By David Martinez
On the night of Wednesday, August 27, 2014, Arminians squared off against Calvinists at Missio Dei Church in Chicago for a theological debate. The participants were: Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer (Arminians) against Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones (Calvinists), all of whom have authored books on theological subjects. I had the pleasure of being at the event.
The Air Conditioned vents in the church were on full throttle, perhaps a preventive measure in case the debate generated more heat than light. Thankfully, there wasn’t much heat in the content of the debate, if what is meant by “heat” is the usual suspects: ad hominem attacks and inflammatory accusations. Besides the threat of experiencing a serious case of frostbite, there was no fear or tension in the room. For the most part, all parties behaved themselves respectfully and were very courteous to one another. When it seamed that the gloves would be taken off, they actually remained in place. For this, all participants should be praised since the Calvinist/Arminian debate can sometimes become saturated with a kind of zeal that leaves more people wounded by war than welcomed with warmth. This doesn’t mean, however, that no team threw any zingers or became aggressive with some of their points. They did.
As much as I enjoyed the debate, I think three things slightly hurt the helpfulness, as well as the pleasantness of it.
- Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, was the moderator of this debate. I have nothing against this gentleman who seems like a very nice man, but I am not convinced he was the best option to steer the debate. At 2:11 he mentions that Calvin’s theology was “very much a part of [his] life” (aren’t moderators supposed to remain publically as neutral about the subject as possible?) though other types of theology have influenced him too. He doesn’t know what label to use when presenting the non-Calvinists (because Arminians are apparently such an anomaly in the Body), and claims that Austin Fischer’s publisher ripped off the label he invented, “young, restless, and reformed” (what a way to introduce us!). Add to this the incessant waving of the Christianity Today flag, a bit too much for my taste, even as early as 15 seconds into his opening remarks. Again, I’m sure he is a nice man, but his work as moderator was less than outstanding.
- There was no Q&A session in the debate. I am not sure if that is simply the format of this kind of debate but the lack of a Q&A session was very unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is the lack of participation from the crowd. There were great moments in the debate and I wish the moderator had informed the crowd that it was okay to applaud each speaker after each rebuttal. Since the moderator did not do this, I think many people held back on some of their emotions. One gentleman seated in front of me reacted emotionally (but sort-of held back) to something one of the Calvinists said. Consequently, if there wasn’t going to be a Q&A session after all, perhaps the moderator should have considered letting the crowd know that they could at least applaud after each presentation. He didn’t, which made several (many?) individuals in the audience apprehensive about enjoying the debate in any visible way. If the moderator’s job was to be as unexciting as possible, he sure succeeded. At least a Q&A session would have been helpful in clarifying key issues brought up by the speakers. Perhaps there was no time.
- The debate was set up in a peculiar way, one that I didn’t find too helpful. It was designed to address two propositions (see below). However, Calvinism involves a complex theological labyrinth with very bold doctrines, claims which I would say are radical enough to be challenged with a sword and shield wherever the five-headed beast of Calvinism rears its fire-breathing head. Is the doctrine that Jesus did not die for all men but only for the elect not a worthy thing to be discussed in a debate dedicated to Calvinism? Oh, I would not be as naïve as to think that every single doctrinal stone will be unturned. However, to turn the debate into just two propositions in unwise. The fact that the Calvinists began to redundantly repeat their pre-packaged ideas was evidence (to me) that at least one or two other important topics could have been discussed within the time allotted. But then again, maybe that’s just me.
My overall impression of the debate was that it was a solid debate, respectful and informative at times. It seams to me that the Arminians won the debate but, of course, Calvinists are predestined to always say they won. Everyone can make up his or her mind after watching the debate, which is now available here on SEA’s website (Part 1 and Part 2). I would like to offer a brief summary of the participants’ key points that caught my attention, followed by a general critique of some points where I believe the Calvinists erred.
Proposition #1- Calvinism necessitates unconditional predestination, and unconditional predestination is incongruous with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The first proposition discussed was a good one because most Calvinists want to affirm their doctrine of election while ignoring that reprobation is a kind of election as well. In short: they want to have their glory-cake and eat it too. “When Calvinism speaks of unconditional predestination”, said Brian Zahn in his opening remarks, “it should be more accurately described as unconditional predestinations” (25:40-25:49). He then elaborated on the fact that, in Calvinism, to not be part of the elect is to be in fact “damned from eternity for eternity”, a doctrine Brian calls Calvinism’s “dirty secret” (30:36).
Austin Fischer started off the debate and did an impressive job in his opening remarks. He stuck to the proposition assigned and came out swinging, so to speak. His points could be summarized into two main pillars that held his arguments together.
- Though the reprobate are said to be guilty, worthy of condemnation, and deserving hell, they are so because God wanted this, according to Calvinism. In case someone thinks this is a misrepresentation of Calvinism, both Austin and Brian quote John Calvin himself from his magisterial Institutes.
- The Calvinistic doctrines of Election and Reprobation are incongruous with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. “If you want to know what God is like, then you look at Jesus”, said Austin, citing John 1:18, 14:9, 2 Corinthians 4:4 Colossians 1:15, and Hebrews 1:3. The point here is that in the crucifixion of Christ we see a God who would rather die than give sinners what they deserve.
Daniel Montgomery was up to bat next with his opening remarks. He was composed, respectful, and, of course, defended Calvinism. “Unconditional election is not only congruent with the character of Christ”, he said, “but is required by the storyline of scriptures” (17:10-17:17). At the risk of oversimplifying his arguments, I think Daniel’s key arguments could be summed up in the following:
- Scripture needs to play the primary role in what we believe, and the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election is in scripture.
- The Calvinistic doctrine of election is a mystery and human beings should not question God. Pointing to the story of Job, Daniel says “I think there needs to be a whole lot more silence rather than speculation and revision in regards to the sovereignty of God” (18:44-18:52). Timothy Paul Jones echoed his friend and co-author of the book, Proof: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, by putting it beautifully: “We are stepping out into a mystery. We should have in this a lot less swagger and a lot more stagger” (32:19-32:24).
All in all, the Arminians affirmed that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God and that Calvinism’s doctrines paint a severely distorted picture of the character that God, one that doesn’t fall in line with the behavior we see in Jesus Christ. The Calvinists affirmed that though their doctrines admittedly contain a level of mystery, these doctrines are the clear testimony of scripture and that our job is to bow down in wonder to this truth. I will reserve my opinions of this for later.
Proposition #2- The cause of repentance and saving faith is not synergistic but monergistic.
This half was the more frustrating half of the debate for me because I wanted to interrupt several times to ask for clarity beyond some of the rhetoric I kept hearing. Luckily I had a choice in the matter (wink wink) and controlled myself.
Timothy Paul Jones started off this section of the debate with what I consider to be the most confusing monologue of the evening (more on this below). Notwithstanding, I believe the following is a fair summary of his position.
- Ephesians 2:8, Ephesians 2:8, and Ephesians 2:8! By the way, did I mention that Ephesians 2:8 says, “this is not from you”? “In five greek words Paul rules out synergism completely”, says Timothy (5:51)
- Arminianism is wrong because it places focus on man’s free will. But the Bible is clear that man is dead in sin.
Brian Zahnd was assigned to respond to Timothy, which he did by introducing an analogy that scandalized many Calvinists in the twitterverse and other social media outlets. “In monergism we are the purely acted upon”, said Brian, “In synergism we dance with God” (8:19-8:29). From this moment onward in the debate, both teams would use the analogy of dancing with God (That’s right, Calvinists. Your team had no problem with the analogy. So relax!).
Strangely, Brian and Austin avoided being explicit about the doctrine of prevenient grace. Rather, they appealed to different arguments that, although loosely related to prevenient grace, are not necessarily a solid apologetic for said doctrine. Why they both took the rigorous and rocky route of appealing to a philosophy of free will (Brian Zahnd’s approach), or appealing to mystery (Austin Fischer’s approach), is unbeknownst to me, especially with the existence of an easier highway such as the doctrine of prevenient grace. Notwithstanding, their arguments are not without merit.
Brian’s point is that salvation should not be seen as a mere state of being. Rather, salvation is an ongoing “dance”, by which he means a lifestyle. If salvation is seen as a lifestyle then it is a lot harder to see how God is glorified if every move is actually controlled by God. Brian did not flesh this out as much as I would have liked, though he tried from 38:45-39:20, but I think the illustration is helpful. If salvation is reduced to a mere state of being – “a [post-mortem] heaven and hell minimalism”, as Brian puts it (37:51) – then it is easy to imagine God reaching down and pulling out a statue from the “reprobate box” and putting it in the “saved box”. It is, however, nearly impossible to come up with an analogy of monergism, if salvation is seen as an ongoing lifestyle. Fair enough.
Austin addressed some of Daniel’s points, namely, the oh-so-predictable repeated usage of Ephesians 2 and Romans 9. For example, one of the objections Daniel used against Brian’s synergistic analogy of “dancing with God” was that the last time he checked, “cadavers don’t dance; dead people don’t dance” (15:56-16:00). Austin’s response was great and created a few giggles in the audience: “But you have got to remember, in Calvinism, God killed everybody. Right?” (30:14-19). In a worldview of divine determinism where God has predestined everything, what is so glorious about God saving a few from the fires he made sure would blaze?
When Timothy was up to offer his rebuttal, he basically reaffirmed that we are all spiritually dead and that salvation must be completely of the Lord. On 34:37 Timothy offers an interesting rebuttal against Arminianism. Arminianism, says Timothy, cannot solve an issue that it purports to solve, namely, the un-evangelized. “There are people being born right now, who will never hear the gospel. God could …do all sorts of things [to get the gospel to that person] but if God doesn’t…then God is still not doing everything possible to achieve their salvation”, says Timothy (34:37-35:22). His point was not really answered.
Both teams interacted back and forth and I will not go into detail about everything that I disagreed with. However, as an Arminian, I believe there were a few significant flaws with the Calvinists’ argument, flaws that are worthy to be pointed out. Here are just a few main ones.
#1 – A mysterious mystery filled with inglorious glory
I hear Calvinists gush with delight whenever they talk about their “glorious doctrines”. This debate was no exception. However, when Arminians point to the horrifying and not-so-celebrated implications of their theology (e.g., God created beings in His image for the purpose of being damned for all eternity), Calvinists appeal to mystery. If, at the debate, I had a dime for every time Daniel and Timothy mentioned that the Calvinistic doctrine of election was “a mystery”, I’d have – well, a lot of dimes. God chose some people to save and left the others to burn forever for His glory – and this is a mystery? The only mystery I see here is why anyone with a heart would believe such a thing. Austin rightly says, “to call this a mystery is to make the most massive understatement ever spoken by a human being” (11:14-11:20), and warns his audience to be ready for an avalanche of euphemisms from the Calvinists. Unfortunately, far too many Calvinists are content to be buried beneath the avalanche. Perhaps it is best for them to stay down there to muffle the agonizing screams of the reprobate.
#2 – Are Calvinists predetermined to misrepresent Arminianism?
During the second half of this debate I was profoundly annoyed at how often the Calvinists distorted Arminianism. Ask Daniel why Arminians reject unconditional election and this is the answer he gives: “The struggle with unconditional election, I see, [is] rooted more in our democratic ideal of our right to elect and this notion of some autonomous self” (21:22-21:32). Ask him what Arminianism is and this is the answer he will give: “American religion – God helps those who help themselves” (16:24-16:27). Of course, to Daniel, only monergism describes a “divine job” (16:17).
Oh, the agony of such intelligent ignorance! I wonder what terms one must use to get it through to Calvinists that Arminians do not believe in some “autonomous self will” that is unassisted by the grace of God. I am not even sure that if Calvinists read Arminians they would stop misrepresenting us. I say this because from 4:30-4:49 Timothy does quote John Wesley, or misquote him, I should say. John Wesley has countless quotes in which he affirms over and over again that man is wicked and can do nothing to save himself (e.g., sermon 44), yet Timothy quotes one line (out of context!) from one of Wesley’s sermons to prove that Arminians don’t believe in total depravity. I am a big fan of Wesley and read enough of his writing to have known the exact sermon Timothy was quoting from. What was the quote as per Timothy?
“According Wesley”, said Timothy, “there is in every human being a faint glimmering ray of light and if only, with that faint glimmering ray of light, you don’t resist God, then God will complete his work of salvation”
Timothy was referring to sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation”, section 3, and paragraph 4. Yet did Timothy read, in the same paragraph, that Wesley said, “there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God” (emphasis mine)? Wesley attributed to God all good work in man. You might disagree with some of the things he said, but that doesn’t give you the right to make it sound as if he denied total depravity and believed that man, in and of himself, could seek God.
I only point this out as one example of how often Calvinists do not take the time to understand an Arminian position. This is a frustrating mystery indeed.
#3 – Repeating yourself is a valid form of refutation. Repeating yourself is a valid form of refutation. Repeating yourself is…
It’s frustrating to see how the Calvinists did not interact with almost any of the points the Arminians brought up. Lest you think I am exaggerating, consider this: In Austin’s second presentation, he took the time to explain Romans 9, albeit briefly. He makes several valid points about this, not the least of which is that fact that Paul doesn’t stop speaking at Romans 9:23. In Romans 11:11, 18-23, Paul speaks about Jews being grafted back in to God’s family. However, if Paul is dealing with Jews who are unconditionally predestined to hell, and gentiles who are unconditionally elect, how can anyone be grafted back in or cut off? When Daniel took the microphone, he eventually got around to Austin’s explanation of Romans 9. What was his rebuttal?
“Who are you, oh man? Who are you, oh Austin, to talk back to God?” (48:30-48:36)
Really. I am not kidding. That was his response. See for yourself.
It’s difficult for me to take some Calvinists’ “arguments” seriously when I continue to see a haphazard interaction with Arminian points. Maybe this is why Daniel and Timothy entitled their book, Proof, perhaps they meant the fallacy of proof by assertion: Predestinarian Rhetoric Opposing Obvious Facts.
As I think back upon that night, I conclude that it was well worth taking the time to be at the debate. I had a great time and it was very nice to see all participants treat one another kindly, though I don’t know why a Calvinist wouldn’t be arbitrarily hateful to some people, as His view logically implies God so doing. You see, Calvinism, to me at least, is unlivable. I hear all the talk of glory, glory, and more glory. However, this is all sizzle and no steak.
“All are invited to the dance”, says Timothy (33:20). Oh really? But why is God inviting certain individuals to the dance, reprobated individuals for whom no payment was made for their sins? How honest and sincere can God be in inviting someone he actually doesn’t want to dance with? I guess it’s that frightening, nightmarish, “hidden God” lurking in the shadows, who actually doesn’t want everyone at the dance.
Of course, Daniel said cadavers don’t dance. But if his monergism is right, then what romance is there in dancing with such an inglorious God who deliberately fools people so? I do not find that such a God inspires love. If you do . . .
. . .have fun dancing. Try not to trip over the corpses of the reprobate.
 Daniel uses it at 15:52-15:52 and at 33:18 Timothy explained that “everybody is invited to the dance”