The Alabama Baptist and Dortian Calvinism: Response 1

Tim Brister —  August 7, 2007 — 3 Comments

This posts begins a short series of responses to the recent edition of the Alabama Baptist in which Dr. James Leo Garrett recently addressed “Dortian Calvinism.” There have already been numerous responses, and I enjoyed reading the intelligent and careful reading of an important topic for Southern Baptists. In this series, I will be providing more excerpts from scholars and articulate spokesmen of Calvinism than my personal commentary (though I will add a little here and there). The goal with this series is to provide Southern Baptists with an alternative “resource” for understanding Calvinism; the difference, however, is that this resource will be Calvinists in their own words (rather than from a non-Calvinist).

Let me begin by applauding the efforts of editor Bob Terry for being willing to address this issue. I share in his interest and appreciate the tenor and approach he has taken in being careful to avoid the rhetoric and irresponsible comments that have unfortunately frequented many Baptist state papers. Terry reminds us that

“in Alabama, Calvinism has been a source of contention in some Baptist churches. It has put staff members at odds with one another. It has caused the ouster of pastors and other staff members. It has caused exoduses from some churches, and in other places, churches have divided over its teachings.”

Knowing this reality helps one understand why Terry can state that “one of the most frequent requests received by The Alabama Baptist is for information that would help lay members of our churches understand the meaning of Calvinism and its teachings.” Two years ago, I became aware of the fact that the website BaptistFire and the book God So Loved the World by Fisher Humphreys were being used as recommended tools in dealing with Calvinism in the state of Alabama. Recognizing the serious error in these two references, a team was developed, called Strange BaptistFire, which served the purpose of addressing the content used to fuel the controversy of Calvinism in the SBC. BaptistFire often carried what they considered news articles of churches in Alabama that had either split or fired their minister over the issue of Calvinism. Fortunately, this anonymous and reckless website shut down and removed all their content.

I am encouraged that over the past two years anti-Calvinists have been held accountable to grace and truth: grace in their approach towards their Calvinist brother, and truth in their presentation of Calvinist and Reformed doctrine. Dr. Garrett has shown himself to be a model of graciousness to all of us and reminds us that no matter how sensitive and difficult a subject matter may be, we have no right to be unkind and uncharitable to our fellow brother or sister in Christ. Furthermore, his long history of scholarship attests to his commitment to the truth–a legacy that every Southern Baptist is grateful for. However, in this series of articles, there are several biblical, theological, and historical points made by Dr. Garrett that provide an opportunity for interaction and response.

The first place I would like to begin has to do with what Garrett did NOT say more than what he did say. In the 8,200+ words that comprise the corpus of Garrett’s analysis of Dortian Calvinism, two major issues went unaddressed–namely that of monergism and total depravity.

1 . Monergism

In general, there are two ways, two pictures, and two schemas in understanding salvation. On the one hand, there is monergism, the belief there is only one force in the universe (grace alone) that brings about regeneration in the life of the sinner. In specifics, because of the deadness of man’s spiritual state, his moral inability, the Holy Spirit performs the miracle of spiritual resurrection (regeneration) in that person, hence, “monergism” (one work). Grace is sufficient to be effective, and does not depend on some action of man. On the other hand, there is synergism, the belief that that there are two forces in the universe which are necessary to bring about regeneration in the life of the sinner. In specifics, the two forces at work (cooperation) that are necessary to bring about regeneration, or spiritual life, is the will of man and the Holy Spirit (grace).

The difference between Calvinists and Arminians lies generally on the grounds of whether one is a monergist or a synergist. Dortian Calvinism affirms the belief that salvation is of the Lord, that the work of being a new creation in Christ all of God (2 Cor. 5:18a), that by his doing we are chosen, called, sanctified, and glorified (Rom. 8:29-30) precisely because Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Indeed, God is the source of our life in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30) so that in salvation and in all of life no man may boast before God (cf. Eph. 2:8-9). Central to this one work (monergism) is that it is accomplished in Trinitarian fashion–God the Father plans salvation, God the Son accomplishes salvation, and God the Spirit applies salvation to the sinner. Synergism, on the other hand, argues that God the Father’s plan is not determined (because man’s will is not free–libertarian free will that is), God the Son makes salvation possible and provisional (but not actual or effectual), and God the Spirit can be resisted and overcome by man’s unwillingness to believe. The final and efficient cause of one’s salvation is not the Trinitarian work of God, but man’s choice, man’s will and self-determination.

Understanding the difference between monergism and synergism is foundational and essential to framing the theological tenets of Calvinism and seeing the clear contrast of other theological frameworks. In the six articles provided by Dr. Garrett, not one time was monergism and synergism addressed–a crucial aspect of “understanding Calvinism.” The question that must be asked is whether the schema of synergism is supported through Scripture. Given that the alternatives to Calvinism are supported through a synergistic theological framework, the question of biblical warrant and support is a worthy one to ask.

To see some references on monergism in church history, go here.

2. Total Depravity

The absence of total depravity is the second major issue in Dr. Garrett’s presentation of “Dortian Calvinism.” The only time that total depravity is remotely mentioned was in his article, “Calvinism: What Does It Mean?” where he asserts,

“Total depravity may not have been a key difference between the men of Dort and the Remonstrates.”

Interesting enough, when Garrett begins to address the five points of “Dortian Calvinism,” he begins with limited atonement, not total depravity. In his analysis of whether Dortian Calvinism “carries the weight of Scripture,” Garrett moves from limited atonement, to repentance and faith, and finally to unconditional election. Garrett’s starting point is more curious than helpful, especially given the fact that total depravity is foundational to the following four points of Dortian Calvinism. Before there can be a disagreement on limited atonement, effectual calling, or unconditional election, there has to be an agreement on total depravity. Is this the case?

If one disagrees on moral inability or the depravity of man, then it necessarily follows that there will be disagreements on every other tenet of Dortian Calvinism. Issues over the nature of man, original sin, free will, and divine sovereignty and human responsibility are paramount in the discussion over Calvinism; however, free will is surprisingly absent in his critique of Dortian Calvinism. A common misunderstanding of Calvinism is that they do not believe in free will or human responsibility (e.g. Ergun Caner’s fatalism). Calvinists do affirm free will, but it is the kind of free will that accords with God’s sovereignty, called compatibilism or freedom of inclination. Arminians who hold to a synergistic framework argue for a different understanding of human freedom, called libertarian freedom or freedom of contrary choice.

Compatibilism believes that human beings do what they most want to do. Their decisions are motivated by their affections. When I want to go Burger King over Arby’s, I make that decision because I desire Burger King more than Arby’s. The Bible clearly states that man in his sinful and rebellious state does not and cannot desire God. He is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), is not able to understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14), and in no way can he please God (Rom. 8:8). His will is in bondage to his nature which is sinful (i.e. slave to sin). However, when God fulfills the new covenant promise of giving him a new heart (Ez. 36:26) through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5), that sinner is made alive (Eph. 2:5) and given a new nature. It is only then that a sinner can choose Christ because he has been made willing through sovereign mercy (1 Pet. 1:3). Because his heart and desires have been changed, he chooses Christ in faith because his affections lead him there. He is not a robot nor is he coerced or forced to make that decision. He does what he most wants to do.

Libertarian free will argues that in order for a person to be truly free, they must be able to choose either one or the other without having been influenced. In other words, when I chose Burger King, I must be able to choose Arby’s at the same time or else I would not be free. This sort of freedom and self-determination is outside the bounds of God’s sovereignty because it asserts that human choice cannot be influenced or affected by God. Arminians argue that God gives up his freedom so that man could make free choices. Libertarian free will becomes a central issue in discussing unconditional election (as I wrote about here), limited atonement, and effectual calling.

As one seeks to understand Calvinism, the question of total depravity and human freedom is central. What kind of freedom does the Scripture speak to–compatibilism or libertarian free will? Does God give up his sovereign choice at salvation so that sinners can be free to choose Christ, or does God glorify Himself in His free choice of sinners by giving them a new heart, making them willing so that they desire to know Christ?

The answers to these questions will affect how one understands the other doctrines of salvation because total depravity is the starting point and foundation for understanding the nature of God, the nature of man, and how the two relate to one another in the work of salvation.

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  1. Strange BaptistFire » Blog Archive » The Alabama Baptist and Dortian Calvinism - August 11, 2007

    [...] Response 1: Monergism and Total Depravity Response 2: Haykin on Hyper-Calvinism and Andrew Fuller Response 3: Exegetical Tradition and Analysis of Ephesians 2:8 Response 4: Repentance and Faith (Boyce and Spurgeon) There have been several other responses, and I encourage you to check out the discussion that hopes to be healthy and helpful for all Southern Baptists. [...]

  2. Strange BaptistFire » Blog Archive » Does Dortian Calvinism have weight of Scripture in its favor? (Part 3) - September 1, 2007

    [...] the next portion of his article to avoiding the “T”. As SBF blogger Timmy Brister pointed out, Dr. Garrett never addresses “Total depravity” in any of the six articles he wrote on [...]

  3. Steve Lemke on Total Depravity « Provocations & Pantings - October 7, 2008

    [...] of Dr. James Leo Garrett in his six-article presentation of “Dortian Calvinism” is that he devoted little to no attention to the doctrine of total depravity.  So I am glad to see that Lemke has taken up this important [...]

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