Tag Archives: Arminianism

Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 2)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the second part of a two-part article)

In Part I, I have defined Molinism and evaluated its view more basically. I have other criticisms of Keathley’s position, some of which might not be shared by all Molinists but all of which seem likely to result from Molinism’s effort to achieve a stance between Calvinism and Arminianism.  I will treat three matters.

Other Problems with Keathley’s Molinism

1. Keathley confronts the objection often posed by Calvinists who say that requiring a person to exercise faith for salvation makes faith something the saved “do” that is in some way virtuous and distinguishes them from unbelievers. He states the objection as follows:

If I freely believe, but my neighbor freely does not, does not this imply that somehow I was nobler than my neighbor? Did I not use my freedom to a higher end? Yes, salvation is a free gift, and receiving redemption incurs no merit, but is not the one who accepts it in some way wiser, more humble, more virtuous, more appreciative, more aware of his need, or more sensitive to sin than the one who rejects it?[1]

In essence Keathley accepts this as a “problem” and proceeds to resolve it by viewing faith as a gift and not something the elect “do.” He represents the elect as “doing” absolutely nothing; they don’t even choose to accept Christ. By contrast, the non-elect actively “do” something; they consciously resist God and thereby become solely responsible for their damnation. So, for Keathley, the salvation of the elect is totally the work of God, while the damnation of the non-elect is totally their own work.

I would urge, however, that as long as one regards salvation as conditional, there will inevitably be a difference between what a believer “does” and what an unbeliever “does” (or “doesn’t”) and this can theoretically (but mistakenly) be regarded as making the one more “worthy” or “virtuous” than the other. The very reason for unconditional salvation is to avoid that.

Keathley says the elect “refrain” from resisting, whereas the non-elect actively resist. Well, to “refrain from resisting” is still to “do” something—which simply substitutes for “choosing Christ.” The difference between one who “does” this refraining and one who actively resists can still be (falsely) accused of amounting to a difference in “worthiness.”

The way to deal with this Calvinist objection is to deny that it is valid. Biblically speaking, believing (faith) is not a “work”; accepting a gift with the empty hand of faith is not offering any worth or merit or virtue to God. The actions of the elect and non-elect are parallel: one chooses for and the other chooses against. If libertarian freedom means anything at all, it is exercised by both the elect and the non-elect. Otherwise, only the unbeliever acts with libertarian freedom, while the believer does not lest he be guilty of offering something he has “done” to God.

Elsewhere Keathley shows clearly that he understands that faith is not a work and that the verb “do” doesn’t require doing a meritorious work or deed. If one asks, then, why he bothers to offer a different solution, the answer is that he is determined to hold to Calvinism’s view of what it means for salvation to be wholly the work of God. To this end he is sustaining unconditional election, to which I now turn.

2. Keathley’s treatment leaves cloudy the question whether salvation is by faith. I say “cloudy” because he seems to speak both ways. On the one hand, he forthrightly affirms that salvation is by faith: “The Bible does not merely present faith as the evidence of regeneration or effectual call but as the condition to receiving salvation. Salvation is by faith.”[2] Again, he says, “We are required to exercise faith in order to receive salvation.”[3]

On the other hand, he also affirms things that appear to mean that salvation is unto faith instead of by faith. He follows the quotation just given with these words, “but this disposition of trust is a divine gift.”[4] He “understands the sinner’s coming to faith as a process by which the Spirit of God carries a person to the point of saving trust.”[5] He refers to this as “ambulatory faith” and illustrates with an ambulance carrying an unconscious man to treatment who wakes up on the way having had nothing at all to do with being transported to the emergency room.  This means that God’s “overcoming grace” carries a person all the way into faith. This way, God gives him or her the faith: “All that is necessary in this scenario is that a person refrains from acting.”[6] The man in the ambulance could rebel and insist on getting out, of course; but as long as a person being drawn to Christ doesn’t resist, he will infallibly believe.

We remember that this is the case for persons for whom God, knowing how they would respond to specific circumstances of grace, designed and actualized the world to include the very circumstances that they were certain not to resist.

As I see it, this is not salvation by faith,[7] and the matter is further complicated by the fact that Keathley defends unconditional election. In traditional theology, unconditional election entails unconditional salvation, and conditional election implies conditional salvation. For Arminians, election is God’s choosing believers for salvation, and so their salvation is conditional. If election is unconditional, the elect meet no condition.

I found myself trying hard to discern how Keathley’s unconditional election is compatible with his observation that salvation is by faith. Clearly, he means that election is not grounded in the believer’s faith: “Molinists agree with Calvinists that it is crucial to maintain that God did not elect on account of foreknown merit or foreseen faith.”[8] I concluded that for him “by faith” does not mean conditional salvation, precisely because he regards faith as a gift and therefore the initial element of salvation itself. In the end, Keathley is making a diligent effort to credit the work of salvation to God alone—with which we Arminians will enthusiastically agree. By the same token, he accepts the idea that if the individual must exercise faith in order to be saved then the individual has contributed something and the work is not God’s alone—with which we will firmly disagree. We are not synergists.

For Keathley, then, God’s decree to save the elect is completely independent of their faith. God’s “overcoming grace” carries them along to a faith that God gives them and which they do not actively choose to exercise. This is not the Arminian view of conditional election or of salvation by faith.

3. Keathley does not seem consistent in drawing out the implications of how God deals with the non-elect as compared to the elect. I do not intend to pursue this in detail, but I think it important to mention as a matter for further consideration. To sum up, his view makes God fully responsible, in grace, for the salvation of the elect; but he intentionally does not draw a parallel conclusion with regard to the non-elect.

However, I believe that if he were consistent his view of how God uses middle knowledge would make God just as responsible for the damnation of the non-elect as for the salvation of the elect. At least there would be more that is coordinate than he appears to realize when he compares the two as “asymmetrical.”[9] In both cases, a Molinist God acts in exactly the same fundamental way. For the elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will not resist and will lead them into faith. For the non-elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will resist and will not lead them into faith. Both of them have, by His design at the moment He actualized the created order, been placed in circumstances which they will freely respond to in ways that accomplish God’s will for them. This is one of the problems of determinism that Keathley fails to avoid, I believe.

I call attention again to these words from the three quotations I included earlier: “God predestines all events.” “God meticulously ‘sets the table’ so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined.” “By use of middle knowledge [God] ordained … with infallible certainty that Peter would [deny Jesus].”  “[God] rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” “Our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.”

The implications of these observations are as surely for the non-elect as for the elect. What Arminians call “prevenient” grace, which effectively enables even those who reject Christ to believe, is not the experience of any non-elect in Keathley’s view, so far as I can see.

The Problem of Order in Molinism’s “Middle Knowledge”

Molinism is about the logical order of elements of God’s knowledge—and, consequently, of His decisions. To begin with, I see no need for Molina’s “middle knowledge.” If God by virtue of His omniscience knows all possible worlds, then He already knows how anyone would respond to any conceivable circumstance.

Nevertheless, Molinism has a problem in its own presentation of order. Keathley and Molinism strongly distinguish between the three supposed “moments” of God’s knowledge.  First is God’s necessary knowledge of what could be, then His middle knowledge of what would be in any of the worlds that could be, and finally His free knowledge (or foreknowledge) of what will be in the world He decides to actualize.

The question is this: Where in this logical progression does election take place?  One would think that God’s decision to elect some out of the mass of fallen humanity cannot logically exist until He has first decided to permit (or cause, in supralapsarian views) the fall. And yet, in Keathley’s progression, God has already, prior to creation, identified the elect in considering what circumstances of grace to include for them in the world He actualizes.

In other words, the way God can provide “circumstances of grace” in the lives of the elect when He actualizes the world is if he has already identified them.  But that means (logically) that He must decide on the world to actualize before He (logically) decides about the fall and then about the election. That might work well if He were designing the world to provide equal opportunity for all, but instead He is designing its circumstances to the advantage and disadvantage of the elect and non-elect. And in order to do that he has to know who they are before He even knows they have fallen and need salvation.

If it should seem that I am violating my own uncertainty about Molinism’s logical “moments” in God’s knowledge, I say that I realize that some things known and/or decided must at least logically precede or follow from other such things. And it is clear to me that God must know/decide that He will create the world, before He knows/decides about the fall, before He knows/decides about election to salvation or about reprobation. But Molinism inverts the logical order.

Conclusion

In the end, the problem with Molinism is, precisely, a problem of order in God’s design for the world and human beings. Molinism offers that God, knowing all our tendencies, designed the world first in such a way that all those He willed to save would freely come to Him and all those He did not will to save would freely reject Him. This means that when we come into the world, God has already placed us in circumstances that will bring the elect to faith and will not bring the non-elect to faith. For such a view, Keathley is right to use words like determines and renders certain to describe the salvific acts of God.  And this is how God becomes a manipulator of human choices.

For the evangelical Arminian, however, the order is different. God designs the world, first and foremost, in a way that works in harmony with the libertarian freedom of all. In His universal salvific program, He provides for all and deals graciously with all in a way that enables each to respond positively to His wooing. Then both the elect and the non-elect, enabled by the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit, respond in libertarian freedom to accept or reject Christ.

When it comes to showing how God’s sovereignty and human freedom work together, then, Arminianism offers a much better understanding than Molinism.

________________

[1] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 102.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] I can tolerate saying that faith is a gift of God, but only if that is carefully explained to mean that God gives the opportunity and persuasion that enable faith.  But always the Scriptures attribute faith to the person exercising it.  See my Grave, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 167.

[8] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 11.

[9] Ibid., 145.

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.

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.

Arminian and Baptist: A Review

by Theological Commission

Occasionally members of the Commission for Theological Integrity publish articles, essays, book reviews, and full-length books. As this occurs we hope to keep readers abreast of these developments, especially if they will be useful and informative. We see this as an extension of our work of being an effective Commission.

Recently we learned of a new review of one of Dr. Matt Pinson’s most recent books, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Randall House, 2015), written by Kevin Jackson. This review appeared at the website for the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA).

Readers can find out more about this interesting and eclectic fellowship of self-identified Arminians here and here. The Commission (nor the National Association of Free Will Baptists) have a formal relationship with SEA. However, there are some who have been associated with both the NAFWB and SEA. They occasionally reference Free Will Baptists and Free Will Baptist authors.

Even for those who have not yet read Arminian and Baptist, this review will provide a brief overview of the chapter content. Also, the reader’s self-idenfiying as a Wesleyan Arminian (and reviewing the book from that perspective) gives something of a window into some of the distinctions between Reformed or Classical Arminianism and Wesleyan Arminianism that aren’t merely perceived, but actual.

We leave it to readers to make their own judgments about the accuracy of the Mr. Jackson’s assertions and perspective. Readers can also find other material on Pinson’s book here, here, and here.

 

Who’s Afraid of the Word “Synergist”?

by Matthew Pinson

A Theological Dirty Word

Recently I’ve noticed that, over the past century, Arminians have increasingly used the word “synergist” to describe themselves, rather than seeing it as a negative epithet, as most Christian theologians have. I have blogged before here about how Arminians are “not necessarily synergists,” and reprinted here some kind dissent from my friend Brian Abasciano of the Society of Evangelical Arminians. As I’ve said before, I believe Carl Bangs was absolutely right when he said that Arminius would never have described himself as a synergist [1]! Synergism has always been a theological “dirty word” associated with semi-Pelagianism.

“Synergistic” Lutherans?

I’ve been reading a lot of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lutheran dogmaticians lately, and the fear of being labeled synergists is especially true of them. Despite the fact that we moderns neatly divvy Lutherans into “monergistic” and “synergistic” Lutherans, no good Lutheran ever wanted to be known as a synergist. This includes famous scholastic Lutherans such as Aegidius Hunnius, Johann Gerhard, and Johannes Andreas Quendstedt.

It might surprise us evangelicals who rub shoulders with Missouri Synod Lutherans that most Lutherans throughout history have believed that election is intuitu Christi meriti fide apprehendi (in view of the merit of Christ apprehended by faith). In other words, election and predestination, as described for example in Ephesians 1, are always in view of Christ and his mediatorial work, which is of course apprehended by the individual’s faith.

Most of the Lutheran scholastic theologians of the seventeenth century believed in the personal election of individuals in eternity past intuitu Christi meriti fide apprehendi. This is precisely what Arminius believed. Scholars such as the Danish Henrik Frandsen are helping us see the fluidity between Lutheran Scholasticism and the less-Calvinistic wing of Reformed Scholasticism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century [2].

It’s no surprise that the Lutherans who opposed unconditional election in the Lutheran Predestinarian Controversy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t fond of the label “synergist.” Their opponents called them that because of their belief that God elected individuals in eternity past in view of the merit of Christ apprehended by faith. They also believed that divine grace could be resisted even after conversion, and that one could fall completely from grace. Yet they strenuously contended that they were not synergists [3].

Second-Guessing

At any rate, I have picked up on an increasing tendency of self-described Arminians who view the term “synergism,” not as a term of opprobrium to be avoided at all cost, but as a word by which they wish to describe themselves positively.

So often, when a large chorus of Arminians begin to repeat the same thing, we Reformed Arminians start to wonder, “What’s wrong with us?” just because we’re hearing so many people echo the same thing—e.g., “Arminians are synergists,” “Election is corporate,” and so forth.

But Reformed Arminians shouldn’t really be surprised to see that our good Arminian friends are aghast and open-mouthed when we don’t want to be called names like synergist, or when we want to say that election is individual. It’s not always fun being in the minority of a movement. But, quite simply, it’s where Reformed Arminians are. So we shouldn’t be surprised when our good Arminian brothers and sisters find our views on these matters odd.

Wesley and Synergism

However, Reformed Arminians aren’t the only Arminians who have been averse to being labeled synergists. Wesleyans like John Wesley himself as well as John Fletcher of Madeley would have been concerned about such a label. I recently came across a little comment from the eminent Wesleyan theologian Kenneth Collins that confirmed my suspicions that Wesley himself wouldn’t feel comfortable being called a synergist. Collins avers:

“Wesley, as with Luther and Calvin, understood quite well that God is remarkably gracious and at times acts alone in the face of human impotence, for not only is justification not a human work but also the gift of grace is not given on the basis of a prior working. . . . The conjunctive style of Wesley’s theology is not, after all, fully or aptly expressed in the divine and human roles found in an overarching synergistic paradigm even if the stress is on divine initiative (as in the model of responsible grace). . . . On the contrary, more accurate readings suggest that a synergistic paradigm, which contains both divine and human acting, must itself be caught up in an even larger conjunction in which the Protestant emphasis on the sole activity of God, apart from all human working, is equally factored in—not simply co-operant or responsible grace. . .” [4].

W. F. Warren on Synergism and Wesleyan Theology

This was strongly confirmed in a Methodist Review article I recently came across by the famous Methodist theologian and founding president of Boston University, W. F. Warren. He argued that synergism contradicts the Wesleyan view that “no man can come unto Christ without a divine drawing; none can even call Jesus the Lord but by the Holy Spirit.” Further, he said, synergism “conflict[s] with all those representations of Scripture which trace our awakening, regeneration, and sanctification to a divine inworking.” It also militates against “the standing testimony of the Christian consciousness, which in all lands and ages bears witness to the truth of Christ’s declaration: ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’”

Warren says that, even though man is not “a passive material to be transformed and recast by simple omnipotence” and we can resist God’s grace, we “must not regard this great work as the product of a joint action of divine and human agency viewed as independent factors. God does not stand over against the natural man, and merely co-operate with him in precisely that degree in which the individual himself operates to secure salvation.”

“This is the error of synergism,” Warren warns. “It springs out of a false deistic conception of the relation of God to the creature, and of man as a moral agent. It predicates of man a natural and ethical independence which he does not possess; it ignores the fact that in God we live, and move, and have our being.” Warren describes various stripes of synergism, noting unequivocally that “All these varieties Methodism rejects as inconsistent with what the Bible teaches.”

Citing the Methodist Articles of Religion and the great Wesleyan theologian John Fletcher of Madeley for support, Warren emphasizes that “any undue stress upon the human element in the appropriation of salvation logically leads to a Pelagian anthropology, and a doctrine of salvation by the merit of good works,” and he says there are “fatal consequences” that result from the teachings of  “Calvinistic monergists on the one hand, and by Pharisaic moralists and synergists on the other” [5].

Thinking Out Loud

These musings are offered for just what they are—thinking out loud about whether we Reformed Arminians should continue feeling insulted when our Calvinist friends call us synergists. These ramblings aren’t intended as definitive. They’re just a scratching of the surface. But the more I cast about, the more it seems we Reformed Arminians who are afraid of the word “synergist” are in good company. We learned this sensibility from Jacobus Arminius and Thomas Helwys and Thomas Grantham and Carl Bangs and Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli—but also, it seems, from some of Lutheranism’s and Wesleyanism’s leading lights.

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[1] Bangs boldly states, “Arminius was a monergist.” (Carl Bangs, “Arminius and Reformed Theology,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1958, 166).

[2] Henrik Frandsen, Hemmingius in the Same World as Pekinsius and Arminius (Praestoe, Denmark: Grafik Werk, 2013). See also Frederick Calder, ed., Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1835).

[3] For a fun read on the Lutheran Predestination Controversy from the vantage point of the non-unconditional election side of the debate, see George H Schodde, ed., The Error of Modern Missouri: Its Inception, Development and Refutation (Columbus, Oh.: Lutheran Book Concern, 1897). Much of this book was translated from the German by the Lutheran biblical scholar R. C. H. Lenski. It contains a helpful compilation of anti-Calvinist material from the vantage point of Lutheran Scholasticism.

[4] Kenneth Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007). 163-64.

[5] W. F. Warren, “The Methodist Doctrine of the Appropriation of Salvation,” The Methodist Review 68 (July 1886), 594-97.