Calvinism and Biblical Interpretation
Calvinists make such a fuss about them being better at scriptural interpretation than others who may call themselves fundamentalists. Many calvinists are guilty of even proclaiming that they are the only ones with a genuine understanding of the truth. Al Mohler (of Southern Baptist Convention) clearly thinks so!
“Where else are they going to go? If you’re a theological minded, deeply convictional young evangelical, if you’re committed to the gospel and want to see the nations rejoice in the name of Christ, if you want to see gospel built and structured committed churches, your theology is just going end up basically being Reformed, basically something like this new Calvinism, or you’re going to have to invent some label for what is basically going to be the same thing, there just are not options out there
The typical calvinist will tell you that he is better able to understand the Bible because he is one of the elect, or that he takes a higher view of God’s sovereignty (or grace), but is this true? In fact, calvinists in general are only calvinist in their beliefs because they were “evangelised” at some point in time to look seriously at the doctrines of calvinism, usually by a pastor, friend or teaching media of some kind. Genuine Christians who are not “evangelised” by calvinistic doctrines are, as a rule, non-calvinist. That is, they have to be “informed” in some way concerning calvinism before they will consider the issues. Even (especially) those who read their Bibles thoroughly do not develop calvinist beliefs without some definite contact by a calvinist (or similar), be he pastor, friend, or through some kind of media (DVD, CD, book, etc.).
Therefore, why is it that people need contact with calvinistic doctrines before they become calvinist? Why is it that just reading the Bible alone doesn’t appear to make them calvinistic? For, it does appear that Bible study on its own does not produce calvinist doctrines!
So, to become a calvinist does seem to require some kind of “evangelising” to the creed by a dedicated calvinist contact. But, the question may be asked, can’t they get these doctrines by just reading the Bible without any calvinist “contact”? Well, the answer apparently is a resounding “No!” People just don’t become calvinists by merely reading their Bibles. They become calvinists after being “contacted” by calvinist doctrine via someone or various media. There is clearly a calvinist way of looking at what the Bible says, and this calvinist way is definitely not clear to those who know nothing about calvinist doctrines. In other words, calvinism is a method of Biblical interpretation that is not available to non-calvinists. (As a consequence, many calvinists will declare those who don’t understand calvinist doctrines to be either naïve Christians, or even without any spiritual understanding, that is, non-Christians! Although calvinists prefer to call them “non-elect”, rather than “non-Christians” or “unsaved”.)
Calvinism is a specific code designed to interpret the Bible in a certain specific way. Thus calvinists often declare that they didn’t realise the greater degree of “understanding” they could have of God’s sovereignty and grace, until they embraced calvinism; the calvinist code was the “key” that unlocked the extra knowledge! (This is often termed “esoteric knowledge”; that is, knowledge reserved only for those initiated into the group. Outsiders without such “esoteric knowledge” are therefore supposed to lack much of the knowledge of the insiders.)
Calvinists do claim to be Biblical fundamentalists, yet often arrive at different scriptural conclusions than non-calvinists who also call themselves Biblical fundamentalists, but who study the Bible without the input of calvinist doctrines. How can this be so if both groups allegedly study the Bible with fundamentalist zeal, yet differ so widely in their conclusions? The answer lies in the range of available options for interpretation for each group. While the non-calvinist fundamentalist places certain conditions upon proper Biblical interpretation such as context and consistency of meaning throughout the Bible, the calvinist is required to apply conditions imposed by the teachings of Calvin.
The calvinist cannot avoid being influenced by the teachings of Calvin, or else he wouldn’t be a calvinist. Most calvinist conditions generally do not initially appear to increase the acceptance of any apostasy or non-fundamental doctrines. Calvinist teaching for the uninitiated firstly usually focuses upon the common ground between both calvinist and non-calvinist. (Try reading Beware of calvinists seeking common ground) It is rare for calvinists to immediately come out in the open concerning their allegedly major doctrines, for example, those of unconditional election (the calvinist God chooses from the beginning the small group that will be saved; the rest go to hell without any option otherwise) and limited atonement (that Jesus only died for the sins of those whom the calvinist God would choose for heaven; that is, Jesus didn’t die for the sins of any of those whom the calvinist God condemned to hell for eternity).
A major problem for calvinist interpretation lies with the limiting of certain interpretation options. That is, calvinism has a tendency to decrease options for interpretation, thus limiting Biblical understanding. Some might say that this makes them more fundamentalist, but in reality they’ve limited the options too much. For example, their gospel is far simpler than the non-calvinist fundamentalist gospel: for the calvinist, you are either saved or not saved; you do not get a choice; the calvinist God has chosen and you simply fit in with that; it is your destiny!
For example, when a calvinist comes across passages such as Isaiah 11 which discusses the ultimate redemption of the remnant of Israel with respect to the millennium and the new heavens & new earth, he cannot accept that this is actually a literal Israel being talked about. According to calvinist doctrine, their sovereign God has rejected Israel, and the church has taken her place. For the calvinist, there can be no option of there being a literal Israel in the future. Therefore, it must be an analogous Israel, that is, the church which has taken the place of Israel’s future. For, if you remove the option of a literal future Israel, then you have to teach that this can only mean the church! Limiting true options will force wrong doctrines!
On a side issue, note the conflict between creation and evolution. Creation is actually much more provable and logical from all sides, but it requires a belief in God. However, the world refuses to believe in God. Thus, creation has been removed from the list of acceptable options because it requires a trust in God whom the world refuses to have as an option. Therefore, evolution becomes the preferred option simply because, with creation out of the way, evolution becomes the next best-fit option! Evolution is not accepted because it fits the facts, because it actually doesn’t fit all the facts! There are many problems with evolution, including a total lack of intermediate fossil evidence between the alleged evolving species from one into another. Evolution is accepted, though, because the options have been limited to exclude creation. Think about it!
In interpreting the Bible, the calvinist does not usually see himself as apostate. In fact, he believes himself to be fundamentalist in his views, probably even more fundamentalist than non-calvinist fundamentalists. He may have added some interpretation options, but in general he has decreased the options available. He is likely to believe that, in limiting such options, he has actually limited the risk of apostasy! He may even be upset if someone were to call him a false teacher. However, no matter how much he believes his rules for interpretation to be true, if they are not true, then, instead of limiting apostasy, he has actually limited the truth.
Tightening up rules of interpretation may be seen as necessary when dealing with doctrines based upon loose rules. This is obvious when dealing with churches that justify such things as spiritual manifestations (such as tongues and slaying in the spirit) as works of God. Such churches avoid testing the spirits to see if they be of God, thereby making it possible (and indeed probable) that such spirits are really of satan. Such “loose” doctrines definitely need tightening up to avoid the apostasy of charismatic churches; just note the “Toronto blessing”, which was (is) clearly demonic.
However, tightening up rules of interpretation just to increase fundamentalism is not necessarily justified if it were to actually reduce genuine truths of the Bible. The denial of a literal Israel in the future is such a case. That Isaiah 11 is really talking about a literal Israel is beyond question; it cannot be read with any sense otherwise. Yet why do such eminent commentaries such as Gill maintain that Judah and Israel have to be re-translated as the church in order to make sense?
Note the commentary on Isaiah 11:7, by Gill, a calvinist teacher.
“And the cow and the bear shall feed” That is, together, in one church state, at one table, or in one pasture, upon the wholesome food of the Gospel, the salutary doctrines of Christ; who though before of different dispositions, the one tame and gentle, useful and profitable, dispensing the milk of the divine word, and gracious experience; the other cruel and voracious, barbarous and inhuman, worrying the lambs and sheep of Christ; but now of the same nature, and having no ill will to one another, and being without fear of each other:
It is impossible to avoid seeing the implications by Gill in this concerning the “reformed” or “nicer people” (the puritans, or calvinists) eating in accord with those who once persecuted them (probably seen by him as the catholic persecution). Of course, Gill (on Isaiah 11:6) says that this is like Saul the persecutor, “through converting grace”, becoming “as gentle and harmless as lambs, and take up their residence in Christ’s fold.” That is, Saul the tormentor becomes Paul the lamb. But the analogy is somewhat flawed, in that if Saul is a bear tormenting the cows, then he must remain a bear feeding with the cow in Isaiah 11:7. But, Paul did not just become a “nicer” bear; he changed from being a bear to a cow, or, in this case, a sheep of the sheepfold. He became a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
For both cow and bear to remain separate yet eating in peace (in accord) at the one table, it can only mean that the two separate groups have remained two separate groups. The bear remains a bear (albeit a nicer bear!) and the cow remains a cow! But the Christian is a new creation, so scriptural consistency cannot accept this explanation by Gill concerning this verse. Thus, for Gill to be right, the Bible should have said that two cows (one previously a bear) were eating together!
So, the question now is: Just why has Gill delivered such an awkward explanation? The third rule of Biblical interpretation (the first two deal with context and facts presented) is as follows:
“When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”
The actual literal meaning (which indeed makes common sense) of Isaiah 11:7 is that the context of Ch.11 is about the future of a literal Israel. Most calvinists (this includes Gill) do not believe in a literal remnant of Israel returning, preferring to teach that the church has either taken over the role of Israel, or has become Israel herself.
Gill, in the following verses in Ch.11, names “Judah” in Vs 13 as God’s professing people, and their adversaries as the Turks and Papists. In Vs 14 Gill relates the victories to those of Christ’s church. In Vs 15 Gill says that the drying up of the river signifies the destruction of the Turks or the Ottoman empire. And in Vs 16, Gill says that the highway signifies the removal of all hindrances and obstacles, leading to the Mahometan, Pagan and Papal kingdoms being destroyed. It is difficult indeed to see how this makes sense, unless, of course, your interpretation cannot include any option of a literal Israel in the future.
This is the main point, then. Calvinists not only claim to interpret the Bible from a fundamentalist viewpoint, which would be quite realistic and acceptable, but they have extra limitations imposed on their interpretations, such as that just demonstrated above concerning Israel in the future. The list of interpretation options is also limited by Calvin’s teachings that man has no free will to oppose a sovereign God, and that the calvinist God does not use foreknowledge to determine whether a person will receive Christ or not. There are many other limitations but these main ones will suffice to demonstrate that calvinists are required by their doctrinal beliefs to remove certain options from the list of possible interpretations.
Thus, the calvinist cannot accept the following options in Biblical interpretation:
(a) They cannot accept that there is a literal Israel according to prophecy of the future.
Most calvinists teach that the church will replace most, if not all, future prophecy concerning Israel.
(b) They cannot accept that man has any free will at all, especially in salvation.
Some calvinists will accept a partial option here, in that they may teach that man has some free will, but they cannot accept any option that man can accept or reject salvation in Christ. They teach that the calvinist God chose, before the beginning of the world, who would be saved, and only these would go to heaven; the rest would go to hell because God did not choose to save them.
(c) They cannot accept that God uses foreknowledge to determine the future, especially with respect to decisions concerning salvation.
Many calvinists also teach that the calvinist God cannot foreknow anything in the future unless He has already foreordained it from the beginning. Some may teach (like MacArthur) that God’s foreknowledge is a special relationship between Him and His people, and thus has nothing to do with non-saved people.
(d) They cannot accept that Jesus died for all people.
Most calvinists teach that Jesus only died to pay for the sins of the 1% of mankind that the calvinist God chose for salvation. The calvinist Jesus didn’t die for 99% of mankind, and that only the elect for whom Jesus died will be forgiven their sins and go to heaven. The non-elect (non-saved) have no hope for heaven because their sins have never been paid for on the cross; therefore they will be condemned to hell for eternity. The calvinist God chose the elect before the beginning of the world, and no-one can choose in any way which group they wish to be in.
(e) They cannot accept that anyone has the right to ask God to save them.
Calvinists teach that to accept the full and free salvation offered by Christ is therefore a work of that salvation; thus the calvinist God cannot accept anyone who decides to accept the salvation the Bible offers freely to all! It is worth noting that the publican (or tax-collector in other versions) in Luke 18 did indeed pray what can only be described as a sinner’s prayer, and Jesus declared him justified!
Luke 18:13-14 – 13And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as [his] eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me (that is, “propitiate me”) a sinner. 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Some calvinists may well be well-meaning in their belief that they are taking Biblical fundamentalism to a higher level by reducing the options for interpretation. They claim that they take a higher view of God’s sovereignty, and they claim that they better understand the grace of God. However, by limiting, as they do, their options of Biblical interpretation, they are, in actual fact, limiting not only God’s sovereignty and grace, but they are limiting the love of God who does genuinely desire the salvation of all people (1 Timothy 2:4). Instead of recognising God’s absolute authority over all creation, they have set limits on what He can and can’t do. In this way, they have limited God’s sovereignty. Instead of recognising God’s love for all the world that sent Jesus to die for all mankind, they have limited the extent of that infinite sacrifice. In this way, they have limited God’s grace.
What right does man have to impose a condition upon God requiring that He permit no free will for man? How can God be less sovereign if He permits free will, yet requiring an accounting for each and every free will action of mankind in the judgment? Calvinists claim that their God is more sovereign, yet they have removed some of His right to decide for Himself whether He should or should not allow such things as free will for mankind.
God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest thou?” Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.
(Knowledge of the Holy A W Tozer Page 76)
In an effort to somehow prove that their doctrines are purer, calvinists have limited the options available to them for proper interpretation of the Bible. This has been based upon the teachings of Calvin. The limiting of certain options may be desirable in some circumstances where such options could lead to apostasy, such as the false spirits demonstrated in many pentecostal churches. But it is likewise apostasy to limit the options such that Biblical truth itself is limited, for then the glory of God is likewise limited. The Bible permits its own truth to be discovered fully without external guides. Adding or removing options from its interpretation can only lessen that truth, and consequently lessen the glory of a truly sovereign God. And the only way to learn true Biblical truth is to let the Bible itself demonstrate its own truth without the additions from man’s wisdom that can only reduce Biblical wisdom. (See Matthew 15:9)
Calvinists, by relying upon the teachings of Calvin to define their truth, have actually limited God’s truth, and consequently they have limited God’s sovereignty, love and grace. By removing significant options in Biblical interpretation, they have defined a lie, a doctrine of devils, a corruption of the truth, and a denial of the faith once delivered to the saints.
Jude 3-4 – 3Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort [you] that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. 4For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
For further information on calvinists and true Biblical fundamentalism, please see What is True Biblical Fundamentalism?
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