Is Prevenient Grace in the Bible?

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Brian Shelton realized that gaining clarity when it comes to predestination and free will is to be found not in the synthesis of these two doctrines, but in their separation. Read about his journey into exploring the biblical foundation for prevenient grace.

John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace stands impressively on the historical landscape of Protestant theology. For both Jacob Arminius and Wesley, the doctrine was an essential response to the influential Reformed theology of their day. Reformation churches had adopted a strongly predestinarian soteriology response to the strong works culture of medieval Roman Catholicism and had established a heavy sovereignty as an essential tenant for understanding the Christian life. The expectation among theologians, clergy, and laity in both milieus was that Protestant systematic theology should maintain a sovereignty of God that extended to the election of individuals. While this system of salvation was logically linked to the depravity of humankind and the need for personal repentance, it also necessitated individual election as expected orthodoxy in those churches.

My own journey to explore and understand prevenient grace was similar to both of these great theologians. Although raised Methodist with an undergraduate reinforcement of its theology, I found myself perplexed in a Reformed seminary that the matter of salvation was one of acceptance rather than debate. There was no formal exploration of an Arminian soteriology in my seminary classes, only an assumption that Calvinism had to be softened and explained by grace. Yet, the biblical characters were consistently presented as demonstrating free will in obedience or disobedience to God. An independent study in election as part of an M.Div. sequence reinforced this reality: the scripture spoke about divine enabling to salvation while predestination verses were consistently linked to the benefits of salvation and identity in Christ’s body.

Yet, the establishment of my seminary training did not entertain the Arminian systematic interpretation of scripture. It particularly overlooked the powerful enabling rhetoric of fallen humanity in the New Testament. Teaching undergraduate theology for a decade revealed a simplistic acceptance by many young believers that “scripture teaches both predestination and free will” and that “both sides are right.” In one of the rare complexities of life, I realized that the shift towards clarity should come not in synthesis of these two doctrines, but in separating them. This led me to recognize the doctrine of prevenient grace as a universal enabling that stood as an “either/or” to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Meanwhile, this same training in a Reformed seminary emphasized the authority of the Word as foundational rather than emphasizing extensions of theology and application in the larger enterprise of the church’s activities. When reviewing two books of opposite perspective for a journal, Why I’m not a Calvinist and Why I’m not an Arminian, the Reformed authors consistently and repeatedly appealed to scripture, while the Arminian authors preferred to extrapolate from the scripture and even assume its meaning.[1] I realized how the Reformed tradition comfortably engaged scripture in voluminous fashion and that the Wesleyan tradition did not. In fact, this tradition generally did not seem to be aware how it commonly gives temporary attention to and cursory engagement of the scripture. This became certain in a seminal statement by Thomas Schreiner when he set out to challenge formally the doctrine of prevenient grace. His statement echoed in my mind throughout the writing as an impetus for the book: “What was most striking to me in my research was how little scriptural exegesis has been done by Wesleyans in defense of prevenient grace. It is vital to their system of theology… nonetheless, not much exegetical work has been done in support of the doctrine.”[2]

Thus, the book I recently published, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity, prioritizes an unbridled and even technical engagement of the scriptures. It provides the most comprehensive exegetical treatment of prevenient grace that I have seen to date. Yet, in the ongoing battle of grace vs. free will, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, and predestination passages verses enabling passages, a thorough reader will realize that the solution for understanding the scripture on matters of salvation comes on the systematic level, not the exegetical level. So, attention comes in an summative chapter on systematic theology. For interest, two chapters to the historical development of the doctrine that provide an interesting and ongoing recognition of divine enabling to salvation from church history. As a result, the book stands as the most comprehensive treatment on the doctrine of prevenient grace.

One other value was a guiding motivation for writing this work. Too many attitudes about the Protestant salvation debate in writing and in conversation are frankly polemical, reductionistic, and even condescending. There are several parts of the Body of Christ hurt by this culture. The laity either becomes one-sided when they hear scholars use unfair remarks or they flee from the theological division. The academy alienates its own members with opposing views to create camps of separation. The publishing industry begins to publish along positional lines rather than neutral lines to advance the debate. Students follow professors who teach only one side of salvation issues. We fail to advance the cause of lifelong learning and allow little room in our debates for innovation, mystery, and change.

Thus, the book gives utmost priority to an irenic and fair approach. Challenges to the Reformed camp come bridled of dismissive remarks and an effort not to overreach theology is emphasized. This allows for a final chapter of exploration, considering how prevenient grace might be at work in natural revelation and sacramental theology without absolute certainty but with a posture of consideration and even wonder. I will be most proud of book reviews that recognize this effort, and I hope that this work champions intelligent and fair debate between two traditionally polemical camps.

[1] W. Brian Shelton, reviews of Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, and Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2005) in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48 (2005): 403-405.

[2]Thomas R. Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, vol. 2, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 382.

Get the book, Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity by W. Brian Shelton.

 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Just added this to my amazon wish list! I come from a Calvinist background, my first of year of college was at an especially Calvinist school, but I have always been interested in giving the Arminian view a fair shake. I’m especially interested given this will be a positive presentation, as many casual arguments I have heard for Arminianism start with a negative evaluation of Calvinism.

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