Category Archives: Church History

Making Sense of Religious Liberty

Jackson Watts

Recently a friend of mine at the Helwys Society Forum, a site I also contribute to, called attention to Robert Louis Wilken’s book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. I had somehow overlooked this title, though I had admired Wilken’s work for years. He is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. My first encounter with Wilken’s work was reading his book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them over ten years ago. I was riveted by his description of early Christian practices and teaching and how Roman civil authorities perceived this strange new cult.

Then about five years ago while I was studying at Concordia Seminary, Wilken came to lecture on the church fathers. Even in his 80s, he was clear and compelling. I should also add that he was personally warm. What drew me to this more recent book was the subject: religious freedom. We are living at a time when increasingly in the West earlier assumptions about the value and necessity of liberty of conscience aren’t fully recognized, or only for a scarce few. Even now at least four cases that somehow relate to this subject are being argued, or have been recently argued, before the U.S. Supreme Court. This issue is not going away, and will only intensify in the coming years.

Though Wilken’s argument is more limited in scope, I think it complements the overall project of articulating an understanding of freedom of conscience that benefits all people, not just Christians. I want to briefly summarize Wilken’s argument, then make some observations that relate this to our present challenges in the area of religious freedom.

A Common Misconception Exposed

Among historians there has been a tendency to see religious freedom as the product of Enlightenment thought. The argument goes something like this: During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bloody religious wars were all too common. As the Enlightenment emerged, philosophers and other intellectuals saw the need for civil society to move past this needless and unfortunate bloodshed. In that unique context the need and case for religious liberty emerged. Increasingly people were free to practice their own religion, and form their own confessional communities without oppression or restriction by the state.

Here’s where Wilken (and other scholars) help debunk this misconception. He ably shows that the origins of religious freedom didn’t begin with Enlightenment philosophers, John Locke, or the founding fathers. Instead, he shows that as early as Tertullian (3rd century A.D.), Christian theologians saw in Scripture a basis for religious freedom. As Wilken puts it, “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force (1). Or to put it in Tertullian’s words:

It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not  coercion that we should be led to religion (from Ad Scapula).

Wilken then develops his argument by showing how Lactantius and Gregory the Great joined Tertullian in providing a fairly early Christian perspective about religious liberty. Now I should add that this argument wasn’t fully developed, and certainly its application was not widespread. However, it refutes the argument that Enlightenment thinkers came up with the idea over a thousand years later.

Throughout the next several chapters Wilken walks the reader through Christian history, showing unique developments in which these early Christian ideas were received, appropriated, repackaged, and unfortunately, sometimes ignored. One interesting feature of the book is Wilken’s attention to Reformation era developments in several European countries, and how the case for religious liberty was made and often unevenly applied.

This latter point is really crucial. Jesus warns us about the problem of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy hinders people from seeing and receiving the truth. While living out of the faith inconsistently doesn’t logically discount the truthfulness of the faith, Scripture is clear that people see Jesus through seeing His people (John’s Gospel and first epistle really hammer home this point). So perhaps one reason why it is so easy for modern people to believe that religious liberty is not a cherished, ancient notion is because religious people themselves have at times been inconsistent in its application.

A Free Will Baptist Contribution

A book that deals with this subject couldn’t avoid the contribution of Thomas Helwys. Wilken devotes significant attention (for a relatively short book) to Helwys’ articulation of religious freedom. As an aside, my colleagues at the Helwys Society Forum have done this also, and we continue to marvel at the non-Free Will Baptists who are interested in Helwys who contact us about what we’re doing. But even Wilken sees Helwys as a major figure in this story. He quotes the famous line from Helwys that gets to the nub of the matter: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever. It appears not to earthly power to punish them in the least measure” (180). For an early English General Baptist to be the one making this case is something for modern Free Will Baptist to be proud of. But we should just as quickly feel surprise, for another inconsistency in the story of religious liberty is the fact that Christian thinkers were not always quick to acknowledge the need for full freedom for other groups to practice their faith. Helwys throws the doors wide open to Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jew.

Tensions that Linger

I have alluded now a few times to the circuitous path it took for religious liberty to be widely observed. Part of this is due to some tensions that not only existed in earlier times and places, but ones that are still with us today. I’m going to highlight just two of the issues we still need to wrestle with and learn to articulate with clarity.

Coercion or Persuasion?

When we read about some earlier Christians discussing religious toleration (more limited) versus religious freedom (more expansive), one issue they were concerned with is how to persuade people to adopt the Christian faith—and their specific confession—while not coercing it. Again, if one accepts the premise that religious faith is a matter of the heart or individual conscience, then it cannot be coerced by some kind of external force. This external force could be threat of death, or something less severe like threat to civil well-being. Naturally believers who want to be evangelistic see persuasion as a legitimate Christian activity. The apostolic pattern certainly bears this out. But when does persuasion slip into coercion? When does an attractive argument become an inducement? Wilken’s book gives a few examples of this problem being worked out in a few circumstances, but we still have to think about it today.

It is possible to preach and evangelize in such a way that we give the impression that people should adopt Christianity if they intend to be loved or valued by us. Yet there is a distinction we have to make. We are called to love and respect the worth of all people, regardless of whether they come to Christ or not. There is indeed a special love, care, and commitment that believers share in the body of Christ that unbelievers are, by definition, excluded from. But I think we have to try to communicate this wisely so that we can be sure to seek to persuade people, while not coercing them. We may not wield a sword, but it’s possible that we would try to win people to Jesus using extraordinary means that win them to our means, or the external benefits of what we preach, and not to Christ himself.

There are other examples of this problem. In an earlier generation belonging to a church (and “espousing a religion”) helped build one’s social profile, especially if you were going to run for a local political office in certain communities. And though this trend has increasingly disappeared, it still points to the problem of believing without truly believing.

Private Belief or Public Practice?

Perhaps the part of Wilken’s book that I found most compelling is the problem of how we define religion. At times some Christians saw religion as merely, or at least predominantly, private belief. Obviously they did not see their own faith that way, but they were often tempted to limit it to private belief when it came to what would be allowed of others. Naturally you cannot compel someone to truly believe something in their heart. However, when it came to public expressions of that belief, those in power often differed on what would be accepted.

At the same time, many in favor of religious freedom for others recognized that this was inconsistent. Religion pertains not only to individual, private beliefs, but the expression of those beliefs, in practice, with other believers. This means there is always a public dimension of true faith. This was of course unsettling at times for civil leaders who thought that preserving order in their particular realm required conformity in matters of external religious observances. It’s like saying, “What you want to do and believe in the privacy of your own home is fine, but the moment you step outside, gather with other likeminded individuals, or stop supporting the existing religious order, then you’ve crossed the line.” Liberty ended at the threshold of one’s home.

This sounds all too similar to our contemporary situation in America. Christians are increasingly told that if they want to enter the marketplace they have to discard all of their religious and theological convictions, regardless of how sincerely held they are, how inherent they are to historic Christianity, or how supported they are by the First Amendment. If they try to bring their beliefs to bear on, say, how they create art, provide adoption services, or operate a college, they must conform to the established secular orthodoxies of the moment (I say “moment” because it is literally a moving target depending on which regulatory agency is writing memos that day, or if the Twitter mobs notice).

It’s all too easy to see how this current situation doesn’t just violate the plain sense of the First Amendment, but also the very ancient understandings of religion that some of the most powerful minds in history have articulated, such as St. Paul, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, John Wycliffe, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recent brethren like Robert P. George and Russell Moore. We can do better. Christians need to do their best to appeal to persons of good faith to show them why every citizen has a stake in freedom of religion and conscience. Wilken’s book and argument are just what the doctor ordered in helping to equip us for that enterprise.

 

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 2

Kevin Hester

(Part 1 of this two-part article appeared last Tuesday).

In my last post (or part 1) we examined the philosophical background of the early church that influenced the way in which they examined biblical references to creation. Their responses to Atomism (Naturalism) and Neo-platonism demonstrated how they presented Christian truth from a biblical framework. Though it may not have fit in with the predominant worldviews of the day, we saw that the early Fathers were ever insistent that a good God actively created a good world from nothing, and endowed that world with His purpose and design. This week, we will continue our study by looking more closely at how creation was understood in early Christian creeds and the Fathers’ exegesis of the biblical creation accounts. We will see how closely aligned were the stories of creation and redemption.

Early Christian Creeds

The development of the early Christian creeds did not focus specifically on aspects of creation. However their Trinitarian formulation and reification of the early kerygma do provide an important opportunity for them to engage their culture with truth about God and his relationship with the world.

God is often described as Father. The early Christian authors primarily refer this title to God’s relationship with his only-begotten Son. At the same time, there is a consistent undercurrent of discussion among several fathers of the way that God as the agent of creation is symbolically the “Father” of all that exists. This implies God’s ultimate responsibility as the author of creation and the one who sustains it by his word. In fact, this concept of the Word’s presence in both the creation narrative and in the first chapter of John’s gospel link the role of God as Father and the work of creation in a Trinitarian foundation.

In addition, God is referred to as pantokrator (Almighty). Some believe this is just a basic Greek translation of the concept of El Shaddai or God Almighty from the Hebrew text. While this may be partially true, there is more to it than that. Literally, pantokrator speaks to being lord and ruler of all things. Early on in the Eastern church’s tradition it was a reference to monotheism and God’s existence as the one who rules over all things. They consistently argued in their teaching that God’s rule is based in God’s creation. Because He created the world and is responsible for its continued existence, God has the right to do with it what He wills and to command what He wills.

A later addition to the creedal tradition was incorporated in the Western church and found its way into what we call the Apostle’s Creed. It is the phrase “maker of Heaven and Earth.” J.N.D. Kelly, the foremost authority on the creeds, asserts that this addition was actually a restatement of earlier tradition owing to the shift in the west to Latin and the term “Almighty” moving from pantokrator in the Greek to omnipotens in Latin. While the Latin phrase speaks to God’s capacity for creation, it did not have the same connotation. Therefore, the Western church added this phrase as its common confession that all that exists comes from God as an act of conscious and purposeful (indeed gracious) creation.

The word creatorum (maker) here is also important. It indicates that God “started fresh” in creation (de novo). Other phrases like fundamentum (established) were rejected for a term that indicates that all that God did was new and did not make use of pre-existent matter or some aspect of Godself. The term that was most often used in the Eastern church (teknites) was often used to describe a master craftsman or an artificer. This was specifically used over and against gnostic and platonic ideas to demonstrate God’s active and intentional participation in the creative act.

Understanding of Genesis and the Creation Account

Thus, these creedal formularies capture both in language and doctrine, the formulaic expression of the Christian church seeking to explain God’s work in creation as presented in the biblical text. Over and over again they asserted the following:

  1. God actively created the world from nothing
  2. God is the source of all things and the source for all order and purpose in creation.
  3. God’s redemptive purposes include all aspects of God’s good creation now tainted by sin.

When the early church turned to the actual description of creation in Genesis 1, we see aspects of the culture and these clear teachings often in tension. This tension resulted from different ways of reading the text. Much of their work on the texts was written as an apologetic against the common worldviews of their day. As such, they do not directly answer some of the questions we often ask given the apologetic needs or interests of our day. However, that does not mean that they are silent. There are several things that are worthy to note.

The Days of Genesis

There were two basic methods of exegesis of the Biblical text that were predominant during this time. There was a literal or Antiochene tradition of interpretation and the Alexandrian or allegorical method of interpreting scripture. The Cappadocian fathers, including Basil and other early patristic fathers, seem to understand the “days” of creation as literal days providing a literal description of the mode of God’s creative purposes. While Basil recognizes two creations (a spiritual and a material), it is clear that what he has in view is the creation of the immaterial world (angels, etc.) apart from the material world. His discussion in a number of different homilies on the days of creation clearly shows that time was created with the creation of matter and the world, through the Son.

There were some who viewed the days of Genesis as allegorical in nature, and not representative of God’s actual means (or timing) of creation. Origen is perhaps the best example of this. Origen builds upon Philo Iudaeus’ means of interpreting the Torah after the fashion of Neoplatonic philosophy. Of important note in this regard are the teachings of Augustine. Augustine was sympathetic to this reading. He had for a time been an adherent of Manicheism and parroted its mockery of God’s active engagement with the world and Scripture’s use of anthropomorphisms. Following his conversion, he was hesitant to affirm the days of Genesis as an actual description of God’s work. Instead, he argued that God created all things that existed instantaneously and that Scripture’s purpose in relating creation in days was to describe order and give humanity a pattern of existence.

However, in most instances and with the majority of authors, the days were viewed as literal days of creation. Most commentators were quick to say that it wasn’t as if God needed six days to create, but that he did so as a means of accommodation to humanity.

Length of the Days

There was much greater consistency however in the description of the length of the days. When the days were understood to be literal days they were often described as “evening and morning” as represented in the Biblical text and identified with Jesus’ days/nights in the tomb. While there was often an allegorical or eschatological reading of the days as a description of the ages of creation and the world (identified with Daniel), these eschatological descriptions are all ultimately about the spiritual meaning of the text as distinct from the literal meaning and nothing can be made of them to work the “age” concept back into the creation narrative itself. In fact, even for those who make this connection and for those who are hesitant to embrace the literal understanding of the days, their emphasis is upon an immediate or instantaneous creation.

Ex Nihilo

For all Augustine’s reticence to commit to God’s creation in six literal days, he establishes and furthers the early church’s argument that God creates ex nihilo. God’s creation was a new or “de novo” creation that was identified with the creation of time and this world. God did not make use of pre-existent matter because there was nothing beyond or besides God. This world was tied to God’s purposes in establishing his glory and offering His grace. God alone is the responsible agent for all that exists and His omnipotent character meant that He did not need anything else in order to accomplish His work of creation.

Linear Time and Purpose

Something also deserves to be said about the fact that time is created when God created the world. This concept of time outside of God’s nature, is what allows for development and purpose. The Christian church upended the typical view of time as cyclical in the Greco-Roman world and argued that time should be understood as linear. It had a beginning and would ultimately have an end in God. All that was, and is, lies fully under his superintendence and sovereign, purposeful care.

Conclusion

The early church rightly understood that the question of where the world came from was foundational for building a biblical worldview. It is no different today. Errors in cosmogony lead to catastrophic missteps in understanding God, the world, human existence and purpose, and morality. As such, the early church began with Scripture and with God. So should we.

Scripture clearly presents that God Almighty purposefully created the world and continues to superintend His will upon it. God’s creation of the world ex nihilo means that God is the only self-existent being and that all else owes its existence to Him.

In this world, He placed a human couple with whom he desired a relationship. They would serve as His vice-regents to continue to impose the order He had established at creation. Human failure to rightly recognize this order brought sin that has infected all of God’s good creation. And yet, through the God-man Jesus and through the work of human persons redeemed by Him, God is working to renew and restore the goodness of all His creation.

This is the biblical worldview that fueled the early church’s efforts at evangelism and apologetics. While the questions with which the early church struggled were different from ours, the answers must ultimately be the same. While we struggle with the questions of our own age, let us do it in the same spirit and with the same goal of glorifying the Creator God and drawing fallen humanity to Him.

(This article was adapted from a presentation entitled,  “A Historical Christian View of Creation,” which was presented at the Polis Apologetics Conference in Goodlettsville, Tennessee on March 2-4, 2019)

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 1

Kevin Hester

Modern evangelicals regularly engage in robust discussions with naturalists and with Christians who promote other, non-literal interpretations of the Genesis account. Many conservative Christians often wonder how creation has been understood throughout Christian history. As a historical theologian who focuses upon the early church, I am often asked about the early church perspective on creation. Many Evangelicals are initially disappointed when I share with them the nature of early Christian views. Most church fathers don’t spend time discussing the literal historicity of the creation account because they simply assume it. Even Augustine, whose complex views on creation have become a recent battleground, demonstrates this essentially literal approach to Genesis when he dates the ages since the creation of man at 6,000 years (City of God, 12.11) and argues for a literal, world-wide flood (City of God, 15).

Still, when the early church fathers did discuss creation, they were answering different questions and responding to different apologetic needs. The questions they were answering tended to be more philosophical than scientific. That does not mean, however, that the early church has nothing to teach us on the topic. If we understand their context, they can show us a way forward by focusing upon the basic principles they developed of a good God actively creating a good world from nothing, and endowing that world with His purpose and design.

If you hope to turn to the early church fathers and their medieval counterparts for specific answers on modern debates related to evolution, the age of the earth, and the nature of the days of the creation narrative as expressed in Genesis, you will be disappointed. However, that is not to say that such perspectives should not or cannot be informed by the teachings and beliefs of the early church. What I will demonstrate is that the early church posited a purposeful, active creation of all that exists ex nihilo (from nothing). And that they developed this reading of the creation story in a context where the predominant views of the universe’s origin ranged from a disinterested passive creation on the one hand (Neo-platonism) and the eternality of matter working through blind causes on the other (Atomism). Further, we will note that Christianity introduces a concept of teleological purpose and systematic expression in creation that lays the foundation for all of modern science. It is because God is a God of order and He created this world for a purpose that science is even possible. Early theologians believed that reflection on the natural world could reveal truth that would lead humans ultimately to God.

The Philosophical Context of the First Century

There were two major views on the origin of the universe (cosmogony) in the ancient world. One of these was Atomism. Atomism is generally identified with Democritus (370 BC), Leucippus (370 BC), and the founder of hedonism, Epicurus (270 BC). Epicurus developed an ethical theory that defined the goal of life as contentment and he believed that fear of the gods prevented many from achieving this end. In order to relieve his hearers of concern related to the gods, he turned to Atomism which posited a purely materialistic perspective on the world. Atomism taught that matter was eternal and all that happened was the result of blind laws working in a cause and effect sequence. Ancient atomism thus shared similar sentiments with modern naturalism. Humans were simply part of a larger mechanism subject to various impersonal forces.

There was a significant revival of Epicurus’ hedonism and atomism in the Roman world just prior to the birth of Christianity in the writings of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (d. 55 BC). While some aspects of evolution were occasionally used to explain humanity and other aspects of the natural world, the primary driver of this system of thought was that this world was composed of eternal material elements, largely self-governed by laws of cause and effect, in an endless cycle of creation and growth, decline, death, and rebirth. The gods, if they existed at all, were simply higher forms of life that should cause no concern for us as we live our lives.

The other major cosmogony in the ancient Roman world was that of a disinterested, passive, and accidental creator God. As the Greco-Roman world moved away from earlier polytheism, they recognized a higher order than the physical world. The believed contra the atomists that reason and moral virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty though reflected in nature must come from a higher source. The best representative of this view is the Greek philosopher Plato (d. c. 350 BC). Plato believed that the physical world composed of matter, subject as it was to mutability and destruction, could only be explained by a greater and higher existence. He therefore asserted that there was a scale of ontological reality that moved from matter on its lowest extreme to rational ideas (forms), and ultimately the Good (God) which was the source of all other existence. For Plato the Good was the ultimate form of existence. This Good or God, was perfect existence having neither beginning nor end, pure actuality. This Good was so transcendent and its essence (ousia) so full that its very existence, its very contemplation of itself, naturally produced lesser existences like the forms, which then naturally and accidentally produced matter and the world.

These concepts would lead to a radical perspective on matter that would plague the church and contribute to a number of early Christian heresies. Plotinus (d. 270 AD), the Roman popularizer of these concepts, would further expand the ideas and add spiritual and mystical components to them dividing the categories into a descending hierarchy including the One, the Nous, the Soul, and matter.

Early Christian Descriptions of Creation

The early church came to understand and define the biblical references to creation against the backdrop of these predominant views. Much of their teaching worked to counteract particular tendencies from these worldviews that the church perceived as problematic.

Over against atomism, the Church taught that the source for the order and structure of creation was dependent upon God’s purposes. They asserted that Scripture taught that matter had a beginning in time and its regularity was part of a pattern established by God. In other words, because God is a rational being, all His works are rational and ordered. At the same time, they understood God’s care in the world to be pervasive. God was transcendent and beyond the material plane in which humanity resided, but from the beginning had purposefully interacted with His creation. God was interested in the world and was working to fulfill His purposes in it.

The early Christian response to the Platonists was somewhat different. Many early Christians adopted a number of platonic and neo-platonic perspectives. Plato and Plotinus had insisted on the existence of one ultimate divine being. Many Christians saw their focus on the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues as higher ideals as a different expression of Christian living. Platonism also underscored the Church’s beliefs about God’s ultimate transcendence, aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, and immutability. Many of the categories used by Plato to describe the Good were adopted or recognized as legitimate categories of ultimate ontology and embraced by the Church as appropriate descriptions of God consonant with the Biblical text.

There were, however, very important differences. Primary among them was the insistence that God was a personal God. God’s purposes in redemption mean that God cares and is intensely interested in the world. God engages in the world to sustain it and ultimately to redeem it. God’s activity and purpose were determined before creation and they describe God’s act of creation as purposeful and intended. Rather than Plato’s passive, accidental creation, the Christian church posited that God actively and purposefully created the world with a goal in mind. God desired a relationship with His creatures and is now working to restore a relationship broken by sin.

Another important distinction from platonic perspectives was the recognition that God’s creation was good. Matter, though it was ontologically less than God, was not evil (contra Gnosticism). In fact, God’s creation of matter and the world was a work of divine ennoblement over which God had pronounced His blessing. After creating the world and humanity God himself had declared it “very good.” In fact, even though the world had been impacted by sin, God’s purposes in redemption were not only spiritual but physical in nature. Paul had presented this concept in Romans 8 and the early church referenced the promised restoration of creation in eschatological terms. Ultimate salvation was not spiritual enlightenment in a heavenly realm, but eternal life in a renewed body on a renewed earth in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of all good things.

Part two of this article will appear next Tuesday.

 

Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently listening to some online sermons that were given at the Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference. All of the speakers were household names, and none more familiar than John Piper. Piper is now retired from active pastoral ministry after decades at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. However, he has continued what has been a prolific writing ministry, and he also speaks regularly at conferences.

I have benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry from afar. I was first exposed to his work when in 2004 I took the course Biblical Discipleship. His bestselling book Desiring God was one of the assigned texts. I did not agree with all that he said in the book then (and I’m sure I didn’t understand it all either!), but I remember thinking, “He is saying something really profound here for Christian spirituality.” Since that time I’ve read more of his work and heard probably two dozen of his sermons.

While I came of age theologically before the full burgeoning of the podcast/online sermon era, I was shaped by it. No doubt I have been influenced by giants like the MacArthurs, Kellers, Carsons, Devers, and Pipers. As best as I can tell, these men exude an authentic commitment to Christ, His church, and His Word. For that I am grateful.

Some Broader Concerns

Where my concerns have persisted is that the preponderance of those who are influencing younger evangelicals is almost always five-point Calvinists. Let me define here what I mean and don’t mean by “concerns.”

First, I do not mean that we should be surprised that so many popular conference speakers are of this theological persuasion. When we consider the books published annually and the authors’ theological commitments, Arminians need to be honest: our theological tradition, in its best version, is in the minority (by a lot!). We have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about the God-centered, Scripturally-based Arminianism that we espouse. We should not then be surprised that publishing trends correlate to how well known some are in evangelicalism.

Second, I do not mean that our principal goal in Christian ministry is to see how well known we can personally be because of our theological stances and speaking circuit credentials. How easy it is to be known first as Arminians or Calvinists, and not as sincere, Spirit-filled men and women of God. How easy it is for us to relish (by whom we admire) or reinforce (by whom we invite to speak) the speaking circuit idolatry that promotes the same handful of people over and over. We should repent of where the spirit of this present age has shaped us in this way.

I do, however, have two interrelated concerns: (1) Seeing that it is part of our goal to spread biblical Christianity as far as the curse is found, it is unfortunate that many theologically serious Christians have come to believe that Calvinism is the only live option in town; and (2) What has partly, but significantly fostered this belief is the massive platform that influential speakers have to promote this error. While Calvinism and its entailments is not a heresy in the historic sense of that word, the way it is taught often leads to confusion and can foster the belief that those who are believers but not Reformed—in the narrow way most Calvinists mean that word—have a deficient theology for life and ministry.

A Specific Concern

The broader concerns I have articulated here are exemplified in many places, but especially in some remarks Dr. Piper shared in his otherwise very good sermon at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He preached Mark 8:31-38, a quite familiar passage in which Jesus reveals his coming sufferings. Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes him for contradicting the plan of God. Piper spends several minutes (around the 19:00-24:00 minute mark) reflecting on the word “must” in verse 31. This deals with the necessity, in the plan of God, for the Son to die. Piper then observes how the sovereignty of God—defined as God controlling and determining everything in history and human existence—is integral to the Gospel itself.

Piper asserts that some people try to disconnect “the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering, the sinful rejection, [and] the wicked murder of Jesus.” Millions, he says, make a concerted effort to disconnect those two. Yet he is encouraged. He explains,

   “I’m saying that in the last 50 years millions of people around the world are seeing that that effort is futile, unbiblical, [and] undesirable. It is a rending of the precious fabric of the Gospel, because they see, over and over again, in Scripture the sovereignty of God  is the stitching that holds the Gospel together.”

Characteristically, Piper says a lot here. However, I’ll focus on two key points. First, Piper describes a changing evangelical landscape in which Calvinism has blossomed over the last half century. More believers have become convinced that God is sovereign in the sense that He controls (read decides) everything in human life, including who will or will not be saved. The second point is an extension of the first: this vision of God’s sovereignty is said to be not only an element of the Gospel, not just “how one comes to be in a state of grace,” but it is a theological essential that “holds the Gospel together.”

This assertion is not startling for those familiar with Piper’s work and like-minded Calvinists. Where it is somewhat attention-grabbing is that he is implicitly acknowledging the success of preachers, authors, and institutions in spreading the good news of Calvinism. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon, but has been happening for decades. Such Christians see God’s sovereignty, defined by the construct of determinism, as just as essential to the Gospel as grace or faith itself.

A Response

I offer two replies to Piper, first to his demographic claim, and second to the theological one.

First, I wonder which millions of believers around the world Piper has in mind. Thank God that the Gospel is reaching the nations! But much of the data reflects that this growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and South America, to name a few places. I wonder if Piper’s remark lands the same way there as it does to his conference listeners. Much of the growth is within Pentecostalism. No doubt some Pentecostal Christians are Calvinistic in their soteriology, but the vast majority of them are not. In fact, when we consider the expansion of many other traditions abroad such as Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, and Lutheranism, just to name a few, suddenly five-point Calvinism looks rather small. The all-too-familiar, North American, evangelical narrative about Calvinism’s massive expansion must be significantly revised, at least if we’re being honest with the data.

Moreover, many Christians abroad belong to communities where having a Bible in their own language is a rare and cherished fact. To hear the Gospel itself is an all-too-rare privilege. How plausible is it that a theological system as sophisticated as five-point Calvinism is on the radar of those millions in quite the same way that it is for young Americans who have the disposable income to buy books, download sermons on their Macs, and attend conferences? This is mainly a sociological query on my part, not a moral judgment.

Second, I wonder how many listeners to Piper’s sermon, whether in person or online, have taken the time to study the concept of sovereignty in Scripture or in Ancient Near Eastern thought. More specifically, how much thought have they given to the philosophical concept of determinism? Somehow I imagine that Dr. Picirilli’s excellent, thoughtful, and brief Free Will Revisited isn’t selling as well as Dr. Piper’s books. Now let’s ask ourselves: Why might it be the case that some questions aren’t asked, some topics aren’t pursued, or some books aren’t read, while others are? I fear that one evangelical sub-culture, partly embodied by the conference circuit context, is reinforcing people in existing perspectives without challenging them to take a hard look at their theological assumptions, or the theology of the church’s history.

As I have attended multiple seminaries, meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (national and regional), and interacted with assorted local church pastors in my community, the reactions are always interesting to the name “Free Will Baptist” or “Reformed/Classical Arminian.” I find that the most close-minded or hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot. They’ve rarely interacted with Christians in other regions or denominations. Crossway is the only publisher they’re familiar with. They tend not to know much about church history before 1517 (perhaps it began in 1517?).

On the other hand, people who are open to and even accepting of a vision of sovereignty in which God doesn’t meticulously determine everything (although He did purpose to send His Son! Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “I must do these things.”) didn’t go to a conference. They either simply (1) read the Bible as a believer in a straightforward way, or (2) when confronted with sovereignty, free will, and soteriology, they got interested in the topic and really sought to understand both sides of the discussion. Most Arminians I know who do not have a Free Will Baptist background like I do came to their beliefs through one of these two paths.

Some Concluding Reflections

I cannot or will not pretend to speak for all Arminians. However, having swam in these waters a while, I’ll offer a few concluding reflections on the vision of sovereignty that I believe Scripture presents us with, or is consistent with, and what it might look like to place that vision in dialogue with the one Piper has presented:

  • I do not think it is theologically careful or spiritually responsible to communicate: “You don’t get the Gospel if you don’t understand sovereignty this way.”[1] It’s no overstatement to say that Piper believes it is not only unbiblical to not see deterministic sovereignty as “the stitching that holds the Gospel together,” but people who do so are theologically reckless and spiritually impoverished.
  • For less charitable interpreters who would take this criticism of Piper further, let me be clear: Piper is not saying that non-Calvinists don’t believe the Gospel, and are therefore not saved. He does not go that far. He specifically says that many Christians try to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the Gospel. So in making this observation/criticism, he is at least acknowledging the actual existence of such believers. However, Piper leaves himself totally open to this other charge when he says, “There is no Gospel apart from the sovereignty of God, the all-controlling sovereignty of God.” If he means that the way he states it, then it would imply either (a) non-Calvinist Christians who believe the Gospel are ignorant of some of its central content, namely all-controlling sovereignty (At best they’re inconsistent); or (b) Non-Calvinists are in fact not saved since they, by definition, do not accept the precious stitching of the fabric of the Gospel. I believe Piper would claim option a.
  • Meticulously determining every aspect of human existence is but one construal of divine sovereignty. In other words, it is not the only way for God could exercise sovereign control over His creation. Here I think of people who, when they hear the word “authority,” only think of a hierarchy, even though hierarchy is but one way for authority to operate.
  • It is very difficult to adopt theological determinism without coming to terms with its philosophical entailments, and that would involve facing up to issues of free will and moral responsibility, and the problem of evil. Determinists do have some options on how to answer those, but I don’t believe many Calvinists have fully wrestled with those.
  • Some Calvinists would reply to the last assertion by saying “Biblical claims trump philosophical tensions or inconsistencies.” Of course, this reply ignores the 2,000-year relationship between philosophy and theology. It is a complicated, but important one. The best of the Christian tradition, in my view, has seen philosophy as not a Master of theology, but a handmaiden or servant to it. If philosophical terms and concepts have been widely used in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, why not learn from it when it comes to how foreknowledge, free will, and the future might relate?[2]
  • God could have designed the world in any way He desired, but we don’t expect that  world and the way humans act in it and respond to God to contradict the way He reveals His character and will in His Word. So Arminians like me agree with Terence Freithem: “The divine sovereignty in creation is understood, not in terms of absolute divine control [determining every detail], but as a sovereignty that gives [permits] power over to the created for the sake of a relationship of integrity.”[3] Our inability to even imagine such a kind of sovereignty reflects our impoverished theological imagination being shaped in modern evangelicalism. Our unwillingness to do so reflects a lack of attentiveness to the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Much remains to be said about this discussion, and I pray it will be an honest, fruitful, Christ-like dialogue. I remain thankful for the ministry of John Piper and many Calvinists like him. It speaks to the sovereign grace of God that He would allow ministries like these to flourish, and for Arminians like me to freely choose to learn from them. But in the end, a sovereign God can exercise comprehensive control over a realm without also meticulously forcing every state of affairs. God is aware, He permits, restricts, and can certainly carry out his purposes for his church in a world that must choose Him.

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[1] This is not a direct quote, but rather my way of stating what I think Piper has at the very least implied, and all but stated explicitly.

[2] Some Calvinists espouse a theological (and philosophical) construct known as Compatibilism in which Divine sovereignty (understood deterministically) and free will are somehow compatible. D.A. Carson would be example of one such theologian. However, this view was not the view of Calvin or Edwards, nor is it the view of Piper.

[3] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), 346.

Theology for Life and Ministry: William Jeffery on Predestination in Romans 9

Matthew Pinson

I was recently reading a book by the seventeenth-century English General Baptist preacher William Jeffery, The Whole Faith of Man. This book is a summary of Christian doctrine published in London in the 1650s that hasn’t been in print since the 1600s.

The book is not without its faults, but reading it reminded me of how industrious these forefathers of our Free Will Baptist Church were in their concern to think through, write, and publish doctrine and theology—and not see doctrine and theology somehow as being something other than, let alone at cross purposes with, the practical, zealous ministry of the Gospel.

Here were men who were mostly bi-vocational—pastors of growing churches (some large, some small) but also farmers and tailors and soapboilers and physicians. Yet somehow many of them still found the time to write full-length books on practical and theological subjects.

It makes me scratch my head that we in evangelicalism today have more M.Divs and D.Mins than you can shake a stick at, most of whom have full-time ministry jobs, but so many have almost no interest doctrine and theology. Indeed there is a tendency to drive a wedge between theology and ministry and think that theology actually detracts from practical ministry and zealous evangelism. We desperately need to take a page from the playbook of our early forefathers, who were very zealous and had growing churches in both rural and urban areas, but saw theology and doctrine as being at the heart of a vibrant ministry—woven into its very fabric.

In addition to those thoughts sticking out in my mind, I came across a few passages from Jeffery’s discussion of Romans 9 that I thought our readers would enjoy. The first one directly addresses the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9. It touches on a theme that many Arminian interpreters neglect or underemphasize—that Romans 9 is really about the conditional election of unbelievers, and that Paul is arguing against the corporate election views in Jewish theology. This is something that Jacobus Arminius and Leroy Forlines emphasize, but that is neglected in many Arminian treatments.

The second passage, which follows Jeffery’s discussion of Romans 9, is basically saying that the Calvinist doctrine espoused with regard to that text means that God hates the vast majority of his human creatures and created them for the purpose of hating them, even though that flies in the face of the ubiquitous message in Scripture of the love of God for humanity. I love the way Jeffery explains it:

For the better understanding of this point, well consider the principal thing, which Paul treats of in that chapter, Romans 9, which is, that the fleshly seed of Abraham are not the children of promise, or the Elect of God (vv. 7, 8). Wherefore (saith the Apostle) though Esau was the child of Abraham according to the flesh, and that upon Isaac’s side too, yet God hated him: therefore you Jews that stand so much upon your birth privileges, as being the seed of Abraham after the flesh, by this of Esau you may know, that it will not prove you to be the Elect of God, but you may be hated as Esau, he being as truly a child of Abraham as you, but for his wickedness (whether considered as a Person, or as a Nation) God rejected him; I say, for his wickedness as appeareth (Obad. 9.10) “For thy violence, (O Esau) against thy brother Jacob, shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off forever (Mal. 1.3, 4; Amos 1.11; Heb 12.16, 17). Esau’s wickedness therefore (whether considered a person, or a Nation) I say, with the holy Prophets, was the cause why God hated him; whose wickedness, God that foreknoweth all things, foreknew. . . . (The Whole Faith of Man, 26-27).

But if notwithstanding you shall yet turn the body of these Scriptures [Rom. 9] otherways [than the way he has explained them], then behold its face: namely, That God did (before time) hate the greatest part of the world, without respect unto foreseen wickedness as the cause thereof, and that (in time) he gives them up to hardness of heart (without grace at any time whereby to be saved) and at the day of Judgment will cast them into everlasting torments, because of their wickedness and hardness of heart; and yet declare in his Word, (which you say is a word of truth) that he is good to all, and that his “tender mercies are over all his works”; that he is “slow to anger, and of great mercy,” (Ps. 145.8, 9), “patient, long-suffering, etc. (Ex. 34.6, 7), “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3.9), swearing by himself, “that he desireth not the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11) but “would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2.4), “forty years long grieving for the iniquity of his people” (Heb. 3.17), bemoaning their undone estate (Psal. 81.13), yea, even weeping for them (Luke 19.41), saying, “What could I have done more” (for your good) “that I have not done?” (Isa. 5.4), when as he knew (according to your tenet) that [he] himself had shut them up from all possibilities of believing unto salvation, and that by his own unresistible decree, and purpose of reprobation. Judge ye, friends, in this cause, and judge righteous judgment, and with fear and trembling, weigh these things. (The Whole Faith of Man, 31-32).

These thought-provoking comments come from the heart of a preacher and pastor. He saw them, not as a tack-on to preaching and explaining the Bible for his people, but as integral to his work as a shepherd. May we be inspired by the pastoral theology of our forebears who had a seamless view of the interaction between our minds, hearts, and the way we live our lives. May we return theology to its integral place in the ministry of the Gospel.