A review of David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke’s “Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism”

Allen, David L., and Steve W. Lemke, eds.  Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2010.

David Allen and Steve Lemke have undertaken the task of compiling the thoughts of some of the most influential minds in the SBC for the purpose of instructing the Christian community concerning Calvinism and its influence in Southern Baptist churches and seminaries. The book’s contributors include seminary presidents, professors, and pastors who are all admittedly non-Calvinistic. By examining the historical, theological, and biblical bases for Calvinism, each author proposes his own response to Calvinism, specifically for Southern Baptist life and faith.

David Allen is the Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and has written extensively in the areas of biblical theology and preaching. He has also authored several journal articles and New Testament commentaries.[1] Steve Lemke is the Provost Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and has written a great deal in the areas of Christian philosophy, ethics, and world religions.[2]

Whosoever Will begins with a sermon transcript of Jerry Vines’ message delivered at the 2008 John 3:16 Conference in Woodstock, GA. In this chapter, Vines deals with the love of God as it is described in John 3:16, and he essentially gives a word-by-word exposition of the passage. He focuses on the universal love of God to all persons at all times, thereby excluding any Calvinistic notion of electing love over and against the free universal love of God (28). Vines’ contribution is one of the more enjoyable chapters to read in the book, and his exposition is well ordered.

Paige Patterson begins the book by taking on the first of the five points of traditional Calvinism, Total Depravity. He argues against the idea that regeneration precedes faith quoting the quintessential Calvinistic Baptist, Charles Spurgeon, “I am only to preach faith to those who have it. Absurd, indeed” (35)! However, Patterson’s arguments tend to prove nothing more than that it is indeed impossible for a sinner to come to God without some radical divine heart change (38). He attempts to explain how a spiritually dead person can still respond to the gospel, but he gives an example from his childhood experience of hunting snakes that is completely unhelpful and actually contrary to his own argument (38).

Richard Land’s chapter on election is by far the most cogent in the book. He argues for a middle ground between the Calvinist and Arminian soteriology; a view that he calls congruent election (50). He begins by summarizing one of the historical Southern Baptist conceptions of election going back to the Sandy Creek Tradition, what he calls the “melody of Southern Baptists” (49). Land believes Scripture teaches two different types of election, Abrahamic election and salvation election. The first involves God’s general choice of a group of people for salvation while the second group consists of those who have responded to the gospel within that larger group. Land does a great job developing his position albeit lacking an explanation of human sinfulness.

Despite David Allen’s goal to avoid being bombastic (61), his argument for universal atonement is the longest chapter in the book. He claims that “the best arguments against limited atonement come from Calvinist writers” (66), therefore he goes into extreme historical detail on the doctrine, quoting men from Calvin, Baxter, Edwards, and others. He develops his argument from a biblical, theological, logical, and practical basis. He advises against Calvinist pastors taking non-Calvinist churches and vice-versa in order to hinder church divisions over the issue (102). Allen comprehensively covers the issue, and his conclusions derive from his arguments.

Lemke approaches irresistible grace in much the same way Allen handles atonement in the previous chapter. It is less than clear, however, whether or not he is fully in command of the subject. He critiques John Piper’s statements calling them “apparently contradicting assertions” (112) but does so without much explanation. Also, his remarks against R.C. Sproul’s position seem to be taken out of context and have the deafening ring of pretentiousness (113). Earlier in the book, Land makes the statement that “the goal should always be ‘both/and’ not ‘either/or’ when it comes to harmonizing Scripture” (51). Perhaps Lemke should take Land’s recommendation.

Kenneth Keathley takes on the doctrine of perseverance beginning with a historical approach. He critiques the Puritan view calling it “pastorally damaging” (170). He goes through an assessment of several theologians’ classical views but narrows on the views of Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday. The solution for Keathley is what he calls the “Modified Evidence-of-Salvation View” (184). It takes into consideration the objective work of Christ as the basis of perseverance but involves the subjective element of “a certain knowledge of salvation as well.

Kevin Kennedy continues the treatment of the extent of the atonement by claiming that Calvin himself believed in universal atonement. He quotes Calvin extensively (almost exhaustively, 211) and builds a surprising case for this position. Malcolm Yarnell’s chapter on the potential impact of Calvinism in Baptist churches is well ordered and logical. He astutely notes that “in spite of its methodological claim for sola scriptura, Calvinism typically moves beyond the Bible in order to create its theological standards” (215) and recognizes the penchant for elitism in Reformed theology (222). In a rather unpleasant way, Bruce Little finalizes the book by addressing the problem of evil in the milieu of Calvinism. He opposes the idea that evil is necessary for God’s plan (285) and that God does not have a “purpose” in all suffering, contra John Piper (289).

One of the overarching arguments of the book is that most Baptists who claim to be Calvinists do not have a true understanding what it means to be a Calvinist (7). This book helps to sort through those misunderstandings and lead to a better approach to doing theology in the context of the SBC. Although many of the arguments in this book are weak, they do not utterly render useless the book’s contribution to the theological community.

[1] http://www.swbts.edu/academics/faculty/theology/dallen/

[2] http://www.nobts.edu/Faculty/ItoR/LemkeSW/

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