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Parables, Desire, and Salvation: A Counter-Reformation Reading of Mark 4:10-12

In the Synoptic Gospels, each Evangelist narrates an event where Jesus explains to the Disciples and the other people standing around him the reason for his use of parables (Matt 13:10-17, Mark 4:10-12, and Luke 8:9-10). Jesus says that he teaches those who follow him the μυστήριον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ1 — the “mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). To those outside of his circle, however, he does not reveal God’s mystery. To outsiders, Jesus instead teaches in παραβολαῖς — parables — “μήποτε ἐπιστρέψωσιν καὶ ἀφεθῇ αὐτοῖς τὰ ἁμαρτήματα” — “lest at any time they should turn, and their sins should be forgiven them” (Mark 4:12 GEN). For John Calvin, this pericope teaches sovereign predestination and places Jesus as the “executor of reprobation” to the un-elect2. Calvin’s reading of this pericope, especially Mark’s rendering with μήποτε in 4:10-12, renders Jesus using parables expressly to prevent — through obscuration — some people from receiving the mysterium that leads to forgiveness of sins.

Following Calvin, Protestant theologians accept near-universally Mark 4:10-12 as a proof text for God’s sovereign action of hardening the hearts of the reprobate, humans predestined for damnation by God’s sovereign will. Using John Calvin’s interpretation of Mark 4:10-12 in his Novum Testamentum Commentarii, I will build a counter-argument to this interpretation through the work of Calvin’s contemporary Fr. Juan Maldonado (1535-1583). Maldonado shows that a predestinarian interpretation of Mark 4:10-12 does not support the sensus communis or sensus plenior of Scripture. Within the context of the entirety of Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers, Mark 4:10-12 does not teach any predestinarian doctrines. Against Calvin’s interpretation, Mark proclaims a Jesus who offers the mystery of the Kingdom of God to all who will choose to follow him. Jesus shares the mysterium regni Dei with all who desire to know. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is time to reevaluate the deference given to Calvin’s exegesis of Mark 4:10-12.

I. Calvin: Parables of Reprobation

John Calvin’s exegesis of Mark 4:10-12 has set the driving theological framework for interpreting Jesus’ use of parables. For Calvin, Jesus uses parables expressly to keep knowledge away from the reprobate. Jesus “keeps control over His mysteries” — the mysterium regni Dei — by using the enigmatic language of parables.3 He does this so that the meaning of the mysterium is kept secret and does not “reach the reprobate.”4 The Disciples and those within Jesus’ circle — “qui circum illum erant cum duodecim” (v. 11) — receive the mystery of the kingdom of God, not because they are especially worthy, but because God has elected them. By electing to give unwarranted understanding to people completely depraved and unworthy of understanding, God is magnifying his sovereignty before his creation.5

To understand the parables of Jesus, Calvin thought that God must first “enlighten” a person by the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of adoption.” To be adopted by God through the Holy Spirit is to be regenerated into a new type of creature. Hominis is now hominis et filius Dei through adoption. Those who were not adopted by God, the reprobate — “those outside” in v. 11 —, are unenlightened and in a sense “out of their minds” without God’s enlightenment given through adoption.6 The reprobate, for Calvin, are not gifted the facilities for understanding the mysterium which leads to salvation in Jesus. For the reprobate, hearing the Word of God leads to further metaphorical blindness rather than a new, more in-depth knowledge of God.7 The reprobate “videntes videant, et non cernant, et audientes audiant, et non intelligant” (Mark 4:12) because they are not empowered — by God — to have such abilities.

Even in the days of the Reformation, the idea of God expressing a sovereign will to condemn some people to darkness seemed harsh to many Christians. Andreas Althamer (1500-1539) attempts to soften predestination’s blow in Conciliatio Locorum Scripturae and Diallage with an engagement of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus 4 and 8. Calvin extends Althamer’s argument expressing that God has no guilt for causing Pharaoh’s heart to harden and applies it to Mark 4:12. Even though it is the Word of God’s revelation of the mysterium that deepens the discomfort and darkness of the reprobate, God is not at fault. God is, “the cause of all things without guilt.”8 Though “videntes videant, et non cernant” (v. 12) Calvin makes clear that “doctrinam non esse proprie eque per se.9 The mysterium of the Kingdom of God revealed by Jesus is not directly the cause of blindness in people. Because God does not elect and empower the reprobate by his Holy Spirit, the reprobate hearing the mysterium in parables are like a person with weak eyesight going out into the bright sunlight. Their eyes burn, and they are not able to see, but the fault is in their eyes and not the sun.10 When Jesus “blinds and hardens the reprobate” through his use of parables it is because of the reprobate’s “native depravity.”11 For Jesus, the hardening is purely “accidental.”12

To Calvin, Jesus in v. 12 is keeping the reprobate in the dark and the hardness of their heart by obscuring his mysterium in parables so that they do not have any chance of obtaining mercy or receiving anything that might soften their hearts — “nequando convertantur, et remittantur eis peccata.” Jesus does not want “those outside” in v. 11 to hear a message of salvation and turn toward penitence.13 Conversion, for Calvin’s Jesus, can only be something given of God to those who, through the “secret counsel of God,” are elected by God’s “free favour [sic].”14 Forgiveness of sins only comes when one is displeased with sin. This displeasure toward sin is a gift of God predestined for some and held back for others. Verse 12 makes it clear to Calvin that salvation is a graceful work of God alone and that no penitence on humanity’s part can earn it.15 Jesus teaches in parables to obscure his message of salvation to prevent the reprobate from stumbling upon his call to penitence and receiving salvation outside of God’s sovereign initiative.

II. Maldonado: Velle Deum Omnes Homines Saluos Fieri

Fr. Juan Maldonado (1533-1583) — anglicized John Maldonatus —, a Jesuit theologian, and professor who taught in Paris and Poitiers, was an expert in biblical languages and patristics. Maldonado is most known for contradicting the theology of Augustin — whom he felt should not stand as a rule to theologians. Maldonado, especially, contradicted the Augustinian theologies that built the foundation of Calvin’s understanding of predestination. Maldonado was an active Counter-Reformer who dedicated his theological and pastoral work to answering Reformed theological innovations — especially those of John Calvin and his adherents — while also engaging in the theological conversations of his day.16

Written twenty years after Calvin’s harmonization and commentary on the gospels, Maldonado’s Commentarii in quatuor Evangelistas is an excellent response to the predestinarian interpretations of Mark 4:10-12 ignited by John Calvin’s work. In Commentarii Maldonado agrees that while on a first reading Mark 4:10-12 might seem to be a passage about predestination, within the context of Scripture and tradition, it is not. Maldonado builds the case that Mark 4:10-12 is not a pericope teaching Jesus’ execution of Calvinistic reprobation through parables. By focusing on the worthiness of those around Jesus in vv. 10-11, Jesus’ purpose of obscuring parables in vv. 11-12, and the desire required to receive Jesus’ mysterium in vv. 10 and 12 Maldonado builds a multi-layered interpretation of Mark 4:10-12 that resists the theological innovations of John Calvin.

To Maldonado, Jesus gives the Disciples and those around him the mystery of the kingdom of God, not because they are predestined — “non sit quod reprobati essent” — or among the elect, but because they were worthy — “sed quod Apostoli digni essent.17 Jesus withholds the secrets of the kingdom from those not around him — “those outside” — not because they were reprobate, but because they were “unworthy” — “indigni.” The people around Jesus in v. 10 are worthy, not in a meritorious sense, but in the sense that they displayed a desire for Jesus by asking the meaning of the parables — “quia quaesiuerant.18 Worthiness, to Maldonado, is not related to the God-given state of a person — elect or reprobate. A person\’s desire to understand Jesus is what builds worthiness. The people around Jesus were worthy because they wanted to understand the mysteria regni coelorum. In asking Jesus for answers in v. 10, they showed their desire for Jesus and their belief that he had — or was — the mysterium.19

Maldonado further problematizes Calvin’s predestinarian view of this passage by noting the fact that not all of the Disciples could have been among the elect. “Primum non omnes Apostoli praedestinati erant: nam certe Iudas non erat praedestinatus.20 Judas is among their number — the δώδεκα —, and he is reprobate in the Calvinistic scheme. However, Jesus explained the parable to everyone, including Judas, who desired to stand near him and sought to understand with the others who were around Jesus.21 How could Judas have been praedestinati to receive the mysterium taught in parables at this moment, only to squander its worth for a few coins later in Jesus’ life?

Further, Maldonado finds it difficult to believe that everyone outside of Jesus\’ circle was reprobate. Mark 4:10-12 says nothing about why Jesus gave the mysterium to the Disciples, but details why he did not give it to those “qui foris sunt” (v. 11). “Quia [those outside Jesus’ circle] videntes non videbant, et audientes non audiebant” is an indicator to Maldonado that at that moment those outside had willingly decided not to believe or understand. To willfully close one\’s mind to the teaching of Jesus is to make oneself unworthy of the mysteries of his kingdom. Those standing outside of Jesus’ circle did not receive understanding “because they would not believe and understand, and were, therefore, unworthy of having these mysteries revealed to them.”22

In vv. 11-12 Jesus says that he teaches those outside of his group in parables that, “they seeing, may see, and not discern: and they hearing, may hear, and not understand.” (GEN) The people outside of Jesus’ circle have seen with their own eyes the miracles of Jesus. They have seen clear proof of who he is and what he is capable of doing. However, they have chosen not to see and hear what is indeed going on around them. To Maldonado, the “tanta miracula” of Christ seen by those around him would have been sufficient to convince even the great Western philosophers that “there was something of the Godhead” in Jesus.23 It is in punishment of their choice for blindness that Jesus speaks cryptically. “God, by His most just judgment, takes away entirely from those who refused His offered Word.”24

Through Chrysostom25, Maldonado finds not just punishment, but also hope in Jesus’ uses of parables. Chrysostom teaches that Jesus taught in parables because “he would not have them [those outside] understand that they might understand.”26 Jesus uses parables, then, to rouse the interest of outsiders and drive them to “diligently inquire” about the mysterium he is revealing to them.27 Through his use of parables, outsiders will see that the mysterium contained within Jesus’s teaching is “of great moment and significance.”28 Thus, even in God’s punishment of cryptic parables, there is grace to those who do not ignore the parables’ call to question and seek answers.29

Continuing in his application of Chrysostom’s teaching, Maldonado rejects the Reformed claim that v. 12 shows that Jesus did not want to convert all people and forgive them their sins. Jesus here is not permanently shutting those outside of his circle from the grace of salvation, but temporarily, so that they would first have to express a desire to know him as the Disciples had done in v. 10. Jesus shuts “the door of salvation against them, not for ever, but for a time, that they might knock.”30

Maldonado sees that Jesus held the door wide open for those outside of his circle. Jesus lived among and in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. He taught, loved, and healed in the midst of insiders and outsiders. Many people did not enter Jesus’ circle when he held the door open for them because they did not desire the deeper understanding of the mysterium regni Dei. If salvation is comfortable, the benefit of salvation is not as substantial for the believer. Jesus intentionally places obstacles to salvation so that when people find “themselves deserted” and “oppressed with ills” they will “acknowledge their debt” and “be converted in a better manner.”31 To Maldonado, those who desire Jesus from the depths of their depravity and their total indebtedness to God bring forth greater spiritual fruits.32

Interpreting the works of Euthymius (377-473), Maldonado also sees further hope in a non-predestinarian exegesis of v. 12. Euthymius does not take the “they” in “lest they should turn” in v. 12 to refer to those Jesus teaches in parables. He instead takes it to refer to those who “seeing […] do not perceive” and “hearing […] do not understand.” Jesus is referring to those who have seen and freely chosen blindness. People who chose to reject Jesus’ teaching. Like David in Ps. 35:4, Jesus wishes those who “devise evil against” him to be “turned back, and brought to confusion.”0

Mark 4:12 is an intertextual reference to Isaiah 6:9-10. In the Hebrew, Isaiah 6:9, “go, and say unto this people” and v.10 “make the heart of this people fat” (GEN) use the imperative as a command to Isaiah to hinder understanding. The Septuagint and Mark’s rendition of the same verses use the perfect tense. For Maldonado, this agreement in tense between the Greek translations of Scripture shows that God “knew that they were so blinded that even if they did hear they would not understand.”33 God does not will, and the prophet Isaiah does not pray, that the people will be blinded; the people were already blind. In Isaiah 6:10 and Mark 4:12, God is simply giving the reason for the people not being able to understand; “they were blind.”34

Of the various layers of understanding about Jesus’ use of parables found in Mark 4:10-12, Maldonado sees no reasonable way to interpret it as Jesus desiring that anyone should not be converted and have his or her sins forgiven. Following the principle of allowing more clear passages of scripture to interpret less clear passages, Maldonado sees a clear scriptural case for God desiring all people to be saved.35 “God wills all men to be saved, and no man to perish; that He wills not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may be converted and live; that the death of the wicked is not of His will; and other sayings of the same kind, almost without number, of which Scripture is full.”36

Maldonado shows in his work on Mark 4:10-12 that the predestinarian reading favored by Calvin is not the clearest interpretation of the pericope. Rather than teaching predestinarian doctrines, Mark portrays a Jesus teaching his followers that desire for understanding the μυστήριον τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ will lead to answers. Jesus speaks in parables to punish those unwilling to listen while also peaking the interest of those who want to know a secret. Those outside of Jesus’ circle are outside by their own volition. For his part, Jesus continues to hold the door open inviting all in who will knock.

The Gospel of Mark prompts the reader to ask questions and leaves open mysteries whenever it can. For an argument that relies on Mark, Calvin’s interpretation closes too many possibilities. Maldonado’s interpretation is layered, like Mark’s gospel, and fits the sensus plenior of Scripture. Like Mark, Maldonado drives the reader to question her or his own desire to understand Jesus’ μυστήριον. Maldonado’s interpretation of Jesus’s use of parables in Mark 4:10-12 leads one to question whether he or she is in Jesus’ circle, or among those outside. It drives readers to ask if they do not perceive what they should see clearly. Deference to the predestinarian interpretations championed by Calvin has too long stagnated the exegetical possibilities for Mark 4:10-12. It is time to reevaluate Calvin and listen to the Counter-Reformation voice of Juan Maldonado.


Bibliography

Althamer, Andreas. Diallage, Das Ist Vereynigung Der Streytigen Sprüch Der Schrifft, Welche Im Esten Anplick, Scheynen Wider Einander Zesein. Nuremberg, 1528.

———. Dialloge Hoc Est, Conciliatio Locorum Scripturae, Qui Prima Facie Inter Se Pugnare Videntur. Nuremberg, 1527.

Beeke, Joel R. Debated Issues in Sovereign Predestination: Early Lutheran Predestination, Calvinian Reprobation, and Variations in Genevan Lapsarianism. Reformed Historical Theology, Volume 42. Göttingen Bristol, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017.

Boettner, Loraine. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1965.

Brown, Robert K, Philip Wesley Comfort, J. D Douglas, and United Bible Societies. The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament: A New Interlinear Translation of the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies’ Fourth, Corrected Edition with the New Revised Standard Version, New Testament. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993.

Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter’s Bible: New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark. Vol. 7. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951.

Calvin, Jean. A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Vol. 3. Calvin’s Commentaries. Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1972.

———. Tholuck, A., ed. In Novum Testamentum commentarii: ad editionem Amstelodamensem. Vol. 2. Berolini: Apud Guilelmum Thome, 1838.

Earle, Ralph, A. Elwood Sanner, and Charles L. Childers, eds. Beacon Bible Commentary. Volume VI, Matthew through Luke. Beacon Bible Commentary ; v. 6. Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1966.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

Jeffrey, David L. Luke. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012.

Keck, Leander E, ed. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015.

Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God : The Wittenberg School and Its Scripture-Centered Proclamation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Maldonatus, John. A Commentary on the Holy Gospels. Translated by Geroge J. Davie. Vol. S. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapters I to XIV. London: The Aberdeen University Press, 1888.

Maldonado, J. Ioannis Maldonati Commentarii in Quatuor Evangelistas. Cardon, 1615.

Oden, Thomas C., and Christopher A. Hall, eds. Mark. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 2. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Räisänen, Heikki. The “Messianic Secret” in Mark. Studies of the New Testament and Its World. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990.

Reumann, John. Jesus in the Church’s Gospels; Modern Scholarship and the Earliest Sources. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968.

Wesley, John. Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. 5th ed. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. London: Printed for the Author: and Sold at the New-Chapel, 1788.


  1. The Textus Receptus is the source of all Greek New Testament citations in this essay. The Latin text follows the Vulgate tradition. Both the Greek and Latin are taken from Erasmus’ 1519 Novum Testmentum. English scripture citations are my own translation unless otherwise marked. Scriptures marked GEN are taken from the Geneva translation sourced from the same Greek and Latin texts used by Calvin and Maldonado. [return]
  2. Debated Issues, 158. [return]
  3. A Harmony of the Gospels, 64. [return]
  4. Ibid., 64. [return]
  5. Ibid., 64 & 66. [return]
  6. Ibid., 67. [return]
  7. Ibid., 67. [return]
  8. Diallage, XXI. [return]
  9. Novum Testamentum Commentarii, 8. [return]
  10. A Harmony of the Gospels, 67., Diallage, XXI. [return]
  11. A Harmony of the Gospels, 67. [return]
  12. Ibid., 67. [return]
  13. Ibid., 68. [return]
  14. Ibid., 66 & 68. [return]
  15. Ibid., 68. [return]
  16. Commentary on the Holy Gospels, v-viii. [return]
  17. Commentarii, 280., Commentary on the Holy Gospels, 422-423. [return]
  18. Commentarii, 281., Commentary on the Holy Gospels, 423. [return]
  19. Commentary on the Holy Gospels, 422-423. [return]
  20. Commentarii, 280. [return]
  21. Commentary on the Holy Gospels, 423. [return]
  22. Ibid., 423. [return]
  23. Commentarii, 282., Commentary on the Holy Gospels, 425. [return]
  24. Commentary on the Holy Gospels, 426. [return]
  25. Homily 46 on Matthew, specifically. [return]
  26. Ibid., 426. [return]
  27. Ibid., 426. [return]
  28. Ibid., 426. [return]
  29. Homily 46 on Matthew, specifically. [return]
  30. Commentary on the Holy Gospels, 426. [return]
  31. Ibid., 426. [return]
  32. Ibid., 427. [return]
  33. Ibid., 428. [return]
  34. Ibid., 429. [return]
  35. Ibid., 427. [return]
  36. Ibid., 427. [return]