Thursday, September 15, 2005

Paul Owen: pseudo-Calvinist

Paul Owen’s essay on Jn 6:37 could just as well have been penned by Grant Osborne or I. H. Marshall. It is clear that Dr. Owen is no Calvinist. It is less clear what he is, since he camouflages his position. That position has affinities with Luther. For Luther, the assurance of salvation was grounded in the objectivity of grace, which was, in turn, grounded in the sacraments as the means of grace.

Given his evident fondness for Luther, it wouldn’t be surprising if Dr. Owen were more Lutheran than Presbyterian in his theology. However, traditional Lutheran theology is just as anti-Catholic as traditional Reformed theology.


One of the most enigmatic aspects of biblical interpretation is trying to figure out when a particular text is referring to salvation in the covenant, or salvation according to God’s secret election.


That’s an odd way of putting things. Either you’re saved or you're not. You cannot be saved according to election, but not saved in the covenant, or vice versa.

Of course, his whole essay will fatally equivocate over the meaning of salvation, over the meaning of the “covenant,” and what it means to be “in” the covenant.


The tension is illustrated in Romans 9:4-6, where Paul simultaneously holds together the secret purpose of God in predestination with the reality that the soteric blessings of the Church belong to the entire covenant community. Paul says that the blessing of adoption, and the promises sealed in the covenants, belong to Israel as a whole in verse 4. Yet in verses 6 and following he insists that only the elect are predestined to receive the true benefit of those promises which belong to the entire Church.


Where’s the tension? What we have here is a distinction between a necessary and sufficient condition. All who were saved were in the (Mosaic) covenant, but not all who were in the covenant were saved. There’s no tension there. All dogs are quadrupeds, but not all quadrupeds are dogs.

Dr. Owen is generating an artificial tension of his own making by his equivocations. In what sense do “soteric” blessings belong to the entire church? If they are truly “soteric” in the sense of saving blessings, and everyone is not saved, then clearly then do not belong to the entire church--or else they belong to the entire church, but are non-soteric.

Again, do these promises belong to the entire church? And how do we define the “church”?


John 6:37 is usually read by Calvinists as a statement about predestination. Yet to be honest, there is no mention of predestination in this passage. The sort of clear language which one encounters in Ephesians 1:4-5 and Romans 9:23 is absent from John 6. Could it be that we should not presume such categories in reading this passage? A number of questions need to be asked in settling this matter.


i) Note that Dr. Owen is prepping the reader to break with the traditional Reformed reading of Jn 6:37. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with bucking tradition, but he is making an allowance for himself that he does not make for a Reformed Baptist.

ii) There is a danger of importing or imposing extraneous categories on a text of Scripture. Keep in mind, though, that Dr. Owen is guilty of this himself. He uses the category of “the church” as an interpretive grid to filter verses in which no mention is made of “the church.”

iii) The question is not whether the word “predestination” is present in Jn 6, but whether certain predestinarian concepts are present—predestinarian in the sense of salvation by God’s sovereign grace alone.


1. Who is meant by “all that the Father gives me”? Does this only refer to the elect who are predestined to glory? Or might it include them, as well as a larger circle? It would seem that it would include a larger circle, for it includes all those who “come” to Christ. We are told in verse 45 who these people are who come to Christ: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father.” That would appear to include the entire Church, all those who enter into the covenant. This is confirmed by John’s citation of Jeremiah 31:34 in this same verse: “They shall all be taught of God.” The word “all” in its context in Jeremiah clearly refers to everyone in the covenant. It is equivalent to “the house of Israel” in 31:33, and includes “the least of them to the greatest” (v. 34). This is simply a figure of speech for the entire nation, the people of God, the Church as a whole.


i) It is not clear that v45 is a citation of Jer 31:34. It could just as well be a citation of Isa 54:13.

ii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the reference is to prophecy of Jeremiah, observe how Dr. Owen ignores what the prophecy promises, and confines himself to whom it is addressed.

But doesn’t the prophecy promise a new heart and the remission of sin (vv33-34)? And is this applicable to elect and reprobate alike? Are the hell-bound forgiven? Do the hell-bound receive a new heart?


And we know that in Johannine theology, the identity of the people of God is not identical to the elect who are predestined to glory. John 15:1-6 clearly speaks of some who are “in Christ” (15:2), who are already “clean” (v. 3), but who fail to abide in the vine, and so are cast away and burned (v. 6).


Let us remember that this is a metaphor. One cannot simply equate being in the Vine with being in “the covenant,” or equate the branches with “the church.” For those categories are not present in Jn 15. The question is what the metaphor stands for.


This leads to the second question. What does Jesus mean in 6:37 when he says that he will “not cast out” the one who comes to him? Does this mean that they are automatically eternally secure? Not at all. The point is simply that Jesus will not turn away those who seek membership in his community. Anyone who believes (v. 35) will be granted access to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They will neither hunger nor thirst (v. 35). And please note that in Johannine theology, not all who believe in Jesus continue to be his disciples. John 8:31ff. makes it clear that some who believe later fall away. So the point is simply that all who profess the faith which unites the Christian community are accepted into the Church and given access to the Sacrament of Communion.


i) Talk about importing or imposing categories! The chapter says nothing about coming to the communion rail, or church membership. Rather, it talks about coming to Christ.

ii) The point is not simply that Jesus will not turn away those who come. The point, rather, is twofold:

a) Those who come are coming because the Father brought them to Christ (vv44-45,65).

b) Those who come to Christ will be kept in Christ (vv39-40,47,54).

iii) It is quite true that in Johannine theology you have a distinction between nominal and true believers. 6:39,44-45 have reference to true believers (the elect), while 6:66,70 have reference to nominal believers (the reprobate).


But do verses 39-40 not say that it is the Father’s will that none of those who have been given to Christ will perish, but be raised up on the last day? Of course. This has always been true. God is never willing that any of his people, any of the members of his Church, to whom belongs the covenant promises (Rom. 9:4) should perish. He wants all those who belong to him to be raised up to eternal life at the last day. But this does not mean that in fact none of those who belong to the Church will ultimately perish. John 6:39-40 is no different in its intent than Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:37, and Ezekiel’s sentiments in Ezekiel 18:23, 32. These are expressions of God’s good will towards his people, who are adopted sons (Rom. 9:4; Deut. 32:19; Exod. 4:22). God does not want any Christian to perish, but in fact, he does allow some Christians who belong to the number of his people, to perish. Again, John 15:1-6 is explicit on this point.


i) This is the classic Arminian gloss. God keeps those who keep themselves. Christians can lose their salvation.

ii) Notice that he doesn’t interpret 39-40 in light of Johannine usage or Johannine theology. Instead, he hauls in a few prooftexts for the universal offer of the gospel. But that's sloppy exegesis. It isn’t exegesis at all.

You don’t construe Jn 6:39-40 in light of Ezk 18:23 or other suchlike. You construe John in light of John: the flow of argument in chapter 6 as well as related chapters.

iii) 39-40 aren’t talking about those who resist the preaching of the gospel. What is in view here is not the outward preaching of the word, but the inward action of God.

iv) Yes, in Jn 15 you have the possibility of apostasy. If you don’t persevere, you will not be saved. But the question is why some persevere while others don’t. And the answer, in John, has to do with God’s preservation of the elect. Ditto: Paul.


But what about John 6:44? Does this not refer to the effectual call of the elect? In light of all we have said up to this point, it ought not to be limited to the effectual call of the elect. This drawing of the Father includes all those who are brought to the point of professing faith, and seeking the benefit of the Sacrament of Communion. In other words, it refers to all who are “called,” whether that call results in permanent discipleship and salvation, or whether its results prove to be only temporary. Reformed theology has no problem accomodating a temporary call of non-elect people into the grace of the Church. (See Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.11; 3.21.6-7; 3.24.8).


i) Observe very carefully with bold break with a classic Reformed prooftext for effectual calling.

ii) Notice that he’s assuming a Eucharistic interpretation of Jn 6, for which he’s laid no exegetical foundation.

iii) Notice that he’s splitting up various promises in the text and pitting them against each other. The promises in Jn 6 are not limited to conversation. They cover conversion and perseverance alike. In this very verse (44), those whom he draws he will raise up on the last day.

iv) Dr. Owen is deliberately and deceitfully conflating the inward, effectual call with the outward invitation.


Finally, what about 6:51? Does this not say that the person who eats this bread (whether or not this is taken as a reference to the Lord’s Supper) will live forever? Of course. This is a promise to the Church, just like the promises given to Israel (Rom. 9:4). But this is a promise with conditions according to John 15:1-6. In fact, we need look no further than 6:70, which includes Judas among those who were chosen. Judas was one of those to whom it was granted by the Father to come to Jesus for a season (v. 65). And yet Judas did not persevere. The covenantal promises to God’s New Testament Church always contain abiding conditions, as is clear throughout the New Testament (Heb. 3:6; Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 15:2; Col. 1:23; 2 Pet. 1:4-10).


i) Actually, the terms of 6:51 are unconditional.

ii) This is not a promise to “the church.”

iii) 6:70 is not a promise. 6:66 is not a promise. Dr. Owen is mixing promises with indicatives, and using indicatives to dilute promises.

iv) Salvation is not unconditional (Jn 15:1-6). But the point of a promise like 6:51 lies in the assurance that God will, indeed, preserve the elect.

Again, Dr. Owen is mixing promises with conditions, and using conditions to water down the promises. But that is not the proper relation. The point of the promise lies in the assurance that the conditions will be met, by God’s invincible grace.

v) God did not empower Judas to answer the outward call of Christ. That’s something the natural man can do. Judas was chosen to be one of the twelve, not one of the saints.

In order to extend the promises to the visible church, elect and reprobate alike, both heaven-bound and hell-bound, Dr. Owen must thin out the promises. The promises of God and the actions of God no longer ensure the salvation of anyone in particular. By applying them to everyone in the church, they can be certain for no one in the church. They lose their saving force. They lose their element of assurance.

What we end up with is the classic Arminian compromise of lesser grace for more people. Dr. Owen should be ejected from the Presbyterian church and become a Methodist minister.

Paul Owen is a snake. He blends in nicely with the leaves, but the fangs are tipped with venom.

1 comment:

  1. Well done Steve. Strong concluding words - but I can't say that I disagree with them.

    Then again, if I had a true advanced theological degree (like a J.D. or a Ph.D. in philosophy) then I'd probably just have to cavalierly dismiss your supporting arguments.