Recently, I had a conversation with someone from a neo-Reformed background about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus.
As background: Exodus indicates that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to rescue the Israelites from slavery on his own terms. But sometimes the text says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In some cases it just says his “heart was hard” without clearly indicating who did the hardening. Elsewhere Pharaoh’s advisors are implicated.
In Hebrew thought, the heart can represent the human will, our volitional capacity. So the question is, did God unilaterally harden Pharaoh’s heart — that is, did he coopt Pharaoh’s will? And if so, does he do the same with all of us?
Neo-Reformed believers answer yes and yes, while maintaining that humans are still responsible for their actions.
In this exchange, I suggested the “hardening” texts should be read in light of Exodus’ opening lines. Long before there’s talk of anyone hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we read this:
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them…’
At which point, Pharaoh enslaves the entire Israelite population.
Then another Pharaoh comes to power and orders all Hebrew males to be killed at birth.
Add to this the fact that all Pharaohs, including the one who squared off against Moses, claimed to be gods incarnate.
All of this, I believe, tells us what Pharaoh’s character was like, long before God did anything to harden his heart.
But that’s not really the point of this post. What interests me is the response I got, arguing that there’s only one reason anyone would believe as I do:
It keeps God from offending your sense of fairness because you could never worship a God that decrees such things.
So I asked if it’s fair to assume the worst possible motivation of someone, just because they don’t embrace a Calvinist reading of the Bible. This was his answer:
If you genuinely desired to understand the text, you wouldn’t have a problem with Calvinism.
If you don’t come to the same conclusions as I do, then it’s because you’re not really interested in understanding the Bible. You’re just trying to twist its meaning to fit your preconceived notions — or dismiss it altogether. That’s how the argument goes, anyway.
Granted, this is one person. But I’ve heard this argument before. A lot. Heck, I used to make this argument.
This, I believe, is an example of a kind of theological arrogance that’s not uncommon among the neo-Reformed. Not that theological arrogance is their exclusive domain. We all struggle with this. But this is the lens through which many neo-Reformed believers view non-Calvinists — and sometimes even other Calvinists who just aren’t as “doctrinally pure” as they are.
Neo-Reformed theology seems to be redefining orthodoxy to insist upon the tenets of high Calvinism. This despite the fact that the tenets of Calvinism are nowhere to be found in any universal creed (Apostle’s, Athanasian, Nicene). Nor are they to be found in what Scripture identifies as the “gospel.”
If the tenets of Calvinism are essential to orthodox faith, why are they wholly absent from the Church’s most universal, enduring statements of orthodoxy? Why are they missing from what Scot McKnight calls The King Jesus Gospel?
Why do the writers of these great creeds — much less Paul himself, when he sums up the “gospel [he] preached” — fail to mention neo-Reformed dogmas like predestination, limited atonement, and meticulous sovereignty?
I don’t have to embrace the core tenets of Calvinism to appreciate its rich heritage and its rightful place within the Christian tradition. But there are some who would make it the only option — and that, I believe, is just wrong.