Salvation By Grace

Article by   November 2014
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Matthew Barrett. Salvation By Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014. 388 pp. $19.99/₤13.99

As a Wesleyan-Arminian Christian (and thus only "Reformed" in a fairly broad sense), I am keenly interested in the doctrine of the new birth. It was, after all, absolutely central to Wesley's own understanding of salvation, and the doctrine is interesting in terms both of shared common ground and possible disagreement between Christians. So it is with interest that I received Matthew Barrett's Salvation By Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. This book is a spirited, energetic, forceful, and celebrated (the book includes endorsements from more than two dozen theologians) defense of something called "monergism" and an equally enthusiastic assault on something called "Arminianism." In this re-worked doctoral dissertation (done primarily under the tutelage of Bruce A. Ware and Thomas R. Schreiner), Barrett marshals some of the most forceful of recent "Calvinist" scholarship in defense of "monergistic regeneration" and "effectual calling" (or "irresistible grace"), and he does so to good rhetorical effect.   

Barrett begins by agreeing with B. B. Warfield that the doctrine of monergistic regeneration is "the hinge of Calvinist soteriology," and he insists that the doctrine of the new birth is what ultimately separates the Reformed doctrine of salvation from all others. He then surveys monergism "in the Calvinist tradition;" this is followed in turn by discussion of total depravity and the bondage of the will. He then makes a case for the biblical grounding of the doctrines of effectual calling and monergistic regeneration, and he concludes with sharp criticisms of both traditional Arminian theology and what he dubs "recent attempts at a middle way" (largely with reference to intra-Southern Baptist debates over "Calvinism"). Throughout, he is exercised both to show that there is a great gulf fixed between Calvinist and Arminian soteriologies and to demonstrate that anything less than the Calvinist position is sub-biblical and indeed sub-Christian.  The tone is pitched and some of the prose is powerful, and it is not a stretch to predict that this book will be well-received by some who are in agreement with Barrett. Nonetheless, I have some serious qualms about the book. Since Barrett deals with historical, exegetical, and theological matters, I shall point out some historical, exegetical, and conceptual problems.  

Consider first the historical theology done by Barrett (where he makes generous use of Latin phrases but, curiously, only cites English translations). He recognizes that the development of these doctrines is very important for contemporary work, but several problems hamper his discussion. We get no further than the first sentence (of his historical discussion) before we are told that Augustine is a representative of the Reformed tradition. How Augustine is part of a tradition that post-dates him by over eleven hundred years is not explained, but beyond the obvious anachronism (which surely must be a slip of the "pen") there are some serious problems with his reading of Augustine and the attendant controversies. Recent work on John Cassian and others (by Augustine Cassiday and others) receives no notice here; instead Barrett simply employs anachronistic labels and calls these theologians "Semi-Pelagian." Barrett calls his own preferred view "Augustinian," and he labels "Semi-Augustinian" any view that would hold to "God-initiated synergism" and the resistibility of grace. But the "Semi-Augustinian" view arguably has as much claim to being "Augustinian" as Barrettian "Augustinianism," for Augustine himself insists that prevenient grace does not necessitate a response (e.g., De Spiritu et Littera, PL 44:238). 

Indeed, Augustine does so in his mature, anti-Pelagian works. While issues surrounding the interpretation of Augustine will continue to be debated, it is simply too easy to affix labels and thereby declare a winner. Other historical problems show up as well: "the Puritans" are said to have "detested Arminianism," but the Puritan theologian John Goodwin is never even mentioned.  Concern for the glory of God is claimed as the "defining mark" of Reformed theology (p. 35), but Barrett does not deal with the fact that the same concern animates the theology of Jacob Arminius (e.g., Exam. Gom., p. 92; Dec. Sent., pp. 83-85). Barrett deals mostly with two categories; "Arminian" and "Reformed," but he takes little notice of the variety within the Reformed tradition and no notice of the prominent Lutheran scholastic theologians who believed in the reality and power of prevenient grace as well as the universality of the atonement, and who likewise insisted that grace is sometimes finally resisted. Barrett claims that John Wesley "did not affirm the imputation of the guilt of original sin" (pp. 212-13) but in point of fact Wesley devotes a substantial section of his longest and densest treatise to an explicit defense of the federalism of the Westminster Confession of Faith. I could go on.  

When Barrett mounts a biblical case for various claims, there is a familiar pattern. He introduces the issue and makes some very strong claims, he then supports these claims with quotations from like-minded scholars (very often these are very long quotations), and finally he pronounces the supporting scholars to be obviously right or "indubitably" correct. Unfortunately, some of the biblical argumentation proceeds only by listing biblical references in parentheses. Perhaps even worse, much of this proceeds with little or no engagement with alternative interpretations or counterarguments; sometimes we see a parenthetical note that alerts us that Barrett's use of his scholarly support is "contra Witherington" or "contra Cranfield and Dunn," but over vast tracts of this work we are left in the dark about such alternative accounts. In other words, we don't know where the opposing arguments fail; and often we don't even know what those arguments might be. Again and again, we are only told that Barrett's favored scholars (often Ware and Schreiner) are right. Where Barrett does engage in exegetical debate (e.g., with I. Howard Marshall), problems appear as well. At some points the arguments simply move much too quickly: he can dismiss the possibility of baptismal regeneration in a single sentence (p. 148), and he can get from Paul's affirmation of his calling (Gal 1:15-16) to the conclusion that determinism is "unavoidable" with a couple of sentences (p. 95). At other points his appeals to Greek grammar do not take into account recent and important work in verbal aspect theory (e.g., pp. 158-160).  And sometimes the movement from exegesis to theology is underdeveloped or simply mistaken; for instance, Barrett does not seem to notice that to conclude to determinism because Jesus prays for those "will certainly do so" (cf. John 17:20) (p. 116) is simply to commit a very basic modal fallacy.  

Barrett's arguments, though forceful, are disappointing. I note several distinct and persistent problems. First, Barrett often refers to "the Arminian" position without so much as mentioning an Arminian source to corroborate the position (in one chapter alone, I counted 39 such instances).  While over-documentation can be tedious and unnecessary, carefulness is especially important in such polemical contexts. But frankly, as someone sympathetic to the views of Arminius and Wesley, there were times when I did not recognize the views described as "the Arminian" position. Second, there is a persistent lack of clarity regarding key terms. On some understandings of "monergism," Wesleyans turn out to be monergists too; and on some understandings of "synergism," Reformed theologians would qualify as well. But none of this is closely defined. Third, some of the arguments are simply flawed. Consider this argument from historical observation to theological conclusion. Barrett declares that E. Brooks Holifield is "unquestionably correct" in his judgment that Reformed theology (in the context of Holifield's argument, Reformed theology in America) has a "regard for the glory of God" and divine sovereignty as its "defining mark" (p. 35). From this historical observation and an accompanying historical claim about the importance of monergism in Reformed theology (and quoting from Michael Scott Horton) he draws the following "implication:" Arminianism is no more "acceptable" than medieval Roman Catholic theology, and "it is not only Rome, but the Wesleyan system... which must be equally rejected to the extent that each fails to sufficiently honor God's grace."  But if some proposition A really implies B, then B cannot fail to be true if A is true. Consider the claims: 
(A) It is a matter of historical fact that Reformed theology has emphasized the glory of God and the importance of monergism; 
and
  (B) Catholic and Wesleyan theologies fail to sufficiently honor God's grace.
How does (A) really imply (B)? I fail to see the implication. In fact, I have no idea how a successful argument might be made for such a conclusion. At any rate, Barrett gives us no argument at all. He simply rehearses (A) and asserts (B). 

Or consider Barrett's arguments against the doctrine of prevenient grace. Following Schreiner, he criticizes the doctrine for being "exegetically fallacious" (pp. 253-61), by which he means that no distinct biblical text affirms all elements of the doctrine. But apart from whether or not Barrett and Schreiner are correct in this judgment (I am not yet convinced that they are), this falls short as a theological critique. Other doctrines, including major Trinitarian and Christological claims, are not taught by any single explicit text of Scripture but nonetheless do enjoy a biblical basis in the sense that each core element of the doctrine indeed is taught by Scripture (e.g., monotheism; the distinct identities of Father, Son, and Spirit; and the full divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit). If one were consistent in adopting Barrett's approach to theological method, one wonders how he might arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity (or, for that matter, at Barrett's distinctions between "natural" and "moral" inability or the "general" and "effectual" calls). 

Even if Barrett were correct that no single biblical text explicitly teaches all core elements of the doctrine of prevenient grace, this alone would not entail that the doctrine is wrong or that it has no biblical basis. More work must be done before such conclusions can be drawn. But Barrett goes even further: "the Arminian view" not only "robs God of his glory in salvation" (p. 276), it also "strips God of his omnipotence" (p. 275)! But not only does Barrett fail to deliver arguments for such striking conclusions, he doesn't so much as show us how this is even possible. How is it even possible to take omnipotence away from God?  Taken seriously, what does this claim even mean? If God is omnipotent, then (on any tolerable account of omnipotence) he is necessarily omnipotent. If so, then God cannot be non-omnipotent. Furthermore, on common accounts of divine determinism, isn't it the case that God determines everything that occurs - and moreover that God does so for his own glory? If so, then genuine divine glory-robbery isn't even possible; God would be determining that some people deny his glory in order that he might be further glorified.  

The rhetoric of this book is forceful indeed. Barrett is at pains to highlight the distance between "Reformed" and "Arminian" theologies. Where John Wesley was fond of pointing out where his theology was not even a "hairs-breadth" from Calvinism and in other places admitting that there indeed was only a "hairs-breadth" of difference, Barrett says that they are "worlds apart" (pp. 207-208). This book did convince me that there are some serious misunderstandings afoot within evangelical theology, but it did not convince me that Wesleyanism and Reformed theology are "worlds apart" on this issue. Both confessionally Reformed Christians and confessionally Wesleyan Christians agree that we are utterly helpless in our sins apart from grace. Neither thinks that sinners can do anything to earn or warrant this grace. Both agree that God's grace radically renews the human heart, and both agree that this radical renewal is continued in a process of sanctification that enables and requires continued faith and obedience on the part of the saint.  

Neither Wesleyan nor Reformed theologians think that we give birth to ourselves, or that we justify or sanctify ourselves. Both agree that grace is first, last, and ultimate, and both agree that "salvation by grace" involves the genuine response of the human agent. Reformed and Wesleyan Christians may disagree about the extent and intentions of prevenient grace "upstream" of or prior to regeneration, and they may disagree about the extent and effects of sanctifying grace "downstream" of regeneration (as well as other matters). But neither thinks that we justify or regenerate ourselves, and both are convinced that we are saved by grace

This concord, however, appears to be lost on Barrett - as is a golden opportunity both to highlight the significant agreement and to press Wesleyan-Arminian Christians on areas that need further clarification (which, incidentally, needs to be done). Instead of sober investigation, he charges ahead with a lot of bluster and sharp polemic. For according to him (and the scholars he cites favorably), Arminianism "has no biblical or rational foundation on which to stand" (p. 265), makes a "horrific attack upon the majesty of God" and an "idol of free will" (p. 281), and is ultimately "a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism" (p. 14). Furthermore, it is "un-Christian." Even worse, it is "anti-Christian." But his arguments, alas, do not come anywhere close to keeping pace with the rhetoric. Barrett may think that "Arminianism" or anything other than his brand of Calvinism is "un-Christian" and "anti-Christian." But if he is going to say this in a scholarly publication, he owes us more by way of argument - a lot more.  

Thomas H. McCall is Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also Director of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. 







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