Review: “Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism” (2)

The first part of this review is here.

As Lemke continues his seven theological concerns with the doctrine of irresistible grace he criticizes the usual Reformed belief that regeneration precedes faith.  Even though many Calvinists insist that this is a logical order only, the quotations Lemke adduces from Sproul, Piper and Boettner are subject to a little more probing, which, in brief, Lemke does (139-140).  In particular Loraine Boettner’s quote is assessed.  Boettner wrote,

“A man is not saved because he believes in Christ, he believes in Christ because he is saved.” (cited on 138 and 140)

While I am aware that men like Bob Ross adamantly challenge this teaching while remaining Calvinists (and Lemke, as Ross, cites Spurgeon against this view), it remains true that for the majority it is a foundational tenet of their Calvinism (indeed, I cannot see how limited atonement can be maintained without it).  Lemke shows that the NT witnesses against regeneration coming before faith (138-139).  It might have helped if he would have spent a little time dealing with the “preparationism” of Hooker, Edwards, Packer, etc., since (to me at least) this shows up the absurdity of adopting this position on the new birth.  

Lemke’s next objection is that teaching irresistible grace weakens the significance of preaching and evangelism.  This has been a stock objection to TULIP for centuries, and Lemke does a reasonable job of pointing out some of the problems.  Unfortunately, by honing in on the hyper-Calvinist Protestant Reformed Churches and Presbyterians he sidetracks the issue somewhat.  Also, his use of Terrance Tiessen’s work isn’t helpful since he is not representative of most Calvinists on this issue.

The next objection focuses on the character of God and the problem of evil.  In arguing against the former Lemke asks how the Calvinist teaching of,

the two callings of God (the outward and inward, effectual and ineffectual, serious and not serious callings) correspond to two apparently contradictory wills within God (the revealed and secret wills of God).

He answers,

If He has extended a general call to all persons to be saved, but has given the effectual call irresistibly to just a few, the general call seems rather misleading.  This conflict between the wills of God portrays Him as having a divided mind. (145)

After giving space to David Engelsma’s criticism of the notion of two wills he concludes,

Obviously, portraying God as having a divided mind and will is not the way we want to go.  It seems disingenuous for God to offer a definitive serious calling to some but not at all offer a serious calling to others. (147)

Lemke proceeds to enquire about whether the Calvinist version of exhaustive sovereignty leaves any room for anyone other than God to be responsible for evil.  This is the subject of another essay in the book so will be passed over here.

The next two objections question human freedom (Lemke offering a limited soft libertarianism in place of compatibilism), and predestination (see remarks on Land’s article in Pt 1 of this review).  His last problem with irresistible grace is born out of the previous two.  That is, a God who “exhibits His sovereignty by essentially micromanaging creation through meticulous providence” (154), and who “controls all persons and events equally” 155, citing P. Helm), is really the only Player involved in the game.  This surely detracts from God’s glory since He would be more glorified by the free choices of other agents rather than essentially choosing for a limited few.  Lemke’s lengthy remarks offer legitimate concerns, although I wish he had not been content with speaking of the decision of faith as mere “assent” (160). 

Ken Keathley’s study in Calvinist views of perseverance to salvation comes up next.  This is a very helpful chapter in that it surveys Arminian responses as well.  Without me going into detail about the essay Keathley brings up the problem of assurance which has dogged Calvinism at least since the time of William Perkins (168f.).  The answer to the question of how a person may know they are saved has often been logically deduced.  This is in contrast to Calvin’s teaching that assurance is of the essence of faith.

The burden of the article is to argue against the “means of salvation” view of T. Schreiner & A. Caneday’s The Race Set Before Us (see 177-184).  The critique is very well done.  This view, which is becoming more influential in reformed quarters (Cf. P. T. O’Brien’s comments on the warning passages in his recent Hebrews Commentary), basically adds up to Divine Sabre-rattling.  Keathley ably debunks it.  He closes by recommending a “variation” of the “evidence of genuineness” position, including the keystone of assurance being of the essence of saving faith.¢

Part Two of the book begins with Kevin Kennedy’s convincing argument that John Calvin believed in a universal atonement.  For anyone who has studied Calvin’s writings on it this ought to be a dead issue.  Scores of examples can be and have been brought forward to prove this assertion.  Kennedy demonstrates that Calvin, in arguing against Georgius in Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, rejected the common Calvinistic view that “Christ suffered sufficiently for all, but efficaciously only for the elect” as a “great absurdity.” (209).  In the same quote Calvin asserts,

It is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the whole world (Ibid).

Malcolm Yarnell ought perhaps to have been given the subject of Total Depravity for this volume.  As it is he writes about “The Potential Impact of Calvinistic Tendencies upon Baptist Churches.”  He makes some good points, but muddies the waters somewhat by seeming to want to dispel any form of the Church Universal – something which I think many non-Calvinists would have trouble agreeing to; especially without some interaction with the Book of Ephesians. 

Chapter Nine is by R. Alan Streett and is a defense of public invitations.  Whether one holds to them or not (I think they can be biblical, but often are not) this chapter is disappointing.  Its use of Scripture, especially the Old Testament, seems question-begging, as does his use of historical practices (which only holds water once the biblical teaching has been established).

Two chapters left and they both make strong contributions.  The first is by Jeremy Evans and tackles determinism and human freedom.  The last chapter, by Bruce Little, handles the relationship between meticulous sovereign control and the problem of evil.  Whichever position one takes on these matters I think both chapters contain a lot of food for thought.  I do wish Evans had utilized Calvinist sources more.  His dependence on non-compatibilists throws some suspicion on his presentation of compatibilistic determinism.  However, the overall cumulative force of his points lead me to say that he has put some holes in the compatibilist undercarriage.  I cannot do more here than list the main ones:

1. Relieving ones theology of irresistible grace does not mean that one must give up on monergism (260-261).

2. Responsibility demands some truly free decision on the part of the moral agent (263)

3. The insistence that God does everything for His own glory threatens the truth of His aseity (God’s Self-sufficiency).

4. If everything is minutely predetermined and governed by God it becomes difficult to claim that this world is not as it ought to be.  As he puts it on page 269:

If God’s providence governs causally down to the last detail…, and we say the world is not as it ought to be…, then we are explicitly saying that God should not have caused the world to be as it is…these ideas are not mysterious; they are contradictory.

5. Using Speech-Acts, Evans draws attention to the fact that illocutionary speech (i.e. that which displays the speaker’s will for himself or another to perform) brings the God of Calvinism into conflict with Himself, as His declarations for sinners to repent and do right clashes with His will that they remain sinners in rebellion to Him (271).  Evans relies quite a lot on the work of Robert Kane, and his exposition of it is solid and clear.

Bruce Little’s article on “Evil and God’s Sovereignty” finishes off the book very well.  Little does not pretend to have the answer to the problem of evil, but he is keen to try to make sure that whatever option is adopted it should faithfully account for the most amount of biblical material while possessing the least difficulties (283 n.15).  This essay overlaps nicely with the previous one by Evans.  Little also makes much of the theological danger inherent in proposing that Jesus’ glory “shines brighter” (quoting J. Piper) through suffering and evil (e.g. 291).   In the Calvinism of John Piper and Gordon H. Clark the causal chain for evil runs irresistibly back to the will of God.  From this inescapable conclusion, which Little adduces from Calvinist writings, it is surely empty and incoherent to claim that God is not the author of evil and suffering.

Although Whosoever Will could have been better, it still represents a significant cumulative case against Calvinism as generally presented and understood.  Calvinists need to read it carefully and take notice of its critique.  At the end of the day, we are not going to be rewarded for defending a system; we will be rewarded for being faithful to the Word of God.  If that means we might have to change our view, then that is what it means.  Perhaps Calvinists can produce a sound response to these essays?  If so, that response will represent a move forward for Calvinism generally.

In closing I should say that I personally have, in the past, tried hard to “become” a Calvinist.  I have seen many friends embrace TULIP, but never for what I could see were good exegetical or theological reasons.  Like most if not all of the contributors of this book, I am not persuaded by Arminianism either.  I do not envisage a time when I shall have an “epiphany” and suddenly see “the doctrines of grace” as true, since I have spent years thinking through them and have tried assiduously to track the logic undergirding the thinking of those good brothers and sisters who believe TULIP to be right and me to be wrong.  I may be wrong.  But the best essays in this book tell me I have legitimate concerns with Calvinism.

€ Look out for my review of Keathley’s fine book Salvation and Sovereignty here in the future.

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5 comments

  1. Paul,
    I appreciate your reviews on this book. It’s an area that I’ve just had a resurging interest in. have you read Geislers ‘Chosen But Free’ work, which attempts to find the ‘middle ground’ on the popular poles of Arminianism/Calvanism? Hes a self styled ‘Moderate Calvanist’, in a similar vein to Fruchtenbaum (based on a lecture series I’ve listened to).

    At the moment I’m uncomfortable with being on either end of the spectrum, but I’ve not examined the claims of moderate Calvanism enough to willingly subscribe to it. Moreover, I’ve been flirting with Monilism lately… To what end I do not yet know!

    Do you have a 2cent opinion on either ‘moderate Calvanism’ or Monilism?

      1. Just realised I completely misspelt molinism!
        I haven’t read that work. I’ll look it up. But you’re right… It’s a mister topic 😉

    1. Dave,

      I am not a big fan of Geisler’s book, although he does make good points. It’s been a long time since I read it so maybe I need a refresher. Geisler approaches theology through philosophy, which I don’t like. To me the really crucial matter rests in the question of decision. Whose decision is prior – God’s or man’s? I say God’s every time. Most middle positions actually end up being classical Arminian without their proponents seeing it.

      I think Molinism has important things to say. Some Arminians (e.g. Olson), and most Calvinists (e.g. Frame) object to it, but it has powerful things to say so long as one understands it as an anthropocentric (human) perspective. That is, a logical way of speaking about God’s decrees. This is understood by Calvinists like Bruce Ware and Terrence Tiessen and Arminians like W. L. Craig and (I think) Alvin Plantinga.

      The book by Kenneth Keathley is called ‘Salvation and Sovereignty’ and is excellent. Keathley is very balanced and interacts with many Calvinists (esp. Timothy George). His argument for biblical counterfactuals looks conclusive to me.

      If you want my take on the wedding of dispensationalism with classical TULIP you might peruse this series: https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/dispensationalism-and-tulip-a-verdict/

      God bless,

      P

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