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Oliphant-Durand Letters: Second Exchange PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joseph R. Holder   

Durand’s Second Letter

Durand and Oliphant engaged in a “tit-for-tat” of sorts over whether or not to accept Webster’s definition of terms; Durand specifically stated that at times he would not accept Webster’s definitions, while Oliphant protested that, unless the two men accepted common meanings for words any meaningful dialogue could not occur. 

In a similar note Durand repeatedly attempted to teach that conditionality was the rule in the Old Testament covenant between God and His people, but that the New Testament covenant eliminated all forms of conditionality relative to a regenerate elect person’s discipleship, preferring the idea that all acts of faith and obedience are as divinely predestinated and irresistibly caused by God as our regeneration.  Oliphant countered with the observation that unless some element of conscious and voluntariness in the believer’s will exists in acts of obedience, there is no moral basis on which to assess the conduct.  A planet orbiting according to the laws of interplanetary gravity does not involve a moral issue. 

In his second letter Durand argues from three passages against any form of conditionality on the part of the regenerate elect person’s acts of discipleship. 

First. “If a man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Here there is nothing promised to a man if he will come after Jesus, as though that coming were a work of his own, decided upon by his own will, and to be rewarded by some favor from the Lord. But the “if” supposes a man to have the will or desire to come after Jesus; then he is told in what way alone he can come; not by the exercise of any will power of his own, but by denying himself, denying his own will, and by taking up his cross; by crucifying his flesh and fleshly mind, and following Jesus.

Here Durand resorts to the “straw man” logical fallacy in addition to rejecting the “Webster” meaning of “If.”  At no time in his writings that I have discovered did Oliphant ever assert that acts of faith and discipleship were wholly of the believer apart from the effects made by God in regeneration or of the leadership (as opposed to robotic orchestration) of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of Scripture.  Rather he asserts that obedience grows out of the regenerated and divinely altered individual’s conscious and voluntary choices to follow the moral influence of that regenerate nature in obedience to God. 

It appears from several of Durand’s points in this and other letters that he in some way diminished the effects of regeneration.  Did he embrace the logic that would later surface in the “hollow log” error, denying that the Holy Spirit makes any permanent moral change in the individual at regeneration?  His (for an absolute predestinarian) predictable dichotomy of the individual’s conduct “…when left to ourselves…” versus his description of the regenerate elect when under the influence of the Holy Spirit logically builds on the idea that regeneration makes no moral moral change; and whatever spiritual change that occurs is limited to some type of spiritual programming by which the regenerate person is compelled to receive and perform whatever thoughts, words or deeds God causatively supplies—so far as conscience and will are concerned in the individual—that total depravity is as much a reality for the regenerate elect as for the unregenerate non-elect. 

 Durand’s second passage is as follows:

 Second. Peter says, “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile;” I Peter, iii, 10. There is no conditional work proposed in this text by the word “if,” nor any reward offered. The “if” supposes a man to have already the love of God in his heart, and the will or desire to enjoy that holy life which no one can see in himself, and to see the good days of the Son of man. The apostle tells such a one of that same self-denial which the Savior said was necessary in order that a man should come after him, and in which alone the power and blessedness of divine life are experienced in this mortal state. “Everyone who knoweth the plague of his own heart,” knows that in this he “can not do the things that he would.” but will still find that evil is present with him, and, like David, must cry unto God to “set a watch before his mouth, and keep the door of his lips;” (Ps., cxli, 3,) or evil and guile will continually issue from them.

Durand repeatedly, as in this quote, equates the regenerate elect person’s ability to perform acts of obedience acceptable to God apart from direct divine influence as powerless as for an unregenerate person to perform spiritual acts of obedience.  In simple terms, your ability to please God apart from divine predestination, even as a regenerate elect, is as vain as for an unregenerate to attempt such acts.  This conclusion flies in the face of multiple passages that distinctly affirm, and at times even describe, the moral and spiritual abilities imputed to us at regeneration. 

Durand’s third passage:

 Third. “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” This presents no condition to be performed, but shows us one who longs for the water of that river which flows from the throne of God and the Lamb the promises and grace and salvation of God. This is the one who thirsts after righteousness. He sees that every blessing represented by the water of that river of life flows alone from the power of God, without the least possible help from man.

In these last two passages Durand categorically rejects the presence of any form of “conditionality,” despite the fact that one passage builds its promises on the “will” to love life and see good, and the other passage builds the invitation to take the water of life on the believer’s “will.”  Again in this last quote Durand attempts to equate the regenerate elect person’s ability to obey God with the unregenerate person’s all-encompassing lack of ability or inclination.  It appears from Durand’s repeated comparison of a regenerate elect “left to himself’ with an unregenerate non-elect that he sees no moral or spiritual difference between the two.  A regenerate elect “left to himself” is no way different from an unregenerate non-elect.  This idea is preposterous! 

Following his comments on these three passages, Durand delves into a rather convoluted discussion of the will, resorting at one point to implying that even Jesus had both a divine will and a corrupt human will.  He clearly sees no integration of God’s grace and its influence on the regenerate person unless the Holy Spirit—hollow log style—temporarily indwells and thus moves the individual to acts of obedience. 

Durand then develops the idea that, since God on occasion made providential use of wicked individuals and nations, this fact supported his thesis.  In his response Oliphant will distinguish between God’s select use of wicked individuals and nations from their personal acts of sin.  The fact that God intervened in their sinful life and used them for specific purposes in no way made God the cause of their sins.  Indirectly by his even raising this point it appears that Durand, while saying that he rejects the idea that God causes sin, doesn’t especially object to it. 

Durand closes his second letter with a paragraph that attempts to transform the Biblical analogy of regenerate elect being compared with stones and fruitful trees into an allegory, making much of the idea that a stone or a tree do not possess a conscious will to be or to do anything.  In response Oliphant will reject the allegorical view of these passages in favor of specific analogical comparisons; a stone is solid and enduring, and a tree possesses a nature to bring forth fruit to the benefit of its owner. 


Oliphant’s Answer to Durand’s Second Letter

Oliphant begins this letter with a couple of paragraphs that drive at the heart of the theological differences between the two men.

 Many texts speak of God’s people as doing good works. Or perhaps you quote them to show that man’s obedience is independent of the will, which I understand to be your position. But if this is your design, then you set aside the very idea of obedience, as no such thing as obedience or obedience could exist independent of the will. You object to the word “invite,” because it suggests some dependency on the will. You may well object to the words “obedience,” “duty,” “faithfulness,” etc. You speak of God leading people, and the word “lead” or “leading” would be rejected on the same principle.

Paul, in the words you quote, is speaking of the complex nature of the Christian. This warfare should not be so explained as to excuse the Christian for his sins. Paul said Peter was to be blamed; and this is the experience of the Christian. This warfare should not be so explained as to set aside the moral nature of man. Man is a moral being, and God’s government of man is a moral government, and these texts should be explained in harmony with this truth; and, when so explained, they are a beautiful description of the experience of the people of God. You say, “The sun by his presence makes the day; by his absence he maketh darkness and it is night,” and refer to Ps., civ, 20. You represent the sun as being the cause of night as well as day, and I suppose you design by this to infer that God has the same connection with sin that he has with holiness. John declares that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If there is no darkness (the emblem of sin) in God, no sin could emanate from him; and the most serious objection I can have to your views, is, the failure to make a clear distinction between God’s relation to sin, on one hand, and his relation to holiness, on the other. You say, as quoted above, “the sun makes the day, and he maketh darkness.” But this gives a wrong impression. The psalmist does not attribute darkness to the sun, His words are, “Thou makest darkness and it night.” The sun remains the same all the time---an unvarying source of light---and the earth in its daily revolution turns a way from that light, and so, logically speaking, it is the earth that makes the darkness. If we study the attributes and nature of the sun, we are prepared to say that the gloom of midnight is not of the sun. And so, Christian experience, with one mind, traces sin and iniquity to some other source than God. God made “the greater light,” the sun, to rule the day and to DIVIDE the light from the darkness, and God saw that it was good.

As he often does in his writings, Oliphant makes a solid case for God’s moral government over His elect, as well as the companion point that a regenerate elect person is a MORAL being. 

Oliphant also challenges Durand’s interpretation of God’s being compared to the sun, making the sun—and thus God—equally responsible for both day and night; and in the case of his application, making God equally responsible for both righteousness and sin. 

 No brother that I know of believes for a moment that chance and uncertainty rule even in sinful events, yet we can not accept any theory or explanation that fails to make a clear distinction in the purposes of God toward right and wrong. We can not believe that sinful things receive the same recognition, the same endorsement, or minister to God’s pleasure equally with that which is holy and good. We must reject the theory and the teaching that wicked men do the will of God as the obedient saint does.

Here Oliphant clearly distinguishes God’s general sovereignty from the errant idea that God in some mystical way causes sin, yet doesn’t cause it.  Is God capable of controlling rain, wind, and the elements?  Of course He is; does this fact leap over logic to the inevitable conclusion that God then “…controls every drop of rain and ever grain of sand that blows in the Sahara Desert wind…”?  No indeed.  The Biblical principle of God’s sovereignty means that God has a right—and the power or ability—to step into any situation and alter the natural outcome as He pleases.  However, the Biblical principle of divine sovereignty also affirms that God in no way or in anything that He does ever violates His righteous nature.  Thus, regardless of Durand’s protests that he does not believe that God causes (predestinated) sin, his analogies often lead one specifically to that conclusion; for example, his assertion that the sun is no less responsible for the night than for the day.  Sadly often, advocates of Durand’s view of predestination commit the “parts to the whole” logical fallacy when reasoning on this point.  They point to occasions in Scripture where God unquestionably intervened and use specific occasional divine intervention to claim—fully in keeping with the “parts to the whole” fallacy—that God cannot be sovereign if He does not control all events.  They reach this conclusion despite several clear Biblical assertions that categorically deny that God had anything to do with certain actions or events (7:9-10; 7:31; 19:5; 32:35; 1 Corinthians 14:33; and 1 John 2:16-17 to name just a few).  When specifically challenged regarding the origin of sin and the charge, brought onto them by their own choice of terms and multiple interpretations of Scriptures that leave the indication that they believe God causes sin, they often deny that they believe this idea.  However, their own logic turns against them here.  If God must cause or microscopically control every thing without exception, or He is not sovereign, they must believe that in the matter of sin and its effects He is not sovereign.  Thus we see the strange and inconsistent turning of aberrant beliefs built on faulty logic and on equally faulty interpretations of Scripture. 

Further in the same paragraph Oliphant again goes to the theological heart of the differences between Durand and himself.

Now, if every man does the will of God, how can the ways of any man be displeasing to him? You would refuse the terms “free will” and “free moral agency” because they have been so long used with an unscriptural meaning, and say, “The Bible terms will do for us;” but you do not apply this rule to the expression, “The absolute predestination of all things,” and which seem to the most of our brethren to teach a very objectionable sentiment. I still complain of your position because it strips man of all WILL, or CHOICE, in his conduct as truly as if he were a tree or a stone. In your reply you say, “That is true,” admitting that men are as destitute of will in their actions as a tree, because the prophet uses the figure, “Trees of righteousness”, and you accept the comparison of a Christian to a stone without any will, because Peter speaks of them as “lively stones.” This, it seems to me, is begging the question, for both stones and trees have various qualities, and the inspired writers do not mean that God’s people are as stones in every respect, for that would leave them, as your argument seems to do, trees and stones sure enough. Stones are firm and durable, and they may be hewn and polished for the building---in which sense, no doubt, Peter used it. But a stone can not love; it can not obey or praise God; it can not say, “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.” When you divest man of all choice or will in his conduct, and put him on the level of a tree or a stone, you clearly deny that God exercises moral government over him, and he becomes as inert as the idol that must be carried about. The figure on the chessboard exercises no choice as to its movement or the space it occupies, and merits neither praise nor blame as to the result of the game. But not so with the believer. Paul says, “Therefore as ye abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also.” Speaking of their sorrow and repentance, caused by his exhortation, he says, “What carefulness is wrought in you; yea, what clearing of yourselves; yea, what indignation; yea, what vehement desire; yea, what zeal,” etc. Paul does not say that God will make his children perfect, as you quote, but he earnestly invokes God TO DO SO! I must kindly protest against your dropping the words, “In every good work,” from Paul’s words. It would be unimportant had you not dared anyone to say that the sins of David and Jonah and Peter were contrary to God’s will! Paul petitioned, or desired that God would “Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight.” But you would have us understand that God’s will is as effectually wrought in their disobedience as in their obedience, and that “From him is their fruit found.” Did the Lord say this of Ephraim when he had provoked the Lord to bitter anger by his idolatry, and when he fell by his iniquity? It was not when Ephraim offended in Baal, but when he spoke tremblingly, saying, “What have I to do any more with idols?”

For men who both claim to hold to historical Biblical truth, Oliphant raises a highly significant point in the following observation. 

 It is a cardinal doctrine of Primitive Baptists that regeneration is independent of the will of man, but you are the first brother I have known to frankly admit that the Lord’s people are stripped of this will as fully as the tree in bearing fruit. You say, “That is true,” and that they are trees of righteousness. You quote from scriptures widely separated and connect them with comments that do not make the meaning clear: For instance, where it says in Isa., lxi, 3. “That they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” This beautiful language, no doubt, portrays the conquest of the gospel in proclaiming liberty to the captives, and not to the fruit they shall bear; though in that also God is glorified, but when we turn to John we find Jesus saying, the Father is glorified in the fruit they bear: we find he also says that every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it that it may bring forth more fruit: evidently meaning that he prepares it by trial or discipline, or in some way, that it may bring forth more fruit. And he tells them in this same sweet discourse, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.” And he continues to fill heart and soul with promises good: “Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you;” and for this fidelity to him they should have the honor of being hated by a graceless world. Surely these blest disciples had within them something responsive to his teaching, something to catch the meaning of what he said and consider its import. If not, they were but stony-ground hearers, and there would be no fruit to glorify the Savior. Not for a moment would I say that the branch can bear fruit of itself, nor the believer, except he abide in Jesus; but it is mutual. “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you;” and, as he told the believing Jews in the temple, “If ye continue in my words, then are ye my disciples indeed.” When Jesus says, “If any man serve me, him will my Father honor,” and when Paul says that God will render “to every man that worketh good, glory and honor and peace,” are we not taught that those who have received the renewing of the. Holy Ghost have all intelligent comprehension of what is taught? No such language is ever addressed to an unthinking tree, that it may bear fruit. So the difference between a tree and a believer is very great. You refuse the word “invite” in the gospel, perhaps for the reason that it suggests some dependence on or connection with the will; but you use the words “obey,” “will,” and “duty,” and quote the words, “Come unto me,” and “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me,” all of which words denote some dependence upon the will. The response of the obedient child is not that of blind matter, but of a willing mind.

Oliphant’s comment, “…you are the first brother I have known to frankly admit that the Lord’s people are stripped of this will as fully as the tree in bearing fruit…..”  At least from Oliphant’s historical knowledge, Durand is the guilty party of introducing a “new doctrine,” not Oliphant.  In his autobiography  Elder Oliphant indicates that his great grandfather William Oliphant was a Primitive Baptist at least as of 1815.  Thus Elder Oliphant could claim familial history among the Primitive Baptists for almost a hundred years prior to his letters of exchange with Elder Durand. 

Apparently, then as now, folks occasionally attempted to split the hairs between the prepositions “in” and “for.”  Oliphant challenges the hair-split with convincing Biblical points.

 You insist that “The reward is not in something obtained BY the obedient work, but IN the work,” while I think it is both. I John, iii, 22 says, “Whatsoever we ask we receive of him, BECAUSE we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight;” and again, he says, “For the Father himself loveth you, BECAUSE ye have loved me and have believed that I came out from God.” The woman who poured the precious ointment upon Jesus was happy in the doing of it---but that was not all. Jesus said it was a good work and it should be told for a memorial of her wherever the gospel was preached in the whole world. By that act her memory was to be preserved forever. The aged widow rejoiced in ministering to the saints---but this also entitled her to special benefits in the church. The servant that doubled his lord’s money enjoyed the service---but that was not the end: his lord said unto him, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Thus our Savior made an illustration of his kingdom.

In the next paragraph (cited below) Oliphant drives to the heart of the question of conditionality in acts of obedience.

The issue is not whether ALL our happiness is conditionally enjoyed, but whether ANY of it is. If one moment of peace and joy has ever come to us as the result of obedience, it shows that in that case it was conditional. If obedience is necessary to the attainment of any end, then that end could not otherwise be obtained. You know we are to maintain good works “for necessary uses,” and as being good and profitable unto men. We know that good works are not necessary in the matter of atonement: but is an obedient life worth anything to God or man? If we hold that a faithful life merits nothing, we must mean that it is worth nothing, and I can not see how it serves any necessary uses, or how it is profitable unto men. If obedience answers any good end, that end is the reward we should aim at. If it serves no good end, why should we seek it or try to induce others to do so? If the Lord’s attitude and grace in obedience and regeneration are precisely alike, why are men exhorted hundreds of times in the Bible to obey, but never once called on to be born again? This fact ought to convince us that there is an important distinction in the matter of obedience and regeneration.

In response to Durand’s repeated insistence that conditionality was legitimate only under the Old Testament covenant Oliphant quoted both Old and New Testament passages and countered Durand’s allegation with specific New Testament language. 

If we object to old covenant language and forms of expression, we shall lose much wholesome counsel contained in the New Testament. In his last address, just before death, Moses says, “If thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth; and all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.” Here is Old Testament language, and it seems like an echo of those words when the Savior himself says, “If any man serve me, him will my Father honor.” And in another place be says, “My Father will love him, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” The word “commandments” is used in both places, and wonderful blessings come upon and overtake the obedient child in both cases. Peter’s address has the same spirit: “And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue,” and he names many other things to be added. He is not told to obtain faith, but he is told to add these things to it: and if these things abound in them they shall neither be barren nor unfruitful: but he that lacketh these things hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins; and he adds, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure, for if ye do these things ye shall never fall.” Peter thinks “It meet to stir you up by putting you in remembrance.” Such admonitions are never given to a tree that it may bear fruit. It is needless to talk of different forms of speech, when they are so much alike. The Hebrew Letter is almost entirely devoted to showing wherein the Old Covenant is but a shadow of the New. The blood of the Old could not put away sin, but Christ by his shed blood obtained eternal redemption for his people. In this the difference is world-wide, for it refers to the eternal world; but in time it has pleased the Lord to connect blessings and chastisements with both dispensations.

Oliphant directly confronts Durand’s allegation that God’s use of wicked men for His righteous purposes as supposedly supporting his view of absolute predestination. 

There is no issue as to God’s sovereignty, his universal control and just government of men. This meets our hearty approbation, but when you have shown and we have shown that God controls, governs and overrules evil men so as to carry out his divine purposes, we are as far away from the heart of the controversy as we were at first. This mode of reasoning does not make their wickedness the Lord’s. When some deny predestination altogether, and some interpret it to mean that God ordains beforehand by an unlimited decree all the wickedness that men do, we turn from both as the right-hand and left-hand departures, to the voice behind us that says, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” Your text from David that the Lord uses the wicked as his sword, or his hand, and the cases of Pharaoh and Ahab and Judas and Peter, and, in fact every text in the Bible that speaks of God’s conduct toward wicked men---not one of them, nor all of them together, attribute the corruption of nature or man’s wickedness to the Lord. There is a voice within every regenerated heart that speaks on this subject with no uncertain sound. The most unlearned of all the saints can understand it---high and low, wise and simple---they need no learned man to explain it; and that voice traces all our sins to some other source than God. You may sweep the stars from the firmament, cover the sun with the pall of midnight---but you will never obliterate that voice from the quickened soul! That God governs with certainty the myriads of wicked men that dwell upon the earth, does not warrant, but forbids, the use of that modern expression, “Unlimited predestination.” This expression can not be interpreted by any known system of ethics, or by the utmost stretch of human ingenuity in any other way than to say it is the first and efficient cause of sin. I call your attention kindly to this, and ask you to think of it.

In this section Oliphant demonstrates admirable balance, avoiding both extreme views of Biblical predestination, the one held by Durand that forced it to include more than Scripture invests in it, and the opposite Arminian view that wholly rejects it altogether or reduces it to non-causative divine omniscience.  Here Oliphant gently nudges Durand to return to the real issues of theological difference between them and effectively to refrain from multiplying irrelevant “straw man” fallacious issues and arguments.  

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 25 July 2007 )
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