Review: Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter
“Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions”
Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions”
by David L. Allen
In Part 3 of my review of Whomever He Wills (hereafter WHW) I will cover Chapter 9, “Calvinism Foundational for Evangelism and Missions: A Biblical and Historical Survey” by Dr. Tom Ascol. Dr. Ascol attempts to demonstrate the positive relationship between Calvinism and evangelism and missions. Along the way he responds to portions of my chapter in Whosoever Will (hereafter Whosoever). For the purposes of this review, the phrases “limited atonement,” “particular redemption,” and “definite atonement” as used by Dr. Ascol and myself should be defined to mean “Christ died only for the sins of the elect.” The “limited” in “limited atonement” refers to the limited sin-bearing nature of Christ’s death; he only satisfied for the sins of the elect.
Dr. Ascol organizes his chapter around an introduction (269-71), two major headings: Scriptural Testimony (271-79) and Historical Testimony (279-88), followed by a short conclusion.
Dr. Ascol begins by quoting W. R. Estep’s claim that “Calvinism is anti-missionary. The Great Commission is meaningless if every person is programmed for salvation or damnation, for [then] evangelism and missionary effort are exercises in futility” as an example of the kind of thinking he intends to refute (269). This statement by Estep is indeed problematic on several fronts. First, it is a gross generalization and such statements are seldom helpful. Second, even if Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election according to Dortian standards is an accurate reflection of Scripture, it does not follow of necessity that evangelism and missionary effort are exercises in futility for the very reason that Ascol brings out. According to Calvinism, God determines the means as well as the ends. Third, “programmed for salvation or damnation” is an unfortunate choice of words. Compatibilism, which most Calvinists affirm, is a form of soft determinism that still posits a measure of free will in humans. Whether that freedom is genuine freedom and whether compatibilism comports with Scripture or human experience is a different story, but that is a rabbit trail we need not pursue at this point. We can concede for the sake of the argument that our Calvinist brothers and sisters affirm a limited view of freedom in which persons do voluntarily desire to do what they do. Fourth, as Ascol correctly points out, historically many great evangelists and missionaries were Calvinists.
But let’s dig a little deeper. First, if Estep had said something along the lines of this, “Historically, Calvinism was at times not only not known for its evangelistic and missionary thrust, but actually opposed it,” his statement would have been accurate, for such was indeed the case. One thinks first of the stifling anti-missionary stance of those Calvinists in the 18th century who opposed Carey, Fuller and their friends. Such a mindset permeated English Calvinism at the time. What of the anti-missionary Calvinists in the 19th century who opposed Spurgeon? What of those 20th century anti-missionary Calvinists in America? What of hyper-Calvinists who have been identified in history since the Council of Dort and are still with us today? (See page 96, footnote 105 in Whosoever for documentation of this.) Ascol actually acknowledges the problem of extreme Calvinism in two ways. First, his second sentence following the Estep quote correctly notes: “Though it is easy to find examples of believers of Calvinistic persuasion whose evangelistic engagement is shameful in its anemia, that task does not become more difficult when one examines the more Arminian regions of evangelicalism” (Ibid.). Second, he makes three references to hyper-Calvinism later in the chapter: “Carey rejected both Arminianism on the one hand and hyper-Calvinism on the other” (283); in a quotation of Timothy George who noted with respect to Carey, “he confronted and overcame the resistance of those Hyper-Calvinistic theologians who used the sovereignty of God as a pretext for their do-nothing attitude toward missions” (Ibid.); and in reference to Andrew Fuller being a Calvinist “in contrast to the ‘false Calvinism of hyper-Calvinism” (284). Ascol is aware of the problem of hyper-Calvinism with respect to missions and evangelism in the late 18th century and beyond.
Second, what may lurk behind Estep’s “exercise in futility” comment is that fact that in the Calvinist system the elect are going to be saved regardless of what we do in missions and evangelism. According to Calvinism, nothing any Christian does or does not do in evangelism and missions can alter the outcome of election one whit. This fact is a double-edged sword. Ascol uses it to cut a good point by saying that God will without fail gather in the harvest of the elect. Perceived in this fashion, confidence in evangelism and missions is emboldened. But the sword also cuts the other direction as well. Human nature being what it is, knowledge that nothing one does in evangelism and missions will change the outcome one iota can breed lethargy. Granted, we are to evangelize because God has commanded us to do so and anything less on our part is nothing short of disobedience to our Lord. In addition, we can agree with our Calvinist brothers and sisters that God ordains the means as well (though we might differ over certain nuances here). Nevertheless, it can be demonstrated historically that a lack of evangelistic zeal has been an intermittent problem in the Reformed world because of its construal of the doctrine of election by some. Though it is too strong in my opinion to say that Calvinism entails a loss of evangelistic zeal, it is not too strong to say that some of its doctrines as understood and practiced by some (wrongly as Ascol would no doubt say) have sometimes diminished evangelistic zeal and at other times even opposed it. The historical record here simply cannot be read otherwise. Nor can this loss be laid totally at the feet of hyper-Calvinists.
Dr. Ascol speaks of the evangelism of “both Calvinists and Arminians within the Southern Baptist Convention” (270). In footnote 4, he informs his readers, “I do not use the term ‘Arminian’ in a pejorative fashion but as a historically accurate alternative to the cumbersome non-Calvinist appellation.” He persists in labeling all Southern Baptist traditionalists as Arminians. This kind of statement illustrates the rigid two-dimensional myopia unfortunately characteristic of some on both sides of the aisle in the Calvinism dispute. This appellation is inaccurate for a number of reasons. First, when someone is labeled “Arminian” the question arises: Which Arminianism? Is it the Arminianism of Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants, who were all Reformed and who believed that Calvinism in their day had become extreme at some points? Is it Wesleyan Arminianism? Is it modern day Arminianism in its conservative expression or in its more liberal openness of God expression? Like Calvinism, Arminianism is not a monolithic belief system. Second, modern day Arminianism believes one can lose salvation. But the Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, clearly affirms the eternal security of the believer and the impossibility of losing one’s salvation. One cannot be a Southern Baptist and be an Arminian. Third, such a moniker fails to recognize the diversity within the Traditionalist group on Soteriology. For example, with respect to Soteriology, the authors in Whosoever range from accepting as few as two points of the TULIP acrostic to as many as four points. No writer in Whosoever is “Arminian.” (See “Neither Calvinists Nor Arminians, but Baptists” at
Dr. Ascol writes, “I want to argue in this chapter that the relationship between historic Calvinism and biblical evangelism is best understood in terms of ‘therefore’ rather than ‘nevertheless’” (270-71). “Calvinism is, above all else, a biblical theology. Evangelism is a biblical practice. It stands to reason, then, that Calvinism, when understood and applied properly, would undergird and propel evangelism and missions. Both Scripture and Christian history demonstrate that this is indeed the case” (271).
I think these statements need some qualification. First, what is meant by “historic Calvinism”? Would that be the Calvinism of the first generation of reformers who did not teach limited atonement? Would that be the Calvinism of Dort? Would that be the Calvinism of the Hypothetical Universalists, or the Amyraldians, or the Saumur School? Would that be the 17th century Calvinism of the Puritans? If the latter, would that be the Calvinism of John Owen who affirmed limited atonement or that of Richard Baxter who rejected limited atonement? Who defines what “historic Calvinism” looks like? Calvinism is not nor has it ever been a monolithic system. Second, Calvinism is a biblical theology if one interprets that to mean that it is drawn from a particular interpretation of Scripture which is highly debated in the Christian world. The biblical practice of evangelism is not a debated issue in orthodox Christianity. Notice the words “when understood and applied properly” in Ascol’s statement. This is an important clause because some Calvinists argue that one should not offer salvation to all people (see David Engelsma’s Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel). That Engelsma is considered to be an extreme Calvinist by many Calvinists does not erase the fact that he is still a Calvinist who affirms TULIP and denies the label of hyper-Calvinist. Finally, Christian history demonstrates that Calvinism sometimes does not “undergird and propel” evangelism and missions. The question now is whether Scripture does so. Ascol thinks it does and proceeds to make his case in the next section of his chapter.