Let’s Go to Theology Class: Calvin vs. Arminius

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University. 

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

For the purposes of this exercise, and not necessarily as a reflection of what you really believe, assume the stance of either an Arminian or a Calvinist. From the point of view of your chosen perspective, present and develop two ideas: (1) the one which is most convincing to you about the Calvinist or Arminian perspective and (2) the one with which you struggle the most regarding that perspective.

Concerning the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, we must remember these schools of thought address two distinct issues: (1) free will and ability to choose one’s actions; and (2) election, or God’s choice, as to whom He saves. Calvinism and Arminianism both support the idea of the total depravity of man, to include an inability to choose how to behave. We cannot be saved by the Law. Rather, the Law merely informs us of our inability to “behave” ourselves into righteousness. Arminianism supports universal redemption (general atonement) and conditional election, whereas Calvinism believes in limited (definite) atonement and unconditional election. Calvin is best noted, of course, for adherence to “predestination.” After the Fall, man stood condemned before God. God chose and called “some” who would be saved.

Arminians believe God’s election depends on man’s free will because it is based on His foreknowledge. God does, in fact, see all time at the same time as noted by Grudem. [1] The apostle Peter said we are “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:2, RSV). Paul wrote, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Arminians are clear that individuals must accept God’s calling to be saved. It is not a matter of being predestined or chosen “ahead of time.” It is interesting to note, however, that this doctrine (universal salvation) is not necessarily supported by Scripture. Since Jesus died for all, Arminians argue that all will be saved. First Corinthians 6:9-11 says the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God; further, only those who are washed (sanctified, justified) by the blood of Jesus will be saved.

Taking the position of Calvinism, I would have to believe the “call” of God on our lives is resistible—we can reject Jesus or accept Him. However, once we accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the internal leading of the Holy Spirit is all-powerful, achieving God’s purpose in our lives and giving us a measure of grace to be able to choose. We can stand on the belief that God works out everything for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). We’re made “spiritually alive” with a new ability to see God’s plan for our redemption and the place of Jesus in that plan. This call is so wonderful and appealing that it becomes impossible to say no to God. This is not a violation of our free will because we didn’t really have it in the first place; our will was corrupted by original sin. Martin Luther believed even the most excellent of men—endowed with the Law, righteousness, wisdom, and all virtues—is nonetheless ungodly and unrighteous. Due to the innate nature of sin, man cannot consistently choose to act righteously, if at all. [2]

Paul gave the example that many Jews were without faith who were most wise, most religious, and most upright. He said they had a “zeal” for God yet were transgressors of the Law. He wrote in Romans 3:9-10 that the Jew was no better than the Gentile; both are under the power of sin. No one is righteous on their own. This fits well with Paul’s remark that we do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities; rulers of the darkness of this world (Eph. 6:12). Because we all are Adam, we need salvation. Adam’s offense comes to us not by imitation, nor necessarily by anything we do (although we do sin, sometimes habitually); rather, we receive our sin nature by birth. Luther believed original sin “does not allow ‘free-will’ any power at all except to sin and incur condemnation.” [3] Therefore, he rejected the notion of free will. He believed this conclusion is well supported by Scripture, especially in the writings of John and Paul.

Grudem quotes Peter, who called Jesus, “a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Pet. 2:8, emphasis added). Peter says in verse 10, “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Grudem says in a footnote related to verse 8, “The ‘destining’ in this verse is best taken to refer to both the stumbling and the disobedience. It is incorrect to say that God only destined the fact that those who disobey would stumble.” [4] Grudem notes that Calvin gives some room for man’s “free” acts and choices. Calvin admitted, however, that this statement is a bit confusing, causing him to avoid using it. Instead, man has “this sort of free decision, not because he has free choice equally of good and evil, but because he acts wickedly by will, not by compulsion.” [5]

For me, this idea of “will” can mean only one thing: man acts wickedly by deciding to reject the Light of Christ and remain in darkness. He is compelled by his sin nature to act the only way he can—in an ungodly and unrighteous manner. Admittedly, some men choose to act justly or “God-like” at times, but no man is capable of decidedly obeying the Law and acting righteously in a consistent manner. He is not compelled or tempted to do so by God. James said, “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:13-14, NIV, emphasis added).

Grudem notes that God has made us responsible for our actions, reminding us that our actions have real and eternal consequences. He notes that Adam blamed Eve for his own disobedience, saying, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Scripture, as Grudem notes, never blames God for sin. Regardless, He accomplishes all things (no matter their impetus) according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). In the case of Job, God pulled back and allowed Satan to attack Job in any manner He chose (including wiping out his livestock, killing his wife and children), but He would not allow the devil to kill Job. This type of issue gives me pause. It is easy, at least in my human intellectual capacity, to think God willed (therefore, caused) evil on Job’s animals and his family. Innocent people died for God’s point to be made. However, when I consider the horror and evil inflicted upon Jesus during the last twelve hours of His life (what we consider the “passion”), and when I play it out to the end, seeing that mankind could only be redeemed through the shedding of the blood of Jesus, I have an easier time understanding what is meant by God using whatever happens to accomplish His will.

Grudem says, “In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on human experience and intuition, not on specific texts of Scripture.” [6] Note that Grudem uses the term “ordained by God,” and does not say God performed the evil act itself. This speaks of the means through which He achieves His intended result. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). We’re made in such a way, however, that God ordains all we do. The Calvinist would endorse the theory that God does not sin but brings about His will through secondary causes, including the immorality of others. We should accept that whatever God ordains is within His purview and His authority.

Calvin distinguishes between “necessity” and “compulsion.” He notes that unbelievers necessarily sin. Scripture supports this, as does Martin Luther. There is, however, no “Godly compulsion” to sin. There is simply God’s ability to use whatever happens to further His will and promote His glory. What I find most difficult to grasp regarding Calvinism is the idea that God “predetermined” who will be saved and who will not. Perhaps this is a gross misinterpretation of “predeterminism.” The concept that, before the foundation of the world, God predestined a plan of redemption is about the plan and not a prior decision who He will accept and who He will reject. In addition, because God sees the past, the present, and the future all at once, He already knows who will be saved. The responsibility still remains with each individual to either accept or reject the sacrificial death of Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

Bibliography

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Luther, Martin, The Bondage of the Will, trans. By James I. Packer(Old Tappan, NJ:       Fleming H. Revell Co.), 1957.

 


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 168.

[2] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), p. 275.

[3] Ibid, p. 298.

[4] Grudem, p. 327.

[5] P. 330.

[6] P. 343.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Understanding Religious Faith

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

WE HAVE LEARNED SO far that theology is an attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this exercise faith thinking. Although theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education endeavor, the activity known as “Christian Theology” should be an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Systematic Theology is defined as “an integrating discipline that studies how the church may bear enduring, timely, and truthful witness to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”

This week’s lesson focused on understanding religious faith. In Trevor Hart’s Faith Thinking, he expounds on contemporary approaches to theology through examination of objectivism and relativism, saying these are the only available intellectual options a “theologian can use. The Church Covenant at my home church indicates, “We covenant that we will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but will regularly attend the services of this Church. We will strive for its advance in knowledge, holiness, and fellowship, and sustain its ordinances, discipline and doctrines” (see Hebrews 10:25 for scriptural authority).

Further, the Covenant states that spreading of the Gospel must be built upon the truth, which can only be attained through being reconciled to God and being the very ambassadors through which God may work in the same manner He worked through Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:19-21). In other words our church members are expected to walk carefully in the world, being just in their dealings, faithful in their responsibilities and exemplary in their conduct, as well as understanding [having accurate knowledge of] what the Lord’s will might be. This directive is based upon Ephesians 5:15, 17.

Wolfhart Pannenberg

Clearly, faith evaluated through an objective view must focus on reason, purpose, and the individual self. This stems from the basic approach of objectivism as relating to or being comprised of only that which can be observed, negating the importance (if not existence) of that which cannot be observed. According to Trevor Hart, this is considered “public” versus “private” theology. This is specific to the manner in which we discuss or hold our underlying belief and should not to be interpreted as being double-minded or hypocritical.

Pannenberg believes the theologian’s first responsibility is to aid people in experiencing as reality whatever they are expected to build upon as their true theology or faith. He says this must be accomplished prior to the theologian asking individuals to take an initial step of faith. The basic platform on which such faith is built must be firm, thereby promoting confidence in the platform. Hart indicates some individuals will step out further in faith than others. Regardless, the Christian theologian cannot expect a potential believer (skepticism often hindering absolute conviction) to take that first step without his giving them a “good reason for doing so and pointing to something firm to place their foot on.”

What is this objective approach to faith? It’s been said that in order for faith to operate properly—that is, to provide an adequate window through which we can contemplate truth—we must grasp a meaning in our soul which is intrinsic and built upon knowledge we’ve come to accept as so. If it is based on internal, subjective truth, we may become fearful of investigation, asking What will become of believers if they dare challenge the very doctrine they are invested in as ontological? Under this system of thought, we might feel less of a believer whenever we question any tenet of our faith. Pannenberg says the reasonableness of responding to the Gospel and committing oneself to Jesus must be demonstrable to those who are not yet Christians—those who lack faith from the start. Pannenberg seems to take an apologetics view as he addresses the ruminations of the modern world concerning God and Christology. He believes theology must clearly demonstrate the credibility of its claims. As such, Pennenberg took an objective approach to theology.

Paul Althaus

Paul Althaus says the “truth” of the Christian gospel is not necessarily apparent to those who cannot see it. There’s a sense of predisposition here: The gospel cannot be grasped by those without the “eyes to see” or the “ears to here.” It is, therefore, not objective. Instead, Althaus said the study of systematic theology was relative to what each individual intrinsically believes to be true. There is a troublesome dilemma here: This type of God knowledge is unknowable in any straightforward way by the masses—it is not given in the public arena. Instead, it is merely discerned by the eye of faith specific to the individual.

There is a slight hint of Gnosticism with Althaus in that, as Hart puts it, Althaus argues “the true significance of those facts remains hidden or obscured to unbelief and is only recognized from the particular perspective of faith.” Althaus notes the many outward (public) examples of the signs and miracles performed by Jesus as proof of His claim to be the Messiah. He says, “There is nothing about them which, when viewed by the public at large, compels such recognition.” He thinks faith is not based on progressive accumulation of knowledge or experiences available to all; rather, it amounts to a special dispensation setting some believers apart, revealing truth and demanding an appropriate response, which seems to speak of an internal, relative and subjective belief system. Althaus seems to mix a bit of Calvinism or predestination in with this belief.

Pannenberg disagrees. He says if we accept that the meaning of gospel realities are only knowable based on a “prior decision of faith… then two things seem to follow.” First, we will be forced to embrace relativism, indicating there is no intrinsic truth or value “for its own sake,” only that which we choose to invest in it. Second, Althaus says there is a crude logical gap between public perspective and faith’s perspective. He believes faith to be some “absurd character” lacking any support from the perspective of what is commonly observed. It seems the best point of view for deducing the existence and meaning of God must come from without: As Augustine puts it, knowledge of God must be sought from God. Moreover, Pannenberg says, “Faith is not a blind leap, but a carefully considered and reasoned judgement; not a state of ‘blissful gullibility’ but a venture in which the Christian ‘risks trust, life and future on the fact of God’s having been revealed in the fate of Jesus.”

John Macquarrie

John Macquarrie tended to mix orthodox Christianity and existentialism. He saw faith not as a mechanism or demand as a prerequisite to finding the knowledge of faith and of God—an external, objective approach. Instead, he saw it as “a critical and reflective activity to which faith eventually leads.” Theology for Macquarrie is an activity of faith, but not in the sense that it requires or demands compilation of information through a prerequisite or a priori approach. Instead, he does see theology as a reflective and highly critical undertaking to which faith naturally leads. This writer is not sure how helpful it is to divorce faith from theology, especially when Macquarrie requires that it be set aside during the actual practice of theology. No doubt this is a side-effect of his existential approach to knowing.

Without a firm foundation (faith) on which to build, there remains the chance (with each individual search) to end up down some tangential path that will only serve to confuse and frustrate the search for truth. It is important that believers recognize their individual biases, preconceptions and assumptions about theology (public or private), and, knowing such exist, subject their conclusions to the scrutiny of the community of believers. This permits side-by-side evaluation of prescribed canons of truth, whether rational, historical, experiential, or whatever the focus. Hart says, “Theology, we are given to understand, must play the intellectual game together with everyone else on a level playing-field.”       

Bibliography

Hart, Trevor. Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995.