Chosen But Free: Properly Parsing Geisler

The year is 1999 when Bethany House publishes Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God's Sovereignty and Free Will. This book occasioned the response of James R. White in his book, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free, to which I responded. I noted that, in my opinion, White did Arminians as well as Calvinists a service in rebutting Geisler's mistakes, misrepresentations, and often muddied theological wrangling and philosophical musings in Chosen But Free. I was recently asked to respond in like manner to Geisler's book. I am using Geisler's most recent third edition.

I decided to respond to the book by grouping certain chapters into one posting because of the paucity of those chapters. For instance, chapter one, "Ideas Have Consequences," contains four pages while chapter two, "What are the Alternatives?" contains perhaps six pages. There is no Preface and no Introduction. Having commenced quoting from Richard Weaver's book, Ideas Have Consequences, Geisler writes: "Why do ideas matter? Because the thoughts we entertain -- especially those we seriously entertain -- tend to influence our choices. Belief leads to behavior. Ideas lead to actions. History is replete with examples, both good and bad." (11) He defends this notion throughout the entire four pages comprising the first chapter.

There exists already a presupposition: libertarian free will -- that we all have options from which we make choices, or decisions, and they are not causally determined by God's decree. This is not outlined or detailed in this chapter but the notion is already operative in the above statement. As with White's The Potter's Freedom, so with Geisler's Chosen But Free, that convictional and self-professed Arminians will find common ground and sharp disagreements with statements made from both authors. "Belief leads to behavior," Geisler writes, and "Ideas lead to actions." While this statement is true, we must also confess that we often behave contrary to our core beliefs, and this due to the result of our sin nature. In other words, a person can adopt the most sound theology known to mortals and still behave wickedly, and the Bible is rife with examples.

Geisler quotes from A.W. Tozer, "What you think of God is the most important thing about you" and then comments, "This means our theology (our ideas of God) will have the greatest consequences in our lives. Theological or doctrinal ideas are the most relevant ones we have. God is the ultimate in our thinking, and ultimate thoughts have ultimate significance." (13) He is priming the reader for what follows: "This book is a comparison and contrast between two great theological 'ideas': divine sovereignty and human free will. We will discover that whether one holds to extreme or moderate forms of these ideas will affect his/her lifestyle." (13) I see the matter differently and I think Arminians see the matter differently. We do not deny the statement that what we believe about God affects other aspects of our lives. But the primary goal of the Arminian is not necessarily about lifestyle but about the nature, character, and glory of God.

Geisler defines sovereignty as "what a sovereign has," meaning, "control over his kingdom." (13) But by "control" he is not inferring a deterministic notion whereby people do what they do because of God's decree that they do what they do or that God brings about that people do what they do. (13-14) He also rightly contextualizes God's sovereignty as properly allowing for free will: "Human responsibility and the ability to make free choices were part of God's plan for us from the beginning." (14) But he adds: "Even now, in our fallen state, we have the free choice to accept or reject God's gracious provision of salvation." (14) Compare that unqualified statement with the sentiments of Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius (1559-1609):
In this [fallen] state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and ... weakened; but it is also ... imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. . . . 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.* (emphases original)
Geisler does not carefully qualify his notion of free will as does the Arminian: Arminians agree with Calvinists on the doctrines of Total Depravity and Total Inability and, thus, our will, in bondage to sin, must be freed by the Son through His Spirit in order for a person to trust in Christ. Geisler, on the other hand, seems to be advocating a position of inherent free will that is popular among semi-Pelagians and Pelagians. What is problematic, as we shall see, is that he portrays himself as a Calvinist and (true) Calvinists as extreme or hyper-Calvinists. Geisler is not a Calvinist, nor even an Arminian, but rather a semi-Pelagian. If one confesses that fallen mortals maintain an inherent freedom of the will to trust in Christ, or respond to the Gospel, apart from the gracious inner activity of the Holy Spirit, then such a one is a semi-Pelagian, not an Arminian.



Geisler then outlines what he names "the extreme sovereignty view," which is typical Calvinistic doctrine, and fairly enough represented. (15-17) He then outlines what he names "the extreme free will view," which is typical Open Theistic doctrine, but is laced with misunderstanding and contradiction. For example, under "Man's Fallen State," he writes: "Fallen human beings are spiritually dead in that they have no spiritual life. However, God's image is still present within them. As such, they are able to hear His voice and respond to His offer of salvation, and they must believe before they are regenerated. All people are capable of this belief that brings salvation." (18) This he lists under an extreme free will view? But this belief, as detailed here, is exactly what Norman Geisler believes! (20-21) How, then, can he name this belief an extreme view?

He repeats this same type of error under the headings "God's Grace" and "Man's Free Choice," naming views to which he himself subscribes as an extreme free will view. But where he differs from these "extreme free will" views is solely on the notion that someone can lose or forfeit salvation. For him, the view that a person can forfeit the salvation one once maintained -- which, by the way, is the view of the majority of early Church fathers, the very fathers he calls upon for his own views of free will in the appendices (189-99) -- this he deems as extreme.

Geisler then concludes with what he names "the balanced view." What, from our perspective, is the via media between Calvinism and Open Theism? One might easily enough suggest: Arminianism. But for Geisler, the "extreme sovereignty views" are advanced by "extreme Calvinists," and the so-called extreme free will views are embraced by "extreme Arminians (also called Open Theists)." (19) The view that he espouses, "the balanced view," is promoted by "moderate Calvinists and moderate Arminians." (19) I will seek to be delicate here: Geisler is confused. What he names as "extreme sovereignty" views is orthodox Calvinism. Within orthodox Calvinism there are infralapsarian and supralapsarian Calvinists, the former placing God's unconditional election unto salvation for some in light of the fall of already-created humanity, and the latter placing God's unconditional election unto salvation for some prior to the decree to create. Supralapsarian Calvinists are not extreme Calvinists. Infralapsarian Calvinists are not extreme Calvinists. Both camps comprise orthodox Calvinism.

Geisler's agenda, then, is to make orthodox Calvinists extreme Calvinists so that he can name himself a moderate Calvinist. Why? Because he happens to hold to necessary perseverance -- i.e., that a person can in no sense forfeit or lose the salvation granted to the person by God. What he seems entirely unaware of is that there are self-professed Arminians who also hold to that position: there exist today many Baptists, conservative Southern Baptists even, who profess to be Classical or Reformed Arminians and hold to perseverance of the saints; i.e., that the person who is regenerated by the Holy Spirit will never fall away from the faith due to the inward work of the Spirit and the promises of God, unconditionally perceived, to the accomplishing of salvation.

Under the heading, "God's Predestination," Geisler defines election unto salvation as being based on the foreknowledge of God: God foreknew their free choice to believe in Christ. (20) This position is not even a "moderate" Calvinist position. Historically, no Calvinist has ever held that God's election of some unto salvation was due to the foreknowledge of God of anyone's alleged free choice to believe in Christ. As a matter of fact, confession after confession confirms the exact opposite: God has unconditionally elected some unto salvation and none others. In other words, Geisler is in no sense a moderate Calvinist. Under the heading, "Man's Fallen State," he uses, nearly word-for-word, statements found under the extreme free will views, except to argue that a person cannot forfeit salvation. The same can be said for the headings "God's Grace" and "Man's Free Choice." He uses, nearly word-for-word, the statements found under the extreme free will views, except to argue that a person cannot forfeit salvation.

If not for Geisler's views on free will, I might confess that he is merely an Arminian who holds to necessary perseverance, but I think that summation might be incorrect. He repeats himself in chapter two as he expounds upon his so-called balanced view: "However, God's image is still present in them [fallen mortals]; hence, they're able to hear His voice and respond to His offer of salvation." (20) (emphasis added) So, for Geisler, the image of God within human beings enables them, in spite of their fallen nature, to hear and respond to "His offer of salvation." Arminius and Arminians disagree. Hence, Geisler's notion belongs properly to the semi-Pelagian category. Again, regarding "man's free choice," he writes: "Free choice in this life means 'the ability to do otherwise.' Humans are truly free. True freedom here on earth is the freedom to accept or reject God's offer of salvation." (21) (emphasis added at the second reference)

Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Arminians today insist that, due to inherent depravity, we are in no sense free to hear and respond to the voice of God unless the gracious Holy Spirit is working within the heart and mind of the fallen mortal. In essence, then, Arminianism shines as the middle ground, the via media, or the balanced view between Geisler's semi-Pelagianism and White's Calvinism. In the first 21 pages of Chosen But Free, Geisler has already rejected the staple Calvinist doctrines of Total Depravity, to which Arminians adhere, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace. He has also denounced the Calvinist view of the sovereignty of God, as such is defined within determinism, but confesses that God allows for libertarian freedom. The only doctrine to which he firmly adheres, within a Calvinistic scheme, is Perseverance of the Saints. But this one doctrine, at least from his perspective, renders him a "moderate Calvinist," relegating orthodox Calvinists as "extreme Calvinists," which, we suppose, consigns genuine hyper-Calvinists to a foreign category altogether.

The truth of the matter, from my perspective, is that Geisler seeks to redefine what makes for a proper Calvinist -- and he seeks to accomplish as much without even the slightest warrant for doing so. He cannot rewrite history (not without being challenged for doing so), recontextualize Calvin's theology, or that of his successor Beza, nor neglect over more than five hundred years of Calvinist confessions that contradict his claims in order to make himself seem like "the genuine Calvinist," and classic Calvinists as near hyper-Calvinists. As will become all too clear, throughout the rest of this series on his book, Geisler the philosopher suffers when he attempts to be Geisler the theologian. He, again, from my perspective, is an old-line semi-Pelagian, in a Baptistic-styled evangelical tradition, and fails to convince most of us that he and his views should be adopted as Calvinism proper, moderately conceived, or otherwise. Let Calvin define Calvinism.

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In this series I use: Norman L. Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God's Sovereignty and Free Will, third edition (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2010).

* 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), 2:192-94.