Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nicole v. Calvin on Ezekiel 18:32 and 2Peter 3:9

Well ... I suppose one must devote a certain amount of energy to a blog if he intends to have one. So, back to the grind.

Roger Nicole’s third rebuttal against the moderate (or “historic” or “non-continuity”) Calvinists is this:

3. Calvin, they urge, ["they" referring to the moderate Calvinists, such as R.T. Kendall, Curt Daniel, et. al. - slc] takes at face value certain biblical texts which appear to teach God’s universal saving will. Here Calvin’s Commentaries on Ezek 18:32 and on 2 Pet 3:9 are often quoted.

To this we reply that with respect to Ezek 18:32 as well as to 2 Pet 3:9, Calvin expressly distinguished between the revealed, preceptive will of God by virtue of which an appeal may be extended to all humans, and the secret, decretive will of God which draws unto him only the elect. The very strong language Calvin uses in his comments on these passages relates to the obligation to present an indiscriminate universal invitation, as already noted under 2 above.

Nicole is certainly correct on this point. But it doesn't answer the objection; in fact, it seems to concede the objection. Nicole admits that Calvin uses "very strong language," but he limits (or seems to limit ... Nicole's reply is not completely clear to me) the strong language to the church's obligation to present the gospel. But Nicole has this (if I'm reading him right) 180 degrees wrong. Calvin does not speak of our obligation to present the gospel, but God's nature in His gracious invitation to embrace the gospel. Here's an excerpt from Calvin:

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.

Calvin, Comm. Ezekiel 18:32.

Notice that Calvin does not pose the question this way: "to whom must we proclaim the gospel?" Calvin asks rather, "Why does not God delight in the death of him who perishes?" Nicole would have us see Calvin as speaking to our duty. But in fact, Calvin speaks to God's merciful nature as shown in His gracious proposals. A similar objection could be made regarding 2Peter 3:9:

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. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.

But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that 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 to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.

Calvin, Comm. 2Peter 3:9

Again notice that Calvin is not speaking of our obligation, but of God's nature.

Many Calvinists seem to speak of God's revealed will as if it is merely a declaration: a bare statement of our duty. Nicole seems to imply something similar. Since (Nicole seems to say) the strong statements in Ezekiel and 2Peter address God's revealed will, it says nothing about God's real will. For Nicole, the revealed will speaks merely of our obligation, not God's nature.

As we've already seen, this does serious injustice to Calvin's plain language; but it also does injustice to God's clear declarations about His own nature. When God speaks of his revealed "will," we dare not brush aside such statements as if they say nothing about God's "real" will. His revealed will is every bit as "real" as his will of decree. And God's revealed will is far more relevant to us, for it not only describes God's pleasure, but it also describes our duty.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Arminian Perspectives

Interesting reference to my Nicole articles at Arminian Perspectives. I appreciate the link, and while I would take issue with Ben's argumentation and view of scripture, he appears to be a thoughtful person.

So why would I point out a link from an Arminian? (Gasp!) Well ... I appreciate the link and it's good to reciprocate. But it also points out a problem with making bad arguments: a bad argument gives comfort to the other side. If we must support our theology with outrageous assertions (e.g., "Calvin clearly taught limited atonement") or outlandish arguments ("all really means all elect") then we make our own position weak. The bad arguments give our theological opponents a place to stand.

This was brought home to me strongly last week, when my daughter returned from a weekend working at a Bible camp. The camp director led a Bible study in which he advocated limited atonement using John Owen's "trilemma." My daughter wondered what to think of it, and I gave her a brief tutorial on the assumptions at work in Owen's argument. She was quickly satisfied that Owen was talking through his hat.

But not everyone can see the problems so quickly. (It took me decades to figure out the problem in Owen's thinking.) In the meantime, some young people will be misled about Calvinism; and either they will embrace Reformed theology with the corrupting influence of Owen's bad assumptions, or they will reject the argument (as they ought to do) and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Calvin's theology is built on careful exegesis. His followers have, over the centuries, ruined a lot of it by careless exegesis and careless argumentation.