Why Ravi Zacharias rejects Calvinism

Here is a great response from Ravi Zacharias on the question of Soteriology. Pay close attention to how he interprets Romans 9.  He sounds like a “Traditionalist” to me. You can listen to his article on the video, or scroll down to read it:


“The question you have raised has to do with an issue that theologians have been wrestling with for centuries. The Calvinistic and the Arminian position highlight their own views in attempting to answer this question. The passage you have referred to in Romans is taken out of Paul’s letter in which he is dealing with the privileged position that Israel has as being the mouthpiece to the nations of the world, and the passage in Peter, of course, is referring to the fact that God is not desiring that anyone should perish. If I may rephrase your question, you are wrestling with the dialectic of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Let me try and give you a couple of illustrations before dealing with it theologically and in a mild philosophical manner.

The sovereignty and responsibility issue should really be seen as two opposite poles of the same position. Light, for example, is viewed from some vantage points as particles. From other vantage points it is viewed as waves. Scientists are aware that light could not be both particles and waves, so they have coined a term for it, a kind of a construct, and they call it a “photon.” All they have done is create a word and a category that accommodates both perspectives which are real. I think you should view the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man as a kind of a precious stone with two facets to it. When it catches the light from one direction, you see one color; when it catches the light from the other direction you see the other color. Our propensity in the Western world to put God into a box and to systematize everything sometimes violates a fundamental precept in philosophy. It is not possible for a finite person to infinitely understand the infinite. If a finite person can fully understand the infinite, the very category of infinity is destroyed. So my proposal to you is to see both of these perspectives and hold them in balance.

For example, the biblical writers held these in tension. When you look at Acts 2:23, Peter is addressing the people. After the crucifixion of Jesus, he says, “That which God hath ordained from before the foundation of the world, you with wicked hands have taken and crucified.” What is he talking about? “That which God hath foreordained (the sovereignty of God) you with wicked hands have taken and crucified (the responsibility of man).” Peter holds it in tension. The apostle Paul in Philippians 2:12 does the same thing. He says, “Work out your own salvation (the responsibility of man), for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure (the sovereignty of God).” So Paul holds it in tension. Jesus also in Matthew 18:7 says, “Offenses must come, but woe unto him through whom they come”–the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man. So in an attempt to try to clearly highlight either of these two extremes, you will do violence to the other.

In your example of Romans 9, it is imperative that you understand the context. In Romans, chapters 9, 10 and 11, Paul is primarily writing to the Jewish church in order to get them to understand that the chosenness that God had given to them was a privilege with concomitant responsibilities. He goes on to show that their privileged position was given to them because someone had to be a mouthpiece to the world and God chose the least of all the nations. He did not choose the philosophers in Greece; He did not choose the imperial might of Rome; He did not choose the splendor of Babylon. He chose a tiny little nation with whom and through whom He was going to pronounce the oracles to the rest of the world. Now, with that great privilege came a proportionate responsibility. So that chosenness was one of instrumentality, and to whom much was given much was also required. In the same way, I believe this principle applies to preachers. Just because we are called upon to stand in front of people and proclaim, it does not necessarily mean we have a better deal going for us. The fact is that our lives must be proportionate to the privilege and responsibility.

The passage in Peter expresses God’s desire for all mankind. Of course, He is not willing that any should perish. Now, what you need to do is recognize that foreknowledge and foreordination are not the same thing. I may know, for example, that as I see my child about to lift something heavy that he is not going to be able to lift it, but there are times when I stand back and watch in an attempt to teach this individual the fact that there are some loads too heavy for a smaller body to handle. Now when you are looking at the sovereignty of God, it is undeniable that God is sovereign in history. He is even able to take the evil intents of people and turn them around to good benefits. But isn’t that true of all life? There are some things in life that are givens–you and I have no control over them, but we do have options as to how we are going to deal with those givens, and that is where our responsibility comes in.

When you think of the mystery of sovereignty and responsibility, the very incarnation of Christ carries this enigma. Here is the sovereign God dwelling in a finite body with all of its limitations. So in my initial answer to you, may I suggest that you look at these two points as opposite poles of a dialectic; we cannot take God and put Him in a box as absolutely free. Somewhere the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man meet. The picture I have in mind is not of overlapping circles, as if each circle represented one extreme of the pole, but of conjoining circles. At some spot the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man meet. To try to answer it and explain it away would require infinite knowledge. The challenge you and I face, therefore, in life is to see how we can responsibly operate within the parameters that are so clear–God is sovereign, and yet I have the freedom and reserve the right to say yes or to say no. You see, God has given to every man the fundamental privilege of trusting Him or refusing to trust Him. You know, the old illustration used to be the sign outside of Heaven saying “Whosoever will may come,” and once you enter in, you see the sign that says, “Chosen before the foundation of the world.” A person who is truly born again recognizes that it was really the grace of God that brought him there because he could ever have come this way himself. It does not in any way mitigate or violate the choice that he made. The choice man makes is to trust God’s provision. Frankly, the tendency we may sometimes have is to complain that there is only one door to Heaven. Rather than complaining about it, we ought to thank God that there is at least one door by which we may enter.

There have been Calvinists and Arminians, giants of the faith, on both sides of the fence. I believe what John Calvin says holds very true: “Where God has closed His holy mouth let us learn not to open ours.” My own perspective on this is that God’s assurance of sovereignty is given to the person who wonders whatever caused him to merit the salvation, and God’s challenge of free will is to the person who tends to blame God for having even brought him into this world and that he has nothing to do to control his destiny. When you look at the encounter between Pharaoh and Moses, you see the constant availability of data given to Pharaoh, and the hardening process is really not a predestined one. It is a description after the fact that God was going to reveal the face that this man’s heart was already hardened. Remember, God operates in the eternal now.

So to sum up once again, the chapters of Romans 9, 10 and 11 are Paul’s theological treatise to the Jews to alert them to the fact that this great privilege does not let them get away scot-free. They have an enormous and a proportionate responsibility. He goes on to alert other nations that, rather than complaining about it, they should be glad that a privilege was given to someone, and through that someone this message has come to them also. In fact, if you read Romans 1, 2 and 3, you will find out that the privilege that the Jew had, in many ways, for many of them, turned out to be a disadvantage. If you read Romans 5, you will find out that even though God called Abraham, it was the faith of Abraham that justified him. Once again you see the sovereignty and responsibility. Why don’t we leave this enigma within the divine mind and just be grateful for the privilege that we have heard His voice and we can turn and follow Him?

May I strongly recommend that you pick up the book written by J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. His introductory comments alone, dealing with the difference between a contradiction and a paradox, are well done. If God were absolutely sovereign, then it would be a contradiction to say that man is absolutely free. God is not absolutely sovereign to the point that He can call something that is not as if it actually were. For example, God cannot make squares into circles. That would be a contradiction. So absolute sovereignty is really not what is being talked about here. God, therefore, has chosen to give us the option and, within that framework, He cannot call us free while absolutely violating that freedom. Both poles exist–His sovereignty and our responsibility. We rest on the fact that God is just, that God is love, that God is good, and He woos us enough so that we may trust Him and yet gives us enough freedom so that we might know that this freedom cannot be transformed into coercion.”

-Ravi K. Zacharias/ 1987

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For those who would like to hear more from Ravi on this topic just listen to his defense of free will here: 

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And here is another video of Ravi where a similar question was asked:

25 thoughts on “Why Ravi Zacharias rejects Calvinism

  1. I admire Ravi Zacharias and recommend him to my friends with intellectual questions concerning faith. However, it sounds like he is trying to remain neutral on this issue. The fact that he frames his response in terms of Calvinism and Arminianism, makes me think he is not a Traditionalist. A Traditionalist recognizes that the Calvinist / Arminian debate is historical, but is also a false dichotomy. A traditionalist is neither. Ravi seems comfortable leaving the issue in a state of tension which allows him to continue the focus of his ministry without getting involved in the current soteriological debate. However, the fact that a brilliant philosophical theologian like Ravi Zacharias does not stand inside the Calvinist camp contradicts the oft heard claim that all the “really credible” theologians are Calvinists.

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    1. Well, calling Ravi a Traditionalist based on what he said in the 80s is like calling Augustine a Calvinist because of what he wrote in the fifth century 😉

      The point I was making is that he agrees with my (and other Traditionalists) reading of Romans 9-11 and 2 Peter 3:9. As I said in my video, the older generation (70s – 80s) didn’t typically tackle the nuances of this issue with much depth. Ravi did so with enough depth for us to clearly see he doesn’t agree with the Calvinistic interpretations of at least two hotly contested passages.

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    2. Or, perhaps, he sees beyond even the tension…. Further down into the center of the jewel versus out on the edge of the facet. … So thankful for guys like Ravi who think and love and share as they do.

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  2. Great response ! I still am trying to understand why a Calvinist would think it robs God of glory if a person exercises free will given by a sovereign God. I am 60 and around 7 years of age I believed in Jesus as my Savior. For about a year I have been trying to understand Calvanism. I look back over 50 plus years and do not recall a non- Calvinist claiming glory for their salvation. At our wedding 39 years ago we had as one of our songs ” To God be the Glory”. We also had a minister speak concerning marriage representing Christ and His Church, which brings up this point , I sovereignly ask the one I loved to marry me and sovereignly she answered “yes”. God freely loved first that we might freely love in return. He freely died for us that we might freely die for Him. We respond to Him! To God be the Glory!!

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  3. Dr. Flowers I am having difficulty finding the original source for this article. The only other place I can find is a Tumblr from 2015 and the gentleman there had no idea where he found it originally.

    Perhaps you could share the provenance of this article with us so we can independently verify where Ravi said this?

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  4. Dear Dr. Flowers… This is really is not a rejection of Calvinism but rather an acceptance of the notion of an antimony which is the tension between the sovereignty of God and the Free Will of man, both taught within an inerrant scripture. These two seemingly contradictory notions seem to be enemies but are in fact merely inscrutable to the finite and fallen mind of man. As Spurgeon often concluded (hardly an Arminian), “enemies are often good friends.”

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    1. Ravi’s reading of Romans 9-11 is clearly consistent with our “Traditionalist” interpretation (as opposed to that of Calvinism). That was my focus for the purpose of posting this article. The clips added below give further evidence of his rejection of the Calvinist’s typical answers.

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  5. “So in my initial answer to you, may I suggest that you look at these two points as opposite poles of a dialectic; we cannot take God and put Him in a box as absolutely free.”

    Really? If God is not free then he is dependent upon his creatures.

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  6. To claim Ravi Zacharias as a supporter of “Traditionalism” is to utterly misread the article. It’s truly amazing how a person’s presuppositions, lack of understanding and complete negativity toward Calvinism can so blind reasoning.

    It seems that anyone who says that they believe in free will and is not a Calvinist, no matter how absurdly they get there—Molinist, Open Theist, or just plain anti-Calvinist—is welcomed into the Arminian fellowship.

    If one is willing to read this article objectively it is clear that Ravi is espousing some sort of compromise between Arminianism and Calvinism, and he is refusing to attach himself to either system.

    Of course for Arminians and, sadly, even some Calvinists, the real argument is between the false dichotomy of libertarian free will and determinism. And ironically the true compromise is compatibilism, which is the bases of all Calvinistic confessions!

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    1. This is humorous because I just got through telling a friend that Traditionalism is a compromise between Arminianism and Calvinism that refuses to be attached to either system. Lol

      Clearly his reading of Romans 9-11 and 2 Peter 3:9 is like mine, not any Calvinist I know. Sure some of his platitudes could have as easily been something a Calvinist would also say, but his interpretation of key controversial passages fall directly in line with ours.

      Mike, did you happen to take the time to listen to the two other videos Of Ravi I posted at the bottom of the article? How could any Calvinist affirm his remarks there?

      Are you sure it’s not your own biases getting in the way here?

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      1. Leighton,

        I see Traditionalism as an outright rejection of both Calvinism and Arminianism rather than a compromise. As I see it, Arminianism is just a softer form of Calvinism. A “Calvinism lite”.

        I think most Traditionalists would reject the TULIP in full, with no Calvinistic hangover.

        Happy Father’s Day to all my brothers in Christ. At least to all those to whom it applies.

        God bless!

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      2. I did listen to the the other Ravi videos you posted and, as a Calvinist, I like them and, though I might say a couple of things a little differently, I can certainly affirm them. Ravi is an intelligent speaker and theologian who has decided not to affirm either system—this is very clear!

        I understand why you think that Calvinists can’t agree with him. It’s because, in order to win the debate you force onto Calvinism the “false dichotomy” and conflate compatibilism with determinism—something that, unfortunately, many Calvinists also do.

        “…we cannot take God and put Him in a box as absolutely free. Somewhere the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man meet…To try to answer it and explain it away would require infinite knowledge.” This is compatibilism.

        “A person who is truly born again recognizes that it was really the grace of God that brought him there because he could ever have come this way himself. It does not in any way mitigate or violate the choice that he made.” This line is similar to the Westminster and London Baptist Confessions of Faith.

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      3. I notice you have still failed to even acknowledge Ravi’s explanation of Romans 9, the main point that motivated my reposting of this article.

        I already conceded that Ravi wasn’t adopting either system. Neither are Traditionalists.

        And what does Ravi’s rejection of absolute sovereignty (understood as determinism) have to do with his rejection of the Calvinistic interpretations of texts like Romans 9? Why do you think my attempt to win a debate by means of a false dichotomy has anything to do with that fact?

        Plus, you seem to forget that Traditionalists are “compatibilistic” too, in that we also believe God’s sovereignty is compatible with man’s responsibility.

        I have a challenge for you Mike. Find me one notable Calvinistic Compatibilist who ever said “God isn’t absolutely free/sovereign” like Ravi did.

        Also, that last statement concedes we can’t come on our own (“come this way of himself”), something every Arminian and Traditionalist I know also affirms. What’s your point?

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      4. It is frustrating when you don’t get specific replies to your questions, isn’t it? Now you know how I feel.

        Sorry but you don’t understand Ravi’s “absolute sovereignty” comments. Did you fail to notice that he recommends the book by Calvinist J.I. Packer, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”? You want to know what a Calvinist says about absolute sovereignty read that book! (Ravi’s “Light/particles/waves/photon” example—among others—comes from Packer.)

        What’s my point? You agree that Traditionalists are compatibilists and you can’t come to God of yourself—both foundational of Calvinism—I don’t know what “your” point is!

        “The temptation is to undercut and maim the one truth by the way in which we stress the other: to assert man’s responsibility in a way that excludes God from being sovereign, or to affirm God’s sovereignty in a way that destroys the responsibility of man. Both mistakes need to be guarded against. …

        God made us responsible moral agents, and He will not treat us as anything less. His Word addresses each of us individually, and each of us is responsible for the way in which he responds – for his attention or inattention, his belief or unbelief, his obedience or disobedience. We cannot evade responsibility for our reaction to God’s revelation. We live under His law. We must answer to Him for our lives.

        It is necessary, therefore, to take the thought of human responsibility very seriously indeed. But we must not let it drive the thought of divine sovereignty out of our minds. While we must always remember that it is our responsibility to proclaim salvation, we must never forget that it is God who saves. Our evangelistic work is the instrument He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument. Let us not at any stage forget that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are both true. …

        In the Bible, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not enemies. They are not uneasy neighbours; they are not in an endless state of cold war with each other. They are friends, and they work together.”

        ― J.I. Packer, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”

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      5. Mike, slow down. I know the photon analogy is from Packer. I loved Packer when I was a Calvinist and have used that analogy both as a Cal and now as a Traditionalist. We do share some common beliefs, you know?

        I often quote lower Calvinists even now to prove a point against my supralapsarian Calvinistic friends.

        What exactly do you think Ravi’s absolute sovereignty comments entail? Do you think He’s affirming TULIP while undermining the basic Calvinistic interpretation of one of the main passages used to support TULIP, Romans 9? Really? How would that work exactly?

        What Traditionalist or Arminian has EVER said we can come to God alone? God’s initiative is as foundational for our Soteriology as it is to Calvinism. I thought you would know that brother? This is a bit baffling.

        I didn’t say Trads were compatibilists. I explained that we are compatibilistic in the sense that we affirm both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are compatible. We define those terms differently, obviously.

        The way in which we define those terms does guard against the very error Packer just warned about, in our estimation.

        Packer also says, “He [God] orders and controls all things, human actions among them, in accordance with His own eternal purpose.”

        Do you agree with that?

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      6. First, let me say that I think the lapsarian debates that Calvinists have are counter productive and a little silly.

        Next, I don’t think Ravi says enough about Romans 9 in this article to really be able to say he totally agrees or disagrees with a Calvinistic interpretation. I’ve read your Romans 9 book and I can agree with much of it—corporate election has some explanatory weight but it goes too far. Obviously this is a long discussion that we can’t go into here.

        As for claiming what Traditionalists or Arminians have said, I’m just mirroring your “implications” argument which you often use against Calvinists.

        I know that we define terms differently so why even say that Traditionalists are compatibilistic?

        And lastly, do I agree with the statement: “God orders and controls all things…”? Yes but I also agree that God is love. If I defined love on the surface level that most people do than I would have to reject the God of the bible!

        Look, I sympathize with Arminians. There are problems with the way much of popular Calvinism is explained. If you think that I’m alone in this view then let’s see what Packer has to say: “We must acknowledge that it was in part bad Calvinism that encouraged this unhappy mistake. … It is to be feared that much of the Arminianism in this world has been due in part, at any rate, to recoil from an unspiritual Calvinism. … We are deliberately, in this article, avoiding any attempt to generalize about our situation today; but those who find themselves up against Arminianism (or perhaps it calls itself anti-Calvinism) at the present time would do well to ask whether Calvinists themselves have to had something to do with bringing it into being, by not advancing their doctrine with holy and loving attitudes and actions.” (https://www.the-highway.com/articleSept16.html)

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  7. “…you seem to forget that Traditionalists are “compatibilistic” too”

    But brother, y’all are not compatibilistic in the same sense as what the reformed mean by the term. In the technical sense, it’s that God’s predetermination (His decree) is compatible with voluntary choice, not just His “sovereignty.”

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    1. I’ve never heard anyone explain Calvinism coherently. No one and I’ve listening to many reknown and less reknown Calvinist sermons, debates, lectures. I’m not a Calvinist, not Arminianist, not sure I have a label yet but I know for sure I’m not those two.

      To sum up my very inept understanding of this article, Calvinist claim total depravity and so man relies on G d to show him he is elect and bring him to salvation, whereas the non elect are never going to be chosen, are totally depraved, destined for damnation and also responsible for not choosing otherwise, because G d is sovereign. Makes total sense … can’t argue with that can I?

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  8. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    Ce parere aveti?

    The sovereignty and responsibility issue should really be seen as two opposite poles of the same position. Light, for example, is viewed from some vantage points as particles. From other vantage points it is viewed as waves. Scientists are aware that light could not be both particles and waves, so they have coined a term for it, a kind of a construct, and they call it a “photon.” All they have done is create a word and a category that accommodates both perspectives which are real. I think you should view the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man as a kind of a precious stone with two facets to it. When it catches the light from one direction, you see one color; when it catches the light from the other direction you see the other color. Our propensity in the Western world to put God into a box and to systematize everything sometimes violates a fundamental precept in philosophy. It is not possible for a finite person to infinitely understand the infinite. If a finite person can fully understand the infinite, the very category of infinity is destroyed. So my proposal to you is to see both of these perspectives and hold them in balance.

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