Freely Drawn by the Father: Human Faith and the Power of God in John 6

For many, there are specific texts in scripture that are gateway drugs to specific doctrines. For me, Romans 16 and Judges 4 were both a gateway to adopting an egalitarian reading of scripture. For others who are interested in the Reformed/Calvinist and Arminian/Wesleyan debate (a debate between brothers and sisters of good will), John 6, Hebrews 6, 2 Peter 3, and Romans 9 are often considered the central prooftexts in this debate, although there are many other considerations. For some of my Reformed brothers and sisters, however, John 6:44 is considered the mainstay text. Jonathan Dorst at The Chorus in the Chaos blog on Patheos writes[1]

As I began to study Calvinism, this was the thread that wove throughout: that salvation is a work of God from first to last. I saw that, though we are responsible for our actions and sin, and though the outward call is universal (“whoever comes to me I will never cast out”), God is the prime mover in saving His people. God is not up in heaven wringing His hands over who will choose Him, and He is not casting a vote that gets equal influence with the devil’s vote hoping to win our patronage- God is actively drawing people to Himself. Here in John 6:44 was a hint of the effect of total depravity, the implication of unconditional election, the inescapable conclusion of limited atonement, the stark reality of irresistible grace, and a building block for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (which, of course, is about God persevering to perfect His people and to raise them up on the last day, not us working to stay in God’s good graces)…. We all believe the Bible, but we interpret it differently, and we need the help of godly men and women who have gone before us to understand the Bible. And while John Calvin and his disciples were gifted, but flawed, theologians, and Calvinism is just a tradition and is not perfect, it is the tradition that I believe represents Scripture most accurately. And John 6:44 was my gateway drug to becoming a Calvinist.

Personally, I find this sort of theological method and journey fascinating. In many respects, when a person reads a particular text or book is almost more important then what they read. This is not to make light of Dorst's comments or look down upon people who have aligned themselves to a specific theological group with a clear conscience. Rather, the time of much of our reading and research is almost as important as what we are researching. Just a thought on that. I also cite Dorst not to refute him (although I do not think John 6:44 is helpful to Calvinism in context at all), but to simply illustrate the interpretive power at work for many people within a specific Christian tradition: who we read—whether Calvin or Wesley or Beza or Spurgeon or Arminius or Oden—often determines which specific texts gain our hermeneutical imagination. The seeds of a specific worldview are often planted before we ever turn to Holy Scripture.

Audience in John 6

John uses two specific terms for the audience surrounding Jesus. He first uses the phrase "a great crowd" (πολὺς ὄχλος) throughout the beginning pericopes. In John 6:2 and 6:5, throughout the feeding of the five thousand, the "great crowd" does not leave Jesus but "follows him" (ἠκολούθει: imperfect verb). The pericopes in John 6 may be divided into the "feeding of the give thousand" discourse (vv.1-15), the "walking on water" discourse (vv.16-25) and the "bread of life" discourse that occurs for the rest of the chapter (vv.26-71). John seems to single out what could be called Jewish opposition (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι) in 6:4 and 6:41 as well, which suggests that Jesus' comments in the Gospel of John are concerned with his Jewish interlocutors.

The Heavenly Son, Grumbling, and John 6:41-43

The imperfect verb ἐγόγγυζον ("grumbling": v.41, 61; see also ἐμάχοντο in v.52) is our first indication of the mood of Jesus' interlocutors (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι). These Jewish leaders, hardly representative of all Jewish people in the crowds, are concerned with Jesus' claims to "descend from heaven" (ὁ καταβὰς ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), implying preexistence in some form. The context, therefore, does not appear to be about Calvinism or Arminianism, but on the origin of the Son (c.f. 1:1-18). A heavenly figure descending from heaven is not a foreign concept necessarily in Judaism (Dan 4:13, 23 LXX), but given the apocalyptic imagery of Daniel, one cannot necessarily fault the Jewish leaders for not seeing the obvious.

God's Sovereignty and Human Faith in John 6:44-51

How a non-Calvinist will understand vv.44-51 (and vv.61-66 by implication) can be largely reduced to how we exegete certain words. Those words include the negated participle δύναται ("able"), the verb πιστεύω ("to believe, have faith") throughout John 6, and the aorist ἑλκύσῃ ("draw"). I will address these in order.

On the first verbal phrase οὐδεὶς δύναται, we must be clear about what the phrase does not say. The phrase does not specify exactly for what reason one is "not able" to come to the Son. Dorst (and many of my Reformed brothers and sisters) have to supply a reason for this inability (i.e. total depravity, which I affirm but do not see as the reason) but the text itself seems to provide a specific reason. Specifically, v.45 uses the adjectival phrase διδακτοὶ θεοῦ ("learners of God," or "God's learners" depending on how one interprets the genitive θεοῦ) to speak about those who "hear/ understand" (ἀκούσας), which is based upon the knowledge received from God. As a consequence of this learning and understanding, a person can then come to the Son. But, as with much of the New Testament and Jewish thought, the concept of learning requires participation in what one has learned. I have written on this elsewhere.[2] That is, having learned and understood, one is then required to "come" (ἔρχεται: middle voice, suggesting personal agency) to the Son as a consequence of adopting and participating. One is unable to come to God without learning about what God requires. The universal witness of God is for all people (πάντες) and is predicated upon active participation in God's call. The cognitive element of this learning and understanding cannot be stressed enough.

Thus, a person's inability to come to God may be conditioned on total depravity, but God's universal prevenient grace draws us to him regardless.

This flows nicely into John's use of the verb πιστεύω (6:29, 30, 35, 36, 40, 47, 64 [2x], 69). The verb refers to "believe something to be true and, hence, worthy of being trusted - 'to believe, to think to be true, to regard as trustworthy (Louw-Nida). Faithfulness is a precondition that demands a person's awareness of the Son and the Father, and an active sense of participation in the mission of the Spirit. As Jesus says in 6:47, "Amen, amen, I say to you, the one who believes (i.e. exercises faithfulness) has eternal life" (ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὁ πιστεύων ἔχει ζωὴν αἰώνιον). John Wesley in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, says this concerning John 6:44:

No [person] can believe in Christ, unless God gives him power; he draws us first, by good desires. Not by compulsion, not by laying the will under any necessity; but by the strong and sweet, yet still resistible, motions of his heavenly grace.

The final consideration concerns the verb ἑλκύω. In the New Testament, this verb does not appear to be used primarily in a soteriological or eschatological context (John 18:10; 21:6, 11; Acts 16:19; 21:30; James 2:6), save for John 12:32. If John 12:32 is interpreted in the way of "to drag" or "compel," then one ends up with universalism in some form. While some may insist on distinctions in how they understand "all" in that verse, I do not find such arguments compelling—but that is another debate for another time. Suffice to say, the power of the Son to resurrection (ἀναστήσω: 6:44b) is predicated upon the exercise of human faithfulness: resurrection to eternal life (as opposed to destruction per 3:16) is conditioned on human participation in the life of the Spirit. Marianne Meye Thompson argues that the verb ἑλκύω most likely means, "to attract." She writes

In John the emphasis on God's love for the world argues strongly for [the aforementioned meaning of "to attract"]. According to Jer 31:3 (38:3 LXX), because God loves Israel with an eternal love, God has drawn them…with compassion; later Jeremiah promises that God himself will write the law on the hearts of his people so that they no longer need teachers…that prophetic vision comes to fruition in God's drawing people to Jesus.[3]

In summation, I respect the different positions many take in interpreting John 6:44. Personally, I believe the reasons I have provided above offer non-Calvinists a more consistent way to understand this wonderful text:

God's glory is manifested in the eternal Son, and all are called to learn and faithfully participate in the mission of God for the reconciliation of the world.

To God be the glory.

NQ

[1] Jonathan Dorst, "John 6:44—The Verse that Made me a Calvinist," http://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/john-644-the-verse-that-made-me-a-calvinist/.

[2] See here: http://www.splitframeofreference.com/blog-1/2017/12/15/learning-in-the-pastoral-epistles-deception-verbs-and-wives-in-1-timothy-2

[3] Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary (New Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Known, 2015), 152-153.

My Top Theology Podcasts of 2017

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In my final third year of my masters degree at Fuller, I discovered many new podcasts during my one hour commute to work (usually starting at 330am). When you have around 3 or more hours of time by yourself in the car and you don't want to get caught talking on the phone (I never did this), then you have to find something to do.

For me, that something to do was centered on finding good theological content to enjoy. Thankfully, in addition to finding out about some epic listening material, I got to meet some new people and have become friends with many of them.

Real quick, Overcast is the best podcast app. Just fyi.

These are in no specific order, except the first one.

Split Frame of Reference Podcast

This one naturally had to be here. If you aren't listening to Allison's and my podcast, you really should be. We're looking to wrap up our section on gender probably in 2018 sometime, as we still have to explore various Old Testament texts and themes, and then it is onto different trains of thought.

OnScript Podcast

Having grabbed a copy of Matt Bates book on "faith" in the New Testament, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he also had a podcast. Now that OnScript has added Dr. Erin Heim of Denver Seminary, I am anticipating an epic added dimension to an already killer podcast. If you like theology books on serious theological topics (ranging from adoptionism with Michael Bird to violence in the Old Testament with Greg Boyd), OnScript is seriously among the best.

The Libertarian Christian Podcast

If you are politically inclined (if so, my apologies—it is a curse I tell you) and if you are serious about your faith, then this podcast will challenge you to think deeply about the "statist quo." With topics ranging from non-violence to "just war" theory to Romans 13 and the State, you cannot get any better than this informed and delightful podcast.

Full disclosure, as someone who is largely aligned with the political philosophy of this podcast, I can tell you the material is top notch.

Doctrine and Devotion

One of several reformed podcasts that (usually) warm my heart whenever they appear in my feed—Jimmy and Joe are a delight to listen to (don't stop, guys -- #banterforever). While I am not reformed (and most likely not to become reformed), Jimmy and Joe's constant theological reflections are helpful, insightful and wise.

#JoFo4ever

Greg Boyd: Apologies & Explanations

I've never understood the controversy around Greg Boyd—the dude asks hard questions and eschews easy answers. Sure, Open Theism might rub some people the wrong way but even then, one is at a severe loss by ignoring Boyd's insights and wisdom. Packed into small bite-sized chunks, Greg answers questions ranging from Old Testament violence to whether or not God makes people delusional. His answers are always perceptive, even when I find myself reaching closer to my bag of classical Wesleyan answers.

Soteriology 101

Let me be clear: Leighton and I do not entirely agree. There. I said it. This places Leighton with the rest of the known universe of people who disagree with me. That said, I find Leighton's humble candor refreshing, and I suspect his winsome attitude toward his interlocutors will contribute to a more irenic debate concerning soteriology. 

Bible Brodown

I think I learned about Matt and Billy's podcast after listening to the White/ Flowers debate (#teamflowers), and since then it has been refreshing to listen to their work on various soteriological topics. Plus, they are really nice dudes and even if you end up disagreeing, why not disagree with agreeable folk?

Trinity Radio

As many of you know, I am not big on apologetics, especially debates that are apologetically themed. However, after listening to Braxton and Johnathan do their thing, I've become far more appreciative of the entire enterprise of apologetics. Johnathan has begun his own series on 1 Peter on youtube and it is a treat for those of you who care about Peter (or whoever wrote 1 Peter). After all, Saint Peter is pretty cool for being a guy who wouldn't eat with gentiles.

#PritchettPrime

PazNaz Weekly Sermons

I've loved Pastor Tara Beth's sermons for a while, but it is only recently that I began to go back and listen to the entire catalogue. Pastor Tara Beth's winsome and passionate preaching has ministered to me for my final 9 months in seminary as she worked through the Epistle to the Romans, and I commend her preaching and her sermons to you.

Remonstrance

My heart goes from dark and cold to mildly bright and warm whenever I see a new episode of this podcast in my feed. These guys go deep, talking about John Wesley and Jacob Arminius, giving new insights and clarifications for Wesleyan theology. Never dry or boring, these guys are insightful and scholarly in their pursuit of making Wesleyan theology clear and accessible to those who are interested. Highly recommended. 

The Teaching Pastor

As with all of these, I am biased when I place this podcast here. However. Dr. Craig Hill taught me Greek during my first two quarters at Fuller Theological Seminary and so hearing his voice is a welcome callback to that epic first 6 months. The podcast centers on Craig interviewing teaching pastors throughout the southern Cali area, and he goes through the process of researching and applying critical tools for sermon prep. As someone attempting to be more engaged in pastor/teaching ministry, this podcast is incredibly helpful, especially given the diverse cast.

The Productive Pastor

When one of my favorite podcasts (The Threshing Floor) went under, my warmed Wesleyan/Baptist (Waptist?) heart had no place to go. Thankfully, one of the dudes started his own podcast about the various issues centered on being a pastor: time management, social media, notes, and the epic struggle of being a pastor in a "hectic world." I love listening to Pastor Chad and I commend this podcast to you. 

So that is it! All of the major theology podcasts I enjoyed during 2017. What about yourself? Cheers to 2018!

Now where did I stick that mic?

NQ

Calvinist and Egalitarian?: Theological Resources for the Young, Restless, and Reformed

In my discussions with many Reformed people, particularly as I listen to certain podcasts like Reformed Pubcast and others, I am struck by their adherence to complementarianism. Of course, this is not to say that one cannot be both Reformed and complementarian. Rather, it is to say that I find it odd that the default position among the YRR (Young, Restless, Reformed) is complementarianism. That is, women and men are equal in dignity and worth before God, but have separate and distinct roles in the church and in the home. In my context at Fuller, where I've studied under Oliver Crisp and other Reformed theologians, this sort of default complementarianism seemed odd.

The purpose of this brief post is two-fold. First, I want to offer resources to challenge this seemingly common trend of interpretation, as many Reformed theologians are egalitarian and it seems John Piper (among others) has been given a bigger megaphone than others. Second, in a brief discussion with some YRR brothers on social media, I was struck by the lack of accumulated resources that could benefit people who were sincerely interested in exploring this debated issue. Many of my YRR friends, and I say this with love, seem content to go along with their favorite Pastor (Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, etc) and not actually go to the word of God, as least in terms of primacy. This can also, of course, be flipped around if one comes from an egalitarian background (i most certainly don't). So the challenge is not in of itself exclusive to the YRR, but in this post it is directed to them. In love.

Second, I want to offer some resources to challenge my YRR brothers and sisters. The purpose is not necessarily to change your mind (although that is certainly deeply desired). Rather, it is to in essence break down the walls of miscommunication and to promote additional resources one is not likely to get from the footnotes of the latest Gospel Coalition blog post. 

Dr. Roger Nicole was a founding member of the major egalitarian organization, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). He also taught at evangelical seminaries such as Gordon-Conwell and Reformed Theological Seminary. The man was as Reformed and as Evangelical as one could be, even being a staunch biblical inerrantist. He wrote this in his article for Priscilla Papers (the academic journal of CBE, which has published one of my own articles, I am humbled to say!)

It is very instructive to consider what we may know about the women who are mentioned in connection with St. Paul’s ministry. There are eighty-nine individuals listed, some of them by name, in Acts and St. Paul’s thirteen epistles, as his companions. Out of these eighty-nine, twenty are women! In Romans 16:1-15, there is a mention of Phoebe, and salutation to twenty-eight persons, not counting mentions of church, household, brothers, and saints with others. Out of twenty-eight individuals, eight are assuredly women: Prisca, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother (who was also a mother to Paul), Nereus’ sister, and Julia. The name of Junia must be added to these. Furthermore, some women must be assumed to be included in “the church that meets in Prisca and Aquila’s house” (v. 5), the “household of Aristobulus” (v. 10), of Narcissus (v. 11), and “all the saints with Nereus and Olympus” (v. 15). The names of Patroba[s], Herma[s] and Olympa[s], with their accusative form, –an, could possibly be those of women, although being masculine is not ruled out. We know nothing whatsoever about these except that St. Paul greeted them. Apart from those three, there are sixteen masculine names, and, of these, only Urbanus is identified as a coworker of Paul…

… Surely St. Paul would not, in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, condemn on the basis of Genesis 1-3 what he had so freely commended in Romans 16. Some claim that the solution is to posit that 1 Timothy is not authentically written by Paul, a desperate expedient that is wholly unacceptable to evangelicals and that would raise serious questions about Timothy’s place in the canon and even as to its inspiration…

Inasmuch as the view outlined here has not achieved an almost universal recognition among evangelicals, as the inappropriateness of slavery has achieved since the nineteenth century, it is paramount that all evangelicals should strive to provide, particularly in the church, opportunities for our sisters to exercise the gifts of the Spirit that they have received, even where it is not thought permissible by Scripture for them to exercise the office of pastor or teacher. Thus, the church would not lose the benefits that God’s gifts were intended to provide, nor would our sisters be compelled to hide their light under a bowl (Matt. 5:15).

 For Dr. Nicole's article, see here. Lest one deny Dr. Nicole's credentials, he wrote a seminal article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25.4 (1982) on John Calvin and Inerrancy. You do not get more Reformed or Evangelical than that! He also contributed a chapter in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (2005), one of the standard egalitarian academic textbooks,  called "Biblical Hermeneutics: Basic Principles and Questions of Gender." A very worthwhile essay from a master theologian, who was known to be both humble and irenic. He also wrote, "Biblical Authority & Feminist Aspirations," in Women, Authority & the Bible (IVP, 1986), 42-50.

James K.A. Smith is a Christian Philosopher who teaches at Calvin College. He has taught at Fuller, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Regent. He writes he embraced egalitarianism because of a "Reformed Hermeneutic" (p.94). In essence, his theology is not dictated by the Fall and the Curse (Gen 3:16), but by redemption in Christ (c.f. Col 1:20). Creation, therefore, trumps the Fall. 

You can find the quote in his Letters to a Young Calvinist p.93-95.

Dr. Jamin Hübner is a Reformed New Testament scholar and systematic theologian who has been on our podcast (episode here) and we discussed John Piper. It was a good romp and Jamin has written some rather definitive pieces of literature, and he operates from a Reformed perspective. He wrote a short book called A Case for Female Deacons while at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has also written several articles including

  • "Revisiting αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12: What Do the Extant Data Really Show?," Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 5.1 (2015): 41-70. In this article, Jamin shows that the rare Greek verb in 1 Timothy 2:12 does not support a hierarchicalistic interpretation.
  • "Revisiting the Clarity of Scripture in 1 Timothy 2:12," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 59.1 (2016): 99-117.
  • "Translating αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12," Priscilla Papers 29.2 (2015): 16-26.

Jamin's doctoral thesis was also centered on arguing for a Reformed Egalitarian view, which includes exegesis of the relevant texts and the broader New Testament. He writes in the conclusion of his doctoral thesis

Finally...the power of tradition must never be underestimated. There are many “closet-egalitarians” who believe that women can be elders. But, due to their faculty positions at (for example) Southern Baptist seminaries or pastoral positions at PCA churches, they do not voice what they believe is true. Jobs would be lost and relationships would be broken. It would be easier to fall in line with the local/historical traditions than to earnestly contend for the truth. One can only pray that more brave men and women will see themselves as historical persons that have a story—one that their children and grandchildren will remember and tell, and that their story will speak of a person who did not compromise when it came to proclaiming the gospel in every area of life, including the area of gender equality and the role of church eldership.

Dr. Robert A.J. Gagnon is a New Testament scholar teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a PCUSA school. He has written the definitive traditionalist book on homosexuality called The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Many complementarians are willing to cite the book positively (c.f. God and the Gay Christian: A Response to Matthew Vines - the contributors to the volume are, of course, deeply complementarian), but are strikingly quiet about Gagnon's support for the ordination of women.

Michael F. Bird is a Reformed Anglican New Testament scholar in Ridley College in Australia. He wrote a short book, with a lovely title, called Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry. He writes

Yet I have changed my view on women in ministry, and some of my friends have shaken their head in disappointment, thinking that I have sold out to the cultural tide of feminism by adopting a fashionably left-leaning version of evangelicalism...in my early theological education I took to a patriarchal view very naturally. I was greatly influenced by complementarians such as John Piper, John MacArthur, and Wayne Grudem - men I still admire and respect even if I must now depart company from them on this issue.

N.T. Wright is Reformed. He writes

I have shown where I think the evidence points. I believe we have seriously misread the New Testament passages addressed in this essay. These misreadings are undoubtedly due to a combination of assumptions, traditions, and all kinds of post-biblical and sub-biblical attitudes that have crept in to Christianity. We need to change our understanding of what the Bible says about how men and women are to relate to one another within the church. I do wonder sometimes if those who present radical challenges to Christianity have been all the more eager to sieze upon misreadings of what the Bible says about women as an excuse for claiming that Christianity in general is a wicked thing and we ought to abandon it. Unfortunately, plenty of Christians have given outsiders plenty of chances to draw those sorts of conclusions. But perhaps in our generation we have an opportunity to take a large step back in the right direction. I hope and pray that the work of Christians for Biblical Equality may be used by God in exactly that way.

See his article "The Biblical Basis for Women's Service in the Church," Priscilla Papers 20.4 (2006): 5-10.

Dr. Aida Besançon Spencer is Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She is an ordained PCUSA minister. You can see some of her presentations here and here. The first presentation concerns "Women, Silence, and the Church" and the second one is on the differences between Biblical Equality and Radical Feminism. Both are stellar and I commend them to you.

T.F. Torrance, a deeply influential Reformed theologian from Scotland, wrote a stimulating article about Christology and gender, and it is worth your time. He wrote

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We conclude that in spite of long-held ecclesiastical convention, there are no intrinsic theological reasons why women should not be ordained to the Holy Ministry of Word and Sacrament; rather, there are genuine theological reasons why they may be ordained and consecrated in the service of the gospel. The idea that only a man, or a male, can represent Christ or be an ikon of Christ at the Eucharist, conflicts with basic elements of the doctrines of: the incarnation and the new order of creation; the virgin birth, which sets aside male sovereignty and judges it as sinful; the hypostatic union of divine and human nature in the one Person of Jesus Christ who is of the same uncreated genderless Being as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit; the redemptive and healing assumption of complete human nature in Christ; and the atoning sacrifice of Christ which he has offered once for all on our behalf, in our place, in our stead.

You can read his entire essay here.

As one can clearly see, one need not be both Reformed and Complementarian by default. Rather, the presence of Reformed Egalitarians ought to be a primer for the YRR movement to reconsider the cultural link between Reformed theology and patriarchy, and exhibit the spirit of the Reformation.

Beer!

Sorry.

Reformed and always Reforming.

NQ