“Does the Bible Teach Prevenient Grace” by Willaim W. Combs

I finished reading a 16-page article by William W. Combs, “Does the Bible Teach Prevenient Grace?” Combs believes not and his article sets out as a brief survey of the history of interpretation and examines a few key passages.  At least twice Combs tips his hand, saying

Apparently, Wesley did not want to identify involuntary
transgressions as sin in order to maintain his illusionary doctrine of
Christian perfection.

(But Combs, tell me what you really think!)  Later in the appendix classifies both Norman Geisler and Roman Catholics as Semi-Pelagian which, perhaps warranted, neither would define themselves as such.

The history and exegesis is necessarily brief for a paper of this size.  I wonder if Combs is engaging with the best of Arminian scholarship on the subject.  Though the overall number of citations is large for a paper of this size, the number of different sources is a bit small.  Nevertheless, Combs provides a good overview of the position while offering a standard Calvinist response.

In a debate between Michael Horton and Roger Olson (part 1 and part 2), Roger Olson anticipates the objection that the Bible does not teach prevenient grace by making an analogy to the Trinity.  Even though the Bible does not explicitly teach the Trinity, Christians having no problem holding that doctrine.  So even though the Bible does not explicitly teach prevenient grace, Christians should have no problem holding that doctrine.

I think we can challenge the analogy: first, that the doctrine of the Trinity and Prevenient Grace do not have the same theological priority; second, the Bible does explicitly teach the doctrine of the Trinity; third, even if we grant the first two points there are still other verses to explain.

  1. Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity was a the subject of the first ecumenical councils of the church.  To deny the Trinity puts one outside of Christianity by any reasonable definition.  Though I believe that the Bible does not teach prevenient grace, I don’t believe that the distinctions of Calvinism are a “make or break” doctrine.
  2. I think Olson falls into the word/concept fallacy. Just because, say, Genesis 1-3 doesn’t use the word “covenant” does not mean that the concept is not there.  Nor does it follow that we are not justified to read and understand Genesis 1-3 under the rubric of covenant.  Olson is right that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible.  Olson is also right that the Trinity is a developed doctrine.  But to say that the Bible does not explicitly teach the Trinity or that the Bible merely implies the Trinity is to relegate the doctrine to a clever solution to a particularly difficult problem, not the core of who God is.  I challenge the unstated assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity is merely a later doctrinal development.
  3. Even if we grant that prevenient grace and the doctrine of the Trinity were somehow analogous, we have to still deal with other texts that seem to directly contradict our understanding.  Combs showed how John 6:35 and John 6:44 explicitly teach the opposite of prevenient grace.  Combs points out another point that I had not considered before – that under prevenient grace passages like Romans 3:1-20 and Eph. 2:1ff can only describe a hypothetical person.  That is, if God has sent grace to every single person without exception such that their free will has been recovered, then no such person actually exists. Combs says, “Paul spends a good deal of time telling us things like ‘there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God’ (Rom. 3:11) and ‘a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor. 2:14). But according to Arminianism there never has actually existed any person like the apostle Paul id describing. It does not seem reasonable that Paul would write to the Romans and Corinthians emphasizing a depravity that does not exist, nor has ever existed”

In conclusion, Combs paper is a good, short introduction to the topic.  Against the Arminian concerning the doctrine of prevenient grace I think we can rightly ask for chapter and verse.

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