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Why Calvinism is Wrong, pt. 4 – Rhetoric

January 12, 2013 Leave a comment

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Romans 3:10-11

This is a favorite scripture of Calvinists, and is used almost exclusively to defend their “Total Depravity” doctrine. Using this as a proof-text, Calvinists say, “See! There is no one who has the ability to seek after God! There is no one who will, of himself, turn to God or believe in him!” What they fail to take into consideration is the fact that this is quoted from a psalm – Psalm 14. Now for those who may not know it, the Psalms are poems not instructional lectures. That is, they use creative phrases, word pictures and all sorts of rhetorical devices to present their information in an interesting way. Let me provide an example from another famous Psalm that should not be taken literally, but understood as using rhetoric to make a theological point.

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Psalm 110:1

This is a Messianic Psalm, speaking of Christ’s reign with the Father “at the Father’s right hand.” This became a favorite phrase for New Testament writers, as it illustrated the extent of the exaltation of Christ. He couldn’t go any higher!

Image

Many assume this verse presents a literal reality – that Christ is seated upon a throne in heaven that is placed to the right of the throne of God, something like this picture to the right. (I feel kinda bad for the Holy Spirit in this picture – He apparently doesn’t get a throne, and He apparently is a bird).

But isn’t God a Spirit (John 4:24), and isn’t He omnipresent (Jeremiah 23:24)? So how far did Jesus have to travel before He got to the “right hand” of God? Furthermore, are we to take the second part of the verse literally? Are we to assume that Jesus is actually up in heaven with his feet propped up on the backs of his enemies? We all understand intuitively that this verse is representing a theological reality in poetic terms. So what is the theological message? That Jesus Christ is highly exalted and utterly victorious! Amen!

Let’s look at a couple of Jesus’ own statements that use rhetorical devices.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… Matthew 5:29

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

In all of these verses Jesus is using a very common figure of speech – hyperbole. Hyperbole is exaggeration in order to emphasize a point. We use hyperbole all the time in our daily lives: “It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” “You scared me to death!” “I’m starving!”

Now if exaggeration/hyperbole is a normal part of everyday speech for us, isn’t it reasonable to assume it was also a common form of speech for people in the first century? Obviously from these, and other statements by Jesus (and others in the Bible), we can easily see that it was. Jesus didn’t not want people to pluck out their eyes. Jesus wasn’t saying that rich people could never be saved (cf. Barnabas). Jesus was not telling us to literally hate our parents and siblings. All of these statements are exaggerations to make a point. “Pluck out your eye,” was a way of saying “Personal holiness ought to be worth any sacrifice.” The statement “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” was a way of saying that those who trust in their riches will have a difficult time transferring that trust to God. And “hating father and mother” was a way of saying that Jesus needs to be the supreme love in our lives, far above even our familial love.

So what’s my point in all of this? The verse above, quoted from Psalm 14 was hyperbole. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Are we really supposed to believe that there is literally not a single righteous person on the earth? Are we to believe in all of human history there has never been a person who sought after God or desired Him? The Calvinist insists we must, otherwise their theology falls flat. I would say that reason and scripture together prove this notion – that no one has ever sought God – is patently false. Countless Jews under the Old Testament sought and loved God. “Yeah, but they were the elect!” the Calvinist will say. Well, there were also many Gentiles, known widely as “God-fearers” and “God-worshipers” who chose to leave their false religions and gods to worship the one true God. Such were the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip found reading scripture in his chariot and the Roman Centurion to whom Peter was sent by a vision. These were Gentiles, non-elect individuals, who sought God.

So what is Psalm 14, and consequently Romans 3, trying to say? That sin is rampant and wide-spread, and that everyone needs God. In fact, if we will be honest with the context of Romans 3, we will find that Paul’s ultimate argument is that Jews and Gentiles are equally in need of God’s salvation. In fact, the verse immediately preceding Paul’s quotation of Psalm 14 is this:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…  Romans 3:9

Sorry Calvinists, Romans 3 and Psalm 14 are using hyperbole to illustrate that every person needs salvation because every person is sinful, not that man is unable to seek God or to respond to the Gospel message. Once again, taking the simple, obvious meaning of the text thwarts your doctrine.

Why Calvinism is Wrong, pt. 3 – Grammar

November 15, 2012 Leave a comment

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Ephesians 2:8-9

This is one the great verses of the Bible. In many ways this is our spiritual Emancipation Proclamation. It tells us that we are no longer obligated to earn God’s favor, but that only through faith may we be accepted in Him. What freedom!

However, those pesky Calvinists have to come in and ruin it! They interpret this verse differently than most, and it is all based on their understanding of the grammar in this verse. Their whole understanding hinges on one word in the verse. Believe it or not, that one word is “it.” No, really. When you come to that part of the passage which says, “it is the gift of God,” Calvinists will tell you that you’ve misunderstood the passage all along. Let’s parse this verse out, shall we?

For by grace you have been saved…

This is the main proposition of the passage, the statement which guides the rest of the context. This defining concept – that you have been saved by grace – is the cornerstone of our understanding for the rest of the passage. Until this basic premise is understood, none of the rest of the passage may be understood.

“Grace,” in its most basic definition means simply “a gift.” Thus, our salvation is a gift – not earned, but simply received or accepted.

…through faith…

Secondly, this whole process occurs through faith. That is, this transaction which we call “salvation” occurs through our faith, our believing. God (the giver) extends this gift of salvation to us (the receivers) and we accept the gift through faith.

It’s the next part that gets tricky (well, it’s tricky for the Calvinists…to the rest of us the plain meaning works just fine).

…And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

We must define here what “this” and “it” are referring to. That is, when it says “this is not your own doing,” we must ask, what is not your own doing. And when it says, “it is the gift of God,” we must ask, what is the gift of God.

For the typical Christian who prefers not to over-complicate or over-explain things, we understand immediately that the  “this” and the “it” refer to salvation. Thus the verse may be rendered as follows:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this [salvation] is not from yourselves; [salvation] is the gift of God.”

But the Calvinists disagree. They say that the “this” and the “it” refer to faith. Thus the verse should read:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this [faith] is not from yourselves; [faith] is the gift of God.”

Clever though it may be, this kind of grammatical chicanery serves only to obfuscate its syntactical perspicuity.

Okay, I was showing off there. But it actually had a purpose. If you understood that sentence, good for you. But for the rest of you, all I said was that they made something that is simple, complicated. I made that simple sentence complicated by using a thesaurus. The Calvinists make this verse complicated by using grammar.

The idea that it is faith itself which is the gift of God, is a concept which is foreign to the rest of scripture. Thus, if this is the true meaning of this verse, then it, at best, becomes one of those troubling verses we would prefer not to talk about – like the verse about baptizing for the dead.

However, if interpreted rightly, it fits in perfectly with the rest of Paul’s (yea, the whole Bible’s) teachings about salvation as a free gift not obtained through works. Take the following verses as examples:

Galatians 2:16, 21 – “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified…I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

Romans 3:20-24 – “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Thus, the clear and sensible interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 is the correct one, following in the clear theology of Paul that salvation (not faith) is the free gift of God, and not received by works.