted to the errors of Calvinism and some of the strongholds that keep him devoted to that system once he has submitted to it. We pointed out how the fear he has of following his own reasoning above the revelation of God is used against him. Because of that godly, but easily manipulated, fear he ignores the God-given revelation of his conscience and is duped into following his false reasoning about the meaning of certain passages of scriptures. Once he has committed himself to this false interpretation of a certain scriptures, his misdirected zeal ensures that no argument can tear him away from it. He builds up his defenses against the light of his conscience and common sense by reading as many Reformed authors as possible who reinforce his misunderstanding of scripture. This leads him to conclude that the answer is undeniable. He often ends up being annoyed with the “hard-headed” Christians who are more devoted to “their humanistic philosophy of the almighty free will of man” than to the “plain truth” of scripture. This false certainty, and the prejudice that often arises from it, ensures that the disciple is trapped in error for good unless God intervenes.
This section of my blog is not meant to be a “divine intervention” for my Calvinist brethren. I trust God is able to keep them from falling in spite of the errors they have embraced; just as I trust that God is able to keep me in spite of any errors I have ignorantly accepted into my belief system. This section of my blog devoted to the subject of Calvinism has been written as a disciple’s guide for avoiding the errors of Calvinism, not as a guide for escaping Calvinist errors. So the discussions that follow in the next few posts will be aimed primarily at helping the disciple understand what some particular “Calvinist verses” are teaching, not dissecting and overthrowing every Calvinist defense of their interpretation.
As I have observed and participated in the debate between biblical Christianity and Calvinism I have noticed an interesting mistake made on both sides. If you have followed any such debates online you will see long lists of scripture references on both sides. One side will throw out a list of verses and then the other side will counter with “equal and opposite” verses, as if the one who can reference the most verses defending their position will win the debate and take home the trophy. Of course the error is obvious; you can’t disprove some verses by using other verses. Each and every verse is part of the word of God, and unless we are willing to say that some verses are not from God, we have some work to do. We will have to stop defending our position with verses that seem most acceptable to our viewpoint and start taking a good hard look at the verses we are most uncomfortable with.
Many biblical Christians have done this and in the end converted to Calvinism. Not because these “Calvinist verses” really teach what Calvinism says they do, but because the answers provided by those defending biblical Christianity are often hard to find, and unsatisfying when they are found. Often times they are an obvious attempt at explaining away those verses instead of teaching what they actually mean. In their godly zeal to overthrow the errors of Reformed Theology many of my non-Calvinist brethren have faithfully told us what certain passages don’t mean, and just as faithfully forgot to tell us convincingly what they do mean.
These “Calvinist verses” become black holes that have no light to give and are to be avoided at all cost. This is a tragedy for two reasons. One is because it leaves the humble and hungry disciple without a satisfying answer to his important questions. The second, and more important, reason is that it leaves a gap in biblical revelation. All scripture has something to teach us, but if we avoid it or “cancel it out” with other verses, then we miss out on some of what our Lord wants us to know. For this reason, as we try to nail down how to interpret scripture we will use some “Calvinist verses” as examples. Hopefully we will see not only what these verses do not mean, but also what they do mean. And more importantly what process we must use to arrive at satisfying answers.
Many business gurus will tell you that there are three important rules to starting a successful business, (1) location, (2) location, and (3) location. The same can be said for interpreting any passage in the Bible. Rarely do the writers of scripture throw in a random thought that has little to do with the surrounding context. So the key to knowing what any particular verse or passage means is by looking at what is said before and after it. We must ask who is writing the verses we are trying to interpret and who they are writing to. Only if we understand the situation of the author and the recipients can we hope to understand what is being communicated.
Often when people read the Bible they think of it as a “love letter” written personally from God to them. It is true that the Bible was inspired by God and is supposed to be personally applied in each of our lives, but we can’t apply something before we have interpreted what is being said. And we can’t understand what is being said unless we understand that the different books of the Bible were written by a particular prophet or apostle to a particular person or group of people. If we understand what the author was communicating to the people they were writing to, then we can understand and apply what God is saying to us. Many of us make the mistake of understanding the message of the Bible through glasses that are tinted by our own personal situation. The problems we are facing, the culture of the nation we live in, and even the theological issues debated in our day, can cloud our understanding of what the Bible is really saying.
So we have two things to deal with, our context and the context of scripture. Our context can often make us think that we understand the meaning of particular scriptures, when we are actually just interpreting it through lenses tinted by our cultural understanding. In order to avoid making this mistake we must pay close attention to the context of scripture. By doing this we will be able to understand what the original author meant to communicate. In this way we will find out what God is trying to communicate to us through his word. Then, and only then, we can apply God’s word to our lives. The old saying says it simply, “It was God’s word to them, before it was God’s word to us.”
Plain Meaning of Scripture
When the disciple is confronted by the claims of Calvinism he will often start hearing a couple catch-phrases that are often employed by Calvinist teachers in order to add weight to their arguments. The first phrase is “the plain meaning of scripture;” the second is, “interpret scripture with scripture.” These are both basic principles of scriptural interpretation that are used by all Evangelical Christians, not just those from a Reformed perspective. Many disciples don’t hear these phrases until they face the challenge of Calvinism for the simple reason that our Reformed brethren are usually more theologically literate than the rest of us. So though we might first hear of these principles from Calvinist teachers, the disciple can be assured that these principles belong to all Bible believing Christians, not just Calvinists.
Both of these principles are pretty much what they sound like. The “plain meaning of scripture” simply means that unless a scripture is clearly a metaphor or some other figure of speech then scripture says what it means and means what it says. The Bible is God’s clearly revealed word, not a mysterious puzzle that can only be understood by super-spiritual prophets that comprehend the “deep things of God.”
But this phrase is often abused when used to convert disciples to Calvinism. This is where context becomes important. The plain meaning of scripture is not the same as the seemingly obvious meaning of scripture. Many times the meaning of a verse seems obvious to us because of our personal context. As we mentioned our cultural, geographic and historical context affects our understanding of scripture. But just because it seems obvious to us, doesn’t mean it is correct. The plain meaning of scripture is not the first idea that pops into our head when we read a passage. If that were so then the “plain meaning of scripture” could be different for every person. We all come to scripture from different backgrounds and perspectives. The plain meaning of scripture doesn’t mean that our first impression about a passage is the right interpretation; it means that the author was communicating a plain and understandable message to his original readers. We can find this clearly communicated message by learning who was speaking to whom and for what reason. We learn these things by looking closely at the historical and scriptural context.
Let’s look at an example from Romans 9:18-21 (GWT). For further discussion of this passage you can read the previous post on Romans 9.
“Therefore, if God wants to be kind to anyone, he will be. If he wants to make someone stubborn, he will. You may ask me, ‘Why does God still find fault with anyone? Who can resist whatever God wants to do?’ Who do you think you are to talk back to God like that? Can an object that was made say to its maker, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ A potter has the right to do whatever he wants with his clay.”
What is the obvious meaning of this passage of scripture? That is, when anyone in our day reads this passage, what is their first impression? I would guess that 95% of Christians that read this passage for the first time assume Paul is teaching that God has the right to make some people believers and other people unbelievers; and only an arrogant person would dare question God about this. Those seeking to bring humble and hungry disciples into the fold of Calvinism will exclaim, “Aha, how can you deny the plain meaning of scripture and continue in your cherished philosophy of the almighty free will of Man?”
In order to understand why this is usually the first impression of anyone in our day reading this passage we must pay attention to our cultural and historical context. Chances are you are reading this blog because you have been wrestling with the claims of Calvinism. Maybe you have often heard about divine predestination and God’s right to save some and leave others to perish. It is possible that you struggle with fear because you are uncertain whether you are one of God’s chosen people or not. Even if you are not wrestling personally with the teachings of Calvinism, it is very unlikely that the first time you heard about it was when you started reading this blog. Why not? The meaning of predestination is one of the most controversial topics discussed in the Body of Christ, and it has been for some time now.
Since we live in a cultural and historical context in which this issue is always just under the surface, it is no wonder that Paul’s way of expressing himself strikes a nerve with us. How could he be talking about anything else? The language he uses seems perfectly suited to the debate about absolute predestination and unconditional election. For this reason the sincere Calvinist assumes that his interpretation is the clear meaning of scripture and can’t help but say, “I told you so.” It is at this point he will pull out this principle of biblical interpretation and say we must follow the plain meaning of scripture. But it is at this place he makes an error. He confuses the seemingly obvious meaning of scripture with the plain contextual meaning of scripture.
In order to find the plain meaning of scripture we will have to do our homework, not simply rely on first impressions. And our homework is not to run to Reformed commentaries that simply confirm the seemingly obvious meaning of the passage. We must look deeper into the context of the passage itself. We must ask who is writing the letter of Romans and to whom. We have to go through it chapter by chapter and figure out what he is writing about and why he is doing so. When we do this it won’t take long for us to figure out that the Apostle Paul is writing to the inter-racial church in Rome. From chapter one on we will continually see the contrast made between Jews and Gentiles. And by the time we get to chapter nine we will see that Paul is trying to answer the question of why so few Jews have come to Christ even though he stated in chapter one that the Gospel is “for the Jews first.”
Paul was not a Calvinist arguing with arrogant Christians who refused God’s right to predestine some souls to eternal life and leave others to die in their sins. He was an apostle to the Gentiles arguing with Jews who thought that their nation somehow had the corner market on God. These Jews felt God was unrighteous to use their rejection of Christ to spread the Gospel to the non-Jewish nations. They couldn’t understand how God could reject the Jewish nation who had served him for so long and accept the ungodly and idolatrous Gentiles. Paul explained that God had the right to judge their hard-hearted rebellion by handing their nation over to spiritual blindness; and he also had the right to offer redemption to the nations that had been ignorant of him up until then. The Jewish people had no right to blame God for using their rebellion to further glorify his name among the Gentiles. Since God first offered their nation salvation in Christ, and they willingly rejected it, he had the right to use their rebellion for his own purposes, just as he had with Pharaoh. Who were they to question God’s sovereign right to judge their sin and show mercy to the other nations who willing place their faith in Christ!
The plain meaning of scripture is revealed by the context of the original reader, not the modern day reader. Because of misunderstanding this simple principle many have been led astray by the superficial interpretation of Calvinism. This is a little mistake, but it has led to large error.
(In the next post we will continue to look at this scripture while learning about the next basic principle of interpretation; namely, scripture interprets scripture.)