09 June, 2009

Can John Calvin’s teaching on salvation be Biblically supported without contradiction?

There was a time when I really struggled to believe that man was totally depraved as per the teaching of John Calvin. In my naiveté I went to a Baptist seminary after undergraduate school not knowing that there were different approaches to soteriology and not prepared for the concept of total depravity. I had been taught original sin as a Moravian but never that this sin made man totally depraved unable to do any good. Try as I might I just could not accept this teaching of total depravity because it just did not match the Scriptures as I read them, instead the idea created conflicts in my mind with Scriptures. Try as I might I could not reconcile those conflicts and then began to reject that presupposition of total depravity and search for another understanding without the conflicts with Scripture and more doctrinal consistency. I came to this realization as I was studying my second course in hermeneutics and was reading some of Rudolph Bultman’s writings discussing the difficulty and his perceived impossibility of one being instructed by Scriptures without presuppositions. He stated that we all come to Scriptural study tainted by our worldview and unable to be objective and allow the text to instruct us instead of gleaning from the text support for that which we already supposed instead. I came to believe that this is exactly what Calvinist inclined exegetes do when the degree of depravity of man is studied and often ignore Scripture references to the contrary building a case for the one worldview of a depraved and hopeless humanity incapable of even recognizing goodness.

There were a lot of problems I had with Calvin’s theology on man’s total depravity. When I went to seminary, I had already been to war in Vietnam. I was not the innocent, idealistic person that had graduated from undergrad school. I had seen man at his worst exposed by war, murder, lust, hatred, etc. It occurred to me that if I was to believe in the total depravity of man then the logical assumption in a consistent mind is that God wills evil as well as good. Otherwise, God would destroy the evil in men with his irresistible grace.

Now I had no trouble in accepting God’s sovereignty but could not understand why God would predestine some to salvation and others as reprobate, all this by some mysterious selection when we were created. To me, it was impossible to ignore that God was creating some for righteousness and others to evil, some to eternity and others into the lake of fire and damnation if Calvin was correct. In a real sense, God was creating evil and goodness if Calvinist theology is to be considered consistent. This created great difficulty because I saw the consistent message in the Bible that God was just and loving. I just could not see the love and the justice in the Calvinist God creating those condemned as reprobate. In addition, this doctrine of Calvin was not consistent with my life experience where I had served in the military with many who had not accepted God’s saving grace but I saw the goodness of love in these people. With the presence of love how could they be the victims of the divine lottery of total depravity? Where there is love can there be total depravity? This seems inconsistent.

Calvinist doctrine continued to fall apart in my mind when considering why some are saved and some are reprobate. Calvin suggested that God chose who would be saved and who would be damned based not on any free will or choice of the individual but simply on God’s will through his declarative sovereignty, He wills it therefore it happens. But, I kept seeing in Scriptures that Jesus came to save all of humanity. I even thought for a time that Calvin might be right and the Scriptures that speak of salvific opportunity for all men may be a mistranslation from the Greek to the English or even the Latin as I was already a Latin scholar. Eventually, when I learned Greek, I found that the Scriptures do speak quite adamantly about the inclusive opportunity of all to receive the saving grace of God by our believing in Christ and through Him all salvation may be realized. Christ coming for salvation of the whole world certainly conflicted with predestination and with total depravity and try as I might I could not reconcile these Scriptures with Calvinist doctrine. This is especially clear in the writings of St. John the beloved disciple. No, Calvin must be wrong, the Scriptures do not talk of salvation for only the elect unless we would assume that the whole world is only the elect which Scriptures would also contradict. If the elect are drawn by irresistible grace why is this irresistible grace given to all and not just the elect? The Scriptures are not supposed to create more questions than they answer and in this doctrine leave so much ambiguity as to who will be saved and /or why some are elect and others are damned. Surely there must be some element of free will and not just irresistible grace. One thing in Scriptures that really jumped out at me was learning from Scriptures that God did not create the everlasting fire for mankind but for Satan and his minions (Mat 25:41). If He created the everlasting fire as punishment for them only as Scriptures teach, then why does He also create some of humanity for the everlasting fire?

Then there is the issue of original sin. We see the sin of Adam and Eve which we inherit but it is clear from Scriptures that they did not sin because of a depraved state. In the Garden there obviously was not irresistible grace that would prevent them from sinning. Had there been irresistible grace death would not have entered the world. It seems to me that they sinned from their choices made within their free will. Where in Scriptures does it suggest that as a result of original sin that we no longer have choice or free will but are subject to election through irresistible grace. Why, if God chooses us with irresistible grace as the elect, are we not regenerated into perfection, immune to sin? Where is man’s responsibility in Calvin’s theology?

(1Jo 2:2) And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

Are these words not true? John Calvin brings them into doubt.

In Christ
Fr. Joseph

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