Category Archives: Calvinism

Book Review- Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, by Robert E. Picirilli

Free Will Revisited is a book by Robert E Picirilli, a Free Will Baptist theologian and professor emeritus of Greek and New Testament studies at Free Will Baptist College.  As the title suggests, the book is a respectful response to the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards on the topic of free will, coming from an Arminian perspective.  The book was enjoyable to read.  It is informative, generous, and fair in its treatment of the views of each of these three theological giants.  Picirilli explains the motivations and type of arguments that each make, their similarities and their differences.  And he contrasts those views of free will with those from a Classical / Reformational Arminian perspective.

The book is 134 pages long.  It’s easy to understand, and can be read over the period of a few evenings.  One thing I appreciate about Picirilli’s style is that his writing is accessible to the lay person.  He takes the time to define the issues in easy to understand terms, and doesn’t speak over the average person’s head.

The book is broken into four parts, which I will review below.

Part 1 is about defining the issues.  What is free will?  Picirilli defines it as the power of alternative choice or libertarian freedom. “This means that the choice or decision is one that really could go either way; that the person is neither compelled by some force outside nor shut up from within by previous condition or experience, so that only one alternative can actually be chosen.

How do worldviews (both naturalistic and theological) relate to free will?  Is it part of being created in the image of God?   Is it compatible with theological determinism?  This is “the view that everything that happens in the universe, including the apparently free choices of human beings, comes about as a result of the fact that God, before the foundation of the world deliberately decreed everything that will transpire as part of his all inclusive plan.”

Most importantly for the Christian, is free will biblical? Picrilli argues that it is, and goes in depth into a number of passages that address it.  One argument that I found compelling here was related to the many “ifs” of the Bible.  He writes, “There are many ifs in the Bible, and they often set alternatives before us.  These alternatives are the way freedom of choice is expressed.”  Picirilli also uses the term “the sweet winds of grace” to explain how we can choose what God sets before us.  Because of our sinful depravity we don’t  have the ability to choose God on our own.  It is the winds of Grace from God that enable us.

Part 2 is the case against free will.  What are the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards against free will?

Luther’s work, “On the Bondage of the Will”, was written in response to Erasmus.  Luther always tied his argumentation to scripture.  He argued that God foreknows of necessity.  This means in Luther’s view, God’s foreknowledge and his plans of predestination prevent free will.  He also compared humanity’s will to that of a horse with a rider.  The rider could be either God or Satan, but either way the horse is controlled by an outside influence.

Calvin’s work, like Luther’s was written in response to another – Albert Pighius.  Whereas Luther focused on scripture for his argumentation, Calvin focused on the church fathers – particularly Augustine.  Calvin also believed that Adam and Eve had genuine free will, which was lost at the fall.  Calvin also had less of a focus on the roll of Satan and the roll of God’s foreknowledge than Luther did.

Edwards work, unlike Calvin and Luther, was not written against any person in particular, but against “Arminians” in general.  Edwards used the rationalistic method in his argumentation, which “seeks for indisputable (self-evident) truths and then attempts to draw out whatever is necessarily and logically implied by them.”  For Edwards every person does what he does by necessity, due to “cause and effect”.  And this cause and effect regresses all the way back to God, who is the original cause.   It is meaningless to speak of free will, because a person is created, and is tied to the cause and effect relationships of everything that came before.  In Edwards view, sin was inevitable even for Adam.

Part 3  addresses the major issues.  What is the Arminian response to the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards?

First, what is the relation of free will to God’s foreknowledge and necessity?  In contrast to Open Theists, Ariminans believe (as do Calvinists), that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future.  Picirilli makes a distinction between necessity (has to be), contingency (does not have to be), and certainty (will be).  Something can be necessary and certain, or it can be contingent and certain.  But it can’t be necessary and contingent.  The fact that something will be a certain way does not mean it has to be that way.  So then, God can know the future exhaustively without exhaustively causing it.  Knowledge of a fact is not the cause of a fact.

And what about Total Depravity?  Again, Arminians agree with their Calvinist brothers.  Picirilli writes that, “I am satisfied that depravity is real and total.  I am equally satisfied that it does not finally negate the freedom of the will.”  This is because of Prevenient grace, God’s initiating grace that draws us. “As depraved as one is, he is still a person, a human being in the image of God.  Sinners are spiritually blind, but the Word and the Spirit can bring them to see the truth of the gospel….the Spirit and the Word can persuade a person of the truths needed for that person to be able to receive the gift of salvation offered in the gospel.”

How does God’s sovereignty and providence relate to free will?  Sovereignty means that God is in control and does as he pleases.  Control does not mean that God causes everything, but it means he knows about everything, provides a means for everything, and fits everything into his perfect plan.  Picirilli notes that “if God sovereignly ordained that humans had free will, then their exercise of it in no way encroaches on his sovereignty.”  Providence “is the activity of God in caring for and governing the universe in accord with his unfailing purpose”.  A distinction made here is that “God does not concur with the sinner in his sin, else we would make God himself a sinner.”  God made Adam and Eve capable of sin, but he did not put them in a circumstance where they had to sin.

And what about Edward’s logic of cause and effect?  Picrilli argues that Edward’s frames his argumentation against free will in a way that no advocate really believes – that it is always a two part thing, a cause and effect, and a choice must always be caused.  This definition allows Edwards to make his “infinite regression” argument, but it’s not how human choices really work.  We choose.  We don’t choose to choose.  Picirili also writes that “One of the powers of the human psyche is to “originate” ideas, and to translate those ideas into actions…”  Not everything we do and think comes from a previous cause.  Secondly, the “infinite regression” argument is ultimately invalid because each person is created by a “self existent Creator-God”.  God created us, and that’s why we can make choices.

Part 4 is the conclusion, in five major points.

First, the sovereignty of God is strong, if not stronger in a world where humans have the power to make choices.

Second, human depravity prevents us from seeking God.  However, God has broken into our world and provided his son for the atonement of our sins.  The preaching of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to choose Christ.

Third, we are saved by faith, and this does not diminish God’s grace or glory.  “A person’s accepting the gift contributes nothing to the work, and subtracts nothing from the giver”.

Fourth, God’s foreknowledge of the future does not contradict free will, because foreknowledge is knowledge in advance, not foreordination.

Fifth, the laws of cause and effect don’t contradict free will.  The exercise of the mental will is more than a mechanical cause and effect, because they come from persons.  Persons originate thoughts and volition.

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Disclosure:  I was provided a copy of the book, and agreed to write a  review.

 

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Filed under Arminianism, book review, Calvinism, determinism, free will, Uncategorized

Calvinism Explained in 10 Minutes – Greg Boyd

Here’s a nice concise presentation by Greg Boyd on the differences between Calvinism and Arminianim.  HT: Society of Evangelical Arminians

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Man Goes Bankrupt After Refusing to Sign Check

Local resident Calvin deKlein declared bankruptcy today after refusing to sign a check that would have paid off the debt for him. deKlein was reportedly heard muttering, “If I sign the check, it means I did all the work.”

Judge Peyda Piper says she has never come across a case like this before. “I repeatedly asked deKlein why he refused to sign the check, and he was unable to provide a coherent answer.”

Wealthy philanthropist Jesse Pagotodo was left shaking his head. “I wrote the check out to deKlein, put it in his hand, and even drove him to the bank.  But he refused to sign it when we arrived”.  Pagotodo went on to say. “I don’t know what else he expected me to do, I couldn’t sign the check for him, that would have been forgery.”

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The Arminian Theology of “What’s in the Bible”

What’s in the Bible is a DVD / video teaching series for children about the Bible.  It is produced by Phil Vischer, one of the makers of “VeggieTales”.

Anyway, I’ve been watching the series with my son Alexander.  He really enjoys it.  I do too.  I’ve appreciated how well done the series is.  It is entertaining, but not at the expense of accuracy.  It overviews the entire Bible, from beginning to end.  It add in little tidbits here and there (like the difference between a canon and a cannon), and in the process teaches about Jewish and Christian history, and how and why we have the Bible today with the books that it contains.

witb

I’ve noticed (and appreciated) how very Arminian the series is.  God is described as relational, loving, and all powerful.  The series also takes a high view of scripture, when the opening song asks, “Is it true, is it reliable, absolutely verifiable?” (and concludes that it is).

Here is a sample of dialog from episode 2 “Who wrote the Bible?”.

Sunday School Lady: “God loves us more than anything else he’s ever made. And He loves it when we love Him back.  But it has to be our choice. God could make us love him, but that isn’t love at all.  We’d be like robots, like toasters. You press the toast button, you get toast.  You press the love button, you get love.”

Ian: “My toaster doesn’t have a love button.”

Sunday School Lady: “Nope, neither does a robot. Love is a choice.  So God gave us a powerful, dangerous gift.  He gave us the freedom to choose.”

Brother Louie: “Dangerous, what’s so dangerous about being able to choose, Sunday School Lady?”

Sunday School Lady: “We can choose to love God or we can reject him.  We can choose to love each other or hurt each other.  Through the years people chosen to do wonderful things and terrible terrible things.  Love is so important to God that the risk is worth it.  God’s heart aches when we choose to hurt each other and reject him.  But he still lets us choose.”

Buck Denver: “Wow, that’s really big.”

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Does Our Choosing of God Take Away from His Glory?

I recently received an email from a reader asking this question.  I thought it would be worth sharing, as it comes up occasionally.  I’ve received permission to share our correspondence, but have removed the specifics for privacy.

[From the reader]
Hello was really hoping for some help.

I fell down the Calvinist rabbit hole and have been trying to get out. I sometimes sway back and forth between unconditional election and conditional. I have a question which has been really tough for me. How does us freely choosing God apart from his sovereign election not take away from his glory? Or doesn’t us choosing Christ and therefore choosing correctly give us something to boast about? Like we chose right everyone else chose wrong?

I’ve really been struggling with this and it seems safer to see salvation as a monergistic work of God, and I’m fearful to believe anything else is to steal glory that is owed to him. Please I would really appreciate some insight or help you could offer.

In our dear Lord and Savior,
[name redacted]

[My Reply]
Thanks for the email.  To specifically answer your question, I don’t think God allowing us to believe or not believe steals from his glory or causes boasting.

First, I think God deliberately created a world where people can make choices.  This is by his sovereign design.  He prefers to have genuine relationships – where people choose him.  CS Lewis said it like this:

“God has made it a rule for Himself that He won’t alter people’s character by force. He can and will alter them – but only if the people will let Him. In that way He has really and truly limited His power. Sometimes we wonder why He has done so, or even wish that He hadn’t. But apparently He thinks it worth doing. He would rather have a world of free beings, with all its risks, than a world of people who did right like machines because they couldn’t do anything else.”

Second, the very nature of faith precludes boasting about it.  Faith is knowing that I’m a sinner, and that my only hope is to trust in Jesus to save me.  The minute I start bragging it’s no longer faith.  It’s like the parable of the prayers of Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18).  The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the tax collector, while the tax collector prayed “God have mercy on me a sinner.”  Jesus said the tax collector was the one who was justified.

In reality, I think holding to Limited Atonement can cause boasting.  Because the nature of monergistic election puts one in a special class where others are excluded. And this can cause pride.  Wesley said in describing the Calvinistic concept of grace that it naturally inspires contempt and coldness to those whom we suppose to be outcast from God.  I’ve seen this in some Calvinists (though certainly not all), and you probably have too.

I leaned towards Calvinism for a while too, but what brought me to Arminianism is that I think it best represents the character and heart of God.  If God loves the world and Jesus died for all, and monergism were true, then everyone would believe, because God would ensure it.

But since not everyone does believe, we must settle between God loving everyone and allowing people to to reject him, or that God doesn’t love all in a meaningful and eternal way.  To me, the most scriptural position and the position that best represents God’s character, is to believe that he loves everyone yet allows people to reject him.

Hope that helps and blessings!

 

 

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The Soveriegnty of God – by Jerry Walls

Seedbed just posted an excellent article by Jerry Walls on God’s Sovereignty .  It can be found here.

From the post:

…the sovereignty of God is not a Calvinist doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine, and no one who wants to be faithful to Scripture can afford to ignore or downplay this great truth.

and

Now here is a good place to highlight the difference between the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and the Wesleyan view. According to classic Calvinism, God’s sovereignty means that he determines literally everything that happens in the sense that he specifically causes everything to happen exactly as it does.

This can sound like a very pious thing to say, and at first it might seem to glorify God. But on closer inspection, it has very troubling implications. On this view, God caused Nebuchadnezzar to be proud, caused him to boast, and then caused his downfall, as well as his subsequent repentance. This is a troubling view because it means God actually caused his sin as well as his punishment.

The Wesleyan strongly disagrees. In the Wesleyan view, God did not cause or will Nebuchadnezzar to be proud. Rather, he became that way by his own free choices, by taking undue pride in his accomplishments. God then punished him to bring the truth home to him in order to move him to repentance. When he acknowledged the truth about God, he was restored to his kingdom.

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Filed under Arminianism, Calvinism, Jerry Walls, Sovereignty

Arminian Principles for Interpreting Romans 9.

Romans 9 is often the “go to” text for Calvinists. They hold that it is about individual election to salvation – that God unconditionally chooses to save certain individuals, and that he unconditionally rejects and hardens others. John Piper writes that the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9:11-12 was the watershed event that caused him to become a Calvinist.(1)

Arminians come to a different conclusion about Romans 9. We hold that it’s about the election of the nation Israel to serve God’s greater purposes.  Specifically, it’s about how God is just in how he has treated Israel.  And it’s about how he has kept his word in the way that he has treated them.  It is not about Calvinistic individual election. Paul is asking if the nation of Israel can be saved, and if God is fair in the way he goes about treating them as a group.  Are Jews saved by their genealogy? Or must Jews believe in Jesus in order to be saved? Paul argues that even though Jews are descendants of Jacob and Abraham, they don’t get a free ticket because of their ancestry (Romans 9:8). Israel has been blessed as a people group, because salvation comes from the Jews. However, individual Jews are saved the same way that Gentiles are – by having faith in Jesus (Romans 9:31, Romans 10:11-13).

Now on to the Arminian principals for interpreting Romans 9.

1) To understand Romans 9, read all of Romans 9 along with Romans 10 and 11. Better yet, read the the entire book. The larger context is key to understanding the passage. Calvinists prefer to quote only Romans 9:10-24, because that’s the portion that seems most Calvinistic when read by itself. But Romans 9:10-24 shouldn’t be read without an understanding of the surrounding context and the question that Paul is addressing. Here’s the background: Israel was depending on their ethnicity as descendants of Abraham. They thought that being physical children of Abraham saved them by default. Paul uses Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) to show how ethnicity is not a guarantee of  a blessing. Paul illustrates that both Issac and Jacob were chosen to be blessed over Ishmael and Esau, even though all were sons of Abraham and this even though Ishmael and Esau were the oldest sons. Despite the blessing of being descendants of Jacob, individual Jews are saved the same way Gentiles are – by faith in Jesus. Even though Jews are physical descendants of Abraham (as were Ishmael and Esau), they still must believe in Jesus in order to be saved (Romans 10:11-13). This is Paul’s argument.

Paul states that he is speaking about the nation of Israel in the opening of Chapter 9 (bold mine):

Romans 9:1-5: I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Paul reminds us again that he is writing about the nation of Israel in the close of Chapter 9 (bold mine):

Romans 9:30-32 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.

The nation of Israel is always in scope in Romans 9, 10, and 11. It’s never about Calvinistic individual election. That’s why it’s so important to read all of Romans.

2) When reading the portion of Romans 9 that sounds Calvinistic, refer to the Old Testament passages that Paul uses for his argumentation. They show that Paul is still on the topic of the nation of Israel, and he’s addressing God’s right to use Israel as he prefers. The verses seem to refer to individuals with a casual reading (Jacob and Esau and Pharaoh).  However, the Old Testament references show that the individuals are actually corporate heads of their nations.

For example (bold mine):

Genesis 25:23: The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other,and the older will serve the younger.” (quoted in Romans 9:11-12)

Malachi 1:1-5: A prophecy: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.I have loved you,” says the Lord.“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!’ (quoted in Romans 9:13)

Jeremiah 18:1-10This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.  Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,  and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (referenced in Romans 9:21)

Especially of note in the Jeremiah passage is that God (the Potter) does not decree what the nation does, but rather he first sees what the nation does, and then forms something out that nation afterwards as a result of their corporate behavior.  This is the opposite of “unconditional individual election”.  God changes his mind on how to treat a nation based on whether or not the nation follows him.  This is particularly relevant to Paul’s argument in Romans 9.  Israel was not following God as revealed in Christ, and as a result, God (the Potter) is going to treat them accordingly.

One more thing to be aware is the Hebraic idiom of “hate” (as used in Romans 9:13 and Malachi 1:3 – “I love Jacob, but I hate Esau…”)  This idiom means to love someone less in comparison to someone else. Just as we have idioms (For example: “It’s raining cats and dogs.”), so did the Hebrews. This idiom doesn’t mean that God unconditionally despised and damned Esau and all of his descendants. It meant that he preferred Jacob’s nation over Esau’s nation, and chose Jacob’s children for the special honor of being the line in which the Messiah came. Jesus uses this very same idiom when he says “Anyone who follows me must hate his Father and Mother (Luke 14:26).” He’s not saying you should actually despise your parents, that would be breaking a commandment! He’s saying that in comparison to our love for God, our love for our parents ought to be much less. The same thing is going on with Jacob and Esau. God loved both of them and their descendants. However, he had a special affection for Jacob and his descendants, and chose Jacob’s descendants over Esau’s for the purpose of saving the world.

In the case of Pharaoh, Paul uses him as an analogy as to how God can fairly treat the nation of Israel, even if he has to “harden” them in the process.  Just as God hardened Pharaoh for his purposes (after a great deal of evil behavior by Pharaoh), he has the right harden the nation of Israel for his purposes.   And we see from the Jeremiah passage that this hardening comes about as God’s response, it’s not God’s first preference.  Importantly, it wasn’t God’s first preference to eternally damn Pharaoh.  God treated Pharaoh fairly, and wanted him to be saved.  For more on that topic, see this post: The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart.

3) Whatever Romans 9 means, it can’t mean that God is a liar, and it can’t contradict the plain meaning of other scripture passages.  If God is love (1 John 4:8 ), we can’t use Romans 9 to prove that God is hate.  This was a point made by John Wesley. Of course, Calvinists don’t claim that God hates or lies, but their line of reasoning in our view leads to this. Typically when you question a Calvinist about the goodness of God in Romans 9, they either equivocate or they equate a rejection of their interpretation of Romans 9 as “talking back to God” (Romans 9:20).  Here’s what Wesley wrote on this:

This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture, that God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, “What is its true meaning then” If I say, ” I know not,” you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will. It cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination.(2)

Wesley is right.  Whatever Romans 9 states, it can’t state that the God of truth is a liar.

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1) John Piper, The Absolute Sovereignty of God, What is Romans 9 about?  Side rant here, this is why I can’t stomach John Piper.  Just from the title, you can see he’s implying that to disagree with him is to say that God is not sovereign.  But of course Arminians agree that God is sovereign.  Okay, rant done.

2) John Wesley, Sermon 128, Free Grace

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