A good (relatively) new book about predestination

A good (relatively) new book about predestination December 12, 2011

From time to time I like to post book reviews here, especially reviews of books that relate to issues of concern to evangelical Arminians. If you persevere to the end (of the review) you’ll find something to chew on.

Review of Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine by Peter J. Thuesen

As an outspoken Arminian I find any book about predestination irresistible. So I had to accept when invited to review Predestination by Thuesen, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (Oxford University Press, 2009) for Religious Studies Review. It’s a scholarly work that is accessible to anyone with a college degree. That is to say, it is thoroughly researched and documented, detailed and at times subtle (e.g., the thesis of the book is more than historiography), while non-technical.

An alternative title for Thuesen’s book might be The Predestination Wars (playing off The Jesus Wars by my colleague Philip Jenkins). He recounts in great detail the various episodes of theological and ecclesiastical controversy about God’s sovereignty in salvation especially in the American colonies and the United States. Fortunately, in spite of the (real) title Thuesen does not ignore the backgrounds in ancient theology (e.g., Augustine versus Pelagius and the semi-Pelagians) and Reformation and post-Reformation Europe. For example, he tells the story of John Wesley’s falling out with George Whitefield over the Calvinist interpretation of predestination.

Thuesen leaves almost no stone unturned in his search for narratives about debates over predestination and free will. Among others he recounts the Arminian controversy (for the most part accurately), the controversies between various factions of Presbyterians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and ends with some commentary on the current controversy among Southern Baptists and evangelicals. Unfortunately, he never mentions John Piper. Instead he represents Al Mohler as the main instigator of the contemporary controversy. Just as one example of how detailed the book can be, Thuesen reports on the failed debate over Calvinism that was supposed to happen at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA in (he says) 2006 but never did. Referring to a 2006 public debate between Mohler and Paige Patterson that was relatively calm, Thuene says “The Mohler-Patterson colloquy, however, was restrained compared to the all-out brawl that erupted four months later when a planned debate between Calvinist and anti-Calvinist bloggers fell through amid a flurry of recriminations.” (207)

I found reading Predestination interesting and sometimes informative. Most of what I learned were details of controversies I already knew about. So I focused my attention mainly on what the author had to say about Arminians, as so many books get them and us wrong. For the most part, anyway, Thuesen’s description of Jacob Arminius’ theology is correct. The only point about which I would quibble has to do with the “P” of TULIP. Thuene says that Arminius and all of his followers rejected it along with the U, the L and the I. I think that’s wrong. Arminius himself never came to complete or final decision about so-called “eternal security of the believer.” In his Sentiments, one of his last writings, he said scripture wears both aspects (i.e., the possibility of apostasy and the security of the believer) and claims he never did teach that a true believer could fall away from grace totally. The “Remonstrance” of 1611 does not mention it but aims primarily at the middle three points of the TULIP scheme. (By the way, Thuesen seems to think that TULIP is an acronym that dates back to the Synod of Dort; in fact it is relatively recent.)

In a very odd slip, Thuesen says that John Wesley was “the most famous Arminian in U.S. history.” (9) Given the rest of what he says about Wesley, he clearly knows that Wesley never traveled to the U.S. (Watch, now. If I don’t say that Wesley briefly served an Anglican parish in the colony of Georgia before his Aldersgate experience someone will try to correct me with that fact. The point is, of course, that the United States did not exist then.)

One of the most interesting points I found in the book was that the early universalists who influenced the founding of the Universalist denomination in the late 18th century (that merged with the Unitarians in the 1960s) never were Arminians! (108ff.) One calumny against Armianism repeated by many Calvinists is that Arminianism was responsible for the rise of Universalism and Unitarianism in Great Britain and New England. In fact, the first Universalists were Calvinists who simply came to believe in universal salvation without giving up on unconditional election! They all believed in TULIP except the “L” which led them to believe in universal salvation. Arminianism itself was no bridge between strict Calvinism and Universalism.

Predestination is not just a history book; Thuesen has a thesis and much of the narrative as he recounts it is aimed at proving or at least justifying it. His thesis, which he mentions near the book’s beginning and at the end, is that the rise of what he calls “double covenant federal Calvinism” after Calvin and the contemporary decline in interest in such theological debates is indirectly related to the “decline of mystery” among Protestants. “The modern tyranny of ‘proof’ in religion made predestination deadly—and sometimes deadly boring.” (217) He sees the real divide between Protestants (and perhaps Christians in general) as lying between a kind of rationalistic, dogmatic religious faith (e.g., Charles Hodge) and the sense of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” in especially high church, sacramental religious faith. “A high-church critic might well conclude that in the predestination progression from the Reformation to the megachurch, the sacramental substance of Christianity attenuated to almost nothing.” (217)

Historically, Thuesen lays much of the blame for this “modern attenuation” at the feet of Zwingli who was, of course, pre-modern but nevertheless had a profound impact on early modernity among especially Reformed Protestants. Zwingli took the mystery out of Christianity by rejecting sacramentalism. That is what led to the usually sterile, dogmatic debates over predestination and the Bible (among other things) that ensued. His argument seems to be that insofar as Christianity retains a strong sense of mystery these kinds of debates over doctrine are at least not as volatile.

All that is not to say Thuesen thinks dogmas are unimportant and should fade away in the face of mystical spirituality. Rather, he argues for what he calls “dogmatic mystery.” (217) That’s what has gone missing in modern Protestantism on both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian divide as well as both sides of the conservative-liberal divide. He says that instead of preserving the mysteriousness of grace, modern Protestants “turned predestination into something logical and rational, unwittingly depriving grace of the miraculous all-sufficiency they were trying to preserve.” (217) Thuesen lays much of the blame on Hodge who, he says, epitomized this method whose idea of theology as a science of facts “led many Protestants to conclude that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians could be settled through the collation of sufficient biblical evidence.” (217)

All I can say to that is “Amen!” I have been arguing for a long time now, much to the chagrin of both conservative Calvinists and Arminians, that the debate over God’s sovereignty in salvation cannot be settled merely or simply by collection of biblical evidence. Both sides can marshal a great deal of biblical evidence. Debating passages of the Bible rarely, if ever, solves anything in this particular controversy. It is settled in people’s minds otherwise—in terms of what I have earlier called “blik”—perspective. Both sides are looking at the same data when they study the Bible but “seeing as” differently. I am gratified to have Thuesen agree with me. However, I’m not at all sure about his thesis regarding mystery and sacramentalism. It seems to me possible to be a high Calvinist, embracing all of TULIP, and be a mystical sacramentalist. This has happened repeatedly throughout Protestant history and before the Reformation (except for the “L” which I judge was almost entirely unheard of before Theodore Beza. (The only exception I’m aware of being the medieval monk Gottschalk whose defense of limited atonement was deemed heresy by the church.) It is also obviously possible to be a strong Arminian and be a mystical sacramentalist as is evident in much of Anglican and Episcopal history.

One point where I agree entirely with Thuesen is his observations about the contemporary mega-church, seeker-sensitive church phenomenon. He uses Saddleback Church as his test case. He attended services and newcomers’ class there and interviewed one of its pastors—a brother-in-law of Rick Warren. (He was not granted an interview with Warren himself.) Thuesen argues that these churches and those influenced by them tend to downplay controversial doctrines and even refuse to take sides at all with the result that robust theological belief takes a backseat (if not put in the trunk!). I’m sure that’s not true of all mega-churches or seeker-sensitive churches, but it is a trend that many have noted. I have been teaching theology to students at three Christian universities for almost thirty years and I can say with confidence that there is a notable decline in their awareness of doctrines as they leave home and home church and come to college, university or seminary. The one benefit of the current phenomenon of the “young, restless, Reformed” generation is the raising of awareness about and interest in doctrine. That does not seem to have penetrated the numerous seeker-sensitive churches, both large and small.

I want to belong to and attend a church that is robustly, openly Arminian. They’re hard to find. By that I do not mean I want to exclude Calvinists from my church. If a Calvinist can stand the cognitive dissonance, fine. I have no problem with him or her attending, becoming a member and even participating (except at the highest levels). However, I want a basically Arminian view of God preached and taught. I want my church to be confessionally Protestant, evangelical and Arminian. Such churches are hard to find outside of fundamentalism. And there, among fundamentalists, in general, either Calvinism or a kind of paradoxical “Calminianism” seem to prevail. There are fundamentalist Arminian churches, of course, but I wouldn’t be able to attend one. What’s largely missing from American church life is a robust, non-fundamentalist but confessional Arminianism. (By “confessional” I don’t mean necessarily creedal; for me “confessional” can mean simply consensual.)

The only way to avoid being openly, robustly either Calvinist or Arminian (as a church) is to avoid public preaching and teaching on the subject of God’s sovereignty in salvation. Unfortunately, that is all too common these days.

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  • Percival

    It sounds like you want a Nazarene church, or are Calvinists excluded from Nazarene churches?

    • rogereolson

      I have worshiped with Nazarenes and enjoyed it. I don’t know if I could “sign off” on all their doctrines. What I “need” is a confessionally Arminian Baptist church that isn’t fundamentalist. My own church is, I judge, mostly Arminian or at least I feel comfortable with the ethos that seems to be primarily Arminian. But it isn’t formally so. I’m okay where I am, but I would like to know if there is a robustly Arminian Baptist church out there somewhere that isn’t fundamentalist.

      • Mike Anderson

        Baptist, Arminian, and non-fundamentalist, huh? There’s the Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota–a little far from you, and really I’m only guessing what it’s like from Greg Boyd’s books and online sermons. And you might argue that his open theism is not properly Arminian, or results in a significantly different understanding of God’s character. (I think his insights are on the right track and worth considering, for example on theodicy.)

        Of all the churches I’ve attended I think the closest I’ve found to Baptist, Arminian, and non-fundamentalist was a rouge Seventh-day Adventist congregation in California. The SDA distinctives were never mentioned there, eclipsed by the immediacy of the Gospel and making the group theologically similar to Baptists in some ways but with more of an Adventist culture. Since moving I often worship with a Baptist, Arminian congregation that is also fundamentalist, so I sympathize with your frustration.

        Church fellowships and denominations easily copy or react against other churches, looking to each other when they should be looking to God for guidance. Some doctrinal insights come from full commitment and prayer, and many churchgoers wouldn’t understand this if their teacher/pastor borrows rather than finds his own. This is why the best church fellowships (in my opinion) tend to be independent one-offs rather than part of a doctrine-setting hierarchy, or champions of tradition, or exist largely to react against doctrines or traditions of others (fundamentalists).

        • rogereolson

          I have attended Greg’s church (Woodland Hills) and probably would attend there regularly (I won’t say “join” because it doesn’t have membership as such) if I lived in the Twin Cities. It still doesn’t quite fit what I’m after–a church that is openly, confessionally Arminian. Woodland Hills comes close (with the addition of open theism at least from the pulpit–I don’t think everyone on the pastoral staff is open theist).

      • Percival

        I am not Nazarene, by the way.
        Non-fundy Arminians? There are still some good Methodists out there. Some of them even dunk (not talking about basketball). Seriously, the whole American church would benefit greatly for a revival among the UMC. Say a prayer for them.

        • rogereolson

          One of my first theology students, Adam Hamilton, is leading such a revival in the UMC. I’m sure he wouldn’t claim that, but I will claim it for him.

  • Bruce W. Green

    Since you “find any book about predestination irresistible”, you may enjoy “Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God: New Answers to Old Questions” by William G. Most (if you have not already read it). While it is not written by an evangelical Christian, you may find it interesting for its exegesis and its detailed treatment of Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Molina.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for that recommendation.

  • Presdesintation is just another word for determinsim. And deterinism is teaches that God orchestrates everything. All things happen at His very will.

    Determinism paints a divine picture of an august deity who is self absorbed, and creates a race of dead puppets. Now this deity pulls the strings on a select few of his fallen marionettes, and without their own choice, makes them praise Him through the manipulation of his own power. And with the knowledge that God is literally praising Himself, he is pleased.

    And voilà, you have determinism. Hollow, meaningless, and nothing more than a religious Muppets show.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, no evangelical Calvinist would accept that as an accurate or fair description of his or her theology. What you state is what many of us see as the “good and necessary consequence” of what high Calvinists believe, but they don’t actually believe it.

  • Determinism (Calivinism) teaches that God orchestrates everything. All things happen at His very will.

    Determinism paints a divine picture of an august deity who is self absorbed, and creates a race of dead puppets. Now this deity pulls the strings on a select few of his fallen marionettes, and without their own choice, makes them praise Him through the manipulation of his own power. And with the knowledge that God is literally praising Himself, he is pleased.

    And voilà, you have determinism. Hollow, meaningless, and nothing more than a religious Muppets show.

  • Calvinism is so unbiblical, so illogical, and so prone to doctrinal idolatry that I politely eshew it all. A Calvinist worshping at a robust Arminian church? As they put they key in to start the car after the serviec the wife must be ready for a deconstructive treatise of the morning’s message.

    And of what spiritual benefit is that?

  • Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine by Peter J. Thuesen

    This is the best book on predestination that I have read. It covers a large number of historical contexts in which this doctrine has played a role. If I had my way, every theology student would read it.

    I am always glad when you cover good books. Your opinion has put many volumes on my shelf. Thanks!


  • Steve


    I agree that Thurene was wrong to say that Arminius rejected the “P” of the TULIP. Arminius was indeed undecided on the issue of whether a believer could commit apostasy. William Nichols notes that Arminius, when interrogated on this subject in the last Conference which he had with Gomarus two months prior to his death, was still undecided on this issue (Works of Arminius 1:665). The early Remonstrants were undecided as evidenced in the 5th article drafted by its leaders in 1610. But sometime between 1610, and the official proceeding of the Synod of Dort (1618), the Remonstrants became fully persuaded in their minds that the Scriptures taught that a true believer was capable of falling away from faith and perishing eternally. From this time forward every single classical Arminian writer/theologian I have read opposed the “P” of TULIP or unconditional eternal security (UES). The list is quite long. I could have missed a classical Arminian writer who held to UES, but no one has provided me with one thus far. I have read your book Arminian Theology, but nothing you said there gives any historical evidence that classical Arminianism was ever associated with UES. On more than one occasion you have said that you can hold to UES and be an “Arminian.” I would appreciate it if you could demonstrate historically when Arminianism became associated with belief in UES. Who are the theologians who unashamedly called themselves an “Arminian” while holding to UES? From my research thus far I have Arminius and the early Remonstrants undecided on the issue; and then from 1618-1900’s I have found all Arminian writers/theologians opposing UES. Any help would be most welcomed.


    • rogereolson

      You would be right if we’re bean counting. When I speak of classical, historical Arminianism I am thinking of Arminius himself and the early Remonstrants. I have always admitted that most, if not all, Arminians AFTER them believed in amissable grace–unless, like I, one wishes to say that what is really crucial to Arminianism is denial of the U, the L and the I of TULIP combined with positive belief in the classical Protestant doctrines of justification by grace alone through faith plus emphasis on prevenient grace. I have never wanted to define a belief system by what the majority of people who call themselves that believe. Call me an essentialist, but I think of Arminianism as a system constructed (not really invented) by Arminius himself with antecedents in the Greek church fathers, Erasmus, Melanchthon and the Anabaptists. In other words, I don’t think a belief system changes just because the majority or even all who label themselves that change their minds about something.

  • Kyle Carney

    I agree with your desire for a theologically robust confessional Arminian church. As we continue to pray, maybe the Lord will bless us with such a movement in the States.

    Thanks for being a leader in the groundwork for rehashing Arminianism for the masses of newly theologically interested people out there. I think there is glimpses of hope for this. For example, I also enjoy reading this blog: http://www.thearminian.org/ Of course, all three of us would disagree at different points, but we seem to definitely agree on the essence of Arminianism, concern for the -U-L-I-. This guy is a student at Southeastern in Wakeforest, but he does a great job of citing sources and focusing on what Arminius and the direct followers actually said.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I’m familiar with him. We interacted a lot when I subscribed to the Arminian discussion list (of the Society of Evangelical Arminians). I think he comes here occasionally. There will be an Arminius conference at Point Loma Nazarene University in late February. I don’t think I’ll be able to be there, but it’s a good sign that Arminians are beginning to regroup and push back against the tide of Calvinism.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I confess, I’ve been bad, bad, bad –  but resistance was futile. I will fully understand if you decline to post this little interview that just popped into my confused Arminian mind, but here goes.

    Reporter: It has come to our attention that numerous churchgoers here in the USA believe they have been chosen by God while others are simply …. not chosen.
    Calvinist: Well, not exactly. You see God does choose those who will be saved. There is nothing a human being can do to alter that choice. In fact, the choice was made before the universe was created.
    Reporter: Oh, what good news! God has chosen us all to go to heaven.
    Calvinist: Well, no. You see, only some are/have been chosen. We refer to them as the Elect.
    Reporter: And why not choose everyone – is there some malfunction in those not chosen?
    Calvinist: Yes, but you don’t have it quite right. You see, we all have a serious malfunction that is so bad God cannot even look at us.
    Reporter: I hesitate to ask another question, but what criteria does God use to choose the Elect, and (gulp) what happens to the non-elect?
    Calvinist: On the first question, we haven’t a clue, but we do know there is nothing we can do to influence the decision. The non-elect, as you call them, are simply sent to Hell.
    Reporter: I can’t say I wasn’t warned about asking more questions, but now I’m intrigued. Since we can’t influence the decision even a little bit, and since we have no idea what criteria God uses, could we make a little progress by assuming that the choice is random? After all, that would seem to be the fair thing, give everyone an equal chance and all.
    Calvinist: Oh dear no! If fact, ‘random’ is a  four-letter word around here. You see, God controls everything right down to the smallest wiggle of the most remote molecule or atom. It’s all been determined, like I told you, before the universe was created.
    Reporter: Oh, I get it now, we are all actors in a play, however God is making us do and say and think everything that we…..well….do and say and think.
    Calvinist: Well, sort of, but we are still accountable for what we do, say and think.
    Reporter: Oh, that’s better. Then if I do, say and think mostly good things, I can be among the elect?
    Calvinist: No, no, no. Shhh. Don’t let anyone hear you say that or they will send you across the street to the Catholics. I told you, it’s all up to God. Relax, your either in or out and there is nothing you can do about it.
    Reporter: That may well be good advice if things really are as you say, but, forgive my bluntness, folks around here don’t seem very relaxed to me!
    Calvinist: Once again you misinterpret our position. This urgency you see has to do with trying to determine who has been elected, and……..doing whatever it takes to make sure everyone knows there is a possibility that they may be one of the chosen.
    Reporter: Everyone? You mean the whole world?
    Calvinist: Yes, of course.
    Reporter: Well, I got that one right. However, and I know I should end on a win, but if everyone in the world has a chance to be elected, I suppose that means most of the people in heaven will be Asian, Indian and African and white europeans will be a bit thin on the ground.
    Calvinist: Now you’re being unfair and trying to trip me up. As I told you, we don’t do random here and neither does God!
    Reporter: And how do you know this? Where is the verse? There should be a verse.
    Calvinist: I can see you just don’t want to understand. Maybe you should go over to see the Catholics, or that Wesleyan church on the corner.
    Reporter: But what would that do to my chances of being elected?
    Calvinist: I thought I made myself clear. Nothing you can do or not do will have any effect whatsoever on your chances of being among the Elect.
    Reporter: You mean to say that some of those Catholics and Wesleyans will be elected?
    Calvinist: …….Well…..yes…..if you put it that way. But they won’t know it!
    Reporter: I thought you said no one could be sure.
    Calvinist: Well, not exactly……
    Reporter: I think I will go to one of those other churches. Thanks for enlightening me.

  • Bob Taylor

    The problem with many regular church-going ‘Calvinists’ is that they do not often stop to think through what they say they believe. Like fundamentalists (and I suppose others who hold very detailed and specific doctrinal positions) they often live at the level of slogans. “The Doctrines of Grace” is one slogan that is often touted in conversations, or from the pulpit. But on closer examination, the idea that God’s decrees (a kind of detailed blueprint for everything that takes place – including the salvation of specific people) must make God the ‘author of sin’ (to quote the Westminster Confession of Faith). Simply stating that God is responsible for everything (war, famine, falling of leaves, my drinking a cup of coffee at a particular time and in a particular place) and that everything happens as the result of his decrees (including sin), must therefore make God the ‘author of sin’. Logically and theologically there can be no other conclusion to draw. As for separating off primary causes (God’s decrees) from secondary causes (our actions) and thereby making us responsible for what God has already decreed – well – can anyone explain how that works?

    • rogereolson

      No one that I know of worked harder on this problem than Jonathan Edwards. I quote the editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards in Against Calvinism (his name was John Smith) that after attempting to explain how God is not the author of sin Edwards “ended lamely.” I very much agree with that. While I think Edwards was a brilliant scholar and great evangelist and pastor, I think he does not deserve the applause he receives because many of his notions are nonsensical (e.g., continual creatio ex nihilo and his idea that God foreordains and renders certain sins but is not responsible for them because his motive is pure while the sinner’s is evil).

      • I suggest that the general view, as well as the general practice, of Calvinism has changed over the centuries. Edwards and Whitefield and others held to Calvinism but their passion for souls seemed very different than what seems observable today. And as you identified, even Edwards invented some unscriptural loophole since he saw the problem with desterminism.

        Today’s Calvinism seems much more intransigent and defensively evangelistic about their theology.

    • And that is one of the most rediculous statements I have ever read! Reformed believers are some of the very few critical thinkers left in the Christian community. Stack up the heresy and departure from orthodoxy and see where the preponderance of apostasy is. Where is most of the seeker-sensitive nonsense? Where is most of the emergent nonsense? Where is the arrogant and proud postmodern dispisers of historic orthodoxy? Who is more likely to spend their time debating the authority and inspiration of Scripture? Who is more susceptible to egalitarianism? Where is the ordination of women to the ministry and homosexuals to membership and ministry as well? Reformed churches may have their battles, but they are nothing like the fury that takes place in Arminian churches. Anyone who has spent any time in a typical reformed church and a typical Arminian church knows that you statement is made from a standpoint of sheer ignorance.

      • rogereolson

        Well…perhaps we need to talk about the categories “Reformed” and “Arminian.” I assume you are talking about Reformed churches in the strict sense of churches that formally adhere to the three forms of unity or the Westminster Confession of Faith such as the Presbyterian Church of America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? If we broaden out the concept of “Reformed” to include all the churches listed in the Handbook of Denominations in the United States under “Reformed, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian” you would find a lot of turmoil within them and among them. Would you like to talk about the United Church of Christ or the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.? They are in the Reformed tradition. BUT if you are talking about denominations like the Presbyterian Church of America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the United Reformed Church, etc., then what you say may be true. But they, too, have their quarrels and fights over things like young earth creationism. And IF those are the Reformed churches you mean, then you must compare apples with apples and not apples with oranges. The Arminian churches you mean would have to be conservative ones. Among them you would not find the bad things you attribute to Arminian churches. So please be consistent.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    “Some struggle with the concept of predestination, saying, ‘How is it possible for God to adopt all of unborn humanity even before he created our first parents, Adam and Eve?’ – (see Eph 1:4-6 NIV). Or, they say, ‘How is it possible for God to declare something to be a done-deal before the existence of something else necessary to make it happen?’ Well, for God it’s easy! He declared (“made”) Abraham ‘a father of many nations’ even before Abraham had become the father of Isaac, the child of promise (Gen 17:5-6). Let us remember; he is the God who ‘calls things that are not as though they [already] were’” (see Rom 4:17). — An excerpt from DROPPING HELL AND EMBRACING GRACE, a book by Ivan A. Rogers, Outskirts Press. Due for release by January 2012. Will be available from Amazon.com. Paperback or Kindle.

  • James Petticrew

    Interesting that it was Calvinistic Scotland that produced Hume, may back his theory ?

  • Ricky Leung

    Dr. Roger,

    You stated that “I can say with confidence that there is a notable decline in their awareness of doctrines as they leave home and home church and come to college, university or seminary.” I have heard a good number of Christians saying that theological system is secondary to the truth that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

    The primary concern of many pastors is to grow the church by increasing the number of people confessing Jesus Christ as their personal savior. They deliberately avoid taking a stand on controversial doctrinal issues because it can become divisive and affect church growth adversely. You, as a theologian, will be more concerned about the teaching and discussion of doctrines.

    It seems that there may be a gap between the concerns of theologians and pastors. I am interested to know of your opinion of the goals and corriculum of seminary education in relation to church growth.

    • rogereolson

      There should be a balance, of course, between teaching evangelism and church growth, on the one hand, and doctrinal/theological correctness on the other hands. (And by “doctrinal/theological correctness” I do not mean “indoctrination by the professor” but developing one’s own understanding of correct doctrine through serious study of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.) There really is no need for these to conflict with each other UNLESS all one is after is numbers in which case, apparently, all seminaries need to do is show videos of Joel Osteen and tell students “Be like him.” I do think that a denomination’s emphasis on numerical growth can hamper discipleship among the faithful. When a church is asked to report “number of baptisms” every year (to its association or convention) that has a tendency to emphasize numbers if not competition (with other churches and pastors). What if the numbers are rising due to unethical behavior such as stealing sheep from another church? For example, in my city, an extremely popular pastor who had grown “his” church to the edge of being a megachurch retired. After about six months he is preaching every Sunday at another church in the same city (I assume as its interim preaching pastor). What if large numbers of his former congregants flock from that church (currently without a lead pastor) to the smaller church where he is now preaching? I don’t know that that is happening, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did happen. Then, what if the smaller church where the popular retired preacher is preaching reports large numbers of new attenders and members to the association and convention? Should those numbers be taken seriously–as if they reflected new conversions? When I was being taught pastoral ethics in college and seminary, we were told in no uncertain terms that a pastor who leaves a church should never, never go preach at another church in the same city or area (except for one Sunday as special guest preacher). It sets up a situation of possible “sheep stealing.” The emphasis on numbers reflected in requirements to report conversions, baptisms, new memberships, etc., is, in my opinion, wrong insofar as it tends to de-emphasize discipleship (in favor of possibly shallow conversions and new memberships) and tends to encourage unethical behavior on the parts of church leaders. (I’m not saying the specific case I mentioned above in my city is unethical.)

  • Bob Taylor

    May I be permitted one further observation on the topic of predestination / election?
    What has struck me over the past few months in my daily readings is the frequency with which God requires his people (all people) to act justly. There are numerous calls via the prophets in the Old Testament for mercy to be shown to the poor, the alien, the fatherless and widows etc. The prophets remind the people that the inevitable consquence of turning to idolatry is injustice and a lack of mercy.
    Is there not therefore a dichotomy between a God who requires this behaviour of us and a God who (according to the Calvinist scheme of things) decides in advance who will be saved and who will be condemned to a Godless eternity?

    • rogereolson

      Of course, Calvinists would simply say that there are “false brethren” who should not take comfort in the doctrine of election. If they lack signs of grace, they are probably not elect at all because the truly elect will show forth signs of grace. Jonathan Edwards, for example, preached to his congregation, in the midst of revival, that they should not take comfort in conversion or election if they did not treat the Indians justly by repaying them for the land they took from them. He was soon ousted from his pulpit and went to minister among the Indians for a time.