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Introduction/Overview to the Oliphant-Durand Letters PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joseph R. Holder   

The Oliphant-Durand exchange of letters occurred in 1899 and was published in 1900.  Elder James Oliphant was a leading minister among Primitive Baptists for approximately fifty years, crossing almost equally from the nineteenth into the twentieth century.  Thus this exchange of letters occurred during his prime ministry.  Elder Silas Durand was a leading and respected minister among absolute predestinarian Primitive Baptists.  Occasionally advocates of various views of predestination in these camps will question, “Are we dealing with semantics, a mere hair-splitting of terms, or do we in fact have significant theological differences?”  I believe that significant theological differences exist, and I also believe that these two men from a century ago did a masterful job in framing the dimensions of those theological differences. 

Some absolute predestinarians fell into the abysmal error of charging sin to God’s causative predestination.  However, despite frequent use of terms that left the question obscured as to their true belief on this point, I believe it is reasonable to say that most absolute predestinarians sincerely think they did not (and do not) believe that God caused sin.  That said I also believe they (then and now) failed to refine their Biblical interpretations and choice of terms to adequately communicate their rejection of this error.  For example, in this exchange of letters Durand quoted a passage with great emphasis that stated that God has “…wrought all our works in us.”  (Isaiah 26:12)  When Durand emphasized that “…all our works…” really meant “all our works,” Oliphant responded with a question; did God “wrought” all of David’s works when he had the affair with Bathsheba and subsequently arranged for her husband’s death?  Durand never answered the question!  Had he been as devoted to denial of God causing sin as to some of his other ideas regarding predestination, he should have immediately clarified his point and responded to Oliphant’s question.  Instead he simply never mentioned that passage again and did not respond to Oliphant’s question.  What did Durand believe regarding David’s two major sins?  Did God “wrought” them, or didn’t He? 

What then was the major theological point of disagreement between Oliphant and Durand, indeed between the two peoples whom these two men represented?  As appears in the full text of the letters, at least one of the major points of difference, if not the single most significant point of difference, appeared in their major disagreement related to the nature of predestination as it impacts the regenerate elect person’s acts of faith and obedience, the question of discipleship.  Did God irresistibly, effectually, and causatively predestinate every act of faith and obedience?  Or did God command these acts, providing multiple influences that encourage, enable, and instruct our obedience, but stopping distinctly short of a deterministic and irresistible, effectual divine causation of them?  Repeatedly in his letters, as well as in his other writings, notably to this point, his Thoughts on the Will, Elder Oliphant emphasizes the “moral government” of God over His regenerate elect, and the associated fact that regenerate elect people are “moral people,” accountable and responsible to God for their conscious, willing, and voluntary choices to obey or not to obey.  Elder Durand repeatedly rejected this concept, favoring a deterministic and irresistible, effectual divine decree that fully causes every act of faith and discipleship in the regenerate elect person.  It appears that this idea was the central point of Durand’s use of the term “absolute predestination of all things.” 

Thus their major disagreement was framed in these letters, as well as in many other similar documents from that era, in terms of the role of divine and causative predestination in the matter of the regenerate elect person’s acts of faith and obedience. 

Often in such works as this, the author will quote brief snippets from the source writers before offering his analysis and/or comments.  Intentionally in this work I quote at length from both men in an attempt to give the reader a full perception of the writer’s intent in the quote in question. 

To fully understand this analysis, and to grasp the significance of the issues of theological belief that framed the debate and the eventual separation of fellowship among the people who held to the two views discussed, I strongly urge you to read the full text of the Oliphant-Durand letters.  Elder David Montgomery recently posted the first two letters on Free Grace Fellowship.  I urge him to post the remaining letters as well.  If you do not have these letters, you may obtain a copy either from him or from me.  My electronic copy is in Microsoft Word file format.  

Note from Elder David Montgomery: You can read this exchange by clicking here.

In the course of dialogue, especially when participants hold to significant disagreement on the issues of dialogue, it is easy for writers to resort to various strategies that confuse or distort the issues at hand.  Communications authorities typically refer to these strategies as “logical fallacies.”  Occasionally I will mention these fallacies in my assessment of the author’s ideas.  From my personal perspective, Elder Durand frequently resorted to logical fallacies rather than forthrightly responding to Elder Oliphant’s questions and/or thoughts.  Typically advocates of the absolute predestinarian error find it necessary to appeal frequently to the “parts to the whole” logical fallacy in order to support their errant idea.  For example, if one man is reported in Scripture as being born blind for the glory of God, they will use the “parts to the whole” fallacy to claim that every child born and every birth defect that exists was divinely caused for the glory of God.  A second example; since God raised up Pharaoh in the days of Moses to be a participant in His deliverance of His chosen people from Egyptian bondage, the logical fallacy of “parts to the whole” claims that God causes the advent of every national leader.  This logical fallacy appears in its simplest illogical form with this example.  Since I happen to drive a 1997 Toyota Camry that is mauve in color, the “parts to the whole” logical fallacy would conclude that all 1997 Toyota Camrys that exist are mauve in color.  If I were to be so naïve and unthinking as to believe that because I own a mauve 1997 Toyota Camry, all 1997 Toyota Camrys are mauve, I’d be in for quite a shock when I drove down the street in my community and happened to see a green 1997 Toyota Camry, and then a black one, etc.  In either the case of car colors on in the case of theological reflections people who really embrace this logical fallacy must eventually face the fact that their view simply does not correspond to reality, to the facts of the matter.  Sadly many folks who employ this fallacy in their theology simply invent a near-endless sequence of exceptions to the rule to avoid rejecting their errant view and embracing the correct Biblical truth of predestination that avoids the odious conclusions inherent in the errant view. 

Another common logical fallacy that often appears in conjunction with the “parts to the whole” fallacy is the “horns of the dilemma” logical fallacy.  This fallacy creates two nearly opposite ideas, one highly favored by the framer of the fallacy and one intentionally created so as to be odious to all readers.  Then the framer of the two ideas commits the fallacy; there are no other alternatives.  You must choose either “A” or “B.”  You have no other option.  Factually, there are typically numerous alternative views between “A” and “B,” and typically truth is to be found in neither of the “horns of the dilemma” set up in the argument, but in one of the alternatives.  Often advocates of absolute predestination employ this fallacy by arguing that one must either embrace their excessive view of divine causative predestination or else resign to being a “deist,” a person who barely believes in God, but who believes that God is not at all involved in anything that goes on in human history.  I have read after a few deists, but I have seldom ever encountered one in person.  The claim that you must either embrace absolute predestination of all things or else be a deist serves as a classical illustration of the “horns of the dilemma” logical fallacy.  Multiple views of God’s sovereignty avoid both the error of absolute predestination of all things and the opposite error of deism, and, once again, Biblical truth lies in those carefully omitted options that the framer of the fallacy crafts out in his fallacy’s two options.  Suppose that we actually search till we find a true deist.  Are we to conclude that anyone who rejects absolute predestination of all things is de facto a deist?  No, I reject both the absolute predestination of all things, and I equally and unequivocally reject deism.  Both errors are equally objectionable to me.  My personal belief in Biblical predestination rejects both views in the dilemma’s horns as errant and unbiblical. 

Regardless of a person’s beliefs, Christian ethics demands that a person articulate his/her beliefs regarding God and the teaching of Scripture with openness, transparency, and with impeccable clarity so that no one can reasonably misunderstand or misinterpret his/her beliefs.  Another communications error often used by writers who for various reasons prefer to leave their true beliefs obscurely stated is the practice of “plausible deniability.”  Simply stated, this practice appears intentionally to state one’s beliefs with carefully crafted obscurity.  When a reader questions or challenges the writer’s ideas, the writer simply denies the interpretation with, “Oh, you misunderstood me.  I didn’t mean that at all.”  Yet if someone else reads the same document and comes to the same conclusion approvingly, the author will congratulate the reader for clearly understanding his/her beliefs.  Simply stated, it can’t be both!  If black is black, it can’t be white.  Christian integrity demands that we make every effort to be wholly transparent in our articulation of our beliefs.  Agree with us or disagree, our readers should clearly know from our words precisely what we believe and what we do not believe.  I do not expect that every reader will agree with my assessment of the Oliphant-Durand letters.  I sincerely hope that every reader will clearly understand my thoughts and beliefs regarding them. 

I offer one final point.  If we read these letters and conclude that we agree with Elder Durand’s views regarding predestination and Christian obedience, we should feel no hesitancy to state for any and all to know that we do agree with his views.  Likewise if we agree with Elder Oliphant, we should clearly state that agreement.  Christian integrity requires that if we agree with Durand, we must not claim Oliphant, or if we agree with Oliphant, we must not claim Durand.  Perhaps there is some “middle ground” between Oliphant and Durand on the question of predestination and the attitudes and actions of discipleship in a regenerate elect, but the lines of distinction become fairly fine at this point.  Does God wholly, irresistibly, effectually, and causatively produce the mental and behavioral actions in a person’s discipleship, or doesn’t He?  The opposite view in a “horns of the dilemma” fallacy would depict Oliphant as advocating that the individual believer’s faith, will, and actions occur wholly independent of God, but that simply is not Oliphant’s view.  He clearly acknowledges divine influence and graces in the regenerate elect person, but he stops decidedly short of absolute, causative predestination on one side and deistic divine independence on the other.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 21 October 2008 )
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The Primitive or Old School Baptists cling to the doctrines and practices held by Baptist Churches throughout America at the close of the Revolutionary War. This site is dedicated to providing access to our rich heritage, with both historic and contemporary writings.