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Calvinism and John 6:44

An email and my response:

 

Hello Mr. Adams,

I read with interest your comments on Calvin's comments on John 3:16 on your web site. I was wondering what your thoughts are on Jesus' words as recorded in John 6:44:

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (NKJV)

(It is unfortunate that English editions tend to translate the Greek as "draws" rather than the more accurate "compels" — especially since it is also translated more accurately as "dragged" elsewhere.)

Have you considered that perhaps Calvin's "on the other hand" was intended to recognize what the whole of scripture says about this issue?
 
He just may have been appealing to theology that is rooted in scripture itself.

 

In the first place, I would like to point out that my correspondent is attempting to play one Scripture off another. So, we are playing dueling Scripture passages here. Since the meaning of John 6:44 seems closely tied to its context, using it to fend off the idea of God’s universal love in John 3:16 (which seems to me to have a more general meaning) is a bad idea.

bible-crossThe context here has to do with the relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus is claiming that the Jews are rejecting him because (in actuality) they have rejected the Father. So, the context of this passage is not a discussion of whether God has chosen to send the mass of humanity to an eternal Hell, while choosing to arbitrarily save (by compulsion: “dragged”) a few. The context concerns why these particular Jews have not been drawn to Jesus as Messiah and Son, while others have.

And, Jesus asserts here that it is because they have first rejected the Father and the testimony of the Scriptures. Jesus denounces their claim to knowledge of the Father. He asserts that their resistance to the Father & the message of the Scriptures is the reason they have not subsequently been drawn to the Son. The point is made repeatedly. “And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form…” (John 5:37). “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (John 5:39). “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:44). “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:46, 47). And, earlier in chapter 5 it is stated the other way around: “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23).

Thus the point is that the Jews who are rejecting him are doing so because they have first rejected the Father. But, Jesus asserts that those who acknowledged the Father were “drawn along” into acknowledging the Son.

My correspondent is right in saying that ἑλκύω can mean “dragged.” It is a stronger word than is evident in our translations. In John 21:6 & 11 it is used of the drawing of fish in a net, in John 18:10 of the drawing of a sword, in Acts 16:19 & 21:30 of forcibly dragging the apostles through the streets, and in James 2:6 of being dragged into court. But, the context tells us what Jesus means. Those who acknowledge the Father and the testimony of the Scriptures are compelled to also acknowledge the Son.

However, the same word (ἑλκύω) is also used in John 12:34 where Jesus says : “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (NRSV) If ἑλκύω always means “forcibly dragged” then this passage would have to mean that all people (πάντας) are saved! Yet, in Matthew 23:37 (parallel in Luke 13:34) Jesus says: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Thus, it appears, that Christ desires to draw to Himself people who are nonetheless unwilling to come! And, they do not.

It is not that God chooses to arbitrarily save a few by divine compulsion. Though the Cross of Christ, He draws all. But, all do not come.

John Fletcher (1729-1785)

John Fletcher (1729-1785)

And, here, I think is where we get to the crux of the matter. The Bible continually assumes human moral responsibility. These Jews were responsible for their rejection of the Father and their rejection of the testimony of the Scriptures. It is everywhere assumed that a choice can be made, and that people can be held responsible for their choices. The early Methodists objected to Calvinism on practical grounds, and not simply on theoretical grounds. Fletcher opposed what he called “Solafideism” because it was antinomian (“against the Law of God”): it undermined human moral responsibility through an appeal to God’s unconditional election to salvation. Clearly, if you are saved, and you can’t be un-saved, and it is solely God’s choice — then it doesn’t matter what you do. Nothing is riding on it. While classical Calvinists never drew this conclusion, some people were willing to follow the logic of Calvinism to this inevitable conclusion. And, this is one of the things Arminians and Wesleyans and Methodists have always found objectionable: allowing an appeal to grace to undermine our responsibility to respond to God.

A call to repentance, for example assumes the ability to respond. And, so forth. In many, many ways the Bible continually assumes both the capacity to respond and the responsibility to respond.

And, to my correspondent’s question “Have you considered that perhaps Calvin’s ‘on the other hand’ was intended to recognize what the whole of scripture says about this issue?” I have to give a terse: “No.”

And, a too-quick harmonization of one Scripture with principles I think I have derived from another is always dangerous.

What do we mean by a “theology that is rooted in scripture itself”?

John Calvin (1509-1564)

John Calvin (1509-1564)

I think Calvin came to his theological views, to a large extent, by way of Augustine. Certainly Augustine also appealed to Scripture for support of his views (though he was no Bible scholar), but his views were also shaped by the controversies of his day and the personal issues they raised for him.

None of us comes to the Scriptures in a vacuum. The notion that one simply shakes out all of the Bible’s teachings on the floor and arranges them systematically like a jigsaw puzzle is a mistake. All of us have been influenced by preachers and Bible teachers. And, I wouldn’t say that is a bad thing — far from it. It’s a good thing.

Not everything Augustine or Calvin said is wrong. I agree with much of what they said. They both can be read (critically) to great benefit. But, I also believe some legitimate objections can and should be raised against much of what they said.

Look folks: not everything Wesley or Fletcher or Clarke or their followers said is right, either.

Nevertheless, if we read critically we can benefit from the insights of all.

 

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8 Responses to “Calvinism and John 6:44”

  1. Credendum says:

    Brilliant response! The cherry-picking-passage nature of supporting Calvinism itself is, I think, quite alarming — it is not exegetical, honest, or scholarly.

    Further, John 6:45 is even more telling: “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (NRSV) I think you have hit the nail on the head with what Jesus was saying in 6:44, commented on in His own statement in 6:45. Scripture is interpreting Scripture here.

  2. jwlung says:

    A great post, both for its content and your Christ-like graciousness with the truth.

  3. Tobie says:

    Just found your blog. I’m blessed to see your line of reasoning, and couldn’t agree more. My final exodus out of Calvinism came about as a result of an extremely simple insight: Revelation is progressive, and the relationship between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty seems to change in line with this progression. This is the message of the parable of the sower. At a basic level of understanding, we have to choose. But at a sophisticated level (such as identifying Christ as the Messiah) we need special grace, which is given in accordance to the quality of “our choice” at the outset. This is an astoundingly simple thesis in my mind, and the closest anyone can ever come to a so-called synthesis of Arminianism and Calvinism. It also opens up, and synthesizes, all those “difficult” and seemingly contradictory statements in Scripture.

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. There is definitely an ongoing “dance” between God’s initiative and our response. It’s not one-sided in either respect.

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