Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tektinny objections to Calvinism

I’ve been asked to comment on an article by J. P. “Holding.”

After reading the article I don’t have much to say.

1.Much of his objection to the Reformed reading of Rom 9 involves a couple of stock, Arminian objections, viz. Rom 9 is not talking about salvation, and even if it were talking about salvation, it’s talking about corporate election rather than individual election.

So, it’s not as if Holding is, in this respect, raising any novel objection to the Reformed reading. And it’s not as if Calvinism is speechless in the face of such objections.

i) For example, these stock objections have already been refuted by Steven Baugh and Tom Schreiner:


b) Tom Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election until Salvation?” T. Schreiner & B. Ware, eds. Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace (Baker 2000), 89-106.

So what Holding has done is to dust off some musty old arguments without addressing, much less rebutting, the counterarguments.

ii) Likewise, he devotes some time to the hardening of Pharaoh without bothering to interact with Beale’s online essay:

iii) In addition, there’s no interaction with Schreiner’s commentary on Romans.

Hence, I’d advise the reader of Holding’s essay to also read Beale, Baugh and Schreiner.

2.Another weakness with Holding’s essay is a failure to distinguish between scholarly argument and scholarly opinion. Sometimes he will quote an actual argument (albeit a flawed argument) in favor of his position. But at other times he will simply quote so-and-so’s claim in favor of his position, without any supporting argument.

But just to tells us, as he often does, that Cranfied (for one) disagrees with the Reformed reading is not a *reason* to side with Cranfield over Calvinism.

BTW, there’s no doubt that Cranfield is one of the top commentators on Romans. But remember that Cranfield is also a Barthian. Hence, he has his own ax to grind.

So I’d advise the reader of Holding’s essay to ask himself, every time he runs across a quote in favor of Holding’s position, if Holding is quoting an actual argument, or if this is simply an appeal to some “authority” who happens to disagree with Calvinism.

3.Yet another fundamental failing with his essay is the way he frames the issue. He attempts to dilute the Pauline witness to predestination by the following ploy:


Paul is in fact addressing several potential objections:
"If the Jews are covenant people, why do the majority reject the Gospel?" As noted, this question is rightly identified by White and others as germane.

But there is more even to this question:
"If the Jews are condemned for rejecting Christ, how do you explain that they remain in power in Judaea with Roman blessing even now, that their religion thrives, that they possess this beautiful Temple?" This critical component is neglected by Calvinist commentators like White, who look back through the lens of post-70 AD events, and fail to realize that at the time Paul writes (c. 45-50), these very serious and immediate questions were a prima facie case against Christianity. The fate of a nation was an important signal of its favor with its "home court" deity. Jews could hardly accept that God had abandoned them as long as their Judean government remained in power (even with Roman watchcare) and as long as the Temple remained standing. Thus Paul is between two points diametrically opposed: He must walk the line between acknowledging that the Jews did have God's blessing in the past (for otherwise, he implies that God has erred in blessing Israel previously) and showing that they no longer have it, but the body of Christ does -- in spite of what evidence exists in his world in that day to the contrary.

Finally, Paul must also tend to the potential objection that the failure of Jews to believe was a reason to reject and condemn Israel as a body -- not on a theological level, but on a social level; Paul must also counter the tendency for Gentiles (in this day of strong ethnic prejudices) to use Israel's rejection of the Gospel as a reason for personally rejecting non-Christian Jews.


The problem with this claim is that, as a matter of fact, only the first question is the actual question posed by Paul (Rom 9:6). That’s the programmatic question which, according to Paul, he’s addressing.

And nowhere in the remainder of Holding’s essay does he make any effort to show that Paul was addressing these other questions.

Indeed, when Holding calls them “potential” questions, this is a tacit admission that he cannot, in fact, exegete these questions from the text of Romans.

So what he’s done, instead, is to interpolate a couple of made-up questions in order to water down the predestinarian force of Rom 9.

BTW, it’s pretty silly to claim that the Jews were still in power. Judea was a client state of Rome. The reason the Jews fought two disastrous wars with Rome was to cast off the yoke of Roman oppression and regain their national autonomy.

4.On the hardening of Pharaoh, he makes to basic mistakes:

i) He fails to see the programmatic function of Exod 4:21 & 7:3. The subsequent references are understood to be in fulfillment of God’s prediction and purpose. God is the ulterior and ultimate agent.

ii) He also fails to see the function of the plagues, which are staged to unfold as a unit. If Pharaoh had the libertarian freedom to relent at any point in the process, that would break the cycle. But breaking the cycle would destroy the purpose of the plagues in the first place.

God could have delivered the Israelites without such an elaborate process. The point of the plagues is polemical, to systematically publicly discredit Egyptian religion:

6.Holding also says, “there is no indication that Paul thinks that Pharaoh's hardening was permanent or irreversible.”

But even if that were true, it’s irrelevant. For it’s temporary or reversible condition wouldn’t depend on the object of hardening (Pharaoh), but the subject of hardening (God).

8.In relation to 9:15, he absurdly redefines divine mercy as “the debt of interpersonal obligations …paying of one's debt…to pay back previously earned favor!”

But other issues aside, this utterly fails to explain why God would pay off some debts, but not others. For if God is obligated to pay up, then he cannot discriminate.

Yet the point of 9:15 is that God has mercy on some, but not on others.

9.He cites 2 Thes 2:10f. in support of his libertarian take on hardening. But that hardly follows. Divine hardening does not assume that its objects were free (in the libertarian sense) before they were hardened. Rather, they were already sinners, and the purpose of hardening is to exacerbate and compound the consequences of their sin in order to expose the true character of sin.

10.On v22, he disregards the arguments of Käsemann, Moo, Piper, and Schreiner (in his commentary) that “fitted” or “prepared” is a divine passive construction. The divine passive is a stock convention of Scripture.

11.Finally, Holding recycles a number of arguments that I’ve dealt with extensively in the past. So I needn’t repeat myself here.


  1. "ii) He also fails to see the function of the plagues, which are staged to unfold as a unit. If Pharaoh had the libertarian freedom to relent at any point in the process, that would break the cycle. But breaking the cycle would destroy the purpose of the plagues in the first place."

    This is a strong argument that I've often thought about. The libertarian must concede that Pharaoh could've disrupted the unit of plagues and thus left the Passover plague uninstituted.

  2. I don't understand the 'argument'. A Molinist would just say that God knew what Pharaoh would do in certain a situation, and then he put him in that situation. In fact I think the argument sucks :-)

    Thanks for answering Steve. I'll reread 'Holding''s essay now.

  3. Anonymous said:

    "I don't understand the 'argument'. A Molinist would just say that God knew what Pharaoh would do in certain a situation, and then he put him in that situation."

    Molinism has its own problems:


    But philosophers have some serious doubts about whether or not it is possible for God to possess middle knowledge, doubts that parallel those expressed above in connection with the possibility of God's foreknowledge of the contingent future. (For more detailed discussions of these objections, see Freddoso's introduction to Molina 1988, Craig 1987, Flint 1988 and Flint 1998, and Hasker 1989). For one thing, they wonder about counterfactuals of freedom: can we really assume that these are either true or false? How can they be true if (for example) the person in question is never in the situation and never actually makes a choice? What “grounds” them or makes them true? (This worry is explored in Adams 1977 and Davison 2004.) A second worry about Molina's picture has to do with the nature of knowledge. Even if a given counterfactual of freedom is true, knowing a proposition requires that a person be able to distinguish what is true from what is false. The worry here is that perhaps not even God could distinguish true counterfactuals of freedom from false ones. (See Davison 1991 for a discussion of this kind of argument.)

    Davison, Scott A., “Foreknowledge, Middle Knowledge, and ‘Nearby’ Worlds”, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Volume 30, Number 1 (August 1991), pp.29-44.

  4. Let's also not forget that Molinism (and Holding claims to be a Molinist) begs the question of libertarian freedom. He needs to show us Scripture that proves libertarian freedom.

    In addition, in Molinism, God supposedly uses external circumstances to ensure a particular result for the individual. That's fine and dandy, but, aside from the question, "How can God know the counterfactuals of freedom in libertarianism?" the Molinist has simply moved the goalpost from an internal mechanism to an external mechanism. That's not a libertarian argument. If circumstances DETERMINE a PARTICULAR outcome, then the individual does NOT have libertarian freedom. Molinism can't make it out of the gate without contradicting itself.

  5. Just to let you know, JP Holding has started a thread over at TWeb about this blog entry:

  6. The arguments in this post are answered here (as anonymous' link is broken).