by Dr. James Willingham
Southwestern Seminary president, Dr. Paige Patterson, made two points in a blog post a few months ago on Election* that could yield spectacular results.
His post, and specifically points 7 and 8, I think could end the Calvinist/Traditionalist bickering, could lead to implementing another move like Jonathan Edwards’ Humble Attempt in a worthwhile prayer effort, and could result in the Third Great Awakening.
In Patterson’s Eight Theses on Election, points 7 and 8 light the way.
Point 7 involves humility while point 8 evokes this question: “Why is the doctrine of Election in the Bible?”
Clearly, Dr. Patterson felt the impact of his studies of 2,000 years of theological reflection on the mysteries of God’s electing providence. His remarks on the inadequacy of explanations should provoke smiles — even laughter. Patterson states:
“A. For 2000 years people have been discussing this and it may be the only reason for building cafeterias and coffee houses on seminary campuses. No one has come up with an explanation to satisfy anybody else.
1. My explanation doesn’t satisfy you.
2. Yours for dead sure doesn’t satisfy me.”
Patterson follows this levity with the gut-wrenching question:
“B. Under such conditions, is it not better to say, ‘God, in your greatness you have done, thought, and acted in ways too transcendent for me to embrace?’”
That is why Patterson states in point 7
“… the failure to crack the mysteries of God’s electing providence should instill humility rather than hubris in the interpreter.”
A Calvinist could not say it any better. Both approaches need to be circumspect with reference to the views of each other. Patterson’s view plainly demands caution of all parties concerned.
We need to line up both groups on the same side in a show of collegiality, camaraderie and commitment to working through the differences. Patterson might well have opened the way for us to do so with his question: “Why is the doctrine of Election in the Bible?”
It is in his elucidation of that question that Patterson has transcended the differences between Calvinists and Traditionalists. Point 8.A is a teaser, but point 8.B gets to the nitty-gritty.
Look at B.
A Calvinist could not put the four things about this doctrine any better. Note the first thing: “1. As long as the doctrine of election is in the Bible, salvation is God’s act from beginning to end?”
Patterson lists six points in the negative, cites Romans 8.29-30, then notes: “You do not read anything about man in this text.”
Patterson makes three other points about Election that are germane, relevant, and meaningful. Turning to his thesis concerning election being bound up with foreknowledge, one encounters a tension here, an unresolved issue.
Even so, point 8 turns Calvinists and Traditionalists into the same path, on the same side, tackling the differences together. This accords with earlier Baptist allowances for differences, like the Separates and Regulars union from 1787-1800.
Patterson has said enough to not only encourage continued cooperation but even to spur it on. After all, if one feels free to hold his beliefs, and free to let others hold their beliefs, and free to change either way, then we have unity and amity.
Returning to the link between foreknowledge and election, Patterson notes: “3. Even though we don’t understand it, we must not deny it.”
In fact, “the mysteries of God’s electing providence” lies at the heart of the solution. Calvinists are ready to admit that there is no reason for God to accept them, no good, nothing, nada. Traditionalists likewise sing, “Why should He love me so?”
Even a Traditionalist can buy that because he knows from the Bible and experience that every human’s nature and practice is sinful. Patterson therefore notes that God’s “ways are too transcendent for me to embrace.”
It is this retention of “the mysteries of God’s electing providence” and the “ways too transcendent for me to embrace” that hold the secret of enablement and empowerment for Traditionalists and Calvinists to work together in a spirit of brotherly love.
There is, likewise, Patterson’s point 8: “If we are unable to resolve the apparent paradox of biblical instruction, its heavenly wisdom proving too transcendent for fallen intellects, then perhaps we should advance to a new question. Maybe instead of asking how it all works, we ought to ask instead, “Why is the doctrine of election in the Bible?”
The point here is that Patterson’s careful, insightful, and thoughtful writing on Election offers a way to allay tensions and to move Southern Baptists on to better things by allying the parties on the same side of reverence, worship, service, and awe.
There is every reason to begin a continuing prayer effort that spans our theological differences and seeks the spread of the Gospel throughout the whole earth (every soul won to Christ, and that for a thousand generations). Like Spurgeon, the groups could pray for the conversion of the whole earth. And like Wesley and Whitefield, we could look on one another as bound to be so close to throne of God that we on the outer fringes won’t be able to see the ones so near to God.
The last time Baptists did such thing, it led to the Second Great Awakening and to the launching of the Great Century of Missions or what we know as the modern missionary movement.
A former atheist, Dr. James Willingham was converted to Christ in 1957. He gave his life to God in the Gospel ministry in 1958 and has pastored churches in Missouri and North Carolina. Rev. James has lived a life dedicated to the Lord and his church.