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Why I Am Not a Calvinist—or an Arminian

Why I Am Not a Calvinist—or an Arminian

This is somewhat of a companion post to an article I wrote recently on the ERI Blog. In it, I talk about discovering and rejecting Calvinism, but I don't explain why I find Calvinism untenable.

So I'll use this post to explain why I am neither Calvinist nor Arminian with reference to the classical Calvinist TULIP and the much-newer Arminian FACTS. I'm aware that Calvin's thought was more variegated than that of much modern Calvinism, but Calvin isn't currently a minister or an elder in a church, while Calvinists are. Given that Calvin is separate from the -ism, just as Arminius is not to be confused with the brothers Wesley, recourse to the primary sources isn't necessarily required. (Which is good, because the Institutes is hefty, and I'd rather not try to pull quotes from it.)

TULIP: Pretty at First, but its Flower Fades Quickly

First up, the Calvinist acrostic. I'll put the list, then address them individually:

Total Depravity: All parts of man's nature are corrupted. He can do no good in and of himself.
Unconditional Election: God chooses who will be saved, and that choice is solely a result of His will.
Limited Atonement: Christ died only for the elect.
Irresistible Grace: The elect can't reject God's grace and salvation.
Perseverance of the Saints: God preserves and enables the elect to remain in Him without the possibility of falling away.

I think I gave a pretty fair summary of the five points of Calvinism, though I'm open to the charge that I didn't represent the position accurately. However, since I did spend a few years defending the position, I think it's likely I have a reasonable idea of what it entails. Let's get started from the top.

Total depravity is one that just feels good to believe. You look around at the world, or spend any time reading the news or social media, and you nod and go, "yep, total depravity." But total depravity is morally and theologically unworkable.

Total depravity holds that our reason and sense of right and wrong are corrupted by sin. If that's where it stopped, fine, but those things are supposed to be corrupted totally. And therein lies the problem: if I myself, before regeneration by Christ, lacked the ability to recognize good accurately, then I would be unable to know that God is good and I am not. In fact, the primary characteristic of God to a mind which was totally depraved could not be goodness, because He may well be a devil as far as the individual knew; it could only be power.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, "if God's moral judgement differs from ours so that our 'black' may be His 'white', we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say 'God is good', while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say 'God is we know not what'...The doctrine of Total Depravity—when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing—may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship" (The Problem of Pain in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 567–8).

On to unconditional election. Election is mentioned in the Bible (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:1–2), but, like most aspects of Calvinism, the unconditional flavor takes a proof text and runs too far with it. It is true that Christ seeks us out, that God initiated redemption by incarnating the Son. But if we have no choice in the matter—if God chooses us or doesn't choose us (or chooses not us)—we can't be responsible for that choice. If our eternal destiny boils down to whether or not we are found in God, but we didn't choose it, then we're not responsible; it is simply done to us. We have no moral agency.

Some Calvinists are fine paying that price, even presented in those terms. But if the only choice we make that truly matters isn't actually a choice, but a line we read in a script, it undercuts the idea that humans have free will. Again, some Calvinists are nodding here. Without free will, though, we not only can't choose God, but we aren't responsible for our sin, since we can't choose otherwise (total depravity undercuts moral freedom, since there is no good in us). We are also unable to render love or praise to God in a higher degree than rocks and animals (Luke 19:40), because we don't love Him freely, but because we are constrained to do so like dumb creatures or inanimate objects.

Limited atonement is the point with which I have the least issue. It's nearly true. I believe it is much more accurate to say that Christ, "not willing that any should perish" (2 Pet. 3:9), died for all mankind, but that His death only effectively saves those who accept Him as Lord.

Perhaps, as Alexander Campbell argues, we ought to distinguish between atonement and reconciliation. In The Christian System, he writes: "The atonement or propitiation has no 'extent,' because God alone is its object...Reconciliation and redemption have, however, a certain limited extent...Redemption, or deliverance from the guilt, pollution, power, and punishment of sin, is only commensurate with the elect of God; i.e., with those who believe in Jesus and obey him" (Chapter X, Sec. XII).

Irresistible grace is the flip side of unconditional election. Only God chooses, so we can't choose to resist or reject Him. This has all the same issues as unconditional election, so see above, except irresistible grace also lacks the convenient proof texts.

Finally, perseverance of the saints seems either explicitly contradicted by Scripture or requires an acrobatic amount of tap-dancing in order to explain why person X was never really saved in the first place. We don't even need to muse over whether Alexander and Hymenaeus would have gone to Heaven if they perished while Paul had "delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:20). Just turn to the letters to the churches in Revelation. The people under the gun, who may lose their reward, are Christians who Jesus recognizes as such, even (in the case of the Ephesians (Rev. 2:1–7) remarking on the strength of their first love for Him, now cooled.

In short, as I've joked to Calvinist pastors before: I'm a 0-point Calvinist.

The FACTS of Arminianism Have a Couple of Inaccuracies

Most often, if someone hears you're not a Calvinist, they assume (or celebrate) that you're an Arminian. Arminianism, however, is cut from the same cloth as Calvinism and shares most of its flaws, though it gains the flaw that it is not as easily proof-texted because things like prevenient grace just seem made up.

Anyway, here are the FACTS of the matter, if the Society of Evangelical Arminians is to be believed (no hard feelings, I like your work, I just can't resist a pun):

Freed by Grace (to Believe): God enables us, in spite of our depravity, to make a genuine choice to believe in Him.
Atonement for All: Christ died for all sinners, but this is only effective for those who choose Him.
Conditional Election: God chose those He foreknew from before creation to have faith in Him to be saved.
Total Depravity: Hello, old friend.
Security in Christ: The Holy Spirit preserves the believer in faith, though some hold the believer can choose to believe no longer.

This first one, freed by grace, is where the idea of prevenient grace comes in. In the most basic terms, prevenient grace is the doctrine that God does something to enable us to choose to accept or reject Him, even though we would be unable to choose Him otherwise because of our depraved state. Prevenient grace has one big plus: it's better than Calvinism. But it appears, as far as I'm aware, exactly nowhere in the Bible (and I don't mean just chapter-and-verse, I mean implied or anything). That isn't dispositive, but it means we should prefer an answer that doesn't have us go as far out of bounds.

Atonement for all, phrased in this way, is pretty similar to my belief as stated in response to limited atonement (above). One thing the SAE document does is attempt to represent divergent views within Arminianism. Other views they're attempting to capture here, for example, I would disagree with, but the statement itself is fine.

Conditional election needs some unpacking. First point: the Bible uses the words "foreknew," "predestined," and "elect." They're in there, we have to deal with them. God's foreknowledge is a sub-property of His omniscience: He knows everything, always (though there are personal limitations at times, at least, within the Trinity; that's too long of a digression for this post, so suffice it to say the Father is omniscient at all times). So He knew, before creating anything, exactly who would freely choose to accept or reject Him. He is not making people choose one way or another by creating, He just knew how it would all shake out. Conditional election holds that God elected, or chose, just those people who would choose Him.

If you think that seems complex, you're not alone. Now let's turn it up a level: since (by postulate) God could have modified creation in such a way as to choose between multiple possible worlds, and if God chose a possible world in which certain people were saved and others lost over a world in which the sorting was different, it seems like some choosing by God rather than by man occurred.

Security in Christ is another agree-to-disagree area for the SAE. If they hold to a watered-down version of the Calvinist view, I disagree. If they hold that the believer is secure as long as he believes, but can truly turn away from Jesus after having believed, then I agree—I just don't think it's a meaningful doctrine of security anymore. Maybe you think that leaves me in a place where I don't have the security I should as a believer, but I've seen better Christians than me apostasize; I only feel secure insofar as I cling to Christ.

The Common Problem: Original Sin and Original Guilt

You'll notice a common doctrine between Calvinism and Arminianism: total depravity. My argument is that this doctrine is an error, and both approaches are attempts to square this initial error with Scripture and natural revelation. Total depravity is what makes Arminianism basically Calvinism with epicycles (modifications to the original theory to make it functional because it doesn't work, from astronomical history).

Total depravity holds that more happened when Adam sinned than actually occurred. The sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or original sin, had immediate, permanent, and deleterious effects for the human race. The question is, what exactly were those effects, and how extensive were they?

Calvinists and Arminians respond that original sin essentially corrupted our human nature, mutating us into beings that could neither know nor love God. Our capacity to understand goodness, our ability to reason morally, and our ability to choose good were all compromised to the point of unreliability.

What's more, Calvinists (at minimum) maintain that we are actually guilty for original sin by virtue of inheriting this guilt from Adam. Therefore, from the moment we take on our corrupted human nature, we are held guilty of sin and damned before God.

Total depravity and original guilt are unworkable. First of all, the Bible says: "The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son" (Eze. 18:20). In that context, why would we think God is punishing us all for the sin of our most distant forefather? Even in the Mosaic Law, God only promises punishment to "the third and the fourth generation" (Ex. 34:7).

We also know that we are accountable for sin. We can't be morally accountable for something if a) we lack the capacity for understanding right and wrong, good and evil, and b) we lack the ability to make moral choices. To hold someone accountable without those factors is the caprice of a tyrant, not the justice of a good God. Our moral reasoning cannot be totally depraved for God's justice to be just.

But perhaps the most difficult problem for total depravity and original guilt is the incarnation of Christ. Jesus was fully God and fully man; He had the human nature as well as the divine. But if human nature was inherently morally compromised and/or inherently guilty, then Jesus could not have been perfect and guiltless. Alternatively, if you argue that Jesus' human nature was uncorrupted but ours is corrupted, then we don't really have a High Priest who can "sympathize with our weakness" (Heb. 4:15), because He wouldn't have been tempted while having the same nature we have.

Gesturing Toward the Answer

I don't pretend to know exactly in what way original sin distorted the world. I've at least eliminated a couple things from consideration based on biblical evidence. The best I can do is point roughly in the direction of what I perceive to be the answer.

I would guess that, at creation, Adam and Eve began either at neutral or, maybe more likely, with a proclivity towards good. Now, our proclivity is towards evil. Given a long enough lifespan, we will sin, not because we have to, but because we want to. We are inclined to do the wrong thing, and we can only fight so effectively for so long (and that fight starts when we're quite young, so we never stood a chance). I believe that unborn humans, newborns, and young toddlers are incapable of sinning because they cannot make moral decisions for which they are responsible, and are as such without sin (though not morally perfect, because that would require the ability to make right choices).

Sin also corrupted the world itself; death entered in, and not just for us. We made it bad for the planet long before global warming was an idea. "For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now" (Rom. 8:19–22).

This view is biblical, accounts for our responsibility before God, doesn't rely on prevenient grace, and doesn't mess up answers for the Incarnation. It's also fundamentally incompatible with Calvinism or Arminianism.

I was probably bound (or predestined?) to come to this view, given that I favor both the free-will theodicy and the moral argument for God's existence. But I really do think it superior to those views currently regnant within Protestantism.

There's another reason I'm not Calvinist. It's unclear how God can predestine some not to choose Him without predestining moral evil. Here, it would be God making a choice for evil to occur rather than the individual involved; but we know God has no evil in Him and cannot choose evil without violating His own nature and identity. My wife made this argument to me several times...eventually, I admitted she won.