Shawn D. Wright’s new book (40 Questions About Calvinism) seeks to provide a fair and irenic account of the doctrine of salvation that is increasingly common in evangelical theology and that is popularly known as “Reformed” or “Calvinist” theology. Despite the proliferation of recent books and articles on topics associated with this, there remains a need for work that clarifies the issues and advances the discussion. The endorsements are promising, as influential leaders and scholars rave about this book: it is called not only “good, reliable,” and “readable” as well as “clear and winsome” but also “humble,” “fair-minded, evenhanded,” and “gentle” as it is said to “fairly represent” alternative positions such as Arminianism. Unfortunately, however, despite the high praise, the book misses the mark at some crucial points.
In this brief engagement I shall not focus on the account of “Calvinism” that is offered here. I have no doubt that historians who study the Reformed tradition will find very much to contest in Wright’s account, but I happily leave that to them. Nor do I offer any critiques of Reformed soteriology. Instead, I concentrate attention on aspects of his depiction of “Arminianism” and then make some observations about how certain misunderstandings occlude the discussion.
It is, as Wright surely knows, very important in these discussions to take adequate care in understanding the views of one’s dialogue partners or opponents. And here I must confess my disappointment. Consider the following representative claims made by Wright about “Arminianism:”
(a) Arminians believe in “libertarian free will” in salvation, which means the unaided human will can equally decide to receive Jesus or to reject him. At the point of decision, nothing in the person’s past, present, or future, and no divine influence, impinge upon the will to such a degree that they influence it to make its decision. The person’s will is autonomous in the decision making (p. 67).
(b) . . . the will is free from any influence . . . In Arminianism, the “will” of the person, not the person himself, is what chooses (pp. 71–72).
(c) Arminian conceptions of “libertarian freedom” wrongly assume that an individual’s character does not impact the choices he or she makes . . . Arminians believe that when persons act, they must act independently of God (p. 75, cf. 77).
(d) One says that man and God have to cooperate in salvation (Arminianism), while the other says salvation is a gift of God (Calvinism). They cannot both be correct (p. 120).
(e) Arminian “total depravity” may exist in theory but not in reality (p. 141).
(f) Holding to prevenient grace, Arminians deny that God chooses to be gracious to a particular set of individuals . . . Arminians are synergists. They maintain that sinners cooperate with God in the process of salvation (p. 217).
(g) The answer given by Arminians [to the question ‘why doesn’t God save everyone?’] is that human self-determination and the possible resulting love relationship with God are more valuable than saving people by sovereign, efficacious grace (p. 256).
I could go on; it is not at all hard to find such statements. Unfortunately, however, such statements are deeply problematic; some are critically ambiguous, while others are simply mistaken. Either way, they are seriously misleading.
Consider (a). It is ambiguous at crucial points; for instance, notions of “autonomy” and “libertarianism” are left vague (and, to be clear, there is more than one version of libertarianism on the market in metaphysics). More importantly, though, (a)Unfortunately, however, such statements are deeply problematic; some are critically ambiguous, while others are simply mistaken. Either way, they are seriously misleading. is just wrong: historic Arminian theology is not committed to Wright’s account of an “unaided” will, and, in point of fact, it is not hard to find prominent Arminian theologians who deny such a claim. Similarly, Wright’s claims in (b) and (c) are, so far as I can see, completely unsupported. Moreover, the discussion takes no notice of the versions of libertarianism defended by Arminians (e.g., “virtue libertarianism”) that would stoutly deny such claims. Furthermore, Wright’s claim that Arminians think that human agency must be independent of divine action is in direct opposition to the generations of Arminian theologians who hold to broadly classical accounts of primary and secondary causality. Turning to (d), it is not hard to see that this is a false dilemma (or, more modestly, Wright supplies no reason to think that it must be one or the other). And, as we shall see, the claims about “cooperation” and “synergism” are critically ambiguous. Taken either as a descriptive, historical claim or as an evaluation, Wright offers no support for (e); he quotes no Arminians who say this, and he makes no argument that this is actually entailed by Arminian doctrine. Similar problems plague (f). Wright quotes no Arminians who actually “deny that God chooses to be gracious to a particular set of individuals,” and he does not argue that this is an implication of what Arminians do say. Indeed, we are left to wonder why any Arminian would say such a thing or give assent to such a proposition. And, again, the claims about “synergism” and “cooperation” are vague. Finally, it is unclear what notion of “salvation” Wright might have in mind in (g). For some reason, he pits a “love relationship with God” against being “saved”—as if one might be saved without such a relationship. But why? What is “salvation”—and how would it be possible apart from a relationship of love with God (if the idea is that “salvation” is merely escape from punishment to some place of relative comfort, many Arminians would surely protest that this is a notion of an ersatz-heaven and at any rate surely does not come anywhere close to their position). And, again, Wright does not demonstrate that this is actually the view of any Arminians.
These claims from Wright are unfortunate. Such mistakes are also avoidable. Curiously, Wright mentions scholarly work on Arminius; he calls a book by Richard Muller as well as one by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall “helpful” (p. 116 n1). But in our book we demonstrate that at least one prominent Arminian—Arminius—is not committed to the views attributed to Arminianism (and in many cases actually denies or refutes them). So it is hard to see how Wright would say these things if he had been helped by the scholarship.
Wright says that “compatibilism” is “the heart of the biblical Calvinism that I am recommending” (p. 83). But what is compatibilism? Wright follows D. A. Carson in saying that it is “the belief that two seemingly contradictory truths are in fact compatible with each other:
God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated;
Human beings are morally responsible creatures . . . but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent (i.e., dependent on something outside himself)” (p. 83).
Wright does not tell us why we should think of these as so much as “seemingly” contradictory, and any contradiction is less than obvious. But whatever we are to make of this, there are deeper puzzles and potential problems with this account. Note that this account of compatibilism, as it stands, is something that is consistent with a range of doctrinal and metaphysical formulations with respect to providence. Importantly, it does not rule out Arminianism, for Arminians—along with many other theological systems (e.g., Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy)—can affirm the conjunction of (1) and (2).
Presumably then (since he says that this is the “heart” of Calvinism), Wright means something more when he affirms compatibilism. Perhaps he means something more like the conjunction of (2) with
1*. God is absolutely sovereign, and sovereignty includes or entails a theistic version of determinist metaphysics.By ‘determinist metaphysics,’ I mean simply the uncontroversial core notion of determinism picked out by Kane: “Any event is determined, according to this core notion, just in case there are conditions (e.g., the decrees of fate, the foreordaining acts of God, antecedent physical causes plus laws of nature) whose joint occurrence is (logically) sufficient for the occurrence of the event: It must be the case that if these determining conditions jointly obtain, the determined event occurs.” Robert Kane, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4.
In other words, maybe Wright means more than a set of doctrinal commitments that are consistent with a range of metaphysical views; maybe he intends to affirm a particular and distinctly metaphysical doctrine. If so, however, he should be aware of two challenges. The first is historical: Muller and other historians of doctrine are challenging the assumption that the Reformed tradition is (broadly) committed to metaphysical determinism.See especially Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017). The second is more serious; as I have argued elsewhere,This lack of clarity (and lack of historical grounding that could add such clarity) impacts his treatment of distinctly doctrinal issues. the type of exegetically-based argumentation offered by Carson (and here followed by Wright) simply doesn’t support (1*), thus additional arguments will be needed if his case is to provide support for his brand of Calvinism.See Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), pp. 56–81.
So which is it? If it is the conjunction of (1) and (2), then it is hardly controversial and at any rate is consistent with Arminianism (with its “libertarianism”)—but then it does not gain ground for Wright’s Calvinism. If, on the other hand, the conjunction of (1*) and (2) is intended, then Wright has more work to do to establish the claim. A further appeal to Carson’s work will not help, for Carson himself is inconsistent on this very point. For when Carson faces arguments that his exegesis only establishes (1) rather than (1*), he remonstrates that he does not mean what the philosophers mean—but then appeals to philosophers who in fact do endorse metaphysical determinism.D. A. Carson, “Biblical-Theological Pillars Needed to Support Faithful Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil,” Trinity Journal 38, no. 1 (2017): 69. He contends further that Arminians “are ultimately unable to preserve the language of Scripture.”Carson, “Biblical-Theological Pillars,” 70. It is unfortunate that he provides no argument for this claim, and it should be noted that he endorses the term “compatibilism” without showing that it is a biblical term. Overall, however, he makes it very clear that he in fact does intend to establish the larger metaphysical claim; in his commentary on John’s gospel he says that the biblical evidence establishes “the position that modern philosophy calls compatibilism.”D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), p. 291. At any rate, we are left with this conclusion: Carson’s exegetical arguments support (1) but not (1*). And, since Arminians as well as others can readily affirm (1), his arguments do not support “Calvinism.” So what does Wright mean? Taken one way, the exegetical arguments are not controversial but instead may be seen as helpful by all, whether Calvinist or Arminian. But in this case they do not score points for Calvinism. Taken the other way—as support for a metaphysical claim and thus as a philosophical proposal—they indeed would provide support for what Wright calls “Calvinism.” But taken this way, the arguments cannot be judged successful. So which is it?
This lack of clarity (and lack of historical grounding that could add such clarity) impacts his treatment of distinctly doctrinal issues. Wright is enthusiastically in favor of what he refers to as “monergism” and just as exercised to denounce what he calls “synergism” (e.g., pp. 217–222). But just what are we talking about? Wright denies “synergism” or “cooperation” in salvific matters, but he also follows Paul’s admonition to “work out” salvation and says that “God’s work grounds ours . . . God works in us, and we are to work too” (p. 93, cf. 225–226). How is this different than Arminianism? Is the worry that Arminianism is somehow committed to the view that sinners do their own regeneration? If so, then the worry is misplaced; Arminianism need not have any such commitment. Is the worry that good works are somehow necessary, or that salvation is conditioned on good works? Once again, deeper historical investigation could be helpful. During the post-Reformation debates over such matters, leading Reformed theologians affirmed the reality of gratia cooperans and also insisted that good works are necessary not only as evidence but as a necessary condition of salvation—indeed, a condition sine qua non! Johannes Wollebius, for example, denies that good works are necessary with respect to merit for salvation, but he insists that they are necessary with respect to precept and means. As someone who comes into an inheritance must travel to the city where it is located to receive it, so also a sinner must perform good works to be saved.Johannes Wollebius, Christianae theologiae compendium II.I.xv. Cf. Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologica, VI.viii.xvii. Good works really are necessary for salvation, and such works are done by the power of “cooperating grace.”
Traditional Reformed doctrine stands closer to traditional Arminian teaching than it does to those contemporary forms of “Calvinism” that would deny that good works are necessary for salvation. Of course Wright will be—and should be—quick to remind us that such good works are performed only in response to the initiative of empowering divine grace. But of course traditional Arminians will quickly and gladly agree. So just what is the issue? Neither traditional Arminian nor Reformed theologians think that we give birth to ourselves. Neither thinks that we justify or sanctify ourselves. Both agree that grace is first, last, and ultimate all the way through the process of salvation. Both agree that salvation involves the genuine response of the human person. In light of this significant concord, and especially in the absence of adequate precision and nuance, perhaps terms like “monergism” and “synergism” should not be weaponized.
40 Questions is a lot of questions, but the book raises even more questions about Calvinism, Arminianism, and the relationship between them. The endorsements praise the book for being not only well-informed but also “fair-minded and evenhanded.” I appreciate the intentionally non-polemical tone of the author, but I cannot help but conclude that the book would be more fair-minded if it were better informed. I am convinced that we need fewer fences and more bridges, and I worry that misunderstandings further deepen present divisions. I fear that this volume will perpetuate such misunderstandings and embolden caricatures. For theologians committed to not bearing false witness (as I’m sure Wright is), this should be a concern.
40 Questions About Calvinism
More Questions About Calvinism | Tom McCall
Tangential Questions About Authority and Method, Not Calvinism | Shawn Wright
Even More Questions | Tom McCall