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Why Calvinism is Wrong, pt. 4 – Rhetoric

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None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Romans 3:10-11

This is a favorite scripture of Calvinists, and is used almost exclusively to defend their “Total Depravity” doctrine. Using this as a proof-text, Calvinists say, “See! There is no one who has the ability to seek after God! There is no one who will, of himself, turn to God or believe in him!” What they fail to take into consideration is the fact that this is quoted from a psalm – Psalm 14. Now for those who may not know it, the Psalms are poems not instructional lectures. That is, they use creative phrases, word pictures and all sorts of rhetorical devices to present their information in an interesting way. Let me provide an example from another famous Psalm that should not be taken literally, but understood as using rhetoric to make a theological point.

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Psalm 110:1

This is a Messianic Psalm, speaking of Christ’s reign with the Father “at the Father’s right hand.” This became a favorite phrase for New Testament writers, as it illustrated the extent of the exaltation of Christ. He couldn’t go any higher! 

Image

Many assume this verse presents a literal reality – that Christ is seated upon a throne in heaven that is placed to the right of the throne of God, something like this picture to the right. (I feel kinda bad for the Holy Spirit in this picture – He apparently doesn’t get a throne, and He apparently is a bird). 

But isn’t God a Spirit (John 4:24), and isn’t He omnipresent (Jeremiah 23:24)? So how far did Jesus have to travel before He got to the “right hand” of God? Furthermore, are we to take the second part of the verse literally? Are we to assume that Jesus is actually up in heaven with his feet propped up on the backs of his enemies? We all understand intuitively that this verse is representing a theological reality in poetic terms. So what is the theological message? That Jesus Christ is highly exalted and utterly victorious! Amen!

Let’s look at a couple of Jesus’ own statements that use rhetorical devices.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… Matthew 5:29

 

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24

 

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

In all of these verses Jesus is using a very common figure of speech – hyperbole. Hyperbole is exaggeration in order to emphasize a point. We use hyperbole all the time in our daily lives: “It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” “You scared me to death!” “I’m starving!”

Now if exaggeration/hyperbole is a normal part of everyday speech for us, isn’t it reasonable to assume it was also a common form of speech for people in the first century? Obviously from these, and other statements by Jesus (and others in the Bible), we can easily see that it was. Jesus didn’t not want people to pluck out their eyes. Jesus wasn’t saying that rich people could never be saved (cf. Barnabas). Jesus was not telling us to literally hate our parents and siblings. All of these statements are exaggerations to make a point. “Pluck out your eye,” was a way of saying “Personal holiness ought to be worth any sacrifice.” The statement “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” was a way of saying that those who trust in their riches will have a difficult time transferring that trust to God. And “hating father and mother” was a way of saying that Jesus needs to be the supreme love in our lives, far above even our familial love.

So what’s my point in all of this? The verse above, quoted from Psalm 14 was hyperbole. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Are we really supposed to believe that there is literally not a single righteous person on the earth? Are we to believe in all of human history there has never been a person who sought after God or desired Him? The Calvinist insists we must, otherwise their theology falls flat. I would say that reason and scripture together prove this notion – that no one has ever sought God – is patently false. Countless Jews under the Old Testament sought and loved God. “Yeah, but they were the elect!” the Calvinist will say. Well, there were also many Gentiles, known widely as “God-fearers” and “God-worshipers” who chose to leave their false religions and gods to worship the one true God. Such were the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip found reading scripture in his chariot and the Roman Centurion to whom Peter was sent by a vision. These were Gentiles, non-elect individuals, who sought God.

So what is Psalm 14, and consequently Romans 3, trying to say? That sin is rampant and wide-spread, and that everyone needs God. In fact, if we will be honest with the context of Romans 3, we will find that Paul’s ultimate argument is that Jews and Gentiles are equally in need of God’s salvation. In fact, the verse immediately preceding Paul’s quotation of Psalm 14 is this:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…  Romans 3:9

Sorry Calvinists, Romans 3 and Psalm 14 are using hyperbole to illustrate that every person needs salvation because every person is sinful, not that man is unable to seek God or to respond to the Gospel message. Once again, taking the simple, obvious meaning of the text thwarts your doctrine.

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Written by jeffrossman

January 12, 2013 at 3:49 pm

7 Responses

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  1. 2 Tim 2:25 is hyperbolic too? Acts 16:14? Paul’s point obviously was that there are women like Lydia, not that that was her real name you understand, or that she literally had a heart, or that she couldn’t understand.
    or Romans 8:7? Or John 6:44? Or maybe not huh? I think the plain meaning is that it’s not hyperbolic, that’s the point.

    Philip C

    January 19, 2013 at 5:16 am

    • Alright Philip, I’ll play your absurd game. Since you are implying that my argument requires basically ALL of scripture to be hyperbolic, let’s apply your logic to your own argument. If NONE of scripture is hyperbolic, but all is the “plain meaning,” then shame on you for not plucking out your right eye, or cutting off your right hand. Or more to the point, do you take the “plain meaning” of 1 Tim. 2:4 or 2 Pet. 3:9, or is the “all” and the “none” respectively hyperbole? Should we take the plain meaning of John 3:16, since according to your doctrine the “whosoever will” does not actually apply to “whosoever will” but “whoever God wills?” Or what of Luke 7:30? How did the Pharisees “reject the purpose of God for themselves,” since His purposes cannot be thwarted?

      jeffrossman

      January 22, 2013 at 2:43 pm

  2. “Are we really supposed to believe that there is literally not a single righteous person on the earth? Are we to believe in all of human history there has never been a person who sought after God or desired Him?”

    Yes, we are to come to acknowledge this. All through the Scripture it is God who has been seeking out His people. It was God who created Adam, it was God who made covenant with Noah, it was God who made the promise to Abraham, and it was God who called the 12 to follow Him. So, yeah, left to their own devices no one seeks after God. This is one of the things that makes grace so amazing.

    Steven Menteer

    January 21, 2013 at 1:32 pm

  3. Actually I don’t think you understood my point at all.
    The point is this: even if Romans 3 is hyperbolic, there are other verses that absolutely cannot be understood in any way other the plain meaning, in favor of “Total Depravity.” Take John 6:44 for example, “No one can come to Me unless drawn by the Father, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
    So *nobody* can come unless first drawn by God. And who does He draw? All those He raises up on the last day. Let’s try to use your hyperbole argument here: “In fact God raises up lots of people to good life. Eternal life is just a far fetched statement referring to your best life now, and by “God raises up” we are to understand He helps us.”
    It destroys it completely. It’s easy to understand, it’s hard to accept, that there is only one meaning, and nobody comes unless God makes them, and all those He makes go on to eternal life.
    So if you believe the Scriptures that’s case closed.

    As to your other comment, yes, John 3:16 means exactly what it says, God so loved the word of sinful fallen men that whomever does believe will be raised up to eternal life. It’s a universal offer to all men, and none are excluded. Yes, Tim 2:4 is talking to all men, there is a sense (just as John 3:16 tells us) in which He loves all men and desires their salvation. There is also a sense in which He loves His elect particularly. The existence of the one does not negate the existence of the other.

    Philip C

    January 25, 2013 at 9:01 pm

  4. Let me also point out that you are working on the one hand with something you don’t really understand beyond a superficial way, and that is the Biblical truths of Calvinism, and on the other hand you have leveled fair criticism against popular Calvinism, which is seen in the TULIP (a horrible construction), and really is more closely related to hyper-calvinism than anything else.

    I don’t blame you for attacking the second one, and going straight for the John 3:16 card to do so.
    Much of what passes for popular Calvinism is dreadful stuff.
    However, I spoke up not because I’m a fan boy of it, but because the Bible really does teach moral inability. Mankind does not seek God. Adam didn’t search for God he hid, it was God who found him. Paul didn’t sit down and study his way into Jesus, God pinned him down on the road. People are not seeking after Christ, He’s seeking after them.
    I would urge you to go deeper and begin to see these truths for yourself. As a consequence you will have a better understanding of human nature, God’s attributes, the Biblical witness, and your own heart. But do continue to be critical of popular Calvinism, the kind you see on internet groups while you are at it.

    Philip C

    January 25, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    • Philip can I ask you how exactly God loves the reprobate in your understanding of John 3:16 from a calvinistic perspective? Are you positing that because God waters their gardens for 70 years or so this would fit the definition of the greek word agape? Or could it be that perhaps youre defining words out of a need to exalt a particular theology?
      Does John 6:44 say that all that are drawn are raised up or does it say that that all that come to Jesus must first be drawn? Is there anywhere in Scripture where we see God limiting who He will draw, especially in light of John 12:32 where Jesus says He will draw all men to Himself? John 12:32 would destroy your presupposition that all that are drawn will be raised up.
      One last point, I would suggest before you admonish others to search for these so called great truths of calvinsim that you read the Scripture without the reformed glasses and just let the text speak for itself. Blessings in Christ

      Charlie Renfro

      March 2, 2013 at 11:29 pm

  5. [...] Understanding Hyperbole in the Bible: [...]


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