Why I Am Neither A Calvinist—Nor An Arminian!

July 25, 2018

 

Summary: The Protestant Reformation changed the face of Christianity forever. But is it possible that both Calvinist and Arminian church bodies are incorrect? What could be salvaged from the Protestant movement if this were true? In this article, apologist, Ben Fischer explains why he is neither a Calvinist, nor an Arminian. Click here to subscribe to future posts. 

The "New" Calvinists

 

In a March 2009 issue of Time magazine, former senior religion writer, David Van Biema, wrote the following: “John Calvin's 16th century reply to medieval [Catholicism]...is Evangelicalism’s latest success story…” [1] 

 

The intriguing article bore the attention grabbing headline, “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The magazine listed Calvinism as one of the fastest spreading concepts, alongside several other noted popular cultural fancies. The contributing author credited the trend to moderate Evangelicals who are exploring various cures for the larger movement’s “doctrinal drift.” [2] Prominent Calvinist proponent, Al Mohler, welcomed the change, commenting: “[When] someone begins to define [God] biblically, that person is drawn to…[Calvinism].” [3]

 

The now dated review appeared just four years downstream another important development within the American evangelical landscape. In 2005, noted author and pastor, Timothy Keller, joined professor D.A. Carson to found the “Gospel Coalition.” The movement actively networks churches which it defines as “broadly Reformed” (the denomination most indebted to the work of John Calvin). It’s aim is to issue an appeal for cultural transformation through its various conference events which all bear a strong Calvinist leaning.

 

Today the movement’s influence has mushroomed significantly. Calvinism has officially become a modern cultural spectacle. It’s success further arrives with a strong resurgent interest in an age-old debate concerning free will and the sovereignty of God. Those who argue for Calvinism do so in the interest of defending a view often considered shameful by its opponents. On the other hand, Time magazine reports that some of today’s younger Calvinists appear all-too-willing to imply that “non-Calvinists may...not be [Christian].” [4]

 

What then will the outcome of the current dissension be? Is the Calvinist view of scripture faithful and complete? Or, is the dissenting view, traditionally identified as “Arminianism,” more appropriately grounded on genuine biblical principles? Since the days of the Reformation, the presumption of “logical inevitability” surrounding the Calvinist system has been an occasion for fierce debate. But could the argument be guilty of ignoring other options which favorably collapse both systems and deliver a stronger, more biblical case? 

 

The Great Salvation Debate

 

Some time ago, I haplessly wandered into the debate. I had accepted a contractual position as a visiting lecturer with Teen Challenge Leadership Institute. The establishment currently serves as a second year track for its clients, and takes a special interest in preparing its students for ministry. At the moment, I was presenting a lecture series on the book of Revelation, and had been discussing God’s ability to accurately foresee the future. As we spoke on the predictive character of ancient biblical prophecy, the question naturally arose concerning the relentless sovereignty debate.

 

“This is one of the most troubling issues in our school today,” the student began. “Are we saved through God’s ordaining, or elected because of our faith? The Bible seems to speak both ways on this question, with passages that will explicitly affirm the views of either camp. The problem,” he continued, “seems to be their mutual differences. Logically speaking, these systems cannot both be correct. It therefore appears that we are stuck, for the moment, with a Bible that awkwardly straddles opposite answers in the debate.”   

 

Nodding my head, I immediately understood the student’s frustration. For “both-and” solutions simply cannot resolve this dilemma. Sadly, current discourse upon these important topics is often carried on in seminary’s who have wholly embraced theological subjectivity. Hence, professor Bruce Ritchie, of Highland Theological College states: “there are absolutely no grounds for the...assumption that...normal logic...is applicable to God.” [5] It would therefore appear that modern theology currently has no working “check gate.” What use then of entertaining hope that such matters will one day be resolved?   

 

Gathering my thoughts, I therefore mustered my reply. For students who affirm both views do not normally intend to defy logic in this way. Rather, what they mean to say is that God’s electing grace must, in some way, be compatible with the freedom of the human will. On the one hand, it seems fairly straight forward that we are bound to agree with this point—particularly if we wish to take seriously the doctrine of verbal inspiration. On the other hand, Calvinism and Arminianism do, as systems, seem to exclude each other. How then should we seek to answer in regards to the current debate?  

 

What we obviously need to do is seek out a fresh alternative. We must take thoughtful measures to pursue a differing option. For our lack of clear solutions has greatly multiplied our questions, and has lead, in some cases, to serious spiritual disaster. Speaking from personal experience, as both a pastor and an evangelist, I have more than once encountered cases of apostasy due to this problem. Indeed, the very fact that Time magazine has now joined the discussion should itself be a clear indication that conclusive solutions must now be offered.  

 

I thus began to give shape to the general features of the debate. I briefly sought to sketch a clear description of each model. For when it comes to Calvinism, proponents will predictably hold that human beings occupy no willing part in their own salvation. As the scriptures teach, faith is wholly “the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8) [6] It operates apart from any feeble human choosing. For this reason scripture declares, “....it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” (Rom 9:16 NIV) 

 

Arminians, on the other hand, see salvation a bit differently. Champions of the view hold that faith is expressed by choosing. Thus, noted Arminian proponent, Dr. Gregory A. Boyd has written: “God desires a love relationship…and...love...must be chosen.” [6] For this reason, God calls us through his word to “choose life.” (Deu 30:19) He beckons us to willingly engage with the process of our salvation. As the scriptures declare: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.” (Jos 24:15; KJV) What problems then are apparent in the workings of these two theories?

 

The Austere God of Calvin

 

The first problem arises due to the matter of arbitrary election. This is the natural result of adopting a purely Calvinist system. For in a plain sense, John Calvin saw all of history as predetermined, with no apparent room for alternative eternal ends. Hence, the person who rejects Christ is simply “fated” to disbelieve. Nothing within the circumstance is owing to his own volition. The same is, of course, also true with regards to the matter of our election. God simply decrees the outcome, and what he decrees will be.

 

Hence, the first protest deals with the matter of God’s goodness. Why, it is asked, does God allow anyone to suffer perdition? Since the Lord is viewed as capable of saving us in spite of our creaturely resistances, then what prevents the outcome of total, or universal, salvation? The answer, on Calvinism, is the sheer, arbitrary will of God. Humans are simply "selected" from eternity, for the grave. But this only raises the plea: What is the difference between willing and wanting? Or why does God will (or want) that any should suffer such a fate? 

 

Arminians have thus chosen to draw the line for battle here. The God of Calvin, it is argued, is not willing that all should be saved. But this is obviously contrary from what the scriptures teach—namely, that God desires that “all should reach repentance.” (2 Pe 3:9) Something then must be obstructing God’s redemptive aspirations. This would seem to be the most logical explanation. The will of man is therefore, most plausibly, the culprit. For as Jesus desired to gather his people, scripture reports that they were “not willing.” (Matt 23:37 NIV)

 

For this reason, free-will defenders will typically hold that Calvin was wrong. Christians are rather regenerated by virtue of their choosing. As Desiderius Erasmus wrote in his defense of the free-will doctrine, it is the “power of....man [to] apply himself to...salvation, or turn...from the same.” [7] Thus, human beings are self-empowered to work towards their own deliverance. God is rendered guiltless, and man held responsible for his fate. Two additional problems, however, arise because of this system, both of which are equally troubling, if not worse so, than the first.

 

The "Superman" of Arminius

 

I thus began to enumerate the issues related to the Arminian account of freedom. The first is commonly thought of as the problem of alternative choice. Here, humans are given the ability to choose whatever they want—even if the given choice is morally contrary to their nature. At this, it must be admitted that not even God possesses such an attribute, since God apparently cannot do that which is contrary to himself. For as we read in scripture: “God cannot be tempted.” (Ja 1:13) And if God cannot be tempted, then God certainly cannot sin.  

 

This, Calvinists argue, is a clear defect in the theory. Arminianism endows people with abilities which go beyond those of God. For human beings, on this view, though sinful and depraved, are nevertheless capable of choosing to love the Lord. But this would mean that man can potentially fulfill the law of God, since the law of God pertinently demands that all should willingly love him. Contrarily, the scriptures teach us that the flesh is hostile to God. For “...it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.” (Rom 8:7)   

 

Something is therefore wrong with this singular core assumption. The power of alternative choice is clearly not definitional to love. The second systemic problem, then, follows directly from the first—namely, that salvation becomes a complex, two-member process. God has done his part and now we must do ours. We are held partially responsible for our own salvation. Both Calvinism and Arminianism therefore have their share of issues, since both contain results which are biblically, indefensible. 

 

Having stated the problem, I thus began to present a solution. I compelled the class to thoughtfully consider a better, more biblical, alternative. For on Calvinism, God is personally responsible for human disapprobation, while on Arminianism, man is partially responsible for his own salvation. A more consistent answer will then allow for God to remain the sole cause of our salvation while faulting man for his condemnation. But what, if any, historic Protestant view, affirms such a model? Enter a lowly Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther. 

 

The Lutheran Alternative

 

At the height of the Protestant Reformation, Luther began to see the answer. By taking the scriptures at face value, the salvation debate is resolved. Unfortunately, Lutherans are often seen as defending the same tenants as Calvin. In reality, however, such arguments are simply historically, inaccurate. [9] Rather, the Lutheran apologists saw the “near-fatalistic” doctrines of Calvin as highly pernicious in nature, and biblically unsupported. [10] Yet they also viewed the “proto-Arminian” theology of their own day as suspiciously “Catholic,” and as wholly suffused with medieval “popish” dogmas.

 

The Lutheran confessors therefore approached the mystery of election differently. Man, according to this model, retains an active and selfish autonomy. Human beings are capable of making any free choice they wish, so long as the choice coheres well with the character of their nature. Scripture seems to support this very view of human freedom. As Joshua taught: “...choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods...beyond the river...or the gods of the Amorites…” (Josh 24:15) Therefore, Israel was apparently only free to choose from the gods of the peoples. [11]

 

At the same time, the Lutheran confessors also affirmed that man is saved by faith. This is singularly accomplished through his hearing of the word. As Paul states: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) The preaching of the gospel therefore brings about salvation. Yet, distinct from the Calvinist system, man can still resist the word. For it is man himself, and not God, which is the ultimate cause of his rejection. As Stephen said to the Sanhedrin, “...you always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7:51) This then is the reason why, in the end, so many of our hearers are lost.

 

Two remaining questions, however, still detain inquiring Christians. The first is how exactly does this model differ from Arminianism? For the claim that human beings are saved “by faith” sounds virtually identical to claiming that we are saved by “choosing to believe.” The critical issue is then delineating the kind of faith we’re talking about it. It is not the sort of voluntary faith of the Arminian system of belief. Rather it is an involuntary faith, quickened by the gospel which becomes the very reason for God’s decree of our election. 

 

One way to distinguish this faith would be to compare it with the sort of fear which I and others experienced in New York City on “911.” When the airplanes struck the towers, every citizen became afraid. The fear we felt was wholly an involuntary response. Nevertheless, that very fear could be actively resisted, as evidenced by the valiant actions of the firemen who discharged their duty that day. So it is with the faith so beautifully described by the Lutheran confessions. It is utterly involuntary, yet nevertheless—resistible. 

 

In this way, the Lutheran system avoids the error of human righteousness. Man performs nothing in being subjected to this experience. Indeed, this is the very reason why we can be justified apart from works. We are declared wholly righteous through being “inspired to believe.” This could no more be a “works-based” salvation than being hypothetically justified through our fear of God’s “bigness.” All attempts to defame this model are therefore scripturally and philosophically unfounded. God plausibly predestines upon the condition of faith borne in the heart through preaching.

 

Finally, we come to the question of the possibility of apostasy. This is a concern which is, quite frankly, a uniquely Calvinist problem. For if man can resist God, wouldn’t this prove he wasn’t predestined? The answer is curiously found within the institutes of John Calvin. [12] For even Calvin himself distinguished between the “transitory faith” of the reprobate and the “true faith” of the predestined, citing both as experientially synonymous. It would therefore appear that not even Calvin knew for certain that he was predestined! For this reason, scripture exhorts us: “Make your calling and election sure.” (2 Pe 1:10-11; BLB)

 

Conclusion

 

Upon hearing the explanation, my students quickly acquiesced. The simplicity of the Lutheran system seemed to settle every heart. For whenever we fear for falling, we should remember that the gospel will never fail to replenish the faith it produced in us the hour we first believed. So let’s remember the counsel of Peter who experienced a fall of his own. He declared and exhorted thus: “To your faith, add…knowledge…” (2 Pe 1:5) For as the scriptures teach, by this, we will effectually confirm our calling. Or, as Peter succinctly put it: “if you practice [knowledge] you will never fall.” (2 Pe 1:10).

 

May the Lord Jesus therefore bless you and keep you faithful, firm in your faith until the very end. In Jesus name. Amen.

 

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End Notes:

 

[1].  David Van Biema, 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now (Time, March 12, 2009, accessed at: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html). Read on July 9th, 2018.

 

[2]. Ibid.

 

[3]. Ibid.

 

[4]. Ibid.

 

[5].  Accessed at: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/sbet/04-2_109.pdf. Read on July 9th, 2018.

 

[6].  All Bible quotations from the English Standard Version, except where otherwise noted. 

 

[7]. Gregory A. Boyd & Paul R. Eddy; Across the Spectrum (Baker Publishing Group; Grand Rapids, MI, © 2002), 134.

 

[8].  Martin Luther; The Bondage of the Will (Hendrickson Publishing, Peabody, November 2008), 91. 

 

[9].  Do Lutherans and Calvinists hold to the same views? Plainly, they do not. Among the most notable differences would be the way in which the Lutheran Confessions treat God’s decree of reprobation. They state: “…we reject the following errors: that God…merely by an arbitrary counsel, purpose, and will, without regard for their sin…has predestined certain people to damnation...” [The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1959), 496.] Thus, contra the views of Calvin, the Lutheran Confessions hold that foredestined condemnation is decreed in view of man’s rebellion. 

 

[10].  Did the Lutheran movement hold to theistic fatalism? Again, they plainly did not. The Lutheran confessions state: “Accordingly we reject and condemn…the following [error] as being contrary to the norm of the Word of God: [namely]...The mad dream…that whatever happens must...happen and could not happen otherwise…” [The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1959), 471.] The Lutheran model therefore rejects fatalism. 

 

[11].  Again, did the Lutheran view of freedom agree with John Calvin? As described above, the Lutheran theory is very similar to Calvinism, and some Calvinists will readily admit it. But the current Reformed Church has also described the Lutheran model as somewhat akin to the Arminian view, with Doug Sweeney claiming, “as Lutheran thought developed during and after the Reformation, Lutherans leaned toward Arminians…” [Douglas Sweeney, Was Luther A Calvinist?, July 15, 2014, Accessed at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/was-luther-a-calvinist/. Read on: July 10, 2018.] But perhaps the most significant difference would be Paul Helm’s qualified account of “Theistic Fatalism.” [cf. Paul Helm, On Theological Fatalism Again, The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 24, Issue 97, 1 October 1974, Pages 360–362] Such a view of God’s sovereignty would potentially contradict the Lutheran model even further. For this reason, only a highly “modified” Calvinism could agree with my stated description. 

 

[12]. One clear example of this synonymic experience is found in Calvin’s Institutes where he describes the fleeting conversion of Simon the Magus. (III.ii.10) There Calvin wrote: “In regard to the faith attributed to him, we do not understand with some, that he merely pretended belief which had no existence in his heart: we rather think that, overcome by the majesty of the Gospel, he yielded some kind of assent, and so far acknowledged Christ to be the author of life and salvation, as willingly to assume his name.” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, 2008), 361.] It would therefore appear that little is left to distinguish this faith from the true faith experienced by God’s elect at salvation. Since this is so, it could hardly be a mistake for the Lutheran model to be inclusive of apostasy. For even Calvin himself affirmed similar occurrences in cases matching his description of Simon’s conversion.  

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