One of the blessings of social media is the freedom to insert oneself into a discussion between two others, even without an invitation. Dr. Eric Hankins recently wrote a series of four articles published here in response to an article by Dr. Nathan Finn that appeared in the NOBTS “Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry” (Volume 10, Number 1). For the most part, I stay out of discussions of Calvinism-related topics because I’ve not seen them to be highly productive. And, again, neither party has asked me to weigh in. But I wish to respond to Dr. Hankins’ fourth post.
Frank Page’s Calvinism Task Force made the point that soteriological discussions must be pursued and that the differing viewpoints must engage on the topic. NOBTS is to be commended for including a response from Dr. Finn in their journal. And whether you agree or disagree with Dr. Hankins, it is right and fair that he be given an opportunity to engage a viewpoint that he finds unbiblical. We do have to discuss these issues and even highlight our differences. Hopefully, that can be done with a reasonable degree of respect to opposing viewpoints.
I wander into this discussion with some trepidation. The only thing I have on these two men is a size advantage – I outweigh both and probably come close to their combined weights! But in a theological discussion my size is little advantage. While I am not a supporter of the Traditionalist Statement, it is the product of a theological mind more trained than my own. I have tremendous respect for Dr. Nathan Finn and consider him to be one of the bright younger minds in the SBC. So, fully aware that I enter this fray inadequately armed theologically, I choose to engage nonetheless.
My quibble today is not over the main point of Hankins’ post, but with something else that he said. I know what I believe soteriologically, but I’m not sure how to label myself. So, engaging on the definition of the term “New Calvinist” is not a primary concern for me. I was a Calvinist long before Calvinism was cool in the SBC, and there is little new about that. I admit guilt, during my younger years, in reference to many of the negative behaviors John Piper admitted were common among Calvinists. I was arrogant, argumentative and convinced that those who could not see what I saw were theological dolts. At that time, Calvinism was rare in the SBC and a threat to no one. People tolerated us as the weird uncles of the SBC; an embarrassment, but part of the family. I heard my views blasted pretty often, but only after they had been twisted and misrepresented. Unfortunately, as much as the tendency of Calvinists to display arrogance in discussion is still evident today, so is the tendency of non-Calvinists to caricature and misrepresent Calvinist views.
I am not writing, though, to lay a charge of misrepresentation at the feet of Dr. Hankins. I might word things a little differently than he did and his repeated use of the term “deterministic” is not a favorite self-description of Calvinists, but he enumerates the differences between Calvinists and Traditionalists clearly. There is a significant disagreement between the way Calvinists view events in this world and the way Traditionalists and the wider non-Calvinist community do so. We cannot pretend either that disagreement does not exist or that the disagreements are not significant. I believe that our common core of doctrine is significant enough that we can work together as Great Commission partners in spite of these differences.
In a side note, Dr. Finn had an excellent article at “Between the Times” about our need to walk in unity. It was called “Our Southern Baptist Rivalries and the Need for Revival“. We should walk in unity, honoring one another in spite of our areas of disagreement. The differences in theology and outlook between Calvinists and Traditionalists is significant, even if it ought not be divisive.
My quarrel with Dr. Hankins has to do with his treatment of the middle ground views. As he differentiates between the libertarian free will views of the Traditionalists and the “determinism” of Calvinists, he dismisses the worth of middle ground viewpoints. It appears that he wants to set the discussion between the extremes (not to describe the views as extremist – both are mainstream Christian and Baptist viewpoints – but as the ends of the Calvinist continuum) of 5-point Calvinism and Traditionalism. One must logically hold to either libertarian free will or to deterministic Calvinism, according to Hankins and there is little value in the middle ground. Look at this paragraph from the piece.
The coherence of Calvinism is the coherence of determinism. Biblical texts that don’t fit the system are marginalized or reinterpreted to fit it. A variety of shims are inserted into the system to soften or hide the jolting but necessary demands of determinism. These fixes (Amyraldianism, single predestination, “duty faith,” God’s two loves, His two wills, compatibilistic freedom, “mystery, paradox, antimony,” etc., etc., etc.) actually destroy the coherence of determinism, even though they are well-intended—they are crafted to rescue the character of God, the plain-sense meaning of many biblical texts, and a legitimate rationale for taking the gospel to every person.
It is my belief that most Southern Baptists would fall into this disdained middle ground. Even among Calvinists, a large number, perhaps a majority, do not buy into the complete Reformed package of doctrines and ascribe to fewer than the five points associated with Calvinism. And most non-Calvinists are not Traditionalists. Last I knew, fewer than 1000 had signed the document. Certainly, many agree with it who did not sign it, but it is not accurate to describe Traditionalism as the majority position among Southern Baptists or to make the Traditionalist Statement the manifesto for all non-Calvinists. I think that if a survey could be done, most of us in the SBC would fall between the two poles that Dr. Hankins establishes, Traditionalism and Calvinism.
But Hankins dismisses all of these middle positions in his statement above. He defines Calvinism as rooted firmly in determinism, and not wholly without reason. Again, most Calvinists would choose a word other than determinism to describe their views of the sovereignty of God, but the facts are facts. Calvinists believe that this world operates based on the decrees of God rather than the free will choices of human beings. Describe the difference as you will, use the terms you wish, but there is a difference between how John Piper views the unfolding of events of this world and how Eric Hankins views them.
But I do not accept Hankins’ summary dismissal of all the middle ground positions between five-point, system Calvinism and Traditionalism. He paints the discussion in bright white and solid black – human free will against absolute determinism. The middle positions he dismisses as “shims.” These wedges are inserted into the flawed Calvinist system to “soften or hide the jolting but necessary demands of determinism.” He then lists out a few of these shims, which he then describes as fixes, as “Amyraldianism, single predestination, ‘duty faith,’ God’s two loves, His two wills, compatibilistic freedom, ‘mystery, paradox, antimony’…” Three “etcs” make it clear that he believes that there are many more of these theological shims designed to hide the flaws of Calvinism or soften the offense of the doctrine. He then states that these middle ground positions are designed to “rescue the character of God, the plain-sense meaning of many biblical texts, and a legitimate rationale for taking the gospel to every person.”
In recent years, I have struggled to find my place on the Calvinism continuum. I have some significant disagreements with the TS, especially in its view of human depravity. I did not sign the document because I do not agree with several of its points and because I strongly dislike the use of the term “Traditionalist” for reasons I have enumerated more than once. I am certainly not a Piperian seven-point Calvinist either. As I grew older, my passion for Calvinism cooled a little and I found myself exploring some of these middle positions that Eric dismisses. I’ve read a little about Amyraldianism and would not object to wearing that label. I have used the term antinomy to describe my position, and will likely stick with that until a more official and accurate term comes along. Maybe I can call myself an “Amyraldian Antinomist.”
Dr. Hankins dismisses such middle-ground views, leveling the accusation that we who have adopted such views have done so for three reasons. First, we are trying to “rescue the character of God” from the harsh and distasteful realities of Calvinist determinism. The third accusation (baffling to me) is that we are trying to find a “legitimate rationale for taking the gospel to every person.” I do not think either of these is fair. His second reason is the true one, in my view, though certainly not as he meant it. He says that middle ground views were developed to deal with the “plain-sense meaning of many biblical texts.”
I plead guilty. I have developed my “Amyraldian Antinomist” viewpoint as a result of my study of Scripture. It is my belief that both Traditionalists and Reformed adherents are often guilty of the charge that Hankins lay solely at the feet of the Calvinists.
“Biblical texts that don’t fit the system are marginalized or reinterpreted to fit it.”
That is a common problem in theological debate. I stake out my position and marshal the Scriptures that seem to support my view. When you give a verse that seems to support your view, I ignore it or dismiss it and counter with my own verse to buttress my original argument. Theological systems often are guilty of this – marginalizing or reinterpreting verses that do not support the system.
The problem is the failure of many to understand the principle of antinomy. A definition would be in order. An antinomy is something that is against the laws of logic – a logical contradiction. I realize that I am appropriating a term used in philosophy and imbuing it with a specific meaning. When I say antinomy, I mean this:
An antinomy occurs when Scripture affirms two things that cannot both be true according to the laws of human logic. But, since both truths are affirmed in Scripture I hold to both truths by faith even though my logic is unable grasp it.
In Isaiah 55:8, the Lord declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.” God reveals himself to us as best he can, in our languages, in our thought patterns. But there is truth about God that lies far beyond the grasp of human logic, facts that can only be understood in divine logic.
Can your dog understand some of what you say? Probably. Can your dog understand your logic, thought patterns, and such? Of course not. Our ways are higher than a dog’s and our thoughts are higher. We communicate what the dog can understand, but there are limits. Does God communicate with us and reveal himself? Absolutely. Is there a divine logic and understanding that we cannot understand? I believe there is. We are intelligent creatures, but we are just not capable of understanding everything about God. It is only conjecture, but the difference between my intelligence and a dogs is probably nowhere near as great as the difference between my intelligence and God’s!
So, many of the great doctrines of the faith dwell in the realm of the mystery, of the paradox, or, in the term I prefer, the antinomy.
1) The Trinity – The greatest example of the antinomy principle is the Trinity. Check out this Lutheran video, if you’ve not seen it already.
We affirm that God is One, but that he exists eternally in three separate but co-equal persons. Both cannot be true according to human logic. Either God is one or three. But in the divine logic, which is beyond us, God can be the eternal Trinity.
2) The Dual Nature of Christ- Was Jesus God or man? Yes! He was not half-god and half-man, but 100% each. He cannot be both according to our human logic, but he is. We affirm both because Scripture teaches both.
I believe that the answer to the questions surrounding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are resolved in exactly the same way.
3) The Sovereignty of God and the Responsibility of Man. I assert that the same antinomy principle is true as touches issues related to God’s sovereignty and human moral responsibility. I believe that the Bible affirms two truths which cannot both be true by human logic, but are both true by the dictates of Scripture.
a) That God, before time began, chose those who would be saved.
b) That we, as human beings, must choose God as an act of our own will and put our faith in Christ.
Non-Calvinists usually try to soften the choice of God, saying that he chose those who would choose Christ (a misunderstanding of foreknowledge) or that God chose Christ and those who choose to be “in Christ” by faith are part of the elect. There is a wide range of views meant to soften the sovereign and eternal choice of God. Calvinists soften the choice of man, saying that faith is a gift of God, that we choose, but only because God chose us and that grace is irresistible.
If God is both one and three, if Jesus is both man and God, why can we not say that God made an eternal choice and that humans must make a real choice about Jesus. I think this meets with the revelation test, accounting for the verses that each side uses in the exchanges described above. Obviously, I cannot defend it logically any more than I can defend the Trinity or the Dual Nature of Christ on the basis of human logic.
I am fully aware that this view will not satisfy many on the Traditionalist side, and that the Calvinist attack brigades will likely call me all sorts of derogatory names. When you stand in the middle between warring parties, you can often draw fire from both sides. But I am convinced this is the truth of God. I am willing to admit that my mind cannot grasp the splendor of God’s glory and that many Scriptural truths are only resolved in the divine logic.
Remember the old story of the six blind men, each grasping a different part of the elephant and insisting it was the whole elephant? Some grasp verses that buttress the Sovereignty of God in salvation while others lay hold of the “whosoever” verses that call sinners to repent. Each side then tends to assert that their verses control the discussion and discount those verses which seem to help the other side. We are insisting on solving the most fundamental issue of God’s character – how a sovereign God relates to finite human beings – by the dictates of human logic. By those dictates, we will always fail.
In salvation, there is a divine side and a human side. On the divine side, God’s choice is the reality behind human salvation – an eternal, sovereign choice. On the human side, we have a real choice to trust Christ, or not, one each of us is eternally responsible for.
How can both be true? How can I affirm both sovereignty and responsibility? I don’t understand it.
But here’s the thing, if God did try to explain the interaction of human responsibility and divine sovereignty to me, this is what I would likely hear.
His thoughts are higher than mine. I can accept what God has revealed, but I cannot understand the glorious complexities of God’s sovereignty.