Was Infant Baptism Practiced in Early Christianity?

by Matthew Pinson

Traditionally, advocates of infant baptism (or paedobaptism) say that its practice dates back to the apostles. Yet there is no proof for this assertion. No clear evidence for infant baptism exists before the third century. Even Augustine’s statement that infant baptism was a “firmly established custom” in the church is off the mark. As late as the time of Augustine’s writings in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, many church fathers either didn’t practice infant baptism or did not themselves receive baptism until they were adults. It was not until after Augustine’s death in the fifth century that one could call infant baptism a firmly established custom.

In understanding this question, we need to talk about two things: First, we must discuss what caused infant baptism to take root in the third century and become general practice by the fifth century. Second, we must establish that infant baptism was not the practice of the early Christians from the time of the apostles to the third century.

Yet before we do these two things, we must take note of the main idea that seems to be driving the paedobaptist argument from history: If infant baptism was a late addition, then why was there no controversy over its introduction into the churches? The answer to this question is twofold: First, there is no clear evidence of infant baptism before the third century, and the paedobaptist must face this. No amount of discussion about why infant baptism came on the scene with little recorded opposition obscures the fact that believer’s baptism is the clear practice before the third century—and infant baptism is not. Second, Tertullian did speak out against the introduction of infant baptism, which we will discuss in a moment.

Now, why was infant baptism introduced in the third century? There are two things here that we must discuss: first, the catechumen system, and the second, the question of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration. The catechumen system was in place as early as the second century. In this system, people would undergo a period of instruction after conversion and before baptism. The early church fathers placed so much emphasis on one’s being instructed in the faith prior to baptism that most converts underwent months or years of catechetical instruction before their baptism.

Many of the best-known church fathers underwent such catechesis and didn’t receive baptism until adulthood, even though they were born to Christian parents. These included, among others, such men as Athanasius, Basil, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine himself [1]. If infant baptism had been a custom since the time of the apostles, surely these men would have been baptized before adulthood. Yet these men were products of the catechumen system. They were catachumens who underwent instruction in the faith for many years before being admitted to baptism.

So, given this background, how did infant baptism come to displace the catechumen system? It is simply this: People began to believe the erroneous doctrines of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration, and soon they became widespread in the churches.

Now we must deal with the question, what proof is there that, before the third century, baptism was administered only to believers and not to infants? [2] The best place to start is in early second-century Christianity. Every reference to baptism we find in second-century Christianity reflects confession of faith as an essential qualification for baptism [3].

The earliest and best second-century source on believer’s baptism is the Didache (or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” A.D. 100-110). This document goes into more detail on baptism than any other second-century treatment. The Didache not only establishes moral qualifications for the one who is about to undergo baptism but also requires the baptismal candidate to fast for a day or two [4].

Paul K. Jewett asks, “How shall we account for the omission of all reference to infant baptism in this primitive manual of proper baptismal usage? It is hard to imagine such an omission occurring under the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or even Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregational auspices. . . . Is it not, then, highly implausible that the Didache was produced by a community of early Paedobaptists who just happened to say nothing about infant baptism?” [5].

All other references to baptism in the second century yield the same results. Paedobaptists have long tried to misconstrue Justin Martyr as teaching infant baptism when he speaks of “many men and women, sixty or seventy years old, who from children were disciples of Christ” [6]. Yet no Baptist would deny that if a child is mature enough to be a “disciple of Christ”—and is one—then he can be admitted to baptism. Far from supporting infant baptism, Justin’s comment supports disciple’s baptism.

Many paedobaptist authors, such as Joachim Jeremias, have said that Irenaeus believed in infant baptism, because of a statement he made (c. A.D. 180) that through Christ people of all ages are reborn, including infants [7]. However, as Everett Ferguson argues, “Before rushing to accept a reference to infant baptism here, we should be cautious.” Ferguson argues that Irenaeus uses the term “reborn” (renascor) for “Jesus’ work of renewal and rejuvenation effected by his birth and resurrection without any reference to baptism. . . . The coming of Jesus brought a second beginning to the whole human race. He sanctified every age of life. Accepting his renovation by being baptized is another matter and falls outside the purview of this passage” [8]. This is the standard baptistic interpretation articulated by authors such as Hezekiah Harvey and Paul King Jewett. Yet this view of Irenaeus is also shared by paedobaptists such as Kurt Aland [9].

As we move into the early third century, we find Tertullian, who wrote the first full treatise on baptism, De baptismo. Strongly favoring the catechumen system, he believed that people should delay baptism until they have been instructed in the faith for a long while: “Consequently in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of Baptism is most advantageous, particularly, however, in the case of children. . . . The Lord indeed says: ‘Forbid them not to come unto me,’ Matt. xix. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught whither to come; let them become Christians, when they have been able to know Christ. Why hurries the age of innocence to the remission of sins?” [10] This passage shows that Tertullian is against infant baptism precisely because he is for believer’s baptism.

Baptists, of course, agree that infant baptism took root in the third century. Such church fathers as Cyprian, Origen, and Augustine approved of it. Yet Origen was defensive about it, saying that infant baptism “is a thing causing frequent inquires among the brethren” [11]. This statement works against the paedobaptists’ argument that no one protested the gradual introduction of infant baptism.

There is no direct evidence for the assertion that infant baptism was practiced in the first two centuries of the Christian church. On the contrary, all the evidence establishes believers as the only fit subjects for baptism prior to the third century. When placed alongside the New Testament data on baptism, this demonstrates that apostolic baptism was for believers only.

________________________

[1] Hezekiah Harvey, The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1879; repr. Rochester, NY: Backus, 1982), 211; A. W. Argyle, “Baptism in the Early Christian Centuries,” in Christian Baptism, ed . A. Gilmore (Chicago: Judson, 1959), 187, 202-03, 208.

[2] For one of the best succinct treatments of the early Christian view of baptism, see Paul King Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978). 13-43. See also Steven McKinion, “Baptism in the Patristic Writings,” in Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1006), 163-88.

[3] See, e.g., The Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 120-130), which advocates the baptism of believers only: “We go down into the water full of sins and foulness and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus in the Spirit” (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Apostolic Fathers, I, 121). Obviously, infants are unable to exhibit this type of behavior. Another example is found in the Shepherd of Hermas, written in the mid-second century. Hermas makes repentance a condition of baptism (Jewett, 40).

[4] “But before baptism, let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any also that are able; and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before” Didache, 7.1).

[5] Jewett, 40-41.

[6] Quoted in Harvey, 202.

[7] Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 73.

[8] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 308.

[9] Harvey, 203-04; Jewett, 25-27; Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? Trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 58-59. For an early Baptist treatment of Irenaeus similar to this one, see John Gill, Infant Baptism a Part and Pillar of Popery (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851), 22-23. See also “The Baptismal Question in the Light of Scripture and Church History,” Freewill Baptist Quarterly 26 (1859), which asks, “If infant baptism was practiced by Christ and his apostles, and in the first and second centuries, is it not passing strange that our Pedobaptist friends can find no proof thereof but this passage of Irenaeus,which, after all, says not a word about baptism?” (128).

[10] Tertullian, Tertullian’s Treatises: Concerning Prayer, Concerning Baptism, trans. Alexander Souter (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 69.

[11] Quoted in Jewett, 30.

“The Juvenilization of American Christianity” by Thomas Bergler: A Book Review

by Randy Corn

The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012); 229 pgs. $19.17

 

Like many book-reading pastors, I pay attention to suggested reading lists.  For a number of years now, Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has published a top ten list of books that would be helpful to those in the ministry.  The Juvenilization of American Christianity made Mohler’s list for 2012.

The thesis of the volume is that from the 1940s and onward, the church has been gearing itself toward winning its young people.  This is summarized in the introduction:

“By personalizing Christianity and creatively blending it with elements of popular culture ranging from rock music to political protests, youth ministries helped ensure the ongoing vitality of Christianity in America.  But these same ministries also sometimes pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers.  For good or ill, American Christianity would never be the same.” (pg. 5)

What is interesting is to see how the various branches of American Christianity have gone about “juvenilizing” Christianity.  The author divides this into four large religious bodies:  Roman Catholics, Liberal Protestants, Black Protestants, and Evangelical Whites.  The Roman church wanted to say that Catholics made good Americans, but tried to keep them in a cultural ghetto.  The Liberals thought that the key was to champion progressive political involvement.  The Blacks did a version of this same thing, but it was more focused on their own problems and therefore there had greater involvement.  The Evangelicals followed the lead of Youth For Christ and determined to be entertaining and to emphasize how God could help people live a happy, fulfilled life.  Of these approaches, the author says that the Evangelicals had the most numerical success.

The problem with that success was that it has produced at least two generations of Christians who don’t seem to understand what spiritual maturity would even look like.  This is reflected in much of the popular Christian music, which speaks of falling in love with Jesus, almost like He is your lover.  The idea is that we are to have something of an adolescent crush on him.  To quote the author, “If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.” (pg. 225)

While I found all of this book interesting, I would have to say that the concluding chapter is worth the price of the book by itself.  The author asks,

“In our attempts to ‘reach’ people in our community, are we conceding too much to the characteristic weaknesses and besetting sins of our culture?  We will always have to build cultural bridges to people outside the church (Acts 17:16-34, 1 Cor. 9:19-27).  But which direction is the traffic flowing on those bridges?  Are unbelievers crossing the bridge to reach a countercultural, spiritually mature way of life, or are believers crossing  back into the spiritually immature ways of the world?” (p. 227)

I did not expect it, but it really challenged me to ask myself how mature my faith really is.  What’s more, as a pastor, what sort of Christianity am I hoping to develop in the lives of the people that I serve?

 

Note: Bergler’s follow-up book, From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity, will be released in November.

 

Adam, Eve, and Maple Tree Leaves

by Kevin L. Hester

I have the privilege of working at Welch College which is nestled in the historic Richland Village neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. Every fall I am greeted with the brilliant yellows and bright reds of the neighborhood’s American maples. The beauty of this time of year always brings me back to the glory of God’s creation. My Christian worldview understands the beauty, intricacy, and order of this world within the context of God’s creation as outlined in Genesis 1-2. Sometimes I take this worldview for granted. After all, it isn’t the only one, and it certainly isn’t the predominant view in this country.

Modern science has argued for an alternative worldview story of accident and happenstance. Since Darwin, Christians have wrestled with the implications of his theory for Christianity. At times the Church has incorporated the view by reading “gaps” in the Genesis narrative or epochal “days” of creation. Still other parts of the Church have rejected naturalism entirely, preferring the “literal” interpretation of Genesis. This latter view has been the predominant evangelical view until recently. But more and more evangelicals have embraced forms of “theistic evolution” in an attempt to reconcile science and theology. This has led them to reread or reinterpret the Genesis narrative according to a scientific framework.

While many evangelical Christians have done an exemplary job responding to the challenge of Darwin’s thought, others have embraced it. New “advances” in the study of genetics promise to raise similar questions. Recently, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson of the BioLogos Forum have questioned the existence of a historical Adam and Eve as presented in Genesis. Their position was heavily covered both in Christian media and in secular news programs.

The appearance of a book covering this topic in Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series indicates that such thinking is infiltrating a number of branches of evangelicalism. Yet what is sometimes overshadowed or overlooked by these discussions are the implications of the loss of a historical Adam and Eve for the Church, for the Christian worldview, and for the gospel.

I am sure that technical answers from Christian scientists will be forthcoming. Already advances in discoveries about what was previously thought to be “junk DNA” are promising that there is much more to the story of human diversity both in reference to other species and variety in our own (see here).

Those technical answers will not come from me. I am not a scientist. Rather, I am a Christian theologian who knows what it is like to live in a beautiful, broken world. It is the story of Adam and Even that holds the key to the beauty, the brokenness, and the promise of redemption.

This promise lies in a historical Adam and Eve. Rather than reading Genesis 1-3 according to a scientific preconception of what it must mean, perhaps we should attempt to read it according to the narrative of the book in which it is found. In this case, the Bible is thoroughly historical in nature. Even books that are not strictly historical are set within a historical framework. Some books such as Kings, Chronicles, and Judges are historical in the highest degree. Others like prophecy occur in the context of historical disobedience or punishment. The wisdom literature is tied to historical authors striving to live their faith out in community. Likewise, the Psalms are linked to human authors, attest to human events, and cry out for lived experience in the present and future communities of faith. The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ in historical detail dating the events by Roman rulers. Acts and the Epistles relate the growth of the Church in time and narrate its experience of living out the faith until Christ’s return. The whole scope of Scripture is historical in nature. Why should we expect anything different from the book of Genesis?

Genesis itself reads as a historical narrative starting as it does “in the beginning.” The ordered arrangement of the creation days speaks to temporal flow. The genealogies and events described all function to set the narrative firmly in the historical genre. The author clearly intends the text to be taken as history. Jesus and Paul likewise understood and presented the story of Adam and Eve as a literal event (cf. Rom. 5:12-14).

The events of Genesis 1-3 tell the basic worldview story of Christianity. Christianity is a historical religion. It preaches a historical gospel about a historical Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate. But the events of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection have no meaning without the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. Paul, in Romans 5, outlines that it was Christ who came to set right all that had gone wrong because of Adam’s sin. The effects of the fall are being undone as we are recreated in God’s image as sons and daughters of God, and it is these effects that will be finally undone at the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth. The Christian doctrine of the atonement, of salvation, and the eternal state–of the Gospel itself–are rooted in the historical Adam and Eve.

The story of Adam and Eve also explains human culture and relationships. According to Genesis 1, humans were designed, we did not simply come to be. Things that are designed have a purpose and this purpose is likewise described in the first few chapters of Genesis. Humans were created in God’s image so that they might have a relationship with God and with all the rest of creation. Genesis 2 points out how Eve was created to govern the world together with Adam and to be his partner establishing marriage and the nuclear family as the basis for human culture. Jesus himself makes precisely this point when he discusses the importance of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. Without the story of such a design, there is no basis for societal norms and no standard for human relationships.

Genesis 1 tells us that what God created was good, but in Genesis 3 we see what humanity has done to God’s creation. Original beauty is marred and relationships are broken by sin. Consistent human experience tells us this is true. We inherently “feel” that something is wrong with the world. Evil exists and we are uncomfortable with it. We recognize beauty, but all too often see the grotesque creeping in around us. But where can such ideas of beauty and brokenness, of right and wrong come from?

The naturalistic worldview has no basis for such categories. In naturalism there is only good and bad for me but human experience consistently tells us that there really are such categories. The story of Adam and Eve, of a good creation corrupted by an evil use of free will explains the categories and promises a way back to the garden.

We need a historical Adam and Eve. The story’s historical reality is confirmed by the literary genre and by its use in Scripture. The historicity of the narrative from Genesis best accords with the historical faith of the Christian Church doctrinally expressed in the atonement as found in evangelical Christianity. It best explains the human desire to love and be loved and the human experience of good and evil, beauty and brokenness. Without Adam and Eve there is no Christianity, and without Christianity there is no hope.

This hope is also promised in the narrative of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:15, in the midst of the curses that came as a result of original sin, there is a promise. This promise shines a glimmer of hope in a dark world broken by sin with the story of the defeat of sin and death. You see this is why I can enjoy those autumn leaves. I know they are dying and will fall. I know that there will be months of cold and days with more darkness than light. But because of Adam and Eve, I have hope. I know that what appears dead and broken can be made new again. I know that a beauty lost can be regained.

Reflections on “Without God, Without Creed”

by W. Jackson Watts

 

I recently read James Turner’s significant 1985 work, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America [1]. It’s rare to find such a thoughtful work which combines social and intellectual history and extensive theological discussion. Moreover, it is refreshing to find a book which provides significant explanatory power for our present religious environment in America, even if the occasional detail is debatable.

The book is decidedly descriptive in nature, setting forth an account of how disbelief in God became plausible in late 19th-century America. This particular argument requires Turner to offer extensive commentary on religious and social developments at different epochs in American history. These developments cumulatively paved the way for agnosticism and atheism to be viable options. Since these trends have unavoidably contributed to our contemporary spiritual environment so significantly, in this post I intend to offer a few reflections on these and their bearing on the church today.

Christianity: Doctrine or Morals?

Turner describes evangelicalism, especially in the early-mid 1800s, as having taken a decided turn toward thinking of the Christian religion as being a code of morality rather than a confession of truth claims. While typically the latter wasn’t denied, it was minimized, especially as orthodox Christianity gradually lost mainstream intellectual influence. He develops this claim by pointing to historical incidents as well as direct citations from a number of writers in the past—orthodox Christians as well as those of a heterodox sort. Indeed, it will offend the sensibilities of many to read quotes from pastors such as Jonathan Mayhew in the mid-1700s, who described Christianity as “principally an institution of life and manners, designed to teach us how to be good men, and to show us the necessity of  becoming so” [2] [emphasis mine]. Many other examples abound.

There were more facets to this shift from doctrinal or truth claims to “Christianity as a superior brand of morality.” For our purposes, it should (1) provoke us to consider how our approach to faith embodies and explains the way that truth and morality relate, and (2) consider whether our engagement with the world forces us to erode or deemphasize either of the two. Let’s consider the first of these.

I think Leroy Forlines said it well in his valuable pamphlet Morals & Orthodoxy. He raised the question, “ “If orthodox thought is necessary for sound morality, the question might be asked if a sound morality is essential for orthodoxy?” [3] Forlines poroceeds to answer in the affirmative, stating, “Orthodoxy and morality [orthopraxy] are inseparably bound together. Each needs the other. Anemic morality cannot continually support orthodox theology and orthodox Cheristian experiences” [4].

Much more could be said about the relationship between doctrine and practice, or theology and morality (or ethics). Readers may see my 2012 Theological Symposium paper for some further insight and secondary sources to consider on this topic.

Christianity: World-Affirming or World-Denying?

The way Christian communities understand the fundamental essence of their faith informs how they engage the world in word and deed. Seeing Christianity as a set of metaphysical claims about God’s existence and personal salvation, or envisioning it as principally about the reform of society and its citizens, will inevitably shape how the church postures itself in the world. Christians in the past and even today can be found on various ends of the spectrum in their approach to ministry.

Yet Turner notes that the nineteenth century witnessed a wide-scale rise of moral reform organizations, including societies for temperance, sabbatarianism, antislavery, anti-dueling, and more [5]. Ironically, Turner’s narrative of early American religion also includes significance evidence of how many orthodox Christians enthusiastically embraced scientific advancement and discovery prior to and during this same period. Some even embraced such changes with the mindset that these advances were the means by which God was establishing His kingdom in the world. Not surprisingly, many theologians were postmillennialists in this era.

These trends force us to ask some significant questions about how Christianity relates to the world. “World” is indeed one of those tricky words which, like most words, has a range of meaning. Theologically speaking, it can refer to God’s good creation, the nations of the earth, or fallen humanity and the brokenness of the present order. Context is everything in making the determination of what “world” means in a given passage.

However, there is a larger, practical concern beyond word studies. Is Christianity world-affirming or world-denying? When we consider any number of passages[6], we could find different answers to this question:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

 (Psalm 19:1)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

 (John 3:16)

 “Do not love the world, or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

 (1 John 2:15)

 And Jesus, looking at [the rich young man], loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

(Mark 10:21-22)

Such passages create tension in our minds as they  suggest an array of potential understandings of the world and the things therein. Certainly context, specific word studies, and reading with the overarching grain of Scripture help us ascertain the meaning of the word in each passage. These are the very things we must do to preach a sermon or teach a lesson. However, they are also essential for forming an ethic of vocation and leisure, a Christian vision of politics, and an overall understanding of culture.

Forging an understanding of this diverse range of subjects is dependent on a biblical worldview, but doctrines such as general revelation, common grace, sin, and eschatology are especially critical also. Otherwise the church will affirm what it must deny or deny what it should affirm. The wrong type of entanglement or withdrawal both yield the same result: unfaithful compromise. The church cannot build a fruitful ministry around uncritical affirmations nor hasty negations. It needs biblically-informed wisdom to avoid both.

I’m not suggesting that the church has an simple task in avoiding different versions of the errors committed by Christians in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. One could argue that we’re still sorting through the ruins of twentieth-century errors as I write. However, Turner’s work is an in-depth treatment of some important issues that helps us evaluate misunderstandings that we likely will be tempted to repeat. Perhaps the way of escape from some temptations can often be found by looking at where we failed in the past.

____________________

[1] James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

[2] Turner, 67 (citing Mayhew).

[3] F. Leroy Forlines, Morals and Orthodoxy (Nashville: FWB Commission on Theological Liberalism, 1974), 5.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Turner, 125.

[6] All Scripture citations come from the English Standard Version.

Why Calvinists Really Believe in Unconditional Election

by J. Matthew Pinson

Often my Calvinist friends say that the reason they are Calvinists is because of total depravity—that the entire Calvinistic system flows from total depravity, because there is no way to rescue people from their total depravity except by complete regeneration prior to faith, which necessitates unconditional election. Many Arminians over the centuries, of course, have bought into this line of reasoning and have jettisoned the doctrine of total depravity.

I contend, though, that it is not really the doctrine of total depravity that causes Calvinists to be Calvinists. To result in the Calvinistic system, Calvinists must add something to total depravity to demand unconditional election. What they add is sovereign and particular grace (“sovereign,” of course, by their definition of it).

Human beings are naturally unable to desire God or salvation; they can do so only through divine grace. On this much Calvinists and Reformed Arminians agree. But Calvinism interprets divine grace in such a way as to necessitate unconditional election: First, for Calvinists, divine grace presupposes a deterministic view of divine sovereignty, and second, God extends this grace only to the particular few because of His good pleasure and His secret will, which He has not revealed.

Therefore, despite the desire of many Calvinists to say that Arminians do not really believe that natural man is unable to desire God on His own, the real difference is that Reformed Arminians believe that God’s grace reaches out to all people, not merely a select few. Furthermore, Arminians believe that God has arranged His universe in such a way that His sovereignty allows for the genuine freedom of His creatures.

Before continuing this discussion of election, it will be helpful to define what theologians typically mean by words like predestination, election, and reprobation. It is helpful to think of election and reprobation as subsets of divine predestination. Predestination is simply God’s predetermination of the destiny of human beings. Election is His gracious choice of people to be His for eternity, while reprobation is His decree that the non-elect will be eternally separated from him. On this Calvinists and Arminians agree. It is the question of how people come to be elect or reprobate that causes the disagreement.

In other words, why does God predestine certain people to be His for eternity (election) and predestine others to be separated from Himself for eternity (reprobation)? This brings us to the “U” in the TULIP: Unconditional Election. Calvinists believe in unconditional election, and Arminians believe in conditional election. According to Calvinists, God predestines people to faith without any conditions. His reasons for choosing these people and passing over others are known only to Him. It is a part of His secret will, as distinguished from His revealed will in Holy Scripture.

Calvinists differ on whether reprobation is conditional or unconditional. Single reprobationists believe that, while God unconditionally chooses His elect for salvation, He conditionally reprobates the rest of humanity on account of their sin. This of course makes little sense to Arminians, who think that, if God’s redemptive decisions are conditional, then His decisions regarding human judgment would be conditional as well, and vice versa. Thus, many Arminians believe that double predestination is the more consistent Calvinist position. This seems to have been the position of John Calvin (though Calvinists disagree on whether his position was single or double predestination).

Calvin wrote, in Book 3, ch. 22 of his Institutes: “Those whom God passes over, he condemns; and this he does for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children” [1]. Later he asked, “Whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many people, together with their infant offspring in eternal death, unless it so pleased God” [2]. Thus, for Calvin, the good pleasure of God, and that alone, is the reason for divine reprobation.

For Arminians, both reprobation and election are conditioned on whether or not, in God’s foreknowledge, one is in union with Christ. If God foreknows one as in union with His Son through faith, then God elects that person to be one of His people for eternity. If God does not so foreknow one, He reprobates that person on the basis of unbelief.

I contend that the reason Calvinists believe in unconditional election is not their view of total depravity. Unconditional election is just one way God could use to save people who are totally depraved. The reason Calvinists resort to the doctrine of unconditional election is their view of God’s sovereignty. Consistent Calvinists would agree with Calvin’s statement that the reason why “Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many people, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death” is simply that “it so pleased God” [3].

Another way of saying this is that this is the best of all possible worlds. In the Arminian view, there are contingencies in the universe. In other words, because God gives human beings the gift of freedom, events can transpire in a way God does not want them to transpire. Even our common experiences in the world of seeing people—including Christians—openly disobey God seems to confirm this belief. For the Arminian, something has gone terribly wrong in the world. It is not the best of all possible worlds. But it was the world that God chose to create because He chose to create free, rational creatures—creatures who would not love and serve Him simply because it could not be otherwise.

Classical Calvinists, on the contrary, believe that God foreordained all of reality. For example, Jerome Zanchius stated that “All beings whatever, from the highest angel to the meanest reptile, and from the meanest reptile to the minutest atom, are the objects of God’s eternal decrees” [4]. August Toplady said concerning the sparrow that God’s “all-wise providence hath before appointed what bough it shall pitch on, what grains it shall pick up, where it shall lodge, and where it shall build; on what it shall live, and when it shall die” [5].

God foreordains every detail of reality, according to Classical Calvinism. Things are just as God pleased to foreordain them. The sole actor is God, and to say that human beings can freely choose a course of action, and could have chosen an alternate course of action, is to make man the measure of all things and to detract from God as sole actor in the universe.

This, not total depravity, is the reason unconditional election is necessary in the Calvinistic system. It is what led Herman Bavinck to say, “The final answer to the question why a thing is and why it is as it must ever remain, is ‘God willed it,’ according to his absolute sovereignty” [6]. If this approach to divine sovereignty were true, then A. A. Hodge’s statement would naturally follow: “A conditional decree would subvert the sovereignty of God and make him . . . dependent upon the uncontrollable actions of his own creatures” [7] (emphasis added). That, not total depravity, is the reason Calvinism necessitates the doctrine of unconditional election.

 

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[1] Book 3, ch. 22 of his Institutes, 947.

[2] 955

[3] Institutes, 3.23.7.

[4] The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted (New York: George Lindsay, 1811), 114.

[5] The Works of Augustus Toplady (London: J. J. Chidley, 1841), 664.

[6] The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1977), 371.

[7] Outlines of Theology (London: Thomas Nelson, 1863), 172.

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine