by Jackson Watts
My first educational stop during my graduate studies was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a distinguished Southern Baptist school in the beautiful town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. Southeastern (hereafter SEBTS) has a number of excellent scholars in several fields, and so I appreciated my three years there immensely. However, given my Free Will Baptist background, I expected to encounter some differences.
The two major doctrinal distinctions that most observe between Southern Baptists and Free Will Baptists are (1) Disagreement over whether feet washing should be considered an ordinance; and (2) Disagreement over whether genuine believers can fall away, that is apostatize, and thus forfeit their salvation.
Free Will Baptists answer affirmatively on the first of these, understanding feet washing (a) to have been ordained for perpetual practice by Christ himself, (b) to be a symbol of the Gospel truth of sanctification, and (c) to inculcate humility and remind the believer of the virtue of humility as part of their sanctification. Commission Chairman Matt Pinson called attention to this topic in a recent blog post.
On the question of perseverance and apostasy, Free Will Baptists affirm not only the possibility of falling away, but the actual incidence of believers making shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). We call to mind not only the many severe warnings found in Hebrews and Second Peter, but warnings from Jesus himself concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31; Mk. 3:29). Though most would describe apostasy as a process of falling into unbelief, it is still attached to decisive, willful disobedience.
During my experience at SEBTS, I expected to encounter dissent on these two doctrines. Being a Free Will Baptist swimming in Southern Baptist currents, situations would arise when a classmate unfamiliar with my tradition would raise the question, “So what’s the difference between Free Will Baptists and Southern Baptists?” Though my explanations often garnered surprise or confusion (and sometimes genuine interest), I often marveled at those who learned of my position on the doctrine of perseverance, and responded in downright shock that I could hold such a view.
Learning with Other Brethren
Aside from learning to have charitable and useful “intra-mural theological debates,” that is, debates within the Christian family, I took away two key reflections from these experiences. First, I learned how deeply ingrained mainstream views like “once saved, always saved” and “eternal security” are in the Southern Baptist religious imagination. While there are some unhealthy aspects to this, in another sense our view on perseverance ought to shape our piety! All doctrines have real-world import, even if sometimes that import isn’t immediately evident, or if the spiritual consequences of certain doctrines (beliefs or practices) aren’t essential to salvation itself.
One could believe, for instance, that the office of pastor and bishop are two different roles, or that the body of Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, and still be a Christian. Of course, I would say they are incorrect on both of these points. But again, this is what we might think of as an “intra-mural” debate that Christians have had through the ages. Our views truly matter, and no doubt most of our Southern Baptist brethren believe “eternal security” occupies a lofty place in their doctrinal hierarchy.
The second reflection I took from these conversations is just as interesting as the first, and is an angle of the perseverance subject that I believe merits much more scholarly attention: beliefs about perseverance in early and even pre-Reformation Christianity.
One fact that seemed to be a great loss on many of the young seminarians that surrounded me at SEBTS was the belief that a believer could genuinely forfeit, leave, or “lose” (to use popular, though misleading jargon) their salvation has been prevalent in Christian thought through the ages. As Kevin Hester noted in his recent post, “I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history.” Among these contributions are a number of insights into the “perseverance debate.”
Here, I’d like to simply contribute some increased awareness in the evangelical Christian community about how perseverance was characterized in early Christian thought.
Insight from a Forgotten Voice
I will be the first to say that Syriac Christianity is not my area of specialty. Yet my preparation for a sermon from 2 Corinthians 6 recently brought me into dialogue with a significant Syriac writer from the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. named Philoxenus of Mabbug.
I came across Philoxenus in the 1-2 Corinthians volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (ACCS). The ACCS is a wonderful set of commentaries that have mined riches from numerous early Christian figures and sources to allow the best of the exegetical tradition to inform contemporary biblical interpretation and faith. Gerald Bray was the main editor of this particular volume, and he cites some of the comments from Philoxenus on 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. Here is an excerpt of the verse: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers….for what fellowship does Christ have with Satan, or the believer with the unbelievers, or God’s temple with that of demons?”
Commenting on this verse in “On the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian bishop and theologian writes:
“It is the same now with us who are baptized: neither the wetness of the water in which we are baptized nor the oiliness of the oil with which we are anointed remain with us after our death. But the Holy Spirit, who is mingled in our souls and bodies through the oil and the water, does remain with us, both in this life and after our death. For he is our true baptism, and for this reason we remain always baptized, for the Holy Spirit is within us always, and no sin can strip us of our baptism–neither adultery, nor theft, nor fornication, nor false testimony nor any action of this sort: only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”
While Philoxenus’ connection with Syriac Orthodox Christianity is hinted upon in these opening lines, we should keep in mind that regardless of one’s specific anthropology, or one’s views about the proper subjects of baptism, the baptized person in view in this passage is a true believer because of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. So while we would contend with many early patristic brethren over their espousal of infant baptism, the person in view in this passage is a true believer.
Of that true believer, Philoxenus argues, no sin he may commit is able to strip from him the presence of God’s Spirit. Indeed, we would say the Holy Spirit powerfully convicts believers who may commit such sins. Yet this ancient writer also qualifies his claim with the very exception that many Free Will Baptists would also supply in defense of their view of conditional perseverance: “only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”
I cannot say for sure that Philoxenus has blasphemy of the Holy Spirit specifically in mind here, but it sure sounds like it. Moreover, his assertion of the Holy Spirit’s initial presence in the individual and then later departure also seems to support the notion that “falling away” isn’t merely backsliding, or always the evidence that one was never really as a Christian to begin with. These are just a few of the main aspects of the overall perseverance topic that often arise in discussion.
I should add one another qualification about this figure from early Christianity. Philoxenus is often overlooked because there has been reluctance among Christians who espouse Chalcedonian Christology to engage him since he belongs in the theological camp known as miaphysitism. Though it is a proto-orthodox position, it arises from the basic view found in monophysitism. Historical context aside, most modern Christians would see this as a serious Christological error that doesn’t line up adequately to the definition offered at Chalcedon (A.D. 451).
Even so, despite the cautious reading we must exercise with early Christian sources—and any Christian sources at that—I think we can learn to chew up the meat and spit out the bones when it comes to gleaning doctrinal insights from premodern Christian exegesis.
 It is important to acknowledge that one reason why beliefs on this topic during this period are often overlooked is because they are sometimes attached to problematic assumptions and views on the efficacy of baptism, penance, and post-baptismal sins. Still, some untangling of these issues are worth doing for the sake of uncovering truly consensual Christian beliefs.
 Cited on page 261 of 1-2 Corinthians in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Volume edited by Gerald Bray (IVP Academic, 2006).