A Respectful Response to David Allen
By Fred G. Zaspel–
While the debate over soteriological Calvinism within the SBC will likely never be resolved in a way that is satisfactory to all, it is a helpful discussion to maintain nonetheless. Each generation must grapple with these doctrines in order better to appreciate the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. And it is hopeful that as the discussion continues both sides will be careful to state their case clearly, be careful not to overstate their purported evidence, and be careful to recognize the distinction between the gospel (which is truly essential) and its attending doctrines (which although of great significance are of secondary importance). This is an “in-house” debate.
I appreciate David Allen’s recognition of this in his critical first review of Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, edited by Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles, and of my Preface in particular. In this spirit of brotherly conversation I’d like to offer some comments in response. I trust that my remarks will be understood as intended to further mutual understanding.
First, Allen should not be surprised at my or any Calvinist’s approving citation of Warfield’s argument that a consistent Theism leads necessarily to soteriological Calvinism. And I find it strange that he would think that this understanding would be a minority opinion among Calvinists. It is a given, I would think, that both sides in this debate would want to argue that their soteriology is “necessarily consistent” with Theism. Indeed, he should expect that Calvinists, to a man, would argue that the divine initiative and rule that is admittedly necessary to Theism itself is precisely the initiative and rule that is exercised in all his creation, including human salvation. Of course all Calvinists believe this. Now he would want to argue something to the contrary for his own position, granted. But he surely cannot in principle object to this line of argument. This line of argument, it would seem, does indeed “foster dialogue” — it is a necessary aspect of the question that must be faced by both sides, and it is a line of biblical reasoning that Calvinists insist is compelling. Somehow Allen seems to have understood this argument as somewhat triumphalistic, but surely, upon further consideration he must grant its legitimacy. I’m certain he will agree that all truth is inter-related, and to maintain and further this in-house discussion, in fact, non-Calvinists ought to feel compelled to demonstrate how a consistent Theism militates against Calvinism. Merely ruling the argument out of hand just will not do.
Similarly, it is not enough simply to claim that non-Calvinists also embrace such biblical notions such as “Salvation is of the Lord,” that it is “his doing,” that it is given “in such a way that only he receives the glory for it,” and so on. It is the Calvinist’s argument that these notions necessarily entail a particularistic and monergistic soteriology. Non-Calvinists should feel some kind of burden to explain how this understanding is, in fact, mistaken, and how these notions, rather, reflect a “free will” understanding of salvation. Simply to say that one believes all these things while yet remaining a non-Calvinist just does not speak to the issue.
Finally, Allen suspects that my use of the word “essential” in the following paragraph is problematic. Here is the offending paragraph:
[The authors of this book] do not mean to say that those who disagree are not Christians. But neither do they mean to say that these issues are therefore unimportant. These issues are essential to a consistent Theism. They are essential to any confession of divine rescue. They are an essential part of the very fabric of the Biblical revelation of divine salvation. They are essential to a right understanding of the gospel. They are essential to a worship that would rightly acknowledge God as the savior of sinners. And they are basic to a realized joy in God’s salvation.
This paragraph constitutes a kind of summary of the Preface. My own argument (which I presume the authors of the book share) would be that a Calvinistic understanding of “these issues” is essential to right worship, right doctrine, the gospel, and so on. Yes, of course. But I was intentionally more vague in my wording, emphasizing simply the importance of the discussion. All sides must agree that these issues are indeed essential to a right understanding of God, his Word, the gospel, worship, and so on. They are not merely theoretical. Ideas have consequences, and biblical doctrines have inevitable implications. In short, I was emphasizing the significance of the issues taken up in the book, and on this score I’m sure Allen is in agreement.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010); Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.