In my experience, the best reviews and interactions with a book accomplish several tasks which serve would-be readers. Among other things, such interactions fairly interact with the main thesis or theses of the book, pointing out the argument of the author. They also note ways in which the book is situated in the literature of the field, alerting readers to the relative value of this new addition. Finally, these interactions note weaknesses of the author’s argument, pointing out deficiencies that would-be readers should be aware of before picking up the tome.
In effect, then, such reviews should correctly (1) express the author’s original intention while also (2) noting the author’s shortcomings. Interactions by reviewers who disagree with the author’s premise(s) are especially valuable in accomplishing the second task. That is why I was looking forward to this interaction with Dr. McCall, whose soteriological position is different from that which I advocate for in 40 Questions About Calvinism. The challenge of reviewing a work whose theology you disagree with is to fairly represent the other person’s viewpoint and not fall prey to mischaracterization, innuendo, and appeal to an “expert” to “win” your argument. Unfortunately, Dr. McCall has slipped into each of these fallacies in his brief interaction with my work.
Too often disagreements between Calvinists and Arminians display much heat but shed little light. I fear that is what Dr. McCall’s review did. I hope in my review of his review to shed light while avoiding unwarranted heat and invective.
I will point this out in the brief space I have and end by encouraging Dr. McCall please to do better in his next response to me and to encourage readers to read my book for themselves to see what I actually argue, as well as how I go about making my biblical case for soteriological Calvinism. In fact, I think the heart of the disagreement between Dr. McCall and myself is that he attempts to ground his Arminian views in logic, and to a lesser degree historical theology, while I attempt to buttress Calvinism by an appeal to Scripture. His interaction with my work is largely the continuation of a philosophical and logical disagreement he has had with other Calvinists over the philosophical-theological concept of “compatibilism.” Subservient to that, he ushers in some historical questions to fuel his anti-compatibilistic focus. An appeal to Scripture—what I went to great lengths to accomplish in my book—is completely absent from McCall’s treatment. This—perhaps unwittingly, but definitely unfortunately—perpetuates the assumption of some that Arminianism as a system has been erected to “defend” God from charges of committing evil and as a way of making sense of what seems to be a truly “free” decision when an individual decides to come to Christ. The questions we must answer, though, are: What does the Bible say about God’s sovereignty over all things, including evil? What does the Bible teach us about unbelieving persons’ ability or inability to trust in Jesus apart from a particular, saving, effective work of grace in that particular individual’s life? Calvinism attempts to handle these difficult questions from Scripture, as I have attempted to show in 40 Questions About Calvinism. Unfortunately, Dr. McCall has not seen fit to draw our attention to Scripture in his attempt at critiquing my book.
In the first place, McCall draws attention to various critiques I make of Arminian theology, arguing I’m either “critically ambiguous” or “mistaken” and definitely “seriously misleading.” The major issue, I think, is that there is no “one” Arminian theology, as I point out in Question 15. In the statements I make then, I may not be agreeing with McCall’s particular understanding of Arminianism. The question is, though, have I adequately summarized reputable Arminian thinkers who have argued what I said? I believe the answer is yes. Let me give just one example, McCall’s (b). In this place I am commenting on a quotation by Arminian theologian Jack Cottrell in a reputable academic work. I hate to belabor this, but McCall forces me to. Cottrell writes:
A will is significantly free only if the choices it makes are not caused or determined, either directly or indirectly, by an outside force. Thus we can say that truly free will is the ability to choose between opposites without that choice’s being fixed or determined by some power outside the person’s own will. This applies especially to the sinner’s ability either to believe or to reject the gospel.”Jack Cottrell, “The Classical Arminian View of Election,” in Perspectives on Election: Five Views, ed. Chad Owen Brand (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 100 (my italics).
This quotation, as well as my subsequent interaction with Cottrell’s work on the next page (p. 71), justifies my conclusion that to Arminianism (as represented by Cottrell) “the will is free from any influence, even of an indirect nature” when it decides for Christ (p. 71). Indeed, as I say, “In Arminianism, the ‘will’ of the person, not the person himself, is what chooses” (p. 72), because of comments like these from Cottrell: “the ability of the will to choose between opposites does not require equal influence toward both sides; sometimes the will opts for a certain choice against overwhelming influences in the opposite direction.” Cottrell, “Classical Arminian View of Election,” 101. Cottrell speaks of “the will” deciding, so I used his wording to represent his thoughts.
For the sake of time, I won’t go through each of McCall’s quotations. I stand by my comments and my summary statements based on the numerous Arminians I refer to and interact with in the contexts.In the pages surrounding his (a) – (g), I refer to Arminians Jerry Walls, Joseph Dongell, Roger Olson, Norman Geisler, Jack Cottrell, Robert Picirilli, Matthew Pinson, Leroy Forlines, and William Gene Witt. I leave it to readers to examine the other quotations McCall offers and to read the surrounding context to decide whether or not I am accurately encapsulating what various Arminians have written. Perhaps in his response, McCall will see fit to argue not against a quotation of mine (which I think is warranted), but against the Bible’s teaching that persons outside of Christ are dead in rebellion against God (Eph. 2:3), cannot be subject to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), and cannot come to Christ (John 6:44-45, 66). He will find a discussion of these texts and others on pages such as these in my book: 56-58, 72, 75-80, 137-42, 278.
Concerns About Calvinism
This leads me to my second concern with Dr. McCall’s response, the innuendo lofted out to unsuspecting readers. Apparently McCall doesn’t think the main thesis of the book—my biblical argument for the so-called “five points of Calvinism”—is worthy of his interaction (“I shall not focus on the account of ‘Calvinism’ that is offered here. . . . Nor do I offer any critiques of Reformed soteriology.”) That is his choice, of course, although it strikes me as an odd decision given my focus in the book on explaining biblical Calvinism biblically (but with a reference to classical Calvinistic confessional sources) and showing its usefulness in our lives. My concern is with the insinuation McCall drops between the sentences above: “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.” Very much! Those are strong charges indeed.
Well, inquiring minds want to know at least the bullet points of that “very much” that is wrong in my handling of the Calvinistic tradition’s soteriology. Perhaps McCall will be so kind as to enlighten us in his response. Are there disagreements among Calvinistic theologians? Of course! That is why I alert readers that I will most fundamentally rely on, and exposit, two Calvinistic confessional documents: The Canons of the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Confession. The first is held by the continental Reformed churches, the latter by the English and American Presbyterian tradition. Since Westminster was codified by Congregationalists at Savoy (1658) and by Baptists in 1689, that confession is integral to much of the English-speaking Protestant heritage. Additionally, throughout the book I use numerous Calvinistic theologians who agree with my doctrinal conclusions, from numerous centuries and several different denominational orientations. The footnotes throughout the book indicate this. Indeed, I say it explicitly in the first question of the book (pp. 22-23). If McCall desires to point out ways in which I deviate from the Calvinistic tradition soteriologically (of course, I’m a Baptist), I encourage him to do so. I am aware of nothing I say that is out of the mainstream of Calvinism in the book. I look forward to learning where I mischaracterize the very soteriology I see taught in Holy Scripture.
The Fallacy of the Expert
Third, McCall’s appeal to the authoritative figure of Richard Muller to “prove” his point is essentially “the fallacy of the expert.” Let me explain. I am here drawing attention to McCall’s contention with my notion of “compatibilism” as “the heart of the biblical Calvinism I am advocating” (p. 83) in the book. (I assume it was an oversight on Dr. McCall’s part to put “recommending” in place of “advocating.” In fact, I do recommend it to readers as well!) I appreciate the fact, at least, that McCall tries to do justice to compatibilism’s definition from the pen of D. A. Carson, which I approve. It seems, though, that McCall is eager to show his disagreement with his faculty colleague. Of course, Dr. McCall is free to disagree with Dr. Carson’s perspective. I continue to find Carson’s (as well as the other Calvinistic thinkers I employ in my discussion in Questions 10-12—J. I. Packer, Anthony Hoekema, Bruce Ware, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Stephen Wellum, John Frame, Timothy George, and Robert Yarbrough) useful in putting together the two strands of what I and others call “compatibilism”—absolute divine sovereignty and true human responsibility. As Carson comments in another place:
First, in the Bible God is absolutely and unqualifiedly sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way as to mitigate human responsibility. Second, human beings are morally responsible creatures. . . . Yet . . . such human responsibility never makes God’s actions absolutely contingent. Biblical writers not only commonly espouse both of these propositions, but happily assume they are compatible.”D. A. Carson, “Biblical-Theological Pillars Needed to Support Faithful Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil,” Trinity Journal 38, no. 1 (2017): 64-65. Carson goes on to buttress these assertions with biblical proof on pages 65-68. He specifically critiques McCall’s criticisms of his understanding of compatibilism, noting “I’m using biblical categories, not categories like determinism that McCall himself very carefully defines in ways that you cannot find anywhere in Scripture;” “McCall’s argument by which he dismisses compatibilism depends heavily on certain mechanistic models of determinism,” and “the categories in which ‘determinism’ are unpacked are so antithetical to the Bible’s depiction of the personal-sovereign God that the argument is being skewed, raising the question of whether this is a consequence of McCall’s philosophical method, theological starting point, or some combination of the two” (pp. 69-70). Carson ends where I think we should all end, with a call to give absolute preference and priority not to a theological tradition or to the tools of analytical philosophy, but to the Bible (p. 71). I believe that at its best, this is what the Calvinistic tradition has done. It is what I attempt to show in 40 Questions About Calvinism.
This is what I mean by “compatibilism.” Nothing Dr. McCall has written leads me to see the Calvinistic tradition as unbiblical in its assertions.
Several comments are in order before dealing with Dr. McCall’s appeal to the authority figure of Muller. First of all, McCall failed to point out my interaction with the Arminian tradition on this point, specifically the manner in which (at least some) Arminian theologians point out the infelicities of Calvinistic so-called “compatibilism.” In Question 8 (pp. 67-73) I interact at some length with the views of Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Roger Olson, Jack Cottrell, and Robert Picirilli. Of course that’s not “all” of the Arminian tradition. But I believe it is representative of evangelical Arminianism. These Arminians, I think, would disagree with Dr. McCall’s approval of my and Carson’s compatibilistic definition. In the next Question, I defend the Calvinist’s contention against Arminians that human beings are influenced by who we are not just our calculations about what will make us happy when we make a decision. In short, I argue, along with Jonathan Edwards, that people do not possess “libertarian” freedom but “compatibilist” freedom, in which they make choices based on who they are. An unbelieving person, unfortunately, is in the position of hating God, not being able to obey God’s law; he or she cannot and will not come to Christ without God’s particular, effective, saving action in his or her life.
However, according to Dr. McCall I have not only misread Arminianism but I also don’t understand the Reformed tradition (“This lack of clarity [and lack of historical grounding that could add such clarity] impacts his treatment of distinctly doctrinal issues.” “Once again, deeper historical investigation could be helpful.” “I cannot help but conclude that the book would be more fair-minded if it were better informed.”) He employs two sources to support his contention—Richard Muller and Johannes Wollebius.
How to respond? First of all, I owe a tremendous debt to the scholarly work of Muller, but that does not mean that Muller is inerrant, or that he represents the Reformed view on any particular point or that he has the infallible interpretation of the history of the Reformed tradition. Merely to assert that I’m out of vogue with Muller’s reading of the tradition, as McCall does, does not win the argument. Even if McCall thinks it does. Again, my book displays treatment of a variety of Calvinistic sources; I am not out of line with these sources, if I am at all reading them correctly. And I think the historical and theological sections of 40 Questions show that I am indeed rightly handling the sources. I draw attention merely to one example. On page 83, fn 2, I reference a chapter Paul Helm wrote in his Calvin at the Centre called “Calvin the Compatibilist.” I agree with Helm’s position here that John Calvin was a compatibilist as I define it; this is not difficult to show from the bulk of the Calvinian corpus, even if Calvin did not label his view “compatibilism.” Professor Helm has also devoted time to reviewing Muller’s Divine Will and Human Choice, responding with his own reading of the historical sources.Paul Helm, Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2018). Helm acknowledges that his debate with Muller about the appropriateness of understanding early Reformed thought as compatibilistic is “tangential” to the main point of the book (ix). For instance, Helm wrote an article in which his point was this:
“The aim of this article is to show that the claim of Richard Muller in his recent book Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought, that the Reformed Orthodox were not compatibilists in their view of freedom but held to the indeterminate freedom of the will, is false.”Paul Helm, “Francis Turretin and Jonathan Edwards on Compatibilism,” Journal of Reformed Theology 12 (2018): 335.
This does not mean, of course, that Helm is right and that Muller is wrong. I think, indeed, that this is case. For my purpose, all it means is that McCall’s appeal to Muller as an authority disproving my placement within the Calvinistic heritage is fallacious. There are others besides me who think it is appropriate to label Calvin’s and his followers’ views on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility “compatibilism.”
With McCall’s appeal to Wollebius, we finally arrive at a substantial theological and biblical argument. Or do we? McCall charges me with too quickly—and apparently, ignorantly—calling Calvinism “monergistic” and Arminianism “synergistic.” Based on my understanding of Philippians 2:12-13 (“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), McCall says that Arminians agree with my contention that “God works in us, and we are to work too” (p. 93). Like Martin Luther urged his readers when we read the Bible, though, I contend that McCall needs to pay attention especially to the pronouns, instead of reading all of humanity into Paul’s designations here. The “us” and “we” here are in my mind—and, I think, Paul’s—references to Christians. I, in fact, say in this place that “compatibilism interprets a Christian’s sanctification” and that it is referring to “Believers” (p. 93). McCall is wrong, then, to use this as fuel to prove that either I must become an Arminian soteriologically or that I will effectively be a Calvinistic antinomian (something I go to great length to contradict in Question 38).
In closing, let me make two final points. I applaud Dr. McCall’s desire not to erect unnecessary barriers between Calvinists and Arminians. That is one of my aims throughout the book, which is why I devoted several questions to addressing aspects of Arminian soteriology and noted throughout the book where Arminians would disagree with my views. But the path forward is not to deny significant differences, differences which are indeed worthy of labeling the one view monergistic and the other synergistic in my opinion and which I have tried to point out throughout my book.To say otherwise is to suggest that the early Calvinists responding to Arminian theology at Dort (1618-19) as well as Calvinists later that century at Westminster (1646) were critiquing a strawman when they argued against Arminianism. Remember, this is too early for Arminianism to have been negatively affected by the rationalistic thought of Philip Limborch (d. 1712), the perhaps quasi-Arminianism of John Wesley (d. 1791), and the revivalism of Charles Finney (d. 1875). (I trace developments within Arminianism after the death of Jacob Arminius in 1609 in Question 15, where I also note contemporary attempts to recover Arminius’s thought from later vulgarized Arminianism.) McCall knows this, for he and Keith Stanglin have posited, “There is no middle ground between (1) resistible and irresistible operations of grace” and “(2) conditional and unconditional predestination,” among other things. They are justified in referencing Mark Ellis’s argument that vis-à-vis Calvinism, Arminius’s doctrines were in significant ways “an alien theological development.”Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 203. Evangelical Arminians testify that salvation is sola gratia along with their evangelical Calvinistic brothers and sisters. But we must come to terms with the fact that even on such a central evangelical doctrine Arminians and Calvinists conceptualize God’s grace and its operations quite differently (Questions 5-7). Dr. McCall is guilty of the equivocation fallacy, then, when he writes that “Both [traditional Arminian or Reformed theologians] agree that grace is first, last, and ultimate all the way through the process of salvation” as if there were no disagreement. The question, of course, is what do both perspectives understand “grace” to be and whose conception of said “grace” is the Bible’s? That is something I tried to note in my book, but something McCall fails to do.
Second, what ultimately matters is not what Calvin or Arminius, or McCall or Wright, think. What matters is the Bible. The Bible, in fact, is what I attempted to interact more with in 40 Questions About Calvinism than any human author. This is because I believe, along with the Calvinistic tradition, that the reason to believe in soteriological Calvinism is because its tenets are explicitly taught in Scripture. Reading Dr. McCall’s interaction with my book, though, one would not see the numerous texts I discuss a great deal that I think establish the Calvinistic position. For instance, after defining “compatibilism” and showing numerous other Calvinistic theologians’ attempts at defining it (Question 10), I devote the next two questions to at least fifty biblical texts that demonstrate what I have called “compatibilism.” I will not die for the term “compatibilism,” as I say more than once (pp. 85-87), but I will take my stand on the biblical truths that it seeks to represent.
These not only represent the heart of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians, but they also represent keys to reading the Bible and understanding God’s love (Question 5), God’s grace and why it cannot be understood in an Arminian prevenient manner (Questions 6 and 7), humankind’s sin (Question 18), predestination (Questions 19-22), the effectiveness of God’s particular grace as well as the manner in which people may resist it (Questions 27-28), regeneration (Question 29), and the reality that God will preserve his people at the same time that we must persevere in the faith (Question 30). In addition, this compatibilistic (i.e., biblical) manner of thinking helps us to understand why we should pray (Question 35), do evangelism and become missionaries (Question 36), make a bona fide offer of the gospel to everyone (Question 37), pursue personal holiness (Question 38), and not doubt the goodness of God in our salvation (Question 39).
In each of these questions I interact a great deal with many parts of Scripture in order to establish what I think the Bible teaches. Dr. McCall may continue, if he chooses, to spend time criticizing my definition of compatibilism and attempting to show that it is incoherent and that Arminians actually agree with it. Well, if so, the last four hundred years of disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians has been a waste of time since they really both believe the same things. I don’t think so. In fact, I think the differences are large and need to be addressed. The only way to address them, though, is to see what Scripture says. It is this that I hope Dr. McCall will put his energies into in his next review.
40 Questions About Calvinism
Tangential Questions About Authority and Method, Not Calvinism | Shawn Wright