Book Review: God So Loved the World, by Fisher Humphreys and Paul Robertson

Review
03.05.2010

Fisher Humphreys and Paul Robertson have contributed to an important and far-reaching debate in Baptist life with their book, God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism.  In some sense, it was inevitable that debate over more precise matters of theology would arise from Southern Baptists’ declaration of their belief in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.  And that is a good thing.  Once the authority of the Scriptures is established, it is only natural then to ask questions about what those Scriptures actually teach.  The question is no longer whether the Bible can be trusted, but what we are finally to believe about God, Christ, man, and redemption.  In their book, Professors Humphreys and Robertson declare their submission to the Scriptures and seek to ground their conclusions on it.  For that, I am grateful.  If nothing else, it is a victory of monumental importance that debate is now being conducted not on the basis of human feeling or opinion, but on the teaching of the Scriptures.  That in itself, I am sure, is glorifying and honoring to God.

A large portion of Prof. Humphreys’s book is devoted to a proof that the term “traditional Baptists” rightly belongs to those Baptists who reject the Calvinist understanding of redemption.  His argument is that the first Baptist churches, those at the headwaters of the pedigree of modern Baptists, were not Calvinistic in their doctrine.  It was only several years later that the first Calvinistic Baptist churches were founded.  As a historical point, there is no need to debate that.  It is simply a fact that the first English Baptists, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, were decidedly anti-Calvinistic.  That granted, it is not clear to me why it is so important to Professor Humphreys’s argument that he be able to claim the title “traditional Baptist.”  As Christians, our authority does not rest in tradition or history, but rather in the Bible.  In fact, that is the very essence of what it means to be an “evangelical” Christian.  Consider this:  John Smyth, in addition to rejecting Calvinism, also rejected the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.  Prof. Humphreys writes that Article 8 of his statement of faith is a “forceful rejection of . . . Calvinistic claims.”  If that is the case, then Article 9 is just as forceful a rejection of Protestant claims and an embrace of Roman Catholicism.  Smyth writes there, “That the justification of man . . . consists partly of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith, and partly of inherent righteousness, in the holy themselves,” (George, Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms, p. 32).

All of this is simply to say that it is no virtue for one’s beliefs to line up with the first Baptists’, or for that matter with any other uninspired human’s.  Consequently, if our highest priority is to believe what the Bible teaches, then it really matters very little who finally comes down with the title “traditional.”  It is only when the desire to be true to a heritage outweighs the desire to be true to Scripture that the title “traditional Baptist” becomes an advantage of any importance.  Personally, if being a “traditional Baptist” means that I must line up with the beliefs of the first Baptists, including John Smyth’s embrace of a Roman Catholic understanding of justification, then I am more than happy to jettison the unhappy title.  Much more to my credit, or to any other Christian’s, would be the title “biblical Baptist.

With that in mind, I would caution Professor Humphreys about his emphasis on tradition.  I am sure that there are thousands of Southern Baptists in the United States who would read a statement like “Traditional Baptists do not believe that God foreordains everything that happens,” (p.9) and think, “Well, I am a traditional Baptist.  Or at least I want to be.  So I guess I don’t believe that God foreordains everything that happens.” After all, who wants to believe that their beliefs are somehow novel or outside the mainstream?  That seems to me to be an exceedingly dangerous road to travel.  Christians, and Baptists in particular, need to be taught to develop their theology based on Scripture, not on heritage.  The pressure is already too great for Christians, and Baptists par excellence, to believe something simply because “Old time religion is good enough for me.”  After a twenty year battle for the inerrancy of the Scriptures, it seems that the last thing we would want to do is effectively exchange the Bible’s authority, to any degree at all, for that of tradition.

To his credit, Professor Humphreys does spend the second half of his book surveying the biblical evidence for election, or predestination.  The argument proceeds on two major premises:  first, that human beings must have free will, and second, that God loves everybody in the world in exactly the same way.  The intricacies of the arguments for and against Calvinism have been rehearsed and published more times than one can count, so I will not add to that stack of paper in this review.  I think it will be instructive, though, to notice several things about Prof. Humphreys’s handling of both theological arguments and the Scriptures.  Prof. Humphreys says on page 4 that “We have not written the book for Calvinists.  If we had intended to engage Calvinists in our debate our book . . . would be much longer because we would need to review many arguments used by Calvinists and offer detailed responses to them.”  It seems clear that he is writing this book for people who have given relatively little thought to the issue, and the result is that the main argument ends up hammering quite unfairly on an emotional chord.  What I mean by that is that the book seems to want readers to get the idea that a belief that God loves the world is unique to Arminians.  Consider this sentence, on page 1:  “Sometimes he [a Calvinist] seemed to be saying that God doesn’t love everyone in the world, only Christians.”  Or this one, on page 96:  “What troubles us most about Calvinism is that Calvinism fails to say clearly and forcefully that God loves the world.”  Even the title of the book, “God So Loved the World,” seems to be an attempt to say that Calvinists do not believe John 3:16.  For anyone unstudied in the debate, that is a knock-down argument.  Who would ever embrace a system of theology that doesn’t believe in John 3:16?  In reality, though, as I am sure Prof. Humphreys is aware, the discussion is much more complex than that.  Calvinists do believe that God so loved the world.  They also believe that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.  A Calvinist simply asks one further question:  “Why do some believe while others do not?”  And his answer is this:  “It does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy,” (Romans 9:16).

I believe that it is the duty of every teacher in the service of Christ to faithfully handle what the Scripture says, to take it at its word, and to incorporate all of its truth into our beliefs.  Especially when one is introducing an argument to an audience, as Professors Humphreys and Robertson here claim to be doing, it is vitally important to take head on those passages which cannot be easily explained according to one’s own theology.  In several places in their book, I believe Professors Humphreys and Robertson have done a less-than-exemplary job of exegeting certain passages.  Let me give some examples.  On pages 72-73, they quote John 6:35-37, which ends like this:  “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”  In explaining this text, the professors quote John 6:44:  “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”  They write,

The Calvininist reading of these verses [John 6:44, 65] is that God’s drawing controls the response of the person, but we think that Jesus is assuming that God draws all people, not just some.  John 12:12 is our clue for this:  Jesus said that he would “draw all men” to himself.

Certainly that is a plausible reading of John 6:44, 65.  An Arminian could easily argue that indeed, no one comes to Jesus without the Father drawing him—it’s just that the Father draws everybody.  But that does nothing to explain John 6:37.  If the Father indeed draws everybody, then how is it that “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me?”  What does it mean here for the Father to give some people to Jesus, in such a way that every single person who is given will, without doubt, come to Him?  Humphreys and Robertson do not answer.  Calvinists answer, “Election.”

In another place, pages 76-77, the professors attempt an explanation of Romans 9:22-23:  “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? . . .”  Their reading of this verse 22 is that “God ‘endured with much patience’ (9:22) persons whose lives are fit for destruction,” (emphasis added), which is as much as to say, persons who are guilty of sin.  It is simply unclear to me how the words “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” could be faithfully construed to mean simply those who are guilty of sin, especially when contrasted with “vessels of glory, which He prepared beforehand for glory,” (Romans 9:23).  The whole world, every human being who has ever lived excepting Jesus, have “lives that are fit for destruction.”  These verses, though, seem to be saying something more.  These seem to be saying that there are some out of that sinful mass that are “prepared beforehand for glory,” and others that are “prepared for destruction.”  The professors’ reading of this verse is simply inadequate to its meaning.

I am glad that Professors Humphreys and Robertson have been willing to have the conversation about how exactly it is that God saves His people.  I hope, however, that the debate can be had on the basis of Scripture and not on what Baptists have or have not believed in the past.  To be quite honest, I believe that a comprehensive look at Baptist history would reveal plainly that Baptists historically have been largely a Calvinistic people, at least until the last eighty or so years.  Consider the great names of Baptist history: John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey.  All of these men were enraptured by a vision of God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation.  Even more, I believe such a historical study would reveal that the Calvinists in our heritage have been the least likely throughout history to drift into doctrinal error.  Nevertheless, the final court of appeal must be neither tradition nor heritage nor great men of the past, but the Scriptures.  There is our final authority, and there the greatest questions of life must be answered.

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.