2007March5, Monday

High Calvinist Interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9: A Different Jehovah

Posted in Theology at 10:08 by Trey Austin

Again, in case you haven’t seen it, check out this post to see the video to which i’m responding in these posts on 2 Peter 3:9. If that video’s way of interpreting the Holy Apostle Peter’s words, you might want to read up on it.

Another major problem i have with the interpretation this video advocates is the message that it sends about the God we serve. The Second Commandment is “you shall not make for yourself any graven image or likeness of anything in heaven above, or the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth; you shall not bow yourself to them or serve them, for I, the Jehovah your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers unto the children to the third and fourth generations of those that hate me, and showing mercy to thousands of generations of those that love me and keep my commandments.” This is serious stuff. Not only is there a threat against us personally, there is a threat against our children when we start making idol-gods.

 Now, you’re probably wondering what in the world i’m talking about idols for, when i’ve been dealing with 2 Peter 3:9. But the thing about the Second Commandment is that it doesn’t only forbid the making of carved images as objects of worship (although, it obviously does that); it also forbids making any kind of god of our own imagining and worshiping it as though it were the true God or in place of him. Well, to a certain extent, that’s what the High and Hyper Calvinists do when it comes to who Jehovah is and what he’s like. They make him into a niggardly God, a stingy God, the kind of God that would rather, as we say in South Carolina, “lower the boom” on someone than to show them kindness, goodness and love. They make him to be the kind of God that has to be paid in order to love someone. He’s presented as the kind of God who only hates and never loves in any sense all outside his ultimate plan of redemption. But if this isn’t, at best, a characature of the true God, it is, at worst, a real, bona fide idol-god fashioned in the image that some people have imaged our God to be.

If the message we have for people at large is different than what we read in Scripture we have a real problem. In fact, for all of the throwing around of the accusation of “perverting” or “subverting” the Gospel these days, for anyone to take away the very foundation of the Gospel itself (which is the love of God for all men without exception and his desire that they would come to know him through his Son whom he sent to die to make it possible) would be truly to subvert the Gospel, the “good news.”

Tell me, what kind of “good news” is it that “if you’re elect” God loves you and will save you. That kind of preaching encourages the very thing that all the older theologians warned against, which was an unhealthy desire to seek out the decrees of God to know if a person is elect. The WCF warns about how ministers teach and preach the doctrine of predestination. Calvin said that knowledge of one’s election was to be sought in Christ, and nowhere else. In other words, some of the people who had the most sense about them said that the doctrine of election can be dangerous and destructive to precious souls if it is approached in the wrong way. Yet, for all that warning, there are still lots of Calvinists who have only one tune in their repertory: predestination. Don’t get me wrong, i remember exactly how it was. I remember witnessing to people not long after i embraced the doctrines of grace and telling them about the doctrine of election instead of telling them about Jehovah who had sent his Only-begotten Son to die in order that they, too, might have life through faith in him. Preaching the doctrine of election, though, is no good news. (I pray that the Lord would forgive me for that kind of witnessing, and that he would send someone else to those people to undo the damage i may have done.) But that’s precisely what lots of Calvinists teach and preach when it comes to telling people about Christ. And it is precisely this that many Calvinists want to bring up when it comes to interpreting a passage like 2 Peter 3. Instead of letting the broad and sweeping expressions of God’s mercy stand as they are (and leaving room for the Holy Spirit to do his work in applying those truths as he will), many interpreters like the ones in the video want to run directly to the doctrine of election to explain how God really isn’t desirous of the salvation of all men, that he doesn’t really want all people to repent; no, just those “certain ones.” And how do they know? Well, they import God’s decree into the picture–and, as i’ve already said, even want to try and make election the real purpose of the passage (i.e., appealing to the “us” as being the elect).

If that were the message we preached from the text of 2 Peter 3:9, with this kind of contrived and contorted interpretation to try and explain away a beautiful sentiment of God’s love for all people, that would not only be a sin against Scripture (which is itself an overwhelmingly terrible thought), but it would also be a misrepresentation of God himself. As it turns out our God doesn’t really love all people after all. He’s not the kind of God who shows mercy on someone just because he’s a wretched sinner and it is in keeping with God’s nature to show mercy on those who need mercy. No, as it turns out, God’s intention is only to show mercy on those whom he has chosen to save and no one else. That’s the message that is given, for good or for bad, like it or not, to Christians and non-Christians alike, with that kind of interpretation.

Yet, Scripture says things like, “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. / The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:8-9). This kind of broad-sweeping expression of grace, compassion, and longsuffering is the kind that Scripture has no problem making, but many Calvinists are afraid to do so, because of their theological system and their over-reaction against Arminianism. That’s actually what leads folks to adopt their interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9 and other texts of the like. They bring their system of doctrine to the text and use it as an interpretive grid rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself and shape our system of doctrine. This is the very thing that Romanists do when it comes to their interpretation of the Words of Institution uttered by Christ in the Gospels, and it is, ironically enough, the same thing that Reformed people do when they come to expressions like John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 and 4:10. They don’t figure out a way that their system can change to embrace those ways of speaking; they twist and contort those passages and explain them away so that the message that is given to people is not that God is loving and gracious to all men and desirous that all men might be saved, but that God only wants a certain few to be saved. And the real irony is that they think that that kind of speaking somehow glorifies and honors God!

There was a time when i held to that kind of interpretation. When i came to Reformed Theology and embrace God’s sovereignty in salvation, for several years, i had a tendency to speak that way when dealing with those kinds of passages. I had been an Arminian Baptist for so long that i was afraid of saying anything that sounded like that stuff i used to hear all the time. But then i started reading things other than the late Puritans, and i started broadening my look at Reformed Theology, and to my surprise i found that there was a wealth of Calvinists who really and truly desired to put forward God as loving and compassionate in every way while at the same time understanding the truth of election and God’s sovereignty without letting the one crowd the other one out. What i discovered was that that High Calvinist view is actually out of step with Reformed thought and practice overall. It is really very sad to see that this new generation of Reformed folks are being indoctrinated into the most extreme kind of Calvinism (which is “High Calvinism,” that is, it is still Calvinism and not Hyper-Calvinism, but the one leads into the other unless one is careful) and are not being taught that real, balanced Calvinism is broader than the Owenian school into which most Reformed folks today are introduced, especially through internet message boards, email lists, and blogsites.

Balanced Calvinists (like Calvin, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, Musculus, Baxter, Davenant, Bunyan, the Marrowmen, Ryle, Dabney, Shedd, and many, many others that could be named) were not afraid of speaking in the broadest terms about God’s mercy to all men and his desire to save all men. We should never, in our systemic concerns, be caught giving out an imbalanced picture of the kind of compassionate, gracious, loving, caring, and merciful God we serve-and we should remind ourselves that he’s not just all those things toward sinners because they are elect, but he’s that way toward all sinners because they are sinners and hopeless apart from his grace, which is the reason he calls us to be that way toward all people as well.

We always hear Calvinists, reacting against Arminians, saying that God isn’t only a God of love, but he’s a God of justice and wrath. That’s true, but it’s equally true that he’s not only a God of justice and wrath, but he’s a God of love and grace, and not just toward the elect. Neither his love nor his justice is more absolute, because they are not mutually exclusive attributes.

When we speak in disparaging ways about God’s universal offer of life and salvation, when we underplay God’s expressions of love and grace as seen so clearly in Scripture, and when we automatically default to talking about the decrees of God in the middle of a discussion on God’s mercy extended to all men, those who differ with us theologically will see that we are presenting a view of God that is far different from the one Scripture does. They will see it, and they will mark us as the poor interpreters that we can be at times. If we would have the impact on the world that, i think, most Reformed people want to have, we need to start practicing speaking the way Scripture does about God’s mercy. Otherwise, we run the risk of presenting a completely different God than the true and living God, Jehovah the merciful and compassionate.

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5 Comments »

  1. Tempe said,

    Wow, Bullinger gets mentioned twice! 😉

    A question for contemplation (and off-topic a bit, I admit): does anybody have a problem with referring to YHWH as “Jehovah”, since that is an anglo-ization that almost certainly misuses vowel sounds. Just a thought. Maybe I’m overacting because of what Jehovah’s Witnesses do with their mistranslations of the Scriptures. I guess I wince also when I hear the name Elohim, since it reminds me of Mormons.

  2. David Gray said,

    A couple of questions:

    1. How do you positively teach this (both universal love and election) as opposed to what not to teach.

    2. How do you deal with a passage like that in Romans where it says God hated Esau?

  3. Trey Austin said,

    Tim, thanks for drawing my attention to that. I had meant to say “Bucer” with one of those “Bullingers.” I corrected my mistake.

    David, i think it’s easy to teach positively that God loves all men sincerely and that he desires the salvation of all men sincerely, while at the same time teaching and affirming that God has chosen some men in particular from the foundation of the world whom he will draw to himself effectually. We certainly can differentiate between “levels” of love or “purposes” of love to help people understand, for instance, that for those whom God has not chosen to save fully and finally his love for them is different, and it doesn’t lead him to do the same things for them that he does for his elect. But really, it encourages us to speak to people as people, and not to try and deal with people the way God does. That’s not our place. We need to stay in our own place instead of trying trying to use the decrees of God, particularly the decree of election, as the grid through which we deal with and approach people. What we have been revealed is the book that has all those wonderful and universal expressions of praise and love, not the Lamb’s Book of Life in which the names of the elect have been written from all eternity. Since we don’t have access to the list of the elect, we must deal with people as they appear to us, and that has nothing to do with their status of election, but whether they are trusting Christ and repenting of their sins. Election is fact that is revealed in Scripture to help us understand God’s sovereignty and his purpose, but we can’t appeal to the doctrine of election when dealing with other people around us. We don’t get to decide who is reprobate and who is not, and we don’t get to treat anyone differently because we suspect that he might not be elect. (I know this sounds wierd to speak that way, but i’ve seen it happen.)

    As to the expressions of God’s hate, they are just as real as the expressions of God’s love, but Romans 9 isn’t the only place that has them. For instance, the psalmist says that God hates all liars. Well, i have to tell you, i lie. I break the ninth commandment. What does that mean? Well, it means that he hates me, too, at least in one sense. In this we need to understand that God can love and hate someone at the same time in different senses. For instance, the Apostle Paul. Before he met Christ on the Road to Damascus, he was a Christ-hating, Christian-persecuting Pharisee. However, we know (from our vantage point) that he was elect. What was God’s attitude toward Paul while he was doing all those dastardly things? Well, if we are to take God’s commandments seriously and affirm that God hates all “evil-doers,” we need to say that Paul was hated by God. However, because we know that he was elect, we can also say that Paul was loved, and with an everlasting love. In Paul’s case (and in the case of all the elect before they come to faith in Christ), God hates all workers of initquity, and continues to hate their works of iniquity even after they trust in Christ and are forgiven. However, they were always loved in the general sense in which God loves all men, but they were especially loved (in a different sense yet) as those whom God had chosen from eternity. Of course, the same thing is true in a different way for the reprobate; they are always under God’s general love and care, even though he hates them for the sake of their sinful rebellion against him, and he hates them in terms of his electing purpose for them.Let me say this, though, about expressions like Romans 9 with God hating Esau: they are absolutely important in fleshing out the doctrine of election and reprobation, but those things are simply explanations after the fact of what God was doing in those situations. In one sense, we can understand the expressions of “love” and “hate” there as ways of describing God’s putpose to save or not to save. It’s not as though God had only hate and no love in any sense whatsoever for Esau; if that’s what we glean from that expression, we are definitely abusing that passage. It helps, though, to understand the purpose, in Paul’s case, with which he uses those kinds of expressions. He is explaining why some Jews don’t believe even though God had “elected” them as a nation and called them. Paul’s explanation is that we can see, after the fact, why some people trust in Christ and some don’t through God’s purpose in election. He goes on to say that all the elect among the Jews will trust in Christ and not refuse to follow Jehovah, because he will cause them to do so just as he caused the remnant to refuse to bow the knee to Baal in the days of Elijah. But in the meantime, we can’t deal with people as elect or non-elect; we have to do what Scripture tells us to, and we must affirm what Scripture says about God’s dealings with all men alike.

    At any rate. That’s one answer. I’m sure there could be more said, but that’s enough for now.

  4. Trey Austin said,

    BTW, TIM-P, from what Dr. Douglas Culver taught me in Hebrew, the Hebrew imperfect for HVH, (with would be the closest thing to the tetragrammaton), YHVH would most likely be pronounced “Yeh-ho-vah” or “Yah-ho-vah” (since that “o” sound is characteristic of the typical conjugation of the imperfect in Hebrew). It really has nothing to do (as some assume) with the vowels from “Elohim” being inserted into the consonants of YHVH. Anyone can see that, since there is no “i” sound in “Jehovah.”

    The real issue is whether YHVH should be pronounced as two closed syllables, or as three (two open and one closed) syllables. One reason i think it should be the latter rather than the former is the names of so many Israelites and Judahites whose names make use of some variation of the latter rather than the former. You can see that pattern and references to “Jehovah” in names like: Jehoshaphat, Jehoida (also seen as, Jehoiada), Jehoram, Jehonadab, Jehosheba, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jehoiachin, Jehoiakim, Jehozadak, and Jehoiaddin. One thing that all those names have in common is the “Jeho” (pronunciation). I don’t think it’s any accident that they have that as people who haled from the Jehovah-worshiping nations of Israel and Judah. Granted, lots of them were idolaters in many respects, but their names were still meant to reflect the God of Israel. If you would prefer to use the “y” sound instead of the “j” sound, i don’t mind a bit, but Yehovah or Yahovah is very different from, but still more accurate than, Yahweh.

    Not to mention that it’s still the traditional pronunciation used in lots of psalters and hymns. We wouldn’t want to have to start revising the Bible Songs, now would we? 😉

  5. David Gray said,

    Thanks for the reply, those are reasonable answers to my mind…

    dave


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