234 Calvinism, For and Against

Evangelicals in America have generally divided (notwithstanding myriad subdivisions) into two contending camps:  Calvinists and Arminians.   During the last several decades some young, aggressive Calvinists have been building a theological case for the classic Calvinism now proclaimed in growing numbers of pulpits and seminary classrooms.  Indeed, in 2009 Time magazine identified “‘The New Calvinism’ as the third of ten trends shaping the world today.”  Reflecting this development, Michael Horton’s For Calvinism (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan) sets forth an emphatic argument in an irenic manner, emphasizing that good people take both sides of the argument.  He insists that Calvinists such as himself are hardly the stereotypical “frozen chosen” but rather the true heirs and exponents of the Protestant Reformation and its familiar solasscriptura, gratia, Christo, fide, Deo Gloria.  And he urges all thoughtful Christians to reject the “moralistic, therapeutic deism” of contemporary culture and seek to better understand the intellectual substance of their faith.  

While abjuring any hyper-Calvinism that seems indistinguishable from fatalism, Horton (a theologian teaching at Westminister Theological Seminary in Escondido, California) enthusiastically embraces and structures his book in accord with the five points of confessional Calvinism:  TULIPTotal depravity; Unconditional election, Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints.  He reaffirms them all as the “doctrines of grace” basic to his position and rephrases two of the five points—substituting “particular redemption” for unconditional election, “effectual grace” for irresistible grace.  Arminian objections to these positions, he emphasizes, flow naturally from their commitment to “synergism (i.e. ‘working-together,’ or cooperation between God’s grace and human willing activity), while Calvinists affirm monergism (i.e., ‘one-working,’ or God’s grace as the effectual source of election, redemption, faith, and perseverance” (#95—I’ll be using my Kindle reference sites).   

Beginning with “the human condition,” Horton says “Calvinism teaches that human beings are basically good in their intrinsic nature, endowed with free will, beauty of body and soul, reason and moral excellence.  In short, we are created in God’s image” (#463).   Tragically, in Adam’s fall all this goodness was corrupted (though not utterly lost, as in Luther’s declarations) and man is thus totally depraved.  “The ‘total’ in total depravity refers to its extensiveness, not intensiveness:  that is, to the all-encompassing scope of our fallenness.  It does not mean that we are as bad as we can possibly be, but that we are all guilty and corrupt to such an extent that there is no hope of pulling ourselves together, brushing ourselves off, and striving (with the help of grace) to overcome God’s judgment and our own rebellion” (#588).  

Given our depravity, God elects to save whomever He chooses in accord with His own inscrutable will.  “Everyone who takes the Bible seriously must believe in election in some sense,” Horton says.  “The real difference (especially between Arminianism and Calvinism) emerges over whether the elect are chosen into faith or in view of their faith.  In other words, is election unconditional or conditional?  Does God choose who will be saved, apart from their decision and effort, or does He choose those whom he knows will trust and obey?” (#832).   Exegeting a litany of biblical texts, Horton argues that since we lack any ability to trust and obey God there is no way He could elect us to salvation weighing that possibility.  Rather, He softens the hearts of those He elects and allows the rest to remain in the hardness of their natural sinfulness.  All men, because of Adam’s sin, deserve eternal death, so it’s not unfair (Calvinists hold) for God to save a select company to enjoy life everlasting with Him.  To Horton:  “The amazing thing is that God chooses to save anybody, especially when he knows that the people he has chosen would not choose him apart from his grace” (#1022).   Why He chooses some and not others only He knows.  

Since God unilaterally elects those who are saved, Jesus necessarily died only for them.  Though often defined as “limited atonement (the “L” in TULIP), Horton prefers to explain this aspect of Calvinism as “particular redemption.”  Responding to the Arminian Remonstrants at the Synod of Dort in 1619, Dutch Calvinists reaffirmed “a common formula, ‘sufficient for the whole world but efficient for the elect alone.’  This formula is found in various medieval systems, including the writings of Aquinas . . . and Luther’s mentor, Johann von Staupitz” (#1639).  The elect are saved when God regenerates and gives them faith.  “Chosen in Christ from all eternity, we are called effectually to Christ in time.  Through faith, which itself is God’s gracious gift, we receive Christ and all his benefits” (#1776).   Since God does it all (monergism), His grace is necessarily irresistible.  And finally, inasmuch as our salvation depends solely upon God it follows that those who are saved are eternally secure—in the TULIP scheme, it’s called the perseverance of the saints.  Only the predestined are saved, and only the saved persevere.  Horton grants that large segments of historic, orthodox Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Arminianism) differ from Calvinism and insist on man’s role (synergism) in responding to God’s initiatives and granting the possibility of apostasy.  But he maintains the consistency of Calvinism, committed to the proposition that salvation is, from first to last, solely the work of God. 

Having explained its core convictions, Horton describes “Calvinism and the Christian life.”  Since all is of God and individuals play no role in their salvation, we might logically expect them to do nothing in living as a Christian.  But, NO!  Horton insists Calvinists ought energetically engage in sanctifying activities, bearing witness to the activating presence of the Spirit within them.  “There is no justification without sanctification; although we are justified through faith alone, that faith that clings to Christ immediately begins to bear the fruit of the Spirit” (#2304).  If we’re truly saved we cannot but want to glorify God by doing whatever He requires.  Similarly, we will want to engage in missions, taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth (fully cognizant, of course, that nothing we do matters unless God enkindles saving faith in a person’s heart—only one born again can believe).  “In fact, we are able to proclaim to sinners not that Christ has made them savable or possible, but that he has actually accomplished the salvation of all who trust in him” (#3136).  

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In Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2010) Roger E. Olson, an evangelical Baptist theology professor at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, explains and takes issue with the cardinal tenets of the Reformed theology propounded by “New Calvinists” such as Michael Horton, John Piper and R.C. Sproul.  According to a journalist, Collin Hansen (in Young Restless, Reformed) this corps of “New Calvinists” rejects the “feel good theology” flowing from many “seeker-friendly” evangelical pulpits.   They hunger for a more rational, intellectually grounded faith.  While Olson  shares their hunger for an intellectually robust position, he fears their zeal for celebrating the absolute sovereignty of God too easily leads to “making God the author of sin and evil—which is something few Calvinists admit to but which follows from what they teach as a ‘good and necessary consequence’” of their view (p. 22).  Thus “John Piper famously published a sermon a few days after the Twin Towers terrorist events of September 11, 2001, declaring that God did not merely permit them but caused them.  He has since published other statements similarly attributing natural disasters and horrific calamities to God” (p. 22).  Deeply persuaded that such assertions cannot be reconciled with the Bible’s fundamental truth about God (that His Sovereignty is subordinate to His is Love), Olson has written this treatise, taking its authority and argument from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture; Tradition; Reason; Experience).    

Olson first seeks to historically trace and define Calvinism, noting that a wide diversity of thinkers and churches fall into this category.  It’s clear that the New Calvinists (with their strong commitment to Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of Saints) represent the older, classical Reformed tradition.  But all bona fide Calvinists do affirm “the total, absolute, meticulous sovereignty of God in providence by which God governs the entire course of human history down to the minutest details and renders everything certain so that no event is fortuitous or accidental but fits into God’s overall plan and purpose” (p. 40).  Calvin declared, “‘No wind ever arises or increases except by God’s express command’” (p. 73).  And R.C. Sproul echoes Calvin today, writing:  “The movement of every molecule, the actions of every plant, the falling of ever star, the choices of ever volitional creature [creatures who choose], all of these are subject to his sovereign will.  No maverick molecules run loose in the universe, beyond the control of the Creator.  If one such molecule existed, it could be the critical fly in the eternal ointment” (p. 78).  

This sovereign control of all creation (predestination) is particularly true of salvation, where God saves (and inevitably damns) whomsoever He chooses to maximize His glory.  We may imagine we act freely, but in fact we automatically follow whatever desires God implants within us (the “compatibilist” version of free will).  As Olson explains and critiques (point by point) the TULIP paradigm as set forth by a variety of Reformed thinkers, he continually insists he does so simply to reaffirm the basic biblical teaching that God is Love and a loving God simply would not operate in a Calvinist fashion.  In brief:  “Only a moral monster would refuse to save persons when salvation is absolutely unconditional and solely an act of God that does not depend on free will” (p. 62).  

Rejecting Calvinism, Olson (in accord with General Baptists and Wesleyans) affirms Arminianism, a position routinely pilloried and rejected by the New Calvinists.  Rightly understood, he argues, thoughtful Arminians fully embrace important truths such as the Sovereignty of God and the primacy of Grace without slipping into the quicksand of determinism.  Thus they say “yes to election; no to double predestination.”  Despite some Calvinists’ efforts to evade the conclusion, it is logically impossible to affirm “unconditional election” (the singular predestination of the saints to salvation) without endorsing the double predestination of the lost to damnation.  One defensible way to escape the dilemma, evident in the work of revisionist Reformed Theologian James Daane, is to insist that “unconditional election” refers to God’s “election of Jesus Christ and his people, Israel and the church.  It is not God’s unconditional acceptance of some individual human persons to salvation and corresponding rejection of others to damnation.  ‘The Bible knows nothing of an isolated, individualistic doctrine of election.’  And it has nothing to do with historical determinism” (p.  125).   Thus Daane interprets (as do many Arminians) the crucial texts in Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1 as commentaries “‘on the fact of the inviolability of God’s election of Israel as a nation.’  Election to what?  To service in blessing the nations with producing Jesus Christ—the real subject and object of God’s electing grace” (p. 125).   This understanding of election would enable one to evade the “limited atonement” established in classic Calvinism which argues Christ’s atoning work was “sufficient” to save everyone but not “efficient” in so doing.  It also makes room for an alternative to the monergistic “irresistible” grace espoused by today’s New Calvinists.  

Yet such efforts to revise Calvinism cannot but fail, Olson says, because it is riddled with inescapable and “profound conundrums that have no apparent solutions” (p. 175).  There is the problem of evil, for example.  If God determines everything (such as the terrorists’ attacks on 9/11 or the sexual abuse of children or the Holocaust), He is clearly the author of what most of us judge evil.  But if He is good, as most Calvinists say they believe, how can this be?  There’s simply no good answer!   Nor are the good answers to various other questions.  But, most importantly, “the greatest conundrum of them all has to do with God’s character” (p. 178).  The God who is Holy Love cannot fit easily into the TULIP schema.  

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In Arminian Theology:  Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, c. 2006), Roger E. Olson explains and defends the position he thinks best attuned to Christian revelation.  Though now a Baptist, he was reared in a “Pentecostal preacher’s home” and has always been “proudly Arminian” (p. 7).  During his formative years, the theological works of two Nazarenes  (H. Orton Wiley, who set forth “a particularly pure form of classical Arminianism with the addition of Wesleyan perfectionism” and Mildred Bangs Wynkoop) enabled him to fully understand and appreciate what it meant to be an Arminian.  Subsequently, as he studied and worked in evangelical settings he found his position frequently pilloried and denounced.  Consequently:  “This book was born out of a burning desire to clear the good Arminian name of false accusations and charges of heresy or heterodoxy.  Much of what is said about Arminianism within evangelical theological circles, including local congregations with strong Calvinist voices, is simply false” (p. 9).    

To Olson, Arminianism means “that form of Protestant theology that rejects unconditional election (and especially unconditional reprobation), limited atonement, and irresistible grace because it affirms the character of God as compassionate, having universal love for the whole world and everyone in it, and extending grace-restored free will to accept or resist the grace of God, which leads to either eternal life or spiritual destruction” (p. 16).  He first places the position’s founder, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) in proper context.  A prominent Reformed pastor and theologian in Holland, Arminius set forth a biblically-based evangelical synergism rather close to the position of Desiderius Erasmus (a Catholic) and Philip Melanchthon (the great architect of Lutheran theology) and explicitly developed by a wide variety of later Methodist and Baptist thinkers in America.  Arminius himself, while teaching at the University of Leyden, became a controversial figure as he challenged certain Calvinistic propositions.  At the heart of his thinking was a rejection of  “nominalistic voluntarism.” He opposed the philosophical nominalism (evident in William of Occam and embedded in the theology of Luther and many Calvinists) that “denies any intrinsic, eternal divine nature that controls the exercise of God’s power” (p. 103).  Importantly:  “Arminius based his whole theology on metaphysical realism in which ‘God is not “freely” good because God is good by nature’” (p. 89).   His commitment to God’s goodness manifestly flows from his Christocentric thinking:  “Jesus Christ is our best clue to the character of God, and in him God is revealed as compassionate, merciful, loving and just” (p. 102).  

Significantly, Arminians are neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian, though many New Calvinists, such as Michael Horton, brand them such!  Such may well be true of influential preachers, including Charles G. Finney (whose influence Olson laments).  With the Reformers, however, they insist on sola gratia—we are saved by grace alone, and “every movement of the soul toward God is initiated by divine grace—but Arminians recognize also that the cooperation of the human will is necessary because in the last stage the free agent decides whether the grace proffered is accepted or rejected” (p. 36).  Accordingly, “predestination is simply God’s determination (decree) to save through Christ all who freely respond to God’s offer of free grace by repenting of sin and believing (trusting) in Christ.  It includes God’s foreknowledge of who will so respond.  It does not include a selection of certain people to salvation, let alone to damnation” (p. 36).  

Olson stresses the many commonalities uniting Calvinists and Arminians within the Reformed tradition.  He takes care to trace the constant Arminian position during the past 400 years—particularly citing great (if oft-ignored by modern American evangelicals) 19th century theologians such as William Burton Pope and Richard Watson, who carefully constructed a Wesleyan schema.  Though some partisans on both sides hurl epithets such as “heretic,” both positions represent orthodox Protestantism.  “Even such a conservative and venerable Arminian theologian as H. Orton Wiley regarded Arminius and Arminianism as a correction of Reformed theology rather than a total departure from it:  ‘In its purest and best forms, Arminianism preserves the truth found in the Reformed teachings without accepting its errors’” (p. 51).  Commonalities, however, cannot be synthesized into a hybrid “Calminianism”!  Some basic differences are deep and irreconcilable, particularly when one examines doctrines such as unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.  Both sides have ample biblical texts and erudite exegetes, so turning to Scripture cannot resolve the differences.  In fact, preliminary assumptions of a philosophical nature dictate diverse conclusions.  Concerning God:  “Both believe God is supremely great and good.  But one side starts with God’s greatness and conditions God’s goodness in that light; the other side starts with God’s goodness and conditions God’s greatness in that light.  Each side has its ‘blik,’ which largely determines how it interprets Scripture” (p. 73).  

The two sides clearly differ regarding man’s free will.  Calvinists generally employ versions of “compatibilism”—we “freely” choose what we desire, but our desires are pre-programmed for us by God.  Conversely, “all classical Arminians believe in libertarian free will, which is self-determining choice; it is incompatible with determination of any kind” (p. 71).   “Arminianism does not object to the idea that God directs human choices and actions through the power of persuasion.  Arminianism embraces the idea that God directs human choices and actions by making them fit into his master plan for history.  The only thing Arminianism rejects, in this specific area, is that God controls all human choices and actions” (p. 98).  

In granting free will, however, Arminians do not formulate a man-centered theology.  As robustly as any Calvinist, the Arminian theologian declares man fallen and inexorably bent toward evil.  “The free will of human beings in Arminius’s theology and in classical Arminianism is more properly denoted freed will.  Grace frees the will from bondage to sin and evil, and gives it ability to cooperate with saving grace by not resisting it” (p. 142).  Prevenient Grace awakens within a sinner’s heart a longing for God and salvation.  Grace-enabled, we believe and repent, surrendering ourselves to the redeeming work of Christ.  All glory to God!   “Arminians believe that if a person is saved, it is because God initiated the relationship and enabled the person to respond freely with repentance and faith.  This prevenient grace includes at least four aspects or elements:  calling, convicting, illuminating, and enabling” (p. 159).  

Admittedly, there have been thinkers within the Arminian fold who drifted away from classical orthodoxy.  But the same is true of Calvinism—Schleiermacher, the “father of Protestant liberalism,” was, after all, at least originally a Calvinist!  But the semi-Pelagian, humanistic preaching found in all too many “evangelical” churches these days can be traced back to Charles G. Finney rather than Wesley or Arminius.  (Parenthetically, Finney’s pernicious role is frequently stressed by Olson!)  What’s needed in the Calvinist-Arminian debate is not more anathemas but more honest research and writing.  And learning what Arminians truly believe could easily begin with this fine volume.    

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