Growing up with an interest in apologetics, I have very fond memories of listening to the radio program "To Every Man An Answer" (which is now called Pastor's Perspective). It was a routine of mine to listen to the show after school every day. I learned a great deal over the years and am very grateful for the host, Don Stewart.
I say all this so my critique below is not taken as an angry or bitter resentment toward the Calvary Chapel movement. Ordinarily I wouldn't feel the need to comment but I think the audio clip below deserves a response.
As you will hear, a caller on the show asks about Calvinism (often used synonymously with Reformed theology) and is wondering how to respond to someone very close to her who has just become a very vocal five-point Calvinist.
Listen to the audio clip from the show:
My comments here are not so much directed toward Don Stewart. Nor are they aimed at Chuck Smith and his exposition of Romans 8:28-30. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries comments on this entire audio which you can listen to here and also here if you so desire. I warn you in advance that James White is much more direct than I am here.
What I am more interested in taking issue with are the comments made by Pastor Brian Brodersen which I think are very uncharitable and misguided. I have put his troublesome statements in bold below with a response underneath.
1. "I wouldn't necessarily recommend arguing with this person."
Why not? Are we interested in truth? I understand if your interlocutor is unwilling to have a civilized conversation or is simply being argumentative. The wise choice in a situation such as that may be to politely end the conversation. But why is Brian's first response to this question a recommendation to disengage? Can't we argue without being argumentative? Isn't this what Jesus and the apostle Paul did? I would think that if you have truth on your side you would be all the more willing to defend your position. I think advice such as this prevents meaningful dialogue from ever taking place. To be quite honest, I don't think this type of response is helpful in the least.
2. "They are kind of like cultists. They get a number of verses under their belt and just argue around those verses."
Wow! Notice Brian likens Calvinists to cultists because, according to him, they resort to a list of proof texts in order to support their position. And yet if you listened to the audio clip above you'll notice that the entire commentary and "refutation" of Calvinism was a string of proof texts provided by the Calvary Chapel commentators! They mentioned 2 Peter 2, 1 Timothy 4, John 5, Matthew 23, and John 17. They provided no exegesis of these passages but simply read them and assumed their interpretation was correct.
Furthermore, isn't it the cultists who tell their followers to avoid argumentation and difficult verses? Isn't it the cultists who bolster their position with proof texts devoid of exegesis? Ironically, it would seem that if Brian were to be judged by his own standard of proof texting it is he who is like the cultist!
Even worse, Calvinists are likened to cultists and yet their views are not even accurately represented, as will be seen below.
3. "Now when I've brought this (verse) up to Calvinists they tend to say, 'Well that's a hard verse, we don't really know what it means, let's not talk about it.' Of course it's a hard verse because it contradicts their theories. But I'd like to stick with the Bible and not with the theories of these guys."
In this comment Brian is referring to 2 Peter 2:1 which states, "But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction."
Notice that Brian seems to indicate he has not come across a single Calvinist who has provided him with a satisfying response to this verse. He also seems to indicate that Calvinists in general prefer to avoid this verse because it is so devastating to their position. This makes me wonder how many Calvinists Brian has really spoken with or how much time he has spent interacting with Reformed theology. If Brian had really desired to find an answer he could have read a very short section from Wayne Grudem in his book Systematic Theology (which I shall quote below). Again, this makes me wonder how much time Brian has really taken to look into this issue.
Brian brought this verse up as a proof text because the phrase "denying the Lord (Master) who bought them" seems to support the idea of unlimited atonement. Christians who hold to unlimited atonement argue that Jesus died on the cross and made atonement for every single person who has ever lived. In contrast, Christians who hold to Reformed theology (or Calvinism) argue for a limited atonement (or more accurately, particular redemption) which says that Christ died and paid for the sins of the Church (or the elect).
In quoting the above verse as a proof text for unlimited atonement, Brian makes several mistakes:
First, the immediate context of 2 Peter 2 has nothing to do with the atonement. Rather, the context of this passage (as well as the context of the entire book) has to do with false teachers in the church. If Brian is interested in arguing for unlimited atonement he should first address the passages in Scripture which deal directly with the atonement. After exegeting these, it would then be appropriate to move to more obscure passages which may deal with the atonement indirectly.
Second, Brian is making a number of assumptions in his interpretation without actually exegeting the passage. He is assuming that "Master" (or Lord) refers to Christ and that "bought them" refers to the work of Christ in the atonement. But "Master" could just as easily refer to the Father in which case "bought them" could not be referring to the atonement since it was the Son and not the Father who atoned for our sins. This brings us to our third point.
Third, Wayne Grudem in his book Systematic Theology provides a very plausible interpretation of this verse based on the context. I quote him here at length:
When Peter speaks of false teachers who bring in destructive heresies, "even denying the Master who bought them" (2 Peter 2:1), it is unclear whether the word "Master" (Gk. despotes) refers to Christ (as in Jude 4) or to God the Father (as in Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24; Rev. 6:10). In either case, the Old Testament allusion is probably to Deuteronomy 32:6, where Moses says to the rebellious people who have turned away from God, "Is not he your Father who has bought you?" (author's translation). Peter is drawing an analogy between the past false prophets who arose among the Jews and those who will be false teachers within the churches to which he writes...In line with this clear reference to false prophets in the Old Testament, Peter also alludes to the fact that the rebellious Jews turned away from God who "bought" them out of Egypt in the exodus. From the time of the exodus onward, any Jewish person would have considered himself or herself one who was "bought" by God in the exodus and therefore a person of God's own possession. In this sense, the false teachers arising among the people were denying God their Father, to whom they rightfully belonged. So the text means not that Christ had redeemed these false prophets, but simply that they were rebellious Jewish people (or church attenders in the same position as the rebellious Jews) who were rightly owned by God because they had been bought out of the land of Egypt (or their forefathers had), but they were ungrateful to him. Christ's specific redemptive work on the cross is not in view in this verse. (Systematic Theology, 600)
This interpretation of the passage is completely inline with Reformed theology and fits the context. A solid case can be made that Peter is alluding to Deuteronomy 32:6 and the Exodus where the Jews were "bought" out of captivity. Notice the beginning of verse one calls our attention back to the "false prophets among the people" of those days. This verse in no way contradicts limited atonement. If Brian is really concerned with "sticking with the Bible" this interpretation is offered for his consideration.
4. "Well you know with a Calvinistic view man does not have a will. There is one will and its God's will. There is no free will."
This statement, probably more than any other, reflects a lack of understanding regarding Reformed theology. In fact, every one of these statements is false.
First, Calvinism does not teach that man does not have a will. Man certainly does have a will. The problem is that man's will is in bondage to sin and therefore man will never choose God if left to himself. Man's will is enslaved to sin because he who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). There are none who are righteous, none who seek God (Rom. 3:10-11) In other words, there are no God-seekers. So Calvinism teaches that man certainly does have a will but his will is naturally inclined toward evil, not good. Because man is enslaved to a corrupt nature and dead in sin he must be regenerated (born again) before he can exercise faith.
Second, making the assertion that Calvinists do not believe in free will is misleading for at least two reasons:
1. First, John Calvin certainly did believe in free will, though it may not be the type of "free will" most have in mind. But Calvin did not like the term "free will" because he thought it was prone to misuse and misunderstanding. He states,
But how few men are there, I ask, who when they hear free will attributed to man do not immediately conceive him to be the master of both his own mind and will, able of his own power to turn himself toward either good or evil?...Man's disposition voluntarily so inclines to falsehood that he more quickly derives error from one word than truth from a worldly discourse. (Institutes, 2.2.7)
If anyone, then, can use this word without understanding it in a bad sense, I shall not trouble him on this account...I prefer not to use it myself, and I should like others, if they seek my advice, to avoid it. (Institutes, 2.2.8)
In other words, Calvin wished to avoid the term "free will" because it leads to the prideful self-reliance and false self-assurance of thinking that man has the power in his natural state to do good and choose God. Whether or not you agree with this is not the point. The point is that it doesn't follow from this that Calvin did not believe in any type of free will. He certainly did. Again he states,
Now in the schools three kinds of freedom are distinguished: first from necessity, second from sin, third from misery. The first of these so inheres in man by nature that it cannot possibly be taken away, but the two others have been lost through sin. I willingly accept this distinction, except in so far as necessity is falsely confused with compulsion. (Institutes, 2.2.5)
In other words, man has free will in the sense that even though he sins of necessity, he at the same time sins voluntarily. This brings us to our second point.
2. Second, the term "free will" is not univocal. Among philosophers and theologians, free will is typically defined in one of two ways:
The first way is referred to as "libertarian free will" (or incompatibilism). Libertarian free will is the view that a person chooses freely if that person, when making his choice, could have done otherwise. For example, this morning I put on white socks but I could have chosen to wear black socks if I had been so inclined. This is sometimes referred to as the CDO (Could have Done Otherwise) condition. Libertarians hold that an act cannot be causally determined and at the same time "free."
The second way free will is defined is known as "compatibilism." Those who hold to compatibilism say that a choice is free so long as it is voluntary and not forced. It doesn't matter if the individual could have done otherwise. As long as the individual acted voluntarily, in accordance with his own will and desire, and not under compulsion, the choice was free. Compatibilists hold that an act can be causally determined and at the same time "free."
Why is all of this important? Because Calvinists typically hold to compatibilistic free will, though there are some who hold to libertarian free will in non-moral or non-salvific choices. Compatibilism seems to be the type of free will John Calvin himself held to. Calvin approvingly quotes Bernard who states,
For what is voluntary is also free...Thus the soul, in some strange and evil way, under a certain voluntary and wrongly free necessity is at the same time enslaved and free: enslaved because of necessity; free because of will. And what is at once stranger and more deplorable, it is guilty because it is free, and enslaved because it is guilty, and as a consequence enslaved because it is free. (Institutes, 2.3.5)
In other words, according to Calvin and other compatibilists, to be free means to act voluntarily without compulsion. Man is free in this sense. Man acts voluntarily in accordance with his own desire, will, and nature. Therefore, to say that Calvinists do not believe in free will is false. At most what could be said is that the majority of Calvinists do not hold to libertarian free will. But saying that an individual does not believe in free will and arguing that they do not hold to the correct view of free will are two completely different things.
I can only conclude that Brian is either ignorant of Calvinism or unwilling (no pun intended) to correctly represent Calvinism. I do not think Brian would intentionally mislead his audience. Therefore, I assume he has not taken the time to understand the Reformed position and the refined nuances inherent within free will discourse.
5. "You know I've often said about Calvinism guys...Calvinism is Christianity without Jesus because they leave Jesus out of the equation."
Wow! I want to be careful to take this statement in context. It appears Brian could mean one of two things:
Option #1: He could mean that Calvinism is Christianity without Jesus, period. In other words, he could be saying that Calvinists are not Christians. This would be so absurd and inappropriate that I dare not think he was actually saying this.
Option #2: From the context, it could be that Brian is saying Calvinism is Christianity without Jesus because he is claiming Calvinists do not take the statements of Jesus into account but simply twist some of Paul's sayings. But this option is deeply flawed as well.
Calvinists take Jesus quite seriously. After all, it was He who said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:40). And again, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father" (John 6:65).
These two verses are quoted by Calvinists quite frequently to show that an individual cannot come to God on their own unless God first grants them the ability by performing a work within them. Because man is dead in sin, regeneration must proceed faith. Man left to himself cannot and will not seek God. A Calvinist could just as easily quote these verses and then claim that it is non-Calvinists who leave Jesus out of the equation!
Finally, it is not just the words of Christ that are inspired. All of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, what Paul says by inspiration of the Holy Spirit is just as important and needs to inform our theology. A Calvinist could just as easily claim that it is the Calvary Chapel commentators who do not take the statements of Paul into account but simply twist some of the sayings of Jesus to fit their own theology.
What about the other proof texts?
The Calvary Chapel commentators at this point list a host of proof texts in support of their position. For sake of space, I will provide a very brief response to each proof text. If you would look a further in-depth discussion from a Reformed perspective you may want to check out The Potter's Freedom by James White. You may not agree with the Reformed interpretation, but the point is that these verses have not gone unnoticed by Calvinists and they have in fact taken the time to provide interpretations based on the context.
1 Timothy 2:4
Don Stewart mentions 1 Timothy 2:4 which states, "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." How would a Calvinist respond?
First, the word all doesn't always mean all. For example, Luke 2:1 states, "Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth." Was a census really to be taken of all the inhabited earth? Of course not. The word "all" here is limited by the extent of the Roman Empire. So context is key.
Second, what is the context? Notice in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul says, "First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority..." It is important to see that Paul here is not referring to individual persons but rather classes of men. He refers to "kings and all who are in authority." So the context of the word "all" in verse 4 is proceeded by the classes of men listed here in verse 2. Therefore, the Calvinist would argue that the "all" in verse 4 refers to "all classes." In other words, God desires men to be saved from all peoples, classes, and nations, as it says in Revelation 5:9: "And they sang a new song, saying, Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."
As a side note, notice Revelation 5:9 does not say that Christ purchased all men as would have to be the case if unlimited atonement were true. Rather, Christ purchased men from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. In other words, He purchased the elect. This verse supports limited atonement.
Third, Don Stewart mentions that something is keeping men from being saved. That is exactly right. Man is keeping himself from being saved. He is in bondage to his own sin, a slave to his corrupt nature. It doesn't follow from this that God fails in saving those whom He desires.
2 Peter 3:9
Chuck Smith quotes part of 2 Peter 3:9 saying, "God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." How would a Calvinist respond?
First, what is the context? Who is Peter writing to? He tells us in verse one that he is writing to "those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior." In other words, he is writing to believers.
Second, let's look at the entire verse. 2 Peter 3:9 states, "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance." Notice that Peter says that the Lord is "patient toward you." Once again we see that believers are being spoken of here. In other words, the Lord is patient toward the believers Peter is writing to. So when he continues and says "not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance," the "any" refers to "any of you" and is in reference to the believers who were just mentioned. God is not willing that any of them (the believers) should perish but rather that they repent of their sin.
Brian mentions John 5:40 where Jesus states, "you are unwilling to come to Me..." He mentions this verse after claiming that Calvinists do not believe man has a will. This has already been dealt with above.
Don mentions Matthew 23:37 as the following: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, How often I would have gathered you as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings but you would not." How would a Calvinist respond? There are several things to note here.
First, Don misquotes the verse. Matthew 23:37 states, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling" (my italics). Notice there are two different people groups under discussion here: "Jerusalem" and "your children." This distinction is vitally important for a proper interpretation. The group Jesus is addressing is referred to as "Jerusalem" and those He desires to gather He refers to as "your children." Read the verse again carefully. When Don quotes the passage he does not make this distinction. In other words, Jesus did not say He desired to gather unwilling Jerusalem whom He was addressing but rather Jerusalem's children. Jerusalem was unwilling to allow her children to be gathered by Christ. This one point alone is enough to refute the argument presented.
Second, what is the context? Jesus is addressing and rebuking the Jewish leaders for almost the entire chapter (vv. 13-36) right up until verse 37. So who is Jerusalem? It seems from the context that Jerusalem refers to the Jewish religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus is addressing. Notice verse 37 says it is Jerusalem who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her. That was done by the Jewish leaders just as Jesus makes reference to back in verses 29-36, again leading right up to verse 37. It was the Jewish leaders whom God sent His prophets to and it was the Jewish leaders who killed them. Therefore, it seems Jesus is continuing his address to the scribes and Pharisees in labeling them "Jerusalem."
Finally, who are the children? The children would be those Jews whom the Jewish leaders prevented from hearing Christ. This once again fits the context as Jesus Himself confirms this in verse 13. He states, "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in."
Putting all of this together, we see that Jesus is continuing His rebuke and chastisement of the scribes and Pharisees in verse 37. It was not the Jewish people (Jerusalem's children) who were unwilling to come to Christ as if they were somehow resisting the Spirit and grace of God. Rather it was the Jewish leaders (Jerusalem) who were unwilling to allow the Jewish people to follow Christ. Therefore, this verse should not be used as a proof text in favor of man's ability to choose God or resist His grace.
Brian mentions John 7:17 which states, "If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself." Very briefly, this verse does not teach that man in his natural state has the ability to overcome his depraved nature and enslaved will in order to choose God. It is simply stating that those who are willing to do God's will posses the discernment to know the truth of Christ's teaching. And who are those willing to do God's will? Believers! Therefore, this verse is a description of believers, not a prescription of how to become a believer.
One final thought regarding Don Stewart. Don Stewart is a very knowledgeable man. It is hard for me to think that he does not know that Brian has erred in several of his statements regarding Calvinism. Why not correct him? What makes this even more unfortunate is that Don, on several occasions, has guest hosted for Greg Koukl (who is a Calvinist) on his radio show Stand To Reason. Greg Koukl has even spoken at Calvary Chapel churches! Would Don liken his friend Greg to a cultist who holds to a form of Christianity without Jesus? Surely not. So why let Brian get away with statements such as these? Isn't it possible to gently correct him, especially since this broadcast will be heard by people around the world? Isn't it worse to allow these sorts of mischaracterizations to continue?
Here are several things to take away from this:
First, we have an intellectual and moral obligation to correctly represent our opponents views when engaged in dialogue. Otherwise we end up attacking a straw man. This does not benefit anyone and prevents meaningful dialogue from ever taking place.
Second, we need to distinguish essential Christian doctrine from secondary and tertiary doctrine. Calvinists and Arminians are all rightly considered Christians. Protestants are not anathematizing one another over these issues (at least they shouldn't be). Treating secondary issues as if they were essential issues is a mistake. Likening Calvinists to cultists and misrepresenting their views is completely unfair. Unfortunately I have encountered this before within Calvary Chapel. The first time I ever spoke at a Calvary Chapel church one of the members asked where I was going to school. When I told him I was attending Biola University he immediately inquired, "You're not a Calvinist, are you?" I can't help but wonder if these types of questions stem from listening to commentaries like the one offered by Brian.
Finally, I have had many professors who hold to Reformed theology. They have all been godly men who love Christ and have a passion for Scripture. From my own experience, the depiction offered by Brian Brodersen could not be further from the truth. But as stated above, many people I have spoken with repeat these same mischaracterizations regarding Calvinism. Let's be careful when commentating so as to avoid the further propagation of misinformation and misunderstanding regarding these issues.