Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Part 2 of Dominic Bnonn Tennant's series on the atonement

Dominic shows an ability to think these things through and articulate them clearly. His language is forceful and direct. Here is a paragraph from his article:

Dominic Bnonn Tennant — On the atonement, part 2: the grounds for the universal gospel call
God simply cannot promise to save someone for whom Christ did not die. Such a promise would be empty; insincere; a lie—and it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Therefore, if the particularist is right, he cannot say to all people without exception, “Be reconciled to God”—because God has not made provision for all people to be reconciled to him. He cannot say to the reprobate sinner, as the ESV Study Bible would have it, “Receive the reconciliation that God has wrought”—for no such reconciliation exists for that sinner. He cannot tell a non-elect man, “Believe and you will be saved”—that is, quite flatly, a lie. He can only say these things to the elect. The moral inability of the reprobate sinner to respond to the call is irrelevant because the reality, the atonement, which would save him does not exist. There is nothing for him to trust. In this way, the universal gospel call is utterly undermined and shown to be without basis under the particularist view. In fact, it is so undermined that the particularist, to avoid misrepresenting God, is forced into the most extreme hyper-Calvinism, and is crippled in his evangelism.

I am particularly interested in the way the gospel is summarized here: "receive the reconciliation that God has wrought." That impresses me as a very succinct summary of the doctrine of faith that Calvin has taught us, and it is quite true that it is incompatible with a strictly particular view of the atonement. There must be a universality in it for it to be universally proclaimed.

I also like the way he analyzes the "sincerity" issue. In order for a gospel proclamation to be sincere, it must be true. If it is not true that Christ has died for every man, then we have no business making any reference to the crucifixion as if it had any reference to the men we speak to ... for it might not. The gospel cannot be a lie to be proclaimed sincerely.

Highly recommended reading.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Answering Roger Nicole on 1Timothy 2:5 (part 2)

For whom are we to pray?

The second argument for not reading Calvin's "all" as "some of all kinds," is Calvin's view of whom we are to pray for. In 1Timothy 2:1, we are commanded to pray for all men. All men? Or all sorts of men? Let's do a comparison of John Gill, a hyper-Calvinist, with Calvin.

Here's a snippet of Gill's comment on verse 1:

[G]giving of thanks, as well as prayers, are to be made for all men; but certainly the meaning is not, that thanks should be given for wicked men, for persecutors, and particularly for a persecuting Nero, or for heretics, and false teachers, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom the apostle had delivered to Satan. But the words must be understood of men of all sorts, of every rank and quality, as the following verse shows.

~Gill, Commentary on 1Timothy 2:1

Now compare that treatment with Calvin's:

And thanksgivings. As to this term, there is no obscurity; for, as he bids us make supplication to God for the salvation of unbelievers, so also to give thanks on account of their prosperity and success. That wonderful goodness which he shews every day, when “he maketh his sun to rise on the good and the bad,” (Matthew 5:45,) is worthy of being praised; and our love of our neighbor ought also to extend to those who are unworthy of it.

2 For kings He expressly mentions kings and other magistrates because, more than all others, they might be hated by Christians. All the magistrates who existed at that time were so many sworn enemies of Christ; and therefore this thought might occur to them, that they ought not to pray for those who devoted all their power and all their wealth to fight against the kingdom of Christ, the extension of which is above all things desirable. The apostle meets this difficulty, and expressly enjoins Christians to pray for them also.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:1-2

If we compare the two approaches, Gill's and Calvin's, we see a diametrically opposite view with respect to wicked rulers. Calvin says to pray for them, and Gill says not to. And notice that Gill justifies, in part, his treatment of wicked Nero by saying that we are not enjoined to pray for all men, but "men of all sorts." Calvin could have used this logic as well, but didn't.

There are two things to be noticed here: first, Calvin might have used the same justification that Gill did for saying that we need not pray for wicked Nero. He might have said that we are not enjoined to pray for all men, just all sorts of men. He certainly had the analysis suitable to the task:

Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. * * * They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men.... * * *

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:4

Calvin set up the possible distinction between all individuals and all sorts of individuals. Admittedly, the Calvin quote above is from verse 4, not verse 1; but the reasoning is identical and if it applies in verse 4, it would be equally applicable to verse 1. But Calvin did not use that justification. Rather, Calvin said that our prayers ought to include the wicked rulers.

This comparison ought to show us that Calvin did not mean the same thing as Gill when he distinguished between "individuals" on the one hand, and "people" or "rank" on the other. For Calvin, the idea of "all sorts" excluded no one, while Gill used the idea of "all sorts" to exclude wicked Nero.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Answering Roger Nicole on 1Timothy 2:5 (part 1)

I want to revisit an argument that Roger Nicole made in his rebuttal to the first argument of the non-continuity (I would like to call them the “historic Calvinists” -- the fellows and gals who say that Calvin did not teach limited atonement) guys.

All doesn’t mean all

Nicole argues that there is a way of understanding Calvin’s use of universalistic language (“all” and such like) that doesn’t compromise his particularistic views: when Calvin says “all,” he doesn’t necessarily mean “all.” According to Nicole, Calvin can mean “all classes” when he says “all.” And what Nicole means by “all classes” is some of all classes. Some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and so on. For Nicole, Calvin’s universalism is some from all kinds of men. Here’s Calvin’s language from his commentary to 1Timothy 2:5:

The universal term ‘all’ must always be referred to classes [genera] of men but never to individuals [persona]. It is as if he had said, ‘Not only Jews, but also Greeks, not only people of humble rank, but also princes have been redeemed by the death of Christ.’ Since therefore he intends the benefit of His death to be common to all, those who hold a view that would exclude any from the hope of salvation do Him an injury.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:5, quoted by Nicole, at 212.

"Pretense" of universalism

So look at the last sentence of the quotation from Calvin above: “Since therefore he intends the benefit of His death to be common to all....” It seems straightforward. But if we take this sentence in isolation from the paragraph, Nicole argues, we have done Calvin a disservice.

It is not fair to Calvin to separate the last sentence from the remainder of the paragraph and to pretend on that basis that he advocates a universal atonement.

Nicole, at 213.

The problem is that we might read Calvin’s sentence ... legitimately, it would seem ... in this way: since therefore he intends the benefit of His death to be common to all sorts of persons....

But there are strong arguments for not seeing Calvin’s talk of classes to mean some of all classes; rather we might read Calvin as speaking of all of all classes.

The preaching of the gospel to all

Everyone except the hyper-Calvinists agree that the gospel ought to be preached to all. And Nicole agrees that Calvin ought to be read as saying exactly that:

To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language.

Nicole, at 213.

Consider this juxtaposition of statements from Calvin:

Who wishes that all men may be saved. Here follows a confirmation of the second argument; and what is more reasonable than that all our prayers should be in conformity with this decree of God?

And may come to the acknowledgment of the truth. Lastly, he demonstrates that God has at heart the salvation of all, because he invites all to the acknowledgment of his truth. This belongs to that kind of argument in which the cause is proved from the effect; for, if “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to every one that believeth,” (Romans 1:16,) it is certain that all those to whom the gospel is addressed are invited to the hope of eternal life.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:4

It looks like Calvin is saying that the gospel ought to be preached to every creature. But consider that the two paragraphs following those just quoted contain this language:

Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. “If God” say they, “wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition.” They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men.... * * *

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations.

~Calvin, ibid.

Would it be pretense, then to assert that on the basis of this passage from Calvin, he holds that the gospel ought to be preached to every man? I know of none of the pro-continuity scholars who would say that we ought to take Calvin’s comment in 1Timothy 2:4 to mean that the gospel ought to be preached to all kinds of men rather than all individuals. If any of my readers has quotations on this point from Helm, Rainbow, or others, I would love to hear of them. Feel free to post quotations or references in the comment box.

Is it pretense to say that Calvin holds to a universal (without qualification) preaching of the gospel based on his comment to 1Timothy 2:4? I hardly think we could call it pretense. Yet Nicole has alleged that it would be pretense to draw a similar conclusion in light of Calvin’s remarks on 1Timothy 2:5! What difference in language would justify such a difference in conclusion? I am reminded of a friend’s call for publicly justifiable hermeneutical rules. You can’t just make up ad hoc rules of interpretation from whole cloth. There ought to be some discipline and accountability in interpreting ... even if it is scholarly writing that we’re interpreting.

Is it legitimate to read Calvin as saying here that the gospel ought to go out to all men? I think it is. But if that is the case, then we have to have another look at Nicole’s idea of some from all classes. Because we have established that it is possible for Calvin to mean all from all classes when he speaks of classes and not individuals. Nicole’s argument from 1Timothy 2:5 no longer looks so compelling.

I have three more brief arguments on this question, which I will post later this week (d.v.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Issues in the Atonement - Federal headship and forensic Imputation

A friend of mine (the unnamed one) pointed me to Dominic Bnonn Tennant's blog, "developing the mind of Christ." Dominic has started a really excellent series: "On the atonement." He opens the discussion with "federal headship and forensic imputation." He promises seven parts in the series, and I'm really looking forward to it. (Of course, it helps that he cites yours truly in part 1.) :-)

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Free Offer Incompatible with Limited Atonement

In Roger Nicole’s review of Calvin’s doctrine of limited atonement, Nicole lists several arguments of the non-continuity advocates (R. T. Kendall, Curt Daniel, et al) and offers rebuttals of those arguments. Here is his treatment of the second argument of the discontinuity folks (those who say Calvin did not teach limited atonement). The argument relates to the free offer of the gospel:

In asserting, as he does repeatedly, the legitimacy of a universal, indiscriminate offer of salvation to any and to all, Calvin, they urge, presupposes a universal atonement as the logical necessary foundation for such a call.

To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language. We furthermore believe that Calvin was right in line with Scripture, and that those who would restrict the call to the elect are mistaken. But the proposition that the prerequisite for an indiscriminate call is a universal provision, which is the base of the whole argument, appears to us palpably and demonstrably false. Most of the well-meant offers and invitations, human as well as divine, are not grounded in coextensive provision! All that is really requisite for a well-meant offer is that, if the terms of the offer be complied with, that which was offered will in fact be delivered. This is precisely what occurs with the gospel (John 6:37), but no one fulfills the terms except those whom the Father draws (John 6:44, 65). Whether or or not God has made a provision for those who do not come has nothing to do with the sincerity of the offer. No solid argument can therefore be built in favor of universal atonement on this basis.

~Nicole, John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 213-214. Available online at A Puritan’s Mind.

Nicole represents his opponents as saying this: “Calvin must have taught unlimited atonement, because he taught the free offer of the gospel.” The free offer, it is argued, presupposes provision for all.

Nicole answers that “most of the well-meant offers and invitations, human as well as divine, are not grounded in coextensive provision!” Nicole adds an exclamation mark, presumably to emphasize the obvious point his opponents have missed. But one is hard-put to explain exactly what Nicole means here. What divine offers does Nicole have in mind? Nicole believes, apparently, that there are some number of divine invitations (beside the offer of salvation?) that are not backed up by adequate provision. Puzzling.

Regarding human offers, we normally associate sincere offers with a knowledge of some reasonable ability to meet one’s obligations under such an offer. And we would normally greet the failure to live up to those obligations with a certain amount of moral disdain. Indeed, the law often requires that merchants (to use one example) back up their offers with adequate provision -- and provides remedies for those offers that are not so backed up. But despite the limitation (or frailty) of human offers, we need not associate those limitations with God’s offers.

Nicole argues further that in order for an offer to be sincere, it need merely be true that every instance of compliance with the terms of the offer be met with the promised benefits. Since the elect alone are they who will respond to the offer of the gospel, the provision need be only for them. But is that really the measure of sincerity? Since the offer is indeed made to many who will not respond, can we hide the fact that many who are offered salvation in the gospel are in fact completely outside of its provision? It seems out of keeping with the message proclaimed that there are many for whom no provision is made, though the offer is urged upon them.

But all this is quite irrelevant. For the question is not whether limited atonement (or a certain kind of limited atonement) is consonant with the free offer of the gospel, but whether the free offer of the gospel in Calvin’s theology is consonant with strict limited atonement.

I submit that there are two aspects of Calvin’s teaching that are utterly incompatible with a strict doctrine of limited atonement. (By “strict doctrine of limited atonement,” I mean that doctrine that says that there are some men for whom Christ has made no expiation. The reader should bear in mind that Calvin obviously taught that there are some men who will never enjoy the benefits of the atonement. The elect alone are they who will enjoy those benefits.)

Calvin’s doctrine of faith

Calvin’s doctrine of faith is such that the promiscuous proclamation of the gospel is incompatible with limited atonement.

We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

~Institutes, 3.2.7

This is where Kendall’s critique is so devastating. If it is true that Calvin taught (as Kendall proves) that faith is the subjective assurance of God’s favor (or “paternal indulgence”), then calling those to faith for whom no reconciliation has been provided is tantamount to proclaiming a falsehood. How can we proclaim that God would be reconciled to men when He would not be? For Calvin, faith is the subjective assurance that God is -- in and because of Christ -- propitious toward us. But if no propitiation has been made for some, then to proclaim to them the command to believe the gospel is to command them to believe something that is not and could not be true. (One wonders how “unbelief” could be a sin in such a case.)

The answer (given by some) that the gospel ought to be preached to all because “we don’t know who the elect are” is no answer -- at least not to this problem. When we preach the gospel, we know that some will never believe. But it could never help them (nor do credit to the gospel message) to tell them something that is not true. And how could calling on them to believe a falsehood cut off any excuse? (See Calvin on John 3:16.) Sensibility to this problem is reflected in certain strains of hyper-Calvinism, where the gospel is not proclaimed promiscuously precisely because it is held that God is not propitious to all men. How would Nicole reconcile the idea of God’s being irreconcilably at enmity with certain men with the idea of proclaiming to them that God is reconciled to them?

The answer of most high Calvinists (and presumably Nicole) might be that God is indeed not reconciled with the non-elect at all. He is quite at enmity with sinners. He does not show himself to be reconciled, but ready to be reconciled with all who will trust in Christ. Since the reprobate will never trust Christ, the proclamation to them of the terms of pardon is not inconsistent or insincere.

But if Kendall is right, then Calvin taught that the gospel is the proclamation of God’s favor, love, and mercy, which not to believe is the very unbelief that God will condemn.

This ... reveals why Calvin feels so strongly about a universal expiation by Christ’s death; Christ’s death is that to which we look because it is the ‘pledge’ that God loves us. Calvin does not direct us to God’s secret decree; it is ‘Christ alone’ to Whom ‘faith ought to look’. For ‘we are to learn to fix our eyes on the death of Christ, whenever our salvation is concerned’.

Had Christ died only for those whom God had chosen by His secret decree, then, it would obviously cease to be a pledge to all.

~R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 14.

Compare this statement from Calvin:

Every promise which God makes is evidence of his good will. This is invariably true, and is not inconsistent with the fact, that the large benefits which the divine liberality is constantly bestowing on the wicked are preparing them for heavier judgment. * * * Therefore, when the Lord by his promises invites us not only to enjoy the fruits of his kindness, but also to meditate upon them, he at the same time declares his love. Thus we are brought back to our statement, that every promise is a manifestation of the divine favor toward us.

~Institutes 3.2.32

Kendall’s book is known for its treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement, but it ought to be known for its treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of faith. Kendall’s treatment lays waste to many modern views of Calvin, as well as many modern views of faith.

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Since we are speaking of the free offer of the gospel, there is one special application of that offer that must be mentioned here. It is Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Calvin saw the Lord’s Supper as a picture of the gospel, the elements representing Christ’s body and blood. Christ’s body is exhibited to us “as if Christ were placed in bodily presence before our view, or handled by our hands.” For Calvin, Christ’s body and blood are really, (spiritually and mysteriously, not corporeally) present in the elements. The sacrament, which should always be accompanied by the preaching of the word, which explains the sacrament, is a gracious offer of forgiveness. Whenever the gospel is preached, it proclaims God’s good will, love, and mercy.

It is one thing to allege (as Nicole has done) that the free offer of the gospel is compatible with limited atonement in the abstract. It is quite another to say that the free offer of the gospel (to believer and unbeliever alike) in the offer of Christ’s body and blood through sacrament is compatible with a limitation of that very body and blood to the elect alone.

Nicole’s rebuttal here does not really address Kendall’s argument, which is that Calvin’s doctrine of faith is incompatible with limited atonement. And though Nicole didn’t have the opportunity to address this point in his critique of Kendall, I would add that Kendall’s argument is greatly strengthened by understanding Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, where Calvin really did see an offer of the gospel in the picture of Christ’s body and blood.

I’ve quoted these words before, but they bear repeating:

To all these things we have a complete attestation in this sacrament, enabling us certainly to conclude that they are as truly exhibited to us as if Christ were placed in bodily presence before our view, or handled by our hands. For these are words which can never lie nor deceive: Take, eat, drink. This is my body, which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. In bidding us take, he intimates that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation. And we ought carefully to observe, that the chief, and almost the whole energy of the sacrament, consists in these words, It is broken for you: it is shed for you. It would not be of much importance to us that the body and blood of the Lord are now distributed, had they not once been set forth for our redemption and salvation.

~Institutes 4.17.3 (emphasis added).

Monday, December 08, 2008

Calvin and God's Wishes

I was recently ransacking Tony's blog for a picture I could steal. I happened across this entry on Calvin's commentary on Lamentations 3:33. It's especially appropriate to the question of God's wishes or desires (optative expressions). An oldie but goodie.

I also draw your attention to Tony's most recent post, in which he has extracted from his own (and Flynn's ... shhh!) blog the various uses of "optative expressions" that various reformed men have used of God.

The Usefulness of One-String Banjos

Theological One-String Banjos

Some of you who regularly read my blog may remember Tony Byrne's self-portrait. (I don't know where he got the photo; but it's good. I stole it from him -- with his tacit consent, of course.) If you want to see a larger version of the picture, click through to his blog and click on the picture there. (I said "self-portrait," but it's actually his view of how others view him. Follow?)

Tony and my other friend (who will remain unnamed here) have been personal friends of mine for quite some time -- approaching a decade now for one of them. Tony and I have had parallel journeys from high (if not hyper) Calvinism to a more moderate strain ... hopefully a strain more true to Calvin himself (and the scriptures, which is its main appeal and the greatest relief).

Tony has been condemned for his harping on one theme. Someone (who shall also remain nameless) recently asked whether Tony's work (and presumably those of us who are working with him -- I flatter myself) would amount to anything in ten years' time. He's a one-string banjo: unbalanced, myopic, obsessed, and lots of other bad things.

Well that sentiment is not universally held. In fact, the work has already borne fruit. Many of our acquaintances (and strangers too, who have become acquaintances) have switched (I'll refrain from saying "converted") from high or hyper Calvinism to more moderate views, many of them accepting some aspects of a universal atonement. Tony recently received a comment on his blog commending him for its "healing" nature.

As far as what the future will bring, who knows? But if God should permit it, Tony's work (along with the material at Calvin and Calvinism) will amount to a mountain that no one -- layman or scholar -- will be able to ignore.

I thank God for Flynn (shhh!) and Tony Byrne. I don't know where I'd be theologically without their invaluable work. It is a shining light for the kingdom and gospel of Jesus Christ. May God grant that it continue for many years to come.

And thank you Annie. :-)

P.S. Three strings?

If you're interested in what one can do with a three-string banjo ... er, guitar ... check this. Now this video, I approve of. :-)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? - Conclusion (I hope)

New Developments

James White has changed the nature of this discussion as it relates to hypercalvinism. He recently posted a response to Tony Byrne on the AOMin blog, and also posted a video, which vitiates much of the discussion about whether James White is a hyper-Calvinist.

Having posted a link to the video, I must comment that some of what White says there is simply false and bombastic; and I don't post the video because I like it or approve of it, but because White makes an important doctrinal concession in it.

Taking the blog post and video together, we can say that White believes the following:

  • God loves all men, though God's love is not monolithic
  • God's will (his revealed will) is that all men obey his commands to repent and believe the gospel
  • In that context (revealed will and command) we can say that God desires the salvation of all men

Having made those statements, much of what I (and others) have written in criticism of White as a hyper-Calvinist is no longer cogent. In my view, White has effectively exonerated himself from the charge.

I feel quite certain that White will take the position that this is nothing new for him -- this has been his position all along. That may be the case, but this is new as far as his statements on the record. I know of no other place in White's work where he has made these kinds of statements. I haven't read all of his work, and I freely admit that he may have held this position all along while I suffered under a cloud of ignorance. But I doubt it. Citations anyone?

And Tony Byrne has made the point on his blog that White's new position is unsupported by any scriptural analysis from White. How would White support his view that God loves all men? Or that God desires (according to his revealed will) that all men obey the gospel? I'm willing to grant White the benefit of the doubt on this; Byrne might want more trenchant statements from White.

The dispute could have been avoided

And should have. White could have answered this debate easily long before the John 3:16 conference by making these points clearly. He could have answered Allen simply by stating these things. But he didn't. He made these statements under a certain degree of pressure. He was forced -- or so it seems to me -- kicking and screaming into these admissions. Ok ... maybe I exaggerate; but that's the way I see it.

I also worry about the solidity of this "new" position. Will there be more "qualifications," and "clarifications?" We can only wait and see. For now I am willing to admit that White is not a hyper-Calvinist. But I worry.

Words have consequences

Having made these statements, White's previous statements on the subject become confusing and contradictory to the point of a hopeless muddle. One could go into long analysis of White's writings and parse his words, but that would be an entirely fruitless and jejune exercise. I won't do it.

More Consequences

There are two other important consequences. First, White is now on record (provided he doesn't start wiggling and provided we don't try to reconcile his recent statements with his old ones) as affirming an orthodox Calvinistic position. This is good.

Another important consequence is that Phil Johnson has gutted his hyper-Calvinism primer to the point of uselessness. Johnson (quite unnecessarily as it turned out) said in defense of White that Dr. Allen had misinterpreted his Primer. Now that is not exactly what Johnson said, but that is the way his statements are being interpreted (by both White and Tom Ascol, and presumably many others).

Johnson, who is normally careful with his words, began muddying the waters -- for the sake of his friend White -- by introducing qualifications about optative expressions, and alleging his personal knowledge of White's orthodoxy, and asserting the apparent misunderstanding of both by Dr. Allen. I deny that Allen misunderstood Phil's Primer ... he clearly understood it all too well. And White's statements up until recently put him solidly in the hyper-Calvinist camp, whatever Phil may say about "misunderstanding his primer."

As a consequence of Johnson's defense of White, other people have begun seriously to misunderstand it, and now Tom Ascol, for example, is saying that Steve Camp is not a hyper-Calvinist because Allen misunderstands Johnson's primer. Oh really!? Johnson would never (one hopes) say such a thing, but his sloppiness in recent weeks has given others a good deal of room to make these kinds of statements. The usefulness of his Primer as a benchmark has been eviscerated. And given Phil's qualifications on "optative" language, his primer as a teaching tool has been eviscerated as well. I would never, given his recent qualifying statements about optative expressions, point anyone to that Primer. I will point people to Tony Byrne for real instruction on the point from this time forward. (Byrne will point us to Curt Daniel and Iain Murray ... who presumably won't be issuing "clarifications" that arise out of personal motives and result in more confusion.)

Well, that's all I have to say on this matter of James White and hypercalvinism ... hopefully forever. If Johnson or White make additional statements that retract or clarify recent events I may revisit it. But I hope that doesn't happen.

For next time, I'm going back to my critique of Nicole.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? - Part 3

James White's problem recapped

In the first two articles of this series, (see Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist and Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist, Part 2) I set out Dr. White's problem with the idea that God desires the salvation of all men. The Bible clearly presents God as willing the salvation of all, Calvin clearly taught it, and it has been held as important truth throughout the history of reformed theology.

In recent decades, a strict strand of Calvinism has become prominent in some Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist circles, which some of us see as dangerously close to (if not firmly ensconced in) the philosophy of hyper-Calvinism. But whether White is "technically" a hyper-Calvinist or not, he clearly denies that the gospel is a proclamation of God's love for all men.

God's "partially salvific desire"

One of the problems (see part 2) White has with the reformed doctrine of God's love for all men is that if we accept the notion, we would be required to see God as having a "partially salvific" intention. Here's White:

Yeah, and that's one of the problems I have with Ezekiel 18 or 33 being read into this particular issue, because I feel like we're being forced to somehow attribute to God some kind (for some reason)...some kind of an attitude or desire that I just never see, not only do I never see expressed, but it would likewise force us to say that God has an unfulfilled desire, but it's not really the same desire as he chooses to fulfill with other people. And we're left not only--you're not only left with the two-wills conundrum, now you've got multiple desires conundrums, which I don't, I just don't see a reason for it.

* * *

But, I just don't, if someone can explain to me where the idea comes from that we have to attribute to God a desire that he then does not fulfill.

* * *

But, I have a problem then saying in my proclamation of the gospel to others means that I then have to affirm some kind of a partially salvific desire...cause it can only be partially salvific. If it's truly a salvific desire, and it's truly a desire of God, does he not do whatever he pleases in the heavens and the earth?"

* * *

~James White, from transcript of Dividing Line radio program cited at Theological Meditations.

More recently, White has characterized the debate this way:

The Pyromaniac himself has weighed in on the John 3:16 Conference allegations that if you don't believe God is eternally bummed about failing to save those He desires to save you are a hyper-Calvinist.

~James White from

Eternally bummed?

White, ever the master of debate hyperbole, tries to paint his opponents into a corner. But it's a false dilemma. I doubt (I don't know, because I haven't listened to the recordings of the John 3:16 conference) that Dr. Allen said that God is "eternally bummed" (or the equivalent). And I know for a fact that this is not the position of Ponter or Byrne. Of course, these nice distinctions tend to get trampled whenever grotesque exaggeration is the preferred tool for debate. White apparently believes that any desire for the salvation of the non-elect on the part of God will necessarily involve God in eternal-bummed-out-ness. White has also said that he refuses "to portray God as having eternally decreed His own unhappiness...."

White, apparently, refuses to portray God in the way that scripture presents Him, or as Calvin presents Him. There are many places in Calvin's works where Calvin portrays God as desiring the salvation of all men. For example:

[F]or with respect to the law and the whole teaching of the prophets, God announces his wish that all should be saved. And surely we consider the tendency of the heavenly teaching, we shall find that all are promiscuously called to salvation. * * * Therefore God delighteth not in the death of him who dieth, if he repent at his teaching. But if we wish to penetrate to his incomprehensible counsel, this will be another objection: Oh! but in this way God is chargeable with duplicity; — but I have denied this, though he takes up a twofold character, because this was necessary for our comprehension. Meanwhile Ezekiel announces this very truly as far as doctrine is concerned, that God wills not the death of him that perishes: for the explanation follows directly afterwards, be you converted and live. Why does not God delight in the death of him who perishes? Because he invites all to repentance and rejects no one. Since this is so, it follows that he is not delighted by the death of him who perishes: hence there is nothing in this passage doubtful or thorny, and we should also hold that we are led aside by speculations too deep for us. For God does not wish us to inquire into his secret counsels: His secrets are with himself, says Moses, (Deuteronomy 29:29,) but this book for ourselves and our children. Moses there distinguishes between the hidden counsel of God, (which if we desire to investigate too curiously we shall tread on a profound abyss,)and the teaching delivered to us. Hence let us leave to God his own secrets, and exercise ourselves as far as we can in the law, in which God’s will is made plain to us and to our children.

~Calvin, Comm. Ezekiel 18:32

Does God desire obedience?

Surely the Bible says that God desires obedience.

22 And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

~1Samuel 15:22, KJV

This verse is referred to in Hosea 6:6 and by Jesus on a couple of occasions.

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

~Matthew 9:13, KJV

So clearly God desires obedience. But is this a "partial" desire as White has alleged? If we accept White's reasoning, this desire for obedience can not be a "true" desire, because (in the words of White), "If it's ... truly a desire of God, does he not do whatever he pleases in the heavens and the earth?"

White engages in idle speculation to the detriment of true knowledge of God. If we are to know God, we must know Him as He has revealed himself. Having revealed Himself as desiring obedience to His commands, we must refrain from engaging in philosophical argumentation to cause us to deny the very thing God affirms about Himself. White's statement about a "partial salvific desire" amounts to nothing more than this kind of unbelief, whether it be hyper-Calvinism or not. It certainly goes "beyond Calvin" -- into a profound abyss.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gospel declares God's love

Calvin's doctrine of the love of God expressed in the gospel

The recent questions about hyper-Calvinism and "optative language" have been slightly provoking. So I turn to Calvin.

Calvin always sheds light on these questions, and here is a small beam from the Institutes:

On the other hand, we have good ground for comprehending all the promises in Christ, since the Apostle comprehends the whole Gospel under the knowledge of Christ, and declares that all the promises of God are in him yea, and amen. The reason for this is obvious. Every promise which God makes is evidence of his good will. This is invariably true, and is not inconsistent with the fact, that the large benefits which the divine liberality is constantly bestowing on the wicked are preparing them for heavier judgment. As they neither think that these proceed from the hand of the Lord, nor acknowledge them as his, or if they do so acknowledge them, never regard them as proofs of his favor, they are in no respect more instructed thereby in his mercy than brute beasts, which, according to their condition, enjoy the same liberality, and yet never look beyond it. Still it is true, that by rejecting the promises generally offered to them, they subject themselves to severer punishment. For though it is only when the promises are received in faith that their efficacy is manifested, still their reality and power are never extinguished by our infidelity or ingratitude. Therefore, when the Lord by his promises invites us not only to enjoy the fruits of his kindness, but also to meditate upon them, he at the same time declares his love. Thus we are brought back to our statement, that every promise is a manifestation of the divine favor toward us. Now, without controversy, God loves no man out of Christ. He is the beloved Son, in whom the love of the Father dwells, and from whom it afterwards extends to us. Thus Paul says "In whom he has made us accepted in the Beloved," (Eph. 1:6). It is by his intervention, therefore, that love is diffused so as to reach us. Accordingly, in another passage, the Apostle calls Christ "our peace," (Eph. 2:14), and also represents him as the bond by which the Father is united to us in paternal affection (Rom. 8:3). It follows, that whenever any promise is made to us, we must turn our eyes toward Christ.

~Institutes 3.2.32, emphasis added.

But "God loves no man out of Christ"

But what about Calvin's statement that "God loves no man out of Christ?" (Which I "conveniently" left unbolded in the quote above.) I knew you would ask.

First we should note that Calvin has not "carefully qualified" his expressions of divine favor. He just proclaims -- rather flatly -- that the promises of the gospel are invariably an expression of his good will, favor, or love. (Ask a high Calvinist if he is willing to say that and you may have a clue whether you're dealing with a "high" or a "hyper.")

Second, Calvin does not believe that the expression of God's love is a denial of the fact that the proclamation of the gospel is the occasion of greater condemnation for some. Nor does he believe that the ultimate condemnation of some mitigates the expression of God's love for those sinners.

Third, Calvin's statement that God loves no man out of Christ is intended for us not to mistake God's overtures. He loves us, yes; but only in Christ. Would we have God's love and not have Christ? It cannot be so. The offer of Christ is an expression of God's love; but the refusal to embrace the gospel of Christ leaves us without any hope of God's love.

And if the gospel is to be preached to all...?

I end with this: if the gospel is to be preached to all, and if the gospel is invariably an expression of God's love, then is it not true that the preaching of the gospel is an expression of God's love to all? For Calvin, this is true, whatever the problems may be with "optative language" and "careful qualifications" thereof.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? - Part 2

In my first article in this series, entitled "Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist?" I gave an overview of White's problem and the Biblical reason for entering into the difficulties James White alleges. Those problems are (probably among others he would name if pressed)

  • The Two-Wills "conundrum"
  • The "partial desire" and sovereignty problem
  • "God wills the salvation of all men" is a meaningless statement.

I propose to answer these problems, insofar as I have been able to find an answer in the reformed literature. Admittedly, my answers will not be satisfactory to many, but I hope they may help some whose minds are not biased one way or the other and provide encouragement to those who are inclined to reject hyper-Calvinism.

I'm going to tackle these problems one at a time. This post will deal with the "two-wills conundrum," and the rest will have to wait for another day -- hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Why enter into this question?

As I said in my previous blog post, I am not so concerned with whether White is or is not a hyper-Calvinist (though I think this is a legitimate concern), but whether good Bible interpretation is being upheld and the doctrines of the Christian faith adhered to.

The reason for entering into this debate is that White has denied, and leads others to deny, that God has any meaningful will for the salvation of the reprobate. The scripture plainly teaches the opposite of what White has claimed, and that is the bottom line for entering into the discussion. It is also the bottom line for tackling the admittedly difficult problems that accompany the Biblical concepts.

The "two-wills conundrum"

White has alleged that viewing certain passages of the Bible as teaching that God wills the salvation of those who are destined never to believe, forces us into an awkward position. Here's White again:

Yeah, and that's one of the problems I have with Ezekiel 18 or 33 being read into this particular issue, because I feel like we're being forced to somehow attribute to God some kind (for some reason)...some kind of an attitude or desire that I just never see, not only do I never see expressed, but it would likewise force us to say that God has an unfulfilled desire, but it's not really the same desire as he chooses to fulfill with other people. And we're left not only--you're not only left with the two-wills conundrum, now you've got multiple desires conundrums, which I don't, I just don't see a reason for it.

~James White, from transcript of Dividing Line radio program at Theological Meditations.

According to White, attributing beneficent motives and desires to God in respect of the offer of salvation to the non-elect involves us in conundrums. God would have to have two wills: a will that decrees the damnation of some men, and a desire that those very men not be damned.

First, I would note that this is the very objection that most Arminians would raise against Calvinism! Election cannot be true, they would say, because it would involve God in willing the damnation of some men whom he has expressly said he loves. The Arminian objection and White's objection are one, the respective parties simply solve the problem in a different way. Both sides agree that the doctrines of election and universal love cannot both be true. One side rejects God's love for all men and the other side rejects the sovereign purpose of God in election.

Both are equally unbiblical, and both rest on the same philosophical objection.

Calvin's answer

Calvin, in answering an imagined objection against the doctrine of election based on Matthew 23:37 ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem..."), answers by maintaining both God's love for all men and the sovereign election of God, while flatly denying that God has two wills in the matter.

But this will of God, of which we speak, must be defined. For it is well known what exertions the Lord made to retain that people, and how perversely from the highest to the lowest they followed their own wayward desires, and refused to be gathered together. But it does not follow that by the wickedness of men the counsel of God was frustrated. They object that nothing is less accordant with the nature of God than that he should have a double will. This I concede, provided they are sound interpreters. But why do they not attend to the many passages in which God clothes himself with human affections, and descends beneath his proper majesty? He says, "I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people," (Isa. 65:1), exerting himself early and late to bring them back. Were they to apply these qualities without regarding the figure, many unnecessary disputes would arise which are quashed by the simple solution, that what is human is here transferred to God. Indeed, the solution which we have given elsewhere (see Book 1, c. 18, sec. 3; and Book 3, c. 20, sec. 43) is amply sufficient: viz. that though to our apprehension the will of God is manifold, yet he does not in himself will opposites, but, according to his manifold wisdom (so Paul styles it, Eph. 3:10), transcends our senses, until such time as it shall be given us to know how he mysteriously wills what now seems to be adverse to his will.

~Calvin, Institutes 3.24.17, emphasis added.

Calvin calls us back from idle speculation and would have us simply accept the truths plainly taught in the scripture, holding our philosophical objections in abeyance until we are given to know more fully the mysteries of God's will.

The answer of R.L. Dabney

Dabney goes slightly further than Calvin. He attempts to explain the complexity of the Divine psychology in this matter, and raises and answers a possible objection of an opponent. The objection is this: if God is all-powerful, then he must be capable of fulfilling his wishes, and no propension would go unfulfilled. Since God is all-powerful, if he really has decreed whatsoever comes to pass, he could have no inclination to be merciful to sinners who ultimately receive no mercy. Here are Dabney's words in answer:

Now, it is obvious that this reply proceeds on the following assumption: that if the obstacle of physical inability be removed in God, by his consciousness of omnipotence, there cannot be any other rational ground, in the view of God's omniscience, that may properly counterpoise or hold back the propension of mercy. But the statement of this is its sufficient exposure. It must always be exceedingly probable that an all-wise mind may see, among the multifarious concerns of his vast kingdom, good reasons for his action, of which we cannot have the least conception.

* * *

When we have admitted this, we have virtually admitted that God may see, in his own omniscience, a rational ground other than inability for restraining his actual propension of pity towards a given sinner. The first objection, then, however plausible in appearance, is found to be empty. And it is especially to be noted, that while it professes a zeal for God's infinitude, it really disparages it. Our position is, after all, the modest and reverential one.

~R. L. Dabney, God's Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity, quoted at

Thus Dabney, too, would call us from idle speculation and call us immodest for raising the objection.

The attempt to reconcile God's sovereignty with universal love is, indeed, a difficult one. But we should not allow the difficulty to push us into unbelief. It is my contention that the Arminians and the hyper-Calvinists both (and White ... whether he be classified as a hyper-Calvinist or no) have allowed the difficulty to push them into doubting the plain witness of the Bible.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist?

The Genesis of the dispute

James White was recently accused of being a hyper-Calvinist at the John 3:16 conference. White reacted with a strongly worded denial. But the question persists for some folks -- myself included.

The question of characterization as "hyper-Calvinist" is certainly an interesting one, but is ultimately a question of semantics. Neither White nor his friends will accept the label, and perhaps it doesn't matter so much, unless one cares for history and the meaning of words.

The important question is what White thinks about God's love for men and the motive for the proclamation of the gospel. When the gospel is presented to men, does God intend to present Himself as loving, gracious, and ready to forgive? And if so, does that accurately reflect God's disposition toward men? Does God really intend and desire that all men be saved?

White's problem

White believes that if we attribute to God a desire to save the reprobate, then we have introduced a "conundrum," resulting in God having unfulfilled desires:

Yeah, and that's one of the problems I have with Ezekiel 18 or 33 being read into this particular issue, because I feel like we're being forced to somehow attribute to God some kind (for some reason)...some kind of an attitude or desire that I just never see, not only do I never see expressed, but it would likewise force us to say that God has an unfulfilled desire, but it's not really the same desire as he chooses to fulfill with other people. And we're left not only--you're not only left with the two-wills conundrum, now you've got multiple desires conundrums, which I don't, I just don't see a reason for it.

~From a transcript from Contend Earnestly, a more complete version of which can be found at Theological Meditations. At this second link, you can listen to the original audio from which the transcript was made.

Is there a reason for attributing beneficent motives to God in the proclamation of the gospel to those who will never believe? And furthermore, what does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate, if such were the case? Here's White again:

But, I have a problem then saying in my proclamation of the gospel to others means that I then have to affirm some kind of a partially salvific desire...cause it can only be partially salvific. If it's truly a salvific desire, and it's truly a desire of God, does he not do whatever he pleases in the heavens and the earth?"

* * *

If you could tell me what it means, you that common grace? Does that mean that God is kind to the non-elect? Ok. I've said that a million times. But that's not what I'm hearing. You know. And I just go, what does it mean to say that God desires to do something he then does not provide the means to do?

~From the transcript at Theological Meditations.

In sum, White can't affirm that God desires the salvation of all men, sees no reason to do so, and wouldn't know what it meant if one affirmed it.

I propose to tackle the question regarding the reason for attributing beneficent motives to God in this post, and the question about what "beneficent motives" means in a second post, to follow shortly.

What About the Bible?

Is there a reason to hold that God desires the salvation of all men? Well, the obvious reason is the scripture presents God in just such a way. I presume my readers know the obvious passages. But, just to be safe, here are a few of the Biblical reasons for believing that God desires the salvation of all men.

God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked

The obvious passages here are Ezekiel 18:23-32 and 33:11, and 2 Peter 3:9. There are some others, not so obvious: Ezekiel 3:18 (where God condemns the failure to warn the wicked man: "his blood will I require at thine hand"); Luke 19:41-44 (where Christ weeps over Jerusalem); Romans 9:1-4 (Paul - presumably reflecting God's heart - mourns over the unbelief of his "kinsmen according to the flesh").

God loves all men

The obvious passages here are John 3:16, Matthew 5:44-48. But again, this principle can be found in other passages throughout the scripture. For example, Acts 3:26 ("Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities"); Acts 14:16-17 (Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.  Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.)

God intends for all men to repent and believe the gospel

We could put John 3:16 in this category, but there are lots of other verses for this. John 1:7 ("that all men through him might believe"); John 5:34 (see Waldron below); John 6:32-33 (there, Jesus speaks to some who would not believe [vs. 66] and says, "my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven"); John 17:21 ("that the world may believe that thou hast sent me"), Acts 17:30 ("commandeth all men every where to repent"); Romans 2:4 (the goodness of God "leadeth thee to repentance"); 2 Corinthians 5:20 ("be ye reconciled to God"); 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 22:17 ("the Spirit and the bride say, Come"); and I could probably multiply this list.

God expresses intense emotion

In the Ezekiel passages, for example, God shows himself as distressed over the death of the wicked and pleads with Israel ("turn ye, turn ye, for why would ye die?"). In Romans 9, Paul says that he could wish himself accursed from Christ that Israel might be saved. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul expressly says that God beseeches or pleads through the gospel, "be ye reconciled to God." Most Christians see (some Calvinists to the contrary notwithstanding) this strong emotion expressed in John 3:16. John Calvin, for example:

The word only-begotten is emphatic, (ἐμφατικὸν) to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. But we ought rather to consider that, in proportion to the estimation in which God holds his only-begotten Son, so much the more precious did our salvation appear to him, for the ransom of which he chose that his only-begotten Son should die.


~Calvin, Comm. John 3:16

If I can sum up this argument, the reasons for believing that God truly desires the salvation of even the reprobate is this: God loves all men, he deplores the death of the wicked, he would have all men to believe the truth and be saved, and he expresses that intention in the strongest possible language. This is so clearly the teaching of the Bible on the love of God, that to deny it, or to doubt it, is an appalling error. Whether it be hyper-Calvinism or no, it is an error worthy of the most opprobrious label; for it strikes at the heart of God and his revelation of himself to sinful men.

Historical reasons

I'll give two examples: Calvin and a modern Baptist writer. Calvin, of course, believed that God was favorably disposed toward all men and would have them to be saved:

faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.

* * *

And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.

~Calvin, Comm. John 3:16

Some people will accuse me of "taking the quote out of context" by omitting the predestinarian statements that Calvin makes in the John 3:16 commentary. But we all know -- you and I, dear reader -- that Calvin strongly held to election and predestination. On the other hand, he did not allow his strong belief in God's sovereign decree to blind him to the truth of the scripture. Thus, though he taught that God loved the world and invites all men without exception to faith, he also included the awareness that "the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith." idem. Calvin did not seek to reconcile these truths, but simply believed them as they are taught in the scriptures. The problem comes when we seek to deny one truth for the sake of the other. Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists make the same error, on the opposite side of the issue.

Reformed theologians throughout the intervening centuries have held both to the sovereignty of God in election and to the love of God for all men expressed in the preaching of the gospel. Some of my friends have made reference to Sam Waldron's commentary on the London Baptist Confession as an example of this. Writing of John 5:34 Here's a relevant paragraph:

"The doctrine of this text that God earnestly desires the salvation of every man who hears the gospel and thus freely offers Christ to them is confirmed throughout the rest of Scripture. The Bible teaches that the good gifts which God bestows upon men in general, including the non-elect, are manifestations of God's general love and common grace towards them (Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:35; Acts 14:17). While they do serve to increase the guilt of those who misuse them, this is not the sole intention of God towards the non-elect in giving them. The Scriptures teach that God desires the good even of those who never come to experience the good wished for them by God (Deut. 5:29; 32:29; Ps. 81:13-16; Isa. 48:18). The Scriptures also teach that God so loved sinners that in the person of his Son he weeps because of the destruction they bring upon themselves (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34; 19:41-44). God emphatically expressses his desire that some should repent who do not repent (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11; Rom. 10:11). The Scriptures teach a general gospel call which comes to the hearers of the gospel indiscriminately and which may be, and often is resisted (Prov. 1:24; 8:4; Isa. 50:2; 65:12; 66:4; Jer. 7:13-14; 35:17; Matt. 22:14).

This biblical witness does not overthrow the scriptural teaching of an unconditional election and an irresistable grace.

~Waldron, Exposition of the 1689 Confession, p. 122. Quoted at Theological Meditations. (Thanks to Flynn for finding this passage in Waldron.)

There are many more Biblical passages and a host of Calvinistic theologians on this question ... all of the tenor given above. In fact, Dr. White's "conundrum" is entirely uncontroversial in Calvinistic circles. This has been explained time and time again throughout the history of reformed theology. That Dr. White has a problem with it ought to reflect a certain deviation on his part from standard Calvinistic doctrine as well as from the plain teaching of the Bible.

More next time on this in Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? Part 2.

Monday, November 10, 2008

J. C. Ryle - "Christ Died in Vain"

I recently received one of those Sunday School papers that get passed around in most evangelical churches. I happened on one that contained a quotation from J. C. Ryle. Here is the part that interested me:

There are many who hear of Christ with the ear, and believe all they are told about Him. They understand that there is no salvation apart from Christ. They acknowledge that Jesus alone can deliver them from hell, and present them faultless before God. But they seem never to get beyond this general acknowledgement. They never grasp Christ for their own souls. They stick fast in a state of wishing, and wanting, and feeling, and intending, and never get any further. They see what we mean: they know it is all true. They hope one day to get the full benefit of it, but at present they get no benefit whatever. The world is their all. Politics is their all. Business is their all. But Christ is not their all.

I warn you plainly that such a person is in a bad state of soul. Such was the faith of Judas Iscariot, or Ahab, or Cain. Believe me, there must be actual faith in Christ, or else Christ died in vain so far as you are concerned.

Three Chists: Which one do you follow?, by J. C. Ryle, Power for Living, September 21, 2008.

I'm not trying to be sensational here. But there are two things about the "Christ died in vain" language. First, it argues for an understanding of Ryle's Calvinism that can include Christ dying for some who never receive any benefit from his death. Second, the language itself reminds me of Calvin's "wasted blood" language. (If you go to that link, look for Calvin's comment on Romans 14:15 and others that contain "wasted blood" or equivalent language.) Ryle's language has a good Calvinistic pedigree.

If you want to help the readers of this blog, I would appreciate getting a good source for the Ryle quote. I've searched Tony's J. C. Ryle section at, but I don't see this quote there. Anyone with the Ryle material who can find the source for the quote gets kudos from me. :-)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Calvin on Christ's mediation - for "all" or "the elect"?

I continue my critique of Roger Nicole's 1985 article, "John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement." This article will relate especially to Calvin's doctrine of Christ as mediator.

After Nicole's survey of the literature, he engages in an analysis of the arguments, both pro and con, beginning with rebuttals of six arguments for seeing John Calvin as advocating unlimited atonement. I propose to examine those one at a time.

Nicole's objections to universal atonement

Nicole says this:

Those who have asserted that Calvin held to a universal atonement have advanced mainly the following arguments: 1. Calvin, they urge, views Christ's mediatorship to have a race-wide reference and not to be restricted to the elective purpose of God.


To this we reply that there are manifestly certain benefits which accrue to humanity at large and to the cosmos from the atoning work of Christ, that Calvin is not loath to acknowledge these, but that the specific purpose of Christ's mediatorship is related to the impetration of salvation, which is done for those whom the Father has given him, drawn as they are from all imaginable categories in the human race, not from some narrowly defined group, like the Jews, or the poor, or males, etc., but from gentiles, or the rich, or females, etc., as well. This is the precise point of Calvin's Commentary on 1 Tim 2:5.

As I understand Nicole, his objection is twofold: 1) when we speak of limited atonement, the focus is on the impetration of salvation (not on other and ancillary benefits, which may be of cosmic significance) and who God intends to reap the benefits of Christ's atonement. These benefits are limited to and intended only for the elect; 2) Calvin's use of universal language and universal categories, as, for example, in Calvin's Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:5, cannot be taken to refer to all individuals universally, but should be taken to refer to the elect from all sorts of groups of people. Thus, Nicole argues, though Christ is indeed the second Adam, in the most important respect, Christ represents only the elect, who are drawn from the whole world.

God's universal saving intention

It is certainly true that when we speak of the controversy of limited atonement and whether Calvin taught limited atonement, we ought to focus primarily on the question of God's salvific intent. Questions of ancillary benefits, general providence, redeeming the material world, and other such questions, serve more to distract than otherwise. And we must agree with Nicole that Calvin did believe and teach that only the elect will enjoy the benefits of Christ's atonement. But we continue to insist that Calvin taught that God had real saving motives and intentions for the whole world, including all individuals, both elect and reprobate, and that these saving motives and intentions extended even to Christ's work on the cross.

Christ the second Adam, not the second Abraham

Calvin sees Christ as representing the race of Adam, not the children of Abraham's covenant: Christ was afflicted "in the place of all sinners;" he "has paid the debt of all sinners;" Christ hung on the cross, "as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors, and of those who had deserved eternal death;" he suffered "for all mankind," and "in the name of all poor sinners;" the "curse of all men was laid on him;" etc.

I would especially note the following, which sums up the argument on this point:

It seems that St. Paul would make Jesus Christ, as it were, the root of mankind, so that we should be his descendants, for he speaks of us as his race. But we have to note that since our Lord Jesus Christ was formed of the seed of Abraham to perform the things that were promised, yes, and that he could not be the mediator between God and us, unless he had been of our nature, for he could not have atoned for the offences through which we were bound to endless damnation, unless he had clothed himself with our body, and had also a soul, in order to present himself in the person of all men; so it was necessary that our Lord Jesus Christ to be our flesh.

~John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, Sermon 41, 5:28-30, pp., 600-1. Emphasis added.

Note that he was formed of the seed of Abraham (according to the flesh), but he represented all mankind. Thus, since Calvin taught that Christ came to earth as a man and represented mankind, we can justly infer that Calvin did not see Christ's work on the cross, even with respect to the impetration of salvation, as limited to the elect. Christ represented the whole human race. He had a body and soul; he thus represented all those who had a human body and a human soul. Thus though the benefits of salvation extend only to believers, Christ suffered for all men and intended for all men to repent, believe the gospel, and be saved. You will often see Calvin speaking of God loving the world on the one hand and the limitation of the benefits of salvation to the elect on the other. Calvin did not see a conflict between the desire of God for the salvation of all men on the one hand, and the particular limitation of the benefits of salvation to the elect on the other. To my mind, Calvin believed and taught this way because he was committed -- first and foremost -- to fidelity to the scriptures, not to his own reasonings.

This is only a small sampling of the material available from Calvin that teaches that Christ represented the whole world when he hung on the cross. You can find more of it at the Calvin and Calvinism blog.

Nicole's objections answered

Having seen what Calvin actually said on this subject, Nicole's objections are obviated. First, it is plain that Calvin taught that Christ represented all men when he suffered for the sins of the world. Thus Nicole doesn't gain any ground by noting that limited atonement speaks specifically of the impetration of salvation, which, he claims, "is done for those whom the Father has given [Christ], drawn as they are from all imaginable categories in the human race...." Calvin did not speak only of Christ representing the human race for ancillary and cosmic benefits, which are irrelevant to the impetration of salvation. As we have seen, for Calvin, Christ's represented the whole race on the cross: he bore their sins, took their curse, paid their debt, hung in their place. According to Calvin, what Christ did for the whole world was very much related to the impetration of salvation.

Nicole's second objection is answered as well, provided we're willing to take Calvin at face value. When Calvin says "the whole world," we are perfectly justified in reading the phrase as referring to all men, not just to some of all sorts of men. The concept of Christ representing Adam's race precludes the idea of limiting that representation to "some of all kinds." Notice that in the quote from Calvin's sermons on Ephesians, above, Calvin said that in his incarnation, Christ presented himself "in the person of all men...." This is difficult language to manipulate. We wouldn't normally think of this kind of language being properly interpreted as referring to "some men from all kinds of groups" as the high Calvinists are wont to do.

Lastly, Nicole objects to the use of 1 Timothy 2:5 as proof for this concept. But we are not limited to 1 Timothy 2:5 for proof. Calvin's literature abounds with the idea that Christ represented the whole race. So even if Nicole is correct in his interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5, it hardly makes a dent in the proof available to us. Nicole's attempt to answer the argument from one verse will not suffice as an answer to the rest of the evidence.

I will have more on the question of classes and Calvin's interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:5 in answering Nicole's second rebuttal in the near future.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hermeneutics of 2Peter 3:9 -- "Us all" or "you all"?

Introduction to 2Peter 3:9

(This is a repost of an article I wrote for a previous blog of mine. I like the analysis and wanted to put it here. This is over 2 years old ... so the dispute is dated; but the issue is still important.)

My friend Tony Byrne (whose most excellent blog, Theological Meditations, I highly recommend) recently posted some criticisms of Dr. James White, which garnered a response from White. The point in dispute is the proper interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9. White has objected to some aspects of Byrne’s logical analysis of the categories involved, (believers, unbelievers, elect, etc.) and Byrne is well able to defend himself on those points. In this post, I seek to analyze White’s approach to hermeneutics and the proper understanding of the context of the verse.

The verse in dispute is 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

Or as it is translated by the NASB:

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

White advocates the idea that “any” and “all” of 2 Peter 3:9 refers to “any elect person” and “all elect persons.” The process of thought that leads to this conclusion is suspect and most certainly has led many to bad ideas about the verse. I will respond to White’s two main arguments and make a positive case for seeing “any” and “all” as addressed to all men generally, believers and unbelievers, elect and non-elect.

Some passages are more equal than others

White’s first argument is that 2 Peter 3:9 occurs in a context that is primarily eschatological, not soteriological. Since the verse is not primarily soteriological, it is "illogical," he says, to "demand deep specificity and great depth of information" about salvation from the verse. That is, White believes it is illogical to make deep inquiries about soteriology in this passage that primarily teaches eschatology. I have always thought this concept to be destructive to good reading. In my opinion, it is illogical to impose restrictions on possible meanings -- provided the meanings are legitimately drawn from the text -- because of the topic of the context of the statement. Context may be king, but White’s rule makes context a wicked tyrant, depriving statements of their rights.

But even if we concede to White that we can’t make deep demands of a casual reference, White is himself demanding great specificity and depth of information from this verse. Whereas the common reading -- that God is not willing that any man should perish -- is plain on the face of it and requires no deep technical analysis, the reading advocated by White requires one to make highly technical and strained (if not completely fallacious) interpretations regarding categories of men. The simple reading of the verse on its face is much more in keeping with the idea that this is a passing thought in the mind of the apostle.

“Context” and Peter’s Audience

White’s second argument -- by far the more important one -- is that 2 Peter 3:9 should be understood in light of its context as an epistle from Peter to a group of believers. Understanding who is being addressed gives us the contextual setting. Quoting White,

he [Peter] speaks directly to his audience as the “beloved" and "you." He speaks of how his audience should behave "in holy conduct and godliness," and says that they look for the day of the Lord. He includes himself in this group in verse 13, where “we are looking for a new heavens and a new earth.”

Let us concede that the epistle is addressed to believers. So far, so good. Now White says of 3:9, "In any other passage of Scripture the interpreter would realize that we must decide who the "you" refers to and use this to limit the "any" and "all" of verse 9."

But there is no such rule. Why must the “any” and “all” refer to the antecedents of the pronoun “you”? I don’t know exactly why White says that “the interpreter ... must....” He doesn’t really say why and so we must guess. One thing we can say for sure: there is no rule that indefinite pronouns must be limited by the antecedents of other pronouns occurring in the immediate context. Antecedents to the indefinite pronouns may be implicit or understood from the context, and must be analyzed accordingly.

The word “any” in the phrase “not willing that any should perish” is the Greek word tinas and is a form of the word tis. The lexicons define this word as an “indefinite pronoun.” Indefinite pronouns do not refer to specific persons or things. This being the case, we do not need an explicit antecedent to make sense of the sentence. In 2 Peter 3:9, the Greek word tinas means “anyone.” The word needs no explicit antecedent. Obviously, “any” need not refer to the antecedents of “you” in the previous clause.

There are many examples where the indefinite pronoun tis (or one of its forms) is used without an explicit antecedent. Here’s one example:

1Cor. 9:22 - To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some [tinas].

No explicit reference to an antecedent is required. The antecedent may be understood from the context or from the very nature of the case (as in this example).

Another good example comes from the first occurrence of the word in 2 Peter 3:9. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some [tines] men count slackness....” The word “some” in this clause is the same word in a different form. Here it means “certain people.” Does this instance of the indefinite pronoun require an explicit antecedent? Interpreting it according to White’s rule, we should read it this way: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise as some of you count slackness.” Is that the right way to read it? Some commentators think not. Jamieson, Faussett and Brown refers “some” to the scoffers. Matthew Henry refers this to ungodly men who “charge a culpable slackness on God....” John Gill refers this to “scoffers or mockers.” These commentators have referred “some” [tines] to the scoffers of verse 3, even though this is not explicit in the verse and despite the presence of the pronoun “you” in the immediate context.

Returning to the question: in 2 Peter 3:9, must “any” [tinas] refer to the same group as “you”? Many good interpreters did not believe so. Calvin certainly did not so interpret the verse.

“Not willing that any should perish. So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost.” (Calvin comment on 2Peter 3:9.)

The commentaries of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, and Albert Barnes are in substantial agreement with Calvin. The Geneva Bible translation (as well, I would argue, as Luther’s translation) reflects the idea that God’s will is that no man should perish.

The same concepts apply to the “all” of “that all should come to repentance.” Further examples could be multiplied (of either “any” or “all”), both from Peter’s writings and from the New Testament generally.

Thus it is not the case that the careful exegete must (as White insists) refer the “any” and “all” indefinite pronouns to “you” in verse 9. The careful exegete will decide the proper antecedent of the indefinite pronoun based on the subject matter and other contextual clues. The rule that White has proposed is inaccurately stated and will lead to inaccurate results.

White tries to establish his case for the close connection between “you” and “any/all” by asserting that the clause “patient toward you” (“longsuffering to us-ward”) is left dangling if the material following (including the “any” and “all” clauses) does not modify the “longsuffering” clause. (I note in passing that this is the only real argument given for the connection White insists on.) He says,

“it should be noted that if one suggests that there is no referential connection between "you" and "any/all," the text is left making no sense. Consider it. The phrase "but is patient toward you" is left hanging in mid-air, disconnected and undefined. Obviously, what follows is modifying and explaining how this patience is expressed.”

I am willing to grant that the “longsuffering” clause relates to the following clauses. But does this mean that “you” limits the “any” and “all”? Certainly not. The longsuffering that God exhibits towards believers need not be limited to believers alone. That God is longsuffering to “you” is explained by the fact that he exhibits longsuffering to all men generally. We could read the verse this way: “God is longsuffering to you inasmuch as he is not willing that any man should perish but that all men should come to repentance.” That is, the “you” is included in the “any” and “all”; it is not a limitation of the “any” and the “all.” This is the normal way to read the verse; White's reading is a strain.

The Positive Case

What is the positive case for seeing the indefinite pronouns (“any” and “all”) as referring to a group larger than the audience of the epistle? White insists that the audience is believers. Agreed. But consider that while the epistle is addressed to believers, the “any” who risk perishing and the “all” who should come to repentance are clearly unbelievers. Thus by the simple reading of the verse, our minds are naturally drawn to a larger category than Peter’s immediate audience. These are saved, those are unsaved. White’s rule results in an interpretation that is 180 degrees opposite of the true reading.

This interpretation is buttressed by the mutually reinforcing nature of the final clauses. We have not just “no man” or “all men.” We have contrasting clauses that each serve to emphasize the other. On the one hand, God is not willing that any man should perish; that not one man should perish is explained by God’s desire that all men come to repentance. And the class who should come to repentance is not just a general class of men, but it is a class that has no exceptions – that none of them should perish. The two clauses taken together clearly speak of a universal desire of God that covers all men in general and every man in particular. Another way of putting this is, “God ... commandeth all men every where to repent.”

What of the elect?

Some high Calvinists insist that though this verse refers to unbelievers, it must refer to elect unbelievers. White argues this based on several contextual clues that he claims support this idea. But consider that in order to come to White’s interpretation, we must accept the following argument:

Major premise: all believers are elect;
Minor premise: all of Peter’s audience are believers;
Conclusion: All unbelievers referred to at the end of verse 9 are elect.

The argument requires no further refutation. To see it spelled out is to see its invalidity. (The proper conclusion is, of course, "all of Peter's audience are elect." But this says nothing of the unbelievers mentioned in the verse.)

White’s idea that the indefinite pronouns refer to elect unbelievers is unsupported by the text. The passage does not make any mention of elect unbelievers. Rather unbelievers in general are mentioned. As Calvin says of this verse, “no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known unto us in the gospel.”

The Uncontroversial Interpretation

Reading the verse as referring to God’s unwillingness that “any man” should perish and that “all men” should come to repentance is completely uncontroversial from a Biblical standpoint. The Bible elsewhere makes these same points. God is good to all men (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:16-17), which goodness – especially His longsuffering (cf. 1 Peter 3:20) – is designed to bring men to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God does not take delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); rather God’s will is that all men everywhere come to repentance (Ezekiel 33:11, Acts 17:30). The ideas of God’s patience with all men and desire that all men come to repentance are brought together and emphasized here as nowhere else in scripture, but the ideas are not taught here alone. This fact supports the proposed interpretation.

The interpretation proposed here has a good Calvinistic history, as evidenced by the Geneva translation of the verse:

2 Peter 3:9 (Geneva Bible) “The Lord is not slacke concerning his promise (as some men count slackenesse) but is pacient toward vs, and would haue no man to perish, but would all men to come to repentance.”

The original Geneva notes reflect Calvin’s understanding of the verse:

He speaketh not here of the secret & eternal counsel of God, whereby he electeth whom it pleaseth him, but of the preaching of the Gospel, whereby all are bidden to the banquet.


Good theology, good hermeneutics, or good logic: any of these – and all of them together – lead us to see 2Peter 3:9 as expressing the will of God that no man (whosoever he may be) should perish, but that all men (“all mankind” as Calvin put it) should come to repentance.


(Regarding the textual issue: for myself, I think “us” (following Calvin, Luther, Geneva Bible, and KJV) makes more sense than “you.” “Us” is defined by the “any” and “all” clauses rather than limiting them, thus making the entire verse to have a universal reference. That is, “us” refers to the children of men.)


A friend of mine proposes an analysis to rescue the high Calvinist position on this verse. He proposes what I will call the eschatological context argument. The thought is this: because the book of 2 Peter warns of the ultimate judgment of the wicked (which judgment is assured even before they appear on the scene – see 2:1-3) and assures believers of the ultimate rewards of faith, the verse in 3:9 is out of place if taken as a statement of the general love of God for all mankind. “There is no John 3:16 in the immediate context here,” so my friend says. (“Touche’,” I say.) This being the case, interpreting 3:9 as representing assurance for the elect fits the theme of the book more appropriately.

It’s a good point and worth considering. I observe that this argument basically says that the verse, interpreted as I have suggested, does not really “fit” the theme of the rest of the book. This may be true, and interpreting the verse as I have suggested does seem to make the verse a bit of a parenthetical statement. (Perhaps we can see the verse as more of a pivot point or summary conclusion than a parenthetical.) Seen as such, the argument against my position is not a logical necessity, but more of an aesthetic necessity. Though my friend has made a better argument, I still find myself comfortable in posting the foregoing analysis without change. It seems to me that the pronoun “you” (or “us” of KJV) must be limited grammatically and logically or not at all. The grammar and logic don’t support the limitation and the eschatological context argument of my friend, while appealing, does not seem to change that.

John Calvin on Romans 5:18

This is one of my favorite quotes from Calvin's universalist statements. This is from John Calvin's Commentary on Romans 5:18 (the link goes to one of my previous blog posts where one can read the quote in a larger context and get more of my thoughts on the subject):

He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.

Justification is "propounded" (i.e., offered or set forth) to all, but not in reality "extended" to all. That is, all men are offered justification, but not all men are actually justified. That's Calvin's meaning here.

Calvin explains that this is so "for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world...." No question about the meaning of that, is there? It's not out of context, and it isn't denied by anything in the quote itself. Calvin is asserting this: "Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world...."

Notice the parallelism between Christ's suffering for all on the one hand and the indiscriminate offer to all on the other hand. The "all" here must be really "all," because the suffering is for "the whole world" and the offer is "indiscriminately to all." The ideas explain and reinforce one another. And it isn't "the world of the elect," because some of those for whom Christ died and to whom he is offered, "do not receive him."

It couldn't be clearer.

Table of Contents to Controversial Calvinism

This is a Table of Contents page. Here you will find a full chronological listing (from oldest to newest) of the articles posted on this blog. I will try to keep it current enough to cover everything that isn't listed in the archive section of the blog home page.

Complete Table of Contents