Diversity of Calvinism / Reformed Theology

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by Roger E. Olson

One person, responding to one of my postings, said something about the diversity of Arminianism compared to Calvinism. The thrust of his message, as I recall, was that Arminianism is so much more diverse than Calvinism that it makes it difficult to respond to Arminianism.

I argue that Calvinism or Reformed theology today is just as diverse if not more diverse than Arminianism.

About Arminian diversity: Yes, among Arminians today one can find disagreement about God’s foreknowledge and the universality of prevenient grace, the sacraments and entire sanctification. The main distinction within the camp of classical Arminians is, I suppose, over sanctification. Wesleyan Arminians believe in entire sanctification (following Wesley) and non-Wesleyan Arminians (such as Free Will Baptists) don’t. (My own study of Arminius has led me to believe he would have embraced Wesley’s teaching with the caveat that entire sanctification is not normative but exceptional.) Whether open theists count as classical Arminians is open to debate. I, for one, count them. But other classical Arminians I know do not.

The important point is, however, that there is such as thing as “classical Arminianism” about which all Arminians agree. Classical Arminianism is a particular view of soteriology that I call “evangelical synergism” (to distinguish it from Catholic or Easter Orthodox synergism).

When I say, for example, that Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace is completely consistent with classical Arminianism I am not claiming that all true Arminians will agree with everything he says in that book. Certainly those of us who believe in believers baptism will not agree with his sacramentalism. But you can be just as Arminian as the next person and not agree with her about many other issues of theology (than those that define Arminianism).

A classical Arminian is a Christian who is 1) Protestant, 2) evangelical (in the broad sense I have defined with Bebbington and Noll), and 3) affirms total depravity, prevenient, resistible grace, corporate election and conditional predestination and universal atonement. The manifest diversity among Arminians (regarding, for example, the security of the believer) does not make Arminianism diverse. Arminianism is the theology that all Arminians agree on in spite of disagreement about other matters.

What about Calvinist / Reformed diversity? One can find among Calvinists and Reformed Christians many areas of disagreement: the order of the divine decrees (supralapsarian versus infralapsarian), the universality or limitedness of the atonement, whether the gospel message can be a “well-meant offer” to all or whether evangelism should be discriminate, etc. It’s even possible to find people who call themselves “Reformed” who do not believe in unconditional election, limited atonement or irresistible grace. (Many modern Reformed theologians sound more like Arminians!)

Historically, however, what has come to be called “Calvinism” and is usually meant (in America, at least) by “Reformed theology” (especially among evangelicals) is affirmation of the TULIP system: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.

What’s very interesting to me is the real diversity of the label “Reformed.” Many of the “young, restless, Reformed” people would be very surprised to find out that the Remonstrant Brotherhood of Holland (the denomination that traces its roots back to the original Arminians who were exiled from Holland by the Prince of the United Provinces at the end of the Synod of Dort but who returned in the late 1620s) is a full, charter member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC)!

So, in my opinion, anyway, there is just as much diversity among Calvinists / Reformed as among Arminians, but both have a core of doctrinal tenets that historically define them.

When I say, then, that Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace is thoroughly consistent with classical Arminianism, all that means is the same as if I said that R. C. Sproul’s Chosen by God is thoroughly consistent with Calvinism. Not all Calvinists agree with Sproul about everything. But generally speaking, historical, classical Calvinism is affirmed by Sproul and he is rightly considered a spokesman for Calvinism (even if some might object to the some of the ways in which he speaks for it).