Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stephen Ashby and the Reformed Arminian View, Part I: Theological Creativity of the Calvinists

I am still reviewing the material from J. Matthew Pinson’s book titled “Four Views on Eternal Security.” I’ve spent quite a significant amount of time in Geisler’s chapter on the “Moderate Calvinist” view; now, after writing on as much of that as I could without becoming more and more annoyed over Geisler’s exegesis, I turn to Stephen M. Ashby’s chapter on the “Reformed Arminian View.”

To begin Part I, I’d like to focus on Ashby’s words in his section titled “Reformed Arminianism’s Differences With Calvinism.” In this section, he shows the “theological creativity” of the Calvinists:

“Louis Berkhof states that the covenant of grace is ‘a particular and not a universal covenant,’ that God intended redemption to be only for particular individuals. He decries both the notion of universal salvation held by classical universalists as well as the idea of ‘Pelagians, Arminians, and Lutherans’ that the offer of the covenant comes to all. In other words, IN ETERNITY PAST, FOR REASONS KNOWN ONLY TO HIM, GOD SET HIS AFFECTIONS ON PARTICULAR INDIVIDUALS. THIS IS OFTEN SEEN IN TERMS OF AN ETERNAL COVENANT THAT THE THREE PERSONS OF THE GODHEAD HAVE MADE AMONG THEMSELVES” (Stephen M. Ashby, “Four Views on Eternal Security” by J. Matthew Pinson, general editor. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, page 143).

This is the typical position of the Calvinists: that God picked certain people to be saved, while the others will be damned (either because they didn’t get picked or because they “choose” to go to Hell—however that all works out is beyond me!).
But Ashby has done his homework; he proves this to us when he quotes the words of a renown Reformed Arminian theologian, Robert E. Picirilli:

“such discussion of a COVENANT BETWEEN THE FATHER AND THE SON OUGHT TO PROCEED…WITH GREAT HESITATION. NOWHERE is there direct indication that such a covenant was made…even more important is the fact that the terms of such a covenant ARE NOT REVEALED—especially not whether those promises were or were not conditional…the ONLY way we have of ‘reading’ its terms respecting salvation is by reading in the New Testament how salvation is actually effected and applied. If, then, the New Testament makes clear that salvation really is conditional, then we dare not ‘read’ the unrevealed terms of an IMPLIED COVENANT of redemption in such a way as to destroy that conditionality” (Robert E. Picirilli, “Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation.” Nashville: Randall House; quoted in “Four Views on Eternal Security,” page 144).

In other words, the idea of an “eternal covenant” made before time began among the members of the Trinity is not one in which we are given all the details.
To “speculate” about this covenant is to go beyond Scripture and attempt to place one’s own theological view or presupposition upon the text.

If you think that only a Reformed Arminian (or an Arminian in general) would assume this, then you have never read the response to the idea of a Trinitarian covenant by Reformed Calvinist writer O. Palmer Robertson:

“The intention of God from eternity to redeem a people to himself certainly must be affirmed. Before the foundation of the world God set his covenantal love on his people.
But affirming the role of redemption in the eternal counsels of God is NOT THE SAME AS PROPOSING THE EXISTENCE OF A PRE-CREATION COVENANT BETWEEN FATHER AND SON. A sense of artificiality flavors the effort to structure in covenantal terms the mysteries of God’s eternal counsels. SCRIPTURE SIMPLY DOES NOT SAY MUCH ON THE PRE-CREATION SHAPE OF THE DECREES OF GOD. To speak concretely of an intertrinitarian ‘covenant’ with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is TO EXTEND THE BOUNDS OF SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE BEYOND PROPRIETY”
(“The Christ of the Covenants” by O. Palmer Robertson. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1980, page 54).

Ephesians 1 tells us that we are chosen “in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4a); but this doesn’t contradict the prime verse of salvation, John 3:16—

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).

I learned John 3:16 according to the KJV, which is why I published it in that version; nevertheless, everyone can see the plain meaning of the verse. It is belief “in Him” that gives a person “everlasting life.” This is not different from Ephesians 1:4a—for it is “IN HIM” that believers are “chosen… to be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph. 1:4b).

It is “in Christ” that we are chosen, that we are given eternal life; but if this is
true, then why must our union be “with Christ” in order to receive eternal life? The answer: because of man’s sin (Romans 3:23-26). Romans 3:25 specifically states that
“God presented Him [Jesus] as a propitiation [appeasement of divine wrath] through faith in His blood, TO DEMONSTRATE HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, BECAUSE IN HIS RESTRAINT GOD PASSED OVER THE SINS PREVIOUSLY COMMITTED” (Holman Christian Standard Bible).

God sending Christ in the first place was to show that God’s Holy Standard COULD NOT tolerate or pass over sin, no matter how great or small in our eyes. Because all sinned “in Adam” (Romans 5), the Lord responded in judgment. His judgment was that someone must die for the sins of the world. Because the Lord desired to redeem His human creation, He sent Christ to be the one to bear the punishment and sins of mankind.

But Ephesians 1 about being chosen “in Christ” doesn’t make sense, if, according to Calvinists, we are just “chosen” and not “chosen in Him.” If we are chosen “in Christ” to be holy and blameless, and Christ had to give us His righteousness and become our sin (2 Cor. 5:21), then this tells us that man sinned AGAINST GOD and that God, in His exhaustible, divine foreknowledge, knew that man would sin before He created the world and man—and decided to send His Son as the appeasement of His own wrath. And if God did not “force” man to sin, as Calvinists believe (they think sin was always a part of the plan of God), then God does not “force” us to believe in His Son in order to receive eternal life.

Dr. Stephen M. Ashby responds to the issue of an eternal “intertrinitarian covenant” with the following words:

“I believe, in fact, that the EXACT OPPOSITE is seen: Christ’s atonement was for ‘all,’ indeed for the WHOLE WORLD, and God’s salvation is CONDITIONAL—that condition being faith in Christ. Herein is the Reformed Arminian understanding of how one may be found in Christ. It is simply BY FAITH AND IT IS OPEN TO ALL” (144-145).

Calvinists are really good at playing up this so-called “intertrinitarian covenant”; however, I believe that they are grasping at thin air. There is enough material within the canon of Scripture itself to argue the conditionality or unconditionality of salvation. To look for something else OUTSIDE of the biblical canon is to go outside of God’s revelation—in other words, God is made to appear as though He is “not enough.”


Kevin Jackson said...

well said.

Deidre Richardson said...


Thanks so much for posting at the site. It means a lot to have you consistently reading the material here. I pray that something you've read over the course of the last few months at the site has blessed you in some small way.

Please continue to read and pray for the blog.

Kevin Jackson said...

My pleasure. You are saving me the trouble of having to read this book myself. :) It's actually on my wish list. Anyway, keep up the good work.

Deidre Richardson said...


You should still read the book. I'm not gonna cover everything in this book. The goal is that somehow, I will pique your interest a bit so that you will wanna go out and buy the book.

I highly recommend buying it. Over the next six months (at least), I'm gonna cover this issue of perseverance and eternal security. It is one that I have struggled with for some time myself. I mean, my view of eternal security has been challenged by the material I've been reading.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Please recommend the site to others you know that wanna read sound theology. Continue to pray for the blog as well; also, pray that God would continue to endow me with knowledge of His truth and boldness to proclaim it to others (while still doing so in love). I wanna represent Him well in all I do.