One thing I’ve often noticed when speaking with Calvinists is that they seem to uphold an understanding of themselves as credible deliberators between Arminianism and Calvinism, especially when it comes to sharing their theology with someone who does not know it. These Calvinists, in particular, will say things like “I used to be an Arminian once, so I know both sides of the issue. I struggled with accepting the truth of the doctrines of grace too!” To them, this statement is in fact an argument for their own credibility in weighing out the exegesis and reasoning of both perspectives. This also gives the Calvinist the emotional impression that since Calvinism was their newly “changed” view, that a change of perspectives somehow makes their “reformed” view the most latest and corrected one–a realization of truth that other evangelicals (aka “Arminians”) are unfortunately still stuck behind in discovering.
However, their so-called understanding for the other side is often found to be nothing more than an unintentional straw-man. Why is this the case? Because unfortunately, as many Reformed believers would be careful in considering who can truly carry the label of “Reformed”, the label of Arminianism, on the other hand, is applied as a haphazard canopy synonymous with anyone and everyone who is considered a “non-Calvinist”.
The “struggle” that many Calvinists speak of concerning the time when they finally accepted their doctrines of grace often turns out to have been a struggle between their underlying philosophical understanding of free will versus a proselytizing Calvinist with Romans 9 in hand. Now imagine all the Calvinist and Arminian O.T. and N.T. scholars in academia today and ask yourself is this how they’re dealing-with/sticking-to their Calvinism/Arminianism? This is supposed to be the carefully discerning understanding of “both sides of the issue”?
It would be one thing if these “former Arminians” took the time to learn about Arminianism or read a few of Arminius’ texts, but doesn’t it strike one’s curiosity that very few Calvinists can accurately restate, even in generalizations, even a handful of Jacob Arminius’ key issues? Furthermore, it is only when they have come to call themselves Calvinists that they then begin to take a look at the difficult passages on the opposing side of the fence–only for the purpose of debating. Unfortunately, at that point it is more about how to get around the difficult passages rather than reading it for what it states (and this could be said for Arminians as well). Reformed theologians Michael Horton and R. Scott Clark amusingly refer to this early period as “cage-phase Calvinism”. [This early point in a newly Reformed Christian’s life is also where everything seems overly reactionary to make sure everyone knows how different they are. If they see the evangelical talking about obedience in Christ as a regenerated and believing Christian (and as it says in John 15) they will react by trying to say something even more pious concerning grace, amplifying Total Depravity, and accusing the non-Reformed person of a work-centered law-driven life…all because of an acknowledgment of the command to abide in Christ?]
Through these observations, I’ve come to realize a few things:
1. First, we should reflect on how the privatization of our struggles concerning this debate may be leading us to undermine the debate all together. How? By shoving under the rug a genuine grappling of the other side’s arguments. Has one theological view already won over our hearts and minds before the debate even started? Let’s urge each other to put down any “face” that we may be putting up, perhaps when a Calvinist/Arminian isn’t looking, and try to examine exactly how we’ve come to realize the validity of our doctrines. Has Arminianism ever been given a chance? Or has Calvinism been given a chance? If you’re an Arminian and you’ve been reading this while conveniently exempting yourself, take a cautious reflection on your own journey and its beginnings, because this applies to you too.
2. Secondly, many churches in general—apart from the Reformed–have failed to be as concerned about theology as the Calvinist camp has been. In that sense, it is no wonder that many Calvinists have turned to Calvinism from a previous position that had almost little or no bearing to the exegetical and reasonable defense that Arminianism is based on. It is no wonder how many looks and surprises of dumbfoundedness come about when a new Calvinist is approached in debate using scripture. Theology matters. The growing resurgence of Calvinism has just as much to do with the voice of Arminianism as it does with the voice of Calvinism.
3. Finally, in response to the previously mentioned sense that a change in theological view somehow makes the newly held view to be the more accurate and deliberated one, we should consider why it is the case that one must be taught Calvinism in order to convert to it. Surely, an unrefined and immature disagreement with Calvinism on the basis of a philosophical understanding of free will is no defense at all—especially since we hold to the belief that theology should be based on God’s Word. But isn’t it interesting that we find difficulty in plainly gaining a Calvinistic understanding of a predestined distinction of common grace versus effectual grace in passages such as Matthew 11:21-24 which seems to, on the contrary, presume the notion of free-will? I find it difficult to believe anyone reading 1 Tim 2:3-6 will naturally come see that the atonement was for all of the elect men and women of the world—this needs to be taught in order that it can be read in this way. Furthermore, it is neither realistic to say that anyone would read those verses and naturally develop an understanding of a Two-Will Theory of God’s outward call and secret hidden will for the purposes of sustaining a limitation on the atonement. This understanding would eventually have to be coupled with a “its a mystery of God” band-aid — making sure everyone listening heard those last two words “..of God“. This is why Calvinism needs to be taught in order for it to be found in scripture.
Its interesting that when Calvinists proselytize to Arminians, and most Calvinists wouldn’t deny Arminians of being genuine Christians, it seems there is so much that is necessary to explain, shades of meaning in their theology to be refined, logical paradoxes that are deemed “mysteries” and relabeled as “paradoxes of God’s hidden greatness”, exegetical exemptions in one area while absolving themselves of those same exegetical standards in other areas of scripture, etc. Is this inability for the genuine Christian Arminian to accept the believability of Calvinistic theology because God has hidden these things from Arminians but not Calvinists? Were Arminians, as genuine regenerated Christian believers, not given ears to hear by the sovereign grace of God? It makes me wonder that perhaps those genuinely regenerated Arminian Christians were predestined not to accept Calvinism. The answer to this (from the Calvinist) is when we get to suddenly see God’s Calvinistic sovereignty absolved of its spotlight… “No, its because you Mr. Arminian are not willing to accept the doctrines of grace because you want to credit yourself for your salvation!” Oops. I forgot to boast this morning.
It is no wonder that even for the cage-phased Calvinist, it takes them time to refine the points of view of their own theology, often with the help of a concerned and knowledgeable Arminian sending them some stirring questions.