For background, see my paper, Total Depravity: Reply to James White: Calvinism and Romans 3:10-11 (“None is Righteous . . . No One Seeks For God”)
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The paper above dealt with Romans 3 and also Romans 2. The former was dealt with at great length, including an examination of the OT texts that Paul cited. The treatment of Romans 2 was shorter, and so I shall cite it here:
Paul doesn’t teach, in context, that absolutely all unregenerated men know that God exist but deny Him anyway, for in the very next chapter (and the chapter right before our text under consideration): Romans 2, he talks about “righteous” people who can do “good” and who are capable of “well-doing” even without the Law, let alone the gospel of Jesus Christ:
6: For he will render to every man according to his works:
7: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
10 . . . glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
13: For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
14: When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
15: They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them
16: on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
26: So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
27: Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
How fascinating. All of this is about Gentiles who don’t even have the law. They haven’t heard the gospel at all. The New Testament has not yet been out together. They (obviously) don’t yet have the benefit of Romans itself. Paul never says that they have heard the gospel. James White would probably say they are unregenerate, since he seems to think (from what I can tell) that one must hear the gospel and accept it in order to be regenerated and justified. These people have not that advantage at all. Therefore, according to White, they could not possibly be capable of any spiritually good thing. Yet look at all the words Paul uses to describe them:
. . . by patience in well-doing . . . [receive] eternal life; . . . every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. . . . do by nature what the law requires, . . . what the law requires is written on their hearts, . . . a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, . . . those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law . . .”
Needless to say, this doesn’t fit very well at all with White’s [Calvinist] theology.
Romans 2 and 3 are the immediate context of Romans 1. One discovers that they do not teach Calvinist theology at all, when closely examined (nor does the famous Romans 9, for that matter). Nuances and qualifications are present that mitigate against the Calvinist application of descriptions to all men whatsoever. Calvinists usually choose to ignore or rationalize away passages that don’t fit into their man-made schema.
Once we approach Romans 1 (actually Romans 1:18-32 and the conclusion of this “unit of thought”: up through 2:10), we have to determine if it, too, makes such qualifications (thus undercutting the Calvinist “co-opting” of the passage) or if it teaches that all men fall prey to the characteristics described therein. Here is the entire passage (RSV):
 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;
 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,
 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.
 They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips,
 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,
 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
 Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them
 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.
 Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
 Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
 For he will render to every man according to his works:
 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,
 but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
John Calvin, in his Commentaries (verse 18 of this passage), wrote (emphases added):
And he brings, as the first proof of condemnation, the fact, — that though the structure of the world, and the most beautiful arrangement of the elements, ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet no one discharged his proper duty: it hence appears that all were guilty of sacrilege, and of wicked and abominable ingratitude.
. . . And then, all the impiety of men is to be taken, by a figure in language, as meaning “the impiety of all men,” or, the impiety of which all men are guilty.
Calvin provides a remarkable example of eisegesis (reading into Scripture something that isn’t there) and of illogical thinking, in the last sentence. To illustrate the logical sleight-of-hand, suppose we use a similar example, following the language of the RSV, which Calvin, in effect, modifies in the following fashion:
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
Calvin’s Calvinist Tradition of Men Eisegeted Version
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against ungodliness and wickedness of all men, all of whom by their wickedness suppress the truth.
See how the meaning changes? Now, for our analogy, picture four young siblings who were left alone for a minute in one of their rooms. Their father comes back, only to find a fairly expensive lamp broken. In fact, it was broken by two of them, when they were wrestling and bumped into the lamp. When asked who did the dirty deed, all denied having done it. Thus, two of them were lying and two were telling the truth. Let’s do an analogy to the above passage:
The wrath of the father is revealed against all lamp-breaking and mischievousness of [the particular] children who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
The wrath of the father is revealed against lamp-breaking and mischievousness of all his children who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
The first is a true statement with regard to these children: two of whom were guilty and two of whom were not. The second is a falsehood because it presupposes that all four children were guilty, when in fact, only two were. I know how Calvinists think and reason. They will immediately object that I have smuggled in a false view that not all men are fallen (as exemplified by the two innocent children). But that was not the intention of the analogy.
Besides the fact that Catholics and Arminian Protestants agree with Calvinists that all men are fallen (as far as that goes) and that no one is “innocent” (with the lone exception among creatures, of Mary, and that by a special supernatural act of prevention from God, lest she inevitably be fallen too), the goal of the analogy was to illustrate how changing the syntactical structure or grammar of a passage can massively change its meaning.
Calvin is clearly engaging in circular reasoning and eisegesis. He came to Romans 1 with his theology already in place, and he read into it to make it teach accordingly. But what he does is not in the text itself. Why this is can be examined in several other ways. I shall contend in due course that it is impossible to interpret this passage in its entirety (i.e., the cited portion above) in accordance with the Calvinist view that it applies to all men. And it’s not all that difficult to prove this, in context.
Remember, as we go through this exposition, that for Calvin and Calvinists, the passage is referring to the mass of unregenerate, fallen men: the entire human race, since we are all guilty and fallen. The latter clause is denied by virtually no Christian communion (with a few exceptions; e.g., Zwingli, and the Church[es] of Christ denomination). But being fallen and doing particular sinful acts of wickedness are two different things.
The first argument one could put forth is so elegantly simple (though a bit subtle) that it could easily be overlooked (and Calvinists, with their logically circular presuppositional epistemology, are notorious for doing just that):
1) If Paul is referring to fallen man en masse, then he must be referring to all men after Adam and Eve (including the fallen Adam and Eve), since they all would be in this totally depraved, fallen state after the first human couple.2) In other words, the passage cannot describe post-Adam and Eve man as having been in one state and then having descended into the fallen state (i.e., the totally depraved state of Calvinism’s fancy), because that was already a fait accompli. That sad progression of events had already occurred.
The task remains, then, to determine whether the passage suggests any progression, which is impossible by the nature of things, if it is supposed that it is referring to fallen man throughout, or whether it is discussing something other than man’s fallenness (i.e., particular acts of wickedness and tendencies of many men, but not all men, as fallen, depraved creatures).
I agree with the Calvinist that all men indeed know that God exists (though this knowledge is sometimes very buried in subconscious layers). I have argued this in many papers. That is indeed a statement that can apply to all men, without exception. Verse 20 is such a generalized statement, and can be properly interpreted in this way, I think. With verse 21, however, Paul starts discussing actual, particular acts:
for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
Now, is this true of absolutely all men (fallen man)? It seems to me that if this is about fallen man per se, then it couldn’t be about post-Adam and Eve man, because we see a progression into fallenness. “Senseless minds” being “darkened” sounds exactly like the depravity that the Calvinist asserts of all fallen men. So it is a vicious logical circle, because this text is talking about human beings who would already have fallen, as descendants of Adam and Eve. Therefore they can’t fall again. If one falls into a pit that one can’t possibly get out of, then likewise it is impossible to again fall into it. One is already there, and for good.
How do we know that? It’s rather simple:
1) Verse 23 says that they worshiped images (idolatry). Adam and Eve didn’t do this.
2) Verses 26 and 27 describe homosexual acts. That doesn’t apply to Adam and Eve, either, and in fact, was impossible because it requires two men or two women!
3) v. 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.” This also reads (for a Calvinist) like a description of total depravity. Calvin seems to strongly imply this in his commentary:
There is an evident comparison to be observed in these words, by which is strikingly set forth the just relation between sin and punishment. As they chose not to continue in the knowledge of God, which alone guides our minds to true wisdom, the Lord gave them a perverted mind, which can choose nothing that is right.
It is the inability to choose anything that is right which is precisely the hallmark of unregenerate, fallen man. They already had this characteristic, as part of the fallen human race. Therefore, it makes no sense for the text to describe post-fallen man as falling. Ergo: the text must not be referring to fallen man en masse (as if all men do these things), but to examples of widespread wickedness and actual sin, not original. Again, it is very simple, yet somewhat subtle as well.
Therefore, the passage cannot be about fallen man because it gives illustrations of “falling” that make no sense if the passage is supposedly about fallen man. If these people are already fallen, they can’t be described as falling again. Calvin (still for v. 28) qualifies slightly, so as to make sense of the text and achieve some semblance of logical non-circularity:
As he had hitherto referred only to one instance of abomination, which prevailed indeed among many, but was not common to all, he begins here to enumerate vices from which none could be found free: for though every vice, as it has been said, did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that every one might separately be accused of manifest depravity.
4) V. 29: “Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips,” This has to be after Adam and Eve, since the first murder was Cain killing Abel, after the fall.
5) V. 30: “disobedient to parents”. Adam and Eve had no parents.
A second argument proceeds as follows:
1) Assume for the sake of argument that Romans is about fallen man en masse.
2) The Calvinist argument will contend that Paul switches back to talking to the Roman Christians in Romans 2 (at some point in that chapter).
3) But the phrase “O Man” of 2:1 implies a continuation of the generalizations about sinful man, as seen in the use of “men” (1:18) and the general “they” and “them” (referring back to this [fallen or example of a wicked] “man”) throughout Romans 1.
4) 2:2 and 2:3 speak of judgment of the same “O Man” (2:3). So these two verses are still talking about fallen, unregenerate man.
5) Yet 2:4 states: “Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
6) According to Calvinism, the unregenerate, totally depraved man, who is spoken of as being judged in 2:2-3 is never intended by God to repent unto salvation, because of their belief in Limited Atonement: Jesus died only for the elect, and only they have been chosen by God from the foundation of the world. The others are inexorably damned by God’s foreordained choice of not electing them to salvation. Therefore, 2:4 would be a contradiction to what came immediately before and after. “Repentance” should not be applied to these unregenerate, wicked men at all. It is meaningless in the Calvinist paradigm. It’s another “Catholic verse”!
7) V. 5 reiterates that the non-elect, unregenerate man was being discussed in 2:1-4: “But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
8) Paul then goes on to explain that people are judged in the end by their works (I have found no less than 50 such passages, to the exclusion of “faith alone”), so that the ones described earlier who committed all these evil deeds, are obviously among the damned, according to the thrust of the entire passage here considered. So, why, then, “repentance” used in reference to them, in verse 2:4, when this is a meaningless concept for the damned, according to Calvinism and Limited Atonement?
9) Therefore, we conclude the contrary: that the passage is not about fallen man or unregenerate man alone, but about a generalized catalogue of human sins, with the “moral” being that those who commit such sins and do not cease will tend to be the ones who are damned in the end.
A third argument is a lexical one concerning the Greek word ago (lead) from Romans 2:4: “Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” This is Strong’s word #71. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon describes it in this particular usage: “to lead, guide, direct: Jn x. 16.” God is leading the person to repent and be saved. According to Calvinism, such leading is inexorable. That is the “U” in TULIP: unconditional election. If God wants to lead someone, they will be saved, and if God wants to pass over the next person, they will be damned. That’s all there is to it. The Amplified Bible brings out the shades of meaning inherent in this passage:
Or are you [so blind as to] trifle with and presume upon and despise and underestimate the wealth of His kindness and forbearance and long-suffering patience? Are you unmindful or actually ignorant [of the fact] that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repent (to change your mind and inner man to accept God’s will)?
So here is the Apostle Paul speaking hypothetically to the damned, fallen “man” and bringing up the notion of being led to repentance. Why, if there is no chance whatsoever of this person being saved? It doesn’t fit. It’s a square peg in a round hole. The Calvinist God doesn’t “talk” like this to the damned. In the very next verse Paul goes right back to saying they will be damned. But Thayer compares the use here of ago, to John 10:16:
And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring (ago) them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.
This is more like Calvinism! God “brings” them and they come; no doubt about it. Calvinists love John 10:14, too, because this is talking about the elect: “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me.” But Romans 2:4 is just stuck in the middle of all this fallen man gloom and doom. God is unable to lead these sinners by His kindness, to repentance. It makes no sense: not within the tradition-of-men paradigm of Calvinism. Therefore, the Calvinist interpretation of this passage, as exemplified by John Calvin’s exegesis (if one can give it that worthy title), is implausible and incoherent, on the three grounds I have laid out.
The triumphant Romans 8:14 is another use of ago:
Romans 8:14-16 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (cf. also Heb 2:10: “bringing”)
Election! Catholics don’t deny election itself, or even predestination of the elect; we only deny predestination of the damned, and the notion that any human cooperation whatsoever (derisively called synergism by Calvinists) is somehow Pelagian and a detraction from the glory of God.
The entire passage thus considered doesn’t coherently fit into a Calvinist paradigm at all, but it is perfectly consistent with a scenario not dealing with fallen man en masse, but rather, the sins of men that we can observe, with the final damnation of those who do not repent (back to 2:4 again!). God hasn’t predestined anyone to damnation. It is their choice. God gives grace enough for any man to be saved a million times over. But some reject this grace, just as the fallen angels did, even though they were with God, and so they are damned.
I think these arguments are not absolutely airtight (I already have in my mind some possible ways they could be defeated), but I think I am onto something fruitful, which could be refined and developed with more thought and study. It’s a preliminary argument, as far as I am concerned. But it has great potential, in my opinion.
Photo credit: John Calvin at Fifty-Three Years Old (1562), engraving by René Boyvin (1525?-1598?) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]