Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

Calvinism Archive



January 2014



Is Monergism Necessarily Fatalistic?

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Last week, I blogged on the topic “Is Synergism Necessarily Semi-Pelagian?” I did so with some hesitation. I do not like to blog about issues related to Calvinism and Arminianism because I don’t like the turn these discussions often take on the internet. However, the blog post received a lot of (mostly) positive feedback from folks across the theological spectrum. I have been asked by several readers to follow up by addressing the question of whether or not monergism is necessarily fatalistic, since synergists sometimes unfairly claim it is. Angels, I apologize once again. Please don’t put me on “the list.”

I do want to offer one caveat up front: while this is something of a parallel accusation to the one I addressed in the previous post, there is an important dissimilarity. Semi-Pelagianism is a theological position that arose at a particular point in church history and then was condemned as error. Fatalism is not a theological position per se, but is more an unhelpful philosophical outlook. So while monergists who equate synergism with semi-Pelagianism are at least implicitly charging synergists with heresy (or at least heterodoxy), synergists who equate monergism with fatalism are at least implicitly charging monergists with embracing a totally non-Christian position.

Some synergist theologians and philosophers accuse monergists of being fatalists. Sometimes, this is a nuanced argument that simply suggests monergism has fatalistic tendencies. Other times, the ignorant and slanderous accusation is made that the “god” of Calvinism is closer to Allah than Yahweh. As with the synergism accusations, often folks on blogs are far worse than scholars. For some reason, the internet seems to raise the temperature of the ill-informed with a theological axe to grind. While God may have foreordained some monergists to be jerks, nasty synergists, of course, choose to act out in nastiness by a free exercise of their will.

Strictly speaking, monergists are not fatalists. Fate, at least as traditionally understood, is purposeless and arbitrary. A sense of hopelessness and inevitability characterizes the one who is the victim of fate. No matter what you do, your choices are meaningless. You are captive to forces beyond your control and comprehension that have no personal interest in your wellbeing.

This is absolutely not what monergists believe. It is true that monergists understand God’s providence to mean that he has in some way sovereignly foreordained all that comes to pass, yet without being the author of evil. This would include, of course, who will be saved. But this is not fate for two reasons. First, providence is not purposeless and arbitrary—in fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. Providence is the outworking of a particular plan by the Lord of all creation. Second, providence does not render our choices meaningless. Nearly all monergists affirm that, while God’s providence is “prior” to our choices, it works in tandem with our choices.

So, when we look to conversion, the monergist believes that God has chosen who will be saved as part of his wider providential plan. But monergists also believe that we make real choices for which we are really accountable. Nobody will be saved apart from God’s predestining him or her for salvation. Nobody will be saved apart from a conscious choice to turn from his or her sins and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. From an eternal perspective, which we only have glimpses into, God has a plan that is infallibly being executed through his providence. From an earthly perspective, of which we have a clearer picture, every moment of one’s spiritual journey is based upon decisions that he or she makes. Though it can irritate some synergists, most monergists do not hesitate to appeal to mystery when it comes to the question of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Calvin did this frequently.

Just as some synergists are semi-Pelagian, some monergists are fatalists. Certain forms of High Calvinism, often called hyper-Calvinism, eliminate meaningful human response. Some of them argue for eternal justification, or the idea that we are already saved before the foundation of the world. Some of them deny the necessity of a faith response to the gospel. Some of them are antinomian, arguing that God’s moral commands are irrelevant for the elect. Some of them argue that God is the author of evil. But these fatalistic ideas are not necessary to monergists; few, in fact, advocate them.

Tobias Crisp (1600-1643)

In the same way that some synergists who are not semi-Pelagian sound like semi-Pelagians when they are being incautious or sloppy, some monergists who are not fatalists sound like fatalists when they are being incautious or sloppy. I have heard several monergists say fatalistic things and then backtrack upon being lovingly confronted. I have only ever met one honest to goodness fatalist in a Southern Baptist or other evangelical context. Almost no monergists  wear Tobias Crisp jammies to bed at night.

If you know a monergist who sounds like a fatalist, do the Christ-like thing and assume he is not, in fact, a hyper-Calvinist or antinomian, but rather is not really thinking about what he is saying. Instead of making pointed (and perhaps harsh) accusations, have a real theological conversation with your brother. Press him as you would want to be pressed if you were unwittingly saying heterodox things in your own teaching.

This is the bottom line for me: while monergists and synergists can’t both be right, most folks in both camps are not so wrong that they are off the orthodox reservation. The vast majority of evangelical monergists and synergists are preaching the same gospel, even if they nuance aspects of it differently. So let’s talk to each other like grown-up brothers and sisters in Christ rather than treating those with different views like theological lepers.

One more thing: I want to challenge my synergist friends to take the lead in lovingly confronting folks who say abberant things in your own camp at least as often as you debate your monergist friends. And the same goes for monergists—lovingly confront those in your camp who advance unhelpful views at least as often as you debate synergists. I sincerely believe that this sort of self-policing will help reign in some of the most unhelpful voices in our wider discussions about Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, Traditionalism and all the other “isms” that represent our honest attempts to wrestle with what the Scriptures teach us about the nature of salvation.

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January 2014



Is Synergism Necessarily Semi-Pelagian?

Written by , Posted in History, Theology

It is with great hesitation that I break with my usual practice and blog about a topic related to Calvinism and Arminianism. Anytime someone blogs on this subject, an angel loses its wings. I want to apologize, in advance, to the poor angel who is now grounded because of this post.

Several years ago, I was reading a book by a well-known Reformed theologian with a significant following. In his treatise, he argued that early Arminianism was a revival of semi-Pelagianism; the latter is a heresy that was condemned in the sixth century at the Council of Orange (529). More recently, I was listening to a different Reformed scholar teach on the debate between the Calvinists and Remonstrants that led to the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619. This second brother made exactly the same argument: Arminianism represents a revival of semi-Pelagianism. Their point, of course, is that Arminianism is at least borderline heretical and that Calvinism, as understood by the scholars in question, is more or less the same thing as the gospel.

As a historical theologian, this sort of argumentation drives me bananas. The scholars in question, each of whom holds a prestigious Ph.D. and has taught for many years in more than one theological seminary, ought to know better. I think it is at least possible that their polemics ran ahead of their scholarship in this particular case. Unfortunately, this sort of approach is even worse at the popular level. Who hasn’t read a highly caffeinated Reformed blogger at one time or another who basically draws a (barely) dotted line from “two-point” Calvinism, to Arminianism, to semi-Pelagianism, to Pelagianism?

Now I know that Arminians do this same sort of thing sometimes. Amyraldianism is just a poor man’s version of Calvinism, which in turn is just a Christianized version of fatalism, which makes Calvinism similar to Islam. Yep, I’ve heard that one before, also from folks who ought to know better. But since the Calvinists own the internet, which God predestined Al Gore to invent just for them, I want to focus this particular post on offenders who are more Reformed in their inclinations.

Arminians are soteriological synergists. They believe that men and women cooperate with God’s grace in their conversion. God’s grace is prior to conversion, and no person takes the “first step” toward God in his or her salvation. Nevertheless, regeneration is the result of a human response to God’s gracious initiative. This is different than monergism, which is affirmed by Calvinists. In monergism, God is the only actor in human conversion, regenerating the dead heart and granting the ability to believe. For the monergist, men and women don’t cooperative with God’s grace–salvation is a work of God from beginning to end.

John Cassian (c. 360-435)

Though Arminians are synergists, they are not semi-Pelagians, even though the latter are also synergists. Semi-Pelagians believe that original sin, though real, does not impair human ability to believe. Therefore, we take the “first step” toward God when we believe. God then responds to our faith by giving us the grace that completes our conversion. This is not what Arminians believe. This is not what “two-point” Calvinists believe. This is not what “Traditionalists” in the Southern Baptist Convention believe. None of these latter groups, all of whom affirm synergism, believes that we up and decide to trust in Christ and then God responds by giving us saving grace. Instead, they argue–like Calvinists–that God graciously initiates our salvation and is involved in every step of conversion, even if they nuance matters differently than monergistic believers. Synergism is not necessarily semi-Pelagianism, in much the same way that monergism is not necessarly fatalism.

To be clear, I am not saying that semi-Pelagianism is not a real danger. I have heard preachers say semi-Pelagian(ish) things in their sermons. For example, I have heard many preachers say things like, “God has done all he is going to do at the cross, and now he is waiting for you to respond. It’s all up to you. If you choose to believe, he will give you grace and save you.” That certainly smacks of semi-Pelagianism, mixed with a dose of revivalism. It makes it sound as though God is waiting idly by to respond to our free will decisions. This sort of preaching is a real problem, sometimes among Southern Baptists, and we ought to be constantly on guard that we are not slipping into human-centered gospel presentations.

And yet, even when I hear this sort of rhetoric, I highly doubt it is convictional semi-Pelagianism as much as it is theological sloppiness–not an uncommon thing among even the most educated and erudite preachers. Almost certainly the brother who spoke such things would deny semi-Pelagianism if you explained it and contrasted it with other views. There is about a 3% chance he would respond, “Yep, I’m totally a semi-Pelagian. John Cassian is my homeboy.” This preacher doesn’t need to be demonized with a label that only sticks if you squint–he needs to be gently corrected in a real conversation by someone who cares about him as a brother in Christ and values his ministry as a preacher.

For a helpful, brief resource on the differences between Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism, check out this insightful post by Marc Cortez. In the interest of full disclosure, it was reading Cortez’s post that inspired me to write my own thoughts on this topic.

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September 2013



Andrew Fuller on God’s Sovereignty & Human Responsibility

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From The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, 2nd ed. (1801):

Were a difficulty allowed to exist as to the reconciling of these subjects, it would not warrant a rejection of either of them. If I find two doctrines affirmed or implied in the Scriptures, which, to my feeble understanding, may seem to clash, I ought not to embrace the one and to reject the other because of their supposed inconsistency; for, on the same ground, another person might embrace that which I reject, and reject that which I embrace, and have equal Scriptural authority for his faith as I have for mine. Yet in this manner many have acted on both sides: some, taking the general precepts and invitations of Scripture for their standard, have rejected the doctrine of discriminating grace; others, taking the declarations of salvation as being a fruit of electing love for their standard, deny that sinners without distinction are called upon to believe for the salvation of their souls. Hence it is that we hear of Calvinistic and Arminian texts; as though these leaders had agreed to divide the Scriptures between them. The truth is, there are but two ways for us to take: one is to reject them both, and the Bible with them, on account of its inconsistencies; the other is to embrace them both, concluding that, as they are both revealed in the Scriptures, they are both true, and both consistent, and that is owing to the darkness of our understandings that they do no appear so to us.

See Andrew Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” in The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, vol. II, ed. Joseph Belcher (1845; reprint, Sprinkle Publications, 1988): 367.



July 2013



John Ryland Jr.’s Preface to Help to Zion’s Travellers

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In 1781, Robert Hall Sr. published his bestselling treatise Help to Zion’s Travellers. The book was revised from a 1779 sermon that Hall preached before the Northamptonshire Baptist Association. Help to Zion’s Travellers was one of the first broadsides against hyper-Calvinism written by a Particular Baptist. Along with Abraham Booth’s The Reign of Grace and Andrew Fuller’s The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, Help to Zion’s Travellers was a key literary influence in popularizing evangelical sentiments among British Calvinistic Baptists during the latter decades of the “long” eighteenth century (1689–1815).

In 2011, I edited a new edition of Help to Zion’s Travellers for BorderStone Press. One of the items included in the front matter is John Ryland Jr.’s preface to the 1807 edition of the book. Hall had a significant influence upon Ryland and his contemporaries, including the more famous Andrew Fuller and William Carey. The preface summarizes many of the concerns that Ryland and other evangelical Calvinists raised against errors such as hyper-Calvinism, antinomianism, and Arminianism. You can find the preface on pages xlvii–liii of the updated edition of Help to Zion’s Travellers.


Preface to the Second London Edition

TWENTY-EIGHT years have elapsed since that Sermon was delivered, in my father’s pulpit, at Northampton, before the Baptist Association, which Mr. Hall afterwards enlarged into the following Treatise. As I then united with many others in earnestly soliciting its publication, so I have since repeatedly perused it with much satisfaction, When, therefore, the publisher of the present edition applied to me for a recommendatory preface, I felt no hesitation but what arose from the early impressions of veneration for one of the wisest and best of men, to whom I was habituated to look up with such respect, as made this office feel to me assuming and arrogant. But when I reflect that he has been removed from our world for more than sixteen years, (and verily I miss no man more!) and consider that, since his decease, many have joined our churches, who never had opportunity duly to appreciate his worth; it seems not to be taking too much upon me, to testify in what high estimation he was justly held by those who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. Strong natural powers, ardent piety, deep exercises of mind, a series of singular and sanctified trials, with a special unction from the Holy One, rendered him a man of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord.

Deeply convinced of human guilt and depravity, and very zealous for the honor of sovereign grace; but no less concerned for internal holiness and practical religion; he was careful to walk in the midst of the paths of judgment, and to beware of turning aside to the right hand or the left.

He called no man upon earth master, in respect of his religious sentiments, but he took a peculiar delight in the writing of President EDWARDS; and two Sermons by Mr. Smalley, (which I borrowed of our venerable friend Mr. Newton, of Olney, and after transcribing them, lent them to Mr. Hall,) contributed much to strengthen his conviction, that the moral impotence of sinners is no more an excuse for their slighting the call of the gospel, than it is for their violating the commands of the law. As the greatest disinclination to regard Divine authority cannot release a rational creature from an obligation to obey God’s precepts; so the utter aversion of a sinner to regard the kindness of God our Saviour, cannot release him from an obligation thankfully to comply with his invitations.

At the same time, Mr. Hall remained as strenuous an advocate as ever for the necessity and efficacy of divine influence, to induce sinners or saints to comply cordially with their indispensable duty; and he was more abundantly confirmed in a belief of the sovereign freeness of grace, by reflecting that the inexcusable perverseness of the human heart, which renders the agency of the divine Spirit so necessary, must at the same time evince that we are utterly unworthy of his gracious interposition. The greater our reluctance is to come unto God, in the way which he has prescribed for our return, the more undeserving are we of being drawn unto him by his Holy Spirit.

But this excellent man remarked, that if the invitations of the gospel are not indefinite, or addressed to sinners considered simply as needy and guilty, there can be no foundation for the first act of faith; the sinner can have no warrant for his application to Christ, unless he could know his election, or prove his regeneration, before he committed his soul to him. Hence, as he once observed in a letter to a friend, they who would restrict the call of the gospel, “ought in reason to point out how unbelievers may know their election or regeneration in order to warrant their first application to Christ; or how the assurance of personal interest in Christ may be obtained, before persons come to him. The first acts of faith must be unwarrantable and presumptuous, if there be no previous call or invitation. We allow a change of heart must precede faith, but unknown renovation cannot be the ground of the sinner’s first encouragement to apply to the Saviour; or that on which his right to confide in him is founded, because it is unknown. And to suppose any knowledge of regeneration or a change of heart, in order to a reliance on Jesus, is the same as supposing an assurance of possessing the spirit and grace of God, while an unbeliever; or that a man must know he is really safe, before he flees from danger.”

This little volume, however, is far from being confined to a subject on which Mr. Hall, in his latter years, thought differently from the opinion he had embraced at his first setting out in the ministry. It contains an able vindication of the genuine doctrines of grace, from the objections of Socinians, Sabellians, Arminians, and Antinomians. At its first publication, it was much approved by many pious, judicious, and learned men, of different denominations; and here that excellent man, who is now laboring in India, with such indefatigable zeal for the salvation of the heathen, first found his own system of divinity. Raised from the greatest obscurity, Mr. Carey had but little access to books, at his first setting out in religion; and perplexed between the statements of the Arminians, and the crude representations of Calvinism, by persons bordering closely on Antinomianism, he searched the Scriptures attentively for himself, endeavoring to find out the narrow way, between extremes which seemed irreconcilable to the honor of divine government, and the glory of divine grace: and this was the first summary of evangelical truth, which appeared to him fully to accord with the sacred standard.

On one particular which many readers might expect Mr. Hall to have noticed, he has hardly touched, viz. the denial of the law of God as a rule of conduct to believers. This sentiment he ever considered as so gross a piece of Antinomianism, that he did not suppose any man could embrace it, whose conscience was not seared as with a hot iron. The eminent divines, who verged to an extreme respecting the obligation of sinners to repent and believe the gospel, would have reprobated this doctrine, as tending to the greatest licentiousness. Dr. Gill, Mr. Brine, Mr. Toplady, &c., utterly condemned so vile a sentiment. But within the last twenty years how many who exclaimed against Mr. Hall and his brethren, for embracing new sentiments respecting the duty of sinners, have readily departed from their former guides, and embraced new notions respecting the duty of believers!

To me it appears a most marvelous instance of the deceitfulness of sin, if any man can think himself a friend to evangelical religion, who by sinking unbelievers below all obligation, and raising believers above all obligation, almost annihilates both duty and sin, and so leaves no room for the exercise of either pardoning mercy or sanctifying grace. The apostolic axiom, “where there is no law there is no transgression,” justly leads us to conclude, that they who are below or above law have no guilt, and need no Saviour; there is no room to show the riches of his grace, or the efficacy of his blood, in the pardon of those who never deserved punishment. If the command be exceedingly narrow, our sins must be very few, and the pardon of them a small matter. And if the effectual influence of the Spirit be supposed to be the source, rule, and measure of Obligation, no one can have reason to mourn for sin; since he always does as much as he was powerfully inclined to do, and by this supposition it was not his duty to do any more. Thus sinless perfection is easily attained, though in the backward way; not by coming up to the standard of rectitude, but by bringing it down to our level. Most comfortable doctrine to a carnal heart!

May God bless the reprinting of this excellent work, to lead many more fully into the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, is the earnest prayer of

The reader’s cordial friend,
And servant, for Christ’s sake,

John Ryland




June 2013



Baptist 21 Interview with Louisiana College President Joe Aguillard

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Joe Aguillard

As you may have heard, Jon Akin of Baptist 21 conducted an interview with Joe Aguillard, the controversial president of Louisiana College, last Monday at the SBC Annual Meeting in Houston. I was present for the event, which was quite interesting (to say least). I would hazard a guess that me and my friends were not the only folks in Houston discussing the interview over dinner that evening.

Many people were following the interview as it happened via social media, especially Twitter. Fortunately, the video of the interview has now been posted at the Baptist 21 website. In the interview, Aguillard addresses a variety of questions about recent faculty terminations, rumors of financial impropriety, allegations of “hyper-Calvinism” at the school, and controversy over an unawarded teaching award. He also discusses, in a more roundabout way, his understanding of such matters as biblical interpretation, the priesthood of all believers, confessionalism, presidential authority in a college, and academic freedom. If you haven’t watched the interview yet, I would encourage you to do so.

In the interest of full disclosure, two of the terminated professors are friends of mine for whom I have the utmost respect. I’m thankful that one of them has been hired at an outstanding Christian university in another state. Join me in praying for the other two brothers as they look for new positions where they can use their gifts to serve the Lord through the ministry of theological education.