Thursday, February 10, 2005

Walls on Walls

February 7, 2005

Dear Steve:

I was recently cleaning off my desk and came across an email you sent me some time ago about my book with Joe Dongell. I had intended to write you earlier, but was caught up in other work and it slipped my mind.

First, let me say I appreciate the time you took to write a detailed critique of our book. I will not reply in the same detail, but I do want to make a few central points. I will reply only to points made about the chapters I wrote.

First, with respect to chapter 5, you ask how the Arminian position
presents a point of contrast to Talbott's critique of Calvinism. The key difference is this: a relationship of genuine love and trust cannot be compelled or determined. It is of course a sad thing for anyone to be lost, which is why God expresses sorrow over the sin and rebellion of his children, and why there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents.

But it is one thing to say my daughter does NOT choose to love God, and another thing altogether to say God does not choose to love her. I believe God loves even those who do not love him in return. I agree that in heaven we will see things as God sees them which means that we will see with perfect clarity that the lost have chosen decisively not to love God and we will have peace about that. But again, it would be another matter altogether if God chose not to save my daughter, even though he could do so with her freedom intact (as Calvinists define freedom) but chose not to do so.

Second, with respect to willingness and enablement, I do not agree with you that willingness implies ability. There are lots of examples of things I could be willing, but unable to do. I am willing to bench press 300 pounds, I would gladly do so if I could but I can't. Likewise, enablement does not imply willingness. I am able to bench press 150 pounds, but I may choose not to do so if asked, let us say, by someone who wants me to prove I can. God supplies ability to respond, and encourages response, but if we are unwilling to respond, he does not determine us to do so.

If God offers salvation to people who he knows are unable to respond the offer is not genuine. Unlike the store owner, God is able to give anyone whatever is needed to enable a response. Moreover, he holds those accountable who do not respond. So if he does not enable what he requires, he is not being just, let alone perfectly good.

Third, I do indeed insist that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Some may not have opportunity to hear in this life and may be responding to the work of God in their lives without being fully aware of what is going on. But in eternity they will of course believe in Christ and explicitly accept what he did for them.

Fourth, I agree that the inconsistencies I point our in Piper, Packer etc can be relieved if it is simply denied that God loves the reprobate and is truly willing to save them. There is indeed a consistent version of Calvinism, maybe two, as I point out. But Calvinists are seldom if ever consistent. If Calvinists forthrightly say all are invited, but only the elect can truly come, that God has chosen to pass over and to reprobate all those who cannot come, that he died only for the elect, that he only loves the elect in any meaningful sense, then they can retain consistency.

But of course they seldom say this. I wish Calvinists would be
consistent. That would expose it for what it is and do more to discredit it than anything. But again, they will not be consistent, and the very inconsistency and misleading, if not deceptive rhetoric they typically display is what continues to make it seem morally implausible to many people who would reject it outright if they really understood what it was claiming.

The inconsistencies, by the way, are not confined to contemporary popular writers, but also appear in classical sources like the Westminster Confession, and Calvin himself, as I show.

Fifth, your depiction of God in Wesleyan theology as a distraught
girlfriend is of course, laughable, I know popular Calvinist writers like to caricature Arminian theology this way, but if you read Joe's chapters you know better.

Sixth, the example of the girl who fears her father has gone to hell
brings the practical differences into focus. Again, there is a world of difference between saying "God loves your father, Jesus died for him and God in his mercy that endures forever extends him grace if he is willing to accept it. If he will not, and we cannot know his fate, but if he will not, he is not lost because of God's lack of love for him"; and saying,"we cannot know whether God truly loved your father, and if your father is lost, it is because God chose not to save him, even though he could have, with his freedom intact, and perhaps God chose to reprobate him to make you more grateful that he did not reprobate you."

Seventh, the problem of evil is indeed tough for all of us and I certainly do not pretend otherwise. However, the problem is insuperable if God determines everything. As you note, terrible things can sear the heart no matter what view you take, but again, there is a world of difference between saying God allowed these terrible things to happen because of human freedom and saying they were determined by God. I believe God in his creative grace can penetrate even the worst scars that sin can cause and can enable people to respond in ways that even the worst pains and tragedies can be redeemed and healed. But if God determines even the unremitting pain of eternal damnation, the scars of this life, however wrenching, are mere scratches compared to that.

Well, Steve, these are a few of my thoughts in response to your
provocative email. Have we ever met?

With best wishes,



February 8, 2005

Dear Dr. Walls,

Thanks for taking the time to reply. It was a thoughtful response, and not a perfunctory brush-off.

1. In the main, the differences between your position and mine come down to profound presuppositional differences regarding the necessary and sufficient conditions of divine goodness and justice, as well as the necessary and sufficient conditions of genuine love and a genuine offer (of the gospel).

2. Your added distinctions between enablement and willingness, which can be related in opposing directions, depending on the concrete situation, are interesting. However:

i) In the context of the WCF, we are talking about a divine enablement of a mental act (willingness). And where mental acts are concerned, you don't have the same subject/object impediments as you might have in a mind/body situation where I am unable to realize my mental resolve on an extramental object, such as bench-pressing 300 pounds.

And in Calvinism, likewise, human ill-will or resistance does not pose any insuperable obstacle to divine enablement. So I think your distinctions, while having a general validity, fail to engage the specifics of the case you chose to consider.

ii) In addition, however the Westminster Divines choose to express themselves, the truth which they are endeavoring to express is that--on the one hand--no man can truly believe in Christ apart from God's grace, while--on the other hand--God's grace both supplies and satisfies both the necessary and sufficient conditions for faith in the objects of grace.

If the Westminster Divines were writing with the benefit of 20C linguistic philosophy, they might express themselves in more tightly integrated formulations, but in terms of original intent the primary question we need to ask ourselves is what were they trying to affirm given what they were trying to deny, a la the Romanists and the Remonstrants?

3. You said, "I wish Calvinists would be consistent. That would expose it for what it is and do more to discredit it than anything. But again, they will not be consistent, and the very inconsistency and misleading, if not deceptive rhetoric they typically display is what continues to make it seem morally implausible to many people who would reject it outright if they really understood what it was claiming."

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is a fair characterization of the opposing view, it could perhaps, be applied with equal justice to your revised version of Arminian theology, given your resort to postmortem evangelism, which is a backdoor universalism.

4. On a minor point, you say that my depiction of God in Wesleyan theology is a laughable caricature. Well, it was meant to be! I was indulging in satire!

And I think there's a place for satire as long as satire is used to illustrate an argument rather than substitute a caricature for an argument.

I'd add that my lighthearted spoof was pretty tame stuff compared to the invective which John and Charles directed against predestination--even though that figures in the Thirty-Nine Articles, which they--as ordained ministers in the Church of England--were sworn to uphold.

However, it was a highly polemical age. And, in charity, due allowance ought also be made for the sort of father they had.

In answer to your question, no, we haven't met, although I did watch you debate with a universalist on Strobel's show a while back. It isn't easy to say anything intelligent in the time allotment. They used to have public theological debates back in the Middle Ages, but somehow I can't see Aquinas as a master of the soundbite, so I doubt he'd fare as well on TV :-)


P.S. I had posted a slightly revised version of book review on my blog some months ago. In the interests of "fair and balanced" coverage, would you like me to post your reply as well?


February 9, 2005

Dear Steve:

1. You are quite correct that our deepest differences pertain to the
conditions for perfect goodness and justice. That is why I framed the
issue in the book in terms of the character of God. The issue is
decidedly not one of power. As I said, I have not doubt that God COULD create a world in which he determined everything down to the last detail.
But if God determined everything in this way, then if he is perfectly
good, he WOULD not determine things in such a way that people oppress,
cheat, blaspheme, and are ultimately damned for doing so.

If you believe God COULD determine things so that all persons would freely love him, worship him, give him the praise he is due, and so on, but chose instead to determine things so that many people hate him, hate each other, and persist in doing the very things he tells us he hates, then I think the claim that God is good, let alone PERFECTLY good and loving, simply has no meaning. And again, if Calvinists starkly faced this implication of their view instead of misleadingly talking about God having compassion for the damned, giving them bona fide offers of salvation and the like, then I think most people would see through it. But as I point out, the confusing rhetoric is precisely what lends Calvinism the moral plausibility it enjoys with many people.

2. As for divine enablement, I would put the point by saying it is
obviously a necessary but not a sufficient conditon for salvation. Saving faith is not only a mental thing, but a holistic response that includes heart, soul, mind and strength. To come to Christ we must be willing not only to believe, but also to trust, to repent, to love. These are acts of will, acts of response on our part.

3. My view of postmortem evangelism is not backdoor universalism. I have written a book about hell as well as several essays criticizing
universalism. (See for instance my contribution to the recent book
Universal Salvation: the Current Debate, Eerdmans). I believe that some people will reject grace to the end, even though it is offered in its optimal form to all persons. That is the mystery and irrationality of evil. There is, however, an affinity between Calvinism and universalism, as I show in my book about hell and other essays. Both accept this crucial premise: All, and only, those whom God is willing to save will necessarily be saved. The difference between Calvinists and Universalists, of course, pertains to whether God is willing to save all persons. Universalists say yes, so all will be saved.

4. I'm glad to hear you intended your description of God in Wesleyan
theology as a laughable carticature. Unfortunately, I have heard it
deployed in a way to suggest it is an accurate picture of the poor old
feeble, wimpy Arminian deity.

5. As for the article on Predestination and Election in the 39 articles, I think it is ambiguous between Calvinism and Arminians. For centuries now the Anglican communion has included Calvinists as well as Arminians, both of whom professed to be faithful to that article.

Thanks for offering to post my replies to your critique of our book. Feel free to post my earlier reply as well this one.
I appreciate your honest dialog.

Best wishes,


In a way, there's not much left to say, because it's all been said before. It seems to me that Dr. Walls recycles all the stock objections to Calvinism. He doesn't so much argue for Arminianism as use Arminianism as a platform from which to argue against Calvinism, assuming all along that Arminian intuitions are indubitably true, and ignoring the counterarguments that have been offered time and again.

For the moment I will content myself with one simple observation: even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that election is contingent on foreseen faith, then there is nothing in Arminian theology to prevent God from only creating those whom he foreknows would freely respond to the gospel. But since he has not seen fit to do so, where does that leave the love of God as defined by the Arminian and set in invidious contrast to Calvinism?

I also stand by my statement that postmortem evangelism is backdoor universalism. The appeal of postmortem evangelism is that through the drip, drip, drip of divine love, God will wear down the resistance of the damned.

There are, of course, harsher and softer forms postmortem evangelism, ranging from a second chance through annihilationism to universalism. Since the Bible doesn't even teach "that" there is such a thing as postmortem evangelism (indeed, teaches against it), much less in "what" it consists, Walls and others enjoy a creative writer's freedom pencil in the details however they please.

When all is said and done, this is the basic difference between Calvinism and its rivals. The rivals all dictate to reality and revelation. The rivals all stipulate for God what is possible and actual. The rivals all wallow in a warm, sudsy bath of wishful thinking. But, at the end of the day, God will pull the pug on their hot-tub.

Incidentally, I do happen to believe that the Arminian God is a "poor old feeble and wimpy deity." Althought I was waxing satirical, satire has a basis in fact.

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