Disputing Calvinism: vessels of temporary, conditional wrath?

I wanted to share this excellent article that answers, mostly via Scripture, many if not most of the arguments of Calvinism. In an admirable show of the author’s critical thinking, while he certainly rejects the Calvinist doctrine of election and predestination, he still refuses to embrace what he considers to be overwrought and unconvincing alternatives such as a corporate election, pleading ultimate ignorance:

Election is true, but is shrouded in deep mystery. It is one of the secret things that belong to the Lord our God (Deut. 29:29). Calvinists and Arminians both err when they make precise statements about the nature of election. God has not told us whether or not there are conditions attached to it and we should not venture into it with such bold assertions.

Now, while I’m fully in favor of admitting ignorance and not pretending certainty where none exists, I think that some of the mystery surrounding election and predestination is due more to misleading, uninformed readings of the NT than to an innate, intractable ambiguity there. In another display of reasonable thinking, the article’s author remarks, “Perhaps further theological works by thoughtful Christians will reveal a more satisfactory resting place for our convictions.” I happen to think that the understanding of election I’ve come to is fully credible and consistent with a fair treatment of the texts of Scripture, so I’d like to offer the following as a supplement to his otherwise extensive critique of Calvinism.

Recently I noticed a friend on Facebook referencing Exodus 33.18-19:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

What probably piqued his curiosity (I conjecture — he made no comment) was the last sentence of this interesting passage, which was quoted by Paul in Romans 9.15 as part of a passage that has been famously championed by Reformed Christians to support the doctrines of predestination to life and reprobation.

While someone might be tempted, by way of synecdoche, to reference the Ex 33.19/Rom 9.15 quotation as a way of affirming God’s choice to save some and damn others, we should note that the negative aspect is wholly absent in the original Exodus passage: we have no clear indication that God’s remark, meant only to highlight His goodness manifesting as mercy, was intended to imply the converse of that mercy. Yet notice Paul’s creative use of this verse in Romans 9 to do something like that, when he sets up a contrast with God’s mercy and His dealing with Pharaoh, synthesizing the two in the statement, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (v. 18).

At any rate, Exodus 33.18-19 taken on its own terms is a far cry from ‘double predestination’. Here the emphasis is on broadening, not arbitrarily circumscribing, the scope of His merciful dealings with humanity. I believe that this is the key to election as articulated by Paul.

Only those insistent upon ignoring Paul’s overarching argument can find a subdivision of all humanity into two classes, “saved” and “damned” in Romans 9-11. We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the “vessels of honor, vessels of wrath” passage ends at Romans 9.22. On the contrary, Romans 9 through 11 is a sustained argument culminating in chapter 11: his point is that the “hardening” of Israel described in chapter 9 was only undertaken as a temporary measure and as a means to extend mercy to more, namely the Gentiles:

Again I ask: Did [the Jews] stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring! . . . Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. (Romans 11.11-12, 25)

Paul is saying that God only “hardened” the hearts of “natural”, ethnic Israel as a means to extend His grace outside ethnic Israel. Only recognizing this greater argument allows us to understand Paul’s justification of God in 9.18: “Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy – including that scoundrel Jacob and those scoundrels the Gentiles, like it or not – and He hardens whom He wants to harden – even His own chosen people, like it or not.”

But it doesn’t end there for those whose hearts He had hardened: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you [Gentiles], provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (11.22-23). This again shows continuity with Jeremiah 18, the background passage of the potter and the clay analogy in Romans 9, in which the potter refashions rather than discards the “marred”, uncooperative clay.

To recap, Paul’s argument is that God’s mercy is so great and unrestrainable that, at least in certain times in redemptive history (e.g. Esau vs. Jacob, Pharaoh vs. Israel, natural Israel vs. the believing Gentiles), He will even “harden” the hearts of some of His own people if by doing so it will further His redemptive plan. Yet even those “cut off” will be restored upon their repentance (presumably posthumously).

“Ok, that sounds good for Israel. But what of Esau? Pharaoh?”

Well, laying aside the not-insignificant fact that such stories are not even likely to have actually occurred historically, perhaps we should turn to Paul’s conclusion to his argument in 11.32:

For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

So what if He ends up extending mercy to all? Returning to the original intent of Exodus 33.19, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

For Paul, the mere thought elicited a beautiful spontaneous doxology in the closing verses of that chapter (11.33-36):

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

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  • I was tracking right along until you got to “presumably posthumously”… suddenly I was lost. 'Where did that come from?' I wondered. Mind spelling it out for me? I'm a little slow sometimes. At what point, then, does unbelief/non-repentance come into play?

    Granted, the “God loves everyone and is super merciful” argument is nice, but the passages you quote above do contain strains of conditional language (“…if they do not persist in unbelief…”).

    I'd love to hear your thoughts. And I'm sorry if I missed where you've already explained all this. Thanks!


  • Josh H.

    I didn't get the “presumably posthumously” part either. Seems like you're saying that those who were “cut off” could repent after they are dead?

    Whether or not you believe the stories about Pharaoh and Esau are historical or not doesn't matter since Paul obviously thought they were and that the principles exhibited in those historical accounts were significant. When he speaks of Pharaoh and vessels of wrath, Paul seems to indicate that he (Pharaoh) was created for the purpose of being hardened. That's hard to swallow I know, but that's what he seems to be saying.

    I decided a long time ago that those who hold to the Augustinian doctrine of election lean too heavily on these verses in Romans especially since there is another passage that is harder for an Arminian to explain: Eph. 1:1-14 dun-dun-DUUUUUN ;D

  • Hi Luke,
    Don't let that hang you up too much, as it's not integral to the identification of the “elect” language. 🙂

    My “presumably” comment has to do with two factors. First, verse 32 says that mercy would be had upon “all”; secondly, there is at least an apparent time differential. Specifically, “all” the Jews who rejected Christ would have to endure alive until whatever time the “fullness of the Gentiles” came about. This is not definitive proof (thus the “presumably”), but it's certainly within God's prerogative.

  • Dan

    I like your take on Roman 9-11. Robin Parry (“Gregory MacDonald”) makes a similar argument in his book The Evangelical Universalist.

  • Josh,
    I don't doubt that Paul believed they were historical, but it's important to note that Genesis and Exodus contain no such “vessel of wrath created for destruction” language: Paul is being creative here. So we can't read much into their predestination or eternal state based simply upon his brand new argument in Romans 9, especially considering that inasmuch as Pharaoh seems to have been unavailable to “repent” after his being cut off (but Esau seemed to!), there is already a clear discontinuity in his analogy: he specifically draws the parallel between “vessels of wrath created for destruction” like Pharaoh and the Jews who would escape that destruction. Whether or not historical, Paul is bringing these characters in and painting a picture of their lives beyond the written account. Extending his clearly (and creatively) defined concept of “vessels of wrath created for destruction” to a significant part (majority?) of humanity as reprobation does is wholly unwarranted within this passage.

    I have written about Ephesians 1.1-14 before; as you know, the key when you see “we/us” language in the NT is “audience relevance”. Suffice it to say that, issues of authorship aside, there does seem to be a continuity between Paul's understanding of the “first fruits” in Ephesians and Romans. If you're at all interested, you can read my previous comments on this, which I quote at length here:

    Some have seen that Paul refers to “we” and “us” in Ephesians 1, to the effect that “we, who were the first to hope in Christ” (v. 12) were those predestined, in stark contrast to “you also” (v. 13) who received salvation subsequently; sometimes this is meant to refer to a distinction between the Jews to whom Christ came and the Gentiles who were grafted in later. I think there’s a much better argument to be made that the “us” and “you” comments aren’t meant to be fully contrastive. For one, Paul in the previous verses never delimits “us” to any particular group that did not include the Ephesian Christians, and so the natural reading for the audience would have been to infer Paul’s “we” and “us” as including them. Regardless, I think those who “first believed” refer not to the Jews who served God under the Mosaic Covenant, but the followers of Jesus, who James said were “a kind of first fruits of all creation” (Ja 1.18) because they received the promise of the New Covenant while the Old was still passing (He 8.13; 2 Co 3.11); that Christian and not pre-Christian Jewish believers are the referents here is strongly suggested by verse 9, in which Paul describes “us” as those to whom “the mystery of his will” was made known (Gk. gnorizo; cf. the same verb used in reference to Paul’s understanding of the mystery of the Gentile’s induction to the faith in Ep 3.3). Whether one sees this group as comprising the first century believers in toto or simply the original believing Jews (e.g. the Apostles), it depends on if one buys the “we/you” co-reference argument I laid out above. Regardless, no one can deny that Paul in this important “predestination” passage, explicitly limits the scope of predestination to a “first” group. Are we in the twenty-first century the “first” anything?

    The election Paul refers to in Ephesians and Romans had a contemporary relevance. It served the purpose of extending God’s redemption: the hardening of Israel meant for the purpose of grafting the Gentiles into the tree of faith described in Romans 9-11 is described as God’s method of offering salvation to more than simply the original believers.

    By any chance, have you waded through any of the article “by a former Calvinist” I linked to in the post above?

  • Josh H.

    One more thing and I'm done (and I'll give ya the last word), b/c I know that you and I are probably at a stalemate with this.

    I'm no staunch predestinarian (I don't like using the term “Calvinist” since the doctrines of predestination and election certainly did not originate with him). I struggle some times on where to draw the line with audience relevance b/c it's within the realm of possibility that at times scripture writers use “we” and “us” and “you” simply b/c that's the way people talk and it may not mean that others outside the immediate “we”, “us”, or “you” are excluded. In Eph. chapter 1 he says God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places.” does that mean He only blessed Paul and the Ephesians? What about the Corinthians, the Romans, and you and I? Are we not blessed with every spiritual blessing? Why only Paul himself and the Ephesians? When a pastor stands before his congregation and preaches “we should love one another” this does not mean present company exclusively. Surely if a non-member of that congregation hears the sermon by tape he can conclude that he, though the pastor didn't speak to him directly, should also take up the charge to 'love others.” Back to Eph. 1, have you and I also not received “the adoption as sons through Jesus Christ?” Again, was this only for the Ephesians? Ok, I'm beating a dead horse here. But do you see why the issue with audience relevance gets blurry for me?

    Now, about Eph. 1 and predestination, the thing I can't ignore is that even in the statement where Paul uses the phrase “first to hope in Christ” (which is a key point in your argument) he states that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” Every single thing. I do not see why this can not include the giving of mercy or justice to individuals. I can't say I come down staunchly on either side (I know that sounds like a cop out), but if the doctrine of predestination is true, and some receive justice and some receive mercy, it is certain that no one receives injustice. And if it turns out that God works even the salvation of souls according to the counsel of His will, I'm okay with that. He's God, after all.

    No I haven't waded through the article. I was simply commenting on what you've stated here. I'll try to find time to read it. Finding the time (for me) will be a feat in itself!

  • Great post. I struggle with Calvinism…I struggle with the concept of a God who “elects” people to damnation, and for me, Calvinism makes me doubt the existence of God in the first place. I like that you take into account what is mythical/poetic language when interpreting Scripture to get to theological statements. I think the less focus we make on the inerrancy of the Bible, the more neutral one gets with their theological stance. Its always good for my faith (or lack thereof) to read a critique of Calvinism!

  • Glad to encourage you! Have you, by chance, read my recent post, “God's love
    vs. God's wrath”? That should help a bit, as well. I, too, view the
    Calvinist picture of election as one of the most hideous doctrines in
    circulation today.

  • “I, too, view the Calvinist picture of election as one of the most hideous doctrines in
    circulation today.” Good to know I'm not the only one! On that note, any recommendations of books that address doubt that aren't written from a reformed point of view. I read Enns' book recently, and while I liked it, I get melancholy with the Reformed references. I have in my stack of books to read, The Lost World of Genesis, and I think the author is not reformed.

  • I just perused (briefly!) the blog site, “Ramblings from a Former Scientist”, written by Like a Child. I am delighted to say that I will be reading more! Like a Child closes her profile statement with these words: “My hope is that these doubts are part of the path towards a deeper faith in Christ.” Wow! do I ever share that hope. For I am in the throes of just such doubts, and have been for some years now.

    Like a Child,
    Books on doubt? Though its been on my bookshelf for over a year now, I haven't yet, but I intend to read Alister McGrath's “Doubting” (2000, 2006 InterVarsity Press). I do know if he leans on Reformed theology, but I do appreciate McGrath as an author and thinker. I have also found everything ever written by George MacDonald encouraging to belief!

    But to be totally honest, my faith is emboldened more these days by my frequent interaction with atheists. The more I understand the way they think, the more deeply I probe them for ultimate answers to the deepest haunting questions of humanity, the more bankrupt I find their positions to be. I am driven to faith by examining close-up the lack of it. And this is why I so resonate with your profile statement, quoted above. I am finding that most of my doubts have stemmed from false dilemmas and tensions created by unpalatable and strange doctrines of the church. The more I center into reality itself, reading the Bible in light of our cosmic and biological history, the more robust and reality-based becomes my faith. And my interactions with atheist friends convinces me more and more that my faith in a purposeful Creator is the only way to make sense of anything!

    Mostly, I just want to encourage you to continue to deal head-on with the very real dilemmas and difficulties of belief … and to continue to dialog with those of us (like Stephen and myself) who are likewise engaged. I'm willing to test your thesis with you: that this is indeed the path to a deeper faith in Christ!

  • Great question. I'd recommend, first and foremost, Rachel Heard Evans' <a
    in Monkey Town, the subtitle of which is, “How a girl who knew ask the
    answers learned to ask the questions,” and deals a lot with doubt (as does
    Cliff's excellent blog, http://cliff-martin.blogspot.com, and my own). We're
    convinced that doubt has been the best thing that ever happened to our

  • Thanks for the recommendation. I met Rachel at the Biologos conference and read her book, which was surreal b/c it was often like looking at my own life.

  • You know, after posting my comment I finally noticed that you have a blog, whereupon I realized that my answer wasn't going to be particularly helpful. 🙂

  • I meant to add that my husband read the book too, and it was very helpful for him as well, maybe even more so than myself. This whole experience has been challenging for both of us, but he's been a trooper (I asked him to write a guest post soon).

  • WoundedEgo

    >>>…Election is true, but is shrouded in deep mystery…

    “Election” is conditional.

    “Election” is a builder’s term. A builder elects which building material is appropriate for the project. Hence, God has “elected” the poor for his purposes:

    James 2:5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

    This does not mean that all poor are predestined to ultimate salvation. It means that God has structured his message to cater to the poor:

    1 Cor 1:
    26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
    27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
    28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:
    29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.

    Calvinism doesn’t properly understand the word and has imbued it with a meaning that is perverse and silly.

  • Drew Smith

    Hello Steve,

    My name is Drew. I have been visiting your blog for a few months and have found it very helpful to my faith. Like you, “I too, view the Calvinist picture of election as one of the most hideous doctrines in circulation today.” My friend who is in the reformed tradtion sent me a video clip and wanted my thoughts on it. I’m currently working on some responses, but I thought I would pass it along to you to see if you help me come up with some adequate responses. Thanks. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8Rn353k6PY

    • Drew, thanks so much for contacting me. I believe that was Vodie Baucham,
      wasn’t it? It was painful to watch, but sadly so representative of the
      Reformed-tinged theology overtaking evangelicalism with a vengeance. I’ll
      jot some things down in response and send it your way.

      • Drew Smith

        yes, that was Voddie Baucham. Here is one of my thoughts I have written down thus far. please fill free to critique them and offer better ways of communcating if need be. I definitely have no desire to get into an argument (and I don’t think that would happen, my friend is pretty nice). I just would like to be as understanding/gracious yet firm as possible. Here is one of my thoughts…

        “It seems that one of Mr. Baucham’s primary underlying assumptions (and perhaps fear?) is that God would somehow be “dishonored” by asking questions such as the one posed to him. I personally think that the assumption is misguided for several reasons. (1). God can handle and I believe desires us to ask ANY questions we can bring to him, granted we do it with the right spirit (one that is genuinely wanting to know the truth) (2) The Lord of the universe does not need me to defend or uphold his honor (or make sure I ask questions a certain way) I think sometimes we forget that. (3) My understanding of “child-like faith” involves the asking of multitudes of questions. Kids ask a ton of questions of their biological father, how much more would our heavenly father welcome questions?

        • Well said, Drew. I hate this “shut up and color” sort of stunt. I think they probably learned it from Paul in Romans 9, and since they (erroneously) think of their position as the same as Paul’s, they try to use his tactic to bolster that position.

          I would be sure to ask him his Scriptural references for a view of sinners as those who “deserve” to be utterly consumed. On the subject of the character of God’s justice, perhaps you might find some more material in my post, “Substitutionary Atonement: ‘a grotesquely deformed absurdity'”. The whole penal satisfaction idea usually presumes a rigid, mechanical legal framework that would have been foreign to the writers of Scripture. As argued in the post above (and especially in Romans 9), God is not bound by such frameworks, handing out punishment and mercy however He wishes.

          Thankfully, we have reason to believe that exactly what He wishes is something better than that grave legal system He is pictured by Calvinists as having, in which He had to find a loophole in order to save us despite its ostensibly being His own system! Although the idea of God’s wrath and God’s love being two equal and opposite aspects of His nature is hard to justify in Scripture, surely it’s not insignificant that one can actually find a verse that says in no uncertain terms, “God is love.” God’s wrath is a reflex of His love, and as you said, He is far beyond watching over His dignity. If He consumes it is not with mindless rage at having creatures He created to sin (for His glory, supposedly) actually sin.

          Hope this helps somewhat. If not, I’ll give it another go. 🙂

          • Anonymous

            Not sure how much it will help but my first impulse is that this seems like a really good way to prevent people from having an examined faith.

            It’s more like “shut up” than an answer … I take that back … It really is just “shut up”

            Now, the hubris of man — that is indeed a problem but hubris is not simply asking the question about the text

            This came up today in my Deuteronomy class.

            I know its not a perfect answer but I approach the problem from more than one angle.

            I point out that the human understanding of the world and the state of society would have given very little option then I point out how the text has been edited (we know that for certain) and offer the possiblity of the text being more a reflection of human apreciation of God’s role than actually the reality of God’s role.

            This does NOT answer theodicy!

            But it does a more honest (and humble) approach to the question than the YouTube video which had more hubris than the question that he was answering!

  • Drew Smith

    Thanks Steve for your response. I really appreciate it. Next time I talk with my friend, I will bring up the questions you asked and see what he says. Like you, I have had some FUNDAMENTAL philosophical, theological, and practical problems with Calvinism for a long time. I cannot get around the fact that God creates disposable people (who are apparently created in his image?). I found the following quote really helpful to me

    “God is not anger though He can be angry, God is not vengeance though He does avenge. These are attributes, love is essence. Therefore God is unchangeably love. In judgment He is love, in wrath He is love, in vengeance He is love – ‘love first, and last, and without end.’ Love is simply the strongest thing in the universe, the most awful, the most inexorable, (not to be moved by entreaty) while the most tender.”

    Thomas Allin. Christ Triumphant. 1878. Rpt. 9th ed. Canyon Country, CA : Concordant, n.d. 76 – 77.

    I found the above quote at http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2009/12/god-is-love.html. The blog is run by a Christian universalist named Robin Parry. You may have heard of him.

    Also another great website I have been visiting for a few years now is called Afterall.net. This is a great website that has many essays, papers, clippings and quotes. Basically, it is like an awesome filing cabinet. Great stuff!!

    • Drew, that was a dynamite quote! I apparently need to check out Allin’s book. I am indeed familiar with “Gregory MacDonald” (Robin Parry’s nom de plume) and eagerly await the forthcoming book he edited and contributed to. I’ll check out Afterall.net as well. Thanks for your contribution!

      • Drew Smith

        Hey Steve, I found Allin’s quote on Parry’s site (haha). I haven’t read the book, but I couldn’t pass up posting that quote in this context. Allin’s quote hit me like a ton of bricks. It is amazing how one’s lens can gradually change (if we let it) in order for us to see our faith differently and perhaps more faithfully. Next week I have been invited by a southern baptist friend to come in and let him interview me in front of his study group about my evolutionary creation view (which I am writing about for my grad work. Friends with Dennis Lamourex). Should be interesting. I’m a little nervous, but my friend has been very open to my view, so we will see. 🙂

        Also…if I may, I wanted to point out two good places to start on Afterall. Here is the first….

        1. http://afterall.net/clippings/490945 —titled “We’re In This Together”

        2. http://www.afterall.net/about/490823 –be sure to click on “my story here” highlighted in red in the middle of this essay.

        I thought I would send you another quote that has been one of my staples as of late when disagreeing with others (this quoe has especially been helpful as I have be re-reading The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Committment). The quote is by James Freeman Clarke…

        “To speak the truth, or what seems to be truth to us, is not a very hard thing, provided we do not care what harm we do by it, or whom we hurt by it. This kind of “truth-telling” has been always common. Such truth-tellers call themselves plain, blunt men, who say what they think, and do not care who objects to it. A man who has a good deal of self-reliance and not much sympathy, can get a reputation for courage by this way of speaking the truth. But the difficulty about it is, that truth thus spoken does not convince or convert men; it only offends them. It is apt to seem unjust; and injustice is not truth. Some persons think that unless truth is thus hard and disagreeable it cannot be pure. Civility toward error seems to them treason to the truth. Truth to their mind is a whip with which to lash men, a club with which to knock them down.”

        • Thanks for the links, Drew. I enjoyed them very much. This guy is quite interesting! I think he and I are quite on the same page about the fundamental indeterminacy of the faith: acutely aware that after all we might be wrong, we make a reasoned leap toward the alternative that has the greatest ring of truth to it (which in our cases is the Christian faith).

          I love quotes, and that one from J. F. Clarke a very good one, hitting multiple nails on the head. I was just telling someone today that if we truly love truth, as we so often claim, we not only want others to recognize it, but we’ll make sure in so doing that we do whatever possible to make them love it as well. This means being tactful and even sugar-coating it (why is that considered a bad thing?) if by any chance they’ll swallow it and make it their own.

          Please stick around. I can tell that we have lots in common and that there is much I can learn from you.

  • Drew Smith

    Thanks for the kind words Steve. I’m glad you like Afterall. I have found a wealth of good quotes on that sight. I was just wondering…

    1) If you have a facebook page and would like to become friends?

    2.) What books have you read recently that have transformed the way you think about certain aspects of your faith?

    3.) What books are you wanting to read in the near future?

  • Drew Smith

    Hello Steve,

    I was just wondering if you got my last message? Thanks