Malcolm Yarnell on Calvinism

I am sure that I will be accused of only having one string on my banjo for bringing up Calvinism again, but it is difficult to remain silent when the dialogue about Calvinism gets off track so often. Sometimes it’s the slight misperceptions that are the most egregious errors because they often come across as the most plausible. It is this fact that most concerns me about the article printed on page 9 of the current SBC Life entitled, “The TULIP of Calvinism in Light of History and the Baptist Faith and Message” by my friend, Malcolm Yarnell. Recent readers of this blog (previous posts dealing with another article by Yarnell are found here: 1, 2, 3, 4) will be familiar with Dr. Yarnell and may recall that he is the Assistant Dean for Theological Studies, Director of the Center for Theological Research, and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. I do count him a friend and appreciate his ministry very much. My interaction with and critique of his article should not be construed as any kind of personal animosity at all.

I would much rather have Dr. Yarnell attempting to define historic Calvinism than many other denominational employees I know. He is obviously familiar with the historical background of the so-called “5 points.” However, I am disappointed by some of the imprecise language that his article employs because it results in giving the wrong impression about a few of the key points involved. Perhaps some of these were mere editorial mishaps. Be that as it may, the resulting misperceptions are no less unfortunate.
On “Total Depravity,” Dr. Yarnell writes:

Calvinists at Dort viewed man not simply as sinful, but argued that every aspect of man’s being is affected by sin, including his will.

Though he does not directly say so, by the way this is stated Dr. Yarnell gives the impression that he disagrees with Dort’s view and would favor thinking of man “simply as sinful.” Yet, in Romans 3:10-18, Paul seems to go beyond that kind of simple declaration. His catena of Old Testament descriptors gives the impression that he is following the trail of a tornado that has ripped through human nature leaving nothing, including the will, untouched. Dr. Yarnell continues:

Some of Calvin’s later followers went so far as to say that God actually decreed humans to become sinners. On the basis of Scripture (Romans. 3:23), Southern Baptists have consistently affirmed that all humans are sinners by nature and by choice, but have generally rejected extreme views of post-Dort Calvinists that man is incapable of moral action and that God is ultimately responsible for human sin (emphasis added)

I know of no Calvinist in history who has ever argued that fallen man is “incapable of moral action.” The argument that some Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, Andrew Fuller and others do make is that fallen man is incapable of any morally GOOD action (as God reckons goodness). Specifically, fallen, unregenerate man is incapable of seeking God, obeying His law or doing anything that is pleasing to Him. Isn’t this exactly what the Bible teaches? “There is none who seeks after God” (Romans 3:11), “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7, emphasis added), “So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8, emphasis added). By linking “man is incapable of moral action” and “God is ultimately responsible for human sin” Yarnell misconstrues a historical theological debate (about the nature of human inability) and links it to a conclusion that he unjustifiably deduces from a theology of decrees.

Dr. Yarnell may think that any doctrine of an eternal decree necessarily requires his conclusion, yet he surely knows–and should let his readers know–that the London Baptist Confession published in 1689 is representative of most Calvinists in its disavowal of that notion. Chapter 3 opens with these words:

God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree (emphasis added-TA).

In his treatment of unconditional election, Dr. Yarnell writes as if Calvin did not believe in “double predestination.” Again, he does not actually say it, but attributes not only this position, but also the decree to elect to “followers of Calvin.” Then he makes this unverifiable assertion:

Most Southern Baptists would counter that it is God’s revealed will that all people experience salvation, citing texts such as: The Lord … is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance (emphasis added [MY], 2 Peter 3:9) and God our Savior … wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (emphasis added [MY], 1 Timothy 2:4). In response, Calvinists argue their system is part of God’s “secret will,” not His “revealed will.” but the source of their knowledge of this “secret will” is unclear. [this quote ends with a footnote: “The Canons of the Synod of Dort,” First Head, art. vi; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xxi-xxiii, especially III.xxiii.1; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 213-16, 683-84.]

Anytime anyone speaks for “most Southern Baptists” you can be sure that they have forgotten the greatest malady facing Southern Baptist churches: AWOL church members. As long as we cannot find the majority of those on our rolls, it is impossible to speak for “most” of them. Call it a technicality, but it is one that I intend to continue to point out as long as denominational leaders continue to refuse to address it. Furthermore, Deuteronomy 29:29 is the source of my knowledge that God has a secret will: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Here is more:

The Baptist Faith and Message, in simple accord with Scripture, states: “Election is the gracious purpose of God” which “is consistent with the free agency of man.” [footnote: Baptist Faith and Message, art. v.] Southern Baptists affirm diverse understandings of divine election (cf. Romans 8:29-30; Ephesians 1:5-11), but most would likely reject the view of those Calvinists who narrowly define unconditional election as double predestination.

But what about those Calvinists that see election as God’s choice of specific sinners whom He intends to save? Or, as the Baptist Faith and Message puts it, “Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners” [emphasis added]. It would have helped his readers to see just how Calvinistic the Baptist Faith and Message is at this point if Dr. Yarnell had not omitted the rest of this sentence (which I put in bold) when speaking of election.

His treatment of “limited atonement” rightly notes that, according to Calvinism, “the atonement is limited to the elect.” Then he makes this (unverifia
ble) assertion, “The vast majority of Southern Baptists would disagree with those who claim that Christ’s death on the cross was only intended for “‘the elect.'” Don’t misunderstand my protest. He is probably right, but who knows?

It is in the section on “irresistible grace” that Dr. Yarnell makes makes some of his most unfortunate mistakes. First, he writes:

Arminians concluded that men could resist God’s grace. The Calvinists of Dort disagreed, saying that God’s grace is ultimately irresistible, that divine election works unfailingly, and that the depraved and fallen human will is not exercised in conversion. When the converted human will is later exercised, it is only because God “powerfully bends” it. [this is footnoted to “‘Articles,’ art. iv; ‘Canons,’ Third and Fourth Heads, arts. viii, x, xii;” emphasis added by TA]

This is either a misunderstanding or an imprecise, and therefore misleading, expression of what Dort actually asserts. Article 16 of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine says this:

But as man by the fall did not cease to be a creature, endowed with understanding and will, nor did sin which pervaded the whole race of mankind, deprive him of the human nature, but brought upon him depravity and spiritual death; so also this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties, neither does violence thereto; but spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it; that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign; in which the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consist. Wherefore unless the admirable author of every good work wrought in us, man could have no hope of recovering from his fall by his own free will, by the abuse of which, in a state of innocence, he plunged himself into ruin (emphasis added).

Dr. Yarnell confuses regeneration with conversion, something that careful Calvinistic theologians would protest strongly. Regeneration initiates conversion. That is, it brings forth the fruits of repentance and faith in the sinner’s heart and mind. Yarnell’s mistake at this point is even more problematic when he misstates what the Baptist Faith and Message says about “salvation” (rather than “regeneration”). He writes:

Avoiding this concept of irresistible grace, the Baptist Faith and Message states that salvation is a “change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and adds: “Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.” [this is footnoted to: Baptist Faith and Message, art. iv.a; emphasis added by TA]

But look at what the Baptist Faith and Message actually says:

Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace (emphasis added).

Just as regeneration and conversion are not synonyms, neither are regeneration and salvation. Rather, salvation is a more comprehensive term that includes regeneration (as well as justification, adoption, sanctification, etc.) as a constituent part. This distinction is vital to a clear understanding of what Calvinism does and does not teach. Furthermore, as the Baptist Faith and Message’s statement stands, it actually affirms effectual calling (or “irresistible grace”) by asserting that regeneration is “a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, regeneration creates faith and repentance in the sinner. It is of such a nature that when it works in a sinner’s life, that sinner “responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Dort describes this response by saying that “a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign.”

Some may accuse me of quibbling over minor details in an article that, in some respects, has much to commend it. However, I agree with the Puritan Richard Rogers who, when criticized for being too precise, responded, “Sir, I serve a precise God.” When representing the views of others, especially when writing about issues that are important, controversial and often misunderstood, it behooves us to be as careful as possible. Lack of precision mars Dr. Yarnell’s article. Consequently, where it could have greatly helped clarify all of the the issues that it addressed, it may unfortunately wind up confusing uninformed readers almost as much as it properly instructs them.