Having studied both Calvinism and Arminianism extensively over the last two years, I can safely tell you that no major soteriological text (books on the Doctrine of Salvation) will be written without a section on the Doctrine of Election within them. And when it comes to the issue of election, Romans 9 is the Classic Calvinist trump card, supposedly in favor of classic, five-point Calvinism. As Dr. Forlines writes, “Romans 9 is considered the bedrock of Calvinism” (F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. Nashville: Randall House, 2011, page 97). While there is much to say regarding Romans 9 (and I have done quite a bit of my own extensive treatment of the chapter), I will focus instead on a verse or two in Romans 9 and Dr. Forlines’ own response to John Piper’s argument. For those who desire to see John Piper’s extensive treatment of Romans 9-11, I refer you to his work, The Justification of God. Piper’s book is one that I have read only excerpts of, but I still believe that every Classical (Reformed) Arminian should be aware of the arguments presented by the opposition (in this case, Calvinists)...and should know how to refute them. Yes, it’s true: theology and apologetics go hand-in-hand.
Romans 9:10-13 will be the subject of this post, particularly verses 11-12. It is in these four verses of Romans 9 that we find Paul’s argument concerning two twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, born to parents Isaac and Rebekah. The text says the Lord chose Jacob “the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil.” The Lord did this so as to show that election is not about human works, but about the divine call. That is, election is the initiative of the divine, not the human. God must come to the human to initiate salvation...without which, the human could never approach the divine.
John Piper takes this section of Romans 9 and inserts his Calvinist presupposition onto it. Piper comments:
“Paul’s purpose in referring to God’s choice of Jacob over Esau is to show that there is no way to evade the implications of God’s unconditional election here...it is based solely on God’s own free and sovereign choice” (John Piper, quoted by Forlines, Classical Arminianism, page 120).
Before I tackle Forlines’ remarks, let me pose a question to you, the readership: Piper assumes that, for God’s election to be “free and sovereign,” it must be unconditional. But why is that the case? Could God NOT elect individuals based on faith? Could the Lord not elect conditionally (based on faith) if He so wanted? Calvinists are all about the sovereignty of God; but it seems that, when they posit that God can only be sovereign if He unconditionally elects, they are “limiting” in a sense, divine sovereignty. God’s freedom to “do as He pleases” involves the notion of conditional election as well as unconditional election.
Secondly, notice what the Lord tells the twins’ mother in verse 12: “the older will serve the younger.” In this verse, we find the Lord revealing to Rebekah a future outcome between the two brothers. But, did the Lord “cause” the outcome because He predicts it? Does He only “foreknow” it because He “foreordained” it? Robert Picirilli argues that this is not the case:
“The Calvinist errs, on this subject, in suggesting that God knows the future certainly only because He first unconditionally foreordained (predestinated) it. But that is to confuse knowledge with active cause and so in effect to take away contingency. God’s foreknowledge, in the sense of prescience, is part of His omniscience and includes all things as certain, both good and evil, contingent, and necessary. It is not in itself causal” (Robert Picirilli, quoted by F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism, page 77).
Notice that, in Piper’s quote above, the passage leads us to “unconditional election”? It’s the Calvinist presupposition that Calvinists cannot escape! Everything is unconditional with them...but the question is, does the passage support this? Or, are Calvinists themselves placing a presupposition on Scripture where Scripture does not necessarily support it? In my opinion, the answer is found in the latter. The foreknowledge of God is not necessarily causal. Just ask yourself: if you think that foreknowledge is causal by necessity, then, every tragic event in our world has happened because God “foreordained” it. Surely, God is light and never darkness (1 John 1:5), so at the very least, there are portions of God’s foreknowledge that are non-causal. Of course, there are portions of God’s foreknowledge that are causal; a good example of causal foreknowledge would be God’s foreknowledge of His own actions (such as sending Jesus to die for the sins of the world). But with such issues as David’s sin with Bathsheba, God “foreknew” the adultery would take place...but He knew it “non-causally,” in a different way than He foreknew His own sending of Jesus to atone for humanity’s sin.
Another thing I’d like to point out about Romans 9:10-13 is that God elected before the twins were born. This means that the Lord made His decision in eternity past. As Acts 15:18 tells us, “Known to God from eternity are all His works.” What this tells us is that, whatever God does in time, He has already purposed to do it in eternity, prior to creation. As Arminius himself wrote regarding predestination,
“We attribute Eternity to this decree [of predestination], because God does nothing in time, which He has not decreed to do from all eternity. For ‘Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world’ (Acts 15:18), and ‘He hath chosen us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:4). If it were otherwise, God might be charged with mutability” (James Arminius, “On Divine Predestination,” quoted by John Wagner, Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011, page 9).
But this ties directly into what I label in this post as “the John Piper fallacy”: for, God’s decisions in eternity past do nothing more than establish divine immutability (that God’s nature and character are unchanging). What such decisions do not establish is exactly what God decided to do in eternity past. What John Piper desires many readers of his work to do is automatically connect “election” and “eternity past” and conclude that the passage is discussing unconditional election. However, this is not necessarily the case. Forlines writes:
“Even if verse 11 were seen as dealing with election for salvation, the case is still not decided for unconditional election. There is certainly no problem with the election occurring before birth. I think it does. Individual conditional election by God in eternity past does not involve a logical contradiction” (Forlines, Classical Arminianism, page 121).
According to Dr. Forlines, a “conditional election” established by God in eternity is just as plausible a theory as an “unconditional election” established in eternity. But the reason that John Piper argues that an eternal decree must be “unconditional” is that he believes that eternal decrees are unconditional decrees. While Forlines believes that conditional decrees in eternity are logical, Calvinists do not. Why? That is a subject I will return to in my next post. Stay tuned...