I do not know whether or not you have noticed, but as I’ve been going, I am moving from my least relevant reasons to my most relevant reasons as to why I am an Arminian (which is also often a movement from the subjective to the objective). This post continues that trend as I look at the differences between the two theological systems, and why I believe Arminianism to be more intellectually satisfying. ( I am saving Scripture for last, which will be two parts)
As we move into these last three sections, we move into oversimplification. Each subject heading contains ideas and theses which can take whole books to properly present, and here I am attempting to do so in under a page each. In this regard, I ask for a little leniency, that if you find something questionable, it probably simply needs finer articulation. So I fully encourage any questions to what I say here as well as, of course, challenges.
It is very important that I define what I mean by ‘intellectually satisfying’. I want to avoid using black and white terms like ‘correct’, ‘accurate’, etc… Therefore, I am using this much softer word as a rhetorical olive branch to my Calvinist brothers and sisters.
By satisfying, what I mean is that it answers the various theological questions that are being dealt with in a superior way. In the end, that is what theology is all about. Once we have heard the gospel, we naturally have questions, and we ask these questions of Scripture. Some of these questions Scripture answers directly. Some it does not. In the end, our theology is shaped by our questions: what concerns we come to the Scriptures with. Inappropriate questions result in poor theology. Poorly balanced priorities in our questions lead to poor theology. Forcing Scripture to answer questions that it is unconcerned with leads to poor theology. And, of course, an unwillingness to listen to Scripture leads to… well poor theology.
The Arminianism/Calvinism debate revolves around a certain set of questions, many that have to do with the core of Christianity: the gospel. This is one reason why we get so passionate about it. In this post, I’m going to address these issues in terms of the questions asked, and attempt to show why I believe Arminianism gives more satisfying answers than Calvinism does.
This list of questions is meant to be representative of the debate, not exhaustive, so please keep that in mind as you read.
Sovereignty: What does it mean for God to be sovereign over creation?
The concept of sovereignty, according to many Calvinists, is at the heart of the issue. I disagree, but it is true that Calvinism and Arminianism frame sovereignty very differently. I say it is not at the heart of the issue because both Calvinism and Arminianism completely and utterly affirm God’s sovereignty. In both systems, God has the right and power to do whatever He wants and whatever He sets out to do, and whatever He decrees will happen. The difference between Calvinism and Arminianism isn’t God’s power or authority, but how God uses it.
The principle difference between us in this area is how we answer the following question: has God set forth a decree for everything which ever will happen, or has happened? Calvinists say yes, Arminians say no. The key isn’t whether or not things can thwart God’s decrees, since we are in agreement that nothing can. So when an Arminian claims that there are things which have occurred which God did not cause, what we mean is that God did not deem it necessary to set forth a decree for those things.
Personally, I think the Arminian position on this issue is stronger since the prominent Calvinist position seems to be based on the fallacy of necessity. The logic seems to flow as follows:
1.God may decree whatever He wants
2.Everything that God decrees must come to pass_____
3.Therefore, everything that God wants comes to pass
4.Or: Therefore whatever comes to pass God wants.
Both of these conclusions ignore the possibility that God may want something that He doesn’t decree. Though both Calvinists and Arminians agree that God may decree whatever He wants, many Calvinists seem to think that God must decree whatever He wants, hence fallacy of necessity. Indeed, the central point that Arminians make is that there are things which God wants that He chooses not to decree for His own reasons. He is free to decree what He will and free to not decree what He will.
This coincides with the basic sense of sovereignty as we see it displayed on Earth. Sovereignty means the status and authority of a king. When we look at rulers on Earth, we find that they do not need to decree every minutia that occurs within their realms in order to be considered sovereign. Furthermore (indeed more importantly) they do not need to decree everything that is within their abilities to decree in order to be considered sovereign. It’s not the number of decrees, or the scope of decrees that matters. It is based upon whether or not decrees are followed when the sovereign issues them.
In this sense we see that God is just as sovereign in Arminianism as He is in Calvinism, and I would argue that He is freer. For under Calvinism He is under obligation to decree everything which comes to pass, while in Arminianism, God chooses what He decrees and what He does not.
[Aside: Many Calvinists have claimed (and these are mostly the the Neo-Reformed) that determinism is synonymous with saying that God is sovereign, and it is important here to note that God is not bound to behave like a human king. But, the word sovereign is a human word originally conceived to deal with human conditions. By calling God sovereign, we are saying that God is like a human king, and we cannot demand that the word necessarily means something that is not true with human kings. Now, one could make the argument that determinism is necessary for divinity to behave sovereignly, but one should make that argument instead of hiding behind the rhetorical mask of “defining the word”. ]
Impeccability: What does it mean for God to be good?
If you ask an Arminian what is the primary thing that is on the line in this debate, he/she would say God’s character. In this, I would have to agree, though I am sure my Calvinist brothers and sisters would disagree. This is, in part, because it appears that God would be the cause of sin within deterministic thinking, but I’ll talk more about that under responsibility. Here I want to talk more about the doctrine of Unconditional Election.
To me, Unconditional Election is the concept that makes Calvinism Calvinism. Any other Calvinist point is merely an elucidation on this one. The point of Unconditional Election, as well as the very point of Calvinism, is to demonstrate decisively that the human being does nothing to deserve salvation and that the work of salvation is completely God. Personally, I do not believe this idea is undermined by Arminianism, but I understand why Calvinists think it is (I’ll talk more about this under Grace).
According to unconditional election, God chooses who He will save and who He will not based on absolutely no quality within or about that person. His selection is completely arbitrary (subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one’s discretion). This also correlates to those who are not selected.
I do not see how one can maintain that God is love and say that God saves some and not others based solely on what He wants.
That said, I want to make a couple of concessions. It is true that not all Calvinists claim the monstrous idea that God creates certain individuals just to destroy them. However, that goes against what I understand as classic Calvinism. It is also true that most Calvinists claim that God is passive in the role of condemnation while active in the role of salvation, though I do not see how they maintain this given a deterministic perspective. In these ways, classic Calvinism has always attempted to maintain God as a being of love and goodness. I just don’t think it succeeds.
I am also not saying that Unconditional Election is, on its own, unjust. God made the rules. If that’s how the rules go, that’s how it goes. (Though I don’t think these are the rules, as I will argue below)
But this goes directly against the character of God as described in the Bible: God is a God of love. Love does not mean that He is soft, and would never condemn anybody. But it does mean that fundamentally God desires the salvation of all, and works toward the salvation of all. Love is a statement of value. You cannot claim that God truly loves something which He arbitrarily disregards.
And the reason that this has to do with impeccability is that God defines goodness by love. (Matthew 22:34-40) If God is considered to be good and just, then He must be compliant to the definitions of goodness and justice that He Himself sets forth. I agree with Sproul that God is the source in defining what is just and what is good. But where I cannot agree with Him is that something is just just because God does it. If all we had were God’s actions, then, yes, we define justice by those actions. But we also have God’s description of justice and goodness recorded in the Bible, and consistently God speaks out against arbitrary decisions and preferential treatment. This is not consistent with the Bible’s description of God’s loving character, nor the Bible’s definition of justice. (Sorry I don’t have a reference for you on the Sproul quote. It is from a video I watched once called The Truth Project)
To some degree, the call to salvation is unconditional, as Calvinists say, in that God calls to us based on His love for us, not based on our actions, thoughts, or qualities. However, this call is also universal, for He loves all and desires to save all. To believe otherwise, in my opinion goes against the qualities of goodness and love as God describes them in the biblical witness.
In the end, in Calvinism, we have a God who saves some because He likes them, and abandons others because He doesn’t. There is no way around this. This is different in Arminianism where God demands a unmeritous criterion to be met.
[Aside: The Arminian view of God’s sovereignty and human will comes from its view of God’s desire to save all. If God desires the salvation of all, and not all are saved, then God must allow humans the opportunity to reject His salvific actions. This is basic Arminian logic, and to avoid this, you must either reject the first premise (Calvinism) or the second premise (Universalism). In the end, the basis of Arminian thought is God’s character, not anthropology as some Calvinists have surmised.]
Responsibility: Who is responsible for sin, and who is responsible for salvation?
Responsibility is an issue that both Calvinists and Arminians are attempting to defend something on. On the one side, we need to recognize that man is responsible for sin and God is not. On the other hand, we need to recognize that God is responsible for salvation and man is not. Both Arminians and Calvinists agree on these points. Directly tied to the issue of responsibility is causation, which is why the subject of determinism and free will come out.
By responsibility, I mean the state of being “chargeable with being the author, cause, or occasion of something”. I have found it difficult to nail down precisely how to define ‘responsibility’ theologically, but I believe it is important so I have given it my best shot. First, it is important to remember that ‘responsibility’ is not the same thing as cause. However responsibility is related to causation, and causation needs to be discussed along side it.
Thus by ‘being responsible’ I therefore mean that “one is the principle cause: the one who initiates and carries out an action.” This does not necessarily mean the only cause, as there are often other factors that go into an event. For instance, we say that Mark Chapman is responsible for the death of John Lennon. Now, there were other factors, like the source of Chapman’s gun, the various events and persons in Chapman’s life that lead up to that decision, the influence of Lennon that made him a target, etc. But no one would argue against the idea Chapman is indeed the one responsible because he was the principle cause.
The principle cause also is not necessarily the immediate cause, as a Calvinist might argue. In The Count of Monte Christo, for instance, there are two men who conspire to destroy a certain Edmond. Edmond recognizes in that novel himself that it is the who who came up with the idea, and planned the strategy (Danglers) who was more responsible for the crime, rather than the one who merely delivered the letter (Fernand).
Let’s see how this works out theologically. Let’s start with sin. In Arminianism, God still provides the context (i.e. free will and the laws against which one may rebel) necessary for one to sin which could be considered a cause, but it is still the human that initiates and carries out the action of sin. Therefore, the human is the principle cause. However, in Calvinism, though God still provides the context, He also initiates the sin by decreeing it, though He is passive in carrying it out (somehow. I don’t really understand, but I’ll give the system the benefit of the doubt on that one). This is how Calvinists conclude that humans are the principle cause, but God would truly be the principle cause by my definition given above.
Now let’s take salvation. In Arminianism, the context is sin which is caused by man, but God initiates salvation through the sending of the Son and the prevenient grace of the Spirit, as well as carries it out through the justification by the blood, regeneration of the body and soul, and adoption into the family. Human action is required in the sense of response, but God initiates and carries out the action, making Him the principle cause. In Calvinism, we have unconditional election and irresistible grace through which the human is completely docile. God is undoubtedly the principle cause, for He is the only cause.
Now let me point out an inconsistency I see here in Calvinist thought. On the one hand, in the arena of sin, they make the distinction between primary and secondary causes to explain human responsibility, though they clearly are defining it differently than me. But in the arena of salvation, they insist that God must be the only cause to be responsible. For me, I do not understand this logic. How is God the only cause with salvation of man but isn’t the only cause with sin? This is especially true when they still claim that salvation of by faith. So let’s lay this issue out simply: if God causing faith in a person, and then that person being saved, is all on God, then how is God causing a desire for sin in a person, and then that person sinning, all on man? To me, this is contradiction: same line of causation with a different party being held responsible.
With Beza’s supralapsarianism, you had the consistency of God being the cause of both (which comes back to impeccability issues). As well, in Arminianism, you have consistency, given the view I gave about of the relationship between causation and responsibility. But in orthodox Calvinism, that maintains that humans are responsible for sin, this must be inconsistent. I find even compatibilism fails to reconcile this. In order for Calvinism to uphold the correct balance of who is responsible for what, causation must work differently in the arenas of sin and salvation, or it renders the concept of responsibility meaningless.
[Aside: Many Calvinists claim that Arminianism isn’t any better since prevenient grace is merely contextual. I disagree since I see prevenient grace as active, as I will argue below.]
Grace: How does God dispense His grace?
In my opinion, this all comes down to grace. My SEA colleague, Eric Landstrom whom I highly respect, claims the same thing. In the end, this isn’t an argument over faith and works, or over sovereignty, or over goodness. Those are the reasons why we get passionate; those things are why we care. The principle difference theologically is how we understand God’s dispensation of His grace.
Here is where both Calvinists and Arminians agree:
- Humanity is depraved beyond the hope of achieving any good left to its own devices
- Humanity is incapable of reconciling itself to God
- In order for a human to turn towards God, God must enable that human
- Such an enabling is undeserved, and is thus grace.
- Due to how God dispenses this grace, He alone can be considered responsible for a person’s salvation.
Therefore, the true issue here is how God accomplishes this task.
Now, I don’t have a particular problem with irresistible grace per-se. Indeed, there are graces which God dispenses which are irresistible. God has the power and the right to do such. Therefore, the question is: does He do such in this circumstance? Is it necessary for salvational grace to be irresistible if God is to be considered responsible for the act of salvation (so that no man may boast)?
Now, what is my reason for saying that saving grace cannot be irresistible? Well, for one, Scripture no where says that it is. Still, that doesn’t prove it isn’t true, but it does mean we have to think it out. My main reason is that if grace is irresistible, then that means that salvation is based upon some… unconditional election (for the lack of another word), and I have lots of reasons for disliking that. But, Calvinists don’t really seem to mind it, so I can’t really chide them for believing in irresistible grace.
On the other side of things though, Calvinists reject Arminianism because of our view of grace. The claim is that such a view makes God not sovereign and turns faith into a work by which a man may boast. I’ve already explained why I believe the first point is unfounded (see above), but the second makes even less sense to me.
First of all, faith is not works. Scripture always uses these terms as opposites when compared. A work is an action which is used to merit something. However, in employing faith to receive the gift of salvation, one isn’t meriting salvation; it is simply receiving it. The analogy of the gift has been employed often to show this. When one receives a gift, they haven’t earned it. But they still could reject the gift. This is the paradigm of salvation. Salvation is a gift offered to us by God which we are allowed to reject.
Second, by its very nature, faith is passive. By believing in the person of Jesus Christ (that is trusting in Him, not simply cognitively affirming His existence), you are assenting to His Lordship and power. You are actually relenting of activity, and allowing Him to do the saving. Again, this isn’t something which you can boast about anymore than a drowning victim can claim to have saved themselves by letting their body go limp as the lifeguard swam them to safety.
Finally, faith itself isn’t truly an accomplishment of the human. The Arminian view of grace is that God enables the person to come to faith. This enablement isn’t just passive as if God came down, gave us the tool to get the job done, and then waited for us to use the thing (I think this is how many Calvinists view the Arminian concept of free will). Instead, God is constantly active, coming down, freeing the will from corruption, and actively wooing us to Him.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I view the Calvinist view of grace as some kind of salvation package. It is like a highly defined object which is given to the person, and accomplishes everything it is supposed to do in an almost mechanized fashion. I find the Calvinist descriptions of the work of the Holy Spirit to be almost a Hegelian Giest, simply doing what is necessary to progress the world to its ultimate destiny.
However, the God of Scriptures is highly personable, as is the working out of grace. It doesn’t work in one sorta way. Prevenient grace isn’t just one action that God does and which accomplishes one particular thing (i.e. free will). Prevenient grace is the full account of all the personal actions which God does prior to salvation of which the freeing of the will is only a part.
There is also a gross misunderstanding about the nature of free will. First of all, Arminians don’t all express it the same way. The doctrine of free will is a means to an end (explaining the origin of evil basically). Second, the will is just a faculty that humanity has. God’s grace frees the will much in the same way as a father may hold a child in water. It is a continuous action on God’s part, and once God ceases being there, the will shall again be totally consumed by sin (that is, unless one is regenerated).
All in all, I feel that the Arminian view of grace is robust and more than sufficient to account for the fullness of God’s role in salvation. Thus, I find that a Calvinist’s insistence on the irresistiblity of grace to be unnecessary, and not worth the sacrifice in other areas of soteriology.
Theodicy: Why is there evil? Why are there demons and Satan?
Thankfully, this section shall by rather short. My point here is simply that Calvinism cannot account for the existence of evil and Satan. In Calvinism, such things exist because they must exist for God to accomplish His ultimate goal. They are a means to an end, and a rather silly means if you ask me. In Arminianism, the framing of evil and Satan is very simple and very biblical: rebellion.
You see, in Calvinism, there is no true rebellion. Sure, they frame rebellion as a desire to go against God, but that desire was ordained by God, and by “rebelling” one accomplishes God’s purpose anyway. This isn’t truly rebellion of course.
But in Arminianism, we recognize rebellion as meaning what it means: resisting the sovereignty of a being. In other words, it is doing other than what the sovereign wants. Now as I said before, if God decrees a thing, it is so. There is no getting around it. Not all rebellions succeed. But God does decree conditional laws (read Leviticus for examples), as every king does, and rebellion is going against these laws. Why is there evil? Because people rebel. Why is there a Satan? Because Satan rebelled. Simple, and biblical.
Security and Assurance: What does Scripture mean when it says we can be assured of our salvation?
I saved this one for last since Arminianism as a system doesn’t take a stand on this issue, though it shows a tendency, and I am an example of that tendency. According to Scripture, there are two final destinies for every human: eternal life and eternal death. How you understand those realities is moot at this point. The important thing is that there are two, and one you want and one you don’t. The existence of these two produce a basic question in all of us: “Where will I end up?”
Well, Arminians and Calvinists agree with our basic answer. If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you will have eternal life, but if you don’t then you will keep eternal damnation. Those who accept Jesus have been born again. This rebirth is the foundation of our reconciliation with God, and a new reality that we live in which allows us to live eternally.
However, there are two basic questions that stem from this answer. The first is, “how do I know that this rebirth will last? Will it ultimately keep me safe?”. The second is, “How do I even know that I’ve been born again to begin with?” Which of these two answers your prioritize often pushes you towards Calvinism or Arminianism.
The truth of the matter is, you can’t have absolute assurance on both of these questions. There does exist those who show every sign of being saved, and eventually walk away. They exist and only an ostrich would say otherwise. So either they were never saved to begin with (meaning that we cannot be assured of our current salvation) or they were saved and forfeited it (meaning that we cannot be assured that once one is saved, one is always saved). Concluding this, we must then ask another question: which of these two above questions is more important? Not just for me personally, but which one is the Scriptures themselves more concerned with?
Personally, I find nothing in Scripture that teaches the idea that one cannot walk away. Sure, there are a few verses that sorta sound like one could never walk away. I’m not really denying these, and I’ll treat a couple of them in the next post. What I am saying is that I’ve never found a passage that stresses the assurance of it (and several that very explicitly say the opposite). Where does Scripture ever say that one can be assured that they won’t stray from the path?
However, there are a plethora of passages that do stress the assurance in one’s current position with God. Indeed, the whole book of I John is devoted to the subject. This tells me that this is the more important question, and therefore, that is the question we should really be asking. And if we are pursuing the answer to that question in our personal lives, I believe that will result in the eventual rejection of a guaranteed perseverance of the saints.
On top of this, I also believe that this is the more spiritually important answer. The Bible talks about the need for us to maintain our walk, and when we understand that maintenance in terms of faith instead of works, it is not very oppressive (when it is understood as works it is quite oppressive). One’s spiritual walk doesn’t seem to be diminished from this. Meanwhile, a lack of confidence in our present position with the Lord creates huge trust issues with God. How can we find true spiritual security if we cannot be sure that the spirit that enlivens us is the Holy Spirit? Indeed a couple of months ago, a Calvinist by the name of C. Michael Patton, wrote a post admitting that it is Calvinism that tends to develop spiritual insecurity. So not only is it good exegesis, and not only is it good theology, but it is good spirituality as well.
For the sake of brevity (of which I’ve already failed), I’ll leave it at those points. These are my main issues. But overall, I simply find Calvinism unsatisfactory. It doesn’t seem to deal with the right emphases of salvation and Christianity. Calvinist writings seems like someone writing a sonnet on the beauty of a rose’s thorn. Though I appreciate the aspects of Christianity that Calvinism is attempting to defend, I believe that Arminianism does a fine enough job defending these same things without forfeiting some other more basic points. It seems to exemplify the role of the Father in decreeing, while leaving the roles of the Son and the Spirit as merely working out the plan. It makes grace mechanical instead of personable, sin a necessary evil instead of a problem to be solved (by God), and empties sovereignty of its basic natural sense.
Now, if you think I have mischaracterized Calvinism in any way, I have a couple more things to say. I think that many Calvinists don’t view Calvinism this way because they allow Scripture to be a corrective to their theological viewpoints. The theology is merely a means of answering certain questions, but isn’t the focus of their faith. These are people who I commend, but I say that they have these attitudes in spite of Calvinism, rather than because of it. The actual theology does not seem to me to engender the Christian attitude or worldview as well as Arminianism does. All of this considered, I definitely believe that Armininism is theologically the superior position.
However, which is the biblically superior position? We’ll look at that in the next two posts.