Armchair Apology

Last week, I wrote that I had an “apology” in the works. This is it. It’s an apology in both senses of the word: I express regret for my intellectual sin and I provide an explanation for why I sinned in a particular manner. Here goes.

A while back, I took issue with Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. I stated my opinion that his arrival at this doctrine was the product of a flawed hermeneutic. I contended that the specific nature of the flaw was that Calvin’s hermeneutic failed to see the Scriptures, particularly the writings of Paul, from an Eastern/Jewish worldview. Deservedly, this wording drew criticism from someone in the Reformed Theology camp. Since that post, I’ve come to the point where I would like to make some corrections to the statements which represented my understanding at the time followed by a defense of my conflation of some important concepts.

First, I would like to address my comment regarding Calvin’s hermeneutic. In my original post, I was wrong to write out of my ignorance. I’m sorry. However, thanks to this summary of Calvin’s hermeneutical principles by Pastor Biggs, I am no longer ignorant. While it is apparent to me now that Calvin attempted to take into account both the intent of the author and the historical context of the Scripture, I still believe that Calvin’s understanding of the author’s intent and of the historical context was shaped by his Western/Gentile worldview. Originally, I reasoned this way:

Calvin was a product of Western/Gentile culture. He was influenced by Augustine, another product of Western/Gentile culture (by way of Greco-Roman culture). Therefore, Calvin did not try to understand the Scripture from the perspective of a first century Palestinian Jew, which Paul certainly was. Had Calvin tried to understand Scripture with an Eastern/ Jewish perspective in mind, then he probably would not have articulated the doctrine of predestination as he did, if at all.

Now, I understand that Calvin was influenced not only by Augustine, but several other church fathers. As is pointed out by R.Ward Holder in this paper concerning Calvin’s exegesis of Romans 7, “Augustine was not the only Father who influenced Calvin. Especially in his exegetical writings, Calvin frequently considered the opinions of Ambrose, Origen, and Jerome, among others. But the citations to Chrysostom far outstripped these.” Each one of these men were Gentiles by birth and (with one possible exception) Western in so much that being products of Greco-Roman culture made one Western. Consequently, I continue to believe that my earlier position is not entirely unreasonable and without merit. (See this and this if you’ve got the time.) For clarity’s sake, I’ll restate my position: I believe that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is NOT the product of interpreting the Scripture (particularly Paul) with the Eastern/Jewish worldview of the authors in mind. Instead, I think that he comes to the doctrine of predestination partly as a result of the Western/Gentile worldview which both he and his main influences possessed. I suggest that attempting to interpret Scripture with the Eastern/Jewish worldview of the authors (and some, but not all, intended audiences) in mind, Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is not an unavoidable theological conclusion. (Which I suppose is obvious because not everyone has come to hold Calvin’s views on predestination.)

The second issue that I want to address is my erroneous conflation of the following three doctrines: predestination, determinism and fatalism. Since my original post, I’ve been learning about these three doctrines and I believe I understand why the conflation of these three concepts was a mistake. At the very least, I certainly understand now why Calvinists/Reformed theologians would find fault with saying that they are the same things, which I did. However, I would like to demonstrate that the mistake is an easy and understandable one to make.

Even though I think that the Wikipedia has to be taken with a grain of salt, I’m going to gladly accept its support on this point and quote the following:

Concerning predestination:

“Predestination may sometimes be used to refer to other, materialistic, spiritualist, non-theistic or polytheistic ideas of determinism, destiny, fate, doom, or karma. Such beliefs or philosophical systems may hold that any outcome is finally determined by the complex interaction of multiple, possibly immanent, possibly impersonal, possibly equal forces, rather than the issue of a Creator’s conscious choice.”

At other times, it may be used to refer to the issue of a Creator’s conscious choice.

Concerning determinism:

“It is a popular misconception that determinism necessarily entails that humanity or individual humans have no influence on the future and its events (a position known as Fatalism);”

So, I’m not alone in my error. In fact, lots of people make it.

Concerning fatalism:

“While the terms are often used interchangeably, fatalism, determinism, and predestination are discrete in emphasizing different aspects of the futility of human will or the foreordination of destiny. However, all these doctrines share common ground.”

Of course, all bolding is mine.

Again, the Wikipedia may lack credibility, so I have to say that I didn’t really feel my confusion on these doctrines was validated until I read excerpts from the Belgic and Westminster confessions.

The Belgic Confession of Faith of 1561 states:

“We believe that all the posterity of Adam, being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest himself such as he is; that is to say, merciful and just: Merciful, since he delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable council, of mere goodness hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without respect to their works: Just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves. (Art. XVI)”

Take note of the word “unchangeable”. The definition of fate is that the outcome is unchangeable. In this confession, God’s council is unchangeable, that is to say that God’s decision on the matter can not be changed. He has decided. Humans can not avoid their destiny, be it heaven or hell.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1643) says this about predestination:

“God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected . . . are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power. through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His Sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.” (Chap. III — Articles I, III, VI and VII)

This confession goes a bit further than just individual salvation and says that “whatsoever comes to pass” has been decided by God beforehand and “whatsoever” is “unchangeable”. So, even these documents, important to Reformation history, use language that can be easily understood by the uninitiated (me) as fatalistic (in the sense that the future outcome is unavoidable) and deterministic (in the sense that there is an external agent moving humans to a particular end).

Even this summary of Calvin’s Institutes uses language reminiscent of fatalism and determinism: “God once established by His eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive unto salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would have to devote to destruction.” Though it was certainly an error to conflate the doctrines of predestination, determinism and fatalism, I believe that I’ve demonstrated that it was an understandable one to make.

To sum up: my original assumption concerning Calvin’s hermeneutic was based on ignorance and I was wrong to conflate the doctrines of predestination, determinism and fatalism in the manner that I did in that post. I apologize. I’ve learned better and I am learning still and it seemed right to me to say something publicly about that since I made my errors publicly in that original post.


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