Saturday, August 28, 2004

Calvin or Wesley?-1

Dear Dr. Walls,

I just finished reading your book on Why I Am Not a Calvinist (IVP 2004). At the end of your book you say that your reasons are good reasons why your readers should reject Calvinism.

Well, having read your book from cover to cover, these are my reasons for believing that your reasons are not good reasons for rejecting Calvinism. I'll confine my comments to chapters 2,5-6.

I assume that your sidekick (Joseph Dongell) is the primary writer of chapter 2. However, you presumably agree with his exegesis.

You list a number of the stock Arminian prooftexts for universal grace. This appeal calls for a number of comments:

i) How is this appeal an argument for Arminianism rather than universalism? Do these passages distinguish between universal grace and universal salvation? If both the Arminian and the Calvinist must qualify the apparent force of these verses with a view to other mitigating considerations, how to they select for the Arminian position in contradistinction to the Reformed?

ii) Yes, 1 Jn 2:2 says that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. And what is more, we even have a parallel phrase in 1 Jn 5:19: 'we know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the lap of the evil one.'

Yet the first clause is set in implicit contrast to the second. The whole world is exclusive rather than inclusive of Christians.

Again, can you substitute 'everyone' for the 'world' in 1 Jn 2:15-17? Yes, you can quote Jn 3:16, but how does this relate to Jn 9:39? My point is just to show that your superficial appeal greatly oversimplifies the evidence.

Next you turn to Pauline passages that use a universal quantifier (Rom 11:32; 1 Tim 2:3-6; 1 Tim 4:10; Tit 2:11). A number of points could be made with respect to this line of argument. I'll confine myself to a few:

a) We have a lot of parallelism in Romans. This is not surprising. Paul is a Jewish writer. Parallelism is a standard rhetorical device in Jewish writing. The book of Proverbs is a case in point. The purpose of this rhetorical device is to compare and contrast one representative class with another representative class. But it is a naïve error to press these hyperbolic generalities into unexceptional universals. Simple believers make this same mistake when the turn the book of Proverbs into a promise box.

Paul's point is to stress the federal character and vicarious dimension of the atonement by setting up a one-to-many correspondence between Christ and Christians, in contrast to the one-to-many correspondence between Adam and Adamites.

The same thing lies in the background of 1 Tim 2:6, which is a paraphrase of Mk 10:45, which is, in turn, an allusion to Isa 53:11-12, where the Suffering Servant redeems the covenant community.

Tit 2:11 cannot be construed in isolation to v14, which is always employed, in Septuagintal usage, to designate the covenant community as the "people of God" (Exod 19:15; 23:22; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18), redeemed at a price, in fidelity to his holy covenant with Abraham and his seed.

b) I wonder what you think the function of a universal quantifier is, anyway? It simply denotes a general reference class. It does not, however, stipulate the referents so denoted. That must be supplied by context. In Romans, the comparison and contrast is between Adamites and Christians.

As a student of philosophy, I assume you're conversant with Frege's hoary distinction between sense and reference. But you are collapsing the referent into the sense.

c) In your exposition of Rom 9-11, you make Jewish exclusivism the hermeneutical key, but for some reason you don't carry that over into the Pastorals. Yet it ought to be evident that the Ephesian heresy is a Jewish heresy, centered on Jewish particularism (e.g., 1 Tim 1:4,7; Tit 1:10,14; 3:9). If that is what is in view, then Paul's point is that sinners are saved, not by birth-rites or birthrights, but by the New Birth; not by racial selection, but divine election; not by the blood of Abraham, but the blood of Christ; not by the law of Moses, but by the cross of Christ.

Moving on, I'm baffled by your appeal to Jer 13:15-17 (57). The subject of the bitter weeping and overflowing tears is not God himself, but the prophet Jeremiah.

Moreover, the idea that God uses the prophets to harden the nation and thereby precipitate events, such as the Exile, which serve to chasten and chastise stiff-necked Israel, as a long-range refining strategy, is a commonplace of the prophetic literature (e.g., Isa 6:9-13; Jer 7:27-29; Ezk 2:3-8; 3:7-11).

Next, you associate the Reformed doctrine of God with the Platonic doctrine of God. The only justification you give for this is a bare citation of two pages from an essay by John Sanders. In other words, your only corroboration lies at two removes from the original.

And let us consider, for just a moment, how many intervening steps are involved in tracing out a chain-of-custody from Platonism to Calvinism. For starters, Mr. Sanders would need to summarize the Platonic doctrine of God, with direct quotes from Plato. Then he'd need to summarize the Philonic doctrine of God.

And as soon as he takes this step he would also need to consider the possibility of crossbreeding. For we can characterize Philonic Platonism as either Platonic Judaism or Judaic Platonism. In other words, Philo's Judaism is colored by Plato, but his Platonism is also colored by his Judaism.

Next, he'd need to summarize the Plotinian doctrine of God. As with Philo, this would also allow for the possibility of crossbreeding inasmuch as Plotinus was a post-Christian philosopher who studied under a Christian philosopher (Ammonius Saccas). From there he'd need to summarize the doctrine of God in Origen, Pseudo-Dionysius, Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers.

From there he would need to shift from East to West to summarize of the doctrine of God in Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm, as well as Aquinas. He would also need to summarize the doctrine of God in Maimonides and Avicenna as these feed into Medieval Scholasticism.

From there he would need to summarize the doctrine of God in Calvin and Reformed Scholasticism. He would need to document the evolution of the doctrine of God through these various permutations, with direct quotes to show direct dependence. If Sanders can do this in the space of two pages, he must be using very fine print!

I'm not being pedantic here. This is the kind of tedious, painstaking legwork that is necessary to warrant a historical claim of this nature. There are no short-cuts. I tired of the intellectual sloth that passes for scholarship in this debate.

Speaking of which, you say 'it is possible that God knows the future not by peering forward but by knowing the future directly as already present. If God's presence dwells in all places (spatially omnipresent), then perhaps we can speak of God as well in all times; past, present and future (temporally omnipresent),' (61).

If that were not enough, you go on to say that 'the collapse of the traditional Newtonian view of space and time should make us all slow to declare what can or cannot happen regarding time and space, especially God' (61-62).

The only justification you give for these sweeping claims is nine pages in Pannenberg, mediated by Lawrence Wood and Charles Gutenson. Okay, let's talk stock of this whirlwind tour.

i) Are you saying that exegetical theology depends on a knowledge of modern physics?

ii) Pannenberg's theory of time and eternity is Plotinian. If you'd read enough of Pannenberg you'd know that. He's said so. So what you are opposing to 'Platonic Calvinism' is Platonic Arminianism.

iii) You would need to present detailed models of each claim--not one or two sentences for each, or even a measly nine pages in Pannenberg. Without some cold hard currency to cash out your chips, this is just so much funny money.

Let us keep in mind that the burden of proof is not on the Calvinist, but the Arminian. On the one hand, the gist of passages like Isa 14 & 40-48 is that God knows the future because he purposed the future, and whatever he has purposed must come to pass by dint of his inexorable providence. No only does God know the future, but the Bible goes on to stipulate the necessary precondition under which he knows the future.

On the other hand, the Arminian removes the precondition. If a finite agent is free, in the libertarian sense, to do otherwise under the very same circumstances, then his future choice is indeterminate; hence, his future choice, considered as an object of knowledge, is also indeterminate. His future choice has no truth-value in advance of the fact, for it could either be A or non-A. Even he cannot know what he is going to do until he does it. It is his future action that renders the future proposition to be either true or false.

This is not a case of measuring Arminian theology with a Reformed yardstick. We are measuring Arminian theology with its own chosen yardstick.

iv) Are you saying that these two claims are complementary? What is the relationship between temporal omnipresence and modern physics? Can you offer us a logical modal? A mathematical model? A physical model? Where is the supporting evidence? Have you devised any experiments to test this theory? Does it have predicable consequences? What would count as evidence?

I don't see that you've gone any distance whatsoever in presenting a serious alternative. It looks like intellectual day-tripping to me--a few fancy words to do all the heavy-lifting.

And as long as we're chasing down rabbit trails, you also say that the Augustinian tradition subordinates the love of God to the will of God (218). But this is not what distinguishes the Augustinian tradition from the Arminian tradition. The distinction is between intensive and extensive love, between an intensive love that saves its loved ones, and an extensive love that loves everyone in general and saves no one in particular.

Or if you really wish to cast this in terms of willpower, it's the distinction between divine willpower and human willpower. Or, to put the two together, does God will the salvation of everyone with a weak-willed, ineffectual love, or does God love his loved ones with a resolute will that gets the job done?

The God of Calvin is the good shepherd, who names and numbers his sheep, who saves the lost sheep and fends off the wolf. The God of Wesley is the hiring, who knows not the flock by name and number, who lets the sheep go astray and be eaten by the wolf. Which is more loving, I ask?

Next, you say that 'the fundamental issue of this passage (Jn 6) is not that of predestination but of Christology and the unity of the Father and the Son' (75). But this is a false antithesis. You would have to show that it couldn't be about both. Why not? These are not logically incompatible propositions. And the presence of the one does not entail the absence of the other.

You go on to say that 'in rejecting Jesus, they demonstrated that they had never surrendered to God in the first place' (75). There is no textual warrant for your claim. This sounds like something out of an old holiness hymn, viz., 'Is your all on the altar?' 'Perfect submission, all is at rest.'

Actually, the predestinarian element is quite central to Jn 6, as well as Jn 9, Jn 10, Jn 12, Jn 17, &c.

Moving on to Eph 1-2, you try to get around the predestinarian force of Eph 1 by playing corporate election off against individual election. But this is another false dichotomy. You would have to prove that these are contrary or contradictory propositions, such that the presence of the one need negate the presence of the other.

The verb (eklego) ordinarily takes a definite object: Christ chose the twelve Apostles (Lk 6:13; Jn 6:70; 13:18; Acts 1:2). The Father chose the Son (Lk 9:35). The church chose Stephen (Acts 6:5). The church chose Silas and Barsabbas (Acts 15:22). There is, then, no presumption that the verb does not take a definite object. The common sense notion of choice involves a particular choice. And Biblical usage merely confirms that common sense notion.

Even when the verb takes a collective object, there is no logical or practical disjunction between a group and its constituent members. A class is composed of individuals. Christ didn't choose the Apostolate, but the Apostles. He didn't choose a null-set to be filled in by an anonymous aggregate of miscellaneous volunteers.

You then cite Markus Barth and Herman Ridderbos in your favor. Let us remember that Markus Barth is a Barthian. He is the son of Karl Barth. Not only did Karl Barth believe in corporate election, but universal election, and universal salvation. That, at least, is the underthrust of his theological system, although his dialectical reasoning makes any final interpretation treacherous.

As to Ridderbos, whatever else he is, he is not a Calvinist--contrary to your designation (76,82). Although he issues from the Dutch Reformed tradition, he left that far behind some time ago, in tandem with Cornelius Berkouwer's anti-abstractionism.

You then try to dilute the predestinarian force of Eph 2 by saying that 'we enter by faith' (77). No, we do not enter by faith: we enter by grace. In Pauline soteriology, we are justified by faith. But there is much more to Pauline soteriology than sola fide. We are not saved by faith. We are justified by faith, but saved by grace. Salvation is a bigger and broader thing than justification. The purpose of faith is to show that salvation is by grace rather than works. Even our works are foreordained.

The grammatical antecedent of faith is irrelevant to Paul's argument. Incidentally, to say that a neuter demonstrative pronoun cannot take a feminine noun evinces an elementary ignorance of Greek grammar. Isn't the time past due for Arminians to wise up a little and consult the standard commentaries on what is grammatically permissible? I'm not saying that the pronoun does take 'faith' as its object--merely that this is an allowable construction in Greek syntax.

What does Paul say that we bring to the table? Sin and death, carnal passion and occult bondage. What makes the difference? What accounts for the transition--for our break with the past? The love, mercy, and grace of God, making us alive in Christ--that's what!

Moving on to Rom 8:29-30, you launch your first salvo by saying that the Reformed reading of this passage is in tension with Paul's admonitions elsewhere (8:17; 11:21-22; Gal 5:21, 6:7-8).

About this one could say a little or a lot. All that really needs to be said is that this is not an exegetical objection, for Paul himself never makes this connection; he never invokes the cautionary verses to blunt the keen edge of the predestinarian verses. He sees no tension, even if the Arminian does. What you are doing is to put Paul at odds with himself by playing both ends off against the middle, rather than respecting the contours his own argument and making the same connections that he has made.

At a psychological level, the purpose of a warning is to function as a disincentive. There is no tension between assurance and deterrence, for deterrence is instrumental to assurance. And admonitions addressed to believers, whether by Paul or John or Jesus or the author of Hebrews assume that believers are motivated to heed the warning. If an admonition succeeds in deterring a believer from destruction, how is that incompatible with perseverance?

The doctrine of perseverance does not operate in a vacuum. The word of God and the grace of God work in tandem. The basic difference is that the Arminian obeys God out of fear--fear of an uncertain future, whereas a Calvinist obeys him out of gratitude--gratitude for a future assured. This is what steeled the hearts of a Knox, Calvin, Carey, Harris, Edwards, Livingston, Whitfield, Rowlands, or Rutherford--in all their insurmountable ordeals.

At a metaphysical level, if your are going to say that a hypothetical threat is an empty threat, then you must say that a counterfactual lacks truth-value. And if you say that, then your Arminian theology shall shipwreck, for Arminian theology is knee-deep in hypotheticals and counterfactuals, what with its libertarian freedom and potentially universal atonement.

In this respect, the difference between the two traditions is that Arminian theology makes counterfactuals contingent on the human will whereas Reformed theology makes counterfactuals contingent on the divine will.

Next, you say that 'Paul may be viewing the entire series not from a vantage point within human history but from the end of human history, after God has brought to completion the whole redemptive plan' (81).

But even if this interpretation were right, it is hardly consistent with the idea that God's redemptive plan can be scuttled by human intransigence. If God's will can be thwarted, then the outcome represents the frustration rather than the fulfillment of his original plan.

BTW, you choose to cite James Dunn, but Dunn, as an exponent of the new perspective, doesn't think that any of this has to do with salvation, whether along Arminian or Reformed lines of thought. Rather, this is all about badges of membership, viz., circumcision.

However, your interpretation cuts against the palpable grain of the text. The first two divine acts are antemundane. To 'foreknow' is a Hebraic idiom for choosing beforehand. And foreordination obviously implies the priority of divine agency.

In Pauline theology, calling is in time, at least as to its effect. It is existential. It is the calling of individuals. Again, you yourself regard justification as contingent on faith, which would place it within historical continuum rather than at the tail end of history--whatever that's supposed to mean. The end of the church age is not the end of time.

But should you choose to get philosophical about this, the correct formulation would be to say that if God is a timeless agent, then all divine deeds are timeless deeds with temporal effects. This, however, would not shift the ordo salutis to the backdoor of the church age, but push it outside of timeline entirely.

Yet the immediate point of Paul's past tense is to say that there can be no breakdown between divine intent and divine execution. Whatever is predestined will come to pass by his almighty providence. God's decree is a fait accompli.

To deny, with Ridderbos (82), that Rom 8:29-30 have anything do with predestination when, in fact, Paul expressly introduces predestinarian factors into his argument is not, in any sense, exegesis, but rather a defiant, contrarian denial of the evidence before his very eyes. Ridderbos is the one who is guilty of abstracting corporate election from the concrete preconditions laid bare by Paul.

Next, you say that Rom 8:29-30 'must not be read as teaching that human actions play no role within the chain…justification (element four in the chain) is explicitly conditioned throughout Romans upon human faith…' (83).

Yes, but this is misleading. To begin with, faith is a necessary, but insufficient condition of justification. Without, say, the work of Christ there would be no basis for justifying faith.

Second, there are primary as well as secondary causes. Yes, some elements of the redemptive process have a cooperative aspect. But human agency is subordinate to divine agency, as the reflexive result of divine agency.

When Jesus summoned Lazarus from the grave, Lazarus came forth. Does this mean that we ought to divide the miracle between the calling of Christ and the coming of Lazarus, as if these were cofactors?

Next, you say that 'Murray and others must already have in hand specific convictions about the nature of faith, along with particular beliefs about the necessity of divine monergism, to guarantee an interpretation of Rom 8:29-30 that supports Calvinist views of predestination' (83).

But even if this were true, Murray's commentary is studded with supporting arguments to precisely that effect. So it is not as though he has failed to discharge his burden of proof. And the Arminian has his own onus to bear. It's no good to cite Ridderbos or Dunn, for I have dealt with each in turn.

Yet your statement is, in fact, false. For Rom 8:29-30 stands very well on its own as a self-contained unit. The same conterminous group is in view every step of the way, from start to finish. The predestined coincide with the called, the called coincide with the justified, the justified coincide with the glorified. There is no leakage, no defection rate.

Let the Arminian gloss the justified as justified believers. It makes no difference to the self-enclosed logic of the catena. All justified believers are predestined, called, and glorified. Each set is coextensive at each stage of the ordo salutis.

Moving on to Rom 9, there are many deficiencies in your exposition, but to begin with systemic flaw, you treat unbelief as an answer to the problem, whereas Paul treats it as a problem to be answered. The problem of Jewish unbelief, in the rejection of the Messiah, was a major challenge for Christian apologetics. This is why Paul devotes three chapters to the problem in Romans. This is why John devotes so much attention to the problem in the Fourth Gospel.

God adopted Israel. God made promises to Israel. The question is whether unbelief can nullify the word of God. Can human infidelity render God unfaithful to his covenant? If God cannot make good on his promise, then God is not a God of truth. That is the point at issue. And it is no small issue.

And for Paul, as well as for John (e.g., Jn 12), the solution is found in double predestination. Unbelief is symptomatic of something deeper. Unbelief is not the cause, but the effect--the effect of eternal reprobation and providential hardening. If some unbelieving Jews, such as Paul, come to faith, then that is owing to the fact that God has lifted his heavy hand from their stony hearts.

That's the main issue. On a side issue, what evidence do you have that Paul's opponents were 'demanding the salvation of every individual Israelite' (91)?

What Jewish school of thought, whether Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes or the followers of Hillel or the disciples of Shamai ever insisted that every single Jew would be saved? Apostate Jews? Idolatrous Jews. Unbelieving Jews? Unobservant Jews? Sabbath-breakers? Pork-eating Jews? Jewish collaborators with Rome? Jews assimilated to Greco-Roman ways?

What evidence to you present for such a sweeping assertion, anyway? For a massive refutation of your baseless claim, read: M. Elliott, The Survivors of Israel (Eerdmans 2000).


  1. Stephen Melnichuk4/13/2006 2:53 PM

    Having just read the book in question for the second time, I am impressed by the even-handed, respectful manner in which the authors deal with aspects of Calvinistic thought. Unfortunately I cannot make the same comment about your rather vitriolic response(s). Central to the book is dealing with the issue of free will (3 views of determinism), You carefully avoid an in-depth explanation. Your response is akin to a carnival barker hawking the latest side show. Specifically, explain how God's love is manifest in rejecting "x" number of humanity with hell as their final destiny. Use the deterministic laws in your response.



  2. I have not read the book in question but I have had both Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell as professors when I was a student at Asbury Seminary. Both are fine fellows and very likeable. I should note that Jerry Walls is a TERRIBLE billiards player, however!

    At any rate, while at Asbury I changed my basic theology from Arminian to Calvinist/Reformed. One of the issues that drove me to Calvinism was taking an introductory course in Christian philosophy from Jerry Walls. In that class, Jerry discussed the fact that he considered Calvinism to be philosophically in the category of "soft determinism" or "compatibilism." His arguments against that philosophical position actually convinced me that soft determinism was an intellectually respectable position and that Calvinism was indeed a good balance between human free agency and God's absolute sovereignty.

    The other issue that pushed me over to the Calvinist side was taking a seminar on The Institutes of the Christian Religion with church history professor, Dr. Steven O'Malley. Having never read Calvin before, I was extremely impressed with the way Calvin handled the biblical texts in a systematic way and with Calvin's humility in admitting that he did not know the mind of God when he came to the limits of rational understanding and special revelation in Holy Scripture.

    I think your critique of Walls' book is likely on target. I should also note that Joseph Dongell's area of expertise is not biblical exegesis but "English Bible" or "literary criticism."

    Please check out my blog, which is Calvinist and Anglican, at

  3. Interesting that Stephen Melnichuk said nothing about the Bible, only philosphy, typical for synergists. As I prepare for my new members class in an LCMS fellowship I'm reading Luther's rich De Servo Arbitrio ("Bondage of the Will" for today's illiterates who was of a very different mind when he said in his Introduction,

    "... For although you think and write wrong concerning “Free-will,” yet no small thanks are due unto you from me, in that you have rendered my own sentiments far more strongly confirmed, from my seeing the cause of “Free-will” handled by all the powers of such and so great talents, and so far from being bettered, left worse than it was before which leaves an evident proof, that “Free- will” is a downright lie; and that, like the woman in the gospel, the more it is taken in hand by physicians, the worse it is made. ... But each is the gift of God, and not the work of our own endeavours. Wherefore, prayer must be made unto God, that He would open the mouth in me, and the heart in you and in all; that He would be the Teacher in the midst of us, who may in us speak and hear."
    Also see sections 30, 90, 152 & 159 where he powerfully decimates Erasmus's synergistic "free-will" delusion with Scripture, sadly a closed book to the synergist, something with which I'm all too painfully familiar as an ex-Wesleyan saved unto God's Ephesians 2 grace by the same.
    Soli Deo Gloria!
    Russ Davis