Yesterday I was asked by bright, eager, young Christian student of theology to identify “the one major difference between Calvinism and Arminianism.” Without hesitation I identified it the way evangelical Arminian philosopher Jerry Walls does in this book (published this year by Cascade Books, in imprint of Wipf and Stock): the character of God. On page 80 Walls writes that “The deepest issue that divides Arminians and Calvinists is not the sovereignty of God, predestination, or the authority of the Bible. The deepest difference pertains to how we understand the character of God. Is God good in the sense that he deeply and sincerely loves all persons?”
I happen to know a little about the “back story” of this book (which contains a high promotional recommendation by me on its back cover). Its front cover features a picture of the now more famous than ever statue of Christ with outstretched arms overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. A few years ago I was invited by the Brazilian publisher of my books to come to that country for a speaking tour. I was unable to go and recommended they invite Walls which they did. This book contains a version of some of the lectures he gave there. The tour, both the one I did not do and his, was primarily around Brazilian Pentecostal churches and institutions. According to Walls (and I have heard this from others) Pentecostalism, especially the Assemblies of God, is the largest segment of Protestants in Brazil.
According to the Brazilians who invited me and according to Wells who went and spoke, “five point Calvinism” is making deep inroads into Brazilian Protestantism—including Pentecostalism including Brazilian Assemblies of God churches. Portuguese translations of John Piper’s and other North American Calvinists’ books are selling like the proverbial hot cakes in Brazil.
Back to Walls’s book….
It is a very brief, concise and succinct (only 88 pages) explanation of why five point Calvinism is “wrong.” I don’t think it adds anything to what Walls earlier argued inWhy I Am Not a Calvinist (IVP, 2004) (written with Joseph Dongell) or that I argued in Against Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011). The main difference is that this book is written in a less scholarly fashion (although both other books are highly accessible to non-scholarly readers) and somewhat briefer. Of course, I would prefer that people read my Against Calvinism which I think goes into the subject more deeply—assuming they have to choose between them.
In Does God Love Everyone? however, Walls does an excellent job of driving home the Achilles Heel of five point Calvinism which is that a believer in it cannot say to any group of people or any individual “God loves you, Christ died for you, and you can be saved.” Of course, John Piper and some other five point Calvinists argue that they can say that to any group of people or to any individual. However, the “explanation” of that basic evangelistic statement, if made by a five point Calvinist, is so tortuous as to be laughable. As one five point Calvinist explained the first part of it “God loves all people in some ways but only some people in all ways.” And Piper argues that Christ’s death on the cross benefits even the reprobate—those God has predestined to hell—with “temporal blessings.” As I have said many times that amounts to giving them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in.
Walls’s book is a good beginning; it kicks open the door. It raises questions and concerns any thoughtful, reflective Calvinists must eventually confront and explain. While it is an excellent beginning book I, without apology, still more highly recommend Against Calvinism for those who really care to look deeply into those questions and concerns and who want to read at the same time a strong explanation and recommendation of the main evangelical alternative to five point Calvinism (viz., classical Arminianism).
I do not know whether or to what extent (if any) Walls struggles with this, but I will confess that I feel the burden, even the stigma, of being identified among evangelicals primarily as “that anti-Calvinist.” That is not how I regard myself, but I understand how I have brought about that perception. My only defense is that the leaders of the “Young, Restless, Reformed Movement” and of contemporary North American aggressive Calvinism in general have been much more anti-Arminian than I have been anti-Calvinist. It’s just that they hide their anti-Arminianism within the pages of their pro-Calvinist writings. It’s not very well hidden. For me this whole project began in the early 1990s when I read the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine which blatantly misrepresented classical Arminianism and, in effect, attempted to excommunicate Arminians from evangelicalism. From there came, of course, an avalanche of anti-Arminian writings and sermons by leading North American conservative evangelicals. But they were not-very-well hidden within their pro-Calvinist titles and introductions. I won’t bore with a list of examples because I’ve mentioned them here before. I’ll just mention one. On Youtube someone seeking information about Arminianism is likely to find a documentary (not just a podcast) tracing “liberal theology” and even hedonism (!) back to Arminianism. Thoughtful, reflective viewers will laugh at its ending where the filmmakers attempt to blame Arminianism for two famous women performers kissing each other on stage at a rock concert. Unfortunately, however, many YRRM people have fallen under the spell of this virulent anti-Arminianism without making any serious attempt to understand what Arminianism really is.
My Against Calvinism and Walls’s Does God Love Everyone? are both attempts to turn the tables and irenically point out the serious flaws and defects of five point Calvinism without attempting to excommunicate Calvinists from evangelicalism. Neither Walls nor I have ever said, for example, that Calvinists can be Christians “just barely” or inquired publicly how Calvinists can be considered evangelical Christians—with an implied answer that they cannot be. We have simply attempted to demonstrate that “high Calvinism” contains inner contradictions that can have negative practical consequences and that people who believe in it must necessarily, insofar as they care anything about logic, embrace belief in a God who does not love everyone, who is not really love, and whose “goodness” is incommensurate with anything we know about goodness even from the Bible itself.
[Link to original post and comments at Roger Olson’s blog]