Reply to a Calvinist: Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart

Reply to a Calvinist: Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart April 12, 2017

(vs. Colin Smith)


Photograph by Xuan Che (12-30-05) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]




Reformed Baptist apologist James White enlisted his fellow Calvinist friend, Colin Smith, to respond to my article concerning who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. “Dr.” [???] White wrote:

Yesterday on the DL I mentioned the appearance on Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong’s blog of a brief statement on Romans 9. As much as I wanted to respond to it myself, I had to finish a project by last night (does a little after midnight count?). So I asked Colin Smith, who has written for this website before (you can find his articles in our apologetics sections) if he would be willing to put something together in response to Armstrong, and he was very kind to do so. Very fast movement…for a British fellow! So here is Colin Smith’s response to Dave Armstrong on Romans 9 and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

First of all, let me say that I am honored that White thought so much of my work that he felt obliged to reply to a little old article of mine (after repeatedly stating that I don’t have a clue about exegesis at all, and am a complete theological ignoramus, unworthy of anyone’s attention). Why the concern that I must be refuted within a day then? I wish to point out a few glaring errors in Pastor Smith’s presentation, make a few clarifications, and add a few tidbits to my existing argument. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

. . . the passages referring to Pharaoh hardening his own heart merely reflect from Pharaoh’s perspective what the Lord had done within him . . .

[for background, see my paper, God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That?; see also the related paper, Romans 9: Plausible Non-Calvinist Interpretation]

It’s interesting how one’s prior theology affects one’s exegesis. I noted this in the paper under consideration. We have two strains of thought that appear at first glance to be contradictory. But both interpretations agree that the Bible isn’t contradicting itself. So Colin Smith looks at the two (God hardening Pharaoh and Pharaoh hardening his own heart) and concludes (with no immediate justification from the texts themselves) that when the Bible says Pharaoh hardened himself, it is really saying that God did it (based on the other passages). In other words, he presupposes his Calvinist theology: that God does such things, and superimposes it onto the text.

This is not so much wrong as it is inevitable, and everyone does this at some point. So when Catholics or Arminians or Wesleyan Protestants or Orthodox see the same two sorts of texts, we do the opposite: we interpret the statements about God’s causation in light of the ones where Pharaoh seems to be the initial cause. But at least in my case I provided some solid parallels elsewhere in Scripture (which were all utterly ignored in the critique). I interpreted these passages in light of similar ones elsewhere that, I contended, illustrated instances of the same dynamic and relationship between God and the sin of His creatures, and how God causes or merely permits that. I even found a parallel of Roman 9 (also – for some reason – ignored in the critique), where St. Paul speaks of “vessels” – but this time he indicates human (not divine) responsibility for sin.

. . . those who hold to the Reformed position claim that, unlike their opponents, they are dealing honestly with the text of Scripture.

Here we go. It doesn’t take long for the discussion to devolve from honest disagreements among those who both hold Scripture in the highest regard, to charges of dishonesty. Why is that necessary? I don’t return the charge (almost needless to say). My opponents are honest men who love God and interpret Scripture to the best of their ability, and honor it. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could grant that non-Calvinists do the same?

Instead of trying to insert meaning into passages, they let the passages stand and say what they say.

But this isn’t true, as I just noted. Both sides insert meaning at some point based on prior theological commitments. It’s not a matter of one “letting the clear text speak for itself” and the other dishonestly eisegeting. No one approaches the Bible in a “theological vacuum.” It’s silly to deny this obvious fact.

Therefore, if the text says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then God did exactly that.

Again, by the same token, when the text said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, why is it impermissible to say that “Pharaoh did exactly that”? The two have to be harmonized somehow. In order to do so, they cannot both be taken literally, or at least not literally in the same sense. So it is not quite as simple as is being made out.

He did not sit back and wait to see how Pharaoh would respond to Him.

Of course, no one is maintaining such a silly thing. God, being omniscient, knows everything that man will do before he does it, and so can work His sovereign plan around those actions, and can incorporate man’s free actions in so doing.

In philosophical terms, I am referring here to God using men as secondary agents for the fulfillment of His purposes.

Exactly. So are we. But we don’t have to deny human free will or pretend that it is somehow an entity that could possibly override God’s sovereignty. It does not and indeed cannot do so. That doesn’t mean that God can create free creatures who necessarily won’t sin. I’m talking about His providence in using the sin caused by man for His good purposes. Sin can’t overcome that.

While Armstrong agrees with the fact that God does use people in this way, he arbitrarily denies that God would do so if sin is involved.

It’s not arbitrary at all; a perfectly holy God does not, and cannot positively ordain sin and evil (and I would contend, with all due respect, that it borders on blasphemy to claim that He does do so, though it is not intended to denigrate God at all, from a Calvinist perspective). But He can use the evil originated in sinful creatures for His own purposes.

Interestingly, he cites the crucifixion as evidence of men used as secondary agents, but seems to overlook the fact that God used them to blaspheme, beat, and ultimately kill His only begotten Son.

Who’s overlooking anything? He worked around their evil actions. He didn’t cause them. Otherwise we have the absurd, outrageous scenario of God positively ordaining blasphemy of Himself. He ordained that the crucifixion was to be His plan for saving mankind, but not the sinful acts entailed therein.

Does he seriously want to suggest that somehow this was not sin?

Why in the world would I want to suggest that? Of course it was. But since even Jesus on the cross said that “they know not what they do” then there is a sense in which many of those who carried out the sentencing were clueless as to the immense significance of what they were doing. The thing itself was wrong, but some of the individuals involved had less culpability.

Supposedly I suggested that sin wasn’t involved in my “response to Fred in the Comments.” I don’t see how. I wrote:

I don’t believe God ever causes sin directly. He uses the sin of human beings for His purposes, just as He did with the crucifixion itself. Providence and sovereignty involve secondary causation or ultimate causation, but not in terms of God ordaining or bringing about sin.

This is what is truly at the crux of the problem with the Arminian position: a lack of appreciation for the true nature of God’s sovereignty.

This is what is truly at the crux of the problem of the almost-ubiquitous Calvinist caricature of the Arminian position: a lack of appreciation for the true nature of the Arminian acceptance of God’s sovereignty.

The Bible is replete with statements and stories that support the notion that God is in total and complete control of all things.

Yes, of course He is. No one disagrees with that. Certainly Arminians and Catholics do not.

This concept may not sit well with people, but those who claim to look to the Word of God as the sole and supreme authority on the subject need to come to terms with it.

It sits fine with me. What doesn’t sit well is making God the author of evil and sin. We need not do that in order to preserve God’s sovereignty. Do Colin Smith and Calvinists think dinky little man’s free will is a power so great that God can’t incorporate it into His sovereign plan? I think they limit God. They are the ones who must explain why they think free will and God’s sovereignty are unable to be synthesized, as if God is a weakling, in subjection to His own creatures. If anything harms sovereignty and God’s ultimate control of everything, that does. We non-Calvinists have, I submit, a greater, more majestic conception of His power and providence.

Romans 8:28, a much-beloved passage for many people,

Indeed. It has long been my favorite passage in the Bible.

clearly states that “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” . . . Paul then reminds his readers of the wonderful truth that, regardless of whatever might be happening around them, or to them, there is nothing that takes place that God has not caused for the good of His people. This would include not only blessings and encouragements, but also persecutions, beatings, and even death. All things, Paul says, not some things, or even just the good things. If it is true that God causes all things to occur for the good of His people, that must mean He is able to direct the hearts of even sinful men to fulfill His purposes.

Now this is where Smith’s comments get extremely (shall we say?) “interesting,” because I will argue that he has distorted the Bible in his zeal to defend the distinctives of Calvinism, and committed basic errors of both eisegesis, and even of not reading the actual text properly, according to syntax and grammar. It’s not deliberate; it flows from his prior theological predisposition. But it is a classic case of seeing what one wants to see, when in fact it is not there at all in the biblical text which is being awkwardly pressed into service for some theological “cause.”

Note what he has done here (it is so subtle, I venture to guess that most people wouldn’t even notice what happened, but it is highly significant): he produces Romans 8:28: “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” This is from the NASB translation (I originally read almost the whole Bible in that version in the late 70s and early 80s and I have a lovely leather copy, filled with notes).

Now, what is caused by God, according to the text? The state of affairs whereby all things work together for good. But that is not the same thing as God causing all things, as Pastor Smith argues is the teaching of the text. Note the difference:

Romans 8:28 (NASB): God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.

Colin Smith’s eisegesis of Romans 8:28: there is nothing that takes place that God has not caused for the good of His people. This would include not only blessings and encouragements, but also persecutions, beatings, and even death.

The second does not follow from the first at all. It’s simple logic and grammar. Nor does the further conclusion that God causes all the individual sins (beatings, murders, etc.) follow, because it is based on the false premise, and certainly not to be found in the glorious text of Romans 8:28. For the following two propositions are not identical:

1. God causes all things to work together for good for His people.

2. God causes all things to occur for the good of His people.

One might also express #1 in this way:

1a. God causes to work together for good, for His people, all things.

This is fundamentally different from #2, because what is caused there is all things, making God the cause of all things that happen, including evil and sin. But in #1, God uses all things, whether He caused them or not, to work together for good. So Romans 8:28 offers no support whatsoever for Smith’s Calvinist argument of God ordaining sin. His statement:

2b. there is nothing that takes place that God has not caused for the good of His people.

is not what Romans 8:28 teaches, which is, rather:

1a. God causes to work together for good, for His people, all things.

In order to conform to Romans 8:28 and what I submit is the truth of the Catholic and Arminian conception of God’s sovereignty, Smith need only change one word:

there is nothing that takes place that God has not used for the good of His people.

The earlier version of the NASB, the American Standard Version (ASV), perhaps makes my point a bit more clear, in its translation of this verse:

And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose.

Likewise, the KJV:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

And the RSV:

We know that in everything God works for good.

So it appears that the NASB is somewhat peculiar in that it inserts the word “causes”, where other translations do not. Even so, I contend that Colin Smith has confused what exactly God caused, according to the verse (even in this version). It’s an absolutely classic case of eisegesis, or superimposing onto a biblical text (something not there in actuality) what one wants to see.

He would have to prevent any and all hindrances to His plans, even if this means turning the hearts of men against His own, in order to make sure the good He has designed for His people comes to pass.

God doesn’t have to make sin happen in order to bring about His purposes, any more than we have to sin to bring about some far lesser good than God’s sovereign plan (which is unethical and immoral). If we can’t sin to bring about good, then to make out that God has to do so, is to make God less holy than men, which is outrageously false. No; God is much greater than that. He is able to bring about what He wants by incorporating the free (often sinful) decisions of men. He need not make anyone sin. There is more than enough sin without God joining with the devil and our fallen rebellion and concupiscence in causing it to come about

If there is the slightest possibility that a man acting as a free agent could go his own way, contrary to the purpose of God, then God cannot be said to be causing all things to work together for the ultimate good of those who love Him.

Of course there is no such possibility. No mere man could thwart God’s purposes. But this doesn’t require Calvinism to be a true state of affairs (as we know it is from the Bible).

Then Smith launches into a defense of original sin and the need for regeneration, which is perfectly irrelevant to the discussion, since all parties agree on those matters. Nor is the story of Joseph in any way hostile to Arminian and Catholic soteriology or notions of God’s sovereignty and providence.

I also find it highly ironic and amusing that on this point atheists and Calvinists agree over against Catholics (and Arminians). Both the atheist and the Calvinist hold that these passages teach that God positively ordained evil. But the atheist draws the exact opposite conclusion from that:

Catholic: God does not positively ordain evil because that would make Him the author of sin, which is contrary to His nature and perfect holiness. It is not required for Him to be sovereign.

Calvinist: God does positively ordain evil and this is part of His greatness, because it is necessarily part and parcel of His sovereignty.

Atheist: God does positively ordain evil and this makes Him the author of sin, which is contrary to His nature and perfect holiness, according to Christianity. Therefore, He doesn’t exist, or if He does, He is not all-good and perhaps even the opposite of good.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Lastly, I want to introduce one more similar “paradox” from Scripture, illustrating the same point I have been making, that it is a forced interpretation of the relevant biblical data, to say that God ordains evil.

Job 42:11 (RSV): Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.

NASB: . . . they consoled him and comforted him for all the adversities that the LORD had brought on him.

So does that refute my case? Hardly. It illustrates it, and shows once again how Calvinism is misguided in this regard. Let’s do a little bit of comparison of Scripture with Scripture. What does it mean for the Bible to reference “the evil that the LORD had brought upon” Job? Does that not prove the Calvinist contention? No, because it has to be interpreted in light of other relevant Scriptures. What can we learn about the cause of Job’s miseries? What about Job 1:12?:

And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

And Job 2:3, 6?:

3: And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.”

6: And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

Now from this data we can deduce a number of things about causation, evil, God, and the devil. How does one reconcile the following seeming contradictions?:

A. God brought evil upon Job (Job 42:11).

B. God destroyed Job “without cause” (Job 2:3).

C. Job was in Satan’s power; hence calamities followed, apparently (as a quite plausible deduction) derived from this diabolical, malevolent power. (Job 1:12; 2:6)

D. Satan moved God “against” Job (Job 2:3)

1) How can it be that if Job was in Satan’s power, for that terrible being to torment him, that somehow God is said to have brought the evil upon him and destroyed him?

2) How can an omniscient being be persuaded; let alone by one of His own creatures who rebelled against Him?

3) How can two different beings, one good and one evil, be said to cause the same occurrences?

Here is how I answer:

1a) The sufferings were instigated by the devil, by God’s permission (His permissive will: 1:12; 2:6). It can’t be judgment of Job (which God does do, and which is good, not bad), because God Himself bears witness to Job’s extraordinary righteousness (2:3).

2a) He was not persuaded, because this is impossible for an omniscient being. God knew all along what His plan was. He used the devil for His own purposes (the resulting book of Job being one), just as He did with the crucifixion and with Joseph’s brothers’ horrid treatment of Joseph. He is described as having been persuaded because this is the common technique of anthropomorphism: portraying God as if He were like human beings, so that people could relate to the story.

3a) God is said, in the pungent Hebrew style, to have caused it, because He allowed the devil to actually do the tormenting (in other words, His ordaining or elective will is compressed into His permissive will, in pre-theological, pre-philosophical Hebrew thinking). This is a way of expressing that God was in control, and sovereign.

This is perfectly plausible, and is harmonious with the other biblical data I brought to bear in my earlier paper. But what can be made of this by the Calvinist? He has to maintain that God caused all of Job’s miseries. But the Bible says that God gave Satan the “power” over Job. How could God cause all the suffering, yet the devil had the power? Job was in Satan’s power, yet God actually did all the bad things to him? Does this mean that the devil’s and God’s will were one and the same? Does that make any sense? Now we have an evil being and the holy God having the exact same will?

Moreover, if this were indeed God’s will, why would the Bible portray Satan convincing God to do it? He can’t do so, by definition, because an omniscient God can’t change. Thus, it is obviously poetry and not literal truth. Therefore, it is also, I submit, a poetic, non-literal expression to say that God brought the evil on Job (just as in the analogous passages from my earlier paper). Otherwise, you have the ludicrosity of the quintessential evil creature convincing the holy God to do evil acts that the devil thoroughly approves of. What sense does that make?

It makes much more sense to say that this was a visual word-picture meant to convey that whatever the devil does is allowed by God, but that in the end God is in control and can be trusted as all-good and all-wise simply because He is Who He is. Indeed, this is the message of the end of the book of Job. God allows the devil to do evil, but He doesn’t ordain or cause it Himself. He uses the devil like a toy, to bring good from his evil.

"Sadly, we did not take measures to prevent cheating."

The So-Called “Trump Cult”: Exchange with ..."
"You LeftProgs invert everything. YOU are the monsters."

The So-Called “Trump Cult”: Exchange with ..."
"This makes sense tbh. Angels are holy and powerful. Bowing down is the appropriate respect ..."

Venerating & Bowing Before Angels & ..."
"It wasn't, though, is the thing. The gradualism vs. catastrophic change in geology argument goes ..."

How Do Atheists Define a “Biblical ..."

Browse Our Archives