Or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Theology”
What I Mean by the Stronghold
This is probably going to be the hardest rhetorical analysis that I currently have planned to explain what I mean. It is important for this post that I mention that this is neither a critique on Calvinist theology, nor is this particular anomaly a universal characteristic of Calvinist rhetoric. Instead, this is something that I have noticed experientially as I have talked to Calvinists.
It seems to me that most Calvinists today have become Calvinist to “protect themselves” from something (whether that is liberalism, or Pelagianism, or fear of apostasy, etc.). Because this is a major motivation for believing in Calvinism, it then becomes a major part of their argumentation. However, to prove that Calvinism is a safeguard for something, you need to also prove that that thing is also a legitimate threat. The process of trying to prove that something is a legitimate threat, that one needs this belief to protect them, is what I mean by the Stronghold. The idea is that you are turning your theology into a stronghold to protect people from some horrible idea or fate. You may recognize it from door to door salesman, politicians, and various alarmist groups.
Despite the name I have chosen for it, stronghold rhetoric is not necessarily bad or wrong. Like much of what I am going to be discussing throughout this series, what we have here is a rhetorical trend, and I point it out only to help others understand how such arguments are made.
Indeed, stronghold rhetoric is essentially a form of emotional rhetoric, and engaging the emotions is an important part of all rhetoric, for it is usually the part of the argument that emboldens us to act. I am more likely to do something because I care about it, rather than simply because it makes sense to me. The emotional rhetoric deals with the “why this matters” side of intellectual discourse, and it also is the guide to understanding a speaker’s true motivations when dealing with rhetorical analysis (which is what this project is about).
The Stronghold in Action
The most common form of the Stronghold is the Slippery-Slope argument, but I intend to do a separate post on that. So I have two other examples:
I don’t want to say that the Calvinist view of eternal security is based on fear. I actually don’t think that it is. The view is based more on logic: if one is unconditionally and irresistibly chosen for salvation, then it stands to reason that they would remain so. It is also innate to the Calvinist idea of “the elect”.
The Stronghold comes in when one argues that not believing in eternal security will lead to a constant uncertainty of whether or not you are saved. Here is an excellent example from James White:
Reduce Jesus to the role of making us “savable,” and you no longer have the slightest reason to believe that, once a person is in Christ, he will remain there. But strip man of his pretended autonomy, recognize his utter dependence and God’s unparalleled power, and accept the truth of the eternal nature of Christ’s saving work (and its inability to fail), and you will find a firm foundation*
Even in their thoroughly Scriptural-based treatment of the subject, Peterson and Williams betrays their emotional connection to the doctrine when they say, “What could the biblical writers have said to make our safety in God’s care any clearer?”** (emphasis mine)
To be honest, there is a lot of stronghold rhetoric on both sides of the debate on this particular issue. Many Calvinists argue that if apostasy were possible, then one has to constantly self-criticize and live in fear (sort of like the idea that since falling is possible I therefore must check every step I make to see if a cliff is in front of me). Many Arminians will counter that if the Calvinist notion of a fruit-filled false faith is possible (which is a necessary corollary to the belief of eternal security), then one can never have true assurance that we are saved to begin with.
In truth, Arminians are not in constant fear of falling away from God, and most Calvinists are pretty sure that they are saved. A person taking an idea to an extreme is not sufficient proof that the idea itself is wrong, and people are not bound to believe what we think the logical conclusions of their worldview should be. Indeed, this becomes the basic problem with most examples of stronghold rhetoric: it often doesn’t actually reflect how the other side really lives or behaves. However, it remains evident that many Calvinists are very concerned with the fear of falling away, and find a great deal of emotional confidence in the fact that they are incapable of turning their backs to God.
Though I think it was good to bring up in this post, the eternal security example is not really a typical example of what I mean by stronghold rhetoric. A better example is the Calvinist claim that monergistic grace is necessary in order to believe that salvation is ultimately caused by God. There is a fear that if human beings are given credit for anything, that it is tantamount to Pelagianism (the belief that we earn our salvation). Calvinism therefore is seen as a stronghold for God’s role in salvation.
The problem is that Arminians do not believe that we are responsible for our salvation and believe that it is totally of God. In order to compensate for this, a Calvinist must argue that Arminians are being inconsistent, or that Arminians are Pelagian and don’t know it, or that Arminianism leads to Pelagianism. Such claims are difficult and often impossible to demonstrate, but necessary to make if the Calvinist is going to maintain that emotional tie to seeing Calvinism as a stronghold against works-based salvation.
The End Result
Quite frankly, stronghold rhetoric is the end result. Stronghold rhetoric is the sign which tells us why a person cares about what they believe. When debating with Calvinists it is important to pick up what they feel Calvinism is a stronghold against. This way, you can understand the best way to talk about Arminianism.
This also goes the other way. Arminians also use a great deal of stronghold rhetoric. There is the present assurance example that I mentioned under “eternal security” above. Also, whenever we say that Calvinism logically leads to a belief that God is the author of sin, or that Calvinism makes evangelism or prayer illogical, we are engaging in this kind of rhetoric. This isn’t bad, if it’s correct. But we do need to be cautious that we have tested such theories out before we state them, and be sure that we are not simply being emotional ourselves.
* James White, Debating Calvinism, (Multnomah Publishers, 2004: Sisters, Oregon),p. 406
** Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian, (), p. 77
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