FOR CALVINISM REVIEW:
Disclaimer: while this review is critical in nature, it’s not my place to judge Michael Horton’s motives, sincerity, or faith. All believers will stand before Jesus Christ very soon to give an account —starting with myself. The critical standard applied to Mr. Horton’s book should be equally applied to my review based on the Word of God.
To simplify this review, all Calvinists are five pointers, while non-Calvinist believers are Arminian. I acknowledge that all Calvinists are not five pointers, and that many non-Calvinists (such as myself) don’t care for the Arminian title. The best title is “Christian”, if Christ defines our identity.
In this 208-page book, Horton makes the case that Calvinism is the same faith practiced by the early New Testament church. He writes, “It has become a habit to speak of ‘the Reformed faith,’ but properly speaking there is no such thing. There is only the Christian faith, which is founded on the teaching of the prophets and apostles, with Jesus Christ as its cornerstone . . . Reformed churches do not add any new doctrines to the Christian faith, but claim that they are merely recovering the clear teachings of Scripture that had become obscured in the medieval church” (Michael Horton, 2011, Kindle Ebook, location 235 of 4016).
But is today’s Calvinism synonymous with the early New Testament church? There are at least two ugly truths about Calvinism that their theologians regularly omit. First, God’s Word, when interpreted using good principles of interpretation doesn’t support Calvinism, but counters it, as this review will establish.
Secondly, today’s refined Calvinism began with Augustine and NOT the New Testament church. There is no record of Calvinism’s existence from the early church (approx. 33 A.D.) to Augustine (354-430). This gap of hundreds of years is a black hole containing Arminian writings that Calvinists cannot deny. There is no conclusive evidence that any of the five pillars of Calvinism were taught before the heretic Augustine appeared on the scene.
Because God’s Word is the final authority for faith and practice (not church history), this review won’t enter into evidence numerous Arminian quotes up to the time of Augustine.
Shockingly, but not surprising, Horton appeals to John Calvin 501 times for support in his book, overshadowing Jesus Christ who is only mentioned a merely 133 times. Further, more space is dedicated to quotes from the Reformers than to the Word of God. To Horton’s credit, the title of the book, For Calvinism, accurately describes its emphasis on John Calvin.
Chapter Two, Regents and Rebels: The Human Condition
Total depravity is the first pillar of Calvinism and the engine that propels the entire system (in my opinion). If Horton doesn’t establish this pillar from Scripture, then Calvinism collapses.
So what passages does Horton enter into evidence for the Reformed doctrine of total depravity? He provides at least 14 passages (those inside quotes are excluded). Most of these will be examined.
The Scripture must prove the doctrine of TOTAL depravity —beyond reasonable doubt —that sinners cannot respond favorably to the grace of God. This inability should be evident starting from Adam (after the fall), and ending in Revelation.
He writes, “Do they [the unsaved] at least have the ability to believe in Christ of their own free will?” (location 593). He answers this question on the next page: “After the fall we still have the natural but no longer the moral liberty to do so” (location 603). In other words, because of the severity of the fall, the unsaved are incapable of responding favorably to God’s grace to be saved.
He writes, “A person who is dead in ‘trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1) and ‘does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14) has lost this freedom for righteousness before God” (location 503).
Remember, Horton is trying to demonstrate that Calvinism is the historic faith. He fused two half verses together for doctrinal proof. The Bible only has meaning in context; it’s wrong to hijack a passage from one context and artificially implant it into another context. This behavior is common with cults (in my opinion). The Bible becomes a Home Depot to build any heresy one wants when the most fundamental rules of interpretation are ignored. Let’s examine these passages one at time.
“And you were [in the past] dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (ESV).
Before salvation we “were dead in the trespasses and sins.” Something happened that brought us life. Verse five has the answer: “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—BY GRACE YOU HAVE BEEN SAVED.” Salvation brought life to us who “were dead.” There is nothing in this passage that backs total depravity –unless approached with a presupposition.
John 3:16a states, “For God so loved the world.” The “world” represents the dead unsaved, and the invitation is open-ended (“whosoever“).
The spiritual “dead” must believe to be saved: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever [open-ended] hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death [“dead”] to life” (John 5:24). Who has passed from “death to life“? The dead who “hear” and “believe.” Undeniably, the unsaved (“dead“) can respond favorably to the grace of God.
Would a Holy God command the unsaved to believe if they weren’t capable? Of course not! “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands ALL people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” Acts 17:30.
Here is the next proof text provided by Horton: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:12-14).
The context isn’t that the unsaved are incapable of believing the Gospel (Calvinist argument). In contrary, Paul identifies why the “natural person” isn’t able to “accept” and “understand.” He is without the Holy Spirit of God for discernment. According to verse 12, “we” in contrast, have the Spirit of God “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (vs. 12). Paul says, “we might” (v. 12). This seems to indicate a possibility. We must study God’s Word for understanding.
Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit teaches us “all things.” The unsaved don’t posses the Spirit of God required to learn what is “spiritually discerned.”
Additional proof texts provided by Horton for the doctrine of total depravity are examined:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:4-5).
A casual reading of verse five seems to explicitly state the Augustine doctrine that sin begins at conception. This view is not without controversy. David regularly used figurative language —even in the same chapter. In verse one, David writes, “blot out my transgressions” (51:1b). David wasn’t literally asking God to blot out his sin. Verse two continues, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (51:2). David isn’t requesting God to come down and literally “wash me.” Verse seven states: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (51:7). In biblical times “hyssop” was used for cleanings and purifications. God didn’t literally use hyssop on David and he didn’t turn “whiter than snow.” You surely get the point; this chapter is overlaid with rich poetry.
In light of heavy poetry, verse five isn’t literally teaching that sin begins at conception without confirmation from additional passages. Any interpretation that doesn’t consider genres of grammar for the establishment of church doctrine should be discarded.
In Psalm 58:3, David wrote, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” According to this verse, babies speak lies the moment they exit their mother’s womb. Calvinist’s wouldn’t take this verse literally but have no problem taking David’s poetry literally about being conceived in sin. The Psalm’s contain hundreds of verses where poetry is used. It’s theologically dangerous to take the poetical expression of Psalm 51:5 literally when there isn’t support for this doctrine (sinful at conception) in the entire Bible.
For the sake of argument, if we are sinners in the womb before we commit our first sin (Reformed view), it still doesn’t teach the unsaved are incapable of responding to the grace of God unless assumptions are added.
Another problem with “original sin” is that several passages establish our guilt based on sins committed after we are born. The context leading up to Psalm 5:5 establishes this very thing. David said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4).
There exists a more biblical explanation of why we sin. We are sinners because we sin (Romans 3:23; 6:23), not because we were born guilty without ever sinning. The reason we are sinners is that we are born with a sin nature (world dominated by sin) that is contrary to God. “For all have sinned [not born sinners] and fall short [because of our sins committed] of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “But your iniquities [not your guilt acquired at birth] have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins [again] have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men [why:] because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
The Calvinistic interpretation for Psalm 51:5 (sin acquired at conception) is a theological necessary. This interpretation was not taught before Augustine (to my knowledge). I’m unaware of any other passage in the Bible that supports this doctrine.
Finally, the context surrounding Psalm 51:5 is David’s confession for the sin of adultery —not concerning a new teaching (guilty at conception).
Here is another proof text for the doctrine of total depravity:
“You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened. For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and that from before birth you were called a rebel” (Isaiah 48:8).
In Isaiah 48:1-7, God speaks to the house of Jacob. He confronts them for their oaths, which they don’t keep, their stubbornness, and idol worship, etc. In verse 8, God describes the house of Judah as a “rebel” before (some translations after) being born. There is absolutely nothing in this passage that comes close to the level of proof required for the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. Of course if assumptions are added, the Bible can “walk across a table” and prove about anything.
Here is another proof text:
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Romans 5:12-18).
In this account from Paul, the consequences of Adam’s sin are stated (“condemnation for all men“). Once again, the level of depravity required for total depravity (sinners unable to respond to God’s grace to be saved) is not found unless we bring learned theology to the text.
Another proof text provided:
“What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:9-12).
Non-contextual snips from the passage above are frequently used as for proof of total depravity. The phrases used may be, “none is righteous“, “no one understands“, and “no one seeks for God,” etc.
The Bible contains different styles of language called genre. One style used often by Jesus is called hyperbole. Hyperbole involves exaggeration to make a point. Jesus declared that we couldn’t be His disciples unless we actively hate our parents (Luke 14:26). Jesus exaggerated to emphasize the cost of following Him is great.
In most (if not all) languages, exaggerations (to make a point) are used daily, without much thought. For example, someone who loves pizza might say they can smell it a mile away. Of course they don’t mean this to be taken literally!
In Romans 3:9 above, Paul made the point that Jews and Gentiles “are under sin“. To cement this case he follows with seven verses containing hyperbole.
Paul wrote, “None is righteous, no, not one” (vs. 10b). If we take this literal without considering hyperbole (the Calvinist view), we have BIG problems; because Paul and his recipients were “righteous”! Further, the book of Romans has been called “the righteousness of God.” Furthermore, Paul spoke of the righteousness available from Christ in the same chapter (v. 21)! If we zoom out, we can see that thousands of sinners became “righteous” at Pentecost.
One indicator that hyperbole is being used is when exaggerations taken literally would make something untrue. Verses 10-17 include exaggerated untruths (hyperbole from the Old Testament) to make Paul’s point. Here is the passage again with exaggerations highlighted:
10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one [not true]; no one understands [not true]; no one seeks for God [not true]. All have turned aside [not true]; together they [all] have become worthless [not true]; no one does good [not true], not even one [not true]. “Their throat is an open grave [not true for all]; they use their tongues to deceive [not true for all].” “The venom of asps is under their lips [not true for all].” Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness [not true for all].” Their feet are swift to shed blood [not true for all]; in their paths are ruin and misery [not true for all], and the way of peace they have not known [not true for all]. There is no fear of God before their eyes [not true for all].”
Calvinists take this passage literal for the sake of their theology while they would surely admit (if pressed) that the literal definition was not Paul’s intent. Paul painted broad strokes of general truths —not universal absolutes, applicable to every human being.
In biblical interpretation we can’t take verses literally or figuratively based on theology necessity without toxic effects. This is a double standard. Rules of interpretation should be applied consistently in Scripture and not changed midstream for a theological necessity.
The Bible contains beautiful interwoven consistency when interpreted from Genesis to Revelation without a man-made theology like Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Free Grace Theology, or any other theological arrangement. God commanded Noah to preach before the universal flood because God is “not wishing that ANY should perish, but that all [contrary to Calvinism] should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 2:9)
Here is another verse offered as proof that the dead unsaved cannot believe:
“Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).
With Calvinistic colored glasses, the verse above means that slaves of sin = inability to respond to God’s grace. Once again to arrive at this interpretation requires reading into the text —not drawing out the meaning as intended by its author. If Calvinists were consistent, they would have to agree we could be slaves of sin after we were saved (Romans 6:16).
Another proof text:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).
This verse doesn’t even come close to teaching total depravity and it will be covered in another chapter.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).
This passage, like others, doesn’t teach total depravity without introducing suppositions.
““I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
Once again, no admissible evidence is present. Why would God “search“, and “test” man who is unable to even believe the gospel?
For review of additional chapters, please visit my website listed under my profile. Thanks for reading this review. Keep the faith!