I have written about the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism before and really had no desire to do it again, but the topic has come up on another blog, and as I have been asked to explain myself, I figured I should do it here publicly.
Full disclosure #1: I don’t really have a horse in this race. As I said in my previous post, I don’t think answering the debate as to the nature of election should really change anything. As such, I really don’t have a lot of interest in the issue.
Full disclosure #2: I haven’t read Calvin’s Institutes. As my reading list now stands, Institutes is on the long list. (The short list is mostly books on the problem of evil.) I also have Arminius, Edwards, Spurgeon, and Wesley all on the same shelves awaiting their turn.
Tulips are lovely flowers, but TULIP?
As far as the traditional elements of Calvinism go, I don’t really have a problem with them, though I’m a bit ambivalent about total depravity. (As CS Lewis said, if we were totally depraved, how would we know?). My problem comes in when you try to fit various scriptures into this mold.
One of the most moving passages in the gospels is where Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt 23:37). This theme can be found all over the scriptures. In the NT, “God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). In the OT, God basically pleads with Israel to repent on a weekly basis (e.g., Isaiah 1:18-20).
Calvinists explain this by resorting to God’s two wills. It all sounds well and good until I actually try to read these passages in that light. At that point it seems that the “two wills” is closer to two personalities. God pleading with someone to repent when they are simply incapable of it makes no sense. It’s like me standing on top of my roof pleading with my daughter to come up to me – without giving her a ladder.
Arminianism: Which God are they talking about?
The flip side is the Arminian view that says God elects those who He knows will choose Him. That may be how things work in the fourth grade, but as I read my Bible, that’s not how the God of Heaven works (e.g., Pharaoh or Romans 9). However free will works out, it has to do it within the limits of a God who chooses whom He chooses, whose call is indeed irresistible, and who will not give up any of those He has bought at such a great price.
Is an intermediary position possible? Calvinists and Arminians both say no. I'm not so sure.
When Calvinism goes bad.
Personally, I can coexist with Calvinism quite nicely. (Calvinists sometimes take a little more work.1:) Unfortunately I’m in the minority. Most people find the concepts of unconditional election and irresistible grace offensive – especially if they don't quite understand them. They are very attached to the idea of free will and appalled at the notion that God simply selects some people for hell (yes, I know, it’s not quite like that, but that’s how it basically boils down, and people know it).
So if Calvinism grows, less mature Christians are likely to move away from these ideas (and the churches that espouse them) and non-Christians are going to lose interest in Christianity – especially a God they see (improperly) as arbitrary, unfair, and vindictive. Of course, Calvinists might say that these people aren’t elect and we can’t help their reaction. Great. I’m not a Calvinist, and I see this reaction as a problem.
A second problem arises when people get a bit overly Calvinistic about evangelism. In the past there have been great evangelists and missionaries who were Calvinists; they are remembered because they are exceptional in more ways than one. Wasn’t it Carey who was told that when the Lord decided to convert the heathen, He would not need someone like him? His Calvinism made him a missionary; their's kept them from it.
I also know Calvinists (I’m not going to name names) who refuse to do anything like an invitation/altar call because if people are going to believe, they’re going to just do it, and we don’t need to get involved.
Calvinism properly understood doesn’t change the Great Commission, but in practice it sometimes seems to remove some of the urgency. I say this as someone who believes in sovereign election – and who sometimes struggles with that urgency thing. If Calvinism is exactly right, it’s really not an issue. But if there is more of a free will component to salvation, then this is a dangerous issue.
I guess that really lays out my position: If Calvinism is correct, then there really is no problem with it. If you see Calvinism as less than completely correct, then it can be problematic, which can, of course, be said of any theological system.
My basic view is the same as before: I don't think we're likely to know the truth here on Earth, and even if we did, it shouldn't change how we do things. So if we're going to pick a theological issue over which to go to battle, I don't think this is the one.
(1) Diane at Crossroads recently wrote that even many young Calvinists find the older Calvinists too arrogant.