Top Five Books of 2017: #5

Each day this week I'm going to post one book that made my top 5 list in 2017, building up from number five to number one. I'd love to see what your favorite books of the year have been as well, and I welcome your comments!

#5 Why I'm Not a Calvinist by Joseph Dongell and Jerry Walls

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Ok, I admit: this is like the ultimate echo chamber book for me. I'm an Arminian reading other Arminians who taught at the same seminary I attended concerning why we think we're right. It doesn't get more "let's preach to the choir and all high-five each other" than that. I hope you'll bear with my indulgence. I also know this is a bit of a disagreeable topic and perhaps not the best way to start a series of blog posts. The other four should be shorter and less controversial in comparison. Still, this is legitimately my number five pick, so let's begin.

This book was very informative and I learned several things, like the difference between common grace in Reformed/Calvinist theology and prevenient grace in Arminian/Wesleyan theology (common grace does not have a saving intent behind it), as well as a compatibilist conception of human will. If you're wondering what a Calvinist and an Arminian are and what the heck these words mean, I'm referring to a theological debate that has gone on in the church for many centuries concerning the nature of humanity, grace, salvation, providence, and the character of God. Calvinists (taking their name from the French reformer John Calvin, though really St. Augustine is the original proponent of this theology) believe that before the foundation of the world, God chose some people to be saved and enjoy eternal bliss through Jesus Christ while God also chose some people to be eternally damned, and there is nothing anyone can do to change God's timeless decree. You're either in or you're out. Human beings are not free. Their will is totally bound by sin so that they are incapable of doing good apart from God's intervention. Everything that happens and every choice you make has been determined by God, or, if you're a proponent of compatibilism, God so shapes all circumstances that everything you freely choose happens precisely according to his will. Arminians differ in that they say God in his grace enables people to have a measure of freedom from the deforming and binding power of sin–he enables them to make genuine, free choices. They can choose to receive salvation in Christ by placing their faith in him as Lord and Savior or they can reject Christ. They can choose to honor God in a particular situation or disobey him. God desires all people to be saved and Jesus died for the whole world, but the reason all are not saved is because people use their grace-enabled freedom to reject God, not because some were chosen before the foundation of the world for salvation and some weren't.

This is a debate between Christian brothers and sisters, not between some who are in Christ and some who are out. The differences I'm describing don't strike at the heart of Christianity. There are sisters and brothers who are very godly and intelligent who would disagree with me on this (you may be one of them), and I admit that I could be wrong. I don't have perfect knowledge of all things and don't fully understand God or the Bible. That being said, theology matters, and what you believe about God has implications for how we connect with God and live for him today. We should strive to learn as much as we can in order to live the way God wants us to. The question really comes down to which theological framework makes the most sense out of Scripture and is consistent. That's what theology is: the synthetic task of reading the whole Bible and getting a sense of how to put together the parts into a coherent whole when it comes to God, how we should live, and where this whole thing is going.

Joe Dongell is a Bible scholar and Jerry Walls is a Christian philosopher, and they team up to make a case against Calvinism. I had Dr. Dongell for an Inductive Bible Study class on Romans, and it opened up Paul's letter in a fresh, big way for me. I have a lot of respect for the man. One thing I appreciate in the book is the charitable tone the authors bring to the table toward those with whom they disagree, engaging people's ideas and avoiding the belittling that is so common today (though, if you watch Jerry Walls give talks on the subject, it seems to me he is often unkind toward his theological opponents). Dongell and Walls engage the writings of prominent Calvinist authors like D. A. Carson, J. I. Packer, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Sam Storms, Al Mohler, and more. Dongell was very helpful in arguing for interpretive humility as well as offering interpretations of texts commonly championed by Reformed exegetes (e.g., John 6:35-44; Romans 8:29-30; Romans 9; Ephesians 1:3-14). He raises some interesting exegetical questions on whether some Reformed interpretations best make sense out of these passages. Walls tackles things on the philosophical/theological side of the debate, and highlights that both Arminian and Reformed sides make theological and philosophical claims from Scripture. It's unfair to say one is "more biblical" while the other is "more philosophical." You won't find words like determinism, compatibilism, libertarianism, total depravity, limited atonement, supralapsarianism, unconditional election, prevenient grace, and Molinism in the Bible. These are concepts that theologians of various traditions use to help us put together all of what we read in Scripture in a way that makes sense.  

Walls accuses J. I. Packer of trying to hold together two logically inconsistent claims (God determines everything; human beings are free) behind a lot of language about the mystery of God. He goes on to say that a mystery of God and an obvious logical inconsistency are not the same thing. He presses D. A. Carson on whether Calvinist theologians can in any meaningful sense say God loves everyone. If someone isn't elect, God might love them in the sense of showing common grace and sending water for their crops, but he doesn't love them in the sense that really matters and is the ultimate purpose of life: having a life-saving, joy-giving, hope-filled relationship with Jesus Christ. It would be like me saying I love all three of my cats, while I only feed and care for one of them. My actions show I don't love the others I haven't chosen, or at least don't love them in the way that really matters and leads to life. Would you call the behavior I exhibit toward the two unchosen cats love? Walls further points to problems logically consistent Calvinism brings to evangelism, assurance of salvation, and the character of God. He quotes John Wesley, who says that Calvinism makes God out to be worse than the devil, since God deceitfully offers salvation from sin to all, but doesn't really mean it since he doesn't enable all to receive it; even more, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between a wicked attack from the devil and a sovereign act of God. Both would stem from God regardless of the official "actor" and would fully embody God's will. (See Wesley's sermon "Free Grace" for the quote in context and for his long, bracing critique).

Pretty much everyone was Arminian where I grew up in the rural Methodist and Baptist churches of Randolph County, AL. I become Reformed for a few months in college when I first met people who were Calvinists and pointed me to Scriptures I never wrestled with before. But as I kept reading the Bible, I kept having questions about this conception of God. If everything happens according to God's plan, why does God still blame people for sin? If you set your children up to fail and then punish them for failing, how is that just or good? Why are there so many warnings in Scripture about consequences for disobedience and injunctions toward good behavior if we have no grace-enabled power of choice? If God desires all people to be saved (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:8-9), and everything totally depends on the sovereign will of God, then why doesn't God save everyone? How is a world where some are eternally damned apart from anything they can do to change their outcome better than one in which God saves everyone? Because it gives God more glory to destroy those people and makes those whom he chose to save more grateful? But I thought God doesn't take any pleasure at the death of anyone, but wants them to turn and live (Ezekiel 18:32), and that there is more rejoicing in heaven over the repentance of one sinner than over the ninety-nine who need no repentance (Luke 15:7). I thought the cross of Christ for the salvation of sinners reveals the glory and will of God, not some conception of individuals predestined to damnation apart from any choice of their own. 

The main struggle I have with Calvinism is that it describes a God with a conflicted will and conflicting desires. God desires the world to be saved, but he also desires to be glorified in damning others, and for no reason other than God's own internal conflict, some human beings are eternally damned and some are saved apart from anything they can do. In Reformed theology, the only thing that stands in the way of God saving the world is God. In Arminian/Wesleyan theology, what stands in the way of God saving all people, and what explains the presence of evil in the world, are free, disobedient creatures. How can Reformed theologians call God good when there's no moral difference between God and angels and demons and human beings and the devil–they're all just different actors carrying out God's plan? How could we call good choosing to save some when you could save all? If there were three babies drowning in a creek and I had the ability to save all three, yet only saved one to showcase my power and glory, would you think I was amazing and stand in awe of the choices I made? Or would you think I was a sadistic serial killer? Is our human conception of goodness so far divorced from what the whole sweep of Scripture says and what the whole world can recognize as love and righteousness? Calvinists would have us think so. 

I find the Arminian conception of things much more convincing in making sense of the whole thrust of Scripture: God is love, God is good, God desires the whole world to be saved, and he is working to make that happen, if only we would yield to his Spirit and follow Jesus Christ. Election is corporate, not individual. Predestination is either functional (toward holiness or toward Christ being the way of salvation) or it is according to foreknown choices. You can read the book to learn more about what that means or endlessly nerd out on the exegetical arguments at http://evangelicalarminians.org. Correct me if I've erred, and I welcome those who disagree with me to point out where I've fallen short in my description. These are some of my concerns, and it's why I have found a home in the Wesleyan tradition rather than in the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, and it's why I really liked this book. God is good and God is love. What do you think?

Honorable Mentions that Didn't Make the Top 5

 Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground by Richard Mouw, Four Views on Hell edited by Preston Sprinkle (Burk and Stackhouse's essays were the best), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and Adam and the Genome by Scot McKnight and Dennis Venema.

Stephen Fincher

Pastor in Tanner, AL with my wife Laura.