I’ve never been a fan of Jean Calvin’s theology.
Even before I learned who Calvin was or what his five points were all about, I was in disagreement with him by way of his theological descendants on such things as “once saved, always saved”. As a young adult, I took an interest in Reformed Theology when a friend of mine became active in a Presbyterian church. I made a point of understanding the debate between Arminism and Calvinism and what I found was that Calvinism is a biblical doctrine. No, seriously. I had not realized that Reformed folks held a high-view of Scripture and that the “Doctrines of Grace” where thoroughly rooted in the Biblical text. That being said, I believe that a doctrine can be biblical and still be wrong. How? Flawed hermeneutics.
Calvin and company viewed Scripture through a flawed hermeneutical lens which resulted in seeing such things as ‘predestination’ and ‘perseverance of the saints’ when a different lens would have revealed something else. Thanks to a sermon by Mark Driscoll, I realized one evening not long ago that my problem with Calvinism is this metaphorical lens through which it views and interprets the Bible.
Mark was teaching about the doctrine of Predestination in his series “Religion Saves + 9 Other Misconceptions” when I had my epiphany. After a reference that he made in his lesson to two ancient church fathers; Origen and Augustine, I found myself thinking, “What about Jewish theologians?”. I realized that Mark was citing two people from Gentile backgrounds who read the Scriptures with Greco-Roman eyes. (See this and this.) As I thought about it some more, I understood that this is my problem with the doctrine of Predestination as well as Calvinism as a whole: it is the product of a Western/Gentile worldview and not an Eastern/Jewish worldview. Consequently, I went in search of Judaism’s take on predestination aka “determinism”(For an interesting discussion on God’s sovereignty and philosophical determinism, see this. For one rabbi’s attempt to answer questions on determinism, see this.) . Here’s what I found.
Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived comfortably in the lap of the Roman Empire wrote for his Roman patron(s) that there were three main sects of Judaism in his day and that one of the ways to distinguish them was by their deterministic views. According to Josephus, the Sadducees were the least deterministic, believing that God had given man free will and left him to get on with life. The Essenes were the most deterministic, holding that all is mapped out. No choices. No freedom. All is decided. Between these two poles were the Pharisees who held that while God sovereignly rules his creation, he permits humans the moral freedom and responsibility to choose between right and wrong.1
The Bible is clear: Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee. In fact he was a rather “successful” Pharisee, meaning that he was very good at doing and being whatever it was that made one a Pharisee. Why not then assume that Saul held typical Pharisaical views of theology? Furthermore, when Saul of Tarsus became the Apostle Paul, why believe that his Pharisaical education evaporated and was replaced with Calvin’s systematic theology? It seems to me that when we read Paul’s statements about God’s “foreknowledge”, “predestination” and “election”, we should strive to understand them from the perspective of a first century Pharisee and not St. Augustine via Calvin and other Reformers.
I believe that Calvin’s systematic theology goes wrong because it interprets the Scripture from a Western/Greek perspective. Fate is a Greek concept; not a Jewish one. (Note: fatalism is not a feature of Calvinist theology, however it seems to me that it is a common error among Calvinists.) That isn’t to say that there weren’t Jews who held ideas which were similar to “fate”. However, there is not much reason to believe that the Apostle Paul was one of them. In fact, there is reason to believe that as a Pharisee, Paul held a sort of middle position which acknowledged the sovereignty of God without relinquishing the ability of men to make genuine moral choices (as opposed to predetermined moral choices). Consequently, any interpretation of Paul which sounds more like hard-determinism is, in my opinion, suspect. That would include Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.
NB: In the interest of transparency and honesty, readers should know that everything in green was added following comments by Kyle. They were not present in the original post which his comments address.