Chosen But Free: Geisler: Neither Calvinist Nor Arminian

If the reader has successfully completed the first seven chapters of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free, she has been taught that modern-day Calvinists are actually extreme Calvinists; that Open Theists "and other Arminians," who think that a person can forfeit salvation, are extreme Arminians; that "moderate Calvinists" and "moderate Arminians" are those who think that a person cannot forfeit salvation -- even though, in these two categories, both adherents reject Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement and Irresistible grace, meaning, there is, then, no difference between so-called moderate Calvinists and moderate Arminians -- and that, even though we are depraved, with a propensity to sin, we can freely choose the good. This book is among the very worst in publication on the subjects of Calvinism and Arminianism.

I want to be clear: classical Arminians agree with Reformed Calvinist Phillip Johnson, in his Preface to James White's book, The Potter's Freedom, that Geisler's Chosen But Free is "a stunningly inept treatment of the subject it undertakes,"1 which is God's sovereignty and free will. Moreover, we agree with Johnson that, "He [Geisler] utterly mangles the doctrines of divine sovereignty, election, and free will -- and in the process he obscures and redefines the historical positions of both Calvinism and Arminianism."2 A friend, John Schroeder, reminded me that, though James White's book was a welcome rebuke to Geisler's muddled reasoning, White's book was nearly unnecessary, since by far the best refutation of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free is Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free! Geisler manages to redefine Calvinism, rendering historic Calvinism as extreme Calvinism, and flirts with Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism.

But this caveat needs to be added: In "flirting" with Arminianism, he betrays Arminianism, not by insisting that a person cannot forfeit his or her salvation but by rejecting the doctrines of Total Depravity and Total Inability. For the classical Arminian, to reject the doctrine of Total Inability is to reject Total Depravity, since the latter necessitates the former. Or, stated another way, our total and complete depraved state renders depraved sinners as completely incapable of freely choosing Christ as Lord and Savior and properly understanding the Gospel and spiritual issues. Arminius does not merely state that our free will is destroyed and lost3 -- a notion with which Geisler strongly disagrees (54-65) -- but Arminius continues expounding on the subject:
The Mind of man, in this state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God. . . .

To this Darkness of the Mind succeeds the Perverseness of the Affections and of the Heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil. . . .

Exactly correspondent to this Darkness of the Mind, and Perverseness of the Heart, is . . . the utter Weakness of all the Powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil, in a due mode and from a due end and cause. . . .

[I]t follows that our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit.4 (emphases original)
This Reformed teaching on Total Depravity and Total Inability of Arminius is utterly rejected by Norman Geisler (54-65). What this indicates, then, is that Geisler is not a "moderate Calvinist," not a "moderate Arminian," but a semi-Pelagian at best -- and one who at times frames the subject of free will as did Pelagius in the fourth century, especially when he constructs statements such as, "But it does not follow from this inborn tendency to sin that we have the necessity to sin." (54-55) Arminians believe that we sin not by a necessity stemming from a decree of God but by a fallen nature that inhibits us from being good, doing good (from the perspective of God), or meriting good. In essence, then, there is "nothing good" within us. (Rom. 7:18) Geisler disagrees with the notion that depraved sinners have lost a "good inclination, or righteous desire, for obedience" to God (53). Stated another way, Geisler believes that depraved sinners still maintain a good inclination toward God and a righteous desire for obedience toward God. Think about that statement: depraved and wicked sinners maintain a righteous desire toward obedience to God. That is not merely semi-Pelagianism but emphatic, overt, unabashed theological and philosophical Pelagianism.

Not only does Geisler butcher and redefine Calvinism, attempting to reframe Calvinism to suit his own hybrid philosophical-theology, but he also treats Arminianism in like manner. In his seventh chapter, "Avoiding the Extreme Free Will View," he posits that so-called extreme Arminianism "sacrifices sovereignty on the altar of free choice." (108) The irony of that statement is that Geisler's views on the sovereignty of God are actually much weaker than that of the classical Arminian and only slightly stronger than that of the Open Theist. Comparing the theology on the sovereignty of God from Reformed theologians like Jacob Arminius, Simon Episcopius or Jan Uytenbogaert, these men appear like rigid Gomarist Calvinists next to the philosophical-theology of Norman Geisler. But, as will be obvious below, naming the "extreme free will" position of Open Theism, or Free Will Theism, as "extreme Arminianism" is entirely unnecessary.

Our author quotes the Remonstrance of 1610 and, in a footnote, claims that Arminius "mistakenly [believes] that God owed sinners something because of His justice." (109, fn. 1) The footnote is improperly cited, so I am unable to check the particular reference, disproving his claim. But in his Disputation, "On Divine Predestination," Arminius insists that God determined to save believers "according to the good pleasure of His own will,"5 citing Ephesians 1:5. He explicitly claims that God is "moved with and in Himself" toward that will of saving believers; and that this "good pleasure" not only "excludes every cause which it could take from man, or which it could be imagined to take from him; but it likewise removes whatever was in or from man that could justly move God not to make that gracious Decree"6 to save believers by His own will (cf. James 1:18). So, you will forgive me if I maintain serious doubt that Geisler is properly understanding the sentiments of Arminius on the subject from which he references.

Upon mentioning the tragic outcome of the Synod of Dordt, he states that toleration for Arminian beliefs was not welcomed again in the Netherlands until 1795. (110) That is incorrect. By the commencement of summer, 1619, the Arminians were deposed from their ordained positions and exiled. By 1625, however, the Arminians were welcomed back to their homeland by Prince Maurice's successor, Frederick Henry, and a Remonstrant seminary was later constructed and in operation. Geisler's mention of 1795 historically refers to the year when the Remonstrants were officially recognized in the establishment of the Batavian Republic. They had been back in their homeland, planting house churches and active theologically, for 170 years already.



Geisler then addresses what he names "extreme Arminianism," which is merely Open Theism, or Free Will Theism. While some Open Theists maintain similarities with Arminian theology, namely, the atonement, and a non-necessitarian means of the grace of God, we find semi-Pelagians and self-professed Pelagians among Open Theists and Free Will Theists. So, we are not obliged to name such as "extreme Arminians," and can refer to them in their own theological right by name: Open Theists, Free Will Thesists or Process advocates, not "extreme Arminians."

In chapter eight, Dr. Geisler seeks "a biblical balance" to these issues, and his so-called balanced view is worth a highlight. I think the doctor rightly rejects the paradoxical approach to sovereignty and free will. Some believe that God is sovereign to the degree that He has decreed every minutiae of our existence, including our thoughts, desires, and intentions, and also claim that we maintain a free will, but how both operate is a mystery. No, that is not a mystery, that is a clear contradiction. This is why "Calminianism" (link), a moderate hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism, is impossible (sorry, Dr. Craig Blomberg) -- tantamount to insisting that a man is both married, and at the same time single, but insisting that such is merely paradoxical. When properly understood, and defined, five-point (supralapsarian) Calvinism is consistent within its system, and (five-point) Arminianism is consistent within its system, and those who want to pick and choose which points to accept and reject can remain outside those two positions.

However, what those "outsiders" have no right to do is to redefine core tenets of either system, as a convenient means in an attempt to render oneself a "moderate" proponent of a newly-redefined position. This is what Geisler has accomplished in Chosen But Free. He rejects two Arminian views -- total depravity and the potential forfeiture of salvation -- and also rejects five significant tenets of Calvinism: deterministic sovereignty, total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. So he renders the latter an "extreme" form of Calvinism, reframes "moderate Calvinism" from elements of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism, and thinks he has struck the perfect "biblical" balance between two "extreme" theological forms. The only word for this intellectually-suicidal tendency is tragic.

The "balanced" approach, for Dr. Geisler, is to frame the sovereignty of God like an Arminian while adopting the free will approach of the semi-Pelagian. For example, he agrees with the Arminian that the Cross event was both determined, by God, while men and women acted freely toward securing the event itself. (133-34) Both Geisler and Arminians reject any semblance of hinting that God decreed for men and women to think and to desire the death of Jesus -- they acted freely yet freely within the confines of the sovereignty of God. So, why can Geisler not be named a mere inconsistent Arminian (inconsistent by advocating eternal security)? Because he affords too much to the free will of man rather than to the proactive grace working within the mortal by the Holy Spirit. We insist on freed will, not free will, as he argues.

Geisler claims that his "balanced view" is "mainstream Christianity," that Calvin is "not as radical as many think," and that "extreme Calvinists," which are really just historic, classical Calvinists, are "a small minority in the mainstream of Christianity before and even since the Reformation." (147) From the perspective of Kenneth Keathley, a theology professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Arminianism "was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy."7 That Geisler does not even qualify as a proper Arminian is sufficient refutation of his claim toward "mainstream Christianity." As an aside: Geisler lists W.G.T. Shedd, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Charles Ryrie among "moderate Calvinists" (148) and, yet, Shedd, Chafer, and Ryrie hold to the historic Calvinistic understanding of unconditional election. He cannot count these men among his redefined theological position.

Be certain that when Dr. Geisler alleges that we are chosen, but we are free, he is not using classical Calvinism by use of the word chosen, nor using classical Arminianism by use of the word free. When he insists that a person is chosen by God for salvation, he grounds that choice of God in the foreknowledge of God, and the individual was free to either choose or reject Christ. "Our salvation is determined from the standpoint of God [according to the foreknowledge of God, pp. 154-55], but it is free from the standpoint of our free will." (156) "Therefore, if God has infallible foreknowledge of the future, including our free acts, then everything that will happen in the future is predetermined, even our free acts. This does not mean these actions are not free; it simply means God knows for sure how we are going to use our freedom." (157) This, he thinks, is "moderate Calvinism." What saith Calvin? Does God foreknow the future or foreordain the future?

Since Dr. Geisler thinks that Calvin is "not as radical as many think" (147), I choose to let Calvin speak for and defend himself, as he argues from his deterministic biblical worldview:
  • "Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting [emphases original], because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand of the authority of God, that He directs their malice to whatever end He pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute His judgments [or will of secret decree]."8 (emphases added)
  • "That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what He has previously decreed with Himself, and brings to pass by His secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture [no doubt wrested from their original contexts]."9 (emphases added)
  • "The manner and the end are different, but still the fact is, [a person] cannot attempt anything without the will of God."10
  • "Therefore, whatever men or Satan devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of His judgments."11
  • "If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a judgment of God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers."12
  • "Thus we must hold, that ... by means of the wicked God performs what He had secretly decreed. . . ."13 (emphases added)
This modest offering from Calvin contradicts Dr. Geisler's claims regarding Calvin, historic Calvinism, and those who follow the teachings of Calvin from the time of the Reformation to the present day. Calvin and his followers reserve the right to contextualize that which should comprise Calvinism. Arminius and his followers reserve the right to contextualize all that pertains to Arminianism. Those who reject both systems maintain the right to their respective disagreements. But they in no sense reserve the right to suggest, as does Norman Geisler, that classical Calvinism is actually an extreme form of Calvinism, and that the views of someone like Geisler comprise an orthodox and moderate form of Calvinism, and accomplish such by redefining key historical and theological terms that even Calvin himself and his followers entirely reject.

__________

1 Phillip R. Johnson, Preface, in James R. White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 11.

2 Ibid.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Private Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:192.

4 Ibid., 2:192-94.

5 Ibid., 2:227.

6 Ibid.

7 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

8 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), I.18.1.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., I.18.4.

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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.