Richard Bushey has produced another article about Arminianism, and I felt that as a friend I should give it a pass over to give him some feedback. Here he has gone over five of he sees as the worst Arminian arguments, so let’s see whether they are as bad as he thinks.
Now, before we get into the details, it is worth reviewing a principle when responding to “bad arguments” posts. Let’s call this the JSP, Joe Schmuck Principle. Now when I read these critiques, and I’m sorry to cut the suspense here but I think the point is important, my typical reaction is, “these are all straw men”. I’ve heard many Arminians make arguments which fit the form of the subtitles, but they aren’t really making the points that Richard then goes on to criticize. So, its simple: these are strawmen, and that’s why they seem so bad.
Ah, but this is where JSP comes in. You see, for every good argument, there is going to be some Joe Schmuck, especially out there on the internet, who attempts to use that argument and then does it in a terrible way. Joe was convinced by the argument, but didn’t fully understand it, and then uses it with only partial understanding. Richard after all isn’t saying that these are some of the worst arguments I’ve made or that someone I know has made. These are arguments that Arminians in general have made. The problem is that even if these do not represent the way I would make these arguments, that doesn’t mean that Richard isn’t correctly describing the arguments of Joe Schmuck.
Therefore, rather than saying that these arguments are strawmen, I’ll assume that they are accurate representations of arguments made by Joe Schmuck. So first I’ll correct Joe’s argument and then see how the proper argument holds up to Richard’s point.
Also, before I move on to the actual arguments, Richard does produce an analogy to describe Arminianism and Calvinism. I’m not impressed with this analogy, and I have told Richard why elsewhere, but I don’t want to get sidetracked so I won’t get into it here.
God Is Forcing People To Sin
Apart from God himself, anthropology is the centerpiece of Reformed Theology. We believe, like our Arminian brethren, that man is dead in his sin. Sin is so reprehensible to God that he cannot have it in his presence. God is a righteous judge, and he must condemn the wicked. The one who justifies wicked men is an abomination (Proverbs 17:15). This is where the Arminian will mount their attack. For if God is condemning the wicked, the wicked need to truly be morally responsible. If God determines who will go to Hell, then he is forcing people to sin and then condemning them for the sin that he forced them to do. At face value, this may seem like a compelling argument. But that is only when you load Arminian presuppositions into Calvinist theology.
The Arminian is assuming that man has libertarian free will (the freedom to choose something other than what God has ordained). If man has libertarian free will, then God’s election would be a forced election, and sin would be forced, against the will of the transgressor. It is almost as though the wicked desperately want to do what is right, but they are struggling against the will of God who is forcing them into sin. That is not Reformed Theology. On Reformed Theology, man only wants sin. He hates righteousness. To say that God is forcing man to do something implies that man is being carried along against his will.
Well, the problem here is that Joe’s argument isn’t really fully formed. He says,
1. If God determines who goes to Hell (H) then He is forcing people to sin (F) and then condemning them for what He did.(I for ‘injustice’) H -> (F ^ I)
This clearly makes no sense. There is no connection between God choosing to condemn people and Him forcing them to sin. That is just nonsense. What Joe should say is that combatibilist free will amounts to God causing people to sin (F), and if God causes someone to do something and then condemns that person for what what He caused them to do, then that would be perversion of how the Bible describes justice. (H ^ F) -> I.
[H -> (F ^ I)] is a very different claim than [(F ^ H) -> I], and far more coherent. And note how this argument wouldn’t be assuming libertarian free will. It is, in essence, a critique of combatilist free will. Therefore Richard’s first objection to Joe’s argument would be circular if applied to the proper argument.
Also note that I prefer the word ’cause’. ‘Force’ is more emotionally evocative, but also less accurate. This is because ‘force’ often implies that it is done against a person’s will. This is precisely why Richard notices Joe’s circular reasoning. ‘Cause’ on the other hand simply notes that God brought it about, which should be uncontroversial to the Calvinist, yet leaves the point of the good Arminian argument fully intact.
The second point worth noting is that this is a moral objection to a “biblical“ account of God. It presumes to say that God owes some debt to man, and he is not fulfilling that debt. God could only create a world in which everyone had a fair chance. There is no way around denying that this objection assumes that at the very least, God owes a fair chance to everyone. The landlord owes all of the tenants a free choice, that he will pay their debt on their behalf. Think of how much more significant the sacrifice of Christ is than the sacrifice of the landlord. The Son of God was slaughtered. If God owes everyone a fair chance, if he owes us an indeterministic universe, then it would follow that the cross was something owed to us. The Son of God was paying a debt not for mankind, but to mankind. So even if we concede the point (on the basis of my first objection, we ought not), this is still among a few of the worst arguments in Arminian theology.
-Quotation marks added by me
Certainly Joe Schmuck does think that man deserves a fair chance, but the average Arminian doesn’t. Rather, the problem isn’t that God would be immoral, but that God would be unloving. Now one could say that love is a moral principle, and that is hard to disagree with given that Jesus says as much, but it has nothing to do with what people deserve. Joe, surely influenced by American values, has misread the basis of biblical ethics. However, when you do have an understanding of biblical ethics, there is still something very fishy with abandoning your children, while saying you love them.
SEA recently put up a video by Jerry Walls that makes this exact point. You can watch it here: http://evangelicalarminians.org/jerry-walls-calvinism-the-god-of-love/
There is another question embedded here. Do moral arguments have a place in theology? Well, yes! We believe that God is good. That is one of His defining attributes, He is omnibenevolent. Now people can take that too far and impose on God their own morals, and we should avoid that. However, the Bible has quite a lot to say about what is right and what is wrong. And if a theological position posits that God does something which is in contradiction to how the Bible defines ethics, it is worth pointing out that logical contradiction.
Whatever It Means, It Cannot Mean That
I do not know how many times that this has happened in church history. An Arminian mounts the moral attack against God in the last section and a Calvinist responds by directing the Arminian to Scripture. They read through some of the seminal texts of the Protestant Reformation, such as John 6, Romans 9, or Ephesians 1, and the Arminian waves dismissively. He redirects you to his moral objection, and around and around you go. He might tell you the old Wesleyan slogan, “Whatever it means, it cannot mean that.” That entails that a passage like Romans 9 absolutely cannot mean that the landlord is choosing to pay the debt of only some tenants because of the moral objection to that premise. The only solution is to reinterpret the text until you come across a viable, Arminian alternative.
OK, note John Wesley is not Joe Schmuck. Joe might misquote Wesley, but we can go back to Wesley and see what he actually meant.
This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture that God is worse than the devil I cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never an prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, “What is its true meaning then” If I say, ” I know not,” you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will it cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination.
-John Wesley, Sermon 128, paragraph 26
Note how Wesley isn’t actually dealing with a specific Bible passage. This isn’t his answer to Romans 9 or Ephesians 1. To that he gives actual exegetical analysis elsewhere. Rather he specifically says that the Bible cannot mean that “God is worse than the devil”. Most Calvinists would agree with that basic statement: the Bible cannot mean that God is worse than the devil. Now, they would disagree that their theology implies that God is worse than the devil, granted. And certainly Wesley’s language is quite strong here. But Calvinists insist that God is good and therefore they agree with Wesley’s basic point. Any theology that teaches that the Bible teaches that God is evil must be misinterpreting it.
And we can sum up Wesley’s point as a hermeneutical principle thusly: biblical consistency. We hold that all of the Bible agrees with itself, and if a difficult passage seems to contradict the meaning of clearer passages we check our assumptions and reassess. Indeed, just three paragraphs earlier, Wesley lays this principle out plainly: “Thus manifestly does this doctrine tend to overthrow the whole Christian Revelation, by making it contradict itself; by giving such an interpretation of some texts, as flatly contradicts all the other texts, and indeed the whole scope and tenor of Scripture;”. In addition to this comment, the vast majority of the text just before this is laden with Scriptural quotation grounding his theology in the Bible. Therefore, Wesley here is not responding to a particular Calvinist quoting a particular text, but is describing the principle of biblical consistency. I know no Calvinist who rejects this principle.
Indeed, Richard himself says something similar in his article “5 Commonly Misused Bible Verses”: “As we interact with our brothers in Christ, we may hear them reciting verses from the Bible, and we begin to think that what they are saying does not really sound right… But when we look more closely, it is revealed that the Bible is not saying what they want it to say at all.” I’ve heard many Calvinists say similar things. And I don’t point this out to say, “you are just as guilty.” Rather I’m pointing out that what Wesley said is perfectly fine, and you are simply misunderstanding him.
Now yes, Joe Schmuck often misuses this passage to dismiss Calvinist interpretations instead of dealing with them directly. This is because he’s a Schmuck. It’s a family trait. But if one means what Wesley means by it, there isn’t a problem.
The problem with this approach is that it is not honest exegesis. The reader is not asking what the author is saying. He has determined what the author is saying before going to the text. He is like the scientist who assumes scientific conclusions before going to the data. That scientist would not be conducting true science. Similarly, the theologian who starts with the assumption that the Bible can never teach Calvinism is not conducting true exegesis. But isn’t the task of biblical theology to understand what the Bible is actually saying? Isn’t the task of the apologist to understand the Christian faith so that he can relay an accurate presentation to others?
Suppose for a moment that while reading through the Bible, a theologian named Johnson came across challenging texts about God taking the lives of human beings. But Johnson was in denial. He said, “Whatever it means, it cannot mean that.” When Johnson is confronted with an atheist, he recites his favorite slogan and the atheist prevails in the argument. If Johnson were honest in his exegesis, he would have allowed the text to speak for itself and developed a more robust understanding of theodicy. The Arminian who recites this slogan is making precisely the same mistake. If he were honest in his exegesis, he would allow the text to speak for itself. When Calvinism is established, then you develop an understanding of theodicy. This Wesleyan slogan makes my list precisely because it disallows honest exegesis and takes an atheistic methodology to the text of Scripture.
Exactly right. Shame on Joe. Exegesis is more than just simply reciting slogans. You need to actually do the work of examining the text. However, if one quotes a slogan in the midst of a robust exegetical analysis, and uses it to merely point out the intuitive backing of the point that one is demonstrating through one’s analysis, I see nothing wrong with that. Quote responsibly.
Calvinism Is A Prideful Theology
Ah, so you are the special one. You are your parent’s favorites. The rest of us are on the outside, looking in, unable to come to God, unable to elevate ourselves to the upper echelons of spirituality. God has chosen his favorites and they may lift their heads in pride. That is essentially what Arminians will lodge against Calvinists. It is a prideful theology for people who need to feel like they are better than someone else in the world. Their ego is manifesting itself. While some may use Calvinism as an outlet for their ego, this would be an abuse of the theology. It would be a malfunction, not a function, of proper Reformed Theology.
Now I found this section to be rather interesting since Richard didn’t point out the obvious problem with the argument, namely that Joe sometimes uses it as an ad hominem. However, Richard really does present the argument fairly here. This wouldn’t show that Calvinism is false, but it does show a danger in Calvinism in that it can lead to pride. I appreciate that Calvinist’s resist this tendency by Holy Scripture, but I would argue that this is in spite of the theology not because of it.
However, I would point out that in my experience, the main reason for Arminians pointing this out is because of either the experience that Arminians have had with Calvinist apologists or because of the Calvinist claim that Arminianism leads to pride. This point becomes ironic as we proceed. But I would agree on the merits of the argument, that TULIP, not sufficiently balanced with other points of Reformed Theology, can lead someone to pride and I would insist that it most certainly does not protect against pride. I will concede though that this is merely an analysis of TULIP, and not an analysis of the full Reformed Tradition.
In fact, Reformed Theology leaves no solace for the man of pride. In addition to outrightly condemning the prideful heart, Reformed Theology teaches that there is nothing in yourself that caused God to move on you. There is no worth, esteem, or merit that beckoned God to you. God did not recognize that you were better than everyone else and therefore elected you. He did not recognize your intellect or performance or zeal and elect you. He only saw a pitiful, worthless, wretched creature whose days are marked by a sinful heart pursuing the lusts of the world. You are saved only by the regenerating grace of God. That is a proper way to view Reformed Theology. It is only in Arminian circles that one will hear Reformed Theology characterized as a manifestation of pride.
Now here, we get to why I made a distinction between TULIP and the Reformed Tradition. The question of whether or not this is argued within Reformed circles is irrelevant to the question, because no theology lives in a vacuum. Hallelujah that the Reformed Tradition has historically avoided this problem. But I would argue that the shield for this is Sola Scriptura, not what Richard points out.
This is because Richard is making a very simple mistake: accomplishment is not the only possible source of pride. Certainly, a Reformed person would not think that they earned salvation, but people feel pride from any source of superiority, not just accomplishment. Therefore, his counterargument is quite besides the point. You can see this in the way in which he makes our argument in the first paragraph. None of the premises that he presents there are countered here. He only counters the conclusion, not the premises. Overall, I think that Richard’s reasoning is guilty of what is called, in logic, denying the antecedent, and it is a formal fallacy. Let me demonstrate:
- If a person accomplishes something, they’ll be prideful about it [A -> P]
- A person can’t accomplish election [~(A|E)]
- Therefore a person cannot feel pride about election [~(P|E)]
This is blatantly invalid. The question that arises is, is it possible for someone to feel pride in something else? The answer to this question is yes. People can feel pride based on status. An excellent example of a person who is given a high status without accomplishment is a prince. Nobility is not granted to a prince for what they have accomplished, but for what their parents accomplished. And despite the fact that princes are given their status unconditionally, they are hardly the paragons of humility.
So here’s the question in regards to Calvinism (i.e. TULIP): do the elect have a superior status to the reprobate? I think the clear answer to that question is yes. Therefore TULIP is no shield to pride.
Note to Joe: None of this PROVES that Calvinism inevitably leads to pride. I’ve pointed out to Richard before that I don’t like bet-hedging or slipperly slope arguments since they are rarely sound. All this shows is that Calvinism is not a shield to pride, and other doctrines (perhaps even the false belief that pride only comes from accomplishment) are necessary to maintain humility. If a Calvinist is honest about that, and does seek humility for those other reasons, there is no reason they can’t be a humble Calvinist. However, I do think that if a Calvinist is not encouraged to pursue humility, and is merely left with TULIP, pride will most likely follow.
In fact, ironically, one could see how Arminian theology could also manifest as a source of pride. If you are going to point out how Reformed Theology is vulnerable to abuse, it is probably appropriate to point out how Arminian theology is vulnerable to abuse. If the landlord offered to pay the debt of all of the tenants and some refused out of pride, but you accepted the gift, that will make a significant statement about you. It will say that you were wise enough to see that accepting the gift was in your best interest. If you are drowning and somebody throws you a rope, to those who refuse to grab the rope, you may say, “What is wrong with those people?” Accepting the free gift of God can be a source of pride if you were wise enough to accept it. If you are going to point out the way that Reformed Theology can be abused and count it as a demerit, then it seems equally valid to point out the way Arminian theology has been abused and count it as a demerit.
*cough* tu quoque *cough*
But in all seriousness, let’s take Richard’s point here at its best and assume he’s making the same point here as I did above; namely that Arminianism is not a shield to pride. Well….
Certainly conditional election is not. One can claim that any condition is a kind of accomplishment (though not necessarily meritorious. We can discuss that distinction another day). I would also concede his point that an accomplishment can give someone a sense of pride. Now I can counter this with the point that some instances of that pride would be ridiculous, like thinking that you somehow saved yourself when grabbing onto a rope… However, unless they are Joe Schmuck, an Arminian wouldn’t ground our rejection of pride in the nature of election. We ground it in the nature of faith (as does Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9).
Faith is not simply intellectual assent. It is a trusting disposition towards another. When I say I have faith in my wife, I do not mean that I believe she exists, or that I believe that she is my wife. It means I trust her. And not simply in a specific matter. It means I trust her in our relationship to be committed to our covenant. Faith in Christ is trusting in Christ to save you and command your life. Because of this, faith is an inherently humble disposition towards Christ. You cannot brag about faith for the same reason you cannot brag about humility: if you brag about it, you don’t have it. Even if I were to simply brag in me trusting Christ as opposed to those silly heathens, that still would be ingratitude of Christ’s act within me and a sign that I have faith in myself rather than in Christ. Thus, I wouldn’t have faith.
You’re Not A Robot, Are You?
Since the free will theodicy has been popularized, many people will use it as sort of a reflex against Calvinist theology. God does not want robots, so he created a world in which there was free choice. When people hear about Calvinism, they will think that it does not contain a model of free will. So, they will suggest that if Calvinism were true, then God must have created a world of robots. In a world of robots, there is no love, moral responsibility, meaning, and the cross would have ultimately been for nothing because everybody just does as they are programmed. Is that the case?
Unfortunately, many Calvinists do not have a thorough understanding of their own theology. They presented an anthropology that only discusses the doctrine of total depravity, wherein we do what is in accord with our greatest desire. While that is certainly the case, it is not broad enough to encompass the entire doctrine of compatibilism. Compatibilism is the doctrine that determinism and free will are compatible with one another. This is the majority view among Reformed thinkers and the prevailing view among the Reformed Confessions of Faith. So, Calvinists do believe in freedom of the will. But we also believe in determinism. We believe that these two concepts can be maintained fully and consistently. So, when an Arminian says that Calvinists believe in a world of robots, they are essentially misunderstanding Reformed theology. They have not apprehended that we do have a doctrine of free will.
Richard is basically correct. When Joe argues that Calvinists believe that we are robots, he is misrepresenting them. That said, I would argue that compatiblism doesn’t actually work, which would imply that we would be robots if Calvinism were true, but it would be an error to say that Calvinists agree with that analysis.
Now, before you suggest that there is some problem with the doctrine of compatibilism, I must point out that this is irrelevant to the discussion. The objection that Calvinism creates a world of robots is an objection to what Calvinists believe. It is based on poorly expressed and bastardized versions of compatibilism. But if you assess what Calvinists believe, you cannot say that it entails that we live in a world of robots. You might be able to raise logical problems with the doctrine of compatibilism, but these logical problems would not salvage the robot objection.
Well, I agree with most of this paragraph with the exception of one sentence: “But if you assess what Calvinists believe, you cannot say that it entails that we live in a world of robots.” Yes, actually, we can say this. We can say that your beliefs are logically incoherent, and that this is the logical implications of your beliefs. But I do agree with your basic point that we need to actually make that argument, and not simply claim it, or tell others that you believe in something you don’t just because we think you should. So, I agree with Richard here about 90%, and that 10% might simply be me misunderstanding him.
God Is Still Sovereign
If you are a Calvinist visiting a strange town and you want to find a suitable church, you could probably find a Reformed church by conducting a Google search for the words “Sovereign church near me.” Calvinist churches often emphasize the concept of sovereignty. That is because sovereignty very much centralizes Calvinism. It emerges in our discussion, piety, and study of the Bible. God is sovereign over all things, from the movement of a quantum particle, to the falling of a leaf from a tree, to the wicked decisions of men, to the salvation of men. One of our major objections to Arminian theology is that it seems to compromise the sovereignty of God. He is not in control of all things. He allows the free will of mankind to even contradict his will and his decree. But, still, Arminians will still say that God is sovereign. This is among the worst arguments that Arminians will apply.
Hold on. This isn’t an Arminian argument. It’s a Calvinist argument, and we are simply defending ourselves. What is this even doing here?
If we were to discuss a text like Genesis 50:20 with Arminians, they will likely propose an alternative view of sovereignty. While the text says, “What man intended for evil, God intended for good,” Arminians will suggest that what man intended for evil, God merely used for his good purposes. He is being reactive rather than active. But to say that this is an act of sovereignty would seem to raise serious questions about what sovereignty is. Arminian theology often focuses on God’s foreknowledge. God knows what men are going to do and he reacts to that, planning to use it for his purposes. But in this case, God would not be sovereign as much as he would be a fortune teller. Just consider the question: is God sovereign over man’s wicked heart? Is he sovereign over sin? If the answer is no, then one must say that God is not sovereign over all things. Therefore, God is not sovereign.
If the answer is yes, then the Arminian probably means to communicate that God knows how to use what man did for his own purposes. With that being the case, then God is not truly sovereign over what man did. It is an old cliche that disaster will serve as an opportunity for growth. If a governmental force exploits that opportunity, generating good out of some evil that occurred, you would not say that they were sovereign over the evil that occurred. You would say that they were shrewd opportunists. To say that God is simply taking advantage of what is happening is to either deny his sovereignty or to redefine it as something that is not even recognizable. To the Arminians reading: keep your theology, but please, do not say that God is sovereign on your theology. Own your theology.
Considering the previous section, I find this whole section to be extremely hypocritical. Yes, we have a different vision of what sovereignty means (which he doesn’t come anywhere close to articulating here), just like Calvinists have a different vision of what free will means. Therefore, we need to ask what do we actually mean by the term, and then assess to see whether or not that vision is tenable, rather than simply pointing out the very obvious observation that Arminians are saying something different.
So what does sovereignty mean? I mean in general, not in theology. Dictionary.com gives us these definitions:
- the quality or state of being sovereign, or of having supreme power or authority.
- the status, dominion, power, or authority of a sovereign;royal rank or position; royalty.
- supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community.
- rightful status, independence, or prerogative.
- a sovereign or independent state, community, or political unit.
Note how none of these definitions say that a sovereign gets everything he wants. Now it may be possible to argue that, for God, He must get everything He wants to be truly sovereign, but again you would need to make that argument, not simply say it. Sovereignty is, basically, the right and power to act. But that also implies that a sovereign is not obligated to act.
No Arminian that I’ve ever met actually says that a person can go against what God directly decrees to happen. That’s an impossibility. But we can go against His will because God does not decree everything He wants. Let’s say that I want my son to go to bed, because I want to watch a show. However, because I don’t actually command him to, he decides to stay up. Therefore, he has gone against my will: something other than what I wanted has occurred, and I had the power and right to have gotten what I wanted. However, this does absolutely nothing to undermine my sovereignty over my son because I choose not to enforce my will. We do not differ in terms of God sovereignty, but we differ in terms of God’s choices.
But this is all besides the point, because at the end of the day, he is simply treating us the way he demands we not treat him in the previous section. If he wants to say that our vision is incoherent, then he has to actually interact with our vision of sovereignty instead of assuming his own. But of course we are going to say that God is sovereign because the Bible says that God is sovereign. If he actually convinced me that my understanding of sovereignty was incoherent, then I wouldn’t simply own it. I would leave Arminianism. However, he fails to do that if he doesn’t even properly describe what our vision of sovereignty is.
I think that we can see that Joe Schmuck has a tendency to really make a mess of things. It can be really difficult to separate out the chaff from the wheat in terms of the quality of our debate partners. I am certainly glad that Richard has given me this chance to clear up some of the mistakes that Joe has made, and I hope that Arminians and Calvinists can come together, and worship the Lord Jesus as the people of God.