One reason for different schools of theological thought is differences in theological method—different presumptions, different directions and applications of the harmonistic principle.
1. Decretive over descriptive statements. Sometimes a sacred writer goes beneath the surface level of the narrative to explain the ultimate cause of an event. For example, the phenomenon of Jewish unbelief was a major apologetic problem in NT theology. How could God’s covenant community reject the prophesied Messiah, and how was their apostasy consistent with God’s covenant fidelity? Both Paul and John tackle this problem, and both offer the same solution. They don’t stop with unbelief as a brute fact. That would be the Arminian explanation. Appealing to freewill, however, would answer the question of God’s fidelity in the negative. God would have made promises that he was either unable or unwilling to keep. For Jews like John Paul, that is not a live option. It is unthinkable that God would fail to make good on his word. So they go behind the phenomenon of unbelief to find the solution in double predestination (e.g. Jn 9:39; 12:37-41; Rom 2:28-29; 9-11; cf. 1 Pet 2:6ff.).
There are many other passages of the same kind where the writer goes behind the narrative in order to attribute a given outcome to the hidden hand of providence (e.g. Gen 50:20; Exod 12:36; Deut 2:30; Josh 11:20; 1 Sam 2:25; 2 Sam 16:20-23; 17:1-14; 1 Kgs 12:15; 2 Chron 10:12-15; 21:16; 25:17-20; Jn 9:1-3; Acts 13:48). This can only be taken to mean that divine causality is the final and efficient cause of the human action. In addition to historical narrative, we find this same move made in the wisdom literature and prophetic corpus (Prov 16:9,14,33; 21:1, 30-31; Eccl 3:1-14; 7:13-14; Isa 10:5-7; 14:24-27; 31:2; 37:26; 43:13; Lam 3:37-38; Amos 3:5-6). The apocalyptic philosophy of history is also prized on the presumption that mundane events, however intimidating, are directed from the throne room of God, and do not, therefore, pose a threat to the ultimate well-being of God’s people. To tell the churches of Smyrna, Pergamum, and Philadelphia that evil is due to freewill would be the counsel of despair, for that would mean that they were truly at the mercy of the imperial death squads. Likewise, the interpretation of Job turns on the pre-supposition of invisible events directing the course of visible events (1:6ff.; 2:1ff.). When such diverse genres bear common witness to the same divine dynamic, that raises a general presumption in favor of the universality of the decree. If, everytime these authors pull back the veil to permit a brief glimpse of a divine design guiding human affairs, the implication is surely not that this is only operative at just those moments when the veil happens to be drawn back, but that visible events are always driven this ordinarily invisible plan and providence.
2. Decretive over preceptive statements. Traditionally, Calvinism draws a distinction between the decretive and preceptive will of God. While the distinction is valid, the terminology is somewhat misleading. God’s will is not in a state of internal tension. The adjectives rather than the nouns bear the burden of the distinction. God’s decretive will has reference to an immediate mental act of God whereby he freely chooses to enact a certain state of affairs out of other possible scenarios. God’s decretive will is consubstantial with God himself, and is irresistible inasmuch as it is the necessary condition of every mundane event.
God’s preceptive will has reference to man’s religious obligations as revealed in God’s word. This usually has reference to general norms of conduct, although it can take in topical injunctions to individuals. God’s preceptive will is normally resistible. So it comes down to a distinction between an attribute of God and a law of God. Since the decretive will and preceptive will stand for different referents, they can never come into direct conflict, and so there can be a discrepancy between decree and precept without introducing a point of tension into the divine will. A classic case illustrating the distinction would be God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
A more soteriological example would be Mt 11:25-30. Arminians appeal to vv28ff. to prove universal grace. However, an invitation is preceptive in character. Moreover, this very invitation is prefaced by vv25ff., where God has peremptorily excluded a major class of persons from the overtures of grace.
Arminians cite certain passages to prove that grace is not irresistible (Mt 23:37; Lk 7:30; Acts 7:51; Gal 2:21; 5:4; Heb 12:15). As well as more specific errors of interpretation, which I will address momentarily, this appeal suffers from two general fallacies:
i) It confuses original usage with dogmatic usage. I have discussed this semantic fallacy under point #15.
ii) All these verses have reference to the preceptive rather than decretive will of God.
Mt 23:37 alludes to a conditional covenant with the house of Israel (v38; cf. Jer 12:7; 22:5). This is preceptive, not decretive. Moreover, the contrast is not between A’s will for B, and B’s will for A; but between A’s will for B, and C’s for B: "Jerusalem ©, how often have I (A) desired to gather your children (B), but you (C) desired otherwise." So there is no direct conflict, here, between the divine and human wills. If we want to find an example of God’s decretive will in Matthew, turn to 11:21-23.
Lk 7:30 has reference to the preaching of John the Baptist. In this verse, "God’s will" stands for the baptism of repentance. This is preceptive, not decretive. Furthermore, the verb ("rejected") could just as well take the prepositional phrase ("for themselves") rather than the noun ("God’s will") for its object, viz., "It could be taken either with rejected, i.e. on their own responsibility, or with the purpose of God, i.e. which had them in mind," C. Evans, TPINTC (Trinity, 1990), 356; "By rejecting the baptism, they chose not to accept their need for repentance and forgiveness," D. Bock, BECNT 3A (Baker 1994), 678; cf. Meyer’s Commentary on the New Testament (Hendrickson, 1983), 2:348.
Acts 7:51 has reference, not to the internal work of the Spirit, but to the agency of the Spirit in the inspiration of the prophetic word—both in OT preaching (e.g. Num 27:14; Isa 63:10), and the charismatic kerygma of the NT Apostles and evangelists (e.g. Philip; Stephen). So this is preceptive.
In 2 Cor 6:1, I take the phrase about the "grace of God" to be a shorthand expression for "the gospel of the grace of God" (cf. Acts 20;24), in contrast to a false gospel (2 Cor 11:4; cf. Gal 1:6ff.). This is preceptive.
Gal 2:21 & 5:4 have reference to the doctrine of grace rather than the grace of the doctrine. What people can resist is the doctrine of justification and not the experience of justification, which is a divine act. Once again, the emphasis is preceptive. Moreover, 5:4 is hortatory and hyperbolic. If Paul had believed that the Galatians were guilty of apostasy, he would hardly express confidence in their gracious perseverance (v10).
In Heb 12:15, we should resist the temptation to subjectivize the concept of grace. Throughout this letter, the author’s emphasis is on the phenomenology rather than psychology of faith. His few references to the work of the Spirit are confined to the Spirit’s agency in inspiration and the charismata or sign-gifts. The existential dimension is absent.
Therefore, none of these passages imply that God’s will can be flouted. This denial isn’t an exercise in special pleading, but is based on a close reading of text, context, and background.
3. Editorial over narrative statements. Related to (1) and (4), the sacred narrator sometimes introduces an editorial aside in order to forestall misunderstanding (e.g. Jn 3:24; 4:8,9b; 6:15). A striking case is Jn 6:5-6. If we were to judge by v5, we would naturally conclude that Jesus posed this question out of genuine ignorance. But the parenthetical in v6 anticipates and corrects that misimpression by explaining that an ulterior motive lay behind this seemingly innocent question. It is important to keep this perspective in mind when process theologians cite various OT passages to show that God is not omniscient. Soliciting information is not the only reason an agent may ask a question.
4. Programmatic over narrative statements. In analyzing the narrative design of the Fourth Gospel, a responsible expositor would naturally begin with Jn 20:31. We should be alert for these internal tips in the other historical books as well. In the Exodus narrative, for instance, Arminians have often seized on the fact that Pharaoh’s hardening is sometimes attributed to human rather than divine agency. However, not all of the hardening passages are on a hermeneutical par.
Exod 4:21-22 is clearly programmatic for what follows. By allowing the reader in on God’s gameplan, the narrator is cluing the reader in on the ulterior intent shaping the events to come. There is even a distinction drawn between God’s decretive (21b) and preceptive will (22). The divine ruse was already in place in 3:18-20, and is reiterated once more on the eve of Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh (7:3). On three separate occasions, Moses has taken the reader right into the divine huddle; yet the Arminian turns a deaf ear to these broad hints, and presumes to guess the quarterback’s strategy from the line of scrimmage. J. Piper lays out the climactic role played by the hardening motif in Exodus. Cf. The Justification of God Baker 1999), 161-71.
Moreover, the wording of 33:19 seems to form a deliberate parallel to the wording of 3:14. And this, in turn, sets up a parallel between God’s aseity and his activity. Just as God is ontologically unconditioned, so is his sphere of action.
Furthermore, even where the proximate source of hardening is attributed to Pharaoh himself—"he hardened his heart" (8:15), this is further qualified by backward reference to the divine prediction—"just as the Lord had said" (cf. 4:21; 7:3)—which ascribes the ultimate source to God’s premediated purpose.
This interpretation receives intercanonical support as well. Commenting on the Exodus narrative, the Psalmist also attributes the Egyptian response to divine agency (Ps 105:25). When such assistance is available, a commentator or theologian should listen to what a later canonical writer has to say about a prior episode of Scripture.
5. Polemical over pastoral genres. In the conflict with Rome, the Protestant side gave priority to Paul over James, while the Catholic side gave priority to James over Paul. Among other reasons, the Protestant prioritization was on firmer footing because Paul is a more polemical writer than James. And that forces him to pay more attention to the theoretical grounds underlying the doctrine of justification, whereas James is operates at the level of praxis.
Likewise, the phenomenon of Jewish unbelief confronted the Apostles with an apologetic challenge. As such, we find predestination discussed in a controversial context (Jn 6; 10; 12; 17; Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28; Rom 9-11; 1 Pet 2:6-9). Here the defense of the gospel requires that the Apostles trace Jewish unbelief to its ultimate and ulterior source in the purpose of God. They don’t stop with the empirical phenomenon of unbelief—as if the human veto represented a final datum—for behind the human veto lies the divine veto.
6. Arguments over assertions. While all arguments carry an assertoric force, not all assertions carry an argumentative force. So we need to distinguish between bare assertions and reasoned assertions. In Scripture, both are equally inspired. However, a reasoned statement, by supplying the rationale underlying the assertion, allows us to estimate its relative or else absolute force—whereas a bare assertion is harder to gauge in this respect. This distinction is important in systematic theology. For example, we have an apparent antinomy between the equality of the Son in Jn 5:18 and his inequality in 14:28. Other issues aside, Jn 5:18 is the control verse since there the status of the Son is grounded in a stated relation (having God as his own Father), whereas the statement in 14:28 lacks an anterior cause; therefore we would harmonize 14:28 relative to 5:18 rather than vice versa.
7. Subordinate over coordinate relations. Arminians typically assume that when a passage introduces divine and human factors into an outcome, these must stand in a coordinate relation. It is as if this were the only causal relation that the Arminian can even conceive of. On this model, each agent makes a partial and independent contribution to the net result. Yet ordinary experience acquaints us with subordinate relations: cause/effect; action/reaction; stimulus/response. If the cue ball drops the 8-ball into a side pocket via the 10-ball, the causal relation is asymmetrical; although the 10-ball is the proximate cause of the effect, the cue ball is the proximate cause of the 10-ball’s motion and the remote cause of the 8-ball’s motion.
Arminians often cite Phil 2:12-13 as a classic statement of the perennial paradox between divine and human agency. Yet Paul does not treat God’s work and man’s work as sitting side-by-side; rather, the grammatical construction subordinates the human action to the divine in a reflexive relation: "Work, for it is God to works in you"—especially when coupled with the added reference to the divine decree—"according to his good purpose." Cf. F.F. Bruce, NIBC 11 (Hendrickson, 1989), 82-3; M. Silva, WEC (Moody, 1988), 134-42. Note also that in this passage, God’s agency is said to operate on our will as well as our work. So much for freewill in the libertarian sense.
8. Qualifications over generalizations. The Bible sometimes speaks in generalities. Indeed, this may even be the rule rather than exception depending on the genre (e.g. Proverbs). So when the Bible employs universal expressions, we have to make allowance for this possibility. That observation should be too obvious to call for comment, but it is routinely ignored by Arminians and universalists.
Indeed, universalists employ precisely the same form of argument against limited salvation as the Arminians use against limited atonement: "if everyone will be saved, then some will be saved." But like a contract, we have to read the fineprint as well. As a rule, qualified usage takes precedence over broad generalities.
We are so accustomed to using the Bible as a reference work that it is easy to lose sight of the concrete circumstances involved in overseeing several churches by mail. The NT correspondence is addressed to a mixed company of new and mature believers, true and nominal believers. As such it must employ sweeping generalizations that will not apply equally to everyone in the audience. That is simply an exigency of mass communication.
9. Specialized over ordinary usage. Arminians sometimes oppose Mt 22:14 to Pauline usage in order to drive a wedge between general provision (sufficient grace; universal atonement) and individual application. However, this contrast rests on a palpable equivocation, for Matthew is using the verbs in their ordinary sense: out of the larger number who are summoned only a smaller number accept the invitation and are thereby initiated into the Christian community—whereas these same verbs have acquired the status of technical terms in Paul. In Paul, the terms carry significance beyond the bare dictionary definition inasmuch as they designate a larger doctrinal construct: each verb has specialized reference to the esoteric and efficient action of God. This reference is not built into the usage of Matthew but has to be supplied by context on a case-by-case basis.
10. Loaded language over neutral terms. Arminians appeal to Heb 2:9 to prove general atonement. However, the denotation of v9 is unpacked by the stated denotae of the immediately succeeding verses: "sons" (10); "brothers" (11-12); "children" (13-14); "the given" (13); "Abraham’s seed" (16), and "the people" (17; cf. 9:15)). These are not universal terms denoting mankind in general; rather, the author has deliberately chosen designations that trigger associations with the covenant community. This is not surprising since our author is addressing Jewish-Christians. So we must keep these covenantal connotations in mind. Moreover, there is a climactic word-play connecting panta (8), pantoß (9), panta (10), and panteß (11)—where the final occurrence culminates with the exclusive union between the Holy One (Christ) and his holy ones (Christians).
This kind of language implies an inclusive contract between the respective parties. It is analogous to a statement like, "I made love to my wife last night." The implication is that my wife was the only woman I made love to last night—precisely because she is my wife and not just another woman.
When Calvinists appeal to Jn 10:11 to prove special redemption, Arminians counter that this doesn’t imply that he died only for the sheep. Such an objection would be legitimate if "sheep" were a neutral word. But the shepherd/ sheep imagery is obviously colored by OT usage, where it represents the Lord’s relation to his chosen people. Jesus deliberately exploits its literary resonance. This is paralleled by the reference to "friends" in 15:13. As Clayton Bowen remarks,
The Johannine Logos-Christ...has love only for those within the circle, for his friends. The great word of 15:13, "There is no greater love than this —that a man should lay down his life for his friends," says this with a simple directness that defines misunderstanding. The stress in this sentence is strongly on the closing phrase yper tvn filvn aytoy," "Love in the Fourth Gospel," JR 13 (1933), 42.
The same allusive force is operative when Paul says that Christ died for the "church" (Acts 20:28). The church is not merely a subset of the world, but stands over against the world. Moreover, the verb peripoiv has an elective connotation in Septuagintal usage (e.g. Ps 74:2; Isa 43:21), and this connotation carries over in NT usage as well (Eph 1:14; Tit 2:14; 1 Pet 2:9).
Along the same lines, Arminians also appeal to Isa 53:6. Yet this also has reference to members of the covenant community (cf. "my people," v8). And let us also keep in mind that Isaiah was an architect of remnant theology (4:3; 6:13; 10:20-22; 11:10-16; 28:5).
Additional appeal is made to the Pastorals (1 Tim 2:4-6; 4:11; Tit 2:11). This calls for several replies:
i) What I’ve already said regarding the force of universal quantifiers applies here as well. See more on this below as well (point 11).
ii) In evaluating the scope of these passages, we must also take into account some other passages in the Pastorals where stress is laid on the monergistic character of God’s redemptive action (1 Tim 1:14; 2 Tim 1:9 [cf. 2:10]; Tit 1:2-3; 3:3-5).
iii) In the Pastorals, Paul is combating a soteric heresy. Scholars divide over its identity. Some identify it as Jewish, others as Gnostic or proto-Gnostic. It could be also be syncretic in character (e.g. Jewish Gnosticism). Regardless of its precise identification, what is clear is that the heretics were denying the necessity and/or sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. That is the background against which Paul frames his reply. The point at issue, then, is whether there is a class of people who either rise above the necessity of his atonement or else fall below the sufficiency of his atonement.
Additional appeal is made to the cosmic scope of Christ’s atonement (Jn 1:29; 3:16-17; 4:42; 2 Cor 5:19; 1 Jn 2:2). While this interpretation is understandable, it misses the ethical connotation that kosmoß has acquired in a number of Johannine and Pauline occurrences (e.g. Jn 1:10; 14:17,22; 15:19; 17:14,16,25; 18:36; 1 Jn 2:16-17; 4:5; 5:19; 1 Cor 1:20f., 27; 2:12; 3:19; Gal 6:14; Col 2:20). In these passages, the "world" personifies the fallen world-order. This, indeed, is the source of the pejorative connotation of "worldliness" in traditional Christian usage. The focus is qualitative rather than quantitative.
An especially vivid instance is to be found in 1 Jn 5:19. Here we have a universal quantifier applied to the world. If any verse could establish the semantic force of the Arminian contention, it would be this verbal conjunction. Yet that would run entirely at variance with John’s recurrent and emphatic insistence on a categorical distinction between the children of God and children of the Devil. John is assuredly not including believers within the scope of v19.
Some readers may feel that I, as a Calvinist, am drawing strained distinctions to salvage my thesis. Quite the contrary, it is the Arminians who preach two different versions of Christ: a Christ who is the abstract Redeemer of all men, and another Christ who is the concrete Savior of some men—whereas Calvinists preach an undivided and indivisible Christ. We do not partition him into a Redeemer for one set of people and a Savior for another set.
11.Sense over reference. If I have a Siamese cat named Sylvester, then "Sylvester" has reference to my pet cat, but "Sylvester" doesn’t mean Siamese cat.
Now Arminians infer general redemption from the use of universal terms in certain passages (Isa 53:6; Mt 11:28; Rom 5:18; 8:32; 11:32; 2 Cor 5:14; 1 Tim 2:4,6; 4:10; Tit 2:11; Heb 2:9; 2 Pet 3:9). While this is a natural inference, it rests on a semantic fallacy. "All" and "every" are universal quantifiers. A universal quantifier functions as a class quantifier, denoting all of the members of a given reference-class. Arminians assume that it has a standard extension, which they take to be a maximal extension, unless otherwise modified.
This confuses extension with intension. A universal quantifier has a standard intension, but a variable extension. And that follows from the nature of a quantifier, which is necessarily general and abstract rather than specific and concrete marker. That’s what makes it possible to plug in concrete content. A universal quantifier is a class quantifier. As such, it can have no fixed range of reference. In each case, that must be supplied by the concrete context and specific referent. In other words, a universal quantifier has a definite intension but indefinite extension. So its extension is relative to the level of generality of the reference-class in view. Thus, there is no presumption in favor of taking "all" or "every" as meaning everyone without exception. "All" or "every" is always relative to all of something:
i) We take Rom 5:18a as denoting all men, not simply because of the universal quantifier, but because Paul has found many different ways in the course of 1:18-3:18 to indicate the universality of sin. By contrast, we do not take the use of the quantifier in 5:18b as denoting all men since that does not enjoy the same background of support; indeed, if we were to press the parallel, it would mean that absolutely everyone will be saved, which runs contrary to what Paul otherwise teaches—not least of which is the condition of faith.
ii) On Rom 8:32, the subject in this verse ("us all") coincides with the subject in v31 ("us"). Working our way backwards, this coincides with the objects of foreknowledge, foreordination, vocation, justification, and glorification (vv29-30); while working forwards, it coincides with the objects of intercession and preservation. So where in this series do the Arminians propose to interpolate the damned?
iii) Rom 11:32 should be read with these implicit qualifications in place. As F.F. Bruce remarks, this verse affirms representative universalism. Cf. TNTC 6 (IVP, 1987), 210.
iv) On 2 Cor 5:14, although this is a favorite prooftext of Arminians, it actually undercuts their thesis. According to the symmetry of the verse, the first quantifier coincides with the second: Christ died for all who died in Christ. So the scope of each quantifier is limited to the union between the Redeemer and the redeemed. As F.F. Bruce remarks, "One has died as the representative of all his people, and therefore all of them are deemed to have died in the person of their representative." Cf. NCBC (Eerdmans, 1984), 207; C.K. Barrett admits "it is true that the stress here does not lie on the ‘all men’ but on the ‘disobedience’ and the ‘mercy’ BNTC (Hendrickson, 1991), 210.
This interpretation is confirmed by the non-imputation of sin in v19, which hardly applies to humanity as a whole.
v) On 2 Pet 3:9, there are half a dozen reasons for rejecting the Arminian interpretation:
a) This letter was apparently directed to a Judeo-Christian Diaspora (cf. 1 Pet 1:1; Gal 2:7f.)—which, at least, included significant Jewish representation. Commentators tend to take an either/or approach to the recipients, forgetting that since these letters are addressed to a "mixed multitude" (of Jewish and Gentile Christians), they contain characterizations that are more appropriate to one segment (e.g. Gentile converts) of the congregation than another, without thereby excluding a more diverse audience. Since, moreover, these are circular letters, the relative Jewish/ Gentile representation would vary from one locality to the next. Both points assume that 1-2 Pet share a common address (cf. 2 Pet 3:1), although these same conditions would obtain more generally.
Moreover, the Apostle—in both his epistles—transfers OT and Intertestamental imagery to the Church in order to stress the continuity or even identity between Israel and the Church. Now the theme of God’s longsuffering towards his covenant people is a commonplace in the Prophets. It would be without warrant, therefore, to universalize its scope.
b) This conclusion is reinforced by internal parallels where divine forbearance is in the interests of the faithful (3:15; 2:5,7,9).
c) 2 Pet is apparently set against the backdrop of persecution (2:9; cf. 1 Pet 1:6; 4:12), which would underscore the deliverance motif—which applies to the people of God.
d) The "all" in v9b is presumably conterminous with the "you" in v9a, which has—as its immediate referent—the Christian communities addressed in Peter’s encyclical.
e) This conclusion would also be more in keeping with the predestinarian force of the divine will (Gr.=boylh) in the Petrine speeches of Acts 2:23 & 4:28.
f) This conclusion would also be in keeping with Peter’s predestinarian (1 Pet 1:2,20; Acts 2:23; 4:28), or even double predestinarian (1 Pet 2:8-9) theology.
vi) On Tit 2:11, we must make some effort to integrate v11 with v14, where the phrase "a people for his own" is a stereotypical expression for the covenant community, and implies divine discrimination," C. Spicq, Les Epîtres Pastorales (Paris, 1957), 2:643. On 1 Tim 4:10, cf. S. Baugh, "‘Savior of all people’: 1 Tim 4:10 in context," WTJ 54 (1992), 331-40.