Review: “Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism” (1)

Review of Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five Point Calvinism, edited by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2010, xiv + 306 pp, pbk.

In choosing to review a book such as this I realize that some readers who are Calvinists would wish me to critique the critique.  I am not disposed to do so.  Although many of my favorite authors and preachers have been Calvinists, as a theology of salvation I do not believe the Five Points as they are usually understood correctly reflect the statements of Scripture (link).  I do not think Arminianism fairs any better for that matter.  I am willing to live with that, though I understand other good men are not.  Still, I hope the review helps anyone thinking of buying this book.      

Back in November 2008 some Southern Baptists who were “neither Calvinist nor Arminian” held a conference (the John 3:16 Conference) aimed at expressing some of the concerns, theological and otherwise, with the resurgence of high Calvinism (i.e. 5 Point Calvinism) in the SBC.  This book is the result.

The work contains an Introduction and eleven chapters.  As with all such edited works, the chapters are of differing quality.  Three or four chapters are excellent.  Another couple are of high caliber.  One or two are at the opposite end of the spectrum.

I know that some people think that any criticism of their adopted theology is akin to a personal attack upon God Himself, but I hope most Calvinists will welcome this book’s critique, with all its hits and misses.  A theology which insulates itself against criticism will not be as robust as one which listens to dissenting voices and tries to see things from another’s perspective.  This is true of Arminianism, Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Reformed Covenantalism or any other ism.  None of us know it all and everyone can be shown cracks in their theological pipes.  It is in that spirit that this book has been published.

The editors, David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, are both able thinkers and writers, so one familiar with their work might expect a solid contribution.  All in all, I would say this book is a job well done, although not as well done as it might have been.

The editors note in their Introduction that there are “many Calvinisms” and so some Calvinists “may object that these arguments do not address the beliefs of their particular stripe of Calvinism” (6-8).  As they go on to say, “The contributors are not ‘anti-Calvinist’ and therefore are interested in dialogue, not diatribe.” (9).  Very well.  What do they have to say?

The first chapter is a sermon on John 3:16 from Jerry Vines.  I pass over it as such sermons are not my cup of tea.  I shall only say I was less than impressed with Vines’ word studies of the various Greek words for “love.”  He should have known that, especially in John, the words phileo and agape are viewed as interchangeable by most NT scholars.  Instead Vines sees the former as a “social love of mutual friendship and affection,” while defining the latter as “spiritual love.”  No, not my cup of tea at all!

The second chapter is by Paige Patterson and is on Total Depravity.  Both Calvinists and Arminians hold to this teaching so one of the first things needed is to show any different understandings of the term which may be lurking behind the surface.  Patterson does say something about the notion of regeneration preceding faith, but it isn’t enough and he offers little by way of actual argument against the view.  In fact, the whole essay is too anecdotal and preachy to hold up against any decent Reformed formulations of the ordo salutis and Total Depravity.  It is a disappointing piece.  Thus, with the first two chapters gone the book is off to a rather poor start.

Next up is Richard Land’s chapter entitled ‘Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from an “Eternal Now” Perspective.’  The chapter starts off with a useful survey of the use of the moderate (“neither Calvinist nor Arminian”, 51) New Hampshire Confession by the influential Sandy Creek Southern Baptists.  Then he enters into his argument for a “congruent” rather than an “unconditional” doctrine of election.

Quite rightly Land distinguishes between the election of Israel, which he calls “Abrahamic election,” and election of individuals to salvation (53).  I don’t like how he draws a strong parallel between OT saints who “looked forward to Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross” and Christian believers who look back.  This language is a bit slack and might be construed as saying that people in OT times knew Christ would die on a cross.  But he gets back on point by positing (I think rightly) that the ecclesiology of the early Reformers had a lot to do with their formulation of election.  He also handles the issue of indexical reference as related to God and time clearly and well considering his space constraints.  God knows all things before they occur, but He experiences them when they happen.  This allows him room to include soteriological election within God’s “in-time” experience with individuals (57-59).  Land offers a brief but helpful alternative to what might be called the standard Calvinist approach to unconditional election with the “solicitous call” replacing the “irresistible call,” and the “sufficient call” subbing for the always dodgy (because rather disingenuous) “general call.”  Thus, it is easier for Land to agree with those texts which speak of the sinner’s acceptance or rejection of the Gospel as a response of the sinner rather than of the newly regenerate (as in regeneration before faith).

Then come the three best chapters in the book.  David Allen’s 48 page treatment of Limited Atonement (better, “Particular Atonement”) drives another nail into the coffin of this unpalatable doctrine†.  Not only does Allen show that many esteemed Calvinists, including the Magisterial Reformers themselves, held to universal atonement, but he provides quotations which show that Jonathan Edwards, the darling of the New Calvinists, did not hold to limited atonement “in the Owenic sense” (77).  As Allen is quick to acknowledge, this in itself does not mean the usual Owenic view recommended by most classical Calvinists today is automatically wrong.  But it is worth noting all the same.

In turning to exegetical matters Allen first handles the meaning of the word kosmos (79-83)As ought to be clear from the New Testament and then from every standard lexicon and theological dictionary out there, the word does not mean “elect”!  It only ever means that via circular reasoning.

Owen’s “double payment argument” is tackled next.  Allen shows that this argument, which says that since Christ already paid the debt of the elect sinner, therefore they cannot be condemned, is, one, not scriptural; two, makes a category mistake: confusing “a pecuniary (commercial) debt and penal satisfaction for sin”; three, does not leave the elect under God’s wrath until they believe; and four, makes the elect owed the merits of the atonement (83f.).

The double payment argument entails that the non-elect cannot, with any consistency, receive genuine offers of salvation by God through the preaching of the gospel.  It also entails that the unbelieving elect (those who will be saved but are yet unsaved) are not receiving sincere threats from God… (85). 

Allen effectively employs well known Calvinists through the centuries to argue against John Owen.  In fact, it should be noted that his use of sources throughout is most impressive.The author finishes his article off by giving seven practical reasons why limited atonement is deficient.  Although the fourth reason, concerning the giving of altar calls, adds little, most of the other six concerns are weighty.  They deal with the Problem of the Diminishing of God’s Universal Saving Will; Problems for Evangelism; Problems for Preaching; Problems When Calvinism is Equated with the Gospel; Problems When Non-Calvinist Churches Interview a Calvinist Potential Pastor or Staff Member; and, Problems When Being Truly Southern Baptist Is Equated with Being a Calvinist.  The last two are ongoing concerns for some Southern Baptists, and even though there is no smoke without fire, will not be addressed here.  But Allen’s criticisms in in this section usually find their target.

Steve Lemke’s chapter on “A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace” is the longest in the book (54 pages).  It maintains the high quality of the previous piece in bringing up a number of important difficulties with this doctrine.  The first problem is that of definition.  While perhaps the majority of Calvinists prefer a less coercive term like “Effectual Grace” for this teaching, Lemke quotes from Dort and then the likes of John Piper, R. C. Sproul and James White to show that the idea of coercion, and even the word “irresistible,” is employed by high Calvinists themselves (111-117).  Sproul, for example, is cited as defining the “drawing” of John 6:44 as “to compel by irresistible superiority” (113).  And after quoting the language of Dort he observes,

Bending the will of a fallible being by an omnipotent Being powerfully and unfailingly is not merely sweet persuasion.  It is forcing one to change one’s mind against one’s will. (114).  

I think Lemke is perfectly fair to point out the incongruity (esp. 115-116).

Moving away from the matter of definition Lemke deals with some biblical passages which would appear to counter the Calvinist teaching of the irresistibility of grace.  Then he cites many verses which show the inclusiveness of the invitations to salvation (122- 129).  From there he moves on to a lengthy theological assessment.

Lemke has seven theological concerns about the doctrine of irresistible grace.  The first deals with the teaching of men like David Engelsma (following Calvin!) that the children of elect parents do not need to be converted because they are already in the covenant of grace.  The converse of this was stated by R. C. Sproul Jr. (133).  Basically, non-elect infants go to hell.‡  Of course, not all Calvinists believe such things.

This article will be concluded in Part Two

† Using my Grid of Doctrinal Formulation (C1 to C5) see e.g., here…I cannot assign this doctrine anything higher than a C4 status, and that is pushing it, since it requires another two inferences (that the accomplishment and the application of Christ’s work are simultaneous; and then that regeneration precedes faith) to give it clout.

‡ I was also taught this at a Reformed Seminary I attended in the UK.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for the review. I was given this book at the SBTC meeting after the “debate” between Mark Dever and Barry Creamer. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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