‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

debateLast week Zondervan hosted a live-stream debate between some Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones) and some Non-Calvinists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). Now, while I was excited to watch, it just so happened that my internet was slow that day, so I only caught snippets and twitter commentary while it happened. Immediately afterwards I had a trip to get prepped on, so I didn’t get to watch it until this week.

Still, because a few people in different theological wings have asked me to comment on the debate, I figured I’d give it a shot. I tried to keep this brief and failed, but even with its length, I’ve limited it to some focused observations and reflections on a few issues with the first section of the debate. This is by no means exhaustive and I won’t even try to comment on all of the issues. Indeed, I’m sure many will find this utterly dissatisfying.  And that’s okay.

To begin, a word about the players.

The Players And Confirmation Bias

I’ll be honest, going into this I already had some ideas about it. For one thing, I knew very little about Austin Fischer. I knew he wrote a book about no longer being Young, Restless, and Reformed, but not much else. I thought Kevin DeYoung had a pretty incisive review of it, but honestly, I haven’t had time to read it. As for Brian Zahnd, while I was blessed and challenged by his book on beauty (which I still highly recommend), I’ve criticized him heavily before on other issues. Based on his online writing, his rhetoric towards positions with which he disagrees, especially the Reformed, is [retty belligerent and prone to violent caricature. He’s a powerful preacher who’s got a way with words and a heart for Jesus, but I wasn’t expecting much of a fair shake there.

With Montgomery and Jones, I was predisposed to root for them. Not only do I find myself in their Reformedish camp in general, I’ve favorably reviewed their book PROOF, and have been impressed with them even in their handling of serious brotherly criticism. Though I’ve never met them, I consider them friends.

I go into all of this simply to make one point: I definitely had a side going in and that affected the way I watched the debate. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case with anyone who was interested in the event, even if you didn’t know any of them. With the subject of Calvinism, like the subject of God, you’re never neutral about the arguments. One of the most perceptive comments on the whole thing came from Mike Cosper: “If you want to see some wonderful examples of confirmation bias, check out the hashtag.” A lot (most?) of us went in pumped to see Montgomery school Fischer, or Zahnd lay down his linguistic hammer on Jones.  We already knew the right answer, we just wanted to be publicly vindicated.


Which leads me to the format of debate. In my view, public debates are pretty limited. Not enough space or time can be devoted to the various pertinent issues involved, so most of the time both sides come away thinking of the other side, “Is this the best you’ve got?” To which I’d respond, “No, of course it’s not.” I know for sure that’s not the best Montgomery and Jones have. I’ve read their book. What’s more, I’m sure it’s not the best that Zahnd or Fischer have. They hinted in the direction of some more serious arguments beyond the rhetorically-freighted, one-liners they were throwing out there. Indeed, Fischer actually did some serious, responsible, exegetical work in his response to Jones on Romans 9, which made me suspect there’s more where that came from.

Calvin and Calvinism

Next, I’m going to say something that may shock most non-Calvinists, and indeed, many Calvinists as well: Calvin did not invent ‘Calvinism’.

Whether you’re speaking solely of the doctrines concerning election and salvation as they were defended and codified at Dordt (which Calvin was already dead for), or the broader complex of thought with respect to covenant theology, ecclesiology, etc, referred to as the broader Reformed tradition, you have to know that it goes beyond him. There are many other stars in the Reformed sky such as Bucer, Vermigli, Ursinus, Knox, and a host of scholastics who delved into these issues at length. I love Calvin, but as Kenneth Stewart has demonstrated in his 10 Myths About Calvinism, his exposition of election is not the only standard or normative one for the confessionally Reformed. Indeed, most of these theologians could point back to a number of top medieval theologians, including Thomas and Augustine as representatives or precursors to their own expositions.

In other words, it’s okay to be Reformed and then think you may have to adjust your exposition of election according to Scripture with respect to double, or single predestination. Many have done so even while remaining non-Remonstrant (Arminian), and so forth. So trotting out a Calvin quote doesn’t mean that Montgomery isn’t really being a good Calvinist, even if he’s cutting things in a way that Calvin wouldn’t have agreed with. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s going to say Herman Bavinck isn’t a good Calvinist because he humbly pushes back on the fairly common claim that the decrees of election are definitely about the revelation of God’s glory.

As a side-note, speaking of “Calvin’s system” as “beginning with philosophical theism” is, to be blunt, a blatant absurdity to anyone who’s read the current secondary literature, and knows about Calvin’s humanistic and vocally anti-speculative approach to the doctrine of God. One of Calvin’s most common targets were the theologians of the Sorbonne who engage in abstractions instead of the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, unlike most modern systematic theologies, the Institutes almost doesn’t have a doctrine of God philosophically considered, but instead treats the Trinity, and the nature of God as revealed in his works as Creator and Redeemer. To assert otherwise is only possible through gross ignorance of the subject, or in the face of the evidence.

Which brings me to the next point.

Jesus Rules and Philosophical Systems

Most Reformed are not intentionally twisting texts to get to a conclusion we’ve already decided on when it comes to the doctrines of grace. I certainly wasn’t. I still feel the weight of the arguments against it. I’ve said it before, but over the years I have only slowly inched closer to the Reformed side on this issue, quite reluctantly and usually through the side door of some alteration in my view of regeneration, providence, or something else that has a role to play here. Why? Because of a struggle to affirm all that Scripture affirms about God’s sovereignty, our choices, his decrees, our responsibility, his grace, and so forth.

See, despite ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’, most Calvinists don’t give ourselves the option of affirming an “internal conflict” within Scripture, as Zahnd talks about, and then using a very specific Jesus Hermenuetic to pick which parts of the Scriptures got it right. Because of the way we see Jesus approaching and affirming all of the Scriptures, we believe Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate affirmed and inspired the Scriptures as the Word of God written. All of it. So we’re trying to get it all in at once. I’ve made this point against Zahnd before, but if your so-called “Jesus-theology” causes you to shunt to the side texts that Jesus affirmed, or dismiss as ‘biblicistic’ efforts to incorporate all the texts to which Jesus constantly appealed, you might be doing it wrong. (Now, this isn’t to say that most Arminians do this, or even that Fischer would have done it, but still, coming back to my earlier point, this is the kind of important methodological dispute that a debate like this doesn’t give space to address.)

Plain Readings and Finding the Wright Escape Hatch

Easily the most commented on line of the night was Daniel Montgomery’s about a “plain reading” of Ephesians 1.  It was provoked by Zahnd’s earlier invitation to make sure we’re paying attention the “best” scholars, such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Karl Barth, and so forth when we make these theological judgments. Montgomery later basically said, “Yes, I understand we need to read Wright, Barth, and characters like that” but really, it’s hard to understand Ephesians 1 as speaking of anything else but unconditional election on a ‘plain reading’ of Paul, which is what we ought to get around to doing more often. To which Zahnd’s retort was, “Sure, it’s plain in your theologically-rigged ESV, with your horn-rimmed Calvinist lens, translation isn’t it?” At which point, I have to admit, I laughed. Touché, Zahnd.

Now, all of the twitter commentary about this was explosive and apoplectic. And to some degree I get it. Even though Zahnd came in kind of waving his hands about “scholarship” and so forth, seemingly writing off scholarship like that and referring to Wright & Co. as a bunch of ‘characters’ rubs me the wrong way. Still, I suppose I heard it differently because I’ve read their book. Of its 200 pages there were nearly 40 pages of endnotes showing their work in the Greek, the commentaries, and so forth (including a number of citations of Barth! in the German!). They did their exegetical and theological homework. Certainly Jones is no academic slouch. So maybe we should think Montgomery’s advocacy of a ‘plain reading’ isn’t quite what it initially sounded like. If it was, though, his practice is certainly a lot better than that.

Here’s the thing that struck me, though, with Zahnd’s earlier call for attending scholarship: Wright, McKnight, Hart, and Barth won’t necessarily save you from a Calvinist reading of Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 (or indeed, the rest of the Biblical witness to God’s sovereignty.) I mean, take myself. I’ve read D.B. Hart, and you know what? He’s mostly great, but I’ll be blunt and say he also seems to never know what he’s talking about when it comes to what Calvin or Reformed types actually say about things. When it comes to Barth, I’ll be upfront and say that I haven’t read his full doctrine of election in the Dogmatics.  Still, I’ve read the Epistle to the Romans, as well as competent, sympathetic distillations of the Dogmatics, and so forth and, you know, I’m not convinced Paul is teaching us Christ is the only Elect or Reprobate one ruling out individual election. 

Beyond that, I’ve actually read McKnight on the warning passages in Hebrews, as well as pretty much everything what N.T. Wright has to say on the subject (including his big Paul book). I’m a huge Wright fan, in fact, and back when I was very hostile to Calvinism, I dug into Wright’s big Romans commentary (especially his stuff on Romans 9-11) hoping to find an escape hatch from election. I even dug into James Dunn’s commentaries, just about everything he’s written on the New Perspective, and waded through the readings like those offered by Walls and Dongell in Why I Am Not a Calvinist looking for a way out of my Reformed friends’ arguments.

In the process I found a lot of good stuff. After that, I was much better able to set the passage in the broader framework of God’s purposes for Israel, Paul’s vindication of God’s name when it seemed that his promise to Israel had failed through their unbelief, and so forth. That said, none of these things rule out, or necessitate a non-predestinarian reading. In fact, I think they largely fit well with the older insights. And that’s a conviction I came to hold when I was fighting tooth and nail in my soul to write off more classically Reformed readings.

Finally, more positively, I’ll just say there’s a lot of good, top scholarship out there that disagrees with Zahnd’s top scholarship on the issue. For every N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, you’ve got a G.K. Beale, or a Michael Bird. For every Barth, you’ve got a Bavinck. For every D.B Hart, there’s a Kevin Vanhoozer whose trinitarian theology in Remythologizing Theology is just as philosophically-sophisticated, aesthetically-appealing, and, I think, more biblical than Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (although there’s much overlap). So inviting us to consider the great, “the best” scholars of our day, and then ripping off the names of top scholars who you think agree with you, doesn’t really get you places. Calvinists have plenty of names too.

Job, Lewis, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

Finally, one of the big issues of the night was the challenge by Fischer and Zahnd to explain why God would intentionally pass over, or create someone in order to be passed over, for salvation. Now, leaving aside the problem that unless you’re a Universalist or an Open Theist you still face a similar situation, I was fascinated by the response on Twitter, as well as by Fischer to the appeal to Job and mystery.

Faced with that challenge, Montgomery recalled what happened when Job challenged the justice of God’s judgments, or his wisdom in allowing Satan to torment him. What is God’s answer there? Well, read Job 38-42 and you’ll see it’s basically a long way of saying, “I’m the infinite God. You are a very finite, sinful human. You don’t have a scale for the difference between us. I was fine-tuning the galaxies, hanging up the Milky Way in the vast reaches of space, before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye. Why would you ever think yourself competent to understand my secret judgments?”

Ironically enough, Lewis makes a helpful point in this direction arguing for God’s rationality in the risk of gifting humans with free will:

Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

Mere Christianity, The Shocking Alternative

To some this sounds like a cop-out and I can get that. Still, I do find it interesting that Reformed theology gets dinged for being a too rationalist system, with a cold logic that leaves no room for mystery, and yet, when the Reformed do argue from Scripture that God himself says we ought not to expect to understand the mystery of his judgments, they’re charged with obscurantist irrationality.

This is why I’ve almost come to see this as sort of theological-aesthetic judgment. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering election, or you don’t.

Now, to this, Fischer may reply, “I still can’t see how anyone could argue it’s beautiful.” Sure. But most of us don’t initially see the Cross as beautiful, or wise either, until our hearts have been shaped and conformed to the paradoxical logic of the gospel. I’m not saying you have to buy election to see the beauty of the Cross. I am saying it’s not surprising that things which initially seem puzzling, weird, or terrifying to us, could eventually become beautiful to a mind submitted to the logic of Scripture.

Which is why I’d have to say I found Zahnd’s little line about rebelling against a Calvinist God a la Ivan Karamazov–returning God’s ticket, so to speak–so unhelpful. Back when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness–to call him a devil, and so forth–is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.”

Best to articulate the God of Scripture as faithfully as I can and leave hypothetical moral stands against the Creator to those atheists who have the time to fantasize about such things. My heart is rebellious enough without such a morally tempting exercise, despite its rhetorical force. (For more on the same topic, I’d suggest Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders piece here.)

At this point I’ve said far too much and yet not much at all. I hope I’ve not been too persnickety. I really do understand the trouble people have with these issues. What’s more, I have a terribly high amount of respect for the many thoughtful Christians who see this another way. At the end of the day, though, let me just say this: our basic posture here must be humility–to God and before the Scriptures which he has inspired by the Holy Spirit to testify to the saving Son who reveals the love the Father has decided to lavish on his children since before the world began.

Soli Deo Gloria

14 thoughts on “‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

  1. Derek, a few quick thoughts: (a) I think debate only works good (for those involved and for those listening) when the debaters hold each other in deep respect and affection, and break all of the rules of engagement in their conversation; I didn’t watch the other night because I couldn’t imagine that it would be that kind of interaction; (b) I’m with you when you say we cannot privilege a canon w/n the canon; to borrow an image from Origen, Scripture is the *seamless garment* of Christ; (c) for the life of me, I can’t figure why critics of Calvin(ism) don’t acknowledge that Calvin(ism) isn’t reducible to TULIP and the Bezan account of double-predestination; I mean, surely they know that Barth and Wright are Reformed? And that Calvin’s account of predestination (as well as Beza’s, et al) has precedents in the pre-Reformed tradition?) (d) I hear you when you say that “aesthetic-theological” judgments are basic to our theologizing, and I fully agree that we must be graced to see the beauty of God, but I don’t think anyone could make the case that double-predestination is beautiful in any recognizable sense of the term; or, to put it another way, we cannot affirm beauty, goodness and truth as transcendentals and at the same time regard nature and grace as in opposition; this is where I disagree with virtually everyone in the Reformed camp, I know; (e) on a related note, I have to admit this bias: whenever someone insists on the perspicuity of Scripture on the one hand and on the other hand appeals to the “mystery” of God’s will in election, I sign off; conversation is no longer possible, IMO, because what they really mean, I think, is that I can only disagree if I am stupid or rebellious; (f) I don’t think we should imitate Ivan in taking “moral stands against God”; I do, however, think we must imitate the saints who took moral stands against *conceptions* of God—and it is terribly difficult to tell the two apart at any given moment—the prophet can look and sound a lot like the rebel; I’m thinking for example of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom (remember, he gasps at God: “Do you, the judge of all the earth, need me to teach you about right and wrong?”) and Moses’ refusal to allow God to destroy Israel after the golden calf debacle; all that to say, I think our “pictures” of God are all more or less unfaithful; we are bound, therefore, to never settle for them, always inviting God to save us from our vain imaginings; oddly enough, that prayer, it seems to me, is at the heart of Reformed spirituality!

    • I said I wouldn’t comment, but I’m wicked liar. 😉
      I’ll only take up a few points:
      d. Jones and Montgomery do argue for the beauty of Calvinism in their book, but it’s more from the angle of the positive affirmation of grace, unconditional adoption and so forth. So, yes and no.
      As for the opposition to grace and nature, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I know Bavinck and the rest of the Reformed see a great place for nature. I was just reading Bavinck this morning talking about the way grace redeems nature in the resurrection.
      e. I don’t think I’d affirm that you’re stupid or rebellious in my appeal to mystery. Well, at least not any more than I am. 😉 Also, perspicuity in the Reformed confession doesn’t affirm that there aren’t areas of less clarity in Scripture. It’s a pushback on a RC doctrine of obscurity in which the Magisterium is the only authority with a light. In any case, it mostly affirms perspicuity in the more important matters of faith that are necessary to salvation. So, it’s possible to affirm perspicuity and appeal to mystery, especially when the Scriptures make it clear that some things are mysterious. 😉
      f. I can see this point. And with God and Abraham, I think what we keep on seeing is that God’s judgments, though veiled to us, are always that of a merciful God whose grace always outruns our own. I think when all is revealed in the age to come, we will see that, even if now we affirm that we cannot.

      Grace and peace to you, sir.

      • I never said I wouldn’t respond to your comments, and even if I had, like you, I would’ve gone back on my word:

        I very much believe Calvinist theology can be beautiful—I’ve encountered it, in the Institutes, Joh Edwards, Barth’s KD, as well as in John Webster’s work and in a great number of other places besides; I only meant that I have a difficult time imagining how we might call any account of double predestination, limited atonement, beautiful—except by making “beautiful” a term that means nothing more than “what God does”; and that’s why I raise the grace/nature issue: if grace is always only opposed to nature, then our human sense of goodness and beauty are necessarily, intrinsically untrustworthy and our statements about God’s goodness and beauty have no analogous foothold on the human/natural side of the human/divine, nature/grace ontological divide.

        I need to read Bavink. Someday.

        I didn’t take you to mean that I was stupid or rebellious. On the contrary. But I did mean that when people make those two moves simultaneously and without much care or nuance—of course I agree that it’s possible to affirm perspicuity of Scripture (in some sense) and the mystery of God’s will, but I’m talking about flat, rigid uses of perspicuity and mystery—the conversation is over. So far as I can tell, you’re not doing that.

        To your last paragraph I can only say, Amen and Marana Tha!

  2. In regard to Barth, it is not even enough to read his doctrine of election in II.2! You also have to consider his strident rejection of Arminianism and, especially, Molinism in his doctrine of the divine perfections in II.1. The relevant pages are 542-607 and especially the excursus on pp. 567-586, where Barth firmly rejects all attempts to condition God’s will on his foreknowledge. At the very least, read the excursus. Twenty pages ain’t so bad! It will help to balance your understanding of how Barth positions himself vis-à-vis the Reformed tradition, which is far too often reduced to his famous reconfiguration of election in II.2.

    And then in your abundant free time, you should consult his early lectures from Göttingen on Calvin and the Reformed confessions, which are both still in print (by Eerdmans and WJK, respectively).

    Kevin (dogmatics.wordpress.com)

      • Ah, very good. Those lectures are among my favorite of his non-CD writings. You would also enjoy his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, which is sadly out of print, but you can find it used online for a reasonable price. I believe John Knox Press was the publisher.

      • Oh, yes, that is also very good.

        “We must stress — even if it seems “dangerous” — that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of His will) than that which comes about in man’s existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorying God. Likewise, God’s beatitude coincides with man’s happiness. Man’s happiness is to make God’s beatitude appear in his life, and God’s beatitude consists in giving Himself to man in the form of human happiness.”

        The Faith of the Church, p. 26

  3. I don’t particularly think Zahnd’s theological ideas are worth too much, to be blunt. Based on my reading his online writings, it seems to be, more or less, based on feelings. What God should/shouldn’t/can/can’t be. Plus, his objections boil down to saying that Calvinism makes God mean. Meh. Invoking ‘scholarship’ (as if Barth, Wright et al don’t have serious problems?)? Meh meh. Dostoevsky? Meh meh meh.

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  5. Pingback: Top #Reformedish Posts of 2014 | Reformedish

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