Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Part 2 of Dominic Bnonn Tennant's series on the atonement

Dominic shows an ability to think these things through and articulate them clearly. His language is forceful and direct. Here is a paragraph from his article:

Dominic Bnonn Tennant — On the atonement, part 2: the grounds for the universal gospel call
God simply cannot promise to save someone for whom Christ did not die. Such a promise would be empty; insincere; a lie—and it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Therefore, if the particularist is right, he cannot say to all people without exception, “Be reconciled to God”—because God has not made provision for all people to be reconciled to him. He cannot say to the reprobate sinner, as the ESV Study Bible would have it, “Receive the reconciliation that God has wrought”—for no such reconciliation exists for that sinner. He cannot tell a non-elect man, “Believe and you will be saved”—that is, quite flatly, a lie. He can only say these things to the elect. The moral inability of the reprobate sinner to respond to the call is irrelevant because the reality, the atonement, which would save him does not exist. There is nothing for him to trust. In this way, the universal gospel call is utterly undermined and shown to be without basis under the particularist view. In fact, it is so undermined that the particularist, to avoid misrepresenting God, is forced into the most extreme hyper-Calvinism, and is crippled in his evangelism.

I am particularly interested in the way the gospel is summarized here: "receive the reconciliation that God has wrought." That impresses me as a very succinct summary of the doctrine of faith that Calvin has taught us, and it is quite true that it is incompatible with a strictly particular view of the atonement. There must be a universality in it for it to be universally proclaimed.

I also like the way he analyzes the "sincerity" issue. In order for a gospel proclamation to be sincere, it must be true. If it is not true that Christ has died for every man, then we have no business making any reference to the crucifixion as if it had any reference to the men we speak to ... for it might not. The gospel cannot be a lie to be proclaimed sincerely.

Highly recommended reading.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Answering Roger Nicole on 1Timothy 2:5 (part 2)

For whom are we to pray?

The second argument for not reading Calvin's "all" as "some of all kinds," is Calvin's view of whom we are to pray for. In 1Timothy 2:1, we are commanded to pray for all men. All men? Or all sorts of men? Let's do a comparison of John Gill, a hyper-Calvinist, with Calvin.

Here's a snippet of Gill's comment on verse 1:

[G]giving of thanks, as well as prayers, are to be made for all men; but certainly the meaning is not, that thanks should be given for wicked men, for persecutors, and particularly for a persecuting Nero, or for heretics, and false teachers, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom the apostle had delivered to Satan. But the words must be understood of men of all sorts, of every rank and quality, as the following verse shows.

~Gill, Commentary on 1Timothy 2:1

Now compare that treatment with Calvin's:

And thanksgivings. As to this term, there is no obscurity; for, as he bids us make supplication to God for the salvation of unbelievers, so also to give thanks on account of their prosperity and success. That wonderful goodness which he shews every day, when “he maketh his sun to rise on the good and the bad,” (Matthew 5:45,) is worthy of being praised; and our love of our neighbor ought also to extend to those who are unworthy of it.

2 For kings He expressly mentions kings and other magistrates because, more than all others, they might be hated by Christians. All the magistrates who existed at that time were so many sworn enemies of Christ; and therefore this thought might occur to them, that they ought not to pray for those who devoted all their power and all their wealth to fight against the kingdom of Christ, the extension of which is above all things desirable. The apostle meets this difficulty, and expressly enjoins Christians to pray for them also.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:1-2

If we compare the two approaches, Gill's and Calvin's, we see a diametrically opposite view with respect to wicked rulers. Calvin says to pray for them, and Gill says not to. And notice that Gill justifies, in part, his treatment of wicked Nero by saying that we are not enjoined to pray for all men, but "men of all sorts." Calvin could have used this logic as well, but didn't.

There are two things to be noticed here: first, Calvin might have used the same justification that Gill did for saying that we need not pray for wicked Nero. He might have said that we are not enjoined to pray for all men, just all sorts of men. He certainly had the analysis suitable to the task:

Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. * * * They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men.... * * *

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:4

Calvin set up the possible distinction between all individuals and all sorts of individuals. Admittedly, the Calvin quote above is from verse 4, not verse 1; but the reasoning is identical and if it applies in verse 4, it would be equally applicable to verse 1. But Calvin did not use that justification. Rather, Calvin said that our prayers ought to include the wicked rulers.

This comparison ought to show us that Calvin did not mean the same thing as Gill when he distinguished between "individuals" on the one hand, and "people" or "rank" on the other. For Calvin, the idea of "all sorts" excluded no one, while Gill used the idea of "all sorts" to exclude wicked Nero.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Answering Roger Nicole on 1Timothy 2:5 (part 1)

I want to revisit an argument that Roger Nicole made in his rebuttal to the first argument of the non-continuity (I would like to call them the “historic Calvinists” -- the fellows and gals who say that Calvin did not teach limited atonement) guys.

All doesn’t mean all

Nicole argues that there is a way of understanding Calvin’s use of universalistic language (“all” and such like) that doesn’t compromise his particularistic views: when Calvin says “all,” he doesn’t necessarily mean “all.” According to Nicole, Calvin can mean “all classes” when he says “all.” And what Nicole means by “all classes” is some of all classes. Some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and so on. For Nicole, Calvin’s universalism is some from all kinds of men. Here’s Calvin’s language from his commentary to 1Timothy 2:5:

The universal term ‘all’ must always be referred to classes [genera] of men but never to individuals [persona]. It is as if he had said, ‘Not only Jews, but also Greeks, not only people of humble rank, but also princes have been redeemed by the death of Christ.’ Since therefore he intends the benefit of His death to be common to all, those who hold a view that would exclude any from the hope of salvation do Him an injury.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:5, quoted by Nicole, at 212.

"Pretense" of universalism

So look at the last sentence of the quotation from Calvin above: “Since therefore he intends the benefit of His death to be common to all....” It seems straightforward. But if we take this sentence in isolation from the paragraph, Nicole argues, we have done Calvin a disservice.

It is not fair to Calvin to separate the last sentence from the remainder of the paragraph and to pretend on that basis that he advocates a universal atonement.

Nicole, at 213.

The problem is that we might read Calvin’s sentence ... legitimately, it would seem ... in this way: since therefore he intends the benefit of His death to be common to all sorts of persons....

But there are strong arguments for not seeing Calvin’s talk of classes to mean some of all classes; rather we might read Calvin as speaking of all of all classes.

The preaching of the gospel to all

Everyone except the hyper-Calvinists agree that the gospel ought to be preached to all. And Nicole agrees that Calvin ought to be read as saying exactly that:

To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language.

Nicole, at 213.

Consider this juxtaposition of statements from Calvin:

Who wishes that all men may be saved. Here follows a confirmation of the second argument; and what is more reasonable than that all our prayers should be in conformity with this decree of God?

And may come to the acknowledgment of the truth. Lastly, he demonstrates that God has at heart the salvation of all, because he invites all to the acknowledgment of his truth. This belongs to that kind of argument in which the cause is proved from the effect; for, if “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to every one that believeth,” (Romans 1:16,) it is certain that all those to whom the gospel is addressed are invited to the hope of eternal life.

~Calvin, Comm. 1Timothy 2:4

It looks like Calvin is saying that the gospel ought to be preached to every creature. But consider that the two paragraphs following those just quoted contain this language:

Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. “If God” say they, “wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition.” They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men.... * * *

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations.

~Calvin, ibid.

Would it be pretense, then to assert that on the basis of this passage from Calvin, he holds that the gospel ought to be preached to every man? I know of none of the pro-continuity scholars who would say that we ought to take Calvin’s comment in 1Timothy 2:4 to mean that the gospel ought to be preached to all kinds of men rather than all individuals. If any of my readers has quotations on this point from Helm, Rainbow, or others, I would love to hear of them. Feel free to post quotations or references in the comment box.

Is it pretense to say that Calvin holds to a universal (without qualification) preaching of the gospel based on his comment to 1Timothy 2:4? I hardly think we could call it pretense. Yet Nicole has alleged that it would be pretense to draw a similar conclusion in light of Calvin’s remarks on 1Timothy 2:5! What difference in language would justify such a difference in conclusion? I am reminded of a friend’s call for publicly justifiable hermeneutical rules. You can’t just make up ad hoc rules of interpretation from whole cloth. There ought to be some discipline and accountability in interpreting ... even if it is scholarly writing that we’re interpreting.

Is it legitimate to read Calvin as saying here that the gospel ought to go out to all men? I think it is. But if that is the case, then we have to have another look at Nicole’s idea of some from all classes. Because we have established that it is possible for Calvin to mean all from all classes when he speaks of classes and not individuals. Nicole’s argument from 1Timothy 2:5 no longer looks so compelling.

I have three more brief arguments on this question, which I will post later this week (d.v.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Issues in the Atonement - Federal headship and forensic Imputation

A friend of mine (the unnamed one) pointed me to Dominic Bnonn Tennant's blog, "developing the mind of Christ." Dominic has started a really excellent series: "On the atonement." He opens the discussion with "federal headship and forensic imputation." He promises seven parts in the series, and I'm really looking forward to it. (Of course, it helps that he cites yours truly in part 1.) :-)

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Free Offer Incompatible with Limited Atonement

In Roger Nicole’s review of Calvin’s doctrine of limited atonement, Nicole lists several arguments of the non-continuity advocates (R. T. Kendall, Curt Daniel, et al) and offers rebuttals of those arguments. Here is his treatment of the second argument of the discontinuity folks (those who say Calvin did not teach limited atonement). The argument relates to the free offer of the gospel:

In asserting, as he does repeatedly, the legitimacy of a universal, indiscriminate offer of salvation to any and to all, Calvin, they urge, presupposes a universal atonement as the logical necessary foundation for such a call.

To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language. We furthermore believe that Calvin was right in line with Scripture, and that those who would restrict the call to the elect are mistaken. But the proposition that the prerequisite for an indiscriminate call is a universal provision, which is the base of the whole argument, appears to us palpably and demonstrably false. Most of the well-meant offers and invitations, human as well as divine, are not grounded in coextensive provision! All that is really requisite for a well-meant offer is that, if the terms of the offer be complied with, that which was offered will in fact be delivered. This is precisely what occurs with the gospel (John 6:37), but no one fulfills the terms except those whom the Father draws (John 6:44, 65). Whether or or not God has made a provision for those who do not come has nothing to do with the sincerity of the offer. No solid argument can therefore be built in favor of universal atonement on this basis.

~Nicole, John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 213-214. Available online at A Puritan’s Mind.

Nicole represents his opponents as saying this: “Calvin must have taught unlimited atonement, because he taught the free offer of the gospel.” The free offer, it is argued, presupposes provision for all.

Nicole answers that “most of the well-meant offers and invitations, human as well as divine, are not grounded in coextensive provision!” Nicole adds an exclamation mark, presumably to emphasize the obvious point his opponents have missed. But one is hard-put to explain exactly what Nicole means here. What divine offers does Nicole have in mind? Nicole believes, apparently, that there are some number of divine invitations (beside the offer of salvation?) that are not backed up by adequate provision. Puzzling.

Regarding human offers, we normally associate sincere offers with a knowledge of some reasonable ability to meet one’s obligations under such an offer. And we would normally greet the failure to live up to those obligations with a certain amount of moral disdain. Indeed, the law often requires that merchants (to use one example) back up their offers with adequate provision -- and provides remedies for those offers that are not so backed up. But despite the limitation (or frailty) of human offers, we need not associate those limitations with God’s offers.

Nicole argues further that in order for an offer to be sincere, it need merely be true that every instance of compliance with the terms of the offer be met with the promised benefits. Since the elect alone are they who will respond to the offer of the gospel, the provision need be only for them. But is that really the measure of sincerity? Since the offer is indeed made to many who will not respond, can we hide the fact that many who are offered salvation in the gospel are in fact completely outside of its provision? It seems out of keeping with the message proclaimed that there are many for whom no provision is made, though the offer is urged upon them.

But all this is quite irrelevant. For the question is not whether limited atonement (or a certain kind of limited atonement) is consonant with the free offer of the gospel, but whether the free offer of the gospel in Calvin’s theology is consonant with strict limited atonement.

I submit that there are two aspects of Calvin’s teaching that are utterly incompatible with a strict doctrine of limited atonement. (By “strict doctrine of limited atonement,” I mean that doctrine that says that there are some men for whom Christ has made no expiation. The reader should bear in mind that Calvin obviously taught that there are some men who will never enjoy the benefits of the atonement. The elect alone are they who will enjoy those benefits.)

Calvin’s doctrine of faith

Calvin’s doctrine of faith is such that the promiscuous proclamation of the gospel is incompatible with limited atonement.

We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

~Institutes, 3.2.7

This is where Kendall’s critique is so devastating. If it is true that Calvin taught (as Kendall proves) that faith is the subjective assurance of God’s favor (or “paternal indulgence”), then calling those to faith for whom no reconciliation has been provided is tantamount to proclaiming a falsehood. How can we proclaim that God would be reconciled to men when He would not be? For Calvin, faith is the subjective assurance that God is -- in and because of Christ -- propitious toward us. But if no propitiation has been made for some, then to proclaim to them the command to believe the gospel is to command them to believe something that is not and could not be true. (One wonders how “unbelief” could be a sin in such a case.)

The answer (given by some) that the gospel ought to be preached to all because “we don’t know who the elect are” is no answer -- at least not to this problem. When we preach the gospel, we know that some will never believe. But it could never help them (nor do credit to the gospel message) to tell them something that is not true. And how could calling on them to believe a falsehood cut off any excuse? (See Calvin on John 3:16.) Sensibility to this problem is reflected in certain strains of hyper-Calvinism, where the gospel is not proclaimed promiscuously precisely because it is held that God is not propitious to all men. How would Nicole reconcile the idea of God’s being irreconcilably at enmity with certain men with the idea of proclaiming to them that God is reconciled to them?

The answer of most high Calvinists (and presumably Nicole) might be that God is indeed not reconciled with the non-elect at all. He is quite at enmity with sinners. He does not show himself to be reconciled, but ready to be reconciled with all who will trust in Christ. Since the reprobate will never trust Christ, the proclamation to them of the terms of pardon is not inconsistent or insincere.

But if Kendall is right, then Calvin taught that the gospel is the proclamation of God’s favor, love, and mercy, which not to believe is the very unbelief that God will condemn.

This ... reveals why Calvin feels so strongly about a universal expiation by Christ’s death; Christ’s death is that to which we look because it is the ‘pledge’ that God loves us. Calvin does not direct us to God’s secret decree; it is ‘Christ alone’ to Whom ‘faith ought to look’. For ‘we are to learn to fix our eyes on the death of Christ, whenever our salvation is concerned’.

Had Christ died only for those whom God had chosen by His secret decree, then, it would obviously cease to be a pledge to all.

~R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 14.

Compare this statement from Calvin:

Every promise which God makes is evidence of his good will. This is invariably true, and is not inconsistent with the fact, that the large benefits which the divine liberality is constantly bestowing on the wicked are preparing them for heavier judgment. * * * Therefore, when the Lord by his promises invites us not only to enjoy the fruits of his kindness, but also to meditate upon them, he at the same time declares his love. Thus we are brought back to our statement, that every promise is a manifestation of the divine favor toward us.

~Institutes 3.2.32

Kendall’s book is known for its treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement, but it ought to be known for its treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of faith. Kendall’s treatment lays waste to many modern views of Calvin, as well as many modern views of faith.

Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

Since we are speaking of the free offer of the gospel, there is one special application of that offer that must be mentioned here. It is Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Calvin saw the Lord’s Supper as a picture of the gospel, the elements representing Christ’s body and blood. Christ’s body is exhibited to us “as if Christ were placed in bodily presence before our view, or handled by our hands.” For Calvin, Christ’s body and blood are really, (spiritually and mysteriously, not corporeally) present in the elements. The sacrament, which should always be accompanied by the preaching of the word, which explains the sacrament, is a gracious offer of forgiveness. Whenever the gospel is preached, it proclaims God’s good will, love, and mercy.

It is one thing to allege (as Nicole has done) that the free offer of the gospel is compatible with limited atonement in the abstract. It is quite another to say that the free offer of the gospel (to believer and unbeliever alike) in the offer of Christ’s body and blood through sacrament is compatible with a limitation of that very body and blood to the elect alone.

Nicole’s rebuttal here does not really address Kendall’s argument, which is that Calvin’s doctrine of faith is incompatible with limited atonement. And though Nicole didn’t have the opportunity to address this point in his critique of Kendall, I would add that Kendall’s argument is greatly strengthened by understanding Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, where Calvin really did see an offer of the gospel in the picture of Christ’s body and blood.

I’ve quoted these words before, but they bear repeating:

To all these things we have a complete attestation in this sacrament, enabling us certainly to conclude that they are as truly exhibited to us as if Christ were placed in bodily presence before our view, or handled by our hands. For these are words which can never lie nor deceive: Take, eat, drink. This is my body, which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. In bidding us take, he intimates that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation. And we ought carefully to observe, that the chief, and almost the whole energy of the sacrament, consists in these words, It is broken for you: it is shed for you. It would not be of much importance to us that the body and blood of the Lord are now distributed, had they not once been set forth for our redemption and salvation.

~Institutes 4.17.3 (emphasis added).

Monday, December 08, 2008

Calvin and God's Wishes

I was recently ransacking Tony's blog for a picture I could steal. I happened across this entry on Calvin's commentary on Lamentations 3:33. It's especially appropriate to the question of God's wishes or desires (optative expressions). An oldie but goodie.

I also draw your attention to Tony's most recent post, in which he has extracted from his own (and Flynn's ... shhh!) blog the various uses of "optative expressions" that various reformed men have used of God.

The Usefulness of One-String Banjos

Theological One-String Banjos

Some of you who regularly read my blog may remember Tony Byrne's self-portrait. (I don't know where he got the photo; but it's good. I stole it from him -- with his tacit consent, of course.) If you want to see a larger version of the picture, click through to his blog and click on the picture there. (I said "self-portrait," but it's actually his view of how others view him. Follow?)

Tony and my other friend (who will remain unnamed here) have been personal friends of mine for quite some time -- approaching a decade now for one of them. Tony and I have had parallel journeys from high (if not hyper) Calvinism to a more moderate strain ... hopefully a strain more true to Calvin himself (and the scriptures, which is its main appeal and the greatest relief).

Tony has been condemned for his harping on one theme. Someone (who shall also remain nameless) recently asked whether Tony's work (and presumably those of us who are working with him -- I flatter myself) would amount to anything in ten years' time. He's a one-string banjo: unbalanced, myopic, obsessed, and lots of other bad things.

Well that sentiment is not universally held. In fact, the work has already borne fruit. Many of our acquaintances (and strangers too, who have become acquaintances) have switched (I'll refrain from saying "converted") from high or hyper Calvinism to more moderate views, many of them accepting some aspects of a universal atonement. Tony recently received a comment on his blog commending him for its "healing" nature.

As far as what the future will bring, who knows? But if God should permit it, Tony's work (along with the material at Calvin and Calvinism) will amount to a mountain that no one -- layman or scholar -- will be able to ignore.

I thank God for Flynn (shhh!) and Tony Byrne. I don't know where I'd be theologically without their invaluable work. It is a shining light for the kingdom and gospel of Jesus Christ. May God grant that it continue for many years to come.

And thank you Annie. :-)

P.S. Three strings?

If you're interested in what one can do with a three-string banjo ... er, guitar ... check this. Now this video, I approve of. :-)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? - Conclusion (I hope)

New Developments

James White has changed the nature of this discussion as it relates to hypercalvinism. He recently posted a response to Tony Byrne on the AOMin blog, and also posted a video, which vitiates much of the discussion about whether James White is a hyper-Calvinist.

Having posted a link to the video, I must comment that some of what White says there is simply false and bombastic; and I don't post the video because I like it or approve of it, but because White makes an important doctrinal concession in it.

Taking the blog post and video together, we can say that White believes the following:

  • God loves all men, though God's love is not monolithic
  • God's will (his revealed will) is that all men obey his commands to repent and believe the gospel
  • In that context (revealed will and command) we can say that God desires the salvation of all men

Having made those statements, much of what I (and others) have written in criticism of White as a hyper-Calvinist is no longer cogent. In my view, White has effectively exonerated himself from the charge.

I feel quite certain that White will take the position that this is nothing new for him -- this has been his position all along. That may be the case, but this is new as far as his statements on the record. I know of no other place in White's work where he has made these kinds of statements. I haven't read all of his work, and I freely admit that he may have held this position all along while I suffered under a cloud of ignorance. But I doubt it. Citations anyone?

And Tony Byrne has made the point on his blog that White's new position is unsupported by any scriptural analysis from White. How would White support his view that God loves all men? Or that God desires (according to his revealed will) that all men obey the gospel? I'm willing to grant White the benefit of the doubt on this; Byrne might want more trenchant statements from White.

The dispute could have been avoided

And should have. White could have answered this debate easily long before the John 3:16 conference by making these points clearly. He could have answered Allen simply by stating these things. But he didn't. He made these statements under a certain degree of pressure. He was forced -- or so it seems to me -- kicking and screaming into these admissions. Ok ... maybe I exaggerate; but that's the way I see it.

I also worry about the solidity of this "new" position. Will there be more "qualifications," and "clarifications?" We can only wait and see. For now I am willing to admit that White is not a hyper-Calvinist. But I worry.

Words have consequences

Having made these statements, White's previous statements on the subject become confusing and contradictory to the point of a hopeless muddle. One could go into long analysis of White's writings and parse his words, but that would be an entirely fruitless and jejune exercise. I won't do it.

More Consequences

There are two other important consequences. First, White is now on record (provided he doesn't start wiggling and provided we don't try to reconcile his recent statements with his old ones) as affirming an orthodox Calvinistic position. This is good.

Another important consequence is that Phil Johnson has gutted his hyper-Calvinism primer to the point of uselessness. Johnson (quite unnecessarily as it turned out) said in defense of White that Dr. Allen had misinterpreted his Primer. Now that is not exactly what Johnson said, but that is the way his statements are being interpreted (by both White and Tom Ascol, and presumably many others).

Johnson, who is normally careful with his words, began muddying the waters -- for the sake of his friend White -- by introducing qualifications about optative expressions, and alleging his personal knowledge of White's orthodoxy, and asserting the apparent misunderstanding of both by Dr. Allen. I deny that Allen misunderstood Phil's Primer ... he clearly understood it all too well. And White's statements up until recently put him solidly in the hyper-Calvinist camp, whatever Phil may say about "misunderstanding his primer."

As a consequence of Johnson's defense of White, other people have begun seriously to misunderstand it, and now Tom Ascol, for example, is saying that Steve Camp is not a hyper-Calvinist because Allen misunderstands Johnson's primer. Oh really!? Johnson would never (one hopes) say such a thing, but his sloppiness in recent weeks has given others a good deal of room to make these kinds of statements. The usefulness of his Primer as a benchmark has been eviscerated. And given Phil's qualifications on "optative" language, his primer as a teaching tool has been eviscerated as well. I would never, given his recent qualifying statements about optative expressions, point anyone to that Primer. I will point people to Tony Byrne for real instruction on the point from this time forward. (Byrne will point us to Curt Daniel and Iain Murray ... who presumably won't be issuing "clarifications" that arise out of personal motives and result in more confusion.)

Well, that's all I have to say on this matter of James White and hypercalvinism ... hopefully forever. If Johnson or White make additional statements that retract or clarify recent events I may revisit it. But I hope that doesn't happen.

For next time, I'm going back to my critique of Nicole.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? - Part 3

James White's problem recapped

In the first two articles of this series, (see Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist and Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist, Part 2) I set out Dr. White's problem with the idea that God desires the salvation of all men. The Bible clearly presents God as willing the salvation of all, Calvin clearly taught it, and it has been held as important truth throughout the history of reformed theology.

In recent decades, a strict strand of Calvinism has become prominent in some Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist circles, which some of us see as dangerously close to (if not firmly ensconced in) the philosophy of hyper-Calvinism. But whether White is "technically" a hyper-Calvinist or not, he clearly denies that the gospel is a proclamation of God's love for all men.

God's "partially salvific desire"

One of the problems (see part 2) White has with the reformed doctrine of God's love for all men is that if we accept the notion, we would be required to see God as having a "partially salvific" intention. Here's White:

Yeah, and that's one of the problems I have with Ezekiel 18 or 33 being read into this particular issue, because I feel like we're being forced to somehow attribute to God some kind (for some reason)...some kind of an attitude or desire that I just never see, not only do I never see expressed, but it would likewise force us to say that God has an unfulfilled desire, but it's not really the same desire as he chooses to fulfill with other people. And we're left not only--you're not only left with the two-wills conundrum, now you've got multiple desires conundrums, which I don't, I just don't see a reason for it.

* * *

But, I just don't, if someone can explain to me where the idea comes from that we have to attribute to God a desire that he then does not fulfill.

* * *

But, I have a problem then saying in my proclamation of the gospel to others means that I then have to affirm some kind of a partially salvific desire...cause it can only be partially salvific. If it's truly a salvific desire, and it's truly a desire of God, does he not do whatever he pleases in the heavens and the earth?"

* * *

~James White, from transcript of Dividing Line radio program cited at Theological Meditations.

More recently, White has characterized the debate this way:

The Pyromaniac himself has weighed in on the John 3:16 Conference allegations that if you don't believe God is eternally bummed about failing to save those He desires to save you are a hyper-Calvinist.

~James White from

Eternally bummed?

White, ever the master of debate hyperbole, tries to paint his opponents into a corner. But it's a false dilemma. I doubt (I don't know, because I haven't listened to the recordings of the John 3:16 conference) that Dr. Allen said that God is "eternally bummed" (or the equivalent). And I know for a fact that this is not the position of Ponter or Byrne. Of course, these nice distinctions tend to get trampled whenever grotesque exaggeration is the preferred tool for debate. White apparently believes that any desire for the salvation of the non-elect on the part of God will necessarily involve God in eternal-bummed-out-ness. White has also said that he refuses "to portray God as having eternally decreed His own unhappiness...."

White, apparently, refuses to portray God in the way that scripture presents Him, or as Calvin presents Him. There are many places in Calvin's works where Calvin portrays God as desiring the salvation of all men. For example:

[F]or with respect to the law and the whole teaching of the prophets, God announces his wish that all should be saved. And surely we consider the tendency of the heavenly teaching, we shall find that all are promiscuously called to salvation. * * * Therefore God delighteth not in the death of him who dieth, if he repent at his teaching. But if we wish to penetrate to his incomprehensible counsel, this will be another objection: Oh! but in this way God is chargeable with duplicity; — but I have denied this, though he takes up a twofold character, because this was necessary for our comprehension. Meanwhile Ezekiel announces this very truly as far as doctrine is concerned, that God wills not the death of him that perishes: for the explanation follows directly afterwards, be you converted and live. Why does not God delight in the death of him who perishes? Because he invites all to repentance and rejects no one. Since this is so, it follows that he is not delighted by the death of him who perishes: hence there is nothing in this passage doubtful or thorny, and we should also hold that we are led aside by speculations too deep for us. For God does not wish us to inquire into his secret counsels: His secrets are with himself, says Moses, (Deuteronomy 29:29,) but this book for ourselves and our children. Moses there distinguishes between the hidden counsel of God, (which if we desire to investigate too curiously we shall tread on a profound abyss,)and the teaching delivered to us. Hence let us leave to God his own secrets, and exercise ourselves as far as we can in the law, in which God’s will is made plain to us and to our children.

~Calvin, Comm. Ezekiel 18:32

Does God desire obedience?

Surely the Bible says that God desires obedience.

22 And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

~1Samuel 15:22, KJV

This verse is referred to in Hosea 6:6 and by Jesus on a couple of occasions.

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

~Matthew 9:13, KJV

So clearly God desires obedience. But is this a "partial" desire as White has alleged? If we accept White's reasoning, this desire for obedience can not be a "true" desire, because (in the words of White), "If it's ... truly a desire of God, does he not do whatever he pleases in the heavens and the earth?"

White engages in idle speculation to the detriment of true knowledge of God. If we are to know God, we must know Him as He has revealed himself. Having revealed Himself as desiring obedience to His commands, we must refrain from engaging in philosophical argumentation to cause us to deny the very thing God affirms about Himself. White's statement about a "partial salvific desire" amounts to nothing more than this kind of unbelief, whether it be hyper-Calvinism or not. It certainly goes "beyond Calvin" -- into a profound abyss.