Recently, I wrote a short piece dealing with caricatures Calvinists draw wrongly depicting the theology of non-Calvinists. My example came from best-selling author, teacher, and Reformed Christian, Dr. R. C. Sproul (//link). Indicative of choosing Sproul is his profound influence among Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Today, rather than plucking more feathers from that chicken, I'd call attention to another problem so often found in many Calvinist theologians in Dr. Sproul's circles -- artificial exegesis which leads to overstated conclusions. For purposes of illustration, let's continue with our popular Calvinist author, R. C. Sproul.
At the outset, as before, I will be perfectly clear. This is not about Sproul the man; it's about Sproul the interpreter. Or, more specifically, for our purposes, Sproul the Calvinist interpreter. As an example, let's focus on Sproul's understanding of John 6:44. Jesus said,
"No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (NASB, emphasis added).
We get a sense of this verse's significance in Sproul's mind from repeated exegesis of John 6:44. Note his devotional reading of it in his series on the Christian's daily devotional Bible study. Sproul writes:
"Some have said that draw only means "woo" or "entice."... This interpretation of John 6:44 is impossible, however. In James 2:6, we read, "Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?" In Acts 16:19 we find," They... dragged them into the marketplace." The same Greek word is used in all three verses. Obviously, mere enticement is not in view here. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a standard scholarly work on New Testament Greek, tells us that the word translated draw in John 6:44 means "to compel by irresistible authority." It was used in classical Greek for drawing water from a well. We do not entice or persuade water to leave the well; we force it against gravity to come up by drawing it. So it is with us. We are so depraved that God must drag us to himself."1
Earlier in Sproul's theological journey he had dealt with the verse, and dealt with it amazingly in similar fashion. In his best selling book, Chosen by God, Sproul wrote: "The Greek word used here is elk. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it to mean to compel by irresistible superiority. Linguistically and lexicographically, the word means" to compel."2 Interestingly, Sproul almost repeats verbatim the same point in Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology. Significant are Sproul's claims that Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament demonstrates his position3.
May I suggest at this juncture I am denying neither the efficacious call of God intrinsic to classic Calvinism nor necessarily offering an alternative to irresistible grace. Instead I'm only suggesting Sproul overstates his conclusion via artificial exegesis.
Let me show you what I mean.
First, Sproul sets himself up for probable failure when he a priori declares the impossibility of the term "helko" meaning "woo" or "entice" rather than his understanding of the term. Impossible is a very strong conclusion. Normally when we say a feat is an impossibility, we mean no circumstances whatsoever could affect a contrary conclusion. Indeed impossibilities are squarely in the category of square circles or round triangles. It's unimaginable a Greek linguist would make such a non-negotiable assertion about word usage. Alas, however, Sproul is no linguist; he's a theologian.
Is it too soon to suggest theology determines Sproul's exegesis? Perhaps.
Let's consider further.
Second, Sproul three times cites a standard, scholarly linguistic authority to demonstrate his exegesis. Note carefully once again: '"Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, a standard scholarly work on New Testament Greek, tells us that the word translated draw in John 6:44 means "to compel by irresistible authority."' If Sproul is correct, while it does not qualify his case to boast the contrary interpretation as "impossible," nonetheless citing impressive scholarly evidence certainly tilts favor toward his side of the scale.
The problem is, however, Sproul has over-cooked the beans in citing his evidence. Not only does Kittel not give the sense "to compel" as the primary usage (unless it is pertaining to physical objects), neither does Sproul's definition "to compel by irresistible authority" stand prominent in Kittel. In fact, it’s not even there!
Indeed, the conclusion by Kittel’s contributor, A. Oepke, flatly contradicts Sproul's citation:
"There is no thought here of force or magic. The term figuratively expresses the supernatural power of the love of God or Christ which goes out to all (12:32) but without which no one can come (6:44). The apparent contradiction shows that both the election and the universality of grace must be taken seriously; the compulsion is not automatic."4
Nor do other lexicons appear helpful for Sproul's case. The results are the same. His definition of draw in John 6:44 meaning "to compel by irresistible authority" seems nowhere to be found.
Just as problematic is Sproul’s citing of other New Testament usages of the term draw (Acts 16:19; James 2:6). While the term is certainly used by both Luke and James, why would these specific references take precedence over another usage in more closely related contexts? Surely there is a difference in “dragging” a man to court or "pulling" fish out of a lake. The circumstances are hardly the same. Consequently, the term would be used significantly different pertaining to human hearts.
Interestingly, within only a few chapters, John uses the same word translated draw and the contextual circumstances is almost identical:
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32, NASB).
The conclusion I'm forced to consider is, this particular usage messed with Sproul’s a prior theological premises. That is, if it stands impossible for draw to be considered in a lesser light—a “woo” or a “compulsion” but not in Sproul’s stated sense "to compel by irresistible authority"—then Sproul is stuck explaining precisely why draw in John 12:32 does not irresistibly compel and even drag all men to Jesus. Hence, it’s just easier to cite James 2:6 and Acts 16:19.
I want to repeat: I am not arguing whether or not God’s call is efficacious or irresistible grace is biblical (you probably know my conclusions, however). Rather, my question is, why are exegetical scholars who lean toward the Reformed faith not taking Sproul to the woodshed for such embarrassingly inadequate scholarship? Recall he did not wrongly cite Kittel once, nor twice but at least three times over an entire decade!
If Calvinism is true, it should easily flow from its most important texts, texts which Sproul assumes John 6:44 to be. Nevertheless, under no circumstances should we invent scholarly support where no scholarly support exists.
That's not to say, of course, there's no scholarly support for Calvinism's view from this text. It is to say, Sproul's approach perfectly illustrates artificial exegesis which leads to overstated conclusions.
This saddens me about Sproul. I've said before, I've benefited from Sproul's teaching through the years. Yet, when I actually got a good taste of Sproul's burnt beans on this text, I must admit I lost a significant measure of respect for his scholarly depth.
With that, I am...
Peter1R.C. Sproul, Before the Face of God: A Daily Guide for Living from Ephesians, Hebrews, and James (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Ligonier Ministries, 1994). p.36.
2Chosen, 1986, p.69
3Grace, Baker Book House, 1997 pp.153-154
4Kittel (One Volume), p.227