Scot McKnight vs. Those “Pesky Calvinists”: What Does it Mean for God to be Sovereign?

Scot McKnight vs. Those “Pesky Calvinists”: What Does it Mean for God to be Sovereign? June 12, 2013

Last week I read a brief e-book that just came out by my friend Scot McKnight, A Long Faithfulness: The Case for Christian PerseveranceHis point is a simple one and he gets to it in the very first paragraph: McKnight doesn’t like how “the resurgent Calvinism” talks about God’s sovereignty.

These “pesky Calvinists,” as McKnight calls them, promote “meticulous (or exhaustive) sovereignty,” where all things that come to pass are determined by God (weather, disasters, murders, sexual abuse, etc).

Though applicable to many issues, McKnight focuses his comments on personal salvation, namely whether someone can “choose for God and then later choose against God.” In other words, whether someone truly saved can lose that salvation.

McKnight makes it clear he is not arguing for Arminianism, nor is he critiquing all of Calvinism. He is just going for the “meticulous sovereignty sort,” such as John Piper, D. A. Carson, Mark Driscoll, and David Wells, as well as the institutions that “prop up these voices.”

McKnight says one can lose his/her salvation–it’s called being apostate. Calvinist theology, by contrast, includes “double predestination,” that God determines who will be saved and who will be damned. Though acknowledging that Calvin himself did not teach this, and many Calvinists do not adhere to it, for McKnight the two are necessarily linked if you adhere to “meticulous sovereignty”–for God to choose sovereignly one group means he is also choosing sovereignly the other no matter which way you slice it.

McKnight takes direct aim at this view by turning to the “warning passages” in Hebrews (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:1-29).

Here is a quote from the introduction to set up the book’s argument:

My aim is to defeat this view of meticulous soverignty among resurgent Calvinists by showing that the biblical view of sovereignty–a robust version if ever there was one–means God has chosen–because he loves those whom he has created and grants them freedom–to limit his sovereignty by giving humans that freedom. My argument is not philosophical; my argument is biblical. I affirm what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty, and biblical sovereignty entails human freedom both to choose God and un-choose God. If that view of sovereignty can be demonstrated from the Bible, then resurgent Calvinism’s view of sovereignty is unbiblical, pastorally disastrous, and harmful to the church.

After an opening chapter outlining his own journey through Calvinism and relaying the story of Dan Barker–who went from preacher to atheist–McKnight spends most of the book in Hebrews. He interprets each of the warning passages through the lens of four questions: Who is the audience? What is the danger? What are they to do instead of the sin? What will happen if they don’t respond properly?

McKnight’s conclusion: According to Hebrews, “God gave us the freedom to choose, but if we choose to walk away we will be damned.” Hence, meticulous sovereignty in salvation is wrong. In the concluding two chapters, McKnight looks at the profound practical implications of these warnings and briefly how all this relates to another biblical theme, God’s faithfulness to us and the “assurance of salvation.”

For me, I am not so sure what place in the pecking order the “rhetoric of warning” in Hebrews should have in New Testament theology, but that is a huge issue that McKnight only touches on in this brief book. At the very least, interested readers will find McKnight’s exposition of Hebrews thoughtful and compelling, and one that “resurgent Calvinism” will not be able to answer easily.



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  • DonaldByronJohnson


  • Matt

    By* contrast

  • revdrdre

    Thanks for passing this along. I find this theologically helpful even if pastorally challenging

  • Jeff Martin

    As Dr. Witherington says, “You can’t make a shipwreck of your faith if you are not on the ship!” I realize that for Calvinists the “boat” is the church made up of redeemed people and non-redeemed. Ignoring the issue I have with this thinking that is contrary to what is actually described in Hebrews, as a pastor, whether Arminian or Calvinist, one still has the responsibility of warning people in the church that what they are doing is making a shipwreck of their faith. So on a practical level I have seen and would hope that Calvinist pastors would still take Hebrews seriously enough to warn those who make a mockery of what Christ did for them, or in Calvinists’ case what he could have done for them! That last statement sums up why I would find it difficult to be a Calvinist.

    A much more important pastoral concern with regards to Calvinism is how to answer someone when they say “God had a plan in allowing my daughter to get raped”. From a Calvinist viewpoint it can, from my viewpoint, be so destructive an answer to hear that it was God’s plan for this to happen. So, in practical terms, I see this as the only major issue that needs to be addressed by pastors in the pulpit regarding Calvinism and Arminianism.

  • Charlie Payne

    So…here’s a question. Job 37: 6-13 NLT says that “He (God) directs the snow to fall on the earth and tells the rain to pour down…V. 10 “God’s breath sends the ice, freezing the wide expanses of water. He loads the clouds with moisture and they flash with his lightning. V 13: He makes these things happen either to punish people or to show his unfailing love”. Metaphoric language aside, the gist is that God is in control of the weather. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of God dealing out punishment via natural disaster but isn’t that a real theme in the OT? I teach a young-adult sunday school class; know more than the average pew sitter about theology. I understand the idea of human freedom and that God chooses not to interfere with that freedom, hence a women can get raped, a husband cheated on, etc – Human freedom seems an answer to much of human pain but I do struggle with knowing how to answer the Calvinist regarding ‘meticulous sovereignty at least regarding nature.

    • Two responses come to mind:
      A) God can have the ability to control the weather without always utilizing said ability.
      B) Hebrews 1 and Colossians 1 both speak of God actively upholding nature. Is this more or less ‘manipulation’ than the Job passage?

      Note that the Bible sometimes exaggerates to make a point. Furthermore, there is the possible goal of convincing the Israelites that God is in more control of nature than the other gods of the time. This would give them less reason to worship e.g. fertility gods. If Rodney Stark is at all correct, it could also provide enough confidence to conduct science.

  • Susan Gerard

    This sounds like a very good book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • superbrr

    Read the eBook and think that McKnight misses it, probably because he has such an ax to grind with the pesky Calvinists. Too bad. He draws conclusions of “freedom to choose” and “love requires a choice”, which are interesting thoughts but not supported in Hebrews as the basis of the warning passages.

  • rvs

    I have been looking for a better vocabulary vis-a-vis my conversations with “pesky Calvinists,” haha. This helps.

  • Tiffani Fussner Cappello

    Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, Edward Beecher gave had an interesting preface in his book against Calvinism. He noted all the mental and emotional illness that resulted from the doctrines promulgated by his own father, Lyman Beecher, the most noted Calvinistic preacher of his time – particularly in regards to the doctrine of election for eternal damnation. Imagine coming to the conclusion that you are NOT one of God’s elect and can never be (perhaps due to a inward sensitivity to your sin). Read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book The Minister’s Wooing.
    Calvinism is still leaving scars today and causing and/or contributing to mental illness. The Lord said he brings us peace. I don’t know how I can sleep at night thinking that the God that rules the universe creates people with the intent purpose of sending them to hell. Sounds like a cosmic Hitler, not a loving Father. And if God’s sovereignty is the only factor in salvation, then why does he not choose to save everyone then (Christian universalism)? If he can bend the human heart to his will, then why not bend all towards salvation. To me Calvinism is not even logical.

  • Guest

    Go get ’em, Scot! In my experience, Calvinism (as typically taught) defangs Hebrews. We need those fangs!

  • Another perspective.

    It seems to me that he’s rejecting Calvinism but retaining on to errors in earlier thought. Namely of course, damnation.

    I’d argue that Hebrews 2: 1 – 4 is talking mainly about salvation and deliverence from such things in this life. Of course we wouldn’t be delivered from these things if we went off of the way, and apostate.

    2nd. I’d argue that Hebrews 6: 5- 6 is talking in relation to later on in Hebrews where it clearly says that Christ sacrifice took away all sins once for all time (and several times it says this). So then in Hebrews six its saying that its impossible to re-sacrifice Christ again if one has gone astray. But why is it possible…. but because Christ’s final and completed self sacrifice has done away with the sacrificial system in full. But it warns that some people have tasted the heavenly gift of Christ’s full forgiveness, but have fallen to the side of this and returned to needing to sacrifice for forgiveness like in the old system, thus exposing what he has done to public disgrace. It is powerless for us to bring them back, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t come to their senses.

    So I don’t think that text is talking about loss of forgiveness, but rather that they were completely forgiven and fell away from this in their understanding to the idea that they needed to sacrifice again for forginess.

    Likewise in Hebrews 9: 28 – 29 I’d argue that its not saying that those (who stay) apart from sin will receive a salvation, but rather that people *are* apart from sin because of Christs shed blood, and will therefore receive a deliverence.

    So I don’t think there are any real warnings about damnation in Hebrews, but rather just a encouragement that we are completely and utterly forgiven on the cross, once for all time.

    Then I’d add to this Hebrews 2: 15 – 16 where it says that Christ came to take away the fear of death. Any warnings about damnation certainly are not taking this away.

    Plus. The Ultimate Reconciliation texts of Hebrews 2: 7 – 11.

    Add to that the text in Hebrews 8: 10 – 12 where it says that the New covenant was made with Israel (not individuals). We know from Acts that they apostles learned that the gospel was for everybody.

    But it then says the prophetic promises of this Covenant. “And I *shall* be with them for a God, and they *shall* be with me for a people….. for all *shall* be aquainted with me.

    For I shall be propitious to their injustices, and of their sins and lawlessness should I under no circumstances still be reminded.

    So. This covenant was made with Isreal (and also the gentiles) whereupon all of humanity is forgiven on the cross, and it contains these promises.

    There therefore is no warnings about punitive punishment in Hebrews, just about going off of the way whereby we lose salvation from self-destruction.

  • Neo

    Crap. Another misconstruing of Hebrews out of it’s context. It was written to Judiazers and those being swayed by them. Not mere apostates.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Honestly, I don’t even consider neo-Calvinists Christians. They follow a bastardization of Christianity completely foreign to the first 1000 years (and more) of Christianity and have the arrogance to proclaim they managed to discover vast truths that the apostles apparently couldn’t figure out. The idea of double predestination is completely contrary to the teachings of Jesus and, contrary to their cherry pickings of obscure biblical passages, is not found in the Bible whatsoever.

    I see how psychologically speaking, that sort of message (God is BIG and mighty, you are small and sinful) speaks to some people (it seems to carry particular resonance among some people who have suffered through addiction) , but I think it helps foster and develop a completely warped view of the world which is completely unhealthy and unproductive.

    I see a lot on Christian blogs a sort of “can’t calvinists and the rest of us find common ground?” but IMO there is no common ground if your foundation is rust

  • Seeker

    I grew up in Calvinism. And when I say “I grew up in Calvinism”, I mean it was the air I breathed for at least the first 2 decades of my life +. If I told you my credentials, you’d get that I am no stranger to the system defended by the person entitled “Name” below. The crappy part is that the words they use and the way they defend their system is so laden with the stuff that I heard over and over again growing up that it makes me sorda want to throw up when I hear it now… Sorry for the image, but its basically true. I wonder if those like “Name” realize that they sound very much like parrots repeating the same ideas and phrases of those they undoubtedly surround themselves with?

    That is one scary part of Calvinism that I observed over
    and over again – so much pride that we can’t hear voices of challenge or
    correction to our system. So much pride that there is no room for
    genuine dialogue… So much pride that it seems there is never a need to even engage the thoughts of those who might differ from you.

    Here’s my take: If it is “pleasing” in God’s sight to create some people to enjoy eternal life, and to create others to experience eternal hell, then I guess I’m not too sure that I want to hang out with that kind of God for an eternity… He/She sounds pretty scary. And I don’t care if you call that “blasphemous”… I’m not scared of that God anymore. And I’m not scared of zealous Calvinists and their doctrines anymore either… And I think I’m leading a lot happier, fuller life because of it.

    “Name”, if you are out there, I’d encourage you to try taking a break from Calvinism – you’ll like it. 🙂 And don’t worry, God won’t be mad at you for taking a break – and maybe even asking some questions about the system you are a part of…

    If any die-hard Calvinists would like to read another really concise and wonderful book on this topic that will take their views seriously – but also point out some major problems, grab a copy of Roger Olson’s book “Against Calvinism”. It is a great starting point for a “renewing of the mind”. But don’t let your Calvinist friends catch you with a copy laying on your coffee table – they may think
    reading it is “blasphemous” (right Name?)… GASP!

    Peace to all from this “Seeker” (who is probably, in part, a genuine seeker because his sight of God was so miserably obscured under the dark cloak of Calvinism for so many years)

    • LHD

      As one who also spent so much time as a Calvinist, let me say thank you for mentioning the pride element.

  • gingoro

    Pete Isn’t this all a bit disingenuous in that the older Calvinists like Presbyterians (PCC and PCA) and Christian Reformed also accept meticulous sovereignty as well. The big difference is that they don’t emphasize it to the same extent as the neo Calvinists do. I have attended a Calvinist church since the late 70s and have never once heard meticulous sovereignty mentioned by name from the pulpit although it is occasionally present by implication. In particular one time John Gerstner was a guest preacher and he raised his arm and said in effect that God had caused him to raise his arm. Now obviously God is in the chain of cause and effect that caused Gerstner to raise his arm, since God created all that exists either directly or mostly indirectly but that IMO was not how Gerstner meant it. As I understood Gerstner he mean immediate causation. BUT if one reads the creeds of the older Calvinists IMO they do not make internal sense without meticulous sovereignty especially the Canons of Dort but it is present in the Belgic and the Heidelberg catechism as well, although these later can be read in the sense that God’s sovereignty acts in an overall controlling or governing manner (which as it happens is how I see it, although I do think that God is quite able to exercise meticulous sovereignty if the situation warrants it). .I have read Roger Olsen’s blog and some of his books over a number of years and in all that time I never could figure out what his understanding was of God’s sovereignty. It would be helpful is Scot and Roger would be clearer as to what they mean to provide a contrast to the view of the neo Calvinists, not that I think their view is the same.

    “meticulous sovereignty”
    meticulous soverignty
    meticulous soverignty
    meticulous soverignty

    • As a believer in one of those “older Calvinist” traditions I appreciate this nuance, and would go as far as to endorse this distinction between neo-Calvinists and neo-Puritans:

      Piper et al are neo-Puritans, and they often embarrass and offend those of us in older Calvinist traditions (not that I’m uncritical of my own tradition). Not to put too much attention on labels. But then again, the label “Calvinism” is often used to cover all manner of sins.

  • Bryan Hodge

    The Book of Hebrews, as many other books of the Bible, speaks from two perspectives, the one from above and the one from below. When we ignore this, and emphasize our perspective to the diminishing of God’s, or God’s perspective to the diminishing of ours, we no longer allow the context to speak. By failing to allow context to speak, we end up ignoring or attempting to dismiss the passages in Hebrews (or the rest of the Bible for that matter) that clearly show that believers turn away from the faith and those that clearly show believers do not turn away from the faith, depending upon the perspective.

  • Craig Vick

    Discussions of ‘meticulous sovereignty’ are rife with examples of philosophical problems entering theology in well disguised forms. The way to proceed, in my not as humble as it should be view, is to isolate the philosophical issues. One challenge is to make sense of human actions (or choices) without obliterating what is truly human. The German Idealists, starting with Kant, provide a point of departure for that discussion. The enemies, so to speak, are reductionistic determinism on the one hand and views that make human choices mere random acts on the other. Another challenge is to make sense of evil. These are not easy matters to think through. I don’t think it’s fair to any theological tradition to blame it for not being able to solve very stubborn philosophical problems unless that tradition claims to have solutions.

    Of course the real elephant in the room here, as Dr. Enns alludes to and some of the comments touch on, is the doctrine of damnation.

    • Lars

      I second this! The elephant, that is. After dispensing with Adam and Eve, can we now tackle hell? Despite much depression and sincere attempts, this became the hurdle I simply could not get over, no matter how much I considered free will, free choice, and God’s perfect holiness. For many years I didn’t want to get married because I didn’t want to have children and be complicit in their potential eternal damnation. I spent my childhood terrified that I would somehow screw up and not get to heaven, no matter how often I begged forgiveness for any perceived slight to God. It wasn’t until I scuttled my belief in hell, and the God that would consign some of his own children there, that I became a more functional adult, and a married father of two. I am by no means perfect but I refuse to believe an act I had no responsibility for – my conception – essentially sealed my fate for eternity, divine justice or not. This is old territory but, ultimately, the ‘love me or endure my wrath (forever)’ is a lousy sales pitch for anyone, much less God.

  • bonaparte3

    It is astonishing the lengths that people will go to to convince themselves of the reality of an ancient Jewish tribal mythology.

    • ctrace

      It has something to do with history and our human nature, bonaparte3. And Spirit speaking to spirit.