Do Arminians and Calvinists actually disagree as much as we think?
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Dr. Joseph R. Dongell has served on the faculty of Asbury Theological Seminary since 1988, teaching in the School of Biblical Interpretation. He is the author of John: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, and co-author with Jerry Walls of Why I am not a Calvinist. Joe is an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church (South Carolina, 1983). We asked him to list 10 things he wishes people knew about Arminianism.
1. Arminianism arose within Calvinism as a Bible-based rethinking about a specific version of the doctrine of predestination.
Dutch Reformed theologian and professor of theology Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was assigned the task of bringing heresy charges against a pastor who objected to the prevailing doctrine of Supralapsarian Double Predestination — the belief that God had decided, even before the Creation or Adam’s fall in Eden, which particular human beings would be created and saved, and which particular human beings would be created and damned.
Before prosecuting the case, Arminius insisted on reexamining the whole matter of predestination in the light a fresh and careful study of the Bible. As evidenced in the detailed Declaration he laid out before the States of Holland in a full assembly of their Lordships in 1608, Arminius certainly did not deny that the Bible teaches a doctrine of predestination, but strenuously argued that the Supralapsarianism that had become the settled doctrine in Holland violated not only Scripture, but the creedal tradition flowing into Dutch Reformed theology.
2. The first Arminians subscribed largely to Reformed theology.
Because Arminius and those who sided with him were dissenting only from the particular formulation of the doctrine of predestination described above, Arminius certainly held to the larger creedal framework of the Reformed theology within which he was ordained and ministered. To such doctrines as the Trinity, Creation, the authority and truthfulness of Scripture, the Divinity of Christ, the Sacraments, and so on, Arminius remained fully loyal.
Two insights should emerge from this. First, the practice of characterizing Calvinist thinking in terms of the TULIP acrostic, and then characterizing Arminian thought in terms of the DAISY acrostic (which rebuts each element in TULIP) leaves the mistaken impression that an Arminian theology stands simply as the opposite of Reformed theology at every turn. The differences between a Calvinist and an Arminian (regarding predestination) should not blind us to the fact that they may easily join common causes across a wide array of theological issues.
Second, there really is no such thing as Arminian theology, if by that we mean an entire system of thought. Arminian theology, more properly and narrowly defined, pertains only to how one interprets the Bible’s teaching about predestination. An Arminian’s larger theological framework might be Reformed, or Wesleyan, or Pentecostal, or Baptist, etc.
In other words, the Calvinist-Arminian contrast is not a symmetrical contrast. (See Roger E. Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities for more on this.)
3. Classical Arminians agree with classical Calvinists that God’s grace, not human free will, is the ultimate ground and cause of salvation.
I speak here of “classical” Arminians and “classical” Calvinists because each of these traditions has, over the years, spawned a wide variety of offshoots that have evolved (or devolved) in ways making them incompatible with their roots. My own alma materprides itself explicitly for being Reformed in tradition, but has to a large extent embraced liberalism and pluralism. On the other side, many self-identifying Arminians have moved very far from the understanding of Arminius himself, usually without being aware of it.
And so I am claiming here that Arminius and those who have embraced his understanding of the biblical doctrines of grace, election, faith, and salvation, state wholeheartedly and with full conviction that “salvation is of God.” Unaided human beings in their sinful, fallen, rebellious state, are naturally hostile to God, perverse in thinking, and utterly incapable of recognizing, admitting, and then receiving the truth of the gospel.
On this crucial point, classical Arminians and classical Calvinists agree: human beings are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). If anyone is saved, it is by God’s grace.
4. Classical Arminians agree with classical Calvinists that only by the unilateral action of God can a human being come to saving faith in Christ.
Given the sinful human hostility and deadness described above, salvation is possible only through the unilateral ministry of the Holy Spirit bringing insight, awareness of need, conviction, a sense of guilt, and the realization of a way out.
Jesus, in John 16:7-11 promised that the Counselor (i.e. the Comforter, the Holy Spirit) would come to “convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Apart from such a ministry, the world remains unimpressed, unconvinced, and unmoved by the gospel.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul remembered how his readers were converted under his preaching, since the gospel came to them “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Again, before any human can turn to God, the God who seeks the lost must (unasked and unwelcomed) come upon the sinner in convicting power.
5. Classical Arminians subscribe to a wider view of God’s grace than do classical Calvinists.
The classical Arminian is convinced by the witness of Scripture that God’s love for the whole world (and therefore for every human being — see John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, John 1:9) entails the inescapable conclusion that God actually pursues every person, through the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit, in the real desire to save every person.
Calvinists often reply that they too believe that God’s grace is universally displayed throughout the world in what is sometimes called Common Grace: the generosity and good will of God toward all humankind that allows all sorts of happiness and pleasure to be experienced in the lives of even the most sordid sinners.
But we must note that this claim about Common Grace stops short of allowing that God actually wills that all people be saved. Under close examination, classical Calvinists must admit that their theology prevents them from simply declaring that God loves every person and therefore wants to save every person.
6. Classical Arminians believe the Bible teaches that human beings can (successfully and tragically) resist the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Here, of course, classical Calvinists will passionately object that such a belief degrades God’s absolute sovereignty. But it seems to classical Arminians that the Calvinist view owes more to Greek philosophy and to the construction of false alternatives (i.e. God is either “completely sovereign” — in the way they conceive it — or not God at all) than to the Bible’s portrait of God.
In the Bible we find Stephen (Acts 7:51) addressing those who would stone him, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” Paul was concerned that some of the Corinthians would have accepted the grace of God “in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
Famously, the writer of the Hebrews warns believers against falling away from the grace they had received (Hebrews 12:15; 6:1-8). Many Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day successfully resisted the very purposes of God and rejected the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus himself (Matthew 23:37; Luke 7:30). These passages and their implications ought not be dismissed too quickly in a misguided attempt to protect a certain view of God’s sovereignty.
One striking incident illustrating our point might be that of the Roman Governor Felix (Acts 24:25), who became “alarmed” as Paul spoke to him about “justice and self-control and future judgment.” To an unawake person, such talk would make no impression at all. Only through the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit could such a person sense the seriousness of judgment, sense how precarious his position is before a just God, and find himself running away from the conversation. But we have no evidence Felix ever became a believer in Jesus.
7. Classical Arminians believe that the universal, convicting (but resistible) ministry of the Holy Spirit creates the space necessary for the genuinely free human response to the gospel in the form of love to God.
The Spirit’s universal (and unilateral) ministry of conviction has the purpose of creating a space within which human beings can respond, in genuine freedom, to the call of God.
Apparently the Spirit’s ministry comes and goes in a mysterious flow, repeatedly intersecting the life of each person by shining rays of light into the dark regions of the heart. Since Jesus spoke of the Spirit’s movements as mysterious (John 3:8), most of us will have no way of discerning where and when the Spirit is wooing a given person toward God.
It is within this space of illumination, created by the unilateral (unmerited, unrequested) ministry of the Spirit that the sinful human being is made free enough to be able to respond positively to whatever measure of light the Spirit shines upon him or her. This Spirit-created freedom (see 2 Corinthians 3:17) makes possible a genuine interchange of love.
It is the classical Arminian’s claim that such Spirit-created freedom is a necessary condition for genuine love for God to grow. A love for God that is caused simply by a supposed, irresistible approach of God upon us is not, as we view it, genuine love. (See my co-authored book Why I Am Not a Calvinist for more on this.)
8. Classical Arminians believe in a supremely powerful God.
It is my contention that classical Arminians actually hold to a higher view of God’s power than do classical Calvinists. My thought runs like this: one can envision the ease with which an Almighty God could create creatures who were immediately and exactly responsive to His every command. But would it not be a more demanding pathway for an Almighty God to choose to create creatures who could (at least to some degree) exercise free will? Is our God able to do this? And is God then able to exercise the degree of self-restraint necessary for human free will to be exercised?
If the answer to these questions is “no,” then it would seem that such a God possesses limited sovereignty. If the answer is yes, then I suggest that we all review the entire biblical narrative in a new light to see for ourselves just which kind of world God has actually chosen to create. Arminians have concluded that God has taken the more demanding way, a way that make possible genuine love between creature and creator. (See Clark H. Pinnock’s The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism for more on this.)
9. Many today who identify as Arminians are not Arminians in the classical sense.
I am continually saddened by the larger Arminian world today that has lost, in my view, the classic understanding as enunciated by Arminius and skillfully defended (for example) by John Wesley, the great English reformer (1703-91).
Many self-styled Arminians view the problem of sin as merely the problem of guilt (to be forgiven), and not as a severe malady involving deadness, blindness, and rebellion. For these Arminians the gospel message can be made effective simply by a winsome presentation that appeals skillfully to reason and goodwill.
The hallmarks of such an approach to evangelism are the palpable lack of prayer surrounding it and near absence of explicit talk of the absolute necessity of the ministry of the Holy Spirit throughout. For these Arminians, the most prominent element in the process of salvation is the human (free) will, not the grace of God, and a human decision, not the wooing presence of the Spirit. I do not wish to defend this contemporary form of Arminianism.
10. Most Calvinist attacks against Arminians strike at contemporary Arminianism, but miss classical Arminianism.
We should all admit that accurate information is often lacking on both sides, and that we all (I hope it is unknowingly) are guilty of launching criticisms against straw men. But it seems to me that most of the charges against Arminianism are against later versions of it and would never stick against the teaching of Arminius or Wesley. It is valid to characterize much of contemporary Arminianism as shallow, humanistic, liberally leaning, biblically illiterate, or (the death-blow!) Pelagian.
But it is also valid to characterize many children of the Reformed tradition as liberal, pluralist, nearly secular. One dear friend of mine, recently retired as a Presbyterian minister, has now “come out” as an atheist. It will take a degree of self-discipline on all our parts to gain clarity about just whom we are addressing and just what they actually claim to believe.
My efforts here have most certainly not been to advocate for the version of Arminianism most commonly visible today. But I amadvocating for the version that Arminius himself articulated, that Wesley defended, and that appears (to me and many others) to comport more fully with the Bible’s message than other views: that a sovereign God, full of love, created a humanity capable of entering freely into an exchange of love; that in the wake of sin’s devastating entry into the world and into human hearts, this same God committed to wooing every creature through the Spirit of God by creating room for a free and positive response to any given measure of light, and that God loves and most certainly desires to save everyone. Such a message glorifies God, dignifies the gospel message, and aligns with Scripture.
Image courtesy of Abraham van der Eyk.