Skip to main content

Calvinism, Arminianism, and The Father's Heart

So, I'm studying Exodus ahead of delivering a somewhat ambitious two session overview to my team in a couple of weeks to get them going on some personal study of it. The more I look at it the more it seems to be a vital book for us to get hold of - with allusions and quotations all over the New Testament, and in various parts of the Old. Misread Exodus and we'll swerve off badly all over the place.

One of those key places it comes up is in Romans 9 where much ink has been spilled in the old Calvinism and Arminianism debate (whether in the Arminian Roger Forster & Paul Marsden God's Strategy in Human History or Calvinist John Piper's The Justification of God - which are both worth a look).

What I think I'm seeing in Exodus is a passionate attack by the LORD (particularly the Father) on a serpent-like Pharaoh who is determined to bruise the firstborn Son of God. The Father is fighting to have his son, and for a global cause of the spreading of his name (his love?) globally. It's narrow in focus but very broad in scope.

What this isn't is some battle of decrees over whether Pharaoh hardens his heart first or whether God hardens it. This is a sworn enemy of the LORD on a cosmic scale, and the LORD is taking him down to get his Son for himself. Exodus reads to me like Genesis 3:15 happening as the serpent & son bruise the offspring of the woman, God's firstborn who sets out to crush the head of his enemy.

But when I encounter the debate over God's sovereignty it seems to revolve around decrees by God and free will by man, neither of which seems to particularly be on the table in Exodus (or Genesis where the Jacob/Esau references in Romans 9 come from).

Then I read Mike Reeves showing me that post-Reformation there is some retaining of Calvin & Luther's warm-hearted legacy by Sibbes, Owen, Edwards etc, but much of it is swallowed up by a rising Reformed-Scholasticism which seems to hold a less-Triune view of God in which law and decree matter greatly. Not sure if the historical analysis holds, but I am sure that much of what passes for Reformed is no-where near as whole-hearted and attractive as the Reformers themselves. Calvin's Institutes show a wonderful portrait of God, and Luther's The Freedom of a Christian shows the gospel through the lense of the King making a prostitute his Queen to have as his beloved. Calvin died when Arminius was four years old so the whole thing doesn't have that much to do with Calvin anyways, but is more a response to his heir, Beza under whom Arminius studied.

And I can't help but thinking that the old Calvinism & Arminianism is a debate within the head of Reformed-Scholasticism that doesn't seem to come up too much in Calvin or Luther, who are more concerned to show the passionate love of God as he fights, in the gospel, to have his people for himself, personally and with the heart of a Father. In Exodus I see a richer picture of the Father's heart for his Son that is winning my heart afresh to the Son and his Father.


  1. Yes, though Luther and Calvin were hardly disinterested in many of the basic issues that would re-surface in the later Calvinism-Arminianism debates. Luther wrote 'the bondage of the will' after all.

    We're returning to Exodus at the start of 2011, taking up in ch 25 where we left off last year. I'm looking forward to it. Hope your overview goes well.

    [word verification was 'bless' - how brilliant is that?]

  2. Sweet word veri.

    True enough on the freedom of the will - doesn't quite approach the issues the way people seem to expect. Certainly some of the issues are there but they seem to focus differently - much more on Christ as far as I can tell.

    Your Exodus stuff online?

  3. I am smiling, cos I was going to email you and ask you how your thinking on election might have 'blossomed' into a fuller and richer picture as a result of your more triune understanding!

    Thanks for posting this.

  4. Just trying to follow where the text takes me! And enjoying it - the best is seeing election so tied up in Christ... makes it so much better.

  5. Hi Dave

    I've only preached on the opening six chapters of Exodus, but it surely must rank as the OT equivalent of the book of Romans.

    Curiously the Reformed orthodox (those pesky scholastics) interpreted the book in a trinitarian way, unlike most modern commentators.

    It is also worth bearing in mind that by the time you reach the second and third generation after the magisterial Reformers their successors are having to face new questions and issues that arose because of the work of their illustrious predecessors.

    It is anachronistic to judge the debates of the early 1600s by that of the 1530s and 40s. I'm not sure that your thumbnail sketch of Reformed scholasticism corresponds to the reality of the situation.

    I hope that your two sessions are a feast spread out in the wilderness.

  6. Happy to be corrected - something seems to go wrong which I guess is my observation. Reading it Trinitarianly does seem to wake the book up, how is that modern commentators are so afraid of seeing God reveal himself?

    Is your preaching of Exodus 1-6 online?

  7. On the modern commentators bit...

    I guess that we are all guilty of missing things in the text. We can also be guilty of filtering things out because we don't expect them to be there, or because we think that they can't be there.

    I was blown away by Hagar's encounter with the Angel of the LORD who she understands to be the LORD. She is the OT woman at the well, a Gentile (an Egyptian no less) who is amazed by the identity of the One who speaks to her and knows all about her. It's a little preview of John 4.

    The sermons are not online, but if they were you would say that I'm crazy for the mini-Exodus motifs in the early chapters.

    On the history there are a whole host of challenges when it comes to reading and relating parts of the same tradition with sympathy (and doing so by looking at the exegetical, catechetal, doctrinal etc. output of later generations as they build on the work of the pioneers). It is also true to say that the successors to the first generation Reformers had to face a virulent form of anti-Trinitarianism in the form of the Socinian menace.

    Have you read the Canons of Dort? They are stellar on the love of God in the gospel at the same time as they are ironing out the Remonstrant errors.

  8. Bish, yeah my sermons on it are linked to on my blog 'sermons' page, or by going to our church website and looking up Exodus in the bible talks section. I shared the series with my colleagues so I didn't get to preach all that many.

    I agree that the Christ-centredness seems to be more overtly there in Calvin and Luther. I note though that this does not lead them off down the line of e.g. Torrance in denying special election, reprobation, irresistible grace etc. I also would want to note that in some sense we tend to read the WCF and other documents through a selection of its heirs who only represent one particular strand of the tradition represented at the assembly. Robert Letham I believe has published a book on the Westminster Assembly which looks very interesting imo.

  9. Dordt is good

    "The Fulfillment of God's Plan: This plan, arising out of God's eternal love for his chosen ones, from the beginning of the world to the present time has been powerfully carried out and will also be carried out in the future, the gates of hell seeking vainly to prevail against it. As a result the chosen are gathered into one, all in their own time, and there is always a church of believers founded on Christ's blood, a church which steadfastly loves, persistently worships, and--here and in all eternity--praises him as her Savior who laid down his life for her on the cross, as a bridegroom for his bride."

    Seems to me fair enough to see lots of mini-Exodus motifs in the early chapters of Exodus... all the sons and woman stuff, the coming up out of the water, a meeting with God in the wilderness, a fight for the firstborn son etc. The soundtrack is building all the way through, surely?

    Hagar & John 4... never spotted that before. Like it a lot.

  10. right on. I loved entering Luke 15 with UCL last weekend - the things fulfilled - the joy that God had come in Christ searching for his treasure (Ex 19) in his house, searching for his sheep (Ezek 34), searching for his son (Hos 11). I absolutely LOVED the interchange in Exodus 4:22-23. Let my boy go pharaoh! SO intense...then Luke 9:30-32, bosh!

    How can I give you up, O gospel? How can I make you abstract? The story's just too good! How my heart recoils within me! For I am human, not computer, I will not step out of time!

    For what it's worth, strikes me most of the so-called free will debates that happen in christian circles are talking at cross purposes. 90% of the people I meet with this question take or dismiss God's personal sovereignty for impersonal determinism, and fairly redundant philosophical disputes over "free will" normally end up framed in the context of modern determinism/indeterminism debates, neither of which generate personal responsibility - which can't tell the difference between "could" & "would" counterfactuals. Strikes me that distinction either dissolves or is real, and that's the antithesis on which a Christian understanding (aka daily life) will turn.

    I'd rather talk about God's sovereingty and human sovereignty; his responsibility & human responsibility; the work of God's hands, and the work of human hands; his giving into our hands and our committing into his hands...How about this: God's Sovereignty is his personal responsibility which is both transcendant and immanent - a mystery revealed at the cross (eg Acts 4). This little book, Providence Made Flesh has caught my eye, as has blog, but haven't given it serious attention/time. What have you read on this "reformed scholasticism" you speak increasingly of?

    thanks for stimulating a (jumbled) response

  11. Bobby Grow's blog would be a place to get some different perspectives on the reformed scholastic stuff - linked in the sidebar.

    Same question as to Martin: Did you get your stuff recorded?

  12. nope. well that said I did record bits of it but only using the video function on the phone, which is helpful for me to listen back to but not for much else. Not to worry - still very much at the work in progress stage, but I'm certainly enjoying the scenery en route! what a joy to be given full time to this!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Big eyes full of wonder"

Books. Fiction. Libraries. Second only to churches as are the best gateways in your community to ultimate reality and new possibilities.

Our local library has just re-opened after refurbishment, and I love that our boys have spent several mornings there during the summer holidays, discovering some wonderful new stories.

I realised a few months back that I wasn't reading enough fiction. My work necessitates reading a lot of non-fiction, a mix of historical and contemporary thinking, biblical studies and theology. But fiction is the cinderella. Easily overlooked, and yet able to awaken my imagination and show me the way things are meant to be.

So I've picked up a few more lately - bought and borrowed. Not every book attempted flies, and that's ok. These have been winners though.

Ink. This is Alice Broadway's debut novel. It's young adult fiction and tells the story of Leora who lives in a world where the events of your life are tattooed on your skin. Nothing gets hid…

Uniquely Matthew

Reading gospel accounts in parallel is sometimes used to blur the differences in perspective between the evangelists, seeking to harmonise the texts and find a definitive historical account of what happened. No such thing exists because every account is biased and limited. You simply can't record everything. You have to hold a vantage point. And that's not a problem.

Matthew, Mark and Luke take a very different vantage point to John who was of course an eyewitness himself of the events. Comparing the text of Matthew, Mark and Luke across the death and resurrection of Jesus yields two steps.

Firstly, the common ground. All three accounts tell of...
Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross…. · Jesus labelled as King of the Jews…. · Criminals crucified with Jesus… · Darkness in the daytime… · Jesus' loud final cry… The women who witnessed Jesus death, and Jesus' burial… · The tomb lent to Jesus by Joseph of Arimithea… · The women who went to the tomb on the morning of the…

Songs we're singing in Church

Christians are a singing people, it's part of what we do when we gather.

Our church meets morning an evening on a Sunday - normally using 5 songs in each service. So, over the year that's about 520 song-slots available. The report from the database system we use ( tells us that in the past year we've sung about 150 different songs.

Our current most used song has been sung 11 times in the last year, just under once a month. Our top 10 are used about every 6 weeks. By #30 we're talking about songs used every two months. The tail is long and includes loads of classic hymns from across the centuries, plus other songs from the past 40 years, that we have used around once a term or less.

1. Rejoice - Dustin Kensrue

2. Come Praise & Glorify - Bob Kauflin

3. Man of Sorrows - Hillsong

4. Cornerstone - Hillsong

Rejoice was a song I didn't previously know, along with a couple of others that have quickly become firm favourites for me: Chri…