Friday, August 27, 2010

Syncretism Theology: The Modern Church's Molinist View of Perseverance

Syncretism is defined in the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary as “the combination of different forms of belief or practice.” In this definition, we see the phrase “different forms,” which tells us that these ideas that are newly combined were not combined originally. Before their combination, such ideas were separate and distinct.

Ideas such as the points of Calvinism and Arminianism made the two systems separate and distinct. Within Calvinism, one can choose to be a Classical Calvinist (five-point Calvinist), an Amyraldian (four-point Calvinist), or a Molinist (three-point Calvinist). Within Arminianism, a person can be a Classical Arminian (five-point), a four-point Arminian, and even a three-point Arminian; the four-point Arminians and three-point Arminians can be labeled “Molinists.” In any case, Calvinism and Arminianism were distinct systems with their distinct views on the five points of depravity, election, atonement, grace, and perseverance.

But today’s Calvinists and Arminians (and even some Molinists) have embraced views within their systems that are foreign to the systems themselves; in other words, they have begun to syncretize their theologies with ideas from opposing theologies, such that the systems themselves hardly look distinct anymore. Take for example, the beliefs of William Lane Craig. Craig is a phenomenal apologist for the Christian faith, and his book “Reasonable Faith” is one of the best apologetics works out there in academia today. However, Craig calls himself a Molinist, while claiming to hold to “conditional election.” The problem with this is that Molina himself never held to conditional election. As Kirk MacGregor notes in his “Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology,”

“In book seven of the ‘Concordia,’ Molina queries ‘whether the cause of predestination may be ascribed to the part of the predestinate’ and ‘whether the cause of reprobation may be ascribed to the part of the reprobate.’ Contra those who follow ‘the errors of Origen and Pelagius,’ he answers both questions decidedly in the negative. On the basis of the Pauline statement, ‘Before the twins were born or had done anything good or evil...not by works but by him who calls...[God said,] Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’ (Rom. 9:11-13), Molina declares that ‘foreseen faith cannot be the ground of justification or predestination,’ as affirming otherwise would undermine the prima facie implication that God’s decree to elect Jacob and reprobate Esau did not take into account their future good or evil works” (Luis de Molina, “Concordia,” 7.23.4—5.1, 5.2, 5.4; Kirk R. MacGregor, “A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology.” Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007, pages 66-67).

Molina, then, held to “unconditional” election; why then, does Craig hold to “conditional election,” while still calling himself a Molinist? No one knows.
But Craig is not alone in his syncretism of theological ideas; much of the modern-day church could join him. Most Calvinists, although holding to Calvin’s theology, actually advocate a view of perseverance that does not fit within Calvinism itself.
John Calvin, the founder of what is known as “Calvinism” (named after him), explained the rocky soil in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8, Mark 4, Matthew 13) as that soil to which God only gave temporary faith. In his commentary on Hebrews 6:4, Calvin writes,

“But here arises a new question, how can it be that he who has once made such a progress should afterwards fall away? For God, it may be said, calls none effectually but the elect, and Paul testifies that they are really his sons who are led by his Spirit, (Romans 8:14;) and he teaches us, that it is a sure pledge of adoption when Christ makes us partakers of his Spirit. The elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish. To all this I answer, That God indeed favors none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate; for they are renewed after his image and receive the earnest of the Spirit in hope of the future inheritance, and by the same Spirit the Gospel is sealed in their hearts. But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts. Otherwise, where would be the temporal faith mentioned by Mark 4:17? There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away, either because it did not strike roots sufficiently deep, or because it withers, being choked up.” (

Calvin’s words above make it clear that he believed God even gives “temporal” or “temporary” faith to some of the reprobate, such that they become the “temporary elect.” In Calvin’s thought, there were two types of elect: the eternally elect and the temporary elect...and everyone who is “elect” isn’t necessarily the eternally elect. But what is the view of today’s Calvinists? David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn write:

“The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not maintain that all who profess the Christian faith are certain of heaven...many who profess to believe fall away, but THEY DO NOT FALL FROM GRACE, FOR THEY WERE NEVER IN GRACE” (David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, “The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented,” Second Edition. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004, page 64).

According to Dr. Ken Keathley, even Wayne Grudem holds to what is called the “Evidence of Genuineness” position (see Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty,” page 178). Here is a classic quote from Wayne Grudem’s chapter, titled “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews”:

“Therefore, confining our attention to the Book of Hebrews itself, and examining 6:4-6 in its immediate and broader context within the book, leads us to the conclusion that the people in this passage who experienced many blessings and then fell away HAD NEVER TRULY BEEN SAVED IN THE FIRST PLACE” (Wayne Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews”; from “Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace” by Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, eds. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000, pages 172-173).

Loraine Boettner echoes this sentiment:

“Some fall away from a profession of faith, but NONE FALL AWAY FROM THE SAVING GRACE OF GOD. Those who do fall have never known the latter. THEY ARE THE STONY-GROUND HEARERS, WHO HAVE NO ROOT IN THEMSELVES, BUT WHO ENDURE FOR A WHILE; AND WHEN TRIBULATION OR PERSECUTION ARISES, STRAIGHTWAY THEY STUMBLE. THEY ARE THEN SAID TO HAVE GIVEN UP OR TO HAVE MADE SHIPWRECK OF THAT FAITH WHICH THEY NEVER POSSESSED EXCEPT IN APPEARANCE. Some of these become sufficiently enlightened in the scheme of the doctrines of the Gospel that they are able to preach or to teach them to others, and yet are themselves entirely destitute of real saving grace. WHEN SUCH FALL AWAY THEY ARE NO PROOFS NOR INSTANCES OF THE FINAL APOSTASY OF REAL SAINTS” (“The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” by Loraine Boettner. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1932, page 191).

David Steele, Curtis Thomas, S. Lance Quinn, Wayne Grudem, and Loraine Boettner, all Calvinists, do not hold to Calvin’s view of faith as being eternal and temporary; rather, those who do not endure to the end, in their opinion, never had faith at all. This is a departure from Calvin’s thought regarding apostasy. But it does, however, fit the Molinist view of perseverance. Ken Keathley writes:

“The Evidence-of-Genuiness position, traditionally understood as the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, agrees with the Once-Saved-Always-Saved view that the believer’s salvation is eternally secure. They also agree that good works are not necessary to procure salvation. However, unlike those who advocate the doctrine of eternal security, the advocates of the Evidence-of-Genuineness position contend that the fruits of salvation will necessarily and eventually manifest themselves in the life of a believer” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010, page 177).

In Keathley’s definition of the Molinist view on perseverance, we see elements like the Calvinist view, and elements that are foreign (not native) to the Calvinist view. The Molinist position agrees with Calvinism in that “the believer’s salvation is eternally secure.” Having said this, Keathley makes it clear that Molinists hold to eternal security. This is a Calvinist belief. In contrast, though, Keathley does differ from the Calvinist perspective when he states that “the fruits of salvation will necessarily and eventually manifest themselves in the life of a believer.” The Calvinist position does not argue for works as being necessary in the life of the believer; rather, a person is eternally secure by trusting that he or she will receive eternal life because God promises it to those who believe. In the words of Keathley,

“According to this view [Once Saved, Always Saved], assurance of salvation comes only by trusting the promises of the Word of God. The believer should manifest the fruit of salvation, but there is no guarantee that he will. At best, works provide a secondary, confirmatory function” (Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty,” page 176).

In the Calvinist system, fruit of salvation may or may not exist, but what matters most is the promise of God to grant salvation to all who believe. In the Molinist system, while there is that decree of “unconditional election,” and the guarantee of eternal life, there is still a need for the fruit (evidence) of salvation. Hence, we see the Calvinist idea of guarantee and unconditional election coupled with the Arminian view of the necessity of good works in the life of the believer.

And Dr. Keathley’s view is the view I hear most about today. Even those who label themselves Calvinists (not just Calvinist theologians, but laypersons) espouse a Molinist view on perseverance without even knowing it. While this does wonders to push people towards the Molinist view, it begins to blur the lines of distinction between the theologies of Calvin and Molina. But these two men had two different theologies; and failure to preserve theological distinctions will lead to the destruction of Calvinism as a theological system. And for Arminians, failure to adhere to five-point Arminianism will lead to a destruction of the Arminian system as well.

Despite attempts to push a Calvinist resurgence, the modern-day church still has a little Arminianism within its veins. Truth be told, I think there is a little Arminianism in all of us...


William Watson Birch said...

Um . . . there is slightly more than just a little bit of Arminianism in me, haha.

Great work, Deidre. Really, fine work here. I hope that you continue to publish more material on Molina's theology. How Molinists can espouse both Calvinism and Arminianism is puzzling; at least, it is puzzling to me.

Deidre Richardson said...


Thanks so much for the encouragement.

The idea for this post came through viewing some blogs around the blogosphere (don't remember which ones) as well as the statements Calvinists were making. Picking up key Calvinist texts such as the ones mentioned in this post just confirmed my suspicions: that there are very few tried and true Calvinists anymore.

Thanks again, bro, for the encouragement. Your support to CTS (and Men and Women) means the world :-)