Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism. Edited by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010. 306 + xiv pages. Softcover, $24.99.
Into the increasingly heated controversy among Baptists and evangelicals over predestination step eleven noted Southern Baptist scholars decidedly on the side of free will against unconditional predestination. The background is, of course, the debate over Calvinism and Arminianism spawned by the rise of what author Collin Hansen calls the “young, restless, Reformed” movement of mostly young evangelicals. (See Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists [Crossway, 2008].) Only someone living on a mountaintop knows nothing of this controversy. Even Time weighed in, naming “Calvinism” one of the top ten ideas changing the world “right now” (Time, 12 March 2009).
Like the greater evangelical world, the Southern Baptist world has been rocked by the rise of this new, aggressive form of Calvinism with which not all Reformed Christians are pleased. (See J. Todd Billings, “Calvin’s comeback? The Irresistible Reformer,” Christian Century, 1 December 2009.) Some evangelical and Baptist pastors and theologians are declaring five point Calvinism simply a transcript of the gospel itself and implying, if not outrightly saying, that anyone who rejects it is dishonoring God and the gospel.
This new Calvinist movement, led largely by Baptists such as John Piper and Al Mohler and by non-Baptist evangelicals such as R.C. Sproul and Michael Horton, begs a response, but responding negatively can come at a price. Many Baptist and evangelical leaders are increasingly regarding it as a revival of authentic Christianity that alone glorifies God to the highest degree. Many thousands of Christian young people flock to youth conferences organized by Piper fan Louie Giglio to hear the famed writer and speaker from Minnesota. Opposing this message is often construed as opposing a work of God.
Editors David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke and their collection of anti-Calvinist authors boldly step where few have dared to step in recent years. They take on this new, aggressive Calvinism, which is really just a new version of something very old. It stems from the theological writings of reformer John Calvin and his followers in the sixteenth century. Allen and Lemke brought together eleven essays by distinguished Baptist scholars. Each essay irenically critiques some aspect of Calvinism. These editors and authors are not out to harm anyone’s reputation or career; they take aim simply at ideas—not persons.
The first essay is a sermon on John 3:16 by Jerry Vines. (Many of the essays are versions of papers delivered at a 2008 conference of Southern Baptists entitled “The John 3:16 Conference.") There the author rehearses the history of Calvinism and the contemporary dispute over it and defends diversity about subjects such as predestination and free will in Southern Baptist life. As a classical Arminian I was stunned to read him saying of the conference and book that “none of the authors in this project is Arminian or a defender of Arminianism” (5). I was stunned because I read much of the book before going back and reading Vines’ sermon that introduces it. In fact, as I will discuss more later, all of the authors are Arminians in the classical sense. I don’t know why Vines and they run from the label. Perhaps because it has been so hijacked and misrepresented by Calvinists? But they don’t seem to be afraid of Calvinists. So, why so much distance from Arminianism? I can only assume it is because Vines, and perhaps some of the other authors, have bought into the pejorative polemics against Arminianism by its Calvinist enemies.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in Richard Land’s otherwise excellent essay entitled “Congruent Election.” There he writes about the “Sandy Creek Southern Baptist” tradition, in which he was raised, that emphasized evangelism, free human responsiveness to grace as well as God’s sovereignty. According to him “This theology, neither Calvinist nor Arminian, was part of the air I breathed, the water I drank, and the food I ate as my soul and spirit were fed and nurtured in our Southern Baptist Zion.” (“Zion?” Does this betray an unconscious over-identification of a human organization with God’s own kingdom?) Later, Land says of this theology, which he labels “congruent election”: “It rejects the woeful under-estimation by some Arminians of the ravaging effects of the sinful nature on the human ability to respond to God apart from prevenient, enabling grace” (59).
Who is Land talking about? Which Arminians are guilty of this? If anyone woefully under-estimates the ravaging effects of the sinful nature on the human ability to respond to God he or she is not really, authentically Arminian. From Arminius to Wesley to Watson, to Pope to Miley, to Wiley to Oden, every classical Arminian has whole heartedly affirmed the total inability of the sinner even to initiate a good will toward God apart from supernatural, regenerating, but resistible, prevenient grace. (See my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities [IVP, 2006], chapter 6, which discusses classical Arminianism’s view of total depravity.) My own suspicion is that these authors, like most non-Calvinist Southern Baptists, avoid the label “Arminian” because it is so widely associated with belief in apostasy—that is, denial of the eternal security of the believer. In fact, however, that is not an essential doctrine of Arminianism. My view is that most Baptists in the world are Arminians who believe in eternal security. That is not an oxymoron. Arminius himself never denied the doctrine of inamissible grace.
Land’s chapter is entitled “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from an 'Eternal Now' Perspective.” There he argues that the solution to the dilemma of election and free will is the idea of God’s timelessness or existence in an “eternal now” in which all times are simultaneously before his eyes. Of course, this is nothing new. It was taught by Augustine in the fifth century, Boethius in the sixth century and, ironically, by Arminius in the seventeenth century. That’s right. Jacob Arminius held exactly the view of election advocated by Land. When Arminius spoke about God’s “foreknowledge,” he meant God’s eternal knowledge. It is only “fore-knowledge” from our human perspective within time.
Of course, Calvinists and open theists—who share this criticism of Arminius’ and Land’s view of God, time and free will—will simply ask how creatures such as humans can have genuine, libertarian free will if what they are going to do is always already known by God. Also, how can creatures’ prayers affect God if all times are simultaneous to God? Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff raises some very serious biblical and logical objections to this Eternal Now view of God and time in his groundbreaking essay, “God Everlasting,” in God and the Good (Eerdmans, 1975).
David Allen’s essay on “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” constitutes a devastating scholarly critique of the five-point Calvinist doctrine of particular atonement. He demonstrates conclusively that it is not a view universally held by all Calvinists and that it was unheard of before the heretical monk Gottschalk in the ninth century. As he shows, many notable Calvinists have not believed in it (67). Much of Allen’s chapter refutes Puritan divine John Owen’s famous “triple choice” argument against universal atonement. Owen charged that anyone who believes Christ died for all people must believe in universal salvation since a person cannot justly be punished for the same sin twice. If Christ died for all of all people’s sins, then the sin of unbelief is included. Therefore, Owen argued, nobody can be punished for unbelief. Allen competently refutes this claim, commonly heard from leaders and rank and file of the young, restless, Reformed movement. For one thing, he points out, even Calvin did not think the cross of Christ itself actually accomplished the salvation of the elect; rather, it secured it. The benefits of the cross must be applied to the elect person through regeneration and conversion. Secondly, that application to the person of the benefits of Christ’s death is conditional.
Third (a point Allen might have put to better use), punishment in hell is not for unbelief per se, but for rejecting the grace of God. The situation is the same as an amnesty that is rejected by a guilty person. He or she suffers exile (as in the case of the pardoned Vietnam War resisters who fled to Canada and were given unconditional amnesty by Jimmy Carter) unnecessarily. But he or she suffers exile nonetheless. Allen ends his chapter with a survey of seven “practical considerations” regarding the extent of the atonement. The first one is “Without belief in the universal saving will of God and a universal extent of Christ’s sin-bearing, there can be no well-meant offer of the salvation from God to the non-elect” (95). This is quite right and a major strike against limited atonement among evangelicals. Only hyper-Calvinists can escape its logic by refusing to engage in indiscriminate evangelism.
Steve Lemke’s essay is “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace.” Again, as with Allen, Lemke demolishes the Calvinist doctrine with biblical exegesis and sound reasoning. For example, in Matthew 23 and Luke 13 Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s unbelief. Lemke rightly notes that, if Calvinism is true, “Jesus’ lament would have been over God’s hardness of heart” (120). After all, according to Calvinism, God foreordained and rendered certain Jerusalem’s rejection of its Messiah. If God’s grace is irresistible, then it was not offered to the people of Jerusalem. Had it been, they could not have resisted it.
Lemke’s fourth point is most crucial. This doctrine, like the entire Calvinist system, raises serious questions about the character of God and particularly about the problem of evil. It requires two contradictory wills in God—secret and revealed. If Calvinism is true, Lemke rightly points out, then sin and evil are the will of God making God morally ambiguous at best. Lemke’s concluding point states the underlying argument of the book—as well as of Arminianism in general—very well: “Although God has the right and ability to do whatever He wants whenever He wants, God does not normally choose to express His sovereignty in that way. God evidently sees servanthood and allowing the free choices of His creatures as more generous than the arbitrary exertion of power and authority” (161).
Kevin Kennedy’s chapter, “Was Calvin a ‘Calvinist’? John Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement,” absolutely proves that Calvin himself did not believe in the later Calvinist doctrine of particular redemption. He marshals numerous statements by Calvin that cannot be explained any other way. These he calls “unqualified universal statements” and they are conclusive (196ff.) Kennedy does not ignore the one passage in Calvin’s commentary on 1 John 2:2 that seems to affirm limited atonement; he satisfactorily explains it as not affirming that.
The book’s penultimate chapter is “Reflections on Determinism and Human Freedom” by philosopher of religion Jeremy A. Evans. It is perhaps the most erudite and abstruse essay in the book. Lay people and many pastors will have great trouble following its subtle subject and argumentation. Some familiarity with concepts such as “compatibilism” will be helpful, but Evans does a good job of explaining everything. An untutored reader just needs to read it slowly and absorb the argument in all its steps.
Evans rightly points out that Calvinism is a form of determinism. And yet, most Calvinists (unlike Calvin himself) claim to believe in free will. The “free will” they believe in, however, is compatibilist free will—compatible with determinism. According to compatibilism, a person is “free” insofar as he or she does what he or she wants to do even if he or she could not do otherwise. This is hardly a common sense view of “free will,” but it is accepted by many philosophers who are deterministic in their worldview and by Calvinists. According to Evans, compatibilism, as part of determinism, cannot ground personal responsibility. “Where there is no contribution [of the person], there is no moral responsibility” (262). I would add: where there is no ability to do otherwise there is no moral responsibility. Evans very astutely asks the Calvinist about the ultimate cause of a person’s choices and actions. For the compatibilist it cannot be the person himself or herself. Evans notes, “personal responsibililty (UR) resides where the ultimate cause is” (263). And, for the determinist, that ultimate cause has to be God. This is why Arminius argued in his Declaration of Sentiments that for high Calvinism God is the only sinner.
Evans makes a hardly novel but nevertheless devastating attack on Calvinism’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty in light of the problem of evil. He astutely argues that if Calvinism is right, this has to be the best of all possible worlds. Why would an all-good, all-powerful God create anything less than the best possible world if he is going to control it? Within a theistic worldview, the only way to avoid making this world the best possible one is to inject libertarian free will—ability to do otherwise than God wants—into the equation. (And for all Arminians, anyway, that is an act of God’s voluntary self-limitation and not something imposed on God.) Evans drives his point home: “Anyone who wants to grant God the type of sovereignty proposed by strong Calvinism . . . yet wants to say that the world is not as it should be (sin) is under a particular burden to explain how they can make these claims in conjunction with one another” (267). What is especially interesting about Evans’ chapter is that he admits he was once of the Reformed persuasion. This ex-Calvinist looked at all the problems of Calvinism, such as the one he discusses in this chapter, and “grew to consider libertarianism as the view with the least pressing problems” (274). (Again, what he means is Arminianism. These authors frequently come up with synonyms for Arminianism, seemingly just to avoid having that label put on them.)
The final chapter is “Evil and God’s Sovereignty” by Bruce A. Little. The author pulls no punches in dealing with internal inconsistencies in Calvinism’s account of God and evil. First, he describes a horrendous instance of child suffering (278–79). Then, he turns to popular Calvinist speaker and author John Piper, who frequently says that God ordains it all, without exception. According to Piper, Little rightly says, “God ordains the evil He commands humans to refrain from doing” (279). Piper asks, why does God ordain evil? The response he provides is, for God's glory. But, Little rightly points out, if evil glorifies God, why fight against it?
Little’s chapter is a good ending to this fine book. It brings the whole argument “home.” It is all about God’s character and very little about human freedom. For Arminians—and those non-Calvinists who don’t want to be called Arminians—the latter is only important insofar as it is necessary to protect God’s character and preserve human responsibility. Arminius himself made that abundantly clear in all of his writings. Contrary to what many Calvinists say, Arminius and his followers (and these authors) were and are not “in love with free will.” They are in love with God’s goodness and unwilling to sacrifice that on the altar of divine determinism.
One point I would add to Little’s argument is this. One Calvinist author, speaking not for himself only, has accused open theism (and, I judge, by extension all theologies of free will) of diminishing God’s glory. The God of open theism, he writes, is a “god of lesser glory.” Well, the problem is this: Such a claim from a Calvinist is incoherent. If all things are foreordained and rendered certain by God for his glory (as the author in question affirms) then even heresies glorify God. Everything glorifies God. Nothing can diminish God’s glory because all is pre-determined to be for God’s glory. What sense does it make, then, to talk about anything diminishing or detracting from God’s glory? It is self-referentially absurd.
The only major weakness of Whosoever Will is a weakness shared by all multi-author works. The editors have obviously striven mightily to make it as seamless as possible. However, no book authored by eleven people can fail to jar the reader’s senses as he or she moves through it. Writing styles differ. Levels of difficulty differ. What the Baptist and evangelical communities need is a single author work that brings all of this material together simply and forcefully. In the meantime, until that work is published, Whosoever Will stands as the scholarly argument against Calvinism by evangelical authors.
See also B&H Academic’s description.
Roger E. Olson
Editor’s Notes: Roger E. Olson’s critical response to Calvinism will be published in monograph form in 2011 through Zondervan. The authors of Whosoever Will would not describe themselves as “anti-Calvinists.” For a response to Dr. Olson's review by contributors to "Whosoever Will," see this White Paper.