Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism

  • David L. Allen, Steve W. Lemke
  • Oct 25, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

Whosoever Will Book CoverDavid L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, eds. Whosoever Will. A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010.  xiv + 306 pp.  $24.99.  ISBN 978-080546416-0.

Comprising eleven chapters, this volume’s genesis was the “John 3:16 Conference” held at the First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, on November 6-7, 2008. Chapters 1-6 are edited versions of papers delivered at the conference; the remaining five chapters were solicited by the editors to round out the discussion of various issues surrounding Calvinist theology. Allen is dean and professor of preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, while Lemke is provost and professor of philosophy and ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Most of the authors teach at Southern Baptist seminaries or colleges, or hold official positions within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Clearly, this is an “in-house” project though its significance extends far beyond that denomination.

As I write this review in mid-October 2010, the book is already in its fourth printing (since it was first issued in April). Apparently it is generating some controversy and soul-searching, reflecting larger upheavals within the SBC. In fact, the SBC is featured in an article in the British rag, The Economist, of all places: “The new Calvins. Tensions inside one of America’s most successful churches” (October 9th – 15th, 2010, Vol. 397, no. 8703, pp. 46-48; October 10, 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/17204934?story_id=17204934). In addition, John Revell (alumnus of Denver Seminary) has a feature article in the major SBC journal, “SBC Life” (October/November 2010, pp. 16-17) entitled: “Calvinism—Southern Baptist Perspectives.” Here Revell surveys both Whosoever Will and an earlier volume on the issue: Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2008).

What could be so controversial about a book by theologians and church leaders critiquing the major tenets of Calvinism? Isn’t that what they typically do—seek to assess, critique, and refine their thinking and that of others? There’s a larger movement afoot, in the opinion of The Economist: “But since around 1990 the denomination has been losing ground, relative to America’s population, to other evangelical churches. So a cadre of Young Turks are looking back to the 16th century for fresh inspiration” (p. 46). The authors of Whosoever Will represent a group within the SBC who appear to agree that there’s an agenda to make the SBC a Calvinist shop, reminiscent of how the conservatives expelled the liberals in the 1980s.  They wish to issue some important cautions to the current impetus to “calvinize” the SBC.

But the book has implications far beyond the borders of the SBC, for many prominent pastors (e.g., John Piper and Mark Driscoll) are also carrying the banner for five-point Calvinism far and wide. Is Calvinism the only orthodox option for evangelicals? Must any alternative to Calvinism be termed Pelagian, semi-Pelagian, on the road to open theism, or on the brink of heresy? The writers of Whosoever Will argue that one can be a card-carrying evangelical—even a Southern Baptist!—and reject the major tenets of Calvinism. They insist that alternatives to the central Calvinist distinctives (often reduced to though not to be limited to the acronym TULIP) have always been viable within the SBC and among Baptists more broadly. Of course, anyone familiar with the labels “general” and “particular” Baptist should know that already.

Readers will find careful studies of the extent of the atonement; whether grace is irresistible; and perseverance and assurance (the book’s weakest chapter evidencing a too simplistic use of Scripture). Part two of the book addresses wider issues that impinge on the debate: whether Calvin was a “Calvinist”; the potential impact of Calvinism on local churches; the public invitation to salvation; determinism and human freedom; and evil and God’s sovereignty.

While the writing is uneven among the different authors and not all the authors are equally sophisticated exegetically, the overall effect is striking. Careful and irenic throughout, the book exposes one of the potential dangers of systematic theology: embracing a structure and making the biblical texts fit into it. That is, taken point by point, the authors argue that a fair and straightforward reading of the biblical texts and the history of theological writing does not support the Calvinist structure. Some chapters attempt a novel understanding of the categories, as in R. Land’s view of “election” from an “eternal now” perspective (not convincing, in my estimation). But most of the authors simply show how unlikely, if not unbiblical, in their view, is the Calvinist “take” on the central issues.

In various places the authors expose misunderstandings that Calvinists sometimes exhibit about those who oppose them, or how they confuse categories in their uses of terms. As one example, S. Lemke exposes D.A. Carson’s misuse of the category of “compatibilism” (pp. 150-152). It does not mean that human freedom and divine sovereignty are compatible (this is the way that Carson uses it). Everyone—whether Calvinist, Arminian, or open theist—affirms that. Rather, as correctly understood, compatibilists assert that true human freedom is compatible with hard determinism. Those are more difficult to reconcile. In one of the most trenchant chapters in the book (“A Biblical and Theological Critique of Irresistible Grace”; pp. 109-62), Lemke shows that to allege that God determines what people will want, so that they freely choose what God has determined them to want, eviscerates any reasonable view of human freedom. In his chapter on “The Atonement,” D. Allen attacks the doctrine of limited atonement, showing, in the process, how many Calvinists throughout history also rejected that idea, including Calvin himself! In fact, K. Kennedy devotes his chapter (“Was Calvin a Calvinist? John Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement”) to showing that Calvin did not espouse many of the tenets of five-point Calvinists today.

Strangely, however, all the authors evade labeling themselves as Arminian—or even using the term positively—though several state explicitly they are not Calvinists nor Reformed. Though espousing views that most would put under the category of Arminian, they feel compelled to avoid the label, apparently concluding that Arminianism is inherently problematic if not heretical. Perhaps they eschew the Arminian label because they all reject the idea that a true believer can lose her or his salvation. Is it possible that they do not realize that some Arminians embrace so-called eternal security? In fact, Arminius himself did not take a position on this matter since he thought the biblical evidence was not clear. But it is puzzling that a book that aims to avoid two extremes (Southern Baptists should never be Calvinists, and true Southern Baptists must be Calvinists; p. 5), the obvious alternative to Calvinism is shunned. I suspect this may be a political necessity in the current climate of the SBC.

Nevertheless, this book may be the best critique of Calvinism available today. It should be required reading for any pastor or theology student—particularly if one is a Calvinist or unsure of where he or she stands. The authors interact with the major Calvinist writers and thinkers both ancient and modern (e.g., Augustine, J. Calvin, D.A. Carson, G. Clark, J. Edwards, C. Hodge, J. MacArthur, A. Mohler, R. Nicole, J. Owen, J. Piper, and T. Schreiner) and go toe-to-toe with them in engaging and helpful ways—all with a very irenic spirit, as I noted above. While these essays won’t dislodge all Calvinists from their position, they will force readers to think through the issues—and the biblical data—more carefully. Perhaps some will reconsider whether the “Westminster” variety is the best version of Reformed theology to embrace. For those still trying to navigate their way through the various questions, this book will supply helpful analyses of the relevant texts and issues, and raise important theological and practical matters in how theology works out in the church today. Theology is not only espoused; it must be lived out with integrity. I especially commend this book to all teachers of theology—both for their own greater understanding of the issues and as a potential course text for their students.

William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
October 2010

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