The Potter's Freedom: Unconditional Election a Necessity?

Chapters five and eight of James White's The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000) are titled "Unconditional Election a Necessity" and also "Unconditional Election," respectively, the former of which White was right to challenge and correct Norman Geisler's claim to a belief in the doctrine of unconditional election, while qualifying the doctrine with the condition of faith. (This post will address both chapters, since they both address the same topic of unconditional election.)

Honestly, White shines in this book the brightest when he is correcting and challenging Geisler on his various muddied theological and philosophical expressions. In one statement: White bested Geisler in this book! White took Geisler out to the wood shed and made red the man's theological hide. The tragedy of this fact, however, is White's own muddied reasoning in and inept methods of refuting Arminian theology.

From even a cursory reading of Geisler's Chosen But Free, I think anyone could conclude that his views were a confused and poor attempt at maintaining the fanciful Calminian position -- a blending of opposing Calvinist and Arminian soteriological aspects -- which is just about as viable as is the existence of unicorns. Geisler wants to call himself a Calvinist; make the typical, infralapsarian Calvinist appear like an extreme Calvinist; make supralapsarians appear hyper-Calvinistic; leaving us all bewildered as to how to properly categorize genuine, theological hyper-Calvinists -- all the while using distorted and conflated views of classical Arminian and semi-Pelagian theology as his own brand of quasi-Calvinism.

Geisler attempts to hold to his own form of unconditional election, the unconditional aspect from the perspective of God, while attaching a condition to salvation, that being faith in Christ. So, in effect, Geisler is really promoting a conditional unconditional election -- not an antinomy but a logical and overt contradiction. His conclusions are about as close to Arminianism as one gets, but with dashes of semi-Pelagianism thrown in the mix for good measure. I think Geisler's views are far closer to those of Charles Finney, however, than to either Jacob Arminius and the Remonstrants or to John and Charles Wesley. He believes that Calvinists who teach the classical theology of unconditional election and particular, irresistible grace through faith granted to the unconditionally elect as an extreme view. (Has he never read Calvin?!) 

Geisler also commits, from my perspective, the same type of fallacy as White does in his rebuttal: view the opponent's views in light of his own presuppositions. For example, Geisler, quoted from White's The Potter's Freedom, writes:
According to this view [classical Calvinistic view of unconditional election], God's predetermination is done in spite of His foreknowledge of human free acts. God operates with such unapproachable sovereignty that His choices are made with total disregard for the choices of mortal men. (122)
Geisler fails to properly engage the Calvinistic view of God's foreknowledge, assumes his own view, and then argues against Calvinism using his own presuppositions. This is not scholarly. Calvinists view God's knowledge as stemming from His predetermination of all that should come to fruition in history. God can only know that which He has decreed to take place in time. Therefore, God does not predetermine any act in spite of His foreknowledge of "human free acts." Human acts are carried out by mortals within the framework of God's predetermination of what shall come to pass or what they shall do in time. In Calvinism, people are not free willy nilly to do whatever their hearts may desire -- nor would Calvinists necessarily use that language when engaging this topic -- but are governed in meticulous fashion by God's sovereign decree.

Whatever we can complain against Geisler, we can make as many complaints against White's views and arguments for the theory of unconditional election. Arminians think that God could have established an unconditional election unto salvation -- even an unconditional election unto reprobation (as maintained by supralapsarians) -- but that Scripture does not support either concept. Even if we Arminians maintain that God unconditionally established a conditional election unto salvation and reprobation, that unconditionality is merely a rhetorical device used to convey the idea that salvation was God's idea; that He decided to save people in the fashion of His own choosing, or electing, which is to save anyone who would, by grace, trust in His Son Christ Jesus. 

I agree with others who maintain that the primary conflict between Arminians and Calvinists is the doctrine of election, the former positing conditional election, and the latter unconditional election. For Calvinists, the biblical truth of total depravity and total inability necessitates not only that regeneration precedes faith but also that God must, then, have unconditionally elected, before the creation of the world, to save some, leaving the rest (the majority, cf. Matt. 7:13, 14) in their sins. 

White begins his complaint of Geisler's novel position of a conditioned "unconditional election" by quoting Calvinistic confessions: the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith. (124-25) He then quotes Calvinist theologians of the past and present: James P. Boyce (125-26), W.J. Seaton (126-27), Duane Edward Spencer (127-28), Lorraine Boettner (128), Edwin Palmer (128), Samuel Storms (128-29), Francis Turretin (129-30), and hyper-Calvinist John Gill (130-31). His conclusion: "They all define unconditional election as being without conditions!" (emphasis original) His point is obvious: for Geisler to define (redefine) the doctrine of unconditional election in a conditional framework betrays not only the doctrine itself but also how the doctrine has been understood, held, and defended for five centuries (perhaps since St Augustine in the early fifth century, through whom the notion was first conceived).

Chapter eight is where White defends and well-articulates the Calvinist theory of unconditional election; and, instead of waiting until we reach that chapter, I decided to address both chapters here in one post. White does not present any new information with regard to the doctrine of unconditional election, but defends the theory from its historical view as faithfully and forcefully as any other Calvinist I have read. In other words, what can be found in White's The Potter's Freedom regarding unconditional election is merely the classical definition, exposition, and defense of the doctrine. I will only engage White here, and not White's oft-correct challenge of Geisler's muddied views. 

While White exposes Geisler's failure to maintain "the Arminian view" of election in accordance with God's foreknowledge (173), he neglects to address "the other Arminian view" of election: corporate election. (link/link) White argues against Geisler on the foreknowledge view: "There is no real difference between saying God elects on the basis of foreknowledge or in accordance with it if, in the final analysis, it is the free choice of man, not the free choice of God, that determines who the elect are!" (173) Notice that we are yet again encountering White's (and the Calvinist's) deterministic views regarding God, all that is predetermined by His decree, and that He only wants to save some people, which is explicitly contrary to affirmations found in Scripture to the contrary (cf. Isa. 55:1; Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9; Rev. 22:17). 

My argument is not necessarily failing to take into account White's presupposition: I find his presupposition or hermeneutic unsupportable by Scripture. In other words, if God decided, from before time began, to unconditionally elect only some unto salvation, then His own statements implying the exact opposite leave Him appearing duplicitous -- a trait entirely unacceptable, considering His divine, holy, and just nature. Not that we think all "deserve a chance at salvation," as some have imagined; nor even that He would be unjust if He did unconditionally elect to save only some; as long as He did not render certain the fall from grace into sin in the Garden. That would be unjust. We do not see this God portrayed in Scripture, and certainly not in the life and ministry of Jesus His Son.

White is also amiss with regard to God's "free choice" of whom He saves. Dismissing the error of unconditional election, God is still the one, from eternity past, nonetheless, who decides who is and who is not saved. "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys [does not believe in] the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath." (John 3:36 NRSV) In the foreknowledge view, God not merely foreknew the faith of the follower of Christ. God's decision to create the human being would have ipso facto required of God exhaustive knowledge of every aspect of the person's existence, so we maintain. Such knowledge would certainly have included the faith of the person or the lack thereof. From Arminius' perspective, God's creative act causes Him to view a person, even from eternity, as a future believer or future non-believer -- two classes of people.

Calvinists like White, of course, are going to dismiss any notion of God foreknowing or foreseeing faith in an individual because they are operating under the premise that God can only know that which He has strictly foreordained. Neither the foreknowledge view nor the corporate election view can be admitted by the Calvinist. White continues:
Another corollary that inevitably flows from this is that if the decree of "election" is not specific and based solely upon the will of God, it must become a decree to save based upon what man does in time, nothing else. That is, it becomes impersonal. It becomes a decree to save those who fulfill certain conditions (no matter how many or how few those conditions might be), not a decree to save anyone in particular. (173-74)
Excuse my rhetoric here, but White's charge of the foreknowledge view of election as "impersonal" is rich coming from a theology like Calvinism that implicitly engages human beings as objects in the hands of a God who decreed their eternal fate merely by His seemingly arbitrary decree! White's is a fine example of the inherent Calvinistic fear to attribute any degree of response toward the salvation of one's soul by God's efficacious will and desire: salvation is monergistic or it is considered heretical. But White is completely wrong in stating that, in the foreknowledge view of election, God's decision to save is not a decreed decision to save anyone in particular.


If God has decreed to save a people (believers), and He decided and decreed to save a believing people, did God not decree to save those people in particular? White's argument does not even make sense. If God foreknew the faith of people, then He foreknew the faith of particular people, which contradicts White's statement. This, then, undermines White's critique of election based on foreknowledge being impersonal. If the Calvinist is going to engage the concept of election based on foreknowledge, he or she is going to have to do better than this. God has predetermined to save, yes, and He has predetermined to save believers. (John 1:12, 13; Rom. 10:9, 10, 13; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Heb. 7:25; 11:6)

White complains that Geisler did not sufficiently interact with and exegete Ephesians 1, as well as Romans 9, which White and other Calvinists believe explicitly teaches the doctrine of unconditional election unto salvation. Let me sum up Romans 9 in two brief paragraphs, and then address Ephesians 1 in a bit more depth. 

The context of Romans 9 centers around the Jewish people -- those through whom God chose to bring forth His Christ. St Paul informs us that, even though most of the Jewish people rejected Jesus, God's promise (or word) to save has not failed. (9:1-6) Some Jewish people did receive Jesus, and they are the true Israel, the children of the promise, not the children of the flesh, or mere physical descendants. (9:7-8) God demonstrated as much through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau respectively. (9:9-13) The children of the promise were not unconditionally elected unto faith and salvation -- St Paul nowhere makes any allusion to such a notion. Isaac and Jacob's election was not unto personal salvation but an enjoyment of the blessings of God's covenant with Abraham by faith, the father of those who have faith, to be in the Messianic lineage. 

Did God not have the right to elect Isaac and Jacob to this privilege? (9:14) Of course He did! (9:15) His mercies in this regard are not a matter of someone wanting or willing it. (9:16-18) Who can resist God's will in such matters? (9:19) That question is turned on its head: "But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?" (9:20) God uses people for His own good purposes. (9:21) He even demonstrates His wrath, as He endures wicked and evil people (9:22), and showers His blessings upon those who love and serve Him. (9:23) To imagine, however, that St Paul's subject at hand is unconditional election unto salvation for some people, and eternal condemnation for others, is not merely to misread the text, and assume an erroneous authorial intent, but it also calls into question God's justice and holy character. 

James White engages Ephesians 1 for nearly six pages in The Potter's Freedom. He, as with every other Calvinist, misreads the text, so we Arminians believe, and inserts a notion into the text itself -- called eisegesis -- that is in no sense whatsoever warranted, thus concluding with error upon error.

St Paul begins his address to the Ephesian believers with a note of praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. White thinks that the apostle then gives us reasons of God's worthiness for praise (175). I would agree with White's assumption if the apostle had inserted the word for at the beginning of 1:3b, but Paul uses the word who instead. In other words, God is worthy of praise regardless of His blessings. Perhaps for White and other Calvinists God needs a reason to be praised. But we think His very existence -- His nature, justice, character, love, and holiness -- are reason enough to warrant praise from His creatures; and, of course, we believe this because we trust in God's goodness and integrity: would God have never shown us mercy and kindness, He would still have been worthy of praise, because our fall from a right position with and relationship to God was our fault and not necessitated by His doing at all. 

This God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the one "who has blessed us [i.e., those who believe] in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (1:3). The spiritually-positional prepositional phrase "in Christ" (including any variant) is used throughout this chapter eight times (Eph. 1:3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 20). What being "in Christ" refers to has been debated. We believe the phrase refers to the reality of a spiritual position of the person who has received God's grace and responded with faith in Jesus Christ to the saving of the soul. Positionally, that person, by continued faith in Christ, belongs to God, is indwelt by God, has been adopted as a child of God, has been justified, sanctified, and will one day be glorified to be just like Christ. (cf. Rom. 8:30)

This blessing is in accordance with God's choice of us believers who are in Christ, before the creation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His presence. (Eph. 1:4) What is the choice or election referred to here? St Paul explicitly states that God's choice is that those who are "in Christ" would be considered holy and blameless in God's presence. Note that the prepositional phrase "to be" refers to "holy and blameless," not to "in Christ." In other words, God did not choose or elect for us to be "in Christ," but that those who are "in Christ" are to be counted holy and blameless in His presence. 

White and all other Calvinists historically would have us believe that God chose this person and not that person to be "in Christ." (176) This is hardly proper exegesis, as the text itself gives us the proper interpretation, so we believe. From this faulty premise, the Calvinist perpetuates further errors throughout the text. The "us" and the "we" referred to throughout the chapter corresponds to believers in Christ who have been positionally counted as redeemed children of God; and only by that union with and in Christ, by a continued faith in the same, can any of the promises to final salvation be considered. We are reminded that only "in Him" is the promise of the sealing of the Holy Spirit valid (Eph. 1:13, 14). For the one who departs from faith in Christ, and hence his or her position in Christ, that pledge is rendered null and void. The blessings of God are reserved solely for those "in Christ" (Eph. 1:3).

Problems emerge with White's (and the Calvinistic) interpretation with this passage when he refers to the first person pronoun "us" as the direct object of the verb "choose" or "elect." He remarks:
If certain theories were correct we might expect something like σῴζειν, "to save," so that the passage would simply be "God chose to save, or make salvation possible, before the foundation of the world." But instead Paul provides a personal direct object, making the choice personal and distinct. He chose "us," not a nameless, faceless class or group, but "us." (176)
We agree that God's choice to save has an object: the object of God's salvation is people, and in particular, believers. But also note Paul's uses of the pronouns throughout Ephesians 1: they are corporate in nature, not singular (Eph. 1:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12) Even the "you" referred to at Ephesians 1:13, 14 is plural and not singular; even though the plural pronouns refer to a group of individuals (i.e., believers) in particular. 

White notes that the election or choice of God at Ephesians 1:4 is timeless, since the phrase "before the creation of the world" refers to eternity past. (176) We agree. What we disagree with is any hint that the choice referred is an unconditional election of whom God would save, and its consequent, whom God would not save. Never mind that the word "unconditional" is missing from any text referring to salvation in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We understand that the word need not be in the text in order to be true. What we disagree with is any hint that God's salvation is unconditional in nature or theory: if salvation is conditional, then election is conditional. 

The Calvinist may agree, however, and suggest that faith is the condition to salvation. They qualify this condition within the doctrine of an unconditional election as being met and accomplished by God Himself on behalf of the one He has unconditionally pre-selected for faith and salvation. "God's electing grace [yet another term without scriptural warrant] is purposeful. God saves no one outside of holiness and righteousness. It is His purpose that the elect would be perfected by their Savior, the one who is able to save 'to the uttermost' those who come unto God by Him (Hebrews 7:25)." (176) This is mere commentary on the part of White; meaning, this is not exegesis, but is merely further affirmation of certain presuppositional beliefs. 

That the Calvinist has erred in properly reading and interpreting the text of Ephesians 1:4 has afforded him or her the special continuance of perpetuating further errors and necessitating one to invent language commensurate with those errors: i.e., unconditional election; particular redemption; electing grace; irresistible grace; necessary perseverance. We believe quite clearly in election or predestination; but we believe Scripture qualifies the teaching of election in conditional terms. "In love He predetermined us [believers] to be adopted as children through Jesus Christ to Himself." (my translation) The Greek προορίσας, He predetermined, is usually translated as He predestinated. The word refers to a predetermination. What did God predetermine? God made a predetermination to adopt as His own children those who would trust in and be united to Jesus Christ His Son. (Eph. 1:5) He chose or elected to count those believers in Christ to be holy and blameless in His holy presence. (Eph. 1:4) This He predetermined before He created the world. 

White grants the reason why one person is "raised to eternal life and another left to eternal destruction" to God's predetermination to unconditionally pre-select some unto salvation and the rest (the majority, cf. Matt. 7:13, 14) to hell. (177) "This is the specific predestination of individuals to sonship." (177) (emphasis added) Yet the Greek text actually gives us plural pronouns, not singular pronouns -- not individuals to sonship, but people, and those people are those who trust in and are united to Christ by grace through faith. "The basis of this specific decree is God's will. No mention is found of man's will." (177) This is called an argument from silence. No mention is found of election being unconditional, either, yet Calvinists argue for the teaching. No mention is found of faith being given to the unconiditionally elect, either, yet Calvinists argue for the teaching. To expect "man's will" to be found in this text lauding God and His blessings in Christ is to ask for an aspect of one's own making, and presuppositional stance, from an author with an entirely other agenda. This is not proper academics. 

White closes this eighth chapter on election responding to some passages used by Geisler (Matt. 11:25, 26, 27; John 1:12, 13; 5:21; Acts 13:46, 47, 48; Rom. 8:28, 29, 30). (182-202) Without belaboring the point on election, to the point where people may be a bit exhausted from this lengthy post, let me make one final point and then a brief conclusion. White comments: "As we will see when we discuss the atoning work of Christ, the vast majority of Arminian objections to particular redemption are actually confused objections to unconditional election." (193) (emphasis original) As I mentioned previously, the theory of unconditional election necessitates the theory of limited atonement (in its intent), the theory of irresistible grace, and the theory of necessary perseverance. Because of this Calvinistic error, the other errors are merely consistently maintained conclusions.

I think it proper to reiterate, however, that the Arminian's complaint against the errors of Calvinists and Calvinism is one of hermeneutics. We hold to biblical presuppositions which conflict with the biblical presuppositions of the Calvinist. We think the Calvinistic hermeneutic is flawed and cannot be supported by Scripture. Calvinists think the same of us. Our respective disagreements are not intentioned to dishonor God, but, on the exact contrary, to honor Him and His word.

Beyond our work at proper biblical interpretation, we also owe our theological opponents the courtesy of rightly representing their case. My hope is that, while disagreeing with James White and other Calvinists, I also rightly understand and represent their beliefs. After all, I embraced Calvinism in the late 1990s, and wrestled with its teachings a few times in the early 2000s. As someone who defended Calvinism for a few years, I think I have a better grip on its presuppositions and theories than the average believer who has barely dabbled in this sixteenth-century novelty.

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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.