Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 1)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the first of two guest-authored posts)

I hear that some Arminians incline toward a Molinist view of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Perhaps the reason is, Molinists say their purpose is to uphold libertarian freedom[1] in a universe governed by a sovereign God, sure to achieve His purposes. We Arminians believe in both of those things.

What Is Molinism?

Molinism was conceived by a sixteenth-century Jesuit, Luis de Molina, with the express purpose of maintaining human freedom in a world providentially governed by a God who accomplishes His purposes in all events. Molina did this by defining God’s knowledge as occurring at three logically different (not temporally different) “moments.”

First is necessary (or natural) knowledge, which includes everything God knows simply because He is an omniscient God. What He knows at this stage includes “all possible worlds,” as philosophers like to express this—everything that could be, in other words.

Second is free knowledge, which includes knowledge of everything that will be as a result of God’s choice—out of all possible worlds—to create this world that actually exists. (Understand that a “world” in this sense includes everything that occurs in it, all the circumstances that ever arise.) Since this world didn’t have to exist (else it would have been co-eternal with God), then God’s knowledge of it likewise didn’t have to exist, and wouldn’t have if He had not created it.

Third is middle knowledge. The distinction between the first two goes back well before Molina.  He added a third “moment” or phase of God’s knowledge that stands logically between necessary and free knowledge, called middle knowledge. This includes God’s knowledge of everything that free beings would do in every conceivable set of circumstances.

Now, what does this have to do with anything? According to Molina: when God decided to create this world and all its “circumstances,” He already knew just what every person would freely choose in every possible circumstance. The key idea, then, is that God didn’t just actualize a world, He actualized all the circumstances in that world that He knew everyone would respond to and “freely” make the very choices that fit into God’s eternal plan. This way, God remains in sovereign control and His plan is entirely successful, but human beings remain free to choose between live options.

At first glance, this may seem appealing. I myself have sometimes said that God can keep me from working in my garden, by sending rain, without infringing on my freedom. He can, of course, and that’s an example of “middle knowledge” at work, say the Molinists. But read on.

Molinism and the Theology of Salvation: a Specific Example

In the following three paragraphs I will summarize the view of Kenneth Keathley, as explained in his recent book presenting a Molinist view of soteriology.[2]

When God actualized this world, using His middle knowledge of how every person would respond to every possible circumstance, He designed all the “circumstances” of every person’s existence in such a way that all of them would respond—in their libertarian freedom—in the very way necessary for His plan to be successful.

For the elect, He included in their existence what I will call “gracious circumstances” which He knew they would find appealing and not resist, and which would therefore carry them along to salvation. While this grace is resistible, God knew just how to present it so that they, although free and capable of doing so, would not resist. This way, their salvation is entirely effected by God’s grace, from beginning to end. They “do” absolutely nothing, not even so much as choosing to receive grace. In the entire process that brings them to God, they remain free to accept or reject Him but certainly accept Him—I add, given the circumstances He has placed them in.

For the non-elect, perhaps God also placed them in gracious circumstances to which they could respond favorably, even though He knew they would not. But He did not place them in any gracious circumstances that would bring them to Him, although (I assume) He must have known of such circumstances and could have actualized them but didn’t. As is true for the elect, then, the non-elect remain free to accept or reject God but certainly will reject Him—I add, again, given the circumstances He has (or has not) placed them in. Thus their damnation is entirely their own doing; God in no way desired or caused it.

Lest the reader think I have misinterpreted Keathley’s view, I include here his own words.

From the repertoire of available options provided by His middle knowledge, God freely and sovereignly chooses which one [which option] He will bring to pass. … [By utilizing his knowledge] God predestines all events, yet not in such a way that violates genuine human freedom and choice. God meticulously “sets the table” so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined. Remember the example of Simon Peter’s denial of the Lord. The Lord predicted Peter would deny Him and by use of middle knowledge ordained the scenario with infallible certainty that Peter would do so. However, God did not make or cause Peter to do as he did.[3]

When God made the sovereign choice to bring this particular world into existence, He rendered certain but did not cause the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace. According to Molinism, our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.[4]

God determines the world in which we live. Whether I exist at all, have the opportunity to respond to the gospel, or am placed in a setting where I would be graciously enabled to believe are sovereign decisions made by Him. The Molinist affirms that the elect are saved by God’s good pleasure.[5]

Evaluation

It’s one thing for God to use such knowledge in providentially controlling circumstances after He actualized and designed the world. No doubt He does such things to “work all things together” for our good (Rom. 8:38) or for His own purposes. But it’s an entirely different thing for Him to use His knowledge that way to design circumstances for us at creation—before we even exist!—to bring about our salvation or the development of our moral character.

I indicate my rejection of Keathley’s approach with an analogy.[6] Consider a skilled chess-master, playing against opponents whose abilities are much less that his and whose tendencies he knows well. He decides in advance which opponents will win and which will lose. He chooses his moves carefully and designs them in accord with his knowledge of their tendencies and skills. By making this move or that one, he skillfully maneuvers each opponent to freely make moves that will lead to the victory or defeat that the chess-master decided in advance.  And the opponent never suspects a thing!

That’s the way I see Keathley’s Molinist view of how God deals with the elect and non-elect. As I see it, Keathley makes God a manipulator of human beings. He knows their tendencies—more, He knows exactly how they will respond to any circumstance—and ordains circumstances in the very structure of the world that will bring them to salvation or leave them for damnation as He has willed. I appreciate Keathley’s insistence that all the persons involved are free to choose, but I confess that this claim rings hollow.

Like Keathley, I will also affirm that when God deals graciously with people, He knows how they will respond. But he is saying much more than that: namely, that God, before our existence, has set up the world with circumstances calculated to bring the elect to Him and not to bring the non-elect. What sort of creaturely “freedom” is that? Wouldn’t it be better if God brings circumstances of grace into the lives of both elect and non-elect, influences to which all of them really can respond positively? Wouldn’t it be better if He does this without tailoring their circumstances to fit their tendencies in a way that guarantees the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the non-elect? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone, in libertarian freedom and without divine manipulation behind the scenes, can choose for or against Him? This is the Arminian position, and this is not Molinism.

If anyone thinks I am misrepresenting Keathley, I call attention to some of the words in the quotations above. “Humans freely choose what God had determined.” In Peter’s case God “ordained the scenario with infallible certainty.” God “rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” This may be determinism by indirect manipulation rather than by direct causation, but it is determinism nonetheless.

This is not Arminianism. We Arminians agree that God has foreknowledge of the choices we make, but we insist that God’s “overtures of grace” (to use Keathley’s apt phrase) are made to all persons, with the same salvific intent of making possible the salvation of all of them. Molinism, instead, offers that God uses His knowledge of how people will respond to various circumstances to arrange different circumstances for those He chooses to save as compared to those He does not will to save. Arminianism believes that God extends saving grace to all alike and draws them all with the desire that all be saved, thus providing real opportunity for them all; and they choose whether they will meet the condition for salvation or not.

Does Keathley Portray Molinism Accurately?

I believe Keathley’s view, so far, is true to Molinism. Other representations of Molinism seem clearly to confirm this. For one example, consider the following summary:

Before all decision to create the world, the infinite knowledge of God presents to Him all the graces … which He can prepare for each soul, along with the consent or refusal which would follow in each circumstance. …Thus, for each man in particular there are in the thought of God, limitless possible histories … and God will be free in choosing such a world, such a series of graces, and in determining the future history and final destiny of each soul.[7]

That this is, after all, a form of determinism seems assured when the writer adds that in this way God actualized, out of all possible worlds, this very one in which all the circumstances and all the “graces” He likewise actualized bring each individual to the destiny God chose.[8]

William Lane Craig affirms that Molina himself viewed God as operating in this way, that God “chose for the one [the elect] and for the other [the reprobate] the order of providence in which He foresaw that the one would be saved and the other not.”[9]

G. Sutanto capsules Molinism to say, “In so decreeing [all that comes to pass], God elects to actualize a world in which free creatures do exactly what He wants them to do, but in a way that does not sacrifice libertarian freedom.”[10]

Part II of this article will appear next week. 

_________________

[1] The freedom to choose between alternatives, sometimes called the power of alternate choice, is called libertarian freedom.

[2] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019).  Keathley is Southern Baptist, teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.  Thanks to Matt Pinson for introducing me to this work.

[3] Ibid., 152.

[4] Ibid., 154.

[5] Ibid., 155.

[6] I know that analogies do not prove anything, but they enable us to express our view more clearly or forcefully.

[7] Portalié, Eugène. “Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), as transcribed in New Advent, ed. Kevin Knight, at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02091a.htm.  I thank Richard Clarke for pointing me to this article;

[8] My purpose here is not to vouch for Portalié’s interpretation of Augustine but to show how he understands Molinism.

[9] William L. Craig, “Middle Knowledge, A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?” in Clark Pinnock, ed. The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1989),156–57, quoting the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, s.v., “Molinisme,” by E. Vansteenberghe, 10.2., col. 2112.  (Thanks to Matt Pinson for this reference.)

[10] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, review of Sze Sze Chiew, Middle Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation: Luis de Molina, Herman Bavinck, and William Lane Craig (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016), in The Journal of Theological Studies 69:1 (April 2018), 389.

2020 Theological Symposium: Update

by Theological Commission

Many of our readers have communicated with us in recent weeks inquiring about the status of our 2020 Theological Symposium, originally scheduled for October 5-6 on the campus of Welch College.

Due to the significant rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and the overall uncertainty created for events like our Symposium where guests come to town from multiple states, we have decided to hold a virtual Symposium this year. Our intent is to still hold this event on the originally-scheduled dates. However, all of our event’s features will be taken online.

Many details are being worked out still, but we will be sure to keep you posted on how you can participate in this free, intellectually enriching event. While we completely acknowledge the undesirable nature of an online meeting versus an in-person event, we do anticipate that the event will be accessible to a broader array of people who, in the past, would not have been able to make the trip to Gallatin, Tennessee or Moore, Oklahoma for our event.

We are still receiving paper proposals at this time, and welcome your questions and submissions. As presenters will not need to be physically present to share their paper, we suggest you take this into account as you consider participating.

Please direct any questions or proposals to fwbtheology@gmail.com, or the comment thread to this post.

Why It’s Not the Same

W. Jackson Watts

It’s just not the same.” Most people have heard this phrase and uttered it countless times since March. It’s how Christians have expressed the sentiment of trying to worship together while not actually being together. After the suspension of worship services in March, the vast majority of congregations transitioned to various online expressions of Christian community and worship. These ranged from pre-recorded sermons being posted online to livestreaming full-length service elements from mostly vacant buildings—and quite a few other variations.

During this time pastors, teachers, and church members repeatedly said, “We know it’s not the same.” I’ve heard those words rolling off of my lips a time or two. Most people recognize that in doing something online, regardless of what they call it, they were engaged in something highly unnatural and undesirable.

Let’s zero in on the phrase itself: “Online ‘worship,’ ‘service,’ or ‘church’ isn’t the same.” I have two main concerns about this. First, it’s not clear to me that all Christians recognize that there is an inherent problem or limitation. Now if you asked them, “Would you prefer to gather in person or watch a video or something like a service online?” most would opt for the former. However, this leads to a second concern. Can we honestly articulate why an online experience isn’t the same as an in-person experience? Only in answering this question, based on biblical principle and practice, can we rightly address the first concern, which is to understand that there is indeed a problem or limitation that we need to face up to.

With that being said, I have composed a list of reasons why an online experience is inferior to an in-person experience. I offer this list with conviction, but also with compassion. I fully understand that we’re still in a transitional stage where many of our brothers and sisters are not yet able to gather  owing to health concerns of various kinds. Yet the importance of addressing this issue is three-fold: (1) Crises are an occasion for us to grow in virtue and understanding. If we must be apart now, and if we want to make sense of the months we were apart, thinking this through will benefit us. (2) Because many who are new to the faith, or who aren’t believers, will likely not fully understand God’s design for the church, this is an occasion for discipleship. We don’t want to squander such an opportunity. (3) Pastorally speaking, there are many who think it’s safe enough to go on vacation, go to Walmart, protest while surrounded by thousands, and/or attend large family gatherings, but gathering at a socially-distanced worship service is somehow not sufficiently safe. Walking through such a list may cause them to reevaluate what is truly essential to our Christian experience.

With those being said, here are my 22 reasons, largely in no particular order:

  1. Church means “assembly.” It’s a gathering. You can’t gather apart.
  2. “Online church” or “Online worship” are oxymorons (see #1).
  3. God made us as embodied creatures to experience life.
  4. It’s impossible to look someone in the eye on a screen and the camera simultaneously.
  5. You can’t hug someone you’re not with.
  6. You can’t shake the hand of a person you’re not with.
  7. You can’t take the Lord’s Supper with the body when you’re not with the body.
  8. You can’t wash feet[1]
  9. You can’t practice congregational church discipline online.
  10. You can’t easily hold a church business meeting online, if at all.
  11. It’s easier to get distracted when you’re apart, behind a screen, and no one else can see what you’re doing.
  12. Online ministry uniquely furthers the problem we already have among some Christians—which is to see the church as a religious content provider (i.e. Here’s a file to download at your leisure!).
  13. Virtual “altars of prayer” don’t provide us a place to weep together as we might need
  14. I can’t hear God’s Word being sung all around me online, no matter how good the audio and amplification are.
  15. The preacher can’t look his listeners in the eye in an empty
  16. The congregants can’t fully experience the depth of multi-directional communication that live preaching achieves.
  17. You can’t have the fullest range of volunteers assisting in leading the worship service.
  18. Online “visitors” don’t experience your church as it truly is, but as an online product.
  19. Younger children don’t get the opportunity to learn to be still and attentive in a service surrounded by other people.
  20. Younger children don’t get to learn about the act of giving by placing money in the offering plate that their mother, father, grandma, or grandpa handed them.
  21. Empty or sparsely filled parking lots diminish yet another opportunity churches have to give a visible witness to what they value in life to the surrounding community.
  22. Participating in Sunday school, small groups, and other similar ministries online loses a significant personal

I want to acknowledge that there may be a counterpoint to most of these. People are finding new ways to perform normal parts of life online. Yet I’ve tried to combine both principles (like #s 1 and 3) with both practical situations (like #s 20 and 22) to help us understand what’s really at stake. You can’t work your way around a biblical principle; it is what it is. It’s God’s good design for us. When it comes to the practical situations, I’m trying to paint a picture of specific experiences we miss when we’re apart. I do see these as practical ways we apply biblical principles, even though they aren’t all commanded of God (i.e. I don’t think Scripture requires Christians to hug as the only culturally-appropriate alternative to a “holy kiss.”). But some of these are ways we express our love and unity in the faith together that can’t be supplanted easily—if at all—in virtual reality.

Let me offer a final thought to those still at home who reasonably must remain there, and those able to gather but may have grown to devalue our embodied, physical gatherings:

To those at homebound or in nursing homes, you are not somehow less than God’s child because you are unable to be with other Christians. This simply means we who are able have a greater obligation to minister to you where you are, as best as we reasonably can. Pray for us as we pray for you. Do what you can from where you can. We miss you, and we love you.

To those able to gather but refuse to, or who deep down doubt the importance of in-person worship, what would you like to say to those stuck at home? After considering this list, do you still feel the same way? How might we honor, respect, and love God and His people well? Seeing why our online experiences fall dramatically short should help us to recommit ourselves to the importance of our gathered life of worship and service, and help us to be more intentional in serving those who weren’t able to gather, even before we ever heard of COVID-19.

[1] I am not advocating that we practice the Lord’s Supper or Feet Washing during a time in which social distancing is still necessary for health reasons. I’m speaking about what is possible (or not) during non-pandemic conditions.

Theology in a Time of Pandemic

W. Jackson Watts

Theology never arises in a vacuum. It always has a context, a set of circumstances shaping its development and reception. Augustine’s City of God was a response to pagan claims that the barbarian incursions into Rome were a consequence of Christian emperors abolishing pagan worship. Martin Luther’s early writing would have never been penned outside the shadow of a spiritually bankrupt church. Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy makes greater sense once you learn about his years ministering to spiritually and intellectually adrift youth at L’Abri.

The coronavirus pandemic is an occasion that forces us to theologize. As important as it is for church leaders to develop communication strategies and ministry procedures to ensure safety, it’s equally important to consider how our understanding of God, Scripture, and the Gospel are revealed in and through this crisis. Crises always expose the depth (or lack thereof) in our convictions. Yet they should also elicit careful theological reflection—reflection which presupposes that Christianity speaks to all of life.

I’d like to highlight five questions Christians should be able to address during this pandemic. My goal is not ultimately to answer all of these. Rather, it is to show how a clear understanding of Scripture is essential to begin to answer them at all.

Where is God and What is He Up To? (Theodicy)

As the death toll rises, so too do the questions that some ask about the presence of God. No doubt the present suffering is unequally distributed among families, communities, states, and nations. Some are better equipped to treat the sick, comfort the afflicted, or avoid the worst financial impact of the crisis. But rest assured, many are asking about God’s ways.

Theodicy is simply that: an account of the ways of God, especially in the face of suffering. Typically theodicy is a concept discussed in the context of what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” The problem, generally and simply stated, is that if an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, and evil exists, too, then how can we maintain belief in God? It would seem that a good and loving God would eliminate evil—at least in its most egregious forms. It seems just as likely that an all-powerful God could. While free will is usually used to show that it’s not a logical contradiction for evil to exist in a world where such a God exists, the problem of evil has many intellectually challenging forms that require us to pause, and avoid simplistic answers.

Imagine Christian parents who lose an infant child to coronavirus. Tragic. They then learn from hospital staff that their baby won’t be permitted a traditional burial. Moreover, it may not be safe to touch or kiss his body. He is their only child. The problem of evil lands a certain way for these parents: “Why God? Why this evil? Why did you let this happen?” How does free will sufficiently answer such questions? The problem of evil then presents a pastoral challenge as much as a theological challenge.

Now imagine unbelieving parents who experience the same tragedy. While they may not know what a syllogism is, at a deeply visceral level their suffering counts against belief in God. “How could we believe in a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving God who allows things like this? How could belief in such a God be maintained in the face of this kind of evil?”

Pastors, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and believers of all kinds don’t need to wait until they, the believers under their care, or their neighbors face death to think carefully about these issues. We need attentive hearts and ears, to go along with a biblically-informed mind.

Is this Pestilence Like the Ones in Scripture? (Eschatology)

 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:7-8; ESV).

More than one Christian has read a passage like the one above and tried to find versions of it in their world. This isn’t new. What is new is our 24-hour news cycle where we receive real-time updates on our phones about every famine, plague, shooting, drought, tornado, and earthquake. Let’s face it: it’s hard to watch the evening news and not think, “The world is literally coming apart.” And it has, ever since Genesis 3. Most of us also have some basic eschatological beliefs which entail conditions on earth and for human life growing increasingly worse. This means both people’s love growing cold, as well as earth’s increasing travail, groaning for release from its bondage (Mt. 24:12; Rom. 8:18-22).

Beyond this basic conviction, Christians can certainly freely debate how similar the nature of modern disease and virus are to ancient plague and pestilence. I’m sure there are similarities and differences.

Where we want to be cautious is at the intersection of theodicy and eschatology. For example: “God is doing this to wake us up spiritually!” “This city had more coronavirus cases because it is an especially wicked city; it’s the judgment of God.”

Believing in the providence and sovereignty of God means that He is in control. Nothing happens that He isn’t aware of or that He did not allow. However, it takes a few extra theological leaps to claim to know precisely why a particular evil happened and had the specific effects it had. Some have done this even in recent years, whether it concerned Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans (2005), or Hurricane Sandy in the greater New York area (2012). I can see no biblical claim that would allow us, with confidence, to call specific natural evils divine judgments. It may be the case, but we cannot know. Just as important, it raises other problems we may not be prepared to answer: What if the calamities that impact Christians are just as likely to be judgments of God against His church for her unfaithfulness to Him? After all, the grain of the Old Testament certainly shows us that God’s judgments fell against His own people more often than it did pagan nations!

It’s certainly not my intent to squash every theological judgment we might personally consider as reasonable or even probable. I find in my own congregation that we all have a sense that God is reminding us all of important truths: “We are not in control of our lives. God will take care of us. God is good even when things are going wrong. We need to obey civil authorities, even when we find it difficult.” It’s not irresponsible to say that God has His purposes, and some are more clearly discernible from Scripture. Yet we should not go beyond that.

Should We Take the Money or Not? (Conscience)

One provision in the CARES Act involves the government (specifically the Small Business Administration), through banking institutions, providing loans to smaller businesses to help them meet their payroll needs. The loans actually convert to grants if the company can demonstrate that they used all of the funds for payroll. After all, the government has a vested interest in seeing small businesses survive and workers continue to be paid.

The wrinkle in this bill that many Christians have been debating is the inclusion of churches and other religious organizations. In other words, a church could be the recipient of a loan. Baptists have a long and complex history when it comes to its relationship between the church and state (see more below). But this specific provision in the law cuts across denominational lines, whether one belongs to the free church tradition or not. Many pastors, theologians, and parachurch legal groups have landed on different sides of this question. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has written a short, helpful piece arguing that it may be permissible. Yet even he acknowledges the reasonable, conscientious objections some Christians and churches may have to accepting such financial support, even if the funds appear to have no strings attached, and enough lawmakers thought it was a good idea.

It’s not my intent to analyze the merits of this argument, but simply to caution about how we debate matters of conscience in general. Sometimes Christians understand conscience in a sub-biblical way. We essentially adopt our society’s basic understanding: “If it bothers you, don’t do it. If it doesn’t, go for it.” This is not a biblical understanding of conscience. Scripture is clear that one’s conscience is not reducible to how we feel about a given choice before us (I commend Andy Naselli’s excellent, short book on the topic). As Harold Senkbeil thoughtfully puts it, “Conscience is not so much a moral compass as it is an umpire, or the capacity to see oneself as God sees you.”[1]

Our conscience can be misinformed, desensitized, and just plain wrong. Our “umpire,” to use Senkbeil’s metaphor, must be trained by the wisdom of Scripture. I say this because we can yield to the moral relativism of our highly secular age. Christians need to avoid merely saying, “You do what’s best for your church, and we’ll do what’s best for ours.” Christian truth is such that we need to come together and discuss thorny questions in a gracious, patience, respectful way without checking our brains at the door. Such a discussion will not yield uniformity, but it will yield greater unity, even when we have come to different conclusions.

What is the Church and How Shall it Gather? (Ecclesiology)

The same considerations concerning Christian dialogue certainly apply to more than the CARES Act. Probably the first question pastors asked when they realized the severity of COVID-19 was, “What can we do online?” Of course, the first question should always be, “What should we do?”

I spent countless hours thinking about and discussing this particular one. I’ve written elsewhere about my concerns concerning the interface of religious practice and technology. It’s ironic that I should find myself teaching and interacting with church members through Facebook and Zoom each week. But technical ability (or the lack thereof) should never be bracketed off from theological reflection about what the church is and isn’t, what worship is and isn’t, and how we maintain those distinctions, even while using certain crutches that we’ll gladly lay down when gatherings begin once more.

Technology has surrounded worship practices for nearly two thousand years. The moment anyone gave any thought to a building, keeping records, or musical instruments they were discerning what tools or artifacts could be faithfully used to support Christian ministry. I dare say our forefathers thought a bit more carefully than we do about these types of issues. They had their own temptations to resist. They also had to try to discern how much liberty to extend to one another, especially as various congregations (and later denominations) made different ecclesial choices.

I think what’s crucial to affirm again and again is this: A worship service is an embodied gathering. No amount of virtual proficiency will create that. Now, this is a separate question from, “Can we provide a context for our households to be edified while they are apart? Are there some Scripture-based messages, songs, or other resources we can provide each week to foster private worship, while at the same time saying: Won’t it be great when we actually do worship together again?”? To me this is a delicate balance to strike. Yet this is the challenge all church leaders have. At least this strange and uncomfortable time should give us some space to feel how unnatural it is for the church to be apart.

To What Extent Should We Obey the Government? (Church and State)

As I said above, Baptists have a rather complicated history when it comes to relating to the state. Heritage aside, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are in our Bibles. We may not teach it so explicitly on a weekly basis, but the Lord has reminded us that obedience involves reading Scripture with Scripture. Can we square the command to assemble together in Hebrews 10 with the command to obey the authorities, who tell us not to assemble?

With few exceptions, Christians across this country have clearly seen that civil obedience and love of neighbor (both Scriptural principles) shape our application of the command of Hebrews 10—that a temporary suspension of public gatherings is not compromising our faith. In fact, it may be the exact embodiment of the faith needed in a world that so often misunderstands the church.

To be sure, as we see what appear to be positive signs in the fight against COVID-19, we are all chomping at the bit to gather again. The test of our theology of civil obedience will be whether our impatience is born out of a spirit of passion for Christ, or disdain for authority. Sometimes we struggle to discern the difference. Regardless of motives, being in an emotional uproar is seldom a good place to begin good theology.

All five of these questions are complicated. Unfortunately they often elicit a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. This is part of why the Commission for Theological Integrity exists. Our prayer is to lean into the conversations that others are already having, and to serve as a resource for clear, theological reflection and action. I pray we serve Free Will Baptists and their neighbors well in this pandemic.

______________________

[1] Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019), 128.

2020 Theological Symposium FAQ

W. Jackson Watts

As Program Chair for the Commission for Theological Integrity, I get the privilege to oversee the planning and preparation for our annual Theological Symposium. I’ve been so gratified to see interest in this event grow over the last few years, and we’re looking forward to another great one later this fall.

Typically we issue what’s known as a “Call for Papers.” This appears on our website and in print publications such as ONE Magazine. This notice is designed to generate awareness and identify prospective presenters, as well as any who would attend and benefit from this free event. However, as potential presenters begin contemplating ideas for the Symposium, I want to offer this post of Frequently Asked Questions to help people make plans to join us this fall.

___________________________

Where and when is the Symposium held?

The campus of Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee. This year our event is a bit earlier than usual, so take note of this date: October 5-6.

 How are presenters chosen?

We review the papers and proposals that are submitted each year and select those which are well-written and thematically suitable. Sometimes we solicit papers from people if they have recently completed some scholarly work that they are interested in sharing with a broader audience. However, we generally have interested parties contact us. The only other detail approaching a “requirement” is that presenters must be members of a Free Will Baptist church.

 What can I write on?

 Typically we will receive and consider papers on any topic that is broadly theological in nature: biblical studies, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, ecclesiology, etc. This year we have an open program, so any paper on any topic, broadly theological, will be considered. If you’d like more information about what might be perceived as appropriate, just ask!

Must I have an advanced degree to present a paper?

No; While most of our presenters have received graduate theological education, it is by no means a requirement.

Where can I stay?

There are several area hotels which provide a reasonable rate to those in town for Welch-affiliated events. Hotel information will be published later this year.

Why attend in person when live-stream is available?

Two main reasons: First, we don’t guarantee live-streaming every year, and even if we do live-stream, we may or may not post video content on our website after the event is over. We have done this in the past, but it is a year-by-year decision. Second, attending in person allows you the chance to ask questions in person to presenters, hear the discussion and dialogue following each presentation, and connect with other Free Will Baptist pastors, scholars, and laymen. I’ve seen many fruitful relationships form and develop as a result of this event. This is a great chance to network with many of our thought leaders.

If I am interested in presenting, what are the specific requirements and deadlines?

You can email fwbtheology@gmail.com for a fuller list of what we’re looking for in terms of paper content and format. Concerning deadlines, all ideas and inquiries about presenting should be submitted to this email address. Abstracts/proposals should be submitted by July 7. Submissions for review should be submitted by August 7. The final draft should be submitted by September 7.

Thank you for your interest in this event!

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine