Why Calvinism is Wrong, pt. 4 – Rhetoric
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!
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.