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Book Review- Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, by Robert E. Picirilli

Free Will Revisited is a book by Robert E Picirilli, a Free Will Baptist theologian and professor emeritus of Greek and New Testament studies at Free Will Baptist College.  As the title suggests, the book is a respectful response to the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards on the topic of free will, coming from an Arminian perspective.  The book was enjoyable to read.  It is informative, generous, and fair in its treatment of the views of each of these three theological giants.  Picirilli explains the motivations and type of arguments that each make, their similarities and their differences.  And he contrasts those views of free will with those from a Classical / Reformational Arminian perspective.

The book is 134 pages long.  It’s easy to understand, and can be read over the period of a few evenings.  One thing I appreciate about Picirilli’s style is that his writing is accessible to the lay person.  He takes the time to define the issues in easy to understand terms, and doesn’t speak over the average person’s head.

The book is broken into four parts, which I will review below.

Part 1 is about defining the issues.  What is free will?  Picirilli defines it as the power of alternative choice or libertarian freedom. “This means that the choice or decision is one that really could go either way; that the person is neither compelled by some force outside nor shut up from within by previous condition or experience, so that only one alternative can actually be chosen.

How do worldviews (both naturalistic and theological) relate to free will?  Is it part of being created in the image of God?   Is it compatible with theological determinism?  This is “the view that everything that happens in the universe, including the apparently free choices of human beings, comes about as a result of the fact that God, before the foundation of the world deliberately decreed everything that will transpire as part of his all inclusive plan.”

Most importantly for the Christian, is free will biblical? Picrilli argues that it is, and goes in depth into a number of passages that address it.  One argument that I found compelling here was related to the many “ifs” of the Bible.  He writes, “There are many ifs in the Bible, and they often set alternatives before us.  These alternatives are the way freedom of choice is expressed.”  Picirilli also uses the term “the sweet winds of grace” to explain how we can choose what God sets before us.  Because of our sinful depravity we don’t  have the ability to choose God on our own.  It is the winds of Grace from God that enable us.

Part 2 is the case against free will.  What are the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards against free will?

Luther’s work, “On the Bondage of the Will”, was written in response to Erasmus.  Luther always tied his argumentation to scripture.  He argued that God foreknows of necessity.  This means in Luther’s view, God’s foreknowledge and his plans of predestination prevent free will.  He also compared humanity’s will to that of a horse with a rider.  The rider could be either God or Satan, but either way the horse is controlled by an outside influence.

Calvin’s work, like Luther’s was written in response to another – Albert Pighius.  Whereas Luther focused on scripture for his argumentation, Calvin focused on the church fathers – particularly Augustine.  Calvin also believed that Adam and Eve had genuine free will, which was lost at the fall.  Calvin also had less of a focus on the roll of Satan and the roll of God’s foreknowledge than Luther did.

Edwards work, unlike Calvin and Luther, was not written against any person in particular, but against “Arminians” in general.  Edwards used the rationalistic method in his argumentation, which “seeks for indisputable (self-evident) truths and then attempts to draw out whatever is necessarily and logically implied by them.”  For Edwards every person does what he does by necessity, due to “cause and effect”.  And this cause and effect regresses all the way back to God, who is the original cause.   It is meaningless to speak of free will, because a person is created, and is tied to the cause and effect relationships of everything that came before.  In Edwards view, sin was inevitable even for Adam.

Part 3  addresses the major issues.  What is the Arminian response to the arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Edwards?

First, what is the relation of free will to God’s foreknowledge and necessity?  In contrast to Open Theists, Ariminans believe (as do Calvinists), that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future.  Picirilli makes a distinction between necessity (has to be), contingency (does not have to be), and certainty (will be).  Something can be necessary and certain, or it can be contingent and certain.  But it can’t be necessary and contingent.  The fact that something will be a certain way does not mean it has to be that way.  So then, God can know the future exhaustively without exhaustively causing it.  Knowledge of a fact is not the cause of a fact.

And what about Total Depravity?  Again, Arminians agree with their Calvinist brothers.  Picirilli writes that, “I am satisfied that depravity is real and total.  I am equally satisfied that it does not finally negate the freedom of the will.”  This is because of Prevenient grace, God’s initiating grace that draws us. “As depraved as one is, he is still a person, a human being in the image of God.  Sinners are spiritually blind, but the Word and the Spirit can bring them to see the truth of the gospel….the Spirit and the Word can persuade a person of the truths needed for that person to be able to receive the gift of salvation offered in the gospel.”

How does God’s sovereignty and providence relate to free will?  Sovereignty means that God is in control and does as he pleases.  Control does not mean that God causes everything, but it means he knows about everything, provides a means for everything, and fits everything into his perfect plan.  Picirilli notes that “if God sovereignly ordained that humans had free will, then their exercise of it in no way encroaches on his sovereignty.”  Providence “is the activity of God in caring for and governing the universe in accord with his unfailing purpose”.  A distinction made here is that “God does not concur with the sinner in his sin, else we would make God himself a sinner.”  God made Adam and Eve capable of sin, but he did not put them in a circumstance where they had to sin.

And what about Edward’s logic of cause and effect?  Picrilli argues that Edward’s frames his argumentation against free will in a way that no advocate really believes – that it is always a two part thing, a cause and effect, and a choice must always be caused.  This definition allows Edwards to make his “infinite regression” argument, but it’s not how human choices really work.  We choose.  We don’t choose to choose.  Picirili also writes that “One of the powers of the human psyche is to “originate” ideas, and to translate those ideas into actions…”  Not everything we do and think comes from a previous cause.  Secondly, the “infinite regression” argument is ultimately invalid because each person is created by a “self existent Creator-God”.  God created us, and that’s why we can make choices.

Part 4 is the conclusion, in five major points.

First, the sovereignty of God is strong, if not stronger in a world where humans have the power to make choices.

Second, human depravity prevents us from seeking God.  However, God has broken into our world and provided his son for the atonement of our sins.  The preaching of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit enables us to choose Christ.

Third, we are saved by faith, and this does not diminish God’s grace or glory.  “A person’s accepting the gift contributes nothing to the work, and subtracts nothing from the giver”.

Fourth, God’s foreknowledge of the future does not contradict free will, because foreknowledge is knowledge in advance, not foreordination.

Fifth, the laws of cause and effect don’t contradict free will.  The exercise of the mental will is more than a mechanical cause and effect, because they come from persons.  Persons originate thoughts and volition.

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Disclosure:  I was provided a copy of the book, and agreed to write a  review.

 

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The World is Gonna Change Tonight

Here is a Christmas song written and mixed by my daughter Heidi, age 14.  Hope you enjoy it.  The lyrics are Arminian, of course. Merry Christmas!

 

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Book Review: Arminian and Baptist, Explorations in a Theological Tradition by J. Matthew Pinson

Arminian and Baptist is a book about the history of Arminian theology in the General Baptist and Free Will Baptist tradition.  It is written by J. Matthew Pinson, a Free Will Baptist, and the president of Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee.

I enjoyed the book, and learned a great deal about the history of Arminianism in the Baptist tradition.  I recommend the book to Arminians and Calvinists alike, particularly to those who are interested in the history of Classical Arminianism.  As a Wesleyan, I came away with a better understanding of the differences between Wesleyan Arminianism and Classical Arminianism (or Reformational Arminianism) and why these differences are important.  I was sometimes irritated by the author’s passionate advocating of Classical Arminianism over Wesleyan Arminianism, however, he represents Wesleyanism fairly for the most part.  Classical and Wesleyan Arminians have slightly different focuses as to what we think is important.  These result in some minor in-house differences (which I’ll expand on at the end of the post).

The book starts with a history of Jacob Arminius and his theology.  Arminius’ theology was thoroughly Reformed.  He regarded Calvin highly.  Arminius’ theology was “a development of Reformed theology rather than a departure from it.”  In the time of Arminius there was also diversity on the doctrine of predestination in the Reformed church.  Both contemporaries of Arminius and some of his Reformed precursors held to non-Calvinistic views of predestination.  Pinson notes that “There was no consensus on the doctrine of predestination in the Dutch Reformed Church of Arminius’ time.”  While Arminius was Reformed, he disagreed with Calvinistic predestination.  He thought that Calvinism “inverted the Gospel” and that predestination did not properly focus on the work of Christ.  “It was as though Christ and his work were an afterthought”.

Chapter 2 deals with the view of the Atonement in Arminius’ theology, where again Arminius remained Reformed.  He was fully committed to the penal substitution (or satisfaction) view of the Atonement.   This is the view that Jesus went to the cross in order to fulfill the demands of God’s justice.  While God is merciful, he also is committed to justice.  A price had to be paid for our sin.  Jesus individually paid the price of each person’s sin.  So God imputed our sin to Jesus, and he also imputes the righteousness of Jesus to each person who believes in faith.  The  penal substitution view is contrasted with the Moral Government view (developed by Remonstrant Hugo Grotius, and held by many Wesleyans).  In this view Jesus suffered on behalf of humanity, but not individually for each person.  As Governor, God was displeased with the sin of man. By accepting the suffering of Jesus, God is able to forgive those who believe, reconcile them to Himself, and maintain justice and order.

Chapter 3 gives a historical sketch of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys – the founders of the General Baptist movement.  Both came from a Calvinistic Puritan background, and both adopted anti-Calvinist views.  They spent time in the Netherlands, as did many Puritans.  Around 1611 they separated because of differences.  Smyth wanted to adapt the views of the Dutch Mennonites, including a rejection of original sin, and a focus on imparted righteousness.  Helwys maintained an Augustinian view of original sin and held to imputed righteousness (Imputed righteousness is a forensic righteousness before God provided by Jesus.  Imparted righteousness is where Jesus makes us more like himself).

Chapter 4 is an overview of Thomas Helwys’ treatise “A Short and Plain Proof”, which was a criticism of Calvinistic predestination.  As all Arminians agree, Helwys argued that the atonement is for all – Jesus died for everyone.  Helwys was particularly concerned about where evil came from, and that it could not have come from God.  He argued that the original cause of the fall was Adam and Eve’s freedom, and that if it was instead decreed by God, then the fall was a deterministic necessity.  Describing Calvinism and it’s impact on God’s character he wrote: “Can men make freedom and bondage in one and the same action, all in one man, and at the same time? How will men be able with any good conscience make things so contrary hang together?

Chapter 5 is about the the General Baptist Thomas Grantham.  Pinson contrasts Grantham’s theology with that of John Goodwin.  Grantham was more conservative than Goodwin both doctrinally and politically.  Whereas Goodwin argued for the Governmental atonement view, Grantham held to penal substitution.  Grantham also didn’t care for the term “Arminian” because of the baggage that can be associated with the view.

Chapter 6 is about the theology of John Wesley, and the areas where Wesley differed from the Classical Arminian view.  Wesley’s theology is described as an amalgamation of views that cannot be pigeonholed (I agree).  Wesley’s theology is also described as more in the mold of John Goodwin and Hugo Grotius than that of Jacob Arminius.  For example, Wesley rejected the idea of forensic justification, and called the view a cover for unrighteousness.  “He (Wesley) found it difficult to conceive of a gospel that would allow a believer to commit sin with impunity because he has been imputed with the righteousness of Christ”.  Pinson also argues that even though Wesley technically held to the satisfaction view of the atonement, he was influenced heavily by the governmental view: “[Wesley’s] theory of atonement relies on the logic of penal satisfaction but on the spirit of governmentalism.”

Chapter 7 is about the Free Will Baptist movement.  It is described as confessional, Baptist, and Arminian.  In contrast to most Baptist groups, FWBs have a high regard for historical Christianity and the creeds.  Also in contrast to most other Baptist groups, FWBs believe that apostasy is possible.  When apostasy occurs, it is permanent, and comes about because of a loss/rejection of faith in Christ, and not because of sin in the life of the believer.  This is in contrast to most Baptists, who believe that apostasy is impossible (once saved always saved), and the Wesleyan view – who believe that a continued pattern of sin can also result in separation from God, but it’s still possible for the person to repent / be restored again.

I want to close with what I see as the key differences between Classical Arminianism and Wesleyan Arminianism.  As noted earlier, Pinson is passionate about Classical Arminianism.  Since I’m Wesleyan, I want to comment on these differences as seen from a Wesleyan perspective (for more details, see this post: A Comparison of Wesleyanism and Classical Arminianism).

Wesleyans tend to be less scholastic.  An example of this is views of atonement (but it extends to other topics too).  Classical Arminians always hold to penal substitution as the primary view of the Atonement.  Wesleyans tend to hold to the governmental view, but also see value in the penal view, as well as the “Christus Victor” view (that Jesus defeated Satan at the cross).  I personally lean to the penal substitution view, but I think all the views of the atonement add value and understanding to what Christ did for us on the cross, and even weak views (like the moral example theory) add to the tapestry.

Wesleyans are more ecumenical. We really like the saying “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  We downplay doctrinal distinctness, and focus more on Christian unity.  Even when reading about the history of Smyth and Helwys, I found myself identifying more with Smyth than Helwys.  I admired his desire to find commonality with the Dutch Mennonites.

Wesleyans have more of a focus on the Holy Spirit.  Another way of putting it is we are more Pietistic.  We believe that the Holy Spirit fills us, speaks to us, and works in our lives.  It’s the difference again between imputed and imparted righteousness.  Wesleyans believe that not only are we forensically right before God, but as the Holy Spirit lives in us, he begins to change us deep inside, and we become more like Christ.

Lastly, Wesleyan theology tends to be more pastoral.  We are interested in how the application of theology applies to our daily walk with God.  I think all Arminian theology tends to be more pastoral than Calvinist theology.  That’s because we all believe God is relational and loves us.  But at the same time, Wesleyanism takes this a step further.  Wesley himself was this way, and it’s why his theology was an amalgamation.  Wesleyans are skeptical of theology that detracts from our daily walk with Christ.

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Disclosure:  I was provided a copy of the book, and agreed to write a  review.

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Calvinist Christmas Songs – Humor

Some of these are mine, but most are stolen from the twitter hash  #CalvinistChristmasSongs.

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Joy to the Elect

Deck the Shelves With Books by Piper

Good Christian Men Read Boice

Oh Come All Ye Chosen

Servetus Roasting on an Open Fire

All I want for Christmas is my ESV

I Saw Edwards Dissing Santa Claus

Last Christmas You Gave You My Heart

Grandma Got Run Over Because It Was Predestined

I’m Dreaming of a James White Christmas

Little Driscoll Boy

“He’s making a list, checking it twice, gunna decide who’s naughty and nice.”

Have Yourself a Merry Little Conference (for MacArthur fans)

 

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Are Methodists Becoming More Conservative?

Here’s an article on how United Methodists are becoming more theologically conservative.  This is in contrast to some of their  mainline brethren: Methodists Behaving Conservatively.

From the article:

 By some measures, the United Methodist Church is becoming more theologically conservative. The denomination’s Book of Discipline affirms that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” At their 2004 General Conference, United Methodists endorsed “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” It wasn’t close; the motion passed with 70 percent of the vote. The Methodists’ generally pro-choice position on abortion has been revised in a more pro-life direction.

This conservative trend of the UMC contrasts with the liberalizing trend of other American mainline denominations (Presbyterians, Episcopals, etc).  The reason is that Methodists outside the USA have full voting rights in the general convention.  One third of UMC delegates now come from Africa.  African Methodists are  more orthodox than their American counterparts.  Because of this African movement, conservative Americans are also more likely to stick around (in other mainline denominations these sorts of people have already left).

It’s an interesting read, and also encouraging.

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Good-bye to the Internet Monk

Thanks for all the good reads, even if I didn’t always agree. Michael Spencer 1956-2010

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Hello world!

I’m currently blogging at wesleyanarminian.blogspot.com

God bless,

Kevin

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