Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology
Part 4: The Anthropological Presuppositions
Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the fourth 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 contrasts “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.
- In Part 3, he contrasts the Theological Presuppositions of “Federal Theology” in Calvinist soteriology with “Covenant in Christ” in a Baptist soteriology.
The Scriptures clearly affirm that all people are sinners. Because of sin, humans are in a disastrous state, unable to alter the trajectory of their rebellion against God, unable to clear their debt of sin against Him, unable to work their way back to Him through their best efforts. This situation is one of their own creating and for which they are ultimately responsible.
About these realities, there is little debate in evangelical theology. What is at issue is what being a sinner means when it comes to responding to God’s offer of covenant relationship through the power of the gospel.
Both Calvinism and Arminianism affirm that the Fall resulted in “total depravity,” the complete incapacitation of humanity’s free response to God’s gracious offer of covenant relationship. In Calvinism, the only remedies for this state-of-affairs are the “doctrines of grace” in which the free response of individuals is not decisive. For Arminianism, total depravity, which is purely speculative, is corrected by prevenient grace, which is even more speculative, and makes total depravity ultimately meaningless because God never allows it to have any effect on any person.
Nothing in Scripture indicates that humans have been rendered “totally depraved” through Adam’s sin. Genesis 3 gives an extensive account of the consequences of Adam’s sin, but nowhere is there the idea that Adam or his progeny lost the ability to respond to God in faith, a condition which then required some sort of restoration by regeneration or prevenient grace. In fact, just the opposite appears to be the case. The story of God’s relationship with humankind is fraught with frustration, sadness, and wrath on God’s part, not because humans are incapable of a faith response, but because they are capable of it, yet reject God’s offer of covenant relationship anyway. To be sure, they are not capable of responding in faith without God’s special revelation of Himself through Christ and His Spirit’s drawing. Any morally responsible person, however, who encounters the gospel in the power of the Spirit (even though he has a will so damaged by sin that he is incapable of having a relationship with God without the gospel) is able to respond to that “well-meant offer.”
Therefore, the time has come once again for Baptists to reject another dichotomy mediated by the Calvinist/Arminian debate: monergism and synergism. Monergism insists that salvation is all of God. Monergists conclude that faith emerging from a decision within the will of the believer is a “work” that makes salvation meritorious, but this idea demands a theologically objectionable determinism. As a technical theological concept, synergism still operates off of a framework that views sovereignty and free-will as problematic, often forcing too fine a distinction between “what God does” and “what man does.” Synergism tends to put “faith” in the category of performance, rather than an attitude of surrender. This has led some Arminian theology into over-speculation concerning the nature of the act of faith, psychologizing and sensationalizing the “moment of decision,” so that one’s experience becomes the basis of his assurance. Synergism also tends to demand further acts in order to receive further blessing and opens the door to the possibility that, if a person fails to act faithfully subsequent to the experience of salvation, God will cease to save.
Baptists must get off of this grid. We have preferred terms like “trust,” “surrender,” and “relationship” to “monergism” or “synergism” when we reflect on God’s offer and our response. These terms secure the affirmation both that individuals can do nothing to save themselves, yet their salvation cannot occur against their wills or without a response of faith that belongs to them alone.
The Sinfulness and Salvability of Everyone
The anthropological presupposition is that no one can save himself, but anyone can be saved. No person ever takes the first step toward God. Humankind’s history is broken; its destiny is death; it’s context darkness; its reality is rebellion. This sinfulness has put us out of fellowship with God and under the verdict of eternal separation. Through the person and work of Christ, which is proclaimed through the gospel, God reaches out His hand of “first love,” providing a ground of salvation to which any one can respond in faith. If people do not hear and respond to this gospel, they will not be saved. So, we preach the gospel broadly, regularly, and passionately. We offer an invitation every time we preach because we believe every unbeliever, no matter how sinful and broken, can respond, and no matter how moral and self-righteous, must respond.
Baptist anthropology affirms that, because of personal sinfulness, no one is capable of coming to faith in Christ without the proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Spirit. While there are certainly unique instances of individuals receiving the gospel through dreams and non-human proclamation, this is not God’s normal manner of working and those instances of salvation still require both a proclamation of Jesus as Lord and a response of faith. Baptists believe that the proclamation of the gospel is necessary for a faith response to Christ. Those who do not hear will not be saved. Everyone who does hear has the opportunity to respond to Christ in faith or persist in unbelief. This is the only proper biblical motivation for the urgent proclamation of the gospel. Baptists have excelled in evangelism and missions because we believe it really matters.
So, what would a biblically-sound, Christ-centered, grace-filled soteriology look like without appeals to individual election, determinism, Federal Theology, or total depravity? What would it look like if it were free from the presuppositions of Calvinism and Arminianism? It would look exactly like what most Baptists have believed instinctively all along. Baptists have consistently resisted the impulse to embrace completely either Calvinism or Arminianism. We simply posit that we are “neither.” The basis for this resistance to the two systems is our aversion to theological speculation beyond the clear sense of Scripture and our willingness to go our own way when Scripture and conscience demand. The way forward is basically backward, a massive simplification, a walking out of the convoluted labyrinth that evangelical soteriology has become in the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. It is a move not dissimilar to the basic impulse of Luther at the birth of the Reformation, which was to reject the Medieval scholasticism that had turned the gloriously simple gospel of grace into its absolute antithesis. For Luther, the solution was to start over with the Scriptures (and Augustine), no matter what the implications. Baptists need to apply the Reformation principles of sola scriptura and semper reformanda to Luther himself. Augustine’s soteriology and the bulwark constructed subsequently to defend it must be removed.
Baptists believe in the clarity and simplicity of the Bible. We search in vain for decrees, a Covenants of Works, the distinction between a “general call” and an “effectual call,” hidden wills, and prevenient grace. We react with consternation to the ideas that God regenerates before He converts, that He hates sinners, that reprobation without respect to a response of faith brings Him the greatest glory, or that the truly converted can lose their salvation. Baptists have felt free to agree with certain emphases within Calvinism and Arminianism, while rejecting those that offend our commitments to the possibility of salvation for all and to the eternal security of that salvation based exclusively on faith in the covenant promises of God. The free offer of an eternal, life-changing covenant with the Father through the Son by the Spirit to all sinners by the free exercise of personal faith alone has been the simple, non-speculative but inviolable core of Baptist soteriological belief and practice. Baptist soteriology (specifically including the doctrines of the sovereign, elective purposes of God, the sinfulness of all humans, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and the security of the believer) is not in jeopardy and does not need to be reinforced by Calvinism or Arminianism. It can be successfully taught, maintained, and defended without resorting to either system.
Baptists’ historic passion for evangelism and missions is underdetermined by Calvinism and Arminianism. For Calvinism, if the decision about who is saved and who is not has already been made by God, then the actual sharing of the gospel with the lost does not matter. The vast majority of Calvinists strenuously object to this charge, employing a variety of tactics to obviate what is, unfortunately, the only logical conclusion of their system. Saying that God elects the “means” of salvation as well as the individuals who are saved demands a determinism that is theologically unacceptable and philosophically unsustainable. Insisting that evangelism is still necessary because it “glorifies God” and demonstrates obedience to the Scriptures is simply a variation of that same determinism. The historical struggles of Calvinism with doctrinal and attitudinal opposition to missions and the “promiscuous preaching of the gospel” is evidence of the weakness of their system. Insisting on a “well-meant offer” while at the same time insisting that not all are able to respond is not the affirmation of a “mystery;” it is stubborn fidelity to a logical contradiction. For Arminianism, if election is based on foreseen faith, then it must be assumed that every person will receive enough of the gospel to trust or reject Christ. We know that billions still have not heard the gospel. This privileges the effort of the faith-capacity of people over the power of the gospel alone to save. If all people have the ability to figure out some form of faith in Christ, why worry overmuch about evangelism? It is this sort of weakness that lends itself to the frequent liberal trend in Arminianism.
Without committing to either Calvinism or Arminianism, Baptists have evangelized millions, planted thousands of churches, and reached literally around the globe with the life-changing, world-changing message of salvation by grace through faith. When either system has come to the forefront in debate or dispute, the outcome has rarely been positive for kingdom work through us. Baptists have been well-served by a simpler, less-speculative, less metaphysical approach to soteriology. As we move into a new millennium, a more constructive, positive statement of our soteriology based on this heritage of simplicity and faith-focus will sharpen us as to what is essential to the message and motivation of the gospel for all who stand in desperate need of it.
Moreover, if Paul thought that Adam’s sin resulted in spiritual death/total depravity for everyone else, how could he write in Rom. 7:9: “I was once alive apart from the Law”?
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.