Calvinism v Arminianism


unfairCalvinism is distasteful to many people, including myself – and even many Calvinists – because it teaches that God has only chosen to save some human beings even though He has the power to save all.  This seems unfair.  It makes God’s will seem arbitrary.  After all, why would He choose to save person X but not person Y if He loves them both, and has the power to save both?  Many who reject Calvinism reject it for this reason alone. 

While there are formidable theological, exegetical, and philosophical[1] problems with Calvinism, I’ve come to think that the “fairness” objection is not a good argument against Calvinism.  First, there is nothing unfair about God’s choosing to save some but not others.  God is not obligated to save anyone.  Those who commit moral crimes all deserve to be punished for their crimes.  When they are punished, they are punished justly.  If God chooses to save some, He is not acting unjustly, but rather graciously.  It is similar to a governor who chooses to pardon some inmates, but not others.  Is this unfair?  No.  The inmates who were not pardoned are getting what they deserve.  They are rightfully paying for their crimes.  Those who are pardoned are objects of the governor’s grace.  The governor is not acting unfairly to extend mercy to some but not others, even if the public does not understand why he has chosen as he has. 

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I am an Arminian, but much of my theological training has been received from the hands of Reformed theologians.  Indeed, many of the thinkers I read/follow are Reformed in their theology.  My exposure to Reformed thinkers has broadened my understanding of Calvinism, corrected many of my misconceptions about Calvinism, and produced in me a real sense of appreciation for its exegetical basis.  Indeed, sometimes I jokingly refer to myself as a “Calminian.”  And yet, for all its strengths, I think there are fatal flaws in Calvinistic theology (which is part of the reason I remain relatively Arminian—I also see some real strengths in the Molinist explanation, so perhaps I am an “Cal-mol-inian”).  In this post I will present what I believe to be one of the most fundamental challenges to Calvinistic theology.  

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One of the arguments Arminians level against Calvinism is that it makes evangelism superfluous.  After all, if your neighbor is part of the elect God will ensure that he comes to faith whether you preach the Gospel to him or not.  As part of God’s elect, it would be impossible for him not to come to faith.  Likewise, if your neighbor is not part of the elect, no amount of evangelism will be effective for his conversion.  So why evangelize if Calvinism is true?  What’s the point? 

Calvinists typically respond by saying God doesn’t just predestine the ends, but also the means.  While God may have predestined your neighbor’s salvation (the ends), He also predestined that your neighbor would receive that salvation in response to your evangelism (the means).  

While I can appreciate this response in principle, how exactly is God using your evangelism to bring about your neighbor’s salvation?  To speak of God using evangelism to bring about salvation implies that evangelism contributes to the desired end in some way.  I fail to see how this is so, given the strict monergism of Calvinism.  Let me explain. 

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Perhaps I am a slow learner, but it just occurred to me recently that the Calvinistic doctrine of eternal security, while germane to Calvinism, is not limited to a Calvinistic theology.  Even an Arminian could hold to the doctrine of eternal security (once saved always saved) while disagreeing with the Calvinists on the question of how people become saved.  Arminians could hold that it is impossible for someone whose spirit has been regenerated by the Spirit to fall away without accepting the Calvinist notion that God alone determines who will be regenerated.  The question of how we are saved (monergism or synergism) is separate from the question of the permanence of salvation.  It could be true that humans have to freely respond to God’s offer of grace before God saves them (synergism), and that once saved, a person will always persevere to the end.  There is no logical incompatibility between these two positions.

In the latest edition of Philosophia Christi[1], Jerry Walls argues that no Christian should be a theological determinist.  What is a theological determinist?  It’s someone who believes that God’s sovereignty extends meticulously to every aspect of the world, including human “choice.”  The problem with determinism is that it eliminates human freedom since there are factors external to humans sufficient to determine our choices, such that we could not do otherwise (or even want to do otherwise since even our desires are the product of God’s sovereign acts).

Most theological determinists are compatibilists.  Compatibilists think determinism can be reconciled with free will: If one acts according to their desires, then their choices are free.  But this is a veneer.  At best this shows that we may feel like we our will is free, even though it is not.  The fact remains that both our desires and our choices are determined by God wholly independent of our own volition.  It should be no surprise when our desires match our actions when God has determined both.  Given theological determinism, there can be no freedom of human will, despite attempts by some to evade the obvious.

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