Calvinist Quibble

A. N. Wilson is a New Testament scholar who left the Christian faith when he was in his thirties but who has now begun to believe once again. It’s a great story, and you can read about it here.

As great as Wilson’s story is, that is not the main point of my writing today. Dr. Ben Witherington has a short post on his blog about Wilson’s return to the faith, and my aim today is to respond to one little piece from Witherington’s commentary. Witherington writes:

“One would think there was enough in the Bible to remind us that where there is life, there is hope, when it comes to a person becoming a Christian. And even if someone began in the faith, and then backslide or even repudiated it for a while, why should we assume that such a person is beyond hope, beyond help, beyond a return to the Lord? Now this sort of coming and going is understandable from a human point of view, but it would be hard to explain from a deterministic one (did God really pre-determine a person to be a Christian early in life, then commit apostasy and write books attacking Christianity, then return to the faith?).”

I think that Witherington is trying to say that if God predetermines who is to be saved then the road to conversion (or through sanctification) must be a smooth one. After all, if God predetermines who will be saved, why wouldn’t He simply close the deal the first time around? On Calvinistic grounds, therefore, one would have a hard time explaining A. N. Wilson’s experience.

My response to this would simply be to say that Wilson’s experience is no more troubling to Calvinism than the Apostle Peter’s. Peter was the rock upon whom Jesus said he would build his church (Matthew 16:18-19). Yet Peter denied Christ three times before the resurrection (Luke 22:55-61). Moreover, after the resurrection, the apostle Paul had to rebuke Peter for not being straightforward about the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-16).

No one doubts the conversion of Peter, but any normal reading of the biblical text would reveal that Peter’s conversion and sanctification was anything but smooth. At the same time, the scripture is also clear that God was the one who predetermined Peter’s conversion and calling. Jesus Himself said to Peter, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16, 19). Jesus also told Peter that it was by God’s initiative that an apostle could even see that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:17).

Nevertheless, Jesus comprehended the difficulties that Peter would have and indeed determined that Satan would not have the final say on Peter’s destiny. In fact, Jesus said that he himself would have the final say: “Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32).

A. N. Wilson is not the first one to take a winding path to conversion (or through sanctification). We see it clearly in the Bible’s depiction of Peter. Why should we expect that such might not be the case with others?

All of that to say that I think Witherington’s off-handed remark about Calvinism really falls flat. The same scripture that teaches unconditional election also shows us that the elect are not perfect. They sin (sometimes miserably), and they are nonetheless elect. And God is nonetheless glorious for saving sinners in His own way and in His own timing.

15 Responses to Calvinist Quibble

  1. Matt Svoboda May 4, 2009 at 1:07 am #

    Great analogy to the Apostle Peter, genius.

  2. Lucas Knisely May 4, 2009 at 8:49 am #

    John is helpful with this subject as well.

    1 John 2:19
    They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.

    Two things:
    1. Those who are truly Christian remain in the faith.

    2. The purpose behind those that leave and never return is, “so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.

    None of this poses a problem for the doctrine of predestination.

  3. David Rogers May 4, 2009 at 11:46 am #

    Yes, the analogy to Peter is interesting. However, how long was Peter in denial of Jesus? Less than three days? Just slightly more than the time it took to utter the denials and then devastating regret? A. N. Wilson’s path may be decades long. Was that length of time pre-destined?

  4. Brandon Cox May 4, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    You’ve made a good point, but many Calvinists I know would have looked at A. N. Wilson over that period of doubt and skepticism and would have declared him unsaved and certainly not elect. I sometimes get the feeling that we can’t really know the eternal destiny of a soul by personal assessment, unless we’re Calvinist… then we’re smart enough to know them by their fruits.

    Thankfully this isn’t true of all Calvinists, but every movement needs to police its weaknesses, and this kind of prideful judgment is a weakness of some Calvinists today.

  5. Daniel May 4, 2009 at 1:38 pm #

    Isn’t A.N. Wilson the author of the book that NT Wright argues against in What Did St. Paul Really Said?

  6. Frank! May 4, 2009 at 2:24 pm #

    He did’t read the London Baptist Confession 1689. It reads:
    The saints may, through the temptation of Satan and the world, and because their remaining sinful tendencies prevail over them, and through their neglect of the means which God has provided to keep them, fall into grievous sins. They may continue in this state for some time, so that they incur God’s displeasure, grieve His Holy Spirit, suffer the impairment of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened and their conscience wounded, and hurt and scandalise others. By this they will bring temporal judgements upon themselves. Yet they shall renew their repentance and be preserved, through faith in Christ Jesus, to the end.
    http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/bcof.htm#part17

  7. Tom 1st May 4, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    I have nothing to add or subtract to what the previous comments say. Even as an Arminian (and a previous student of Witherinton), I think he fails to understand the Calvinistic position here. I apologize for that (though, as I’ve pointed out on this page before, the misunderstandings seem to come from both sides consistently).

    That said, I do NOT think the Peter example works. In Witherington’s argument, Wilson is a person who did not merely temporarily fail to acknowledge the truth like Peter. Wilson actually STOPPED BELIEVING. There is a difference.

    Peter never stopped believing in the truth of the gospel, he only denied it before men or temporarily ignored it’s implication for his own social benefit. This is far different from Wilson’s years of denying the resurrection ever happened.

    The difference between the two suggests to me that a different example might be necessary to prove your point. Though, I suspect another example is not needed for those who already believe in Calvinism, and won’t work for those who reject it.

    Cheers all.

  8. Denny Burk May 5, 2009 at 12:25 am #

    Tom,

    If you read Wilson’s testimonial (linked above in my original post), he says that he left the faith because he was cowed by the scorn that academic elites heap on the Christian faith. In other words, he was ashamed to be associated with Christ.

    Perhaps Wilson’s renunciation of Christ was longer than Peter’s. But wouldn’t that be a difference of quantity, not quality?

    Denny

  9. Tom 1st May 5, 2009 at 1:02 am #

    Thanks for the response, Denny.

    To answer your question, no I don’t think it’s a difference of quantity. Peter does not lose his faith…cowed or not. Peter could not have made the statement, “I lost any religious belief whatsoever.” Nor did Peter ever reject the truth claims of the gospel – he may have denied them, but he never rejected them. (I think there’s a difference.)

    Peter never denies the resurrection. He denies his association with Christ prior to the resurrection due to being cowed by the religious leaders. But Peter never takes back his statement ‘you are the Christ the Son of the living God.’ There are times when Wilson would have not only denied it for personal benefit, but outright rejected it in unbelief. Indeed, he even says that he “outright rejected it.” He refused to acknoweldge, even to himself, that Christ is the Son of the living God.”

    A believer may deny certain things after being cowed (Peter), but in their heart they never stop believing. Outwardly they may deny it for social reasons, but they still have that splinter of belief in their minds. Wilson assumes himself in unbelief, not a state of being backslidden.

    But, I could be reading him wrong and you could be perfectly correct. And though I think a better example than Peter is needed to secure your point, I do not think your point is beyond being made.

    Cheers.

  10. Lucas Knisely May 5, 2009 at 1:58 pm #

    Tom makes some valid points about comparing Wilson’s walk from the faith with Peter’s denial.

    However, the passage I already referenced, 1 John 2:19, makes this issue easier to approach.

  11. John Holmberg May 5, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    Really? This is how you choose to handle this?

  12. Steve May 5, 2009 at 6:42 pm #

    G’day Denny,
    What did you think of Wilson’s brilliant use of apologetics?
    Steve

  13. Jordan May 5, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    Jesus didn’t build the church on Peter; Paul explicitly said in more than one place that Jesus Christ is the church’s one foundation. Furthermore, the very words Jesus used determine that He wasn’t referring to Peter, petro, for the rock He referred to was petra.

  14. Gim Anderson May 6, 2009 at 4:58 am #

    A.N. Wilson is not a NT scholar. He is a journalist.

  15. Erickable@yahoo.com May 6, 2009 at 9:19 am #

    What are we to say about Hebrews, where there is some sort of impossibility of returning to faith ?

    If one wishes to repsond and say that these people [who fall away] were never saved to begin with, then would we not say that Wilson just got saved?

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