Ben Witherington (Theopedia | Wikipedia) apparently thinks so. In his recent post “Mr. Falwell Moves On Up” he said, “Throughout his adult life he remained a committed Reformed Dispensationalist Baptist.” When I read that I did a double take, as you probably just did. Reformed?! In what sense?! It seems that he is using Reformed as a synonym for Calvinist rather than as a synonym for Covenantalist, since it occurs alongside Dispensationalist.
Jerry Falwell (Wikipedia) a Calvinist?! The same man who just pronounced limited atonement heresy?! Here are the words from a chapel message entitled “Our Message, Mission and Vision,” which Falwell preached at Liberty University on Friday, April 13, 2007—almost exactly a month prior to his death.
And we believe here at Liberty in the substitutionary atonement of Christ for all men. We believe that Jesus Christ was the perfect God-man, who died upon the cross of Calvary to take my sins, your sins, the sins of all humanity upon himself and that, duh, that anyone who trusts him, who believes in his death, burial, resurrection, is born again. We don’t believe that Jesus Christ died for a select few, sometimes called “the elect.” We believe that who-so-ever will may come—and that no one is left out. We are not in the into particular love or limited atonement. As a matter of fact we consider it heresy. And so we are believing that all men everywhere in every age can be saved if they will come to the living Christ, who died for them.
- James White (Theopedia | Wikipedia): Jerry Falwell Identifies Calvinism as Heresy
- Tom Ascol: Jerry Falwell’s Friday the 13th declaration: Limited atonement is heresy
Not too many Reformed folk that I know of would say that about limited atonement, even if they did reject it. Sounds more like something you’d find in John R. Rice’s magnum opus False Doctrines Answered, in which he claimed that it is okay to be a Calvinist like C. H. Spurgeon, but if you believe in any one of the five points of Calvinism, you are a hyper-Calvinist, since each of the five points is false doctrine and heresy. Huh? Yeah. You read that right. I’m not even going to go there.
Anyway, back to the issue at hand. Naturally I questioned Dr. Witherington on this claim, looking for some of the evidence that led him to this conclusion.
Reformed? That’s news to me. Can you substantiate that?
His response was very disappointing on several levels, but it did confirm that by Reformed he did indeed mean Calvinist.
Hi Philip– yep Jerry was a seven and a half point Calvinist. If you read or hear any of his sermons on the sovereignty of God this is clear enough. This is not uncommon with Dispensationalists.
No. I didn’t make that up. That’s really what he said. Go and read it at his blog for yourself if you don’t believe me. I was shocked to read this from a scholar of Witherington’s stature. Now, I’m not sure what a seven-and-a-half-point Calvinist is—more particularly, what those points are—but I’d be shocked if such a one would call limited atonement heresy! By the way, that would mean that there would have to be at least nine points of Calvinism. (There has to be at least eight for Falwell to hold to seven and a half of them, and there has to be at least nine for Falwell to hold to seven and a half of them while rejecting limited atonement.) Anyone have any idea what those nine might be? Dr. Witherington?
How serious Witherington is here, I’m not sure. But I don’t really sense any jesting. Perhaps Dr. Witherington is getting Jerry Falwell and John Piper (Theopedia | Wikipedia) confused. Piper is most certainly a Calvinist, and even half jokingly (and half seriously) calls himself a seven-point Calvinist.1 But Piper would certainly affirm limited atonement, rather than calling it heresy. So I’m not sure what to make of the claim that Falwell affirmed another point and a half beyond John Piper, while rejecting limited atonement and labeling it heresy.2
Witherington doesn’t really provide much by way of objective evidence for his assertion, and something makes me skeptical of the validity of Witherington’s claim that any of Falwell’s sermons on the sovereignty of God would demonstrate clearly enough that he is a seven-and-a-half-point Calvinist. If that is the case, how about someone pointing me to at least one of them. Dr. Witherington?
I’m pretty sure just about any Calvinist would take issue with labeling Rev. Falwell as one of their own. I’ve read tons of critiques of Falwell’s soteriology from Calvinist quarters. The best I could see is that he was a one and a half or 2 point Calvinist, who bought into a modified total depravity and Baptist views of “eternal security.” I think I read stuff on his site before that claimed he was not either an Arminian or Calvinist. Basically he just held to what is now mainstream doctrine amongst most conservative Baptist groups (excluding the Free Will Baptists) regarding the doctrine of salvation. Perhaps I missed something else though along the way. However, he most certainly was a staunch dispensationalist and did buy into what was arguably an unhealthy patriology. All that said, I join with those who mourn his passing and am sickened by those who [have] been laughing off or celebrating his death.
Witherington gave another unimpressive response:
o.k. Bill . . . sometimes when a Baptist gets hold of Calvin funny things happen to T.U.L.I.P.
I’m not quite sure what that means. Perhaps it’s a veiled admission of being wrong. Who knows.
Another piece of evidence that leads me to question whether Falwell was a Calvinist is the fact that his seminary’s president, Ergun Caner, is an Arminian (though he claims to be neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian) and was supposed to debate James White on Calvinism several months ago. I’d be surprised if a seven-and-a-half-point Calvinist would hire such a staunch opposer of Calvinism to run his seminary!
Two final pieces of evidence: on Ergun Caner’s site, in a post entitled “A Man of Valor . . . ,” the following words about Jerry Falwell appear:
Why did God bless our Pastor and Chancellor, Dr. Jerry Falwell, so greatly? Because he was a man of integrity and courage—He never feared men . . . he just feared God. He believed that Christ died for every man, and that whosoever will could come. He believed retreat was impossible, and idleness was a sin. He stood, even when he had to stand alone. He believed in the Book, the blood, and the blessed hope. He believed there were only two types of Christians—soul winners and backsliders. He believed God could use anyone, and that the broken hearted were within God’s grasp.
Elsewhere on his site, in a post most likely directed at James White, are these words:
Liberty University will never be 5-point Calvinist. Never. Dr. Falwell loathes the very system, as does Dr. Patterson at SWBTS, and many of us in the SBC.
Does this sound like the description of a seven-and-a-half-point Calvinist? A four-point Calvinist? Three? Two? One? More like zero if you ask me. We’ve already established that Falwell rejects the L. Now we know that he also rejects the P (he affirms the category of a carnal Christian). It’s extremely likely based on the language from the sermon and from the above descriptions that he would reject the U and the I. The T is integrally related, especially to the U and the I, and no doubt would not stand on its own. Besides, if Bill Barnwell was right, we have a testimony that he also rejects the T.
So I think it is fairly clear that Jerry Falwell was not Reformed in any meaningful sense of the word. Although, in my view, he most certainly is now.3
On a side note, Witherington also has a strange understanding of the term Fundamentalist.
Jerry Falwell has often been called a fundamentalist, and if by fundamentalist you mean a very conservative person who believes the Bible is totally true, then I suppose the term applies. Fundamentalism however is more of a mindset than a theological position to be honest. I ran into fundamentalist liberals while at Harvard. They were so utterly convinced of their liberal opinions about the Bible that no amount of evidence or logic could convince them otherwise.
Has anyone ever heard of a Fundamentalist liberal? How about a Calvinist Arminian? A Reformed Falwell? I didn’t think so.
- By the way, in case you’re wondering, the two additional points are (1) double predestination and (2) the best of all possible worlds. ↩
- A word of clarification: since there are at least nine points (for which see my explanation)—Piper affirming seven of them and Falwell affirming seven and a half of them, but rejecting limited atonement—then Falwell had to have affirmed one and a half points that Piper doesn’t. If we’re just counting points, then Falwell affirmed a half of a point more than Piper does. But if we’re counting additional points that Piper apparently does not affirm, then Falwell affirmed one and a half more points (while rejecting one of Piper’s seven). Confused yet? Me too. ↩
- I say this half jokingly—and half seriously. ↩