Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology
Part 3: Theological Presuppositions

April 17, 2012

Eric Hankins is the Pastor of First Baptist, Oxford, Mississippi

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the third of a four-part series by Eric Hankins entitled “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology.” This series attempts to frame Baptist soteriology in a different structure than the traditional “TULIP” comparisons with the doctrines of Calvinism or Arminianism.

  • In Part 1, Hankins contrasted “individual election” (a key Biblical Presupposition in Calvinism and Arminianism) with “corporate election” in a Baptist soteriology.
  • In Part 2, he contrasts the Philosophical Presuppositions of “The ‘Problem’ of Determinism and Free-Will” in Calvinism with “The Freedom of God and the Free-Will of People” in a Baptist soteriology.
  • Now, in Part 3, he contrasts the Theological Presuppositions of “Federal Theology” in Calvinist soteriology with “Covenant in Christ” in a Baptist soteriology.

The Theological Presupposition in a Reformed Soteriology:

Federal Theology

Both Arminians and Calvinists assume a “Covenant of Works” between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden, even though there is no biblical basis for such.[1] The Covenant of Works, they assert, was a deal God made with Adam whereby Adam would be rewarded with eternal life if he could remain morally perfect through a probationary period. Failure would bring about guilt and “spiritual death,” which includes the loss of his capacity for a good will toward God. Adam’s success or failure, in turn, would be credited to his posterity. This “Federal Theology” imputes Adam’s guilt and total depravity to every human.[2] In Calvinism, actual guilt and total depravity are the plight of every person. Free-will with respect to salvation is, by definition, impossible, and with it, the possibility of a free response to God’s offer of covenant through the gospel. The only hope for salvation for any individual is the elective activity of God. In Calvinist soteriology, election is privileged above faith because regeneration must be prior to conversion. In Arminianism, the effects of Federal Theology and the Covenant of Works must be countermanded by further speculative adjustments like “prevenient grace” and election based on “foreseen faith,” a faith which is only possible because prevenient grace overcomes the depravity and guilt of the whole human race due to Adam’s failure. All this strays far beyond the biblical data. Such speculation does not emerge from clear inferences from the Bible, but is actually a priori argumentation designed to buttress Augustine, not Paul.

God’s gracious action in Christ is not “Plan B,” a “Covenant of Grace,” executed in response to Adam’s failure at “Plan A,” the “Covenant of Works.” The pre-existent Son has always been the center-point of creation and covenant. Adam was not created and placed in the Garden for the purpose of demonstrating moral perfection through his own efforts.[3] This original “works righteousness” was read into the Garden by Pelagius and assumed by Augustine. Adam was not being called to moral perfection; he was being called into world-changing covenant relationship. The command not to eat of the tree was simply a negative construal of God’s offer for Adam to know Him and be satisfied in Him and His plan alone. It was a specific instantiation of the covenant offered to Adam and Eve in Gen. 1:26-28: In a blessed relationship with God, they were to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over it.[4] In the Garden, Adam was being asked to do what Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel, David, and, ultimately, everyone would be asked to do: trust and accept the gracious covenant offer of God in Christ for the purpose of bringing the created order to its intended conclusion. Adam and Eve were to respond to God in faith. The sensual temptation of the fruit itself came after the temptation to question God’s character and His covenant plan. It was in Adam’s rejection of God’s covenant offer that he failed to be moral. In Christ, God re-offers the covenant through successive renewals, culminating in His final offer of the gospel revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate Son. Adam was asked to believe God and bless the whole world, as were Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and ultimately Christ, who succeeded where all others failed. His victory is extended to all those who put their faith in Him, just like Abraham, the father of the faithful did.[5] Covenant in Christ by faith is not “Plan B;” it is the point of the Bible.

Once again, speculation such as a Covenant of Works, Federal Theology, prevenient grace, etc. are little more than theological “fudge factors” designed to make the Augustinian synthesis work. They do not emerge from the biblical text but are a priori arguments pressed into the service of a fifth-century Catholic bishop, not the authors of the Scriptures, and Baptists have never been comfortable with them. These adjustments mitigate the centrality, power, and immediacy of the biblical concept of “covenant” which has, at its heart, God’s desire for a relationship with His people through a real response of faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the nexus of Baptist soteriology.

The Theological Presupposition in a Baptist Soteriology:

Covenant in Christ

In a Baptist soteriology, Christ is the central object of belief. He is believed as the mediator of covenant relationship, the full expression of the kingdom of God, eternal life, God’s ultimate purpose for everyone and for the cosmos (John 3:16). We have no interest in a series of extra-biblical covenants created to bolster a soteriology that does not take seriously the necessity of personal faith as an expression of free-will. In our preaching, we do not burden people with the calculus of covenants of works, grace, and redemption. We do not invite people to believe in Calvinism or Arminianism. We offer Christ alone, the only hope of Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Patriarchs, Moses, David, Israel, and the whole of humankind. His perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection comprise the object of confession and belief that is sufficient to save (John 14:6, Rom. 10.9-10).

It is safe to say that Federal Theology, Eternal Decrees, Covenants of Works, Grace, and Redemption, and prevenient grace have played essentially no major role in the expansion of the Baptist witness, especially among Southern Baptists, from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries. This is not because ordinary Baptists are unintelligent or simplistic in their beliefs; it is because ordinary Baptists have played a significant role in the direction of denominational identity, and they have been serious about what the Bible plainly does and does not say. Baptists have known that these things were unnecessary for the articulation of God’s unstoppable plan to redeem the whole world through the bold proclamation of salvation in Christ alone by faith alone. From the beginning, the work of Christ in creation and redemption for the purpose of covenant relationship with humankind has always been the center of the biblical narrative. There is no need for an alternate metanarrative of secret decrees and hidden covenants to sort out the history of redemption. The plot of God’s purpose for humankind can be found right on the surface of the text from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, all summed up succinctly in John 3:16.[6]

[1] William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), 44–46, Reprint.

[2] The principle text for Federal Theology is Rom. 5.12-21, but the evidence within this text and its place within the argument of Romans speaks against such an interpretation. The strict parallelism between Adam and “all” demands a strict parallelism between Christ and “all,” necessitating universalism, which is not possible theologically and not the point exegetically. Paul’s focus in the passage is clearly on physical death and eternal life, not the imputation of Adam’s guilt to all people (the same is true for Eph. 2:1-7 and 1 Cor. 15:20-28). Paul’s point: Adam’s sin brought in the condemnation of death for all people. All people demonstrate that they deserve such condemnation by their own sin. Christ, the sinless one, has overthrown that condemnation by receiving it undeservedly into Himself, which is the ultimate act of obedience, and rising again. All who ratify Christ’s obedient life, death, and resurrection with their faith in Him will have eternal life.

[3] This is not to say that perfect obedience was not the standard; it was just not the point. True obedience is the expression of covenant faithfulness and utter dependence on God.

[4] Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2006), 17.

[5] In Gal. 3:8, Paul states quite clearly and without any need for further explanation that “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, ‘ALL THE NATIONS OF THE EARTH WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.’” This single covenant in Christ is also in view in 1 Cor. 10:4: “. . . and all [Israel] drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.”

[6] Jerry Vines, “Sermon on John 3:16,” in Whosoever Will, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 13–15.

These posts are adapted from Eric Hankins’s article “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianims: Toward a Baptist Soteriology,” published in the online Journal for Bapist Theology and Ministry, Spring 2011, Vol. 8, No. 1. It is amended and reposted here with the permission of the author.