Toward Southern Baptist Unity, Part 4: Discarding the Faulty Premise that Divides

Posted on May 8, 2013 by

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See all the posts in the series, Toward Southern Baptist Unity»

The Southern Baptist Convention is unique in its composition of a wide range of approaches to the doctrines of salvation. As was shown in Part 3, the basic presuppositions of Calvinists and Libertarians (Traditionalists as well as Arminians) are seemingly irreconcilable; and yet, these groups have found enough on which to agree that we as a convention have remained unified for a very long time.

In such a diverse organization, attitude and emphasis are vitally important when it comes to doctrinal disagreement.  The emphasis that one puts on certain aspects of one’s own position—as well as the emphasis that one puts on certain aspects of the opposing position—can mean the difference between a unifying, conciliatory stance and a divisive, confrontational stance. But a conciliatory stance requires that one acknowledge the limitations of his own understanding and embrace the possibility that he might have left some unknown factors out of his reasoning (regardless of the high esteem in which he holds those great men of the past who have held to the same reasoning). I’m not speaking of the postmodern denial that the superiority of a position can be validly determined; but rather, I’m speaking of the kind of healthy humility that is necessary for an honest objectivity.

For example, both Calvinists and Libertarians firmly hold to the same unproven assumption, to wit, that if God is fully in control of who will eventually believe, then God cannot earnestly desire the salvation of all men and not do all that is needed to successfully bring all men to faith. In other words, both agree that if God earnestly desired all men to be saved, then God could do nothing other than save all men if He were in control of whether or not each man believes. The nineteenth-century Calvinist theologian, Robert Dabney, takes an unusual and enlightening position on this issue. He points to the fact that the “Scriptures ascribe to God pity toward the lost,” and he says that Calvin and Turretin were “afraid lest God’s principle of compassion… towards sinners non elect, should find any expression, and thus mar the symmetry of their logic” (bold mine):

We have no occasion for such questionable, and even perilous exegesis, as even Calvin and Turrettin feel themselves constrained to apply to the last. Afraid lest God’s principle of compassion (not purpose of rescue), towards sinners non elect, should find any expression, and thus mar the symmetry of their logic, they say that it was not Messiah the God man and Mediator, who wept over reprobate Jerusalem; but only the humanity of Jesus, our pattern. I ask. Is it competent to a mere humanity to say, “How often would I have gathered your children?” And to pronounce a final doom, “Your house is left unto you desolate?” The Calvinist should have paused, when he found himself wresting these Scriptures from the same point of view adopted by the ultra Arminian. But this is not the first time we have seen “extremes meet.” Thus argues the Arminian, “Since God is sovereign and omnipotent, if He has a propension, He indulges it, of course, in volition and action. Therefore, as He declares He had a propension of pity towards contumacious Israel, I conclude that He also had a volition to redeem them, and that He did whatever omnipotence could do against the obstinate contingency of their wills. Here then, I find the bulwark of my doctrine, that even omnipotence cannot certainly determine a free will.” And thus argues the ultra Calvinist. “Since God is sovereign and omnipotent, if He has any propension, He indulges it, of course, in volition and action. But if He had willed to convert reprobate Israel, He would infallibly have succeeded. Therefore He never had any propension of pity at all towards them.” And so this reasoner sets himself to explain away, by unscrupulous exegesis, the most precious revelations of God’s nature! Should not this fact, that two opposite conclusions are thus drawn from the same premises have suggested error in the premises? And the error of both extremists is just here. It is not true that if God has an active principle looking towards a given object, He will always express it in volition and action…[1]

From this shared premise, the Calvinist concludes that God desires only the elect to be saved; while the Libertarian concludes that God has given control of the decision over to the individual man, so that “true freedom of will” can be exercised. As Dabney said, “two opposite conclusions… drawn from the same premise” should have suggested error in the premise. Both can support their opposite conclusions from Scripture, but neither can prove that their premise is true. Dabney explains, by way of illustration, that God can indeed have an “active principle” of compassion toward the non elect and still have reasons sufficient to not act on that desire toward them (bold mine):

…For instance a philanthropic man meets a distressed and destitute person. The good man is distinctly conscious in himself of a movement of sympathy tending towards a volition to give the sufferer money. But he remembers that he has expressly promised all the money now in his possession, to be paid this very day to a just creditor. The good man bethinks himself, that he “ought to be just before he is generous,” and conscience and wisdom counterpoise the impulse of sympathy; so that it does not form the deliberate volition to give alms. But the sympathy exists, and it is not inconsistent to give other expression to it… Hence it follows, that there may be in God an active principle felt by Him and yet not expressed in His executive volition in a given case, because counterpoised by other elements of motive, which His holy omniscience judges ought to be prevalent. Now, I urge the practical question. Why may not God consistently give Some other expression to this active principle, really and sincerely felt towards the object, though His sovereign wisdom judges it not proper to express it in volition? To return to the instance from which we set out. I assert that it is entirely natural and reasonable for the benevolent man to say to the destitute person. “I am sorry for you, though I give you no alms.”[2]

Dabney anticipates the objection of the Calvinist and Libertarian (bold mine):

The ready objection will be, “that my parallel does not hold, because the kind man is not omnipotent, while God is. God could not consistently speak thus, while withholding alms, because he could create the additional money at will.” This is more ready than solid. It assumes that God’s omniscience cannot see any ground, save the lack of physical ability or power, why it may not be best to refrain from creating the additional money. Let the student search and see, he will find that this preposterous and presumptuous assumption is the implied premise of the objection. In fact, my parallel is a fair one in the main point. This benevolent man is not prevented from giving the alms by any physical compulsion. If he diverts a part of the money in hand from the creditor to the destitute man, the creditor will visit no penalty on him. He simply feels bound by his conscience. That is, the superior principles of reason and morality are regulative of his action, counterpoising the amiable but less imperative principle of sympathy, in this case. Yet the verbal expression of sympathy in this case may be natural, sincere, and proper. God is not restrained by lack of physical omnipotence from creating on the spot the additional money for the alms, but He may be actually restrained by some consideration known to His omniscience which shows that it is not on the whole best to resort to the expedient of creating the money for the alms, and that rational consideration may be just as decisive in an all wise mind, and properly as decisive as a conscious impotency to create money in a man’s.[3]

The Libertarian can show from Scripture that God loves all men and calls all men to salvation, being unwilling that any should perish; while the Calvinist can show that God has unconditionally chosen all men in eternity past and is the very Author of our faith. The eminent Baptist Centrist of the eighteenth century, Andrew Fuller, states well what has historically been the answer of the Baptist Centrist to this problem:

If I find two doctrines affirmed or implied in the Scriptures, which, to my feeble understanding, may seem to clash, I ought not to embrace the one and to reject the other because of their supposed inconsistency; for, on the same ground, another person might embrace that which I reject, and reject that which I embrace, and have equal Scriptural authority for his faith as I have for mine. Yet in this manner many have acted on both sides: some, taking the general precepts and invitations of Scripture for their standard, have rejected the doctrine of discriminating grace; others, taking the declarations of salvation as being a fruit of electing love for their standard, deny that sinners without distinction are called upon to believe for the salvation of their souls. Hence it is that we hear of Calvinistic and Arminian texts; as though these leaders had agreed to divide the Scriptures between them. The truth is, there are but two ways for us to take: one is to reject them both, and the Bible with them, on account of its inconsistencies; the other is to embrace them both, concluding that, as they are both revealed in the Scriptures, they are both true, and both consistent, and that it is owing to the darkness of our understandings that they do not appear so to us…[4]

When the whole of Scripture is considered, it is not the wisdom of God but the reasoning of men that says that God cannot both unconditionally elect and call upon all men to believe in Christ for salvation with an earnest desire that they come. And while Calvinists and Libertarians reject one another’s conclusions, both ought to squarely face the possibility that this shared premise is an incorrect and oversimplified assessment of the mysterious ways and will of God. As we shall see below, the falsity of the premise is easily revealed.

The premise errs by attributing a simplicity to God’s will and ways, and denying to God the complexity that man has even in himself. Just as the decisions of men often entail the weighing of complex motivations and factors, yielding a result which does not reflect the entirety of his values but only the strongest after due deliberation, the decisions of God can be just as complex, and be grounded on various principles and exigencies in His nature and plan that are beyond our understanding. This complexity in God’s will has long been recognized in other areas. How could the same God who hates sin will for sin to occur? The answer is that He allows what is repugnant to His nature in order to accomplish what is to His greatest glory. Jesus was sinfully betrayed, falsely accused, unrighteously tried and executed—yet, such atrocious sin was planned by God from the beginning. God’s strong hatred for sin is constrained by the exigencies of what He wants to accomplish. The same principle should be applied to God’s desire for the salvation of the nonelect. Therefore, the premise is proven false: it is not necessarily true that if God earnestly desired the salvation of all (and God was in control of who is brought to faith) then all men would be brought to faith—any more than it is true that if God earnestly desired righteousness then He would not incorporate any sin into His plan (or permit it to happen). God’s will is complex, and not simple; and the utter repugnance of any man perishing is permitted by God in order to accomplish the greater purposes of His perfect plan.

Libertarians already accept such a complexity in God’s will, since in their scheme God values the freedom of men’s decisions more than He values saving them from hell. In other words, even though it is acknowledged that God could manipulate any man into believing, the freedom of will is deemed too valuable to violate even though heaven and hell hang in the balance. Therefore, it is admitted that God does indeed allow more important considerations to weigh against His earnest desire to save all men, and yield a decision that results in many perishing in spite of God’s desire for them to be saved. Even under the Libertarian scheme, God does not relinquish control. Men may decide, but God retains the power and prerogative to determine a positive decision in every case if He so chooses. Therefore—again—the premise is falsified. God’s will is not simple, and the fact that God does not do all that He possibly could do in order to bring all men to faith does not establish that God has no desire for their salvation or that God is not in full control of the matter. God does in fact permit men to reject His salvation for His own purposes.

Discarding this faulty premise that divides the two ends of the spectrum will not result in immediate agreement; but it can bring about a more humble objectivity that is more conducive toward unity.

Continue to Part 5: Unifying Propositions on the Inability of Sinners»

Ken Hamrick, 2013


[1] Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, chap. 35
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), p. 367

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