J.P. Holding’s article on unconditional election is, at the very least, an interesting read. But for one who finds exegetical clarity and consistency the greatest driving factor in evaluating someone’s position, the article falls far short. Now let me say immediately that I know very little of Mr. Holding, and this article is intended to be completely non-personal. The gentleman may well be a wonderfully nice Christian man who offers good insights on various apologetics issues. I am responding to a single article because I have seen it cited often as evidence of “another way” of looking at things, as if there can be multiple, equally valid interpretations of the words of Scripture. And I am responding to it also because on any exegetical level it is, in my opinion, inaccurate and flawed in numerous important ways.
But let us begin by letting Mr. Holding speak for himself. I wish to examine in particular two portions of this article, both dealing with his attempt to deal with Romans 9, “the Calvinist’s bubba club” as he puts it. First is the over-arching use of a single source, Marvin Wilson’s Our Father Abraham, and the concept of “block logic,” to substantiate utterly eisegetical conclusions. Holding fails completely to make the necessary connections between even the most wide and optimistic reading of Wilson and the conclusion he draws from the text. Second is the even less exegetically accurate or relevant discussion of the meaning of mercy in Romans 9:16 and the following “negation idiom” discussion.
Now surely, one could simply go and read the original article, but for those without that amount of time, I will seek to summarize as best I can. The first point is briefly expressed enough to quote in its entirety:
Hebrew “block logic” operated on similar principles. “…[C]oncepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine. This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antimony, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension — and often illogical relation — to the other. Hence, polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic.” Examples of this in practice are the alternate hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God, or by Pharaoh himself; and the reference to loving Jacob while hating Esau — both of which, significantly, are referred to often by Calvinist writers.
Wilson continues: “Consideration of certain forms of block logic may give one the impression that divine sovereignty and human responsibility were incompatible. The Hebrews, however, sense no violation of their freedom as they accomplish God’s purposes.” The back and forth between human freedom and divine sovereignty is a function of block logic and the Hebrew mindset. Writers like Palmer who proudly declare that they believe what they read in spite of what they see as an apparent absurdity are ultimately viewing the Scriptures, wrongly, through their own Western lens in which they assume that all that they read is all that there is.
What this boils down to is that Paul presents us with a paradox in Romans 9, one which he, as a Hebrew, saw no need to explain. “..[T]he Hebrew mind could handle this dynamic tension of the language of paradox” and saw no need to unravel it as we do. And that means that we are not obliged to simply accept Romans 9 at “face value” as it were, because it is a problem offered with a solution that we are left to think out for ourselves. There will be nothing illicit about inserting concepts like primary causality, otherwise unknown in the text.
The rabbis after the NT explicated the paradox a bit further. They did not conclude, however — as is the inclination in the Calvinist camp — that “a totally unalterable future lay ahead, for such a view contradicted God’s omnipotence and mercy.” They also argued that “unless God’s proposed destiny for man is subject to alteration, prayer to God to institute such alteration” is nonsensical. Of course the rabbis were not inspired in their teachings. Yet their views cannot be simply discarded with a grain of salt, as they are much closer to the vein than either Calvin or Arminius, by over a millennium and by an ocean of thought.
One can immediately see the issues raised by such claims: does “Hebrew block logic” actually provide a sufficient textual basis for such claims as,
And that means that we are not obliged to simply accept Romans 9 at “face value” as it were, because it is a problem offered with a solution that we are left to think out for ourselves. There will be nothing illicit about inserting concepts like primary causality, otherwise unknown in the text.
Of course the rabbis were not inspired in their teachings. Yet their views cannot be simply discarded with a grain of salt, as they are much closer to the vein than either Calvin or Arminius, by over a millennium and by an ocean of thought.
In regards to the second point, Holding assumes (but does not even attempt to prove) that “mercy” in “an ancient context”…
is better rendered as “gratitude” or “steadfast love” — as in, “the debt of interpersonal obligations for unrepayable favors received.” Mercy is not involved with feelings of compassion, as today, but the “paying of one’s debt of interpersonal obligation by forgiving a trivial debt.” To say, “Lord, have mercy!” (Matt. 20:31) means, “Lord, pay up your debt of interpersonal obligation to us!” Far from being a plea of the hapless, it is a request to pay back previously earned favor from our client (God) whose patron we are.
This then leads, we are told, to the conclusion,
Understood as the NT writers wrote it, this means: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that pays His debt of personal obligation to us as our patron.”
This claim is followed with another equally troubling, “Faith, as we have noted elsewhere, contextually means loyalty within the client-patron relationship” which leads to “Romans 9:16 becomes a statement that God will fulfill His obligations (decided of His own sovereign accord) to those with whom He has a relationship, and verse 18 adds that God will harden those with whom He has no relationship, who are not His clients.”
Immediately upon making these claims Holding goes into another “Hebraism,” this time the “negation idiom.” Holding, evidently in seeking to defend the Bible against an alleged contradiction at Jeremiah 7:22, adopts the idea that the term “not” used therein is hyperbolic and rhetorical, and then makes the amazing statement,
And thus we now pose the Calvinists another question: Is there any reason why the “not” in Romans 9:16 (as well as in a similar passage, John 1:12-13) should not be read in the same sense as the “not” in Jer. 7:22 — as a negation idiom, not excluding the thing denied, but rather, stressing the prior importance of God’s sovereignty in contrast? Given the Hebraic background, I think the burden is upon those who would read “not” absolutely rather than otherwise.
The final point could be dispatched in a matter of a few sentences, but I shall follow the presentation in the order in which it is found. [continued]