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

Durand’s Third Letter

After opening his third letter with some personal objections, Durand again challenges the conditionality of any act of discipleship performed by a regenerate elect.

But you say that obedience is dependent upon the will, and you say that gospel rewards are conditional, and that they are not all of grace. Then it must follow that the gospel rewards of peace and comfort and a good conscience are partly of grace and partly of works. Can it be that I have stated your views incorrectly in this? You say that you “do not believe that all spiritual advantage and comfort are dependent on our will and work;” but you say that “our enjoyment is in some degree dependent on our obedience,” and that “our obedience is dependent on our will.” Then it must follow that grace and works are combined here---are yoked together. This, however, I think you will not allow, for you know that they can not go together. The one must precede the other always. It must be either grace the cause of works (good works,) or works the cause of grace.

Again Durand seems to confuse the “grace only” character of God’s work in regeneration with His leadership of regenerate elect in acts of discipleship.  When read in its context in the eleventh chapter of Romans, was Paul referring to every act performed by a regenerate elect or to God’s preservation of a remnant of faithful people? 

Durand addresses and disagrees with Oliphant’s use of the “will” in terms of the believer’s obedience.

The WILL. The word is used in your reply somewhat indefinitely, I think there should be discrimination. There is a natural will and a spiritual will. When I say that it is not of our own will that we obey the Lord, I always refer to our natural will. The will to obey in spiritual things must be wrought in us by the Lord.

If Durand believed in a permanent, abiding change in the regenerate person as a result of election, he left his views clouded.  In this quote he affirms that a regenerate person possesses two wills, one natural and one spiritual, but throughout his writings he attributes all influence and activities of the “spiritual will” to divine predestination, not to a transformed nature or will effected in and by regeneration. 

Once again in this context Durand appeals to Jesus’ Incarnate will as in some way supporting his thesis.

John, v. 30.,. The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise:” v, 19. Now all these scriptures declare so plainly that which I esteem to be the truth, that I feel, at least, I should be free from reproach for asserting it. It was the Father’s will that was wrought in him, and done by him.

Did Durand actually believe that Jesus’ human will in some way was corrupted and in conflict with the Father’s will?   Did he believe that even Jesus’ acts of obedience only occurred because irresistibly predestinated and not in any way growing out of His divine nature that was in perfect harmony with the Father? 

I do see a distinction between right and wrong, vice and virtue, and the like. I believe that all disobedience, all wrong-doing, all wrong-thinking, are from the flesh, and that no good thing comes from the flesh. And I believe that every righteous thought, word and deed are from the Spirit; and that when the Lord is pleased to “work in us to will and to do,” then the exhortation to work out that salvation which he has wrought in us, will be as good seed falling into good ground: it will “bear fruit upward to the honor and glory of God,” not to the honor and glory of men.

I suggest that Durand actually says far more than he intended in this paragraph.  First of all, he leaves no basis for a permanent moral change effected by regeneration.  Secondly, he distinctly asserts that the regenerate elect person only performs good works “…when the Lord is please to ‘work in us to will and to do’….”  Thus the only logical explanation he allows for our committing acts of sin is that God at the moment is not working in us to will and to do.  If, even after regeneration, there is no resident and permanent sense of righteousness in a regenerate elect, the very act of God’s withdrawing or “leaving us to ourselves” means that God knowingly withholds the only power by which we are capable of either doing righteously or of resisting sin.  Thus, even if only “through the back door,” Durand comes far closer than he apparently realized of making God the effective cause of sin.  Further Durand’s use of the Holy Spirit (notice the capital word form “Spirit”) actively and specifically causing every thought, word, and deed in us that is righteous at the least implies that he held to a de facto “hollow log” view of regeneration, a view that denies any lasting or permanent change in the person regenerated.  In this view the regenerate elect person after regeneration is fully as “totally depraved” as prior to regeneration except for occasions of specific divine causation of righteous thoughts, words, and deeds.  

The will is concerned in obedience, but it is the will wrought in us by the Lord. It is of peace that we have that will. I must repeat we are to blame for disobedience, but our obedience is to the credit of grace, “to the praise of the riches of his grace.”

Occasionally men who hold to views similar to Durand’s will protest, “I do not believe that God predestinated sin.  Therefore I am not an absolute predestinarian.”  Either by selective choice or by ignorance, this comment ignores the historical facts of the absolute predestinarian belief.  Durand did not believe, despite confusing and uncertain comments and interpretations, specifically and consciously that God predestinated sin.  However, he affirmed what almost all of his absolute predestinarian brothers believed; “…we are to blame for disobedience, but our obedience is to the credit of grace…” and his view of our obedience being to “the credit of grace” meant that he believed that divine, irresistible, and causative predestination were responsible for the regenerate elect person’s acts of obedience, responsible so as to avoid any involvement of the regenerate person’s will. 


Oliphant’s Response to Durand’s Third Letter

Oliphant begins his letter with an examination of Durand’s characterization of his views of the will, one of many “straw man” fallacious arguments that Durand relied on to attack Oliphant’s view. 

Now, before noticing these two points, I wish to quote you in regard to the Will. First, you say, “There is a natural will and a spiritual will.” The word “will” means “choice.” So there is a natural or sinful choice, and there is a spiritual or right choice. Christians sometimes, on account of the evil nature left in them, do choose to do evil, and the same man at other times chooses to do right. You say, “When I say that it is not of our own will that we obey the Lord, I always refer to the natural will.” I do not know on what authority you hold that where men do right they do not act from their own will, or from their own, choice. Jesus said unto the man, (John, v, 6,) “Wilt thou be made whole?” which is the same as to say, Do you choose to be made whole? I do not know why we should say it was not his own choice. So the words, “If any man will do his will,” etc., (John; vii, 17) chooses to do “his will.” In this text we have a man with a “will” or “choice” to do God’s “will.” Now this man’s choice is to do the will of God. I do not know on what principle you would say it is not the man’s choice. The fact that this choice results from his being born of God, does not deny that he chooses to do right, that I can see. When you remember that to “will” a thing is to choose that thing, your distinction between the natural will and the spiritual will would denote that an evil, unregenerate man chooses to do wrong, and the Christian man chooses to do right. But how you make out that the sinner’s choice to do wrong is his own choice, but the Christian’s choice to do right is not his own choice, I call not see.

In this paragraph Oliphant directly addresses the question of Durand’s view regarding the moral change made by divine grace in regeneration and its lasting effect on the individual, a point that Durand repeatedly rejects and that Oliphant here convincingly takes back to Durand. 

Your position requires you to deny that Christ was obedient, or to hold that true and perfect obedience can be rendered when one is not doing as he pleases. The fact that Jesus died for us, is presented as evidence of his love to us, “Christ also loved us and hath given himself for us;” “As Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it.” Scores of texts refer to his death as an evidence of love to the elect, but how could it be an evidence of love unless as he pleased in regard to it?

For a true loving mother to be situated to do as she pleases about providing for her children, would not make the well-being of her children uncertain; and, so, to admit that our Savior was, and is yet, situated to do as he pleases about his people, does not in the least endanger their safety. There are some men that I would be willing for them to do as they please about injuring my person or stealing my goods; and I trust I have faith in the Savior to say, “Thy will be done.”

Oliphant appeals to Jesus’ obedience, His willing obedience, as an example of willing obedience performed out of a holy nature versus the illogical appearance of Durand’s view that Jesus “pleased not himself” as if Jesus could not “please Himself” and still perform righteousness.  If this were the case, what kind of nature did Durand believe that Jesus possessed? 

Oliphant adds to his point by observing that a mother consciously and willingly sacrifices herself for love of her child as an example of predictable goodness that grows out of her loving nature and self-sacrificing devotion for her child, not merely out of an external divine decree that she do so.  The obvious implications for Oliphant in making this point appeals to the permanent effects, both moral and spiritual, that God effects in our regeneration and the consequent righteous conduct that a regenerate elect can—and does—perform based on that transformed nature. 


Timeless Points of Relevance

    1.             In 1899 Elder Silas Durand, an absolute predestinarian, accused Elder James Oliphant, opposed to absolute predestination of all things, of seeking to in some way either rob God of deserved glory or diminish God’s glory by his affirmation that the regenerate elect person’s conscious and voluntary will are in to some extent involved necessarily in acts of obedience.  According to Durand, any interaction of the regenerate person’s will in obedience claims credit to self and thus robs God of deserved glory.  At no time did Oliphant teach this idea.  In fact in these letters Elder Oliphant specifically denied the charge, providing simply stated and soundly reasoned explanations as the basis for his true belief.  Logically how can our acts of obeying God take glory from Him rather than giving more glory to Him? 
Durand in near textbook fashion used the “horns of dilemma” logical fallacy to suggest that no other view could possibly exist other than his own view and the opposite view that he carefully crafted and described as if robbing God of deserved glory. 

                Is it possible that acts of true obedience by a regenerate elect person will actually glorify God?   Apparently under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul thought so.  “…therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are Gods.”  (1 Corinthians 6:20) 

                The theological distinctions between “Old Line” Baptists and “Absolute” Predestinarian Baptists creates an inherent disagreement that surfaces with this question of “credit” as related to acts of obedience.  This point does not mean that every person who says he wants to “…give God all the credit…” is an absolute predestinarian, nor does it mean that the person who addresses those passages where rewards and/or blessings both in and for obedience appear in Scripture seek in any way to detract from God’s glory. 

2.             Is it legitimate Biblical reasoning and teaching to split the hairs of blessings “in” obedience from blessings “for” obedience?  Does the Bible ever teach that regenerate elect persons are actually “rewarded” by God both in and for their obedience to God?  Again under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the apostle Paul believed so.  “For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.  What is my reward then?  Verily, that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.”  (1 Corinthians 9:17-18)  Is there anyone who will dare to claim that Paul’s preaching the gospel in any way robbed God of His glory?  Did Paul’s preaching not rather glorify God? 

                 The motive of every obedient regenerate elect person in acts of obedience to God is never aimed at gaining personal aggrandizement or securing for self a reward, but rather it is wholly to do what God has informed and commanded with the desire that God will be glorified and honored by such acts of obedience.  Let us avoid “straw man” fallacies and deal with such questions in balanced and Biblical ways. 

3.             Does God impose conditions to be met onto His regenerate elect children in conjunction with their personal acts of faith and obedience?  Or is every act of individual faith and obedience the consequence of divine, all-encompassing predestination with no sense of voluntary willingness on the part of the regenerated person other than what is divinely programmed and microscopically by causative predestination? 

4.             Does regeneration cause permanent and distinct moral and spiritual changes in an individual, or does it merely make the individual the occasional receptacle of divine and irresistible influence? 

5.             Is it Biblically correct and appropriate to refer to a regenerated individual as totally depraved, even after regeneration?  If so, how does such a view reconcile this radical terminology with the Biblical description of the moral and spiritual permanent changes effected in the individual in and by regeneration? 

6.             Is it appropriate to depict our sins as the inevitable and irresistible consequence of our depraved nature “when God leaves us to ourselves” if in fact regeneration does make moral and spiritual changes in the regenerated individual?  And if all the sins we commit are the result of God having left us to ourselves, when He could as easily have compelled us to obey by predestination, would He not logically also share culpability for the sins He leaves us to commit?  Isn’t this Paul’s precise point in the first eight verses of the third chapter of Romans?

7.             Does Scripture depict God’s governance over His regenerate elect as a “moral government,” as repeatedly affirmed by Elder Oliphant and denied by Elder Durand?  What are the implications of God’s “moral government” over his elect and over the precise character of their response to the divine “Governor’s” commandments? 

8.             Were the theological differences between Oliphant and Durand mere technical and semantic differences?  Or were they real theological differences of substance?  Why? 

If absolute predestinarians generally agree that God predestinated all our acts of faith and obedience, but not our sins, they chose a highly inaccurate term to define their belief, “absolute predestination of all things.”  The statement becomes nonsensical.  God predestinated “all things,” but He didn’t predestinate sin.  Is sin a non-thing or a thing?  Despite early generations of absolute predestinarians being devoted, godly men, one wonders about the impact of the choice of terms and the core effect of this doctrine on future generations.  Will they increasingly embrace the profound error that God in fact actually did predestinate their sins?  Will they fall into other related theological errors?  What is the long-term legacy of churches that followed the absolute predestinarian ideas?  With few exceptions these people continued a theological drift until they arrived at various other errors.  For example, the teachings of Andrew Fuller that add some element of human response to divine election requires a belief in absolute predestination to ensure that all the elect shall surely be regenerated.  Thus many who at first strongly rejected Fuller’s ideas drifted into other denominations or fellowships more favorable to Fullerism.  Historically churches that embraced these doctrines either diminished significantly in membership and influence or simply ceased to exist.  What was the size (both in number of churches and total membership) of the old Kehukee Association a hundred years ago compared with today?  In another example, the Regular Predestinarian Baptist Siloam Association of Oregon no longer exists.  In 1849 when the association was constituted the word “Predestinarian” was not part of the association’s name.  It grew to around fourteen churches, by some reports to as much as thirty churches.  By 1884 the name was changed to reflect its endorsement of absolute predestinarian theology.  Today this association doesn’t call itself anything; it doesn’t exist anymore!  One or two of those churches in fact do exist today, but these churches rejected the absolute predestinarian view. 

Often advocates of the Durand ideas of predestination follow Durand’s “playbook” and accuse any who disagree with them of advocating “deism,” the notion that God created the universe and effectively abandoned it, refusing in any way to be involved in it.  This idea rejects the fundamental Biblical truth of divine providence.  In his letters Durand accused Oliphant of this error, and Elder Oliphant effectively refuted the charge.  This strategy by Durand and his successors exemplifies two logical fallacies.  First it crafts a classical “horns of the dilemma” fallacy by depicting any detractors as holding the extreme view of deism.  Clearly from his writings both in this document and elsewhere Elder James Oliphant was in no way a deist.  Secondly the deist charge also builds its emphasis on a “straw man” fallacy.  Since few if any, especially among Primitive Baptists, who reject Durand’s views are deists, the charge draws interested readers away from the central issues of real disagreement relative to divine predestination and discipleship. 

If the objective of those who advocate these doctrines grows out of a pragmatic complaint, “What we are doing now isn’t working, so we need to do something different,” their presumed desire to shift their emphasis to “something that works” has chosen the wrong doctrine.  This doctrine historically has proved to not work!  Pragmatism is not—and should not be—the primary criteria for what Bible believing Christians believe.  Scripture alone should dictate both our faith and practice.  Those who embrace Durand’s beliefs must come to grips with the stark reality that his doctrine for the most part historically kills churches!

It will come as no surprise to my readers at this point for me to state my agreement with Elder Oliphant and his beliefs in this exchange, and my equal disagreement with Elder Durand.  Occasionally, then and now, those who favor either of the two ideas held by these men will raise the question, “Do we really disagree on a matter of theological substance, or are we merely dealing with semantics?”  It is my personal conviction that the issues at stake in Oliphant-Durand, and their counterparts today, in fact deal with major theological substance.  One can hardly read these letters and conclude that the clearly different beliefs of these two men, both well informed and respected leaders in their respective fellowships, are a mere technical dispute over terminology.  They disagreed in substance relative to both divine predestination and the character of New Testament discipleship.  Durand drew no distinction between God’s sovereign, effectual, and irresistible operation in regeneration and God’s work that produces attitudes and acts of faith and discipleship in a regenerate elect individual.  Oliphant distinguished the two, holding, as did Durand, to God’s sovereign, effectual, and irresistible—and direct—operation of grace in regeneration, but he also held to the New Testament role of the believer’s will in matters of discipleship.  Does God control every event in human history from the falling of a single drop of rain to the blowing of a grain of sand in a Sahara Desert dust storm?  Does He also with equal finite control determine every act of faith and obedience in a regenerate elect individual?  Durand would agree.  Oliphant—and I—would disagree. 

Anecdotal admittedly, but significant to the historical and theological issue; I first started preaching in the mid-nineteen fifties, a bare fifty years after this controversy in its most heated season raged among our people.  My fathers in the ministry were personally aware of many of the debates and issues that framed the controversy.  They were informed men who sought a Biblical and balanced view.   To a man they embraced Elder Oliphant’s view, not Elder Durand’s.  When asked about God’s sovereignty over this world, they often offered a simple example that answered the errant view of finite divine control, but with simplicity that a child could understand.  A common “straw man” fallacy raised by advocates of Durand’s view is that anyone who disagrees with them is guilty of compromising God’s sovereignty.  The counter argument that was first presented to me refuted this straw man charge effectively and—I believe—Biblically.  I grew up in an agricultural area.  Here is the illustration.  A farmer builds a fence around an area in his farm that includes acres of green grass, trees for shade, and water for his cattle.  He wisely provides for their needs.  He also designed limitations onto them by the presence of the fence around the pasture.  So long as his cattle were eating grass, chewing their cud under a shade tree, or drinking water from the stream or lake in the pasture, the farmer was quite content.  He didn’t direct the cattle to eat each blade of grass, to spend precise allotted time chewing their cud, or drinking water.  He understood that his cattle had certain appetites and abilities inherent in their nature that prompted them to eat when hungry, to chew their cud when it was important to their digestion, and to drink water when they were thirsty.  However, if one of those cows became dissatisfied with the pasture and decided to break through the fence, rest assured; the farmer would corral the cow and return her to the pasture, repairing the fence and otherwise taking necessary measures to keep her corralled.  These wise, godly men made obvious and simple applications of their analogy to their theology.  God has bestowed certain desires and abilities upon His children in regeneration that become an integral part of them from that point forward.  They “hunger and thirst after righteousness.”  They seek God and His goodness as the hart pants for the water brooks.  So long as God’s regenerate children are following their God-given regenerate nature in their attitudes and actions, God is pleased.  However, if a regenerate elect child of God becomes dissatisfied with God’s provided goodness and seeks to rebel against God, they shall surely face divine chastening and restriction.  Is God any less sovereign because He chooses not to microscopically control every motion, mental and physical, of our obedience?  Not at all.  He gave us a spiritual nature in regeneration that He expects us to use wisely and righteously for His glory and for our own benefit.  He gave us a will that understands these truths, and He expects—in fact requires—us to use that will to make wise and godly choices.  When we fail to so use our will and abilities, divinely given, we should expect to face His displeasure. 

Elder Oliphant often referred to this truth as God’s “moral government” over His people.  I here state my personal and sincere conviction and belief in the principle affirmed by Elder Oliphant.  God has the power and could, if He chose, manage and control every sentient being, including His regenerate elect, by absolute and microscopic detail, but Scripture does not indicate that He does so.  Rather Scripture affirms that He charges us with responsible and accountable use of the knowledge and abilities that He has bestowed.  We glorify Him when we follow that knowledge and those abilities.  We dishonor Him when we fail to do so.  Paul affirms the “Oliphant” concept throughout his inspired writings, but he especially does so in the first eight verses of the third chapter of Romans.  If in fact God microscopically controls every event that occurs and every thought or act that I commit, then God, not I, should be judged when I err.  Durand and his successors carefully attempted—and attempt—to avoid this point by claiming divine control over “all things” without exception, but they then non-sensically (their own choice of terms, “all things without exception”) reject that God predestinated their sins.  Typically they will, as did Elder Durand, use such terms as “When God leaves us to ourselves” or similar thoughts to explain what occurs when we sin.  However, de facto, if God knows that, “When left to ourselves,” we only possess the ability to sin, God would be effectively responsible indirectly for our sins, the very point that Paul categorically rejects in the third chapter of Romans. 

In this point it appears rather clearly that the typical absolute predestinarian either denies any moral change in a person at regeneration, or at the very least minimizes that change so that a regenerate elect person—in their view—remains even after regeneration “totally depraved” and thus wholly incapable of any good thought or deed apart from direct, effectual, irresistible, and causative divine intervention. 

Indeed the issues involved between Oliphant and Durand involved far more than technical or theologically neutral semantics.  They involved multiple theological issues of significant difference.  Thus from either the practical or the Biblical and theological perspective, the Durand paradigm fails and should be rejected.  My fellowship joined with Elder Oliphant and his beliefs, and I comfortably agree with their choice.  If others agree with Elder Durand, that agreement requires that they be open and transparent in their agreement. 

Here I stand with sincerity and with a desire to be wholly transparent.  Whether you agree or disagree with my assessment of these letters or with the theology that I embrace, I hope you will understand without doubt what I believe and why I believe it.  I believe Elder Oliphant presented a balanced and Biblical perspective, and I embrace it without apology and without any inclination to validate or embrace the—I believe—dangerous alternatives presented by Elder Durand. 

Joseph Holder

July 12, 2007

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 25 July 2007 )
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