Reflections on Southern Seminary, part 4

by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.

Speaking recently at Southern Seminary reinforced some observations that have been coming clear to me during the last year of my involvement in the Southern Baptist discussion of Calvinism. As I interacted with a number of faculty and students who consider themselves Calvinists, it was apparent that they believed exactly the same thing I do about who needs the gospel: every single person. I believe this conviction characterizes the vast majority of Southern Baptist Calvinists, and it is deep, wide, and glad-hearted. Certainly, there are a few who shuffle their feet when asked if they can say to any person “God loves you and wants to save you,” but those Southern Baptist Calvinists really are the minority, best I can tell, and I get the sense that most Calvinists hope they remain a minority. Therefore, it does not help to make bald accusations that Calvinists do not believe that God loves and wants to save every sinner.[1] It is inaccurate to charge them with believing that God causes people to go hell or that He is the cause of evil.

But that does not mean there is not a significant problem.

While I do understand better than ever that most Southern Baptist Calvinists believe exactly as I do about the extent of God’s love and saving desire for sinners, I am just as convinced that they cannot hold those shared soteriological convictions without falling into contradiction and putting themselves at serious theological, exegetical, practical, and apologetical risk. This is because their entire system demands a particular and quite problematic presupposition concerning the relationship between divine and human action called “determinism.” Now, Calvinists prefer the term “compatibilism” and, technically, that is correct. But to the uninitiated, compatibilism appears to communicate the very welcome and biblical idea that God’s sovereignty and human freedom are compatible. This is what every Southern Baptist believes, including me.

But that is not the meaning of compatibilism. Compatibilism is the view that divine determinism (not merely sovereignty) and human freedom are compatible. Compatibilism asserts that God is the cause of all things, including the “free” decisions of humans. This claim is made by redefining God’s permission and human freedom in highly unusual and suspect ways. For the compatibilist, God causes some things and permits others (like sin). But this permission is “efficacious” so that things could not have happened any differently from the way they do. God’s decision to permit specific events is in no way affected by human choices because those choices are determined by God. On this view, there is no, I repeat, no difference between God “causing” an event (like the Holocaust) and God “permitting” it.

The compatibilist’s definition of freedom is equally specious. Freedom is not one’s ability to choose between two qualitatively distinct options but the ability to act on one’s desires. This sounds fine except the compatibilist believes one can’t freely choose his desires. Only those who are given the desire to trust Christ will be able to respond to the gospel. God gives the desire to trust Christ to some, and He withholds it from others. The giving or withholding of the faith to respond has nothing whatever to do with the individual. As philosopher Jerry Walls points out, God could just as easily have given the desire to trust Christ to every sinner rather than just a few, but He doesn’t. This undeniable implication of compatibilism raises tough problems for the basic morality of God.[2]

Compatibilists simply cannot effectively obviate the charge that their view makes God the cause of evil. Again, compatibilists are convinced they can (by insisting on things like “permission” and “secondary causes,” etc.), or they think they can just declare it a mystery how God is the cause of all things and not the cause of evil. But it’s becoming clear that these solutions don’t work. That’s why it’s hard to find compatibilists in any philosophy department of any school not already committed to Calvinism. Now, it is easy to find determinists in philosophy departments, but they tend to be atheists. Most world-class Christian philosophers (including several who are Southern Baptist) think compatibilism is a huge problem. Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Flint, William Lane Craig, Ken Keathley, Bruce Little, Jeremy Evans, and John Laing, just to name a few, are thinkers who have an appreciation for Reformed theology and are serious about God’s sovereignty but view compatibilism as riddled with insurmountable logical problems. Moreover, it is a disaster when it comes to engaging skeptics about the truth-value of the Christian worldview.

Before Southern Baptist Calvinists start getting upset, let me say again that I understand better than I ever have that they truly don’t think they are at risk. They really believe compatibilism works biblically, philosophically, and theologically. They believe it gives them a good way to speak of God’s love for and desire to save all, real human freedom, and the significance of personal engagement in the Great Commission. They believe it provides an intelligible response to the problem of evil. Ken Keathley argues brilliantly that infralapsarian Calvinism is actually engineered for the purpose of providing a basis for all the things we all want to say theologically, but it just can’t get it done logically.[3]

If it is the case that there are serious problems with compatibilism, then why do Calvinists maintain their commitment to it? Calvinists will say they insist on it because the Bible insists on it, then they reel off a zillion verses about God’s strong sovereignty. But none of these verses, individually or collectively, demands determinism, which is a complex, post-biblical philosophical system. And there are a zillion verses that allow for libertarian freedom, unless compatibilism is presupposed. The main reason that Calvinists insist on compatibilism is because it is essential to their theological system. Augustine was a determinist, and the Augustinian-Calvinist theological synthesis demands it. To abandon it would be to abandon classical, consistent Calvinism.

Before the eyes of non-Calvinists begin to glaze over at the prospect of another abstruse, terminologically dizzying discussion of metaphysics, they need to grasp the concept that their fundamental problem with Calvinism is compatibilism. Let me burn some straw men and fry some red herrings. Southern Baptist Calvinists aren’t demonstrably worse than non-Calvinists at evangelism and missions—we’re all in need of significant improvement. Calvinists aren’t cavalier about certain Scriptures. Calvinists don’t think that prayer, evangelism, and faith don’t really matter. They just have a very problematic philosophical basis for affirming those things. In a real sense, the salient critiques of Calvinism that I’ve read lately are simply criticisms of compatibilism. Olson’s Against Calvinism could just as easily (and perhaps more helpfully) be called Against Compatibilism. The “ROSES” of Keathley’s Salvation and Sovereignty is “TULIP without compatibilism.” Allen and Lemke’s Whosever Will could have been entitled Whomever He Wills in the Libertarian Sense. I might even just start calling myself a “Non-Compatibilist” rather than a “Non-Calvinist.” With complete integrity, I can speak of the utterly ruined and ruinous sin nature of humans, the unconditional sense of election, the limitations of Christ’s atonement, the absolute necessity and power of initiating grace, and the guarantee of salvation for them that believe. I just do so while rejecting compatibilism.

Therefore, as the discussion moves forward, it would be helpful to establish as often as possible one’s position on compatibilism and libertarianism rather than merely Calvinism and non-Calvinism. This will bring order to some of the terminological confusion in the debate because, while there are still a variety of opinions about what specifically Southern Baptist “Calvinism” and “non-Calvinism” mean, there is virtual unanimity about what compatibilism and libertarianism mean. Second, this moves the discussion away from biblical proof-texting, which quickly becomes both circular and emotionally charged. Third, this reframing requires everyone to acknowledge that theology involves philosophical presuppositions in service of systemization. Frequently, I’ll hear people say, “I don’t believe in a system, I believe in the Bible.” That is actually a false and unhelpful dichotomy. Everyone is working from a systematic grid based on an extensive set of presuppositions. The question is, then, what are my presuppositions, and are they justifiable biblically, theologically, and philosophically? In this debate, the choices are pretty simple: you are either a compatibilist or a libertarian. Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists arrive at most of the same important soteriological destinations, but the Calvinist route takes a path that I believe most Southern Baptists are unwilling to go, and for good reason.


[1] As the T5 states: “. . . we agree that God loves everyone and desires to save everyone . . . .”

[2] Jerry Walls, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be A Compatibilist,” Philosophia Christi 13 (2011): 98-99.

[3] I also understand that Calvinists will respond by saying that my libertarianism makes me vulnerable to an over-inflated view of human freedom and even to the charge of Open Theism. This sort of response is not only quite difficult to demonstrate, it also does not suffice as an argument for compatibilism.