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Saturday, June 07, 2014

John Calvin, Context and Kingdom Parables: “Others Are Deprived of This Grace”

I’ve been struck lately by the relevance of the Lord’s kingdom parables to the whole issue of John Calvin’s concept of election.

You may have noticed that the Lord’s disciples appear to be not entirely comfortable with the whole ‘parables’ concept. We know this because they have to ask the Lord to explain the parables to them, and enthuse about it when he does. They obviously find themselves on surer ground when he speaks “plainly” than when he tells stories that require interpretation.

But the Lord explains the reason for parables to them in this way:
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ” (Mark 4:11-12)
On the face of it, this sounds terribly determinist, doesn’t it.

It sounds like the Lord is saying, “We’ve decided what will happen to these folks already, so we’re not even going to give them a chance. Even the message that might save them will be obscured just to make really sure they don’t get it, accidentally repent and spoil the whole ‘predestination’ thing.”

Okay, he definitely didn’t say that. But from the way some people write about him, you’d sure think he did. John Calvin, in his commentaries on the gospels, certainly implies it:
“Sometimes he states, in a dark manner, what might be more clearly expressed; and sometimes he explains his mind fully, without ambiguity and without metaphor, but strikes their senses with dulness and their minds with stupidity, so that they are blind amidst bright sunshine.”
“Besides, it ought to be understood, that the power of enlightening which David mentions, and the familiar manner of teaching which Isaiah predicts, refer exclusively to the elect people.”
Then, in the unlikely case we’ve missed Calvin’s point here, he goes on to make that impossible:
“Christ declares that there are certain and elect men, on whom God specially bestows this honor of revealing to them his secrets, and that others are deprived of this grace. No other reason will be found for this distinction, except that God calls to himself those whom he has gratuitously elected.”
My point here is not to tee off on Calvin (though the more I read from him, the more fun that sounds), but just to list all the things in Mark 4 that suggest that the fate of those who listened to the parables was very much in their own individual hands, at least to start with. Let’s see:

·        “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” is a pretty cruel statement to make to people who have never been given functioning “ears” in the first place, but it also seems to imply that the Lord is looking for the one or two individuals in the multitude who will hear.

·         The point of the parable of the seed and the soil is not that the sower only sows seed in certain places, or that that he sows ‘effective’ seed and ‘ineffective’ seed; the emphasis is on the response of the soil. Calvin might have pointed to the inert nature of soil to dismiss the argument by analogy, but every indication in the passage is that the Lord is looking for a response from his audience.

·         The Lord says, “… nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light”, yet the Calvinist takes the position that in the parables, things are hidden in order to remain that way unless one is among the elect.

·         The Lord’s words invite men to learn and understand: “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”; however, the Calvinist must take the position that some listeners have no “measure” to measure with, and no hope of acquiring one.

·         We are told that he spoke to them with many such parables, “as they were able to hear it”, yet we are not told how their inability to “hear” them occurred in the first place. Calvin certainly has his opinion (he believes that none were “able”), but that is not the only possibility. And the implication to me is that some among the multitude, or some crowds moreso than others, were “able to hear it”, otherwise the phrase is either meaningless or plain nasty.

Even the original passage in Isaiah from which the Lord quotes in the gospels is full of hope, not determinism, and suggests that the “hardening” of Israel of which the Lord speaks is a CORPORATE hardening, not an individual one.

Let me repeat that: The hardening of which the Lord speaks is a NATIONAL hardening.

This would certainly explain why the Lord continues to appeal to individuals in the gospels, and why he speaks in parables. If only the disciples were “elect”, why speak to the Jewish multitudes at all? His purposes could more effectively have been accomplished by privately teaching those equipped to understand, or by going straight to the Gentiles with his message.

Yet the Lord continued to speak, and to implore his listeners to use their God-given faculties to perceive the spiritual truth behind the parables.

I believe the prophecy of Isaiah speaks to those who have already, on many occasions, deliberately rejected the word of God, saying “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” 

But for Israel this is a temporary, corporate condition; nothing to do with the “election” of individuals. Paul contends that “a partial hardening has come upon Israel” in a passage in which he warns his readers (including, presumably, John Calvin) against remaining “ignorant”.

Back to Isaiah: When the Lord speaks of making the hearts of the people dull, their ears heavy and their eyes blind, Isaiah’s response is to ask “How long, O Lord?” Evidently he saw this “dulling” as both corporate and temporary.

The Lord doesn’t respond by saying “forever and ever”. He responds by both giving a definite time frame (“until cities lie waste …”) and, while comparing Israel to a felled tree, gives Isaiah hope along with this sad depiction of the nation (“the holy seed is its stump”).

Paul’s answer to “how long” is even more specific: “… until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”.

I conclude that the Calvinist, in Mark 4 and many other passages, erroneously and persistently conflates national judgment and hardening with his invented concept of personal election.

If John Calvin wants to talk about individuals being “deprived of grace”, he and his followers ought to find a more appropriate passage to do it with.

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