Monday, March 30, 2015

Answering Calvinist Proof-Texts, Part 1 - John 6

When I was a Calvinist, the lens through which I interpreted the whole of the Bible was Romans 9.  When I talked to my Calvinist friends, however, they all agreed that John 6 was the text they felt was the conclusive proof for Calvinism.

The verses in question are especially 37 and 44.  Here are the relevant paragraphs for context (John 6:35-51, NIVUK):

35 Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’

41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42 They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I came down from heaven”?’

43 ‘Stop grumbling among yourselves,’ Jesus answered. 44 ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: “They will all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

On verse 44, I’ve mentioned before that my view of the drawing/enabling is that it is best understood as prevenient grace (Link).   Notice especially that the "drawing" in this verse parallels the "giving" in verse verse 37 (as Dr Allen shows below), and compare verses 37 & 44-45 with the situation Jesus describes in the chapter before (at 5:37-47).

In understanding verse 37, for me the two keys were:
(1) Looking at the larger context in John to see who it is that the Father gives to the Son -- is the Lord Jesus intending to convey an abstract choice by the Father of some individuals and not others? Especially considering John 1:11-13, 3:14-18, 4:23, 34-38, and 5:16-47 I think the answer is “no”-- and
(2) Getting a better understanding the language/grammar used, which is not as clear in our English translations as in the Greek. On this point, Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (available on says (Link):
It is not easy to improve the English rendering of this verse, and there is a sacredness in the sound of the old, old words; but still, they convey to few readers the full meaning of the original. The word “come” is made to serve, within two or three lines, for three different Greek words. Literally, we should read, All that the Father giveth Me shall arrive at Me, and him that is on the way I will in no wise cast out: for I am come down. . . .

Similarly, the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (also on, Link) says, “... it would be more literal to translate all that the Father giveth Me, to Me shall come, and him that approacheth Me I will in no wise cast out; for I have descended...”

Two outlines of the passage:

Below are two outlines of the passage which helped me to understand and answer the questions/keys I posed above. One is from Dr David Allen's blog, and the other from Craig Adams of Commonplace Holiness.

    Dr David Allen

First, an exegesis was included in Dr David Allen’s review of Matthew Harmon’s chapter of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.  Dr Allen writes (Link):

John 6
From John 6:37-40, 44, Harmon correctly points out that Jesus came to do the will of the Father. From verse 37, he notes the Father gives a specific group of people to the Son, and from verse 44 he notes no one can come to the Son unless the Father draws him. Harmon concludes:
“Thus it is the Father’s election of a specific group of people that defines who comes to the Son…” (270).
Several points call for explication.
First, Harmon is interpreting “all the Father gives me” as referencing election. This assumes two things: 1) the Reformed interpretation of election is correct, and 2) that this passage is referencing it. For the sake of argument, let’s grant the first assumption for the moment.
Even so, nothing in the passage speaks to “election.” John 6 must be read in the light of the preceding context of chapters 1-5 as well as in its immediate context.
In John 1:6-9, John makes clear that God’s intention in sending John the Baptist was that all might believe in Christ. Jesus, not John, is the “Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” Again in John 1:29, Christ comes that he might be the savior of the world. In John 3:16, God’s love for the world is the motivation for his sending Jesus so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. John is establishing a universal desire on God’s part for the salvation of the world and a universal remedy for such through Christ’s death on the cross.
Second, when did this “giving” take place? Not in eternity past, for the use of the present tense verb indicates contemporary action: the Father was in the very process of giving to the Son those who were believing on Him.
Third, in what sense did God “give” people to his Son? Frequently in Scripture one finds the terms “gift” and “given” are idiomatically employed to denote God’s favor expressing His redemptive work for mankind. See Psalm 2:8 and Acts 4:25-26 as examples. Here the Gentile nations are said to be “given” to Christ as an inheritance. Yet this language clearly does not indicate that all the nations or all people in those nations are somehow “elected” to salvation in eternity.  
John makes a connection between the “giving” and the “coming” in v. 37.  Notice how verses 44-45 use different imagery but express the same meaning. “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”
Notice God’s “drawing” is parallel to His “giving” in v. 37. How is the drawing accomplished according to vv. 44-45?  By means of hearing, learning, and coming to the Lord. This is John’s notion of what it means for some to be “given” to Christ. The refusal of unbelievers to come to Christ was due to their refusal to listen to the Father, as the context of John 5:37-38 and John 6 makes clear.  
The reason many of the Jews did not come to Christ is not that they were not “given” to him by the Father, but is found in their own stubborn hearts. John 5:40 says they were not willing to come to Christ, not that they could not come to Christ because they had not been “given” to him by the Father. Notice how John 5:43-47 speaks often of “belief.”
Election is simply not in the picture in this passage.
The “coming” of John 6:37 is synonymous with “believing” as v. 35 indicates.
What does “all that the Father gives Me” refer to in vv. 37 and 39? In v. 39 the phrase is equivalent to “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him” in v. 40. The phrase in v. 39 is equivalent to the phrase in v. 37. John is oscillating between believers viewed as a group and believers viewed as individuals, as the Greek text demonstrates.
Thus, the limited group of those given by the Father to the Son are those who have believed. It is incorrect to interpret the passage as teaching that certain persons are eternally elected to become believers.
What did Jesus mean when he said “will come to me” in v. 37a? Some Calvinist interpreters link the word “come” in verses 35, 37b, and 44 with “will come” in verse 37a. But this fails to recognize the two different Greek words used. Hēkō is the Greek word translated “will come” in v. 37a, while erchomai is the word used in vv. 35 and 37b. Jesus appears to be thinking about all believers considered as a group in v. 37a.
What is intended by the phrase “will come to me”? Verse 39 answers the question. All believers are given by the Father to Christ and they will reach final salvation in the eschaton via the resurrection in the last days. Thus, it is final salvation that is in view, not pre-temporal election.  
There is a difference in saying John 6:44 indicates specific efficacious grace given only to the elect and in viewing it as meaning no one can come to believe in Christ unless the Father draws  him via enabling grace.
It is significant to note that Jesus has declared numerous times, before he speaks of the “drawing” of the Father, that only believers possess eternal life (6:27-29, 40). What John affirms in chapter 6 is that God initiates and consummates the salvation process. Grace precedes human response.
There is nothing in this passage that affirms definite atonement.

    Craig Adams 

Another very helpful explanation is from Craig Adams in his answer to a question which came to his website (Link, emphasis in original):
An email and my response:
Hello Mr. Adams,
I read with interest your comments on Calvin's comments on John 3:16 on your web site. I was wondering what your thoughts are on Jesus' words as recorded in John 6:44:

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (NKJV)

(It is unfortunate that English editions tend to translate the Greek as "draws" rather than the more accurate "compels" — especially since it is also translated more accurately as "dragged" elsewhere.)

Have you considered that perhaps Calvin's "on the other hand" was intended to recognize what the whole of scripture says about this issue?

He just may have been appealing to theology that is rooted in scripture itself.

In the first place, I would like to point out that my correspondent is attempting to play one Scripture off another. So, we are playing dueling Scripture passages here. Since the meaning of John 6:44 seems closely tied to its context, using it to fend off the idea of God’s universal love in John 3:16 (which seems to me to have a more general meaning) is a bad idea.
The context here has to do with the relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus is claiming that the Jews are rejecting him because (in actuality) they have rejected the Father. So, the context of this passage is not a discussion of whether God has chosen to send the mass of humanity to an eternal Hell, while choosing to arbitrarily save (by compulsion: “dragged”) a few. The context concerns why these particular Jews have not been drawn to Jesus as Messiah and Son, while others have.
And, Jesus asserts here that it is because they have first rejected the Father and the testimony of the Scriptures. Jesus denounces their claim to knowledge of the Father. He asserts that their resistance to the Father & the message of the Scriptures is the reason they have not subsequently been drawn to the Son. The point is made repeatedly. “And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form…” (John 5:37). “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (John 5:39). “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:44). “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:46, 47). And, earlier in chapter 5 it is stated the other way around: “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23).
Thus the point is that the Jews who are rejecting him are doing so because they have first rejected the Father. But, Jesus asserts that those who acknowledged the Father were “drawn along” into acknowledging the Son.
My correspondent is right in saying that ἑλκύω can mean “dragged.” It is a stronger word than is evident in our translations. In John 21:6 & 11 it is used of the drawing of fish in a net, in John 18:10 of the drawing of a sword, in Acts 16:19 & 21:30 of forcibly dragging the apostles through the streets, and in James 2:6 of being dragged into court. But, the context tells us what Jesus means. Those who acknowledge the Father and the testimony of the Scriptures are compelled to also acknowledge the Son.
However, the same word (ἑλκύω) is also used in John 12:34 where Jesus says : “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (NRSV) If ἑλκύω always means “forcibly dragged” then this passage would have to mean that all people (πάντας) are saved! Yet, in Matthew 23:37 (parallel in Luke 13:34) Jesus says: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Thus, it appears, that Christ desires to draw to Himself people who are nonetheless unwilling to come! And, they do not.
It is not that God chooses to arbitrarily save a few by divine compulsion. Though the Cross of Christ, He draws all. But, all do not come.
And, here, I think is where we get to the crux of the matter. The Bible continually assumes human moral responsibility. These Jews were responsible for their rejection of the Father and their rejection of the testimony of the Scriptures. It is everywhere assumed that a choice can be made, and that people can be held responsible for their choices. The early Methodists objected to Calvinism on practical grounds, and not simply on theoretical grounds. Fletcher opposed what he called “Solafideism” because it was antinomian (“against the Law of God”): it undermined human moral responsibility through an appeal to God’s unconditional election to salvation. Clearly, if you are saved, and you can’t be un-saved, and it is solely God’s choice — then it doesn’t matter what you do. Nothing is riding on it. While classical Calvinists never drew this conclusion, some people were willing to follow the logic of Calvinism to this inevitable conclusion. And, this is one of the things Arminians and Wesleyans and Methodists have always found objectionable: allowing an appeal to grace to undermine our responsibility to respond to God.
A call to repentance, for example assumes the ability to respond. And, so forth. In many, many ways the Bible continually assumes both the capacity to respond and the responsibility to respond.
And, to my correspondent’s question “Have you considered that perhaps Calvin’s ‘on the other hand’ was intended to recognize what the whole of scripture says about this issue?” I have to give a terse: “No.”
And, a too-quick harmonization of one Scripture with principles I think I have derived from another is always dangerous.
What do we mean by a “theology that is rooted in scripture itself”?
I think Calvin came to his theological views, to a large extent, by way of Augustine. Certainly Augustine also appealed to Scripture for support of his views (though he was no Bible scholar), but his views were also shaped by the controversies of his day and the personal issues they raised for him.
None of us comes to the Scriptures in a vacuum. The notion that one simply shakes out all of the Bible’s teachings on the floor and arranges them systematically like a jigsaw puzzle is a mistake. All of us have been influenced by preachers and Bible teachers. And, I wouldn’t say that is a bad thing — far from it. It’s a good thing.
Not everything Augustine or Calvin said is wrong. I agree with much of what they said. They both can be read (critically) to great benefit. But, I also believe some legitimate objections can and should be raised against much of what they said.
Look folks: not everything Wesley or Fletcher or Clarke or their followers said is right, either.
Nevertheless, if we read critically we can benefit from the insights of all.

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  1. With regards to the difference between to the two uses of "come" in John 6, you might like Steve Witzki's article:

    Also, just a quick note that David Allen referenced John 12:34 when it should be John 12:32.

    For another view of John 6 and related passages in John, see here:

  2. Thanks for sharing these links!


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