In the upcoming series, I want to deal with a very controversial topic: Calvinism vs Arminianism. Some of you might be new to this controversy, some of you might be grizzled veterans of this epic debate.
This post is just designed to introduce the debate and give some historical context, in the next several posts we will take a deep dive into the Bible to evaluate these two positions.
With this year being the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I figured this would be a good time to tackle this issue.
Now, a couple of things to keep in mind before we get started:
- Just to be up front, I am a Calvinist. I started out being resolutely opposed to Calvinism and then slowly came to embrace it as Biblical. That’s the point of view that I will be arguing from.
- I don’t in any way shape or form think that disagreeing with me on this issue means that you are not a real Christian. This is an in-house debate. Even if you strongly disagree with me on this issue, you are still my brother or sister in Christ and I hope you take the time to read through my reasoning in this series. More than my conclusions themselves, I think that the process of how I evaluate scripture will be useful even to many of you who walk away in resolute disagreement with my position.
With that said, let’s spend some time unpacking the issue. In what follows, you have an overview of the heart of the disagreement, the historical flow that led to the present state of the debate, and then finally a detailed breakdown of the major differences between the two sides.
When it comes to God’s divine involvement in our lives, there should be no doubt that there are going to be some apparent tensions that will be difficult to reconcile.
One of them that nearly every believer will have to wrestle with at some point or another is that the Bible contains both of these ideas:
- If you believe, you will be saved (e.g. Romans 10:9)
- Those who are chosen will be saved (e.g. Ephesians 1:1-14)
Obviously this leads to the inevitable question, which is it? Do people get saved because God chose them or because they chose God?
If you’re going to affirm all the Bible says you ultimately would have to say both, but which one is the decisive cause? Does God’s choice determine who will believe and thus be saved, or does a person’s decision to believe cause them to be chosen and saved?
To put it succinctly: do the chosen believe or do believers get chosen?
Who makes the decisive action, God or man?
Basically there are three possibilities for how the two Biblical truths mentioned above can relate to each other:
- The Bible is clear: God’s choice is based on our first believing
- The Bible is clear: God’s choice determines who will believe
- The Bible is unclear about how these two truths are related
If you believe the first option, then you side with the view of salvation known popularly as “Calvinism.” (more on Calvinism below).
If you believe the second option, you side with the view of salvation popularly known as “Arminianism.” (more on Arminianism below)
If you believe the third, then you are quite comfortable living with a great deal of tension and paradox. You also probably, whether you notice it or not, tend to side more with the second view and may even have a strong emotional reaction against the first.
How We Got Here
Even though I ultimately think that the only way to sort this issue out is to take a careful look at the Bible (which we will do in subsequent posts), I think it’s helpful to take a look at how the argument arrived at it’s present form. This is obviously going to be a very brief and simplistic survey, but it should be useful.
Pelagius vs Augustine
There are bits and pieces in the writing of the early church fathers that relate to this issue, but usually only tangentially. The debate didn’t really start to take shape until the epic theological clash of Pelagius and Augustine.
These two couldn’t have been more different on these issues. Pelagius thought that not only did human beings not inherit any guilt from Adam, we didn’t even inherit a sin nature. This means that we are all born in a completely neutral place with total free will: we can choose God and choose to obey his commandments or we can choose to turn our backs on him and disobey.
Divine grace is necessary of course, but divine grace is just a kind of external helper that empowers us to live a slightly better life than we could have on our own.
Pelagius recognized that predestination was a legitimate concept, but for him predestination was predicated on God’s foreknowledge of future events.
Augustine on the other hand maintained that mankind was dead in sin and was completely reliant upon grace to be saved from the wrath that they deserved.
Augustine, like Pelagius, affirmed the foreknowledge of God, but for Augustine God’s foreknowledge didn’t inform his predestining of things, but rather foreknowledge and predestination were the same thing.
He also maintained that not only did God elect and choose some for salvation, but that God would infallibly save those who he predestined. Augustine distinguished between two types of “calling” that exist. The first, which we might call the “general call” is the proclamation of the gospel message inviting sinners to repent and put their faith in Christ. The second, which we might call the “effective call” is where God actually brings to faith and repentance those whom he wishes to save.
Now it should be well noted that at this point, the debate didn’t look quite like the modern Calvinist/Arminian debate does now. While the modern Calvinist perspective is pretty closely matched by the views of Augustine, it would be wrong to say that Pelagius represented modern day Arminians.
In fact, Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism have long been considered heresies and modern day Arminians would disagree with Pelagius on a great many points. They would side with him against Augustine on several issues, such as God’s foreknowledge informing his predestination, but ultimately they would want to distance themselves from Pelagius.
Luther vs Erasmus
One of the most notable time periods for the debate over Salvation was the time of the Reformation. In fact, the phrase “Reformed Theology” which refers to the theology that ca,e out of the Reformation, has virtually become synonymous with Calvinism.
Out of all the great reformers though, we’re only going to touch on the two that are most significant for our purposes, the first of which being Martin Luther.
There can be know doubt that Luther was the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation and all Protestants today owe him a debt of gratitude. Like Augustine before him, Luther was engaged in some epic theological controversies, and like Augustine he had an intense theological rival to spar with.
In the case of Martin Luther he was going up against the established Roman Catholic church which was dominant at that time. His rival was the Catholic priest, Desiderius Erasmus.
Erasmus promoted the idea of a limited sort of free will in humans, but Luther was having none of it. For Martin Luther the will of man was not free, but in total bondage to sin (hence his book: “The Bondage of the Will.” For Luther it was the will of God, not the will of man, that was truly free and that salvation was totally impossible for us to achieve and depended on God alone. As he put it so succinctly: “Our will is unimportant; God’s will and choosing are decisive.”
Again, we need to point out that in terms of the core issues, the Calvinists have someone who represents their beliefs while the Arminians do not. Not every Calvinist agrees with everything Luther ever taught, but are in the whole in agreement with him about the decisive nature of God’s willing and choosing and the contents of the gospel.
On the other hand, while Arminians more closely relate to Erasmus when it comes to issues of free will and predestination, no Arminian would say that Erasmus had a true gospel. He was a Catholic priest who believed in a man-centered gospel that involved pursuing a right standing with God through the sacraments.
Calvin vs Arminius
Unlike the other great theological showdowns mentioned above, these two never directly interacted with each other. In fact, Jacob Arminius was only four years old when John Calvin died (Arminius was born in 1560 and Calvin died in 1564). We’re going to look at them together however, because the theological systems that they held to have come to bear their names.
John Calvin was a French theologian and pastor who was especially adept at the practice of systematic theology: addressing the question of what the Bible has to say about a given topic. Contrary to popular belief, predestination was not the central teaching that his ministry and writings involved around (my high school history teacher taught us “John Calvin is best known for inventing the doctrine of predestination” –gotta love the public school system). In his most famous work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, the first edition doesn’t so much as even mention the word “predestination.” In the second and third editions, he added a discussion of predestination and placed it under the topic of the doctrine of God. In later editions he moved it to the section on the application of salvation, and placed it all the way the end, after faith and repentance, sanctification, justification, and prayer. For Calvin the primary application of the doctrine was a practical answer to the question of why in evangelism some people never come to believe.
Despite the fact that Calvin didn’t give the doctrine central importance, he did think it should be preached because it was found in the word of God, and God would not give us information that he wanted us to ignore. This goes against another relatively common misconception about Calvin, namely that for him the doctrine of predestination was just a logical extension of what he believed about the sovereignty of God. In fact, he arrived at his view of predestination because he was convinced that the Bible taught it.
Calvin maintained a very, well, “Calvinistic” view of predestination. He believed that it was unconditional, that is, that it was not based on the foreseen faith, and that it was individual, meaning God elects individual people for salvation, not some nameless faceless group.
Arminius came to prominence around half a century after Calvin and came to disagree with key points of Calvin’s teaching on predestination.
Like Pelagius, he emphasized the free will of man and the fact that predestination is based on the foreknowledge of God, however unlike Pelagius he affirmed that mankind was dead in sin and needed the Grace of God to even come to faith.
For Arminus this grace was not an effective grace, but an enabling grace. A grace that does enough to remove the effects of original sin and restore a person to a place where they are free to choose or reject God’s offer of Salvation. This notion is commonly known as prevenient grace and it still is an extremely important concept in Arminian theology.
The Five Articles of the Remonstrance vs. The Canons of Dort
It was shortly after the death of Jacob Arminius that the theological conflict of Calvinism and Arminianism reached a boiling point.
Followers of Arminias in Holland took exception with several key points being taught by the Dutch church. They called themselves the “Remonstrants,” meaning, “the protesters” and they laid out their objections with the Five Articles of the Remonstrance.
This eventually prompted the Dutch church to gather together to discuss the controversy in the Synod of Dort. They rejected the objections of the Remonstrants, and came up with a document known as the Canons of Dort outlining their beliefs.
These “Canons of Dort” have come to be summarized under the acronym “T.U.L.I.P” and are known as the “Five Points of Calvinism.”
It’s important to remember a couple of things here: firstly the Church in Holland was already reformed. The Remonstrants were protesting certain facets of Reformed teaching, but by and large agreed with what was being taught. The Canons of Dort was essentially not just a rejection of the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, it was an affirmation of what the church had previously believed.
The second thing to keep in mind is that the “Five Points of Calvinism” weren’t selected by Calvinists as a way to summarize their beliefs, nor do they intend to outline their most central beliefs. They were simply chosen to respond to a very specific critique of their position.
That said, I think the five points are indeed Biblical and even to this day serve as the defining factor as to whether a person is considered a Calvinist or an Arminian. So let’s look at the five points.
The “T” of “T.U.L.I.P.” stands for Total Depravity. This doesn’t mean that all human are as bad as the could be or that humans are incapable of reflecting the image of God and acting in a kind and compassionate way toward others, it means that sinful humans are slaves to sin and incapable of responding to God in faith and repentance. This is why it is sometimes referred to as Total Inability.
The “U” is Unconditional Election. This means that when God chooses to save someone it’s not based on his foreknowledge that the person will come to faith. The condition for justification is faith, but the condition for election is the grace of God.
The “L” stands for Limited Atonement. The idea here is that the atonement was intended to actually save a definite, specific group of people, not to make salvation generally available to a nameless, faceless group. The alternative is called Unlimited Atonement which sounds appealing but is highly misleading. Both sides agree that the atonement is limited, the side holding to”Limited Atonement” believes that God limited its application to the elect, the group that believes in “Unlimited Atonement” believe that the atonement is limited to saving people if the people themselves cooperate.
Limited atonement is sometimes also called Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption, which are both probably more accurate labels, but they don’t fit the acronym so they are unlikely to replace the phrase “Limited Atonement” in popular use.
The “I” is for Irresistible Grace, sometimes called Effective Calling. That latter phrase you might recognize, comes to us from Augustine who rightly recognized that in the Bible there is a general call to repent that goes out to all, and an effective call that leads people to repentance.
Irresistible Grace doesn’t mean that grace can’t be resisted, in fact the general call is always resisted (this is part of the doctrine of Total Depravity). What it means is that the Effective Call of God is, well… effective. That when God decides to save someone he is able to do so.
Perseverance of the Saints
The last letter, “P” stands for Perseverance of the Saints. This position maintains that if God elects you, dies in your place for your sins, and effectively calls you into his family, that he will guard you in faith until you receive final salvation.
This position obviously disagrees with those who would say that a person can be truly saved, and then fall away from the faith and end up perishing.
It also disagrees with the position known as Eternal Security (ES), or Once Saved, Always Saved (OSAS). Perseverance of the Saints would agree with this position that no Christian can ever perish, but OSAS maintains that it is possible for a Christian to ultimately fall away from the faith and Perseverance of the Faith would deny that assertion.
What does the Bible Say?
Getting the historical context for the development of the argument is important, but ultimately it’s the Bible, our highest court of authority, that needs to settle the issue.
In the upcoming series, we are going to look at the four most important passages on each side of this debate, and analyze them in detail. Here are the passages that I plan to cover in the order we’re going to tackle them:
- John 6
- 1 Corinthians 1
- Romans 8-9
- Ephesians 1
- 1 Timothy 2:4
- 2 Peter 3:9
- Matthew 22:37
- John 3:16
The first four represent the main passages used by Calvinists to establish their position, and the second group of four represent the ones that Arminians fall back on most often.
Obviously there are more verses and passages than just these that are relevant to the debate, but I don’t want to piece together a list of verses to support each of the five points of Calvinism. Instead, I want to walk through the scripture to see what the Bible actually says and derive the five points directly from a careful and contextual examination of a passage.
I just want to reiterate again, although I hold to the five points of Calvinism, I am in no way trying to be hostile towards or alienate those who disagree on these issues. I’ll make my best case that Calvinism is Biblical, and you can judge for yourself how carefully and accurately I handle the Scripture.
I hope you join me in this exegetical journey.
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