April 5, 2012

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

This is part one of a four part series. 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, and may be accessed here. The material published here is used by permission of the author.


For over a century, Southern Baptists, by-and-large, have not felt the need to identify themselves as either Calvinists or Arminians. We were glad to affirm different aspects of each system, politely reject the points that were at variance with the clear teaching of Scripture, gladly accept those in our tribe who did affirm one or the other, and go on about the business of reaching the world around us for Christ. We did so without formulating a distinctive soteriology of our own. This has served us well, but, unfortunately, such détente appears to be coming to an end. For the last several years, voices calling for a recommitment to Reformed theology in Baptist life have become louder and louder. The Reformed-minded want to make the case that Baptists have always been made up of two groups, Calvinists and Arminians, and that they are representing and calling for a revival of just one stream in our soteriological tradition. They believe that this would be a return to the “normal” state of affairs and would balance what they perceive as an Arminian tilt in Southern Baptist life over the past couple generations. So, the way to get us back to where we are supposed to be is to force us to choose one system or the other. And that’s the problem. Most Southern Baptists don’t want to be one or the other. It is becoming clear, however, that simply stating that we are “neither” is not going to work.

The time has come for Southern Baptist to spell out exactly what we believe about the nature of salvation without appealing to either Calvinism or Arminianism. We must break with the notion that these are the only two options. We must break with the notion that these two options can be successfully integrated. We must break with the notion that we can “all just get along” without having a serious debate. We must break with the notion that the “Neither” position has a future. These blog posts are written in hopes that a new direction can be forged.

The Claim

After four hundred years, Calvinism and Arminianism remain at an impasse. The strengths and weaknesses of both systems are well-documented, and their proponents vociferously aver each system’s mutual exclusivity. These two theological programs have had sufficient time to demonstrate their superiority over the other and have failed to do so. The time has come, therefore, to look beyond them for a paradigm that gives a better account of the biblical and theological data. Indeed, the stalemate itself is related not so much to the unique features of each system but to a set of erroneous presuppositions upon which both are constructed. As the fault lines in these foundational concepts are exposed, it will become clear that the Baptist vision for soteriology, which has always resisted absolute fidelity to either system, has been the correct instinct all along. Baptist theology must be willing to articulate this vision in a compelling and comprehensive manner.

This post and the following three will outline four presuppositions shared by Calvinism and Arminianism that demonstrate the degree to which a new approach to soteriology is needed. One presupposition is primarily biblical, one is primarily philosophical, one is primarily theological, and one is primarily anthropological, although each is intertwined with the others.

#1 The Biblical Presupposition:

A. Individual Election (Calvinism and Arminianism)

The idea that God, in eternity past, elected certain individuals to salvation is a fundamental tenet of Calvinism and Arminianism. The interpretation of this biblical concept needs to be revised. Quite simply, when the Bible speaks of election in the context of God’s saving action, it is always referring to corporate election, God’s decision to have a people for Himself. When the election of individuals is raised in Scripture, it is always election to a purpose or calling within God’s plans for His people as a whole. In the OT, the writers understood election to be God’s choice of Israel, yet they also clearly taught that the benefits of corporate election could only be experienced by the individual Israelite (or the particular generation of Israelites) who responded faithfully to the covenant that had been offered to the whole nation.[1] This trajectory within the OT is unassailable. It is reinforced in the intertestamental literature and is the basis for the way election is treated in the NT.[2] The Bible, therefore, does not speak of God’s choice of certain individuals and not others for salvation.[3] When the Bible does speak of the salvation of individuals, its central concept is “faith,” never “election.”

Take away individual election, and the key components of Calvinism and Arminianism disappear.[4] God does not elect individuals to salvation on the basis of His hidden councils, nor does He elect them on the basis of His foreknowledge of their future faith. Simply put, God does not “elect” individuals to salvation. He has elected an eschatological people whom He has determined to have for Himself. This group will be populated by individuals who have responded in faith to the gracious, free offer of the gospel. The group, “the Elect,” is comprised of individuals who are “saved by faith,” not “saved by election.” This being the case, there is no longer any need for the theological maneuvering required to explain how God elects individuals without respect to their response (which evacuates the biblical concept of “faith” of all its meaning) or how He elects individuals based on foreseen faith (which evacuates the biblical concept of “election” of all its meaning).

Asserting that “individual election” should be abandoned is striking, to say the least. It is the foundation on which evangelical soteriology is often constructed.[5] It is painful to consider the enormous investment of time and energy that has been spent trying to reconcile how God chooses individuals and, at the same time, how individuals choose God, only to discover that the whole endeavor has been based on a misreading of Scripture. Nevertheless, most Baptists have never felt fully comfortable with either Calvinist or Arminian understandings of election because neither comport well with the whole counsel of God. The reason is clear. The Scriptures lead to the conclusion that Augustine, Calvin, and Arminius were simply wrong in their construction of individual election. Baptists have never been theologically or confessionally committed to these august theologians, and the time has come to move beyond them.

B. Individual Faith (Baptist)

The central biblical presupposition for a Baptist soteriology is, therefore, “faith” (Eph. 2.8-9). “Election” is a term that belongs properly in the Doctrine of God. Faith captures the fundamentally relational nature of NT soteriology. “Justification by faith,” which lies at the center of Protestant soteriological identity, speaks of the initiating and sustaining activity of God in bringing an individual into right relationship with Himself and the necessity of the individual’s response for God’s justifying work to be actualized in his life. While the totality of justification has numerous aspects (past, present, future, spiritual, physical, individual, moral, social, ecclesiological, cosmic, etc.), it does not happen without personal faith. Faith has a variety of nuances as well, but, ultimately, it is an act of the will that belongs to the believer. It is not a “gift” God gives to some and not others. When Baptists call people to salvation, we emphasize the biblical concept of faith, not election.

[1] See, for instance, Deut. 29:14-21. Israel is reaffirming the covenant promised to the patriarchs and to future generations. However, if there is an individual man or woman who boasts, “I have peace with God though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart,” the Lord will “single him out” from the people for destruction (vv. 18-21, NASB). Although the covenant is for the whole community, the individual must respond in faith in order to benefit from those corporate covenant promises.

[2] Critics of the corporate view of election will quickly raise Rom. 8:29-30 and 9-11 (among others) in defense of their position, but the pre-temporal election of individuals is not Paul’s purpose there. Rom. 8:29-30 is setting up Paul’s point in chapters 9-11 about two groups: Jews and Gentiles. The end of Romans 8 crescendos with the greatness of salvation in Christ. Verses 29-30 articulate God’s actions toward His people from beginning to end in order to bring about His ultimate “purpose” (28): God knew He was going to have a people; He determined to bring them into existence in Christ; He actualized that people in history through His call; He justified them by faith; He has determined to bring them into resurrection glory. In light of this incredible plan to have this kind of people for Himself, Paul is heartbroken at the beginning of Romans 9 that his Jewish brothers have responded to the gospel with unbelief. The Jews appear to be “out,” and the Gentiles appear to be “in.” But God works in unexpected ways. Jews are “out” now so that the Gentiles can come “in.” But the Gentiles coming “in” will ultimately cause the Jews to come “in” at the proper time. That is why Paul will continue to preach the gospel to Jews as a part of his mission to the whole world, looking forward to the response of a remnant by faith. One thing is certain: Romans 9-11 is not teaching the election of some individuals and the reprobation of others without respect to their genuine response of faith. Ephesians 1:4, 5, and 11 function in Ephesians 2 the same way that Rom. 8:29-30 functions in Romans 9-11.

[3] See William W. Klein, The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 257–63 for an extended exegetical analysis of all the relevant biblical data concerning the concept of “corporate election.” Klein argues that there is not a single verse or overarching tendency in the Scriptures in support of the idea that God chooses certain individuals for salvation.

[4] Indeed, if “individual election” is what the writers of the NT meant, then Calvinism and Arminianism really are the only options, and Baptists should pick one and move on to other matters. It is significant that we have been unwilling to do so.

[5] For example, if individual election to salvation were removed from Millard Erickson’s massive systematic theology, there would be essentially nothing left in his chapters on “God’s Plan” and those in the whole section on “Salvation.” See Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).