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A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism

On November 6–7, 2008, the John 3:16 conference took place at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, GA. The purpose of this conference was to critique five-point Calvinism biblically and theologically, especially in light of its current resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Jerry Vines preached a sermon on John 3:16, and five other notable Southern Baptist scholars addressed each of the five points of Calvinism. All six of these presentations, edited for publication, make up part 1 of Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism. Five other essays, also written by Southern Baptist scholars, deal with other issues that arise from Calvinist theology and make up part 2 of the book. The editors are careful to stress in the introduction that none of the authors is a five-point Calvinist or a five-point Arminian and that all of them “stand in the great Baptist tradition that is neither fully Calvinist nor Arminian but is informed by both” (7). The goal of the book is not to sweep the Southern Baptist Convention clean of Calvinism, but is instead to promote dialogue and to express irenic disagreement with Calvinist theology.

Whosoever Will unfortunately begins with the three weakest chapters in the book. Jerry Vines’s sermon on John 3:16, while a powerful exposition of this wonderful verse (I had the privilege of hearing it live in a chapel service at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), suffers the same fate as most sermons and does not make the same impact in print. The sermon seems out of place next to the other ten chapters, which are all academic in nature. Paige Patterson follows with an essay on total depravity. He argues essentially for the Arminian position, stating that people are not born guilty before God (38), people are hopeless in their sin but can still cry out to God (43), and all of this is possible because of the Holy Spirit’s pre-regenerating grace (44–45). While Patterson explains what he believes the Bible says about total depravity, he does not interact with other possible interpretations of the passages he cites or other understandings of what it means to be dead in one’s sin. Richard Land writes the essay on the doctrine of election and argues for a view he calls congruent election, which he bases on his understanding of God’s relation to time. Land posits that because God exists in an “eternal now” he also has an eternal experience with all human beings, upon which he bases his election. Land does not devote much space to explaining this concept (55–59) or demonstrating how it makes better sense of Scripture than either conditional or unconditional election.

The next three chapters are the strongest chapters in the book. David Allen writes a clear, thorough, and perceptive essay on the extent of the atonement. He demonstrates why unlimited atonement is superior to limited atonement historically, logically, biblically, theologically, and practically. As a moderate Calvinist I appreciate his defense of unlimited atonement from a Calvinist perspective, as Allen quotes only Calvinists to support his position (66). Steve Lemke, in addressing irresistible grace, is also clear and thorough, though I disagree with his rejection of irresistible grace. He presents a reasoned case for resistible grace from both a biblical and theological perspective. Both Allen and Lemke argue for the Arminian position concerning these two doctrines. The only chapter in the book that a five-point Calvinist could agree with is Kenneth Keathley’s essay on perseverance and assurance. Keathley surveys the different positions on this doctrine, perceptively critiques them, and then proposes a nuanced Calvinist position that faithfully reflects the biblical teaching on assurance and perseverance.

The five essays in part 2 of Whosoever Will all accomplish their stated purposes, but most do little to advance the debate on the issues they address. Kevin Kennedy addresses John Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement, a topic that Allen addresses in his essay as well. Kennedy demonstrates that those who believe Calvin held to unlimited atonement have good reasons for their claim, but this is not really in dispute, as most scholars recognize that Calvin made several statements that seem to imply unlimited atonement and several that seem to imply limited atonement; this is why there is a dispute over his position.

Malcolm Yarnell examines the potential impact of Calvinism on Baptist churches. While he correctly points out the errors of Calvinist ecclesiology, he does not do enough to demonstrate that these are serious concerns for Baptists, or that Baptists who are Calvinist in their theology are becoming Calvinist in their ecclesiology. R. Alan Street writes an excellent essay on the public invitation and Calvinism, demonstrating from both Scripture and history why all preachers, Calvinist or not, should publicly invite people to commit themselves to the gospel. Jeremy Evans reflects on determinism and human freedom, pointing out what he believes are the main problems with compatibilist freedom while endorsing libertarian freedom. He does not address the many responses published elsewhere to the problems he presents. Bruce Little ends the book with a chapter on God’s sovereignty and evil, in which he demonstrates why he believes the Calvinistic view of sovereignty results in God being morally responsible for evil.

Whosoever Will certainly presents an alternative theological system to that of five-point Calvinism, but that alternative is simply Arminianism, with the exception of Keathley’s position on the perseverance of the saints. The book argues for total depravity without original guilt or one’s inability to choose God, pre-regenerating grace, election based on God’s experience with humanity, unlimited atonement, resistible grace, and libertarian free will. It also provides a biblically and theologically based critique of five-point Calvinism. It is clear why the authors do not consider themselves to be Arminian (their view of assurance and perseverance), but it would be helpful and do more to advance the debate to admit that their views are much closer to Arminianism than Calvinism. For those desiring a solid defense of Baptist/Arminian soteriology, human freedom, and God’s sovereignty, this book is a good resource, particularly the essays by Allen, Lemke, and Keathley. For those desiring a more balanced dialogue of these issues within a Southern Baptist context, I would recommend E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner, eds., Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2008).

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