As a follow-up to my last post about Calvin and the gift of faith, I’d like to respond to some comments directed towards me in the “comments section” on my friend John Mark’s blog found here.
To quickly summarize, John Calvin has been in the theological laboratories of some recent anti-Calvinist authors. After twisting, turning, and poking at Calvin’s writings, they’ve reinvented John Calvin to be a non-Calvinist.
For those of you who want to play along at home, one of the arguments against Calvinists and John Calvin goes like this:
1. Calvinists believe faith is a gift from God, given only to specific people.
2. Some Calvinists appeal to Ephesians 2:8-9 as proof that faith is a gift from God.
3. John Calvin did not believe Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches faith to be a gift from God.
4. Therefore, those Calvinists who do believe Ephesians 2:8-9 teach faith is a gift from God perpetuate an extreme form of Calvinism, one that John Calvin himself would not affirm.
A "mystery guy" by the name of Ray stopped by John Mark’s blog and took some shots at me. He was determined to defend the work coming out of the anti-Calvinist theological laboratories. Particularly, he was intent on the notion that Calvin contradicted himself on his comments on Ephesians 2:8-9.
Since this post is a bit of a brawl, Ray’s words will be in black; my words will be in blue.
Ray says: “This was an interesting article and shows what many who've tried to get a fix on John Calvin's beliefs on a subject have found, viz., that Calvin is hard to pin down since he appears to contradict himself on important issues.”
Swan replies: I’m curious to who the “many” are you’re referring to. Which many conclude, “Calvin contradicts himself”? I've read dozens of books discussing Calvin. Only the worst of them say silly things like "John Calvin contradicted himself on his comments on Ephesians 2:8-9."
Ray says: “Swan's pastor is correct when he said, ‘Calvin contradicted himself with comments on Ephesians 2:8-9, and this contradiction is a clear example of why Christians should never follow a fallible man.’ Clearly a wise pastor.”
Swan replies: First of all, this pastor was not my pastor. Secondly, Reformed people do not “follow a fallible man.” They follow Christ. Thirdly, you have not demonstrated a contradiction in Calvin’s writings, but only asserted it. Nor have you demonstrated the error of my analysis of Calvin. For Calvin’s complete commentary on Ephesians see: Calvin's Ephesians Commentary. Here is the relevant section from Calvin:
“Ought we not then to be silent about free-will, and good intentions, and fancied preparations, and merits, and satisfactions? There is none of these which does not claim a share of praise in the salvation of men; so that the praise of grace would not, as Paul shews, remain undiminished. When, on the part of man, the act of receiving salvation is made to consist in faith alone, all other means, on which men are accustomed to rely, are discarded. Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ. And so he adds, not of yourselves; that claiming nothing for themselves, they may acknowledge God alone as the author of their salvation.... This passage affords an easy refutation of the idle cavil by which Papists attempt to evade the argument, that we are justified without works. Paul, they tell us, is speaking about ceremonies. But the present question is not confined to one class of works. Nothing can be more clear than this. The whole righteousness of man, which consists in works, — nay, the whole man, and everything that he can call his own, is set aside. We must attend to the contrast between God and Man, between grace and works. Why should God be contrasted with man, if the controversy related to nothing more than ceremonies? Papists themselves are compelled to own that Paul ascribes to the grace of God the whole glory of our salvation, but endeavor to do away with this admission by another contrivance. This mode of expression, they tell us, is employed, because God bestows the first grace. It is really foolish to imagine that they can succeed in this way, since Paul excludes man and his utmost ability,—not only from the commencement, but throughout,—from the whole work of obtaining salvation. But it is still more absurd to overlook the apostle's inference, lest any man should boast. Some room must always remain for man's boasting, so long as, independently of grace, merits are of any avail. Paul's doctrine is overthrown, unless the whole praise is rendered to God alone and to his mercy. And here we must advert to a very common error in the interpretation of this passage. Many persons restrict the word gift to faith alone. But Paul is only repeating in other words the former sentiment. His meaning is, not that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”
Note Calvin’s point: many people “restrict the word gift to faith alone.” But Calvin says that the entirety of salvation is the gift of God: that is, grace, salvation, and faith.
Ray says: “This brings me to my point. Since it's clear that basing one's argument on Calvin is risky, why doesn't Swan go to the heart of the argument, i.e., the grammar of Eph 2:8-9. This passage teaches clearly that salvation and not faith is the referent to gift.”
Swan replies: You’ve misunderstood the nature of my statements. I have never argued, “Faith is a gift from God because Calvin says so”. Rather, the nature of my comments are historical, and are intended to disprove the historical analysis of Dr. Geisler and Mr. Olson. The grammar shows that the phrase “for it is by grace you have been saved through faith” is what the word “that” refers to. Thus, grace, salvation, and faith are all the “gift of God.” It isn’t simply faith. It is the entire phrase. It is spurious logic to suggest that grace and salvation are gifts, but faith isn’t.
Ray Says: “Swan appears to ignore this important, even crux argument. Instead, he goes back to quoting Calvin to support the fact that Calvin didn't really mean what Calvin said directly in addressing this very same grammatical point. Amazing!”
Swan replies: No, what I did was show that Calvin consistently believed faith was a gift, and then I offered some minor explanations about the immediate context of Calvin’s comments. Simply, Calvin’s words are not that difficult to understand here if one simply reads them in context. Geisler, Olson, and Ray come to inaccurate conclusions because you’re not reading carefully.
Ray says: “Swan apparently didn't take to heart the wise counsel of his pastor.”
Swan replies: This man was not “Swan’s pastor.” Swan’s Pastors would never make such silly arguments. They know how to read books and understand contexts correctly.
Ray says: “In reading Olson, I was very impressed with his strategy that shows Calvinism to be a deductive theology.”
Swan replies: I was not impressed with Gordon Olson’s book. Quite frankly, the book is an awkward read and in need of severe editing. He basically regurgitates the anti-reformed arguments of Geisler and Laurence Vance. He sets up a false caricature. Calvinists (as well as non-Calvinists) use both inductive and deductive reasoning. We do so because we are human, and God's truth is consistent and knowable.
Ray Says: “Interestingly, one doesn't have to look far to find an illustrative example. Swan provides just that when he quotes White's comments on Calvin's response to Rome's claims in the Potter's Freedom: "nay, the whole man, and everything that he can call his own, is set aside. We must attend to the contrast between God and Man, between grace and works;" and "since Paul excludes man and his utmost ability, - not only from the commencement, but throughout, -” from the whole work of obtaining salvation." We suggest that the person who honestly wishes to know where Calvin would stand on the debate today would find these to be the key affirmations, for if Geisler's position is correct, and "anyone can believe," then Calvin's entire position is overthrown. WOULD NOT SUCH A FAITH BE SOMETHING THE MAN COULD "CALL HIS OWN"? CALVIN SAYS IT IS SET ASIDE. WOULD THIS NOT BE PART OF MAN'S "UTMOST ABILITY" ESPECIALLY AT THE VERY "COMMENCEMENT" OF SALVATION"? Paul excludes it from the whole work of obtaining salvation, Calvin teaches.” (Emphasis mine) Notice that White is going way beyond what Calvin SAYS, and telling us what he believes (based on White's Reformed Theology) Calvin MEANT. White hangs his hat on it. If this is not deductive theology, I don't know what else it is.
Swan replies: Ray, I suggest you put Dr. Olson’s book away because it seems to be confusing you. What James White pointed out was simply what any good Calvin scholar would point out: John Calvin believed in the bondage of the will, consistently throughout his writings. You seem to want to imply that John Calvin forgot about the bondage of the will when he wrote his Ephesians commentary. All of sudden, Calvin believed in free will. This is simply ludicrous. Go back and re-read Calvin. Read the entire commentary on Ephesians. If you want to argue that Calvin “contradicts himself”- do so by reading Calvin, not Gordon Olson or Norman Geisler.
Ray says: In fact, I'm always struck by the consistency of Reformed writers in reading their theology into text of scripture. If there were ever a hallmark of a false religion, deductive reasoning is it. I'm also equally struck by the Reformed writer's inability to see it. If you post any additional argument in the future, I would ask that you pay particular attention to tracing your argument from its inductive roots. If you don't I will and will certainly call you on it. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." Or is it? "Be saved, and thou shalt believe." Ray --
Swan replies: I’m always struck by the inability of people to understand simple material in context. You’ve demonstrated this repeatedly, both in your understanding of Calvin and of my comments. During the next few months on this blog, I will take a closer look at Olson’s attack of “deductive reasoning” (I find it funny that Olson’s book argues using deductive reasoning at points).