A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 1

August 10, 2012

By David L. Allen

David L. Allen is Professor of Preaching, George W. Truett Chair of Ministry, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching, and Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Allen is co-author of Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism.


Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles, eds. Whomever He Wills: a Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012), 401 pgs.

Whomever He Wills (hereafter WHW) is the latest installment and a welcome addition in the ongoing discussion in the Southern Baptist Convention over the subject of Calvinism. Published by Founders Ministries, with Dr. Tom Ascol as Executive Director, the book is, in part, a response to David L. Allen & Steve W. Lemke, eds., Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, published in 2010 (hereafter Whosoever). WHW is co-edited by Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dr. Matthew Barrett, Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University. This multiple-part review/critique is “selective” in that I will not address most chapters in the book, and it is a “critique” in that I will be evaluating the arguments of those I do address.

WHW contains a foreword by Dr. Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School; a preface by Fred Zaspel, pastor of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA; and an introduction by the co-editors. Thirteen chapters comprise the book, divided into two parts. Chapters 1 – 9 are introduced with a sermon on Revelation 5:1-14 by Dr. Steve Lawson, pastor of Christ’s Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, AL.; followed by five chapters, each addressing one of the letters of the traditional Calvinist TULIP acrostic; and three chapters dealing with the issues of determinism and human freedom, God’s sovereignty over evil, and evangelism and missions in Calvinism. Part Two contains four chapters dealing with Calvin’s understanding of the atonement, sovereign grace and evangelism in the preaching of Bunyan, the SBC and evangelical Calvinism, and the impact of Calvinism upon local Baptist churches. The book contains an index of People and Places along with a Scriptural index.

I was especially interested in reading this book since it is, in part, a response to Whosoever which I co-edited with Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Indeed, placing the books side by side, one readily observes they are virtually parallel in title, structure and content. The title of Whosoever is taken from John 3:16 and Revelation 22:17, key verses impinging on the character of God and the extent of the atonement. The title WHW is taken from Romans 9:18, a key verse in Calvinist theology likewise impinging on the character and sovereignty of God. Whosoever contains a foreword, preface, introduction, and eleven chapters divided into two parts. Part One is introduced by a sermon (John 3:16); followed by five chapters covering each of the petals of TULIP. Part Two consists of five chapters dealing with key aspects of Calvinism. WHW follows the identical format, with two additional chapters covering aspects of Calvinism. Both books are structured in a clear, easy-to-follow manner, and both contain clear, concise footnotes which allow readers to pursue other sources along with evidence/argumentation in a more detailed fashion. Southern Baptist pastors, laypeople, and scholars alike would find these works helpful in delineating the theological differences over a subject that is often confusing, even to the initiated.

A comparison of the authors in both works reveals similarities and differences. Both books contain chapters written by current or former pastors, and college and seminary professors, all of whom are Baptists. Of the eleven authors in Whosoever, current faculty from three of the six Southern Baptist seminaries is represented: New Orleans, Southeastern, and Southwestern. Authors include two former SBC Presidents, a seminary president, the president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, two seminary Vice-Presidents/Provosts, and two Deans. Though the TULIP acrostic remains problematic as a theological measuring stick for a number of reasons, we will nonetheless retain its use for purposes of this review. The authors of Whosoever adhere to as few as two points and as many as four points of the TULIP acrostic. Whosoever does not include any “Arminian” contributors.

The fifteen contributors (including foreword and preface) to WHW include six pastors, one associate pastor, six seminary professors (including one Dean and two who are also pastors), one college professor, and one PhD student. Of these fifteen, twelve are associated with Southern Seminary in Louisville in that they taught, currently teach, are PhD candidates, or earned their PhD from the seminary. (Drs. Nettles and Ascol both earned PhDs from Southwestern Seminary.) In addition, as far as I am able to ascertain, all but one of the authors are five-point Calvinists. Dr. Bruce Ware is a moderate Calvinist who rejects limited atonement.

In this review, it is my intent only to consider the content of the Foreword, Preface, and Introduction. A comparison of these is quite instructive. The forewords are remarkably similar in tone and content. Timothy George authored the foreword for WHW and Johnny Hunt wrote for Whosoever. Both are well known statesmen in the SBC. Both stake out irenic ground, and both achieve success.

The prefaces in each work are of a similar length and both are written by systematic theologians. James Leo Garrett wrote the preface for Whosoever. Garrett is an icon in Southern Baptist life as the Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught theology at both Southern Seminary and Southwestern Seminary. Garrett’s preface generally covers the following ground: Dort and Baptists in the 17th century; Calvinism in the SBC and his personal career pilgrimage from student to professor emeritus; the neo-Calvinist movement since the 1980s; the varieties of Calvinism; acknowledgment that there has been a major strand of Calvinism in SB life [at the conclusion of this paragraph Garrett wrote: “Such issues need to be approached in a reflective and irenic spirit, not in a hostile, polemical fashion. The contributors to this volume have sought to do this” (xi)]; a brief one to two sentence summary of each chapter; and a concluding statement: “All who wish to consider seriously the role of Calvinism in Baptist life today can find stimulation in these pages, which in turn invite further discussion and dialogue” (xii). Though Garrett is not a Calvinist, one will not find a scintilla of a hint that he is biased in any way in what he says. As evidenced by his two-volume magnum opus on systematic theology, Garrett maintains a descriptive approach and achieves balance in his preface.

The preface in WHW was written by Dr. Fred Zaspel, pastor and adjunct professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Pennsylvania. Like Garrett, Dr. Zaspel is an accomplished author. His first paragraph speaks of the legendary B. B. Warfield who argued “that if a Theist allows the necessary implications of the Theism he has already embraced, he must be a Calvinist. . . . [S]oteriological Calvinism is but the implicate, the necessary consequence of Theism.” In his second paragraph, Dr. Zaspel states: “Moreover, soteriological Calvinism is the embodiment of the prophet Jonah’s declaration, ‘Salvation is of the Lord!’ (Jonah 2:9). It is the outworking of the proposition that salvation is God’s doing, that it is His gracious gift to undeserving sinners, and that He saves in such a way that only He receives the glory for it (1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Ephesians 2:8-10).” Then follows this statement: “If we adhere to these propositions we are Calvinists” (xv).

Dr. Zaspel avows that Calvinists embrace soteriological Calvinism “ultimately, because we find it to be taught us in the Scriptures” (Ibid.). His next paragraph develops the notion that the discussion is important because a right understanding of these issues is not a matter of exegetical faithfulness only, but also gospel faithfulness. He affirms that those who differ with him on these issues are indeed his brothers and sisters in Christ. He rightly states our unity is in the gospel and doctrinal accuracy is vital to this. He also notes we must discuss our differences frankly and wisely and concludes “each new generation of Christians must feel compelled to seek ever-increasing clarity concerning them” (xvi). His next two paragraphs point out that these doctrines are “worship shaping doctrines.” Dr. Zaspel concludes his preface with comments about the motivations behind the contributors to WHW:

It is not party spirit but worship. Not personal prejudice but jealousy for God that

  • has grown out of a deep and humbling sense of rescue. They do not mean to say
  • that those who disagree are not Christians. But neither do they mean to say that
  • these issues are therefore unimportant. These issues are essential to a consistent
  • Theism. They are essential to any confession of divine rescue. They are an essential
  • part of the very fabric of the biblical revelation of divine salvation. They are essential
  • to a right understanding of the gospel. They are essential to a worship that would
  • rightly acknowledge God as the savior of sinners. And they are basic to a realized
  • joy in God’s salvation (xvii).

While I agree with much of what Dr. Zaspel says, I cannot help but be struck by the occasional difference in tone and direct statements in his preface when compared to that of Dr. Garrett.

Rattling first out of the box is an approving quote of Warfield’s problematic suggestion that a necessary implicate of Theism leads to Calvinism. I find Warfield’s statement incredible. In one fell swoop in the first paragraph, non-Calvinists are shackled with criticism for failing to discern that Calvinism is a “necessary consequence” of Theism. Such a claim might appear to some to smack of arrogance. I have known and read many Calvinists throughout the years, and though I have occasionally seen and heard statements like this expressed, I certainly think that the majority of Calvinists do not agree with this sentiment. These statements do not help foster dialogue and unity that Dr. Zaspel speaks of further down the page. They risk trammeling both.

Furthermore, how is it that one is to conclude that to say with Jonah “salvation is of the Lord;” that it is “God’s doing;” that “it is His gracious gift to undeserving sinners;” and “that He saves in such a way that only He gets the glory for it;” mean one is a Calvinist? I myself adhere to all these propositions, and yet I am not a Calvinist.

Finally, Dr. Zaspel concludes by indicating that “these issues” are of the upmost importance. “These issues” are “essential” to “consistent Theism,” “any confession of divine rescue,” “part of the very fabric of the biblical revelation of divine salvation,” and “a right understanding of the gospel.” The key question here concerns the meaning of “these issues.” If he is speaking generically, in the sense of “these broad Soteriological issues of human depravity, election, extent of the atonement, the nature of grace and free will, etc.,” then people on both sides of the aisle can agree wholeheartedly, for the disagreement is not over these issues as clear biblical concepts, but over the interpretation of the meaning of these issues. If, however, his intended meaning (or antecedent) of “these issues” is “a Calvinistic Soteriology,” then I am afraid he is stretching the word “essential” beyond its legitimate limits when referencing Soteriology, and pressing the envelope of almost branding those who disagree as somehow “inconsistent,” and lacking “a right understanding of the gospel.” That seems to me to be an unreasonably broad swath to cut in a three page preface. Let me be clear. I certainly do not refuse Dr. Zaspel the right to believe that those who disagree with the Calvinist paradigm are “inconsistent” at points in their theological framework. I have argued the same from the other side of the aisle with respect to aspects of Calvinism in Whosoever, particularly when it comes to Limited Atonement. Nor do I question his right to believe and state that his grasp of Soteriology rightly understands the gospel as revealed in Scripture. I also have argued in Whosoever that adherence to Limited Atonement misunderstands and misrepresents an important aspect of the gospel. Rather, my concern lies with his use of the word “essential.” If Dr. Zaspel means to suggest that a Calvinistic understanding of the gospel as expressed in the traditional TULIP is “essential” not only for a “consistent Theism” but also for a “right understanding” of the gospel itself, then therein lies one of the reasons I find this aspect of the preface problematic. Indeed, I suspect it is a statement which many Calvinists themselves would be uncomfortable with, especially those who reject limited atonement. Although I find myself in appreciative agreement with much of what Dr. Zaspel says, for the reasons above I find aspects of his preface to be somewhat problematic.

Turning to the introductions in the two books, a comparison here is also quite interesting. The introductions are written by the co-editors of each book and each is roughly nine pages in length. In Whosoever, Dr. Lemke and I cover four broad areas: resurgent Calvinism in the evangelical world and the SBC; a brief history of the debate over Calvinism with a focus on Dort; the fact that Calvinism is not a monolithic system; and the importance of a unified spirit between divergent views. We point out that the Arminians at Dort were Reformed who had concerns about the extremes to which some Calvinists had taken aspects of Reformed theology. We also addressed the issue of caricaturing the Arminians at Dort as Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians. Concerning Calvinism and the SBC, we wrote: “Can Baptists be Calvinists? Yes, but Baptists can be non-Calvinists too. Baptists have always had both Calvinists and non-Calvinists within their ranks. Two extremes must be avoided: (1) Southern Baptists should never be Calvinists, and (2) true Southern Baptists must be Calvinists” (5).

For the authors of Whosoever, the book

involves the authors’ deep convictions concerning what they believe the Bible teaches  about who God is and how He works in the world. Clearly, others have different convictions, flowing from their biblical interpretations and views of who God is and how He works in the world. These beliefs matter, for the convictions of the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians deserve to be heard, and lie at the heart of what Christianity is and what the gospel proclaims. The contributors are not “anti-Calvinist” and therefore are interested in dialogue not diatribe. We have no desire to sweep the SBC clean of Calvinism. . . . any and every agenda to remove Calvinism from the SBC needs to be opposed (9).

In the final paragraph Dr. Lemke and I wrote: “Our hope is that disagreement can occur in an irenic Christian spirit, without disagreeableness or harshness. We humbly ask forgiveness when we fail to do so, or when we misunderstand what others have intended. We take our stand on God’s Word and challenge our readers to search the Scriptures to discover what the Bible says about these key issues” (Ibid.).

The introduction to WHW covers much the same territory as Whosoever, beginning where Whosoever leaves off – with a statement of principled agreement with our final section on the importance of a unified spirit. This is followed by a section on the cruciality of Soteriology since “every theological discussion in the history of the church eventually dissolves into soteriological implications” (xx). Next is a section biblically comparing the two themes “whomever He wills” and “whosoever will.” Drs. Nettles and Barrett write: “We are trying to provide an expanded viewpoint to be considered alongside, and frankly in many places as a corrective to, the volume entitled Whosoever Will.” Under the heading “Calvinism: the Consistent Baptist Expression,” the co-editors acknowledge the Calvinistic leanings of early Baptist history. They acknowledge that there is much we agree on including the nature of biblical authority. They state: “Areas in which we are seeking clearer and more precise agreement constitute the subject matter of this volume” (xxv). Likewise, “This volume is an attempt to take a step forward, not backward, in providing clarity and moving toward unity on these matters” (Ibid.). The co-editors acknowledge the fact that writers in both volumes are not in complete agreement on all issues discussed. I find little if anything to quibble about up to this point.

The final section of the introduction addresses what is at stake in the Calvinism debate. The following statements appear in this section (xxv-xxviii):

“It is this common commitment to divine sovereignty and divine glory that is at stake in the Calvinism-Arminianism debate. If God must condition His sovereignty and salvific plan on the will of man, then man in some way, even if it be small, contributes to his salvation and consequently God cannot receive all of the glory in redemption.”

“. . . inevitably God is at the mercy of man.”

“In essence, God is robbed of His glory at the expense of demanding libertarian freedom. There can be no way around it; these are the consequences of the Arminian view.”

Quoting John R. de Witte, “Arminianism essentially represents an attack upon the majesty of God and puts in place of it the exaltation of man.”

“Be not mistaken, opposing Arminianism is an aspect of this present volume. And for good reason too for as J. I. Packer states, Arminianism involves a ‘partial denial of the biblical faith in the God of all grace. But we cannot stop there. It is not enough to oppose those views contrary to Scripture. Rather, we oppose them in order to help others see better what Scripture teaches.’ As Packer explains, Calvinists should ‘approach professed Arminians as brother evangelicals trapped in weakening theological mistakes, and seek to help them to a better mind.’ In part, that is our aim in this volume.”

“We love the doctrines of grace because they serve as the foundation on which the gospel itself is built.”

“. . . a God who already determined the end from the beginning, including the destination of every living soul, not on the basis of anything we will do but purely because of His good pleasure. He is a God who sends his Son to die for those whom He has predestined.”

“Because God is sovereign over all things, rather than having His sovereignty limited by libertarian freedom, . . . .”

Quoting Spurgeon, “I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. . . . Calvinism is the gospel and noting else.”

“Consequently, if we are truly to be consistent, it is not an exaggeration to say that the evangelical gospel stands or falls with Calvinism.”

“And as R. Albert Mohler, Jr., has said, ‘The “doctrines of grace” are nothing less than a statement of the gospel itself.’” “It is only when we ‘return to a more Calvinistic understanding of the gospel and a recognition of the absolute sovereignty of God’ that we will ‘recover our theological inheritance and the essence of biblical Christianity.’”

“Therefore, what is at stake in this debate is obvious: the glory of our sovereign God.”

Comparing the two introductions, several similarities appear. Both are committed to biblical authority and a love for the gospel. Both express appreciation and desire for unity with those who see the issues differently. Both acknowledge the Calvinistic heritage of the SBC. Both understand the foundational nature of soteriology for theology and praxis. Both agree there is room for us all in the SBC. On these issues, and others, we are simpatico.

However, I am troubled by what I see as a significant difference between the two introductions in one area. Dr. Lemke and I sought to be careful in both content and tone not to word our disagreement with our Calvinist brothers and sisters in a way that would foreclose on the discussion. I think we were successful in that attempt, but our readers will have to be the ultimate judge of that. The co-editors of WHW, by their quotes cited above, all of which occur in the final part of their introduction, reveal something of their mindset and why I believe it is difficult to have a discussion with those who appear to be entrenched in such a mindset. Here are the concerns as I see them. First, the authors persist in their attempt to label contributors of Whosoever as Arminian and to frame the discussion according to the traditional Reformed historical categories of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, in spite of the fact that none of the authors of Whosoever is Arminian and that we have disavowed this moniker on numerous occasions since the publication of the book in 2010 (see “Neither Calvinists Nor Arminians But Baptists” http://www.baptisttheology.org/documents/NeitherCalvinistsNorArminiansButBaptists.pdf) Second, we do not believe or assert that God conditions his sovereignty on man’s will or that God is at the mercy of man. Third, it is one thing to state that one believes the consequences of our view “rob God of His glory,” and quite another to state “There can be no way around it; these are the consequences of the Arminian view.” Statements like “there can be no way around it. . . ” tend to foreclose on the issue up front.

Fourth, the authors indicate our view is an “attack” on the majesty of God. Again, it seems better to express this along the lines of “we believe the authors’ views expressed in Whosoever entail . . . .” Authors in both books are committed evangelical Christians and are not “attacking” things like the “majesty” of God. Fifth, in stating one of their purposes for writing, the author’s avow “it is not enough to oppose views contrary to Scripture. . . .” This kind of statement merely assumes that the authors of Whosoever are unscriptural in their positions while the authors of WHW are the defenders of the Scriptural doctrine. What the authors of WHW are doing is opposing views they believe to be unscriptural just as the authors of Whosoever are doing. That, of course, is fair game for both sides. Otherwise, merely asserting one’s interpretation of the text as Scriptural truth is an exercise in begging the question. Sixth, we are told that the authors are opposing our errant views with a view to helping us extricate ourselves from the trap of theological mistakes to a “better mind.” It is difficult not to infer something of a condescending attitude in this remark. Seventh, it simply won’t do to attempt to mitigate Spurgeon’s statement that Calvinism is the gospel by telling us that if we understand Spurgeon correctly, he was not saying that only those who are Calvinists believe in the gospel or that only Calvinists are Christians. We understand that well enough. But when we are told that “it is not an exaggeration to say that the evangelical gospel stands or falls with Calvinism,” the implication is clear: those who don’t believe in Calvinism have a significantly flawed understanding of the gospel. It is simply unwise and in fact in our judgment wrong to imply or say that Calvinism is the essence of the gospel, Spurgeon notwithstanding. Calvinism is not the esse (essence), of the gospel, as Greg Welty correctly pointed out at the Building Bridges Conference in 2007. He stated: “To my fellow Calvinists I will be a bit more blunt. . . .” Such a statement as “Calvinism is the gospel” can be “both misleading and unhelpful,” and if taken at face value, would “draw the circle of fellowship more narrowly than Christ Himself has drawn it.” (Greg Welty, “Election and Calling: A Biblical Theological Study,” in Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, eds. E. Ray Clendenen & Brad J. Waggoner [Nashville: B&H, 2008], 243.)

Though each of the statements quoted above range in my estimation from moderately problematic to egregious, taken together they seem to indicate something of a mindset concerning how the authors of the introduction in WHW view those who disagree with them. We should all remember that in one sense a way of seeing is a way of not seeing. We all come to the table with a certain grid through which we filter and interpret things. We think that our interpretation is the correct one; otherwise we would not hold it. But when we express ourselves in language that identifies our view with Scripture and the other guy’s view with “attacking” a Scriptural doctrine or when we give the appearance that we could not possibly be mistaken in our view and thus have to lovingly help or monish the errant one to see the error of his ways, we have moved beyond the boundary of suasion and have foreclosed on the discussion at the outset. At issue is the correct interpretation of texts, yes; but it would be helpful if we did not speak or write in such a way that tends to place our counterparts in the discussion on the defensive by assuming or overtly claiming the biblical and hermeneutical high ground. This appears to me to be especially important in an introduction to any work since the introduction usually serves to set the tone for the discussion.

My critique above should be read in the bright light of my stated agreement with much of what has been written. Most of the preface and introduction to WHW would be affirmed by those of us who are not Calvinists. I would encourage the reader to look again at both prefaces and introductions to see whether my observations have merit or not. Regardless of one’s conclusions, I certainly want to express my appreciation for Drs. Ascol, Nettles and Barrett, along with the authors who contributed to WHW for their response to Whosoever and for their effort to foster an ongoing dialogue in the hopes that we all may come to a clearer understanding of these vital issues and work together for God’s kingdom and His glory with an ever-greater appreciation for each other in the process.