June 27, 2005

Stereoscopic Calvinism

Shortly after my conversion, I became a Calvinist through reading a study bible that had some notes by Matthew Henry, and also by listening to John MacArthur preach through Romans 9. I was not aware that what I believed was called Calvinism, but I understood my own moral inability and something of God's sovereignty. I started reading the bible with a greater understanding of God's secret will (sometimes called the decretive will). God's complete sovereignty seemed to pervade every page of the bible. I was being trained by preachers and by books to think of God as much bigger than I ever imagined. I read books by R. C. Sproul that broadened my theological horizons. Discerning the sovereignty of God in scripture and in my own life brought comfort, excitement, godly fear and zeal for this truth. I was suspicious of anyone who seemed to threaten this sovereign perspective on God.

What I did not know for a long time (about 12 or 13 years) was that I was neglecting significant passages of scripture that bring balance to this issue. I had been reading the bible with one eyeball so to speak. My decretive eye was very strong and seemed to focus on the passages that confirmed my decretal bent. It was not until conversations with friends on the subject of Hyper-Calvinism that I began to become more epistemologically self-aware. I had only reacted against Arminianism and similar theologies, but I never reacted against the errors of Hyper-Calvinism. I was not really aware of what Hyper-Calvinism was until I studied it a few years ago. Phil Johnson has observed what is perhaps the major problem with Hyper-Calvinism. He said that "in all their discussion of "the will of God," hyper-Calvinists routinely obscure any distinction between God's will as reflected in His commands and His will as reflected in his eternal decrees. Yet that distinction is an essential part of historic Reformed theology." Hyper-Calvinists read the bible with one eyeball. They see the decretive/secret will of God so plainly, and they get confused when one affirms the biblical teaching with regard to God's will as reflected in his commands. This is called the preceptive or revealed will of God. Arminians make a similar error, and only see the biblical teaching on the revealed will of God. They fear coming to Hyper-Calvinist conclusions about God and the biblical teaching, and rightly so. R. L. Dabney describes both sides of the imbalance when he said:
Say that God has no secret decretive will, and He wishes just what He commands and nothing more, and we represent Him as a Being whose desires are perpetually crossed and baffled: yeah, trampled on; the most harassed, embarrassed, and impotent Being in the universe. Deny the other part of our distinction (he means the preceptive will here), and you represent God as acquiescing in all the iniquities done on earth and in hell.
Both of these theological systems, Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism, represent a myopic or cycloptic way of reading the bible. It makes them dizzy to consider opening the closed eye in order to look at things stereoscopically. They suspiciously peer at anyone who tries to open their other eyelid. Those looking stereoscopically at scripture are viewed as holding a contradictory position. The bifocal or dualistic theologian, who wholeheartedly affirms the secret/revealed will of God distinction, gets hit from both sides.

In studying the errors of Hyper-Calvinism, I finally came to a better grasp of volitional complexity in God. My preceptive eye was growing dim from lack of use. I was suffering from a decretal bent of mind, and this was impacting my Christian life and hermeneutical responsibilities. I was not representing God to the world as I should have. My heart was growing cold toward people, and I tended to take a passive 'let go and let God' view of things. I was not zealous for human responsibility, nor was I properly understanding the heart of God toward all lost sinners. God is compassionate and loving toward those he has not elected to everlasting life. Affirming this is no threat to Calvinistic teaching. It is not contradictory, but only appears to be to those looking through one hermeneutical eyeball.

Consider the following passages regarding God's will:

NKJ Mar 3:35 "For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother."

NKJ Luk 7:30 But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.

NKJ Rom 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

NKJ Eph 6:6 not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,

NKJ Col 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.

NKJ 1Th 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality;

NKJ 1Th 5:18 in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

NKJ Heb 10:36 For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise:

NKJ 1Pe 2:15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men --

NKJ 1Pe 4:2 that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.

NKJ 1Jo 2:17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

NKJ Rom 2:18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law,

NKJ Eph 5:17 Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

NKJ Joh 7:17 "If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority.

NKJ Psa 51:6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.

NKJ 1Jo 5:14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.

I believe that all of these passages refer to the will of God in the revealed or preceptive sense. These passages do not contradict those that affirm that the will of God is always accomplished. They just refer to God's will in a different sense. If we learn to distinguish between the biblical senses of words and ideas, then we can learn to look at God stereoscopically and draw near to God. If we relax and allow the bible to affirm what it affirms without imposing our systems on it, then we will come to know God in truth. God may hide himself behind seeming contradictions, but he is not contradictory. He is complex, but not inconsistent with himself.

Look again at the picture of John Calvin above and let your eyes relax. Look at is as you would with a magic eye picture or stereogram. Eventually, you will get a 3D effect because your eyes are both open and relaxed. You will know you are getting the effect when it appears as if three pictures of John Calvin are there. This serves to illustrate the hermeneutical point about God's will, but it also applies to many other areas of theology. We tend to autonomously impose our systems upon the text of scripture and not allow it to correct us. The truth is in a stereocopic Calvinism, and not in a monofocal Hyperism or Arminianism. I will say more on this in the future. Those interested in more on this may click the links on the right side of this page. Listen to Curt Daniel's audio lectures on The History and Theology of Calvinism, and read R. L. Dabney's God's Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy. These resources are very good. That Dabney article can be found here: God's Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy

1 comment:

Martin (UK) said...

Preach it Tony!

I think there's something in human nature coupled with the sin of pride that wants to resolve every paradox and typically does this by deciding which side of the fence they're gonna jump first and then squeezes the biblical data to fit!