Was Jerry Falwell Reformed?

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.

Was Jerry Falwell Reformed?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.

You can watch the whole video of the message or just the portion quoted above. You can also read some of the responses from the Reformed community:

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?

Thanks.

Phil

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.

Ben

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?

Another individual (Bill Barnwell) also took issue with Witherington’s claim:

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.

BW3

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.

Footnotes

  1. By the way, in case you’re wondering, the two additional points are (1) double predestination and (2) the best of all possible worlds.
  2. 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.
  3. I say this half jokingly—and half seriously.

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16 Responses to Was Jerry Falwell Reformed?

  1. Sam May 18, 2007 at 8:42 am #

    Not sure how anyone could think that Falwell was reformed. I guess it’s kinda like a protestant sainthood . . . making dead people seem better than they really were. Athanasius did miracles, and had live doves descend on his dying body, Falwell had good theology. It’s historical revisionism at its finest. :-)

    “Although, in my view, he most certainly is now.” – LOL!

  2. Diddo May 18, 2007 at 10:28 am #

    Excellent!

  3. Mike Aubrey May 18, 2007 at 11:46 am #

    Well, you have to admit that the way some people talk about fundamentalists as being closed minded there is definite potential in stretching the semantic range of the word to describe liberals. . . perhaps Witherington is on to something . . .

  4. Chris Anderson May 18, 2007 at 1:23 pm #

    This may be an oversimplification, but I’m guessing “Reformed” in this case means “more Reformed than I am.” You know: the way we fundies call anyone to our left a new evangelical and anyone to our right a legalist.

  5. Phil Gons May 18, 2007 at 2:05 pm #

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Sam, interesting perspective. Perhaps, but I wonder if it’s not more Witherington’s Arminianism that is causing him to see anyone who does not call himself an Arminian a Calvinist by default. Where the seven and a half came from, I’m not quite sure.

    Diddo, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Mike, I’ll agree that many Fundamentalists are very closed minded. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes that’s a bad thing. We’re all closed minded on some things. But I’m not quite sure that it is accurate to import into the meaning of the word a characteristic of many who bear the label. In other words, I’d be inclined to argue that closed mindedness is not really in any helpful sense proper or essential to the definition of Fundamentalist. Now some liberals and some Fundamentalists may share some things in common, but that hardly constitutes justification for importing nonessential meaning into the word and giving it a new sense contrary to historical usage.

    Chris, perhaps, but what do you make of the seven-and-a-half-point–Calvinist comment? That’s quite a bit beyond “more Reformed than I am.”

  6. Andrew Benson May 21, 2007 at 10:44 am #

    Ben Witherington is a worldclass scholar and some of your comments here border on slander. I think Witherington may have overstated Falwell’s “Calvinism”, but to take it to the ridiculous response you have made . . . is a bit much. If Witherington is in the big-leagues (and most would say he is), then you are still playing tee-ball. Unlike you, I believe that Falwell is completely free of any double-clutching Calvinism now that he has seen the light.

  7. Phil Gons May 21, 2007 at 10:23 pm #

    Dear Andrew,

    Apparently something I said hit a nerve with you. If you read my post again, I think you’ll find that your response was emotional, illogical, and not based on the facts.

    1. I agree that Witherington is a top-notch scholar. I said as much in my post: “I was shocked to read this from a scholar of Witherington’s stature.” I still have great respect for him and his work.

    2. I believe the word you’re looking for is “libel” not “slander.” But nothing I said comes even remotely close to libel. Please point me to where I have spoken falsely of Dr. Witherington that I might make amends.

    3. Witherington did far more than overstate Falwell’s Calvinism, which was nonexistent.

    4. You found my post ridiculous. That’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion. Others enjoyed it and appreciated it. I’m sorry you weren’t one of them.

    5. Witherington is indeed in the big leagues—a profound scholar to be sure. I am far from it and don’t pretend to be. Thank you for pointing that out, but I’m well aware of that fact and find that it really has nothing to do with my post and my taking issue with Witherington’s inaccuracies. Great scholars can be wrong; we little people can on occasion be right.

    6. That’s fine that you do not think very highly of Calvinism. I have several very close friends, whom I admire and respect as brothers in Christ and men of the Word, who reject Calvinism. If you’ll read my footnote, you’ll notice that I was speaking partially in jest and did not intend any offense to my Arminian brothers.

    7. If Falwell is indeed free from Calvinism now, he’s no more free than he was a month ago—and that, Andrew, was the point of my post.

    Blessings in Jesus,

    Phil

  8. Pat McCullough May 22, 2007 at 3:18 pm #

    Hi Phil,
    First, I’d like to agree with you especially on point five in your response to Andrew. Written arguments should be evaluated based upon the quality of their argumentation, not because their authors are “brand names.”

    Second, not being a Calvinist myself, I don’t have much invested in your question here, but I do take BW3’s “7.5” comment as jesting. I think he was simply facetiously emphasizing how big of a Calvinist he thinks Falwell was. Your careful analysis of the implications of a seven and a half point Calvinists sounds to me like the dissection of a joke under the microscope.

    Finally, the term “fundamentalism” can obviously mean a great deal more than conservative Christian fundamentalism. As an example, the first definition out of the American Heritage Dictionary states, “A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.” The opposition to secularism doesn’t fit, but I think the term could be flexible enough to include any persons who might be so rigid in their ideology to block out other points of view.

    Just my two cents.

    Much Peace,
    Pat

  9. Andrew Benson May 22, 2007 at 8:01 pm #

    Upon reflecting on my response . . . I hate to admit it . . . but you are right Phil . . . Not about Calvinism :) . . . But about my response being emotional and irrational . . . I would like to recant my accusation of “slander” and apologize for jumping so quickly . . . Not sure what I could have been smoking . . . (especially since I don’t smoke anything) . . . In any case . . . please accept my apology.

    Your Wesleyan brother in Christ,
    Andrew

  10. Phil Gons May 22, 2007 at 8:08 pm #

    Andrew,

    Though I’m not sure it was necessary, by all means I accept your apology. Thank you for your humble response here. I must admit I was quite surprised by it because I know how easy it is to flare up in self-defense. I battle all the time responding properly to things like this. Praise God for His grace that you have manifested in your response.

    Glad to have met another brother in Christ and lover of our Savior!

    Phil

  11. Phil Gons May 23, 2007 at 5:57 pm #

    Hi, Pat,

    Thanks for the note.

    I’ll agree that Witherington may have been half joking (as I suggested in my post) about the seven-and-a-half points and was emphasizing the extreme nature of Falwell’s supposed Calvinism, but I’m not sure that that really changes much if anything in my critique. My exploration of the necessary nine points of Calvinism was not entirely serious. My main point was the Falwell was not a Calvinist at all.

    Yes. Outside the scope of Christianity the term “fundamentalist” does have different shades of meaning. But within the context of Christianity, “fundamentalist” has referred to a single group, i.e., those who were committed to (1) the fundamentals of the faith and (2) non-cooperation with those (i.e., liberals) who denied them (and those [i.e., new evangelicals] who cooperated with those who denied them). I realize that the term has picked up some baggage over the years, but I’m just not sure how helpful it is to assign to it meaning that flies in the face of its historical usage. I’ve found that, as a general rule, secular dictionaries do a poor job defining religious/theological terminology.

    Blessings,

    Phil

  12. Frank Sansone October 6, 2007 at 12:07 am #

    Now we know that he also rejects the P (he affirms the category of a carnal Christian).

    Phil,

    I know this is late in coming and I agree with your general point that to call Falwell Reformed seems pretty odd, but would you please explain this statement for me.

    Thanks,

    Frank

  13. Phil Gons October 6, 2007 at 10:59 am #

    Hi, Frank,

    I made my comment about his rejection of the perseverance of the saints in light of Ergun Caner’s statement: “He believed there were only two types of Christians—soul winners and backsliders.”

    The dichotomizing of Christians into two groups like this—acknowledging that a Christian can live in a perpetual state of backsliddenness—is incompatible with Reformed soteriology, particularly the P in TULIP. The perseverance of the saints necessitates perseverance in faith, repentance, and obedience to God. Where these are lacking perpetually, we are not dealing with a Christian. As I see it, anyone who allows for a perpetually carnal “Christian,” does not believe in the perseverance of the saints, even though he may believe in a perverted form of eternal security.

    Does that help to clarify what I meant?

  14. Frank Sansone October 6, 2007 at 3:16 pm #

    Phil,

    Thanks for the explanation.

    I am not a Falwell supporter (or of Caner), but I think that the point of Caner’s statement was that Falwell believed that all Christians should be “soul-winners” and that the failure to do so was to be a backslidden Christian. If you re-read the statement, I don’t think you will find any reference to a perpetual state of backsiding being an acceptable position for a believer in the comment. (Now, you may find this somewhere else in Falwell’s writings or sermosn, but this statement in and of itself does not seem indicate that unless you read more into it than what is actually written.)

    I tend to think that the attack on the idea that “a Christian can live in a perpetual state of backsliddenness” is generally an attack on a straw man – or at least on a very, very fringe element. I also think that a lot of this discussion is founded on a misunderstanding of the other side (from both sides) and a lack of agreement on definitions. I would probably like to address this more, but I will have to do so at a later time if I do.

    Thank you again for answering my question. I appreciate it.

    In Christ,

    Frank Sansone
    Thank you for answering my question.

  15. Derek Ashton August 28, 2008 at 9:10 am #

    Phil,

    I’d like to make a point about something that was implied in your post. I believe this is important. You seem to indicate that rejection of limited atonement is a rejection of Calvinism. I thoroughly disagree with this, rejection of limited atonement is in no way a rejection of Calvinism.

    The way limited atonement was first explained to me, I would never believe it. That version of it was plainly unbiblical, yet I find some Calvinists who continue to embrace it. Others call themselves 4-point Calvinists and reject limited atonement altogether. But I have recently heard limited atonement explained in a way that balances things and in this form I can embrace it.

    Because Calvinism has been twisted into various extreme forms over the years, I do not blame anyone who takes issue with one point or another. Every one of them requires explanation, has a twisted or extreme version, and also has a Biblically balanced version. For this reason, I try to look past the labels and see whether a person is embracing the SPIRIT (or general drift) of Reformed theology rather than picking at the various points they may or may not agree with or understand. Based on this criteria, I would agree with you that Falwell was no Calvinist. Nevertheless, there are many thoughtful Calvinists out there who don’t profess to believe in limited atonement but are still very firmly grounded in the Calvinist tradition.

    At a certain point, the theological terms become a matter of semantics and one is left to look at how a person defines his theology and why.

    I am currently a 4 and half point Calvinist, holding to the “sufficient for all, efficient for some” formula on the extent of the atonement. There is some interesting information about the historical validity of this position on http://www.calvinandcalvinism.com. At 4 and a half points, though, I’m still three points behind Falwell. LOL.

    Although I have mentioned a small point of disagreement, I did enjoy the post – especially the humor.

    Grace and peace,
    Derek Ashton

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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