The Beginning of the End of Calvinism

The same arguments that led me to adopt Calvinism -- arguments for the theory of unconditional election -- was categorically the exact same issue which led to be abandon Calvinism. The beginning of the end of Calvinism for me was when I was challenged to reconcile the truth of John 3:16 and 1 John 4:8 with the theory of unconditional election. I was challenged to put away all my commentaries of John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards et al. and answer the hauntingly preeminent question of God's own confession, via the inspired authors of Scripture, to love the world and yet, allegedly, to have unconditionally pre-selected to save only some people.

Not being able to resort to my commentaries, or any commentaries whatsoever, I searched the scriptures for about three weeks. Of course, I remembered the stock Calvinist answer to this question, so I had that reverberating in my mind. But even then I knew that the only way for me to answer the question was to relegate the phrase "the world" as a reference to "the unconditionally elect." But was that a feasible or viable reference?

I kept reading and re-reading Jesus' words in John 3. I could clearly see that the Holy Spirit is active in the heart of someone who becomes regenerate, or born again, but I could not clearly see that such happens irrespective of faith or that the action of the Spirit is merely the result of God having unconditionally pre-selected to save someone.

So I kept reading and re-reading Jesus' words, referring to Himself as the atoning means of someone being saved, while quoting from the Serpent event in the Wilderness (John 3:14, 15). I was struck by the inclusive nature of the Hebrew passage from Numbers 21: "And the LORD said to Moses, 'Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.'" (Num. 21:8, emphasis added) The author adds: "So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." (Num. 21:9) A general healing is provided for all the people without any noted qualification in the text; all one need do, in order to receive healing, is graciously look toward the provided means.

Looking back to Jesus' words at John 3 I noticed the same inclusive language: "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14, 15, emphasis added) If I am not contextually permitted to restrict the "everyone" of Numbers 21:8 (and Num. 21:9) to some alleged unconditionally elect then neither am I permitted to restrict the "whoever" of John 3:15 to some unconditionally elect. Moreover, if this is the truth of the matter, then neither am I allowed to inferentially restrict "the world" and "everyone" at John 3:16, the objects of God's love,1 to the so-called unconditionally elect.2

Furthermore, these truths point to the Church-historical conclusion that God really does love all in the world (John 3:16), His nature being that of love (1 John 4:8); God really did send Jesus into the world to die for the sin of the world (John 1:29); God really does desire all to be saved (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4), most clearly and explicitly contrary to John Calvin3 and Calvinists in general; God really did reconcile the world back to Himself in and through Christ (2 Cor. 5:19); and God really has elected to save those who believe in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:21; Heb. 7:25; cf. John 3:16, 17, 36). These biblical truths were clouded or muddied in my mind by a dominating interpretive Calvinistic hermeneutic.

So, at the conclusion of my study, my options were: 1) still insist that God loves all people, and even confesses His desire that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Christ (1 Tim. 2:4; cf. Ezek. 18:23; 33:11), but that God has unconditionally elected to save only some people -- indeed, Calvin, using John 3:16, places the actual sonship of the alleged unconditionally elect and the not-yet regenerate, the not-yet united with Christ by grace through faith, in the eternal heart, mind, and plan of God4; 2) redefine the word love; 3) parse the concept of love to refer to common grace with regard to the reprobate but an "electing love" toward the unconditionally elect; or 4) take God at His own word and believe in His love for all of His creatures He created in His image. Perhaps a few other options remain, but I was too blind to note them, or I had already come to a stark conclusion: the latter option seemed the only one that Scripture could support.

Insisting that God loves all people, and desires their salvation, yet He has unconditionally elected to save only some people became a bitter pill too hard to swallow. Even a hint in this direction seemed to undermine the integrity of God Himself: He, unlike His fallen creatures, does not speak out of both sides of His mouth. Suggesting that God loves those whom He has not unconditionally elected to save became for me a redefining of the word and concept of love itself. I was unwilling to redefine the love of God.

To proffer that God's so-called love of the world, with regard to the reprobate, amounts to nothing more than common grace also called into question God's integrity. Do you mean to suggest that God "loves" the reprobate to the degree that He will provide for their temporary needs here on earth but not for eternity? To echo the appropriate question from Dave Hunt: What kind of love is that? So I concluded in taking God at His word and leaving His integrity intact.

Does this mean, then, that I think Calvinists do not take God at His word? Yes, that is exactly what I am insisting, and I think that they have to perform amazing hermeneutical gymnastics in providing evidence to the suggestion that God reprobates people from eternity past by some arbitrary decree. I consistently use the word "arbitrary" with regard to unconditional election and reprobation for the simple fact that, over the last four centuries, not one Calvinist, not Calvin, Beza, or Piper, has yet granted us a biblical (or even philosophical) reason why God would unconditionally choose to save or to damn one person over another -- especially given the uncontested fact that we are all equally depraved, if not in a practical sense, then certainly in an ultimate sense. But I digress.

When I adopted classical Arminianism, I did so by reading Arminius, whose teachings I had unwittingly already received. Meaning, when I began reading Arminius, I was taken aback as to how much I already agreed with his theology. This I actually owe to Calvinists. Had not Calvinists so glaringly misrepresented Arminius on so many points, I may have never taken up his Works in college and begin to read. Once I found one gross misrepresentation, on the subject of Total Depravity and Total Inability, both of which he strongly advocates, I decided to read further, to see what other doctrines of Arminius Calvinists were eagerly distorting and misrepresenting. This was the primary reason I began blogging in 2007. Since then I have been engaged in many in-person and on-line discussions about both Calvinism and Arminius' theology. While both camps obviously disagree on certain, significant matters, we also agree on much -- more than what we tend to emphasize.

But what has never ceased to frustrate me to no end is the sour insistence that Arminian theology is damnable heresy (John Owen), a promotion of a false gospel (Stephen Anderson et al.), or is unChristian and antiChristian (J.I. Packer); the advocates of which may be "barely saved" (R.C. Sproul) and worshipers of the false deity free will (Augustus Toplady); the theology of which is merely a return to Rome (J.I. Packer, O.R. Johnston, and R.C. Sproul). With these types of Calvinists I can have no fellowship. I cannot respect such individuals; I cannot affirm them in ministry; I cannot even read their material, not even on unrelated Calvinist-Arminian topics, given what I know of them personally. Such are extremists, separatists, those who cause divisions in the body of Christ. The one who causes division in the body is, in Greek, noted as αἱρετικὸν, a heretic, a sectarian. Such are to be warned: "After that, have nothing to do with them." (Titus 3:10)

I want to blog about the following, but I realize how careful I must be when I do: when the end finally dawned on my stint in Calvinism, my parents remarked on the attitudinal change they witnessed in me, and I did not at the time realize that I had changed so drastically. I think I have my finger on the pulse of the issue; and I think the answer explains why there are extremists in the Calvinist camp. Even at the very beginning of the end of Calvinism for me, when I was becoming less certain of the dogmas I was defending tooth and nail, a noticeable attitudinal change was occurring. I intend to post my opinions on the matter on Monday in a post entitled "The Psychology of Calvinism."

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1 The word "love" is used in various ways in the Greek New Testament. In the context of this post, with reference to John 3:16, the perspective of God's love I envision is a God-kind of love that expressively and proactively seeks the well-being of an individual; it is the kind of love mentioned by Jesus in His prayer to the Father: "I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me [cf. John 17:21] and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:23, emphases added) The word "them" has its immediate reference to the disciples who believe in Christ; so that, we are right to conclude that God's love for believers is as intense as His own love for Jesus His unique Son. That is, after all, the explicit statement of the Son of God Himself. To contort His words to mean any other notion is near blasphemous, I think.

Moreover, Jesus prays thus for the secondary benefit of "the world" -- so that "the world" may believe (John 17:21) and know (John 17:23) that God the Father sent the Son. If God so cares, so loves the world in this fashion, then the notion of unconditional election and eternal reprobation by mere arbitrary decree is not merely a farce but an overt offense to God Himself. While Calvinists constantly complain to Arminians that Christ did not pray or intercede for "the world" here, what they continually neglect is Christ's own confession as to the benefit of this prayer and the unity of believers: that "the world" may believe (John 17:21) and know (John 17:23) God in and through Christ. Such a concept hardly squares with the philosophy of unconditional election and reprobation.

2 Dr. Terry L. Miethe argues against the Calvinistic assumption "that because Christ's death was 'sufficient' to save all for whom he died, then it must save all for whom he died." (emphasis added) See "The Universal Power of the Atonement," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 73. The same argument regarding the atonement is also applicable to the Calvinistic theory of unconditional election. Dr. Miethe continues:
Again, this is an important assertion. The question is, Where does the burden of proof lie [regarding the relation between "the world" and the atonement or as objects of God's love]? Douty mentions the following works: Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, Robinson's A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Souter's Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Berry's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Arndt-Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith's Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Tasker's New Bible Dictionary, Everett F. Harrison in Baker's Dictionary of Theology, and John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible (both Harrison and Davis list John 3:16 as referring to mankind, though both are Presbyterians). (74)
Not one of these sources will substantiate "the world" to refer to "the unconditionally elect." Though this is exactly what John Calvin and those who follow his philosophy argue. See footnote 4.

3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 3.24.15-16, 254-56.

4 Ibid., 2.16.4, 436-37. The world, referred to by Calvin at John 3:16, is the unconditionally elect, though not one Greek-to-English lexicon permits such a theory.