Calvinism skews Scripture
I renounced Calvinism so I could see Scripture plainly
We were studying the book of Hebrews at our Church’s Bible Study last year. And I can vividly recollect how everyone was trying to understand the following warning:
Hebrews 2:1–3 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, [NET2]
I could sense the discomfort everyone had in interpreting the underlined text because I too was once a Calvinist — only for 8 months though. This discomfort is the reason I left Calvinism for a more Biblical viewpoint.
My Calvinist journey
One year after moving to Dehradun, I began to worship with a Presbyterian Church (where I’m a member now). I happily devoured Calvinist resources, and theology notes shared by friends who taught at the Seminary where we meet for fellowship. I loved the logical consistency of the Calvinistic viewpoint.
There are a lot of things I admire about the reformed tradition — their love for God’s Word, their emphasis on God’s Glory and Sovereignty, and how they faithfully hold to the infallibility, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures. Calvinists tend to be more intellectually inclined and their resources have been a blessing to me, edifying and exhorting me. And need I say that I love Wretched? However today, I’m not a Calvinist. I still worship with my Calvinist friends and we engage in meaningful conversations about our differences. However, I don’t affirm the TULIP anymore.
My struggle with interpretation
My problem was not really with the TULIP but with what the TULIP did to me. Once you label yourself “Calvinist” or “Reformed”, you put on theological lenses that will make you see the Scriptures in a certain way. Once you have used one bunch of verses to reach a conclusion that a believer (or elect) cannot lose his or her salvation, then you will face a lot of passages that you’ll end up labeling as “problematic” or “hypothetical”. A lot of warnings in the Bible will become “inapplicable” to you. You can claim to take them “seriously” but you cannot take them at face value because, if you do so, your Calvinist conclusions would come under threat.
While I was a Calvinist, I gradually discovered that I could not treat every scripture with equal authority. I found myself increasingly cherry-picking parts of scripture that agreed with my view and limiting the scope of what other scriptures say. Randy Alcorn describes this best:
If staying consistent with a system is our priority, we’ll wear lenses that allow us to always see Scripture as making inferences we would never see were we not bringing our theology to the text and trying to make the text harmonize with it. Meanwhile we may explain away what appears to be the clear meaning of texts by reinterpreting them to say something counterintuitive to their wording (elect doesn’t mean elect, all does not mean all).
- Alcorn, Randy. hand in Hand (pp. 31–32).
When I gradually set aside my Calvinist viewpoint, I could read the Scriptures without the pressure of trying to reconcile passages that contradicted my former Calvinist convictions. I learned to take warnings at face value without dismissing them or explaining them away. This is the biggest difficulty many Calvinists face — they assume TULIP to be true and then struggle with many passages (like the warning passage of Hebrews I told about). Calvinists simply cannot interpret all Scripture plainly.
John Piper in his book “Five Points”, begins by saying that he would start with the Scriptures and end with TULIP. But he does not. He ends up defending TULIP with Scripture instead. I was disappointed to see Piper’s approach. I’m not singling out Piper — this approach is common to all Calvinists. Because if you start with all of Scripture, you cannot end up with the five points (Unless you favor one set of verses over the other). David Pawson summarizes this beautifully:
Over the years I have discussed this issue with many Christians and made two surprising discoveries. On the one hand, most if not all of those who believe it [reformed view of salvation] do so because they were told to. They did not find it for themselves but heard it from someone else. They were therefore more influenced by a particular interpretation of selected passages than by searching the Scriptures for themselves. In other words, they came to the Bible expecting to find it — and therefore did. I have asked my fellow preachers why they preach it and not one has said, ‘because it’s in the Bible’. Every one, without exception, has said: ‘I’m of the Reformed (or Calvinist) position’, revealing that the main influence on their thinking dates from many centuries later than the New Testament. On the other hand, everyone I have met who has had to study the Bible without anyone’s help has come to the conclusion that they will have to ‘keep it up’ if they are finally to reach heaven.
Pawson, David. Once Saved, Always Saved? — (pg. 4, Prologue)
Two reasons for apostasy
Whenever you read about people falling away from the faith, the Scripture gives two reasons:
- One is what the Calvinists say: the apostate was not really a true believer in the first place. He only seemed like one — he was a false convert.
- There is one more reason that the Scripture gives as well: that a genuine believer loses faith and gradually drifts away from the truth. The book of Hebrews talks about this and illustrates this clearly and explicitly.
From a plain reading of Scriptures, I can say that the Bible clearly teaches two distinct reasons for apostasy (falling away from faith). What I don’t understand is the stubborn Calvinist denial of the second reason! Calvinists explain away all obvious, explicit warnings in the letter to Hebrews. I find this frustrating because almost every well-known respectable preacher or blogger grounded in the reformed tradition will begin by saying that these passages are “difficult” to understand! The truth is that any passage in the Bible will be difficult for you if you come with a preconceived idea and try to fit your idea into the Bible instead of changing your theology to fit what the Bible says.
I don’t have a theology degree but I interpret the Bible as I interpret any other book — plainly. For Calvinists, “no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28) trumps all the warning passages of Hebrews. So, they end up concluding that the warning passages of Hebrews are hypothetical or that the kind of person described there is not a genuine believer — I honestly believe that all such reasoning are attempts to explain away the obvious meaning. You’re not doing justice to the author of Hebrews when you do that. That’s like telling the author of Hebrews in the face, “Yeah, I take your warnings but you were not serious, were you? I mean, this can’t happen to me right? You’re talking about somebody else or you’re just presenting a hypothetical case for me”
I disavowed the TULIP to save myself from such biased interpretation. I wanted to interpret Scripture plainly without reading into passages what I want to see.
Can I hold on to the Scripture’s assurances of salvation without watering down warnings by coming to a conclusion like the Calvinist? Definitely! Can I hold God’s sovereignty and Man’s responsibility in a balance without becoming a “effort-alone-leads-to-salvation” Pelagian or a “God-does-everything” Calvinist? Why not? Don’t we believe that God is three and one at the same time — though we don’t fully understand the Trinity? Don’t we believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human at the same time? Even as these truths are seemingly contradictory, we hold them to be divine mystery beyond the comprehension of normal human mind. The same way, I’m learning to hold the words of assurance and warnings in a balance without trying to systemically fit things in a partial package and explain away passages that don’t fit the bill!
If I can believe the Trinity and that Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time, then I can very well believe God’s words of assurance and take warnings at face value at the same time without having to label myself “Calvinist” or “Reformed” and categorize those passages as “problematic” or “hypothetical”. Finally, it is always best to remind oneself that Calvinism is not infallible. Scripture alone is. Calvinism is not orthodoxy. Calvinism is not equal to Scripture.
Calvinism is just one way of seeing Scripture. To deny the TULIP is not to deny your Christian faith.
Why am I writing this
It is very difficult to convince YOURSELF to leave a long held theological perspective and next to impossible to convince another
Leighton Flowers — Soteriology 101
Leighton’s words show great insight! For the same reason, it is not my intention to convince those who are committed to the Calvinist or Reformed position but I do hope and pray that my words will make you think and reflect. I want to challenge your interpretation of Scripture and dislodge prejudices. My intention is not to challenge your theological conclusions but to challenge the method of interpretation you used to come to your conclusions — Did you favor one set of verses over the other or did you take all Scripture at face value? Did you believe something is true just because the Reformed Tradition says so or did you arrive at the conclusion yourself?
I have not attempted to refute anyone’s arguments. In fact, what I’m writing is not even about whether a believer can lose his salvation or not. I’m writing this because I’m concerned about how we interpret Scripture. I reckon that Reformed Theology is a major force in Christianity today — and many people are moving toward it, especially those who are sickened by the extremes of Pentecostalism. However, Reformed Theology is not free from biases and unbiblical influences.
I’m sure my reformed friends will agree with me that we must never put on lenses when we come to Scripture. We must face the truths of Scripture, the obvious meanings and interpretation of passages — whether they fit into our “system” or not. If we desperately try to fit passages of Bible into our theological system — be it Calvinism or Arminianism or Traditionalism — we will always miss the Truth.
P.S: If you’re keen on listening to arguments with an “open mind”, Dr. Norman Geisler has a good one (for those who don’t have time), David Pawson has a comprehensive study (for those who want to dive deep into the whole debate) and Randy Alcorn has an excellent brain-stretcher! (for those who are adamantly one-sided).