Grace, Faith, Free Will; Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism. By Robert E. Picirilli. Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2002. iv + 245 pp. Paperback. $19.99
The title of this book is one that could be found on a book written by a Calvinist or an Arminian. However, this is certainly not true of the publisher, Randall House Publications, or the author, Robert Picirilli. Randall House Publications is owned and operated by the National Association of Free Will Baptists. Picirilli is the former academic dean and professor of Greek and New Testament studies at Free Will Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. Besides serving on the North American Overview Committee that produced the New King James Version and writing numerous booklets and articles in denominational publications and theological journals, Picirilli has also authored commentaries on Romans and Galatians. He currently serves as the general editor of The Randall House Bible Commentary, to which he is also a contributor.
This is a needed book, not because there is a shortage of recent works critical of Calvinism, but because it is written from a conservative Arminian perspective. I emphasize this because, as anyone who has studied Calvinism knows, Calvinists define an “Arminian” as anyone who is not a Calvinist. And once this designation is made, all manner of evils are ascribed to Arminianism. Nevertheless, just as there are different types of Calvinists (who sometimes vehemently disagree with each other), so there are different types of Arminians. Picirilli rightly says that “the trouble with ‘Arminianism’ is that it means different things to different people” (p. 1). He calls his viewpoint “Reformation Arminianism,” by which he means “the views of Arminius himself and his original defenders” (p. 1). Indeed, he quotes Arminius quite often, and more so than he quotes anyone else. Unfortunately however, as Picirilli also recognizes, “Many automatically think of Arminians as liberal, differing little from Universalists, at least holding to salvation by works and possibly holding Arian views on the Trinity or Pelagian views of the goodness of man” (p. 1). The author definitely does not fit that description, but whether or not the “very specific form of Arminianism” (p. i) he urges is sufficient “as the best resolution of the tensions” (p. i) between Calvinism and Arminianism remains to be seen.
Grace, Faith, Free Will contains five parts, as do many books on the subject of Calvinism because of its well-known five points. Part 1 serves as an introduction to the “issues that divide Calvinists and Arminians” (p. 3). It is mainly an account of the life of Arminius, the theology of the Remonstrants, and the Synod of Dort. However, because very little is said about Calvin and Calvinism, it is much too brief to properly serve as an introduction to the Calvinist/Arminian conflict. The next four parts deal with the familiar five points of Calvinism. Noticeably absent, however, is a separate part on the first point of Calvinism: Total Depravity. Although he does mention the concept a few times (pp. i, 22, 42, 57), it is not until Part 4, “The Application of Salvation” (Irresistible Grace to a Calvinist), that he introduces us to the TULIP acrostic and “the implications of the first and fourth of these points” (p. 141). It is true that the Canons of Dort (from which the Five Points of Calvinism are derived) treat Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace under one heading (“Of the Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner Thereof”), but the five articles of the Arminian Remonstrance (which Picirilli quotes in full in the first chapter) do not.
The result of this omission is an incomplete treatment of the first point of Calvinism. This is a big mistake, for Total Depravity is not only one of the three essential points of the Five Points of Calvinism, it is the foundation of the whole system, and necessitates the two other essential points of the TULIP. At the beginning of Part 3, Picirilli says that “when dealing with the basic assumptions of Calvinism and Arminianism, there is probably no more crucial issue than the extent of the atonement” (p. 85). But this can’t possibly be since even Calvinists are divided on this issue (e.g., four-point Calvinists). The first point of Calvinism is so important because if all men are unable to repent and believe the Gospel, then it logically follows that if any of them are to be saved, God must first determine who they are (Unconditional Election) and then “irresistibly” overcome their “inability” (Irresistible Grace) so they can repent and believe the Gospel. But to the contrary, if Total Depravity is a fraudulent doctrine, then the rest of the TULIP withers.
Each section of the book regarding a point of Calvinism is divided into three chapters: “The first sets forth the Calvinistic view, the next the Arminian view, and the last some Biblical theology studies in support of the Arminian view” (p. ii). The method of presentation in the chapters is quite different. The chapters on Calvinism and Arminianism in Parts 2 and 4 are organized by topic. In Part 3 of the chapter on the Calvinist view of Limited Atonement, a brief introduction is followed by a series (nine in all) of Calvinist arguments, each with an Arminian response. In the next chapter, which sets forth the Arminian view contrary to Limited Atonement, an introduction and summary precede and follow a pattern (nine in all) of Arminian arguments, Calvinist responses, and Arminian rejoinders. Part 4 of the chapter on the Calvinist view of Perseverance, part of the chapter is topical and part is a series (ten in all) of Calvinist arguments, each with an Arminian response. The next chapter on the Arminian view is purely topical.
Unlike many books of this nature, Grace, Faith, Freewill has real footnotes—quite a few of them. However, the vast majority of them are merely for reference rather than being of a supplementary or explanatory nature. There are four indexes: Scripture, Selected Subjects, Citations from Arminius, and Citations from Other Authors. There is a generous use of section headings throughout the chapters. There is unfortunately no bibliography. Instead, each chapter is followed by recommendations “For Further Reading.”
The chapters of Grace, Faith, Free Will that set forth the Calvinistic view are buttressed with quotes from the leading Calvinistic authorities: Herman Hoeksema, Paul Jewett, Charles Hodge, Louis Berkhof, William Shedd, John Piper, Loraine Boettner, Roger Nicole, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Are his characterizations of Calvinism accurate? Very much so. Picirilli even mentions in the Foreword that “Bob Reymond, a well-known Reformed thinker,” read the text “for the Calvinist side” (p. iii). For those conversant with Calvinist doctrine, these chapters go over familiar ground. However, because they do contain some of the author’s criticisms of Calvinism (especially the aforementioned chapters with Arminian responses to Calvinist arguments), they should not be passed over.
The crucial chapters in the book are, of course, those in which Picirilli offers his critique of Calvinism while setting forth the Arminian view, and especially the “Biblical theology studies” chapters in which his “Reformation Arminianism” is presented more fully. Although Picirilli relies heavily on Arminius, the “largely misunderstood theologian” (p. 1), he doesn’t hesitate to criticize modern Arminians like Robert Shank (p. 50), Donald Lake (pp. 56, 152, 161), Jack Cottrell (p. 151), and Carl Bangs, the biographer of Arminius (p. 157). He is especially critical of what he calls the “deformed Arminianism” of Clark Pinnock and Richard Rice (pp. 40, 60)—the “open view” of God that limits his omniscience. Because he perceptibly recognizes that Calvinists often disagree among themselves, Picirilli on several occasions lets “Calvinists answer Calvinists” (pp. 66, 75, 93, 132, 134).
In his chapter on “The Classical Arminian Doctrine of Predestination,” Picirilli has an extended discussion of God’s foreknowledge. He correctly maintains that “the Calvinist errs, on this subject, in suggesting that God knows the future certainly only because He first unconditionally foreordained (predestined) it” (pp. 39-40). He makes the case in this chapter for what he believes is “the Arminian’s main point of departure from Calvinism” (p. 53)—conditional election, but, in my opinion, relies too much on Arminius. His follow-up chapter, “Predestination in the New Testament,” has an extensive treatment of three key passages—Ephesians 1:3-14, Romans 9–11, and Romans 8:28 -30—and brief comments on other texts that relate to election or predestination. His discussion of Ephesians 1 is the most detailed, but his continual mention that a verb is in the aorist tense adds nothing to his arguments (pp. 66, 67, 69).
Picirilli’s view of election is confusing. On the difference between election and predestination, he states: “‘Election’ sees the saved as people God has chosen; ‘predestination’ refers to what He has chosen them for” (p. 68). On foreknowledge in Romans 8:29, he states that “a meaning similar to foreordination” would be “tautological” (p. 77). But in his conclusion, his first point seems to say otherwise: “God, in eternity, elected some to be saved. Ephesians 1:4 uses the word ‘elected.’ Romans 8:29 uses ‘foreknew’ in a sense very close to meaning ‘elected’: ‘in love acknowledged them as His’” (p. 83).
In the next section on the atonement, the arguments in Picirilli’s chapter on “Arminian Arguments for a Universal Atonement” are the standard ones used to combat the third point of Calvinism (Limited Atonement), but with a new twist. One of his proofs for a universal atonement is that “the truly saved may apostatize and eternally perish” (p. 115). If the apostasy of believers were in fact a possibility, then this would be a devastating argument against Limited Atonement. However, those who refuse to be labeled as a Calvinist or an Arminian would generally take issue with such a possibility. The follow-up chapter on the atonement, “New Testament Evidence for Universal Atonement,” contains very exhaustive studies on 1 John 2:2 and 1 Timothy 2:1-6 that break much new ground.
Picirilli considers the subject of Part 4, “The Application of Salvation” as an “area where the Calvinist least understands the Arminian, at least the Reformation Arminian” (p. 140). After showing in “Calvinism and the Administration of Salvation” that Calvinists stand the Gospel on its head by putting regeneration before faith, he posits the solution to the depravity and inability of the sinner as “prevenient grace” (p. 153), which he also terms “enabling grace” or “pre-regenerating grace” (p. 154), and defines as “that work of the Holy Spirit that ‘opens the heart’ of the unregenerate (to use the words of Acts 16:14) to the truth of the gospel and enables them to respond positively in faith” (p. 154). Thus, there can be no regeneration without the hearing of the Gospel, and “no possibility that one may receive regeneration and not be converted until later (or never) as in Calvinism” (p. 160). The follow-up chapter is basically a study of salvation by faith in the New Testament. Here Picirilli shows how so much related to salvation is “by faith.” Unlike Calvinism, the author considers faith and works to be “mutually exclusive” but faith and grace to be “complementary” (p. 178).
Because he is a genuine Arminian, Picirilli’s treatment of “Perseverance in Salvation” in Part 5 is just as was expected because historically, as he says, “Arminians have taught that those who are truly saved need to be warned against apostasy as a real and possible danger” (p. 198). (It should be noted that Picirilli defines apostasy as “a willful retraction of faith” [p. 205] and believes it to be final [p. 207]). But for someone who was so dependent on Arminius throughout the preceding chapters, it is strange that his views on apostasy are introduced and so quickly disregarded. Picirilli quotes Arminius as saying: “That true and saving faith may be, totally and finally, lost, I should not at once dare to say” (p. 198), and then proceeds at once to say exactly the opposite. According to Picirilli: “One’s possession of salvation is, at any time, conditioned on faith” (p. 203). He maintains that “the believer can leave his belief, become an unbeliever, and come into condemnation—thus escaping from the promise made to believers who continue in faith” (p. 201). The righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer as long as he remains “in Christ” (p. 206). But once again the author is confusing. He makes faith the sole condition of salvation (p. 204) and unbelief the sole condition of apostasy (p. 205). He is careful to stress that “we must not make sinful acts, in themselves, the cause of falling from grace” (p. 205). As long as “one continues to exercise saving faith, he has not committed apostasy” (p. 207). But then he says that works “are evidences of faith” (p. 205), and that “the Bible offers us no encouragement to provide assurance of salvation to those whose lives are characterized by sinful practice” (p. 207). He maintains the right to continue “to regard any person whose life is characterized by sinful practice (regardless what he claims about ‘salvation’) as having no grounds for assurance of salvation” (p. 206). Picirilli ends up sounding like a Calvinist arguing for his fifth point when he says that believers should be exhorted to “persevere in faith and good works” (p. 207). He even declares his agreement with Calvinists: “Careful Calvinists agree wholeheartedly with those of us who emphasize that one whose life consistently indicates that he is under the dominion of sin has no grounds—not even in the doctrine of perseverance—for assurance of salvation” (p. 206). These statements are why I point out in my book, The Other Side of Calvinism, that perseverance in the Calvinistic system is not the same as eternal security—it is pure Arminianism.
There is an alternative to both Calvinism and Arminianism, and Picirilli even mentions it. In the opening remarks to Part 5, he brings up the subject of eternal security. He calls its adherents “sub-Calvinists” (p. 184), as if we needed another term in the already burgeoning lexicon of the Calvinist/Arminian debate. He refers to these “sub-Calvinists” throughout the first two chapters of this section on perseverance (pp. 185, 186, 193, 194, 195, 200, 203). According to Picirilli, sub-Calvinists “think of themselves as Calvinists but really are not—as both Arminians and consistent Calvinists realize” (p. 193). The first part of this statement is an inaccurate deduction. Many adherents of eternal security repudiate any connection with Calvinism. But this is not the only inaccuracy in Picirilli’s depiction of those he terms “sub-Calvinists.” Commenting on the sub-Calvinist view of the nature of salvation, he claims that adherents of eternal security believe that “once a person is saved, he by nature will not ever desire to turn away from God” (p. 194). This is a gross misconception. Picirilli believes that the position of sub-Calvinists is “internally contradictory” because “they seem to believe that salvation is conditional, but they do not follow through with insistence that it remains conditional after the initial experience of regeneration” (p. 203). His view dismisses sub-Calvinist arguments as too logical (pp. 194, 195, 202, 203).
In spite of its various deficiencies that have been pointed out, Grace, Faith, Free Will is a welcome book because of the void it fills for a work critical of Calvinism from a genuine Arminian perspective. But it can never be emphasized enough that dividing men off into groups of either Calvinists or Arminians is one of the strengths of the Calvinistic system.
And because of his view of apostasy, Picirilli’s “Reformation Arminianism” is sure to be rejected as “the best resolution of the tensions” between Calvinism and Arminianism.
Laurence M. Vance