Improper View of 'Election' Hinders Evangelism, Baptist Theologian Says
By Jim Brown
February 20, 2003
(AgapePress) - The president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary says he is greatly troubled by a resurgence of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention and how that will affect his denomination's evangelistic and missionary outreach.
Dr. Paige Patterson says he is concerned about reformed theology wherever it is being taught in Southern Baptist life. While Patterson says he has the utmost respect for reformed theologians and churchmen, Baptists should reject covenant theology and the notion that one can baptize infants and consider them a part of the covenant family.
"Generally speaking, the vast majority of Baptists have rejected the idea that the doctrine of election means that God, in eternity past, made some people to damn them, to show His judgment -- and in justice He made others to save them, to show His mercy," Patterson says.
"That has been a doctrine held by some Baptists, but not by the majority," he says. "The majority have always believed there's no man in the world for whom Christ did not die and who could not come to Christ."
Patterson, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, believes many reformed theologians have made a great contribution to the general cause of Christianity, but have taken a wrong view of the doctrine of election. He notes that twice in the Bible, election is linked to God's foreknowledge.
"I believe that God's predestination or election is based on the fact that He does know everything, unlike the openness theologians would try to tell us," Patterson says.
"[God] knows before we were ever born who will and who will not respond to the gospel message," he says, "and it is on the basis of His foreknowledge that election takes place -- not on the basis of some arbitrary decision on God's part to create some to damn them."
Patterson believes evangelism is hindered when churches teach that Jesus Christ died only for the elect.
The first thing we need to say is that Patterson is one of the good guys. Along with Paul Presser, he reprised the role of St. Patrick in driving the rats out of the SBC. Patterson was of the view, and rightly so, that without a sure word from God we're adrift in a sea of doubt.
But the irony and inconsistency of his position is that he doesn't transfer his reasoning from revelation to redemption. Patterson won't allow that the authors of Scripture were free to commit damnable errors. Yet he holds that the objects of salvation are free to commit damnable errors.
The Calvinist, by contrast, has a consistent position. Just as God is sovereign in revelation, so is he sovereign in redemption. What's the point of an inerrant Bible if it never translates into individual assurance? This is no better than the position of Rome, according to which the church is never defectible, but her members are always defectible.
The Calvinist believes in one God, not two. For the Calvinist, the God who speaks is the God who acts. Just as God is the Lord of Scripture, the same God is the Lord of grace. He doesn't abdicate his dominion when he goes from speaking to doing.
A Calvinist doesn't have all the answers, but he has answers to all the objections raised by Patterson. It's a pity when men continue to raid the trash can for crumpled up old arguments that we've disposed of time and time again. Will they ever learn?
1. When Patterson talks about what most Baptists believe, I don't know if he's speaking of the past or the present. Does he mean what most contemporary Baptists believe, or what most Baptists have believed throughout Baptist history?
Also, does he mean what most Baptists theologians believe, or what most of the laity believe? I doubt that the average Baptist layman would draw some of the fine-spun distinctions that Patterson resorts to.
2. It is also dangerous to play the numbers game. In the Downgrade Controversy, Spurgeon's wing represented the extreme minority view. I also wonder, if you added the liberal minority in the SBC to the liberal Baptist denominations in the US and abroad, what the relative percentages would be. For a man who made his name defending the authority of Scripture, I don't know what we're supposed to make of these populist appeals. What happened to the doctrine of the remnant?
3. Patterson also gets off on the wrong foot by equating Reformed theology with the Presbyterian tradition. But it's not as if the Reformed Baptist tradition were the new kid on the block. It was around long before Dispensationalism came on the scene.
4. Patterson strenuously rejects the idea that election illustrates the mercy of God and reprobation the justice of God. But isn't that exactly what Paul "affirms" in Rom 9:22-23?
5. Instead, Patterson says that election is contingent on God's foresight of what the subject would or would not do. But isn't that exactly what Paul "denies" in Rom 9:11?
6. Patterson ought to know, especially in covenantal usage and covenantal contexts, that "foreknowledge" is a synonym for choosing beforehand. Or has Patterson not bothered to acquaint himself with the opposing literature?
7. How can Patterson say, on the one hand, that there's no one who can't come to Christ; and on the other hand, that special redemption hinders evangelism? Patterson obviously believes that no one can come to Christ unless he comes to Christ through faith in the Gospel. But hundreds of millions of men and women have died outside the pale of the Gospel. So could they have come to Christ apart from the Gospel or not? If yes, then evangelism is unnecessary; if no, then everyone is not in a position to be saved. So whose position hinders evangelism: Calvin's or Patterson's?
8. Logically speaking, how does unconditional election or special redemption hinder the Gospel? According to Calvinism, the faithful preaching of the Gospel has a guaranteed success rate. Only God knows the percentages, but, according to Calvinism, a set number will be saved by the preaching of the Gospel. But, according to Patterson's Arminian theory of the will, far fewer people might respond to the Gospel or even none at all. So whose position hinders evangelism: Calvin's or Patterson's?
9. If God chooses on the basis of my foreseen choice, then election is not a gracious act. Rather, God chooses me after I choose him apart from grace. And if you were to press Patterson, I'm sure he's say that you're born again "after" you believe in Christ. So, on this view, neither the work of the Father (election), nor the work of the Spirit (regeneration) are links in a golden chain which effect a state of grace. Election and regeneration fall outside the grace of God, for they do not create or contribute to a state of grace. On this view, the grace of God is limited to the work of Christ. And it is up to man in a state of nature to respond to the Gospel of Christ. Election and regeneration are logically or causally post-conversion events.
Patterson leaves our Lord nailed to the cross. His Jesus is not the Good Shepherd who seeks lost sheep and brings his stray lambs back to the barn. His Jesus remains bound hand and foot, depending on the pity of the onlooker. Yet grace is not about my finding God, but about God finding me and leading me home, like the old hymn says.
10. So-called 4-point Calvinism trades on a systematic equivocation of terms, for it uses the same words, but with much less meaning or force behind them. It is really zero-point Calvinism.
11. It is unclear what Patterson means by "arbitrary."
i) There is a sense in which mercy is arbitrary in a way that justice is not, for mercy, by definition, is undeserved, and not, therefore, obligatory.
ii) But to say that it is arbitrary in the above sense is not to say that it's unjust or unfair, for inequality of treatment is only unjust when it denies a party his just claims to something. But, by definition, no one has a just claim on the "mercy" of God.
iii) If the purpose of reprobation is to manifest the mercy of God, then how is that arbitrary? Patterson himself has just supplied a reason for reprobation. I should think that something would only be arbitrary if it had no rationale, no overarching aim.
iv) Couldn't we turn this around and say that, on Patterson's view, damnation is arbitrary? The Calvinist says that God creates the damned as a means of manifesting his attribute of justice. By contrast, Patterson can't give any reason for why God would make men foreknowing that they will spend eternity in hell. At most, Patterson could offer a reason for why the damned deserve damnation, but he can't give a reason for why God would knowingly make men who deserve damnation, and them make them accordingly.
v) In addition, if God foreknows that some people will end up in hell, then doesn't he create them with such a destination in view? And does that amount to a de facto brand of predestination?
vi) Finally, Calvinism affirms unconditional election, but it denies unconditional reprobation. For Calvinism says that sin is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition of reprobation. No one deserves salvation whereas everyone deserves damnation, so there's an asymmetry between election and reprobation that Patterson disregards.
Of course, an open theist would cut the knot by saying that God doesn't know the future, hence he doesn't know what will happen to Judas.
But that casts God in the role of a cosmic Tomcat who goes around the neighborhood siring stray kittens without concerning himself about what will become of his litter.
Because the grace of God is sovereign, it is sovereign to save someone who denies the sovereignty of God's grace. Patterson is a trophy of the very grace he hereby denies. Patterson means well, but God meant better. Otherwise, we'd all be lost.