Why I Am Not a Calvinist. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. 224 pages.
Written by Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell
Why I Am Not An Arminian. Written by Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams.
Walls and Dongell approach the biblical text with humility. They do not profess omniscience. They concede the Bible is obscure at some points, but it is clear on the central issues of salvation. They correctly frame the debate as not about the freedom of man, but about the nature of God. What does it mean to claim that God does indeed love the whole world, but has chosen only some to be saved? Is God disingenuous when he offers salvation to all, yet withholds from the non-elect the grace necessary to respond? Does God, in fact, have two wills — one of which is unstated but contradicts that which is stated in his word? Is divine compassion for the lost sincere when he desires all to be saved, yet unconditionally determines who will be saved?
They indite contemporary Arminianism as having an inadequate view of sin. Historic Wesleyan-Arminian, held to the sinful condition of humanity as fully as Calvinism. In fact the Calvinistic contributor to the Biblical Repository and Princeton Review in 1861 affirmed that eighteenth-century Wesleyans properly affirmed, "Man's ruin by the fall; his native depravity and alienation from God; his absolute need of a Savior, and utter inability to save himself; the necessity of regeneration by the Holy Spirit; justification, not by works, but by faith alone in the blood and righteousness of Jesus; the free offer of salvation to every human being, without money and without price; the necessity of holiness, not to merit heaven, but to become meet for it."
However, as much as we may agree on the nature of the human condition, Calvinists and Wesleyan-Arminians part company over the nature of God's rescue operation. Although the Calvinistic/Arminian debate has continued for centuries, the specific issues and terminology have changed. As much as some of us love the classic Wesleyan-Arminian rebuttals of historic Calvinism, Calvinists have flooded the market with their position, while we have been content to reprint a few old classics. Most of us cannot adequately defend our convictions. Walls and Dongell state a contemporary Arminianism and rebut a contemporary Calvinism. For example, in the debate concerning human freedom three philosophic positions are possible: determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism. We will fail if we accuse modern Calvinists of hard-core determinism. The authors point out that most contemporary Calvinists affirm that God's will is deterministic and yet we are still responsible. This is a difference definition of "freedom" than the libertarian view that a free action is one which is not predetermined.
While the position of Molinism is an interesting attempt to reconcile the two views, the Arminian case is not advanced by Jerry's openness to open theism and the authors apparently do not agree with one another on the question of divine foreknowledge [p. 45]. Nor do the authors even attempt to discuss the differences between Calvinistic and Arminian views of perseverance or eternal security. Yet through exegesis, logic, and contemporary illustrations, they do succeed in raising a red flag concerning the practical consequences of Calvinism for evangelism, the fate of the unevangelized, Christian assurance, and the problem of evil.
The volume by Peterson and Williams is less philosophical and more historical. It is not by accident that their presentation begins with Augustine. The authors argue for unconditional predestination and unconditional security. If it can be demonstrated that the basis and conclusion of Calvinism is taught in Scripture, then logically the whole system must scriptural. These chapters contain a fairly typical list of proof texts and attempts to harmonize "difficult" passages. These authors conclude that true believers cannot commit apostasy, but as usual, fail to explain how church members who have never truly been saved can fall from or forsake a faith they never had.
The authors argue for a compatibilist view of freedom affirming both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. And yet conservative Arminians also affirm both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The real issue is the definition of "freedom." Calvinists affirm that man is free, yet deny the power of contrary choice. Thus, for Calvinists "freedom" allows a man to vote, but there is always just one name on the ballot.
Yet Walls and Dongell were absolutely right that the essence of Arminianism is not free will. Wesley himself declared that the natural man was free, but free only to evil. Wesley wrote that both he and Fletcher "absolutely deny natural free will. We both steadily assert that the will of man is by nature free only to evil. Yet we both believe that every man has a measure of free will restored to him by grace."
The real question is whether the preliminary grace of God can enable such a person to repent and believe. The authors of this book argue that sinful humans are unable to do anything, even believe, apart from God's irresistible sovereign grace. Yet it is irresponsible for these authors to describe the Wesleyan-Arminian concept of total depravity as hypothetical. There is nothing hypothetical about our inability. And yet our natural inability is temporarily superceded by divine grace. While this preliminary grace appears to all men, yet not all men respond in faith because they do have the power of contrary choice. This true freedom does not negate God's sovereignty since he chose to limit his sovereignty. While God does not always see fit to exercise his absolute power nor impose his perfect will, he has predestined the final consequences of our free choices. We may initially resist his grace, but not his final judgment.
The closing chapter of this book is on the atonement. The authors argue that the governmental view of the atonement is inadequate. They then document the fact that Wesley taught a substitutionary view of the atonement and then argue that particular or limited atonement is an implication of the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. Therefore, they attempt to drive a wedge between earlier and later Wesleyan-Arminians. But the great Wesleyan theologians of the past were clear that the sufferings of Christ were an equivalent which God accepts as satisfaction of his justice when we believe. Richard Watson distinguished between "full satisfaction" and "fully equivalency." Benjamin Field wrote that while the commercial metaphor of the atonement is valid to a point, the Scriptures do not teach that Christ paid the exact sin debt for the elect and therefore those for whom Christ suffered are unconditionally saved. Thomas Ralston believed in the satisfaction of the justice of God, but not penal satisfaction — the exact payment of our penalty for our sins. Thomas Summers cut to the heart of the issue when he concluded that Christ did not perform the duties God requires of us. It is our faith, not the holiness of Christ, which is imputed to us for righteousness.
I have a thirteen-page excursus on the nature of the atonement in my Romans commentary. I cite a number of early Methodist theologians who held to a substitutionary view of the atonement and yet every one of them concluded that it was offered universally. While I do not pretend to have approached these two books with a neutral mind, my most objective critique is that the Calvinist volume tended to superficial exegesis and standard arguments against Arminianism, but with a more peaceful tone. Of the multiplicity of apologetical works on Calvinism this one might be the best, but with the dearth of comparable contemporary Arminian writings the volume by Walls and is cutting edge scholarship.
Respectfully submitted by Dr. Vic Reasoner