Chosen But Free: Avoiding Calvinism by Redefining Calvinism

For chapters five through eight, in Chosen But Free, Dr. Norman Geisler addresses more fully the notions of divine determinism, what he names "the extreme sovereignty view," as well as free will -- warning his readers to avoid "the extreme free will view" -- and the doctrine of Total Depravity, as he continues to seek a "biblical balance." Let me be direct: the idea of Dr. Geisler granting his readers a "biblical balance" is naïve at best -- at the very best. The Calvinist believes she is being biblical; the Arminian believes he is being biblical; the Open Theist, the semi-Pelagian, the soft-Augustinian, the sincere and serious yet overt Pelagian, all genuine-minded believers are trying their best at "being biblical." Merely because an author is claiming to maintain and to be teaching "the biblical view" on any given matter in no way possible suggests that he or she actually possesses the, meaning the one-and-only, biblical view on that topic.

In chapter five, Geisler argues that an "extreme Sovereignty view" is held by "extreme Calvinists," meaning that such Calvinists are more Calvinist than Calvin himself. (51) Chapter five is also the place where I discover that Arminius, the Remonstrants, and classical Arminians today are, in all actuality, extreme Calvinists after all. He claims emphatically that Calvin did not affirm the doctrine of Limited Atonement (51) and grants evidence for the claim in appendix 6. Calvinists themselves are uncertain about Calvin's doctrine of the atonement, whether he perceived of the atonement in limited terms in intent from eternity past (link), and so perhaps Dr. Geisler's dogmatism on the issue cannot be substantiated but is entirely overstated.

Our author then turns his attention to the "extreme sovereignty's view of total depravity." As noted in the prior two posts, when Geisler refers to an "extreme sovereignty view," he is actually referring to typical or historic or classical Calvinism. I realize that he may truly believe that these views represent an extreme form of Calvinism, but what he will argue as "extreme" views are merely Calvinistic views stemming from either Calvin, his successor Theodore Beza or subsequent followers. There are "extreme Calvinists" and they have a name: hyper-Calvinists. This group adds to and differs from historic or classical Calvinism by teaching:
  1. the unconditionally elect were justified in eternity past (contra Rom. 5:1);
  2. the Gospel is not to be broadcast for everyone because the Gospel is not intended for the ears of everyone (contra Matt. 28:19, 20);
  3. God does not command everyone to repent (contra Acts 17:30);
  4. hence, evangelism is unnecessary, because God will regenerate His unconditionally elect in His own timing (contra Rom. 10:9, 10, 14, 15, 17);
  5. God is the Author of sin and evil and will not hold people responsible for the evil He decreed for them to commit (contra James 1:13; Rev. 20:11-15);
  6. God's common grace only effects the unconditionally elect (contra Matt. 5:45);
  7. governments that do not obey Jesus are not to be obeyed (contra Rom. 13:1), and finally,
  8. only Calvinists are Christians (link), which places them in a cult-like status.
Geisler claims that so-called extreme Calvinism is "distinguished by a particular understanding of the Five Points," also called TULIP, an acronym representing Total Depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints, which, he rightly claims, "more or less stand or fall together." (52) I could quote from Calvinist after Calvinist, from Calvin himself to John Piper, and conclude that all of these Calvinists agree entirely with TULIP theology -- the only qualifying doctrine being the doctrine of Limited atonement. Note, however, that the atonement, in its extent and intent, is the doctrine that tends to divide certain Calvinists, not the doctrine of Total Depravity, with its corollary Total Inability. Geisler disagrees.

Dr. Geisler confesses, with every Calvinist and every Arminian, that the doctrine of Total Depravity does not imply that humans are as bad or evil as they could be; nor that unregenerate people are incapable of "any social or domestic good, for most humans are capable of much horizontal good as a result of God's common grace to all people." (52) Total Depravity insists that people, in such a state, cannot work for or merit God's grace and salvation -- they are "incapable of initiating, attaining, or even receiving the gift of salvation without the grace of God." (52) This, to me, is a solid foundation for the doctrine. Arminius and Calvin both agree to these terms.

But our author does not hold to the doctrine of Total Inability. He claims that "extreme Calvinists" actually hold that "a person is totally incapable of doing anything on behalf of his own salvation." (53) Well, then, Arminius, the Remonstrants, and all classical Arminians are "extreme Calvinists"! He adds: "The depraved person is spiritually dead, meaning he has suffered the elimination of all human ability to understand or respond to God (not just a separation from God)." (53) Again, then, Arminius, the Remonstrants, and all classical Arminians are "extreme Calvinists." We agree with these so-called extreme Calvinists that, due to Total Depravity, each and every person is "spiritually dead," has "suffered the elimination of all human ability to understand or respond to God," and is in desperate need of the inner-working of the Holy Spirit if one is to trust in Christ. He offers a chart distinguishing the "moderate" and "extreme" views.

MODERATE CALVINIST VIEW
Corruption of Good
Effects of Sin are Extensive
Born with Propensity to Sin
Human Will is Diminished

EXTREME CALVINIST VIEW
Destruction of Good
Effects of Sin are Intensive
Born with Necessity to Sin
Human Will is Destroyed (53)

He continues: "Extreme Calvinists admit that fallen humans have biological life but deny they are alive in any sense in which they can respond to God; their natures are so totally corrupt that sin is an unavoidable necessity." (53) First, there exists no "moderate Calvinists" who define the doctrine of Total Depravity in the manner as does Geisler. Second, Arminius, the Remonstrants, and all classical Arminians adhere to the so-called extreme Calvinistic view of Total Depravity. Finally, this leads us to believe that Geisler has redefined the doctrine of Total Depravity in order to make classical Calvinists appear like extreme Calvinists, and himself like an orthodox or classical Calvinist. If so, then he is a Calvinist who denies the historic doctrine of Total Depravity, a doctrine which R.C. Sproul names "the focal point of the entire debate" of Calvinism. For Arminians, the "debatable point" about Total Depravity is not in the facts of depravity itself, but in the solution to the problem: Calvinists insist that regeneration must precede faith. We disagree. We think that Calvin disagrees as well.

From my perspective, Dr. Geisler rejects Total Depravity, as the doctrine has been historically understood, defended, and taught to believers throughout Church history. Let this be known far and wide: Arminianism agrees with Calvinism regarding the doctrine of Total Depravity, and Total Inability, and merely disagrees with the solution to the problem of both depravity and inability. Calvinists proffer the grace of regeneration as the solution and Arminians proffer sufficient and prevenient grace as the solution. Both agree, however, that grace in some form is absolutely necessary for one to respond to the Gospel of Christ and the command of God to repent and trust in Jesus in order to receive the salvation that God freely offers.

Geisler, however, thinks that depraved and incapable human beings retain the ability to hear, understand, and respond to the Gospel of Christ and God's command to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. We challenge his view: If so, then what is grace for, since you think that the depraved sinner is capable of coming to Christ? What does Jesus mean, then, when He insists that no one is capable of coming to Him except the Father draw the person (John 6:44, 65)? He writes: "Extreme Calvinists do not deny that human beings have the natural ability to think and to make choices; what was lost in the Fall is the good inclination, or righteous desire, for obedience." (53) (emphasis added) That last sentence is strikingly, unmistakably, semi-Pelagian in nature, perhaps even Pelagian, and needs immediate attention. From this statement, coupled with previous statements regarding an innate ability of fallen mortals to respond to the Gospel and command of God to repent and trust in Christ, Geisler here thinks that the suggestion of depraved and sinful human beings having lost their "good inclination, or righteous desire, for obedience" belongs to "extreme Calvinism." Again, if so, then Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Arminians are extreme Calvinists. Hence Geisler implicitly denies total depravity when he explicitly denies total inability.



Our author offers proof-texts demonstrating the total depravity of humanity that are proffered by "extreme Calvinists," passages Arminians also use toward the exact same doctrine (cf. Gen. 6:5 Ps. 51:5; Isa. 64:6; Jer. 17:9; Ezek. 36:26; John 1:12-13; 3:3, 6-7; 6:65; 8:44; Rom. 3:10-11; 8:7-9; 9:16; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 2:1, 3; Titus 1:15), and offers responses to each passage, some very briefly, others more fully. Let me highlight some that grant warrant to the notion of semi-Pelagianism and a denial of the doctrines of Total Depravity and Total Inability, as historically received by both Calvinists and Arminians, including the founders of those systems (emphases added):

  • "While this is true [Isa. 64:6] in the sense that nothing we are or can do is acceptable to God on behalf of our salvation, it does not follow that we cannot reach out as a beggar and accept a robe of pure white (Christ's righteousness) by faith." (55) (Arminians insist that the proactive grace of the Holy Spirit is necessary prior to anyone "reaching out as a beggar" and "accepting a robe of pure white.")
  • "First, verse 12 [of John 1:12] makes it plain that the means by which new birth is obtained is by 'all who receive him [Christ],' which involves an act of free will." (57) (Arminians insist that receiving Christ involves an act of freed will, not free will, since all powers of our will, in a spiritual sense, have been destroyed.)
  • "However, if depravity really had destroyed man's ability to know good from evil and to choose the good over the evil, then depravity would have destroyed even man's ability to be depraved (i.e., to sin)." (61-62) (Arminians insist that no one can, of one's own free will, "choose the good over the evil." If Geisler means otherwise than what he has written here then he failed to be clear about his views. Moreover, that depravity is capable of destroying "man's ability to be depraved" is a nonsensical and embarrassing blunder on his part. Depravity cannot destroy an ability to be depraved but is the cause of "man's inability" to reform himself. From the view of Geisler we ask: 1) Was nothing lost in the fall? 2) Is knowing good tantamount to choosing good?)

We agree with Dr. Geisler's complaints and well-reasoned arguments against the philosophy that regeneration must precede faith. So I do not reference those arguments above. He is right when he states: "Salvation comes through faith; faith does not come through salvation." (57) My concern is that, in claiming to be a "moderate Calvinist," relegating what I consider to be historically-orthodox Calvinists as "extreme Calvinists," he, even if unwittingly, declares himself to actually being a semi-Pelagian when he overtly denies the effects of Total Depravity and Total Inability, two connected doctrines that he redefines while complaining that "extreme Calvinists" are the ones who redefine Calvin's teaching on these issues.

In the previous post, when I suggested that Dr. Geisler tends to flip-flop between semi-Pelagian statements and Arminian confessions, let me grant another example. In responding to 2 Corinthians 3:5 he writes: "These verses prove only that we cannot attain salvation by our own will; they do not demonstrate that we cannot receive the gift of salvation." (62) Arminians add that we receive the gift of salvation by the inwardly-working grace of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We cannot write bald statements about "freely choosing" or "freely receiving" salvation without explicitly and emphatically mentioning prevenient grace -- grace which precedes faith in Christ. He continues: "Further, moderate Calvinism [he means his own redefined theology] does not deny that God's grace works on the unregenerate to move them to faith." (62) (emphasis added) Would to God that, if Dr. Geisler actually believes this statement, then he would properly contextualize all of his comments regarding free will within such a framework.

Geisler then attributes the doctrine of unconditional election -- i.e., that God has unconditionally chosen to save some and not others, in that there is no reason within the individual beckoning God toward saving them -- as an "extreme Calvinist" view. We agree with Dr. Geisler that this theory is an error. But we disagree sharply with him that this view represents an "extreme Calvinist" view. The doctrine of Unconditional Election necessitates Calvinism in toto. Without the doctrine of Unconditional Election then Calvinism as a system does not exist. Calvin taught the doctrine. Beza taught the doctrine. All of the Dutch Calvinist divines taught the doctrine. All of the English Calvinist divines taught the doctrine. Calvinists, some five centuries later, teach the doctrine. Unconditional Election belongs to orthodox, historic, classical Calvinism and can in no sense imaginable be rendered to some aberrant, heterodox, extreme form of Calvinism.

In every place where Dr. Geisler insists that "moderate Calvinists" deny the doctrine of unconditional election (cf. 66-72), the reader (and especially the Calvinist) can take great comfort in the fact that Geisler is redefining Calvinism, betraying Church history, rewriting the Reformation, including post-Reformation history and theology, and should in no manner conceivable be perceived as teaching biblical truths on the subject. He consistently appeals to election according to foreknowledge, and by foreknowledge he means that God foreknew who would believe in Christ, and who would not believe in Christ, and God then elected to save those individuals. Anyone even remotely familiar with Calvinism understands that the doctrine of Unconditional Election is disconnected from this theory. While Dr. Geisler quotes from the Westminster Confession of Faith (26), he conveniently stops short of quoting what follows, "Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions." (emphases added) Geisler's "moderate Calvinist" position only exists in his mind.

I am not compelled to wrestle with his section on the doctrine of Limited Atonement. There are Calvinists who have rejected this tenet of Calvinism and still considered themselves faithful Calvinists. I do not think that this one issue "makes" or "breaks" one from accepting Calvinism. Granted, I think the doctrine is consistent within its system, but I have encountered enough Calvinist scholars who believe in General Atonement while confessing that only the unconditionally elect will be the beneficiaries of that atonement to consider them Calvinists just the same. Still, Dr. Geisler relegates this doctrine to an "extreme Calvinist" view, and I think that is quite the over-statement. Arminius' fiercest opponent, Francis Gomarus (1563-1641), was "extreme" in and of himself, that is, in character; but there were many of his Calvinist colleagues in the Netherlands who agreed with his views on the atonement. Such Calvinists were never deemed as "extreme" in post-Reformation history and should not be viewed as such today.

Our author also names the doctrine of Irresistible Grace as an "extreme Calvinist" position. What seems obvious thus far is that, whatever doctrine in historic Calvinism Geisler disagrees with, that is now redefined as "extreme Calvinism." He then morphs quasi-semi-Pelagianism, at other places tenets of classical Arminianism, into "moderate Calvinism." He does not frame the matter using such words. For Dr. Geisler, there are moderate Calvinists and moderate Arminians. The former hold to perseverance of the saints and the latter deny the same. But the rest of their theology is nearly identical. In truth, Geisler is a semi-Pelagian at worst, and a confused classical Arminian at best, but maintains no semblance of historic, orthodox, classical Calvinist tendencies.

For historic Calvinism, the doctrine of Irresistible Grace assures the believer that he or she was drawn to Christ by the gracious inner working of God by the regenerative act of the Holy Spirit. Because all fallen mortals are totally depraved, totally incapable of believing in Christ and "coming to" Him for salvation, God, from eternity past, unconditionally elected to save some undeserving sinners. He elected Christ to die in their stead; sent the Holy Spirit to draw them unto Christ, by regenerating their hearts, causing them to believe; and the triune Godhead keeps them in the faith. This is how salvation is accomplished, in the classical Calvinist system, and this brings glory to God alone. Without irresistible grace, so the historic Calvinist believes, no one would or could come to believe in Christ. So, for Dr. Geisler to consign this historic teaching to some category in the extreme is itself extreme, and also entirely unwarranted.

Geisler insists that the grace of God is resistible upon those who are unwilling to receive that grace. Written like a faithful Arminian Geisler argues: "Those who insist that God's will cannot be resisted confuse what God wills unconditionally with what He wills conditionally. God wills the salvation of all persons conditionally -- conditioned on their repentance (2 Pet. 3:9) -- and His will in this sense can be resisted by an unrepentant heart." (101) We, Arminians, agree with the doctor. The problem is this: Geisler's theology is not Calvinistic in any historically-credible sense. There are no "moderate Calvinists" who argue in this fashion -- not in all of post-Reformation history. Those who argue in this manner are those who oppose Calvinism: those who oppose Calvinistic determinism, the historic Calvinistic position on the sovereignty of God, and those who oppose the historic or classical Calvinistic notions of irresistible grace.

My opinions of Dr. Geisler's book, in its third and updated edition, have only been strengthened and confirmed from when I read the first edition: the philosopher distorts classical Calvinism as a system, redefines what being a Calvinist actually is, and creates a new category for himself that he, no doubt, hopes others will adopt for themselves: the moderate Calvinist theological view. What is "Calvinist" about this new categorical position? The one and only one tenet of this "moderate Calvinist" theology that remains Calvinistic is that, once a believer freely receives the grace of God and believes in Christ, that person cannot lose his or her salvation. If Dr. Geisler were right, and he is not, then there are many, many Arminians who are actually "moderate Calvinists." Alas, this is only a farce, as this position only exists in the mind of Dr. Norman Geisler.

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R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Knowing God's Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 1986), 80.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.