Thursday, March 02, 2006

Response to Elmer Towns Pt. 1

This post will start a little mini-series responding to Elmer Towns’ criticism of Calvinism. Here, we will only deal with his first two points concerning total depravity and unconditional election.

The following section examines the weaknesses or inconsistencies of Calvinism. Careful attention should be given to the definition of terms. The way a person defines the terms will determine if he is a Calvinist or not. It will also determine whether or not the system is inconsistent.

A. Total depravity. Most Calvinists interpret total depravity to mean that any man in his natural state is incapable or unable to do anything to please or gain merit before God. He is totally depraved of any urging to seek after God. Total depravity means that man is in complete rebellion against God, and by his “free will” he cannot and will never make a decision for Christ. When man is totally depraved, he cannot discern the truth of the gospel or understand it when it is presented to him. The Calvinist qualifies the meaning of “free will,” indicating that man is not totally free, but is able to respond to God because of election and irresistible grace.

Agreed, except for maybe that little tidbit at the end concerning “free will.” Now let’s see where Dr. Towns goes. Does he address Eph 2:1? Does he address Romans 8:7-8? Does he address John 6:44? Does he tell us the nature of the unregenerate man, or is his simply going to use the unjustified ancient assumption that moral responsibility presupposes moral ability? Let’s see:

However, the Bible teaches that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Since God is Person (personality), man reflects the personhood of God through his human personality, made up of intellect, emotion, will, and moral awareness. Because man’s will is reflective of God’s will, man has the duty and ability to make moral choices based on his understanding and motivations. Man is given an opportunity to make a moral choice for God–as reflected in repenting, turning, believing, and receiving salvation–and is condemned if he rejects. God, in the integrity of His nature, could not ask man to do what he was incapable of doing nor could He hold man responsible for all choices, whether good or evil, if the choices were not indigenous to man. Since man will be judged by God for his decision, it would be immoral for God to punish man for his lack of response to that which he could not do.

Dr. Towns shows us that he is excellent at creating non sequitur philosophical arguments but not so excellent at dealing with the text of Scripture. He states, “Because man’s will is reflective of God’s will, man has the duty and ability to make moral choices based on his understanding and motivations. Man is given an opportunity to make a moral choice for God.” He’s good so far (perhaps Dr. Towns has the false assumption that Calvinists deny this, I don’t know). Man indeed has the ability to make moral choices based on his understanding and motivations. Man cannot, however, make moral choices regardless of his understanding and motivations (hence the importance of looking at the texts mentioned above and discovering the nature of sinful man). Then Dr. Towns states, “God, in the integrity of His nature, could not ask man to do what he was incapable of doing nor could He hold man responsible for all choices, whether good or evil, if the choices were not indigenous to man. Since man will be judged by God for his decision, it would be immoral for God to punish man for his lack of response to that which he could not do.” Where did that come from? The premise was that every man has the ability to make choices. This does not mean, however, that a man will make a choice regardless of his will or nature. You see, the thing which prevents unregenerate man from choosing anything but sin lies in the man himself. Dr. Towns does not deal with the Biblical facts concerning the nature of unregenerate man. He simply tells us that man has the ability to make choices based on his understanding and motivations. But what are the motives and understandings of unregenerate man? That is the question which Dr. Towns fails to answer.

Remember, Calvinists do not deny that man has a will (no matter how many times the opposing side might state otherwise). We recognize that some men are willing and others are unwilling. But the question is why. Why is one willing and not another? Why does one man choose God and not another? The non-Reformed answer must focus on something in that person.

There are illustrations of men in Scripture who have made decisions against the purpose of God (Pharaoh, Esau, Lot, Balaam, etc.).

One first questions what this has to do with the doctrine of total depravity. Shouldn’t he be saving this one for effectual call? For men to make decisions against the revealed will of God does not undermine total depravity. If anything, it proves it (that unregenerate man will make choices according to his unregenerate nature).

But Dr. Towns certainly gives us an interesting list. Pharaoh. Remember him? Esau? Both of these men are listed in Romans 9 as proof that God has the freedom to harden whomever he wills and mercy whomever he wills. Balaam? Here’s another classic example. Balaam attempted to curse Israel, but God, in his sovereignty, had him bless them! Or how about Lot? Yes, Lot acted contrary to God’s preceptive will, but can Dr. Towns show us where Lot acted contrary to God’s decretive will? Does Dr. Town even take the distinction into account?

Also, there are men who have made difficult decisions, and God honored them (Abraham, Elijah, and those mentioned in Hebrews 11).

Again, what does this have to do with total depravity?

Accountability follows responsibility.

Ok. Does anyone disagree? I think the very definition of responsibility is accountability. But what does this have to do with total depravity or moral inability? Perhaps Dr. Towns believes that moral responsibility presupposes moral ability. But why? It isn’t enough to simply assume it. In fact, Scripture says otherwise:

Rom 8:7-8 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

The definition of “sinner,” by default, presupposes moral responsibility. Without anyone being held accountable for his actions, there are no “sinners.” And Paul here defines a sinner as someone who cannot submit to God’s law and who cannot please God. In other words, the very one who is morally responsible is morally unable. Paul obviously does not share Dr. Towns’ presupposition that moral responsibility presupposes moral ability, otherwise Paul would be here saying that a sinner is not a sinner.

Moving on to his next point concerning unconditional election:

B. Unconditional election. The second principle held by the Calvinist is based on the doctrine of predestination. Calvinists believe a man obtains salvation because God began the process by choosing him without any outside influence.

Those of mankind who are predestinated unto Life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable Purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen in Christ to everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving Him thereunto.

The Calvinist bases election upon the divine plan (according to God’s purpose), so that the grounds of election is in God himself, which is to say salvation begins in God’s will and purpose and not in an act of faith or some other condition in the responder. As a result, man has no part in it. Calvinists teach that God never elects anyone to salvation because of his goodness or potential merit. The choice is from Himself; hence, election is unconditional. Conservative theologians appear to have some degree of disagreement among themselves as to the nature of this election. Some, like Strong, define “election” exclusively in terms of an independent decision of God. He claims,

Election is that eternal act of God, by which in his sovereign pleasure and on account of no foreseen merit in them, he chooses certain out of the number of sinful men to be the recipients of the special grace of His Spirit and so to be made voluntary partakers of Christ’s salvation.

Others, like Thiessen, tend to modify the severity of this election by introducing such things as the foreknowledge of God. His attempt at defining election suggests, “By election we mean that sovereign act of God in grace whereby He chose in Christ Jesus for salvation all those whom He foreknew would accept Him.” Both of the above noted theologians would probably define themselves to some degree as Calvinists.

Thiessen’s definition of election is unacceptable in my book, and represents, in fact, conditional election rather than unconditional election. Now, the statement in and of itself is true; God did indeed choose those whom he knew would choose him. But the very reason why they choose him is based upon his choosing of them, not the other way around.

The Bible uses such phrases as “chosen in Him,” and “predestinated unto adoption of children,” and “elect according to the foreknowledge of God.” But because these phrases are used by the Calvinist does not mean the terms reinforce the Calvinists position to the exclusion of another position. These are Bible terms that must be interpreted properly.

That is an extremely over-simplified way of handling Calvinistic exegesis. Has any Calvinist, if given enough time to do otherwise, ever simply made the argument that the Bible’s usage of these phrases represents his position without first giving an exegetical basis for such a statement? Notice that Dr. Towns does not give us any examples. And he does not address these passages that make these statements. He simply makes an assertion that has no more basis than if I were to simply say that these statements represent my position. We must conclude, therefore, that Dr. Towns simply offers us his asserted opinion in this article, and is not, in any true sense, attempting to point out any “weaknesses” of Calvinism. Otherwise, he would be addressing Reformed exegesis of these passages rather than simply dismissing them with an equally unjustified assertion.

First, election in the Bible is applied broadly. Election must always be interpreted within its context. The term “elect” is related to the church or to all believers, or those who have already accepted Christ. It is not applied to an unsaved, even if he is a candidate for salvation. As such, it relates to God’s plan of salvation, because He has elected salvation and those in salvation are identified as elect. When taken in light of the nature of salvation, we understand that Jesus Christ made atonement for all. Those who respond to His plan of salvation are characterized as elect.

In response, we must simply ask Dr. Towns when election occurs. If election occurs before the salvation of the elect, then they were elect even before their salvation. If it occurs after the salvation of the elect, then how can it still be “before the foundations of the world”? In any case, Dr. Towns’ assertion that the term elect “is not applied to an unsaved, even if he is a candidate for salvation” is easily refuted:

2 Timothy 2:10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

Paul suffers (and his suffering in this context is evangelistic) for the sake of the elect that they might obtain (something they do not yet have) the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

Second, to say that God has chosen some and passed over others is to breach the nature of God.

Why? It is simply assumed and asserted, not justified. Notice also that this statement removes Dr. Towns from the realm of Orthodoxy. In other words, according the Dr. Towns, the very nature of God excludes any election or reprobation, whether conditional or unconditional. Even conditional election involves the notion that “God has chosen some and passed over others.” The basis of this choosing and passing is the only thing that is different. Is Dr. Towns telling us that he either believes in no election, or universal election? Those appear to be the only two options left.

God is One, which means He is Unity and acts in perfect harmony with His nature. Every part of God influences every other attribute of God. One attribute can never act in isolation from the others, hence God cannot be guilty of acting ignorantly or with a double mind. The nature of God expresses His love, as well as His justice. The Bible teaches that God so loves the world, hence this emotion is constant to all creatures at all times. Unconditional election implies that God chooses some out of His nature, but since others are not chosen, then the unity of God is breached. Also the love of God is breached because He is not able to love all equally. If God chooses (elects) some, it must proceed out of pure motives from His total Person. But the election of some and passing over of others divides the unity of God, implying duplicity, ignorance, or partiality in God.

This is simply eisegetical prooftexting disguised as philosophical argumentation (Dr. Towns has yet to address John 6, Eph 1, Romans 9, etc. He simply gives us his faulty philosophical opinion that is dependent upon out-of-context interpretations of Scripture). In order to understand what Dr. Towns is talking about, let’s attempt to write it out in a quick syllogism:

1. God’s unity presupposes the equality of his attributes
2. The Bible teaches that God loves the world (i.e., every human being)
3. Therefore, unconditional election, which does not allow God to love all equally, undermines God’s unity.

This philosophical non sequitur would have been much less confusing and much less deceptive had Dr. Towns simply presented it for what it really is: why didn’t Dr. Towns simply cite John 3:16 as a prooftext and leave it at that? Why disguise it as philosophical argumentation when it is in reality simply eisegetical prooftexting?

The first point is sound but irrelevant. Because God is one, and because he possesses all qualities intrinsically and eternally in infinite measure, he is not more just than he is loving. And he is not more merciful than he is just. He possesses all qualities without measure, so no one attribute does he posses more than another. But does this mean that in the same context God must equally reveal all of his attributes? Does Dr. Towns think that it undermines God’s love in order for him to apply justice to the fallen angels? Does Dr. Towns object to God’s choice to not spare the angels when they sinned? Is it not unfair? No, Dr. Towns’ argument is ridiculous. For God to possess all qualities infinitely does not mean that he must reveal all qualities equally in the same context. It is obvious that Dr. Towns believes that for God to possess the attribute of love in an infinite measure, he must love all equally. But this is not a Biblical assumption.

The second point is the core of the argument, which shows it for what it really is. Dr. Towns might as well have simply cited John 3:16 as a prooftext and save a whole paragraph’s space. Since Dr. Towns offers us no exegesis of this text, not counter exegesis is required. He must tell us what Scripture does say before he requires us to tell him what it doesn’t say. However, in passing we should note that this verse tells us that God sent his son with the purpose (”hina”) of saving (literally) all believing ones, and tells us nothing of the extent of Christ’s salvific work.

Concerning the third proposition, notice that Dr. Towns does not specify, as I do, between conditional and unconditional election. He states, “But the election of some and passing over of others divides the unity of God, implying duplicity, ignorance, or partiality in God.” Such a statement would imply that Dr. Towns either believes in no election (all are lost) or that everyone is elected (all are saved). Such a statement surely does not sound as if it is coming from someone who believes in any type of election. Both conditional and unconditional election involve “the election of some and passing over of others.” The difference is the basis of this election. But notice that Dr. Towns’ non-argument, if it were true, would apply to both unconditional and conditional election. According to Dr. Towns, any election which involves “the election of some and passing over of others” which is either conditional or unconditional (otherwise it would be universal), “divides the unity of God, implying duplicity, ignorance, or partiality in God.” Is this what Dr. Towns thinks even of conditional election?

“Divides the unity of God” has already been refuted. “Implying duplicity” is simply an unjustified non sequitur assertion. “Ignorance” is equally an unjustified non sequitur assertion, if not simply an amusing assertion. And “Partiality” ignores the unconditional in unconditional election. The only option for Dr. Towns to hold to that, to him, would not imply “partiality” is universalism. Is Dr. Towns a universalist?

Evan May.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Brother,
    While I enjoyed your thoughts in refutation of Dr. Towns' opinions on "election", I do have a simple question. Is it necessary to attack him is such a way in order to refute his ideas? Dr. Towns is a world-wide respected Christian leader who, in my opinion, has formulated his beliefs over a life-time of study and service to our Lord. Town's himself has stated numerous times that he is willing to allow for opposing ideas, but it always seems that those who oppose his ideas do not offer him the same respect. This is unfortunate and hinders the debate!
    Thanks for your time.