Calvinism and Arminianism: On Making the Right Objection
I want to make an important point about something that is either a reasoning mistake (if done accidentally) or an underhanded rhetorical trick (if done intentionally). I've seen it a lot (and done it myself, accidentally) in debates between Calvinists and Arminians (mostly on a popular level, but sometimes even in the writings of philosophers and theologians), so I'm going to use this debate to provide examples. Before beginning, however, I want to give a terminological note: in popular theological discussions the term 'Arminian' is normally used to refer to any Protestant (or, sometimes, any Christian) who believes in libertarian free will and/or the resistability of grace. I will refer to such people as "Arminians" (in scare quotes). Others use it to refer to any Protestant (or any Christian) who denies one or more of the five points of Calvinism. Still others use it to refer only to those who reject all five points. However, strictly speaking, it really ought to refer only to those who accept the Remonstrant Articles (note: the link just provided is to a truly virulent Calvinist site which calls the document "perverted" - but the text of the document is there, which is what matters). For the record, the five points of Calvinism were formulated in response to the Remonstrant Articles, and not vice versa, but the five points of Calvinism and the Remonstrant Articles are not simply denials of one another. The disagreements are much more nuanced than that. I will refer to those who accept the Remonstrant Articles as proper Arminians, or just Arminians (without scare quotes) - although I won't have much cause to refer to them in this post. Now, what's interesting about this is that relatively few "Arminians" are proper Arminians. A few are further to the Calvinist side than the Remonstrant Articles, but most (including me!) are in fact hyper-Arminian on one or more points (for instance, Article 5 says "But whether [Christians] are capable ... of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ [etc.] ... that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, be fore we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our mind." - so anyone who actually rejects the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, as I do, is a hyper-Arminian; in order to be a proper Arminian you must remain agnostic about it). Now, the vast majority of Protestants - especially non-denominational Evangelicals - are "Arminians," but, as I have said, relatively few are proper Arminians.
Ok, now that we've got that out of the way, let's proceed to the issue at hand, which is of general, and not just theological, interest. The issue is this: all of us believe implicit contradictions, because we are unable to determine all the consequences of our beliefs. This means that there is a big difference between rejecting a belief p and accepting a belief q which, unbeknownst to you, logically entails not-p. So, if you believe, as a result of some abstract reasoning, or an attempt to systematize your beliefs, or some such, that q entails not-p, and then go around accusing people who accept q of rejecting p, you are making the wrong objection. The right objection is that people who believe q&p have internally inconsistent beliefs - but this inconsistency has to be proven if it is not obvious. We will now consider a series of common objections - two by "Arminians" against Calvinists, followed by two by Calvinists against "Arminians" - that make this mistake: each side rhetorically accuses the other of rejecting some important Christian doctrine when, in fact, both sides accept that doctrine, and the real disagreement is over whether that doctrine is compatible with certain other beliefs which one side accepts.
- "The God of the Calvinists is Unjust." I used to make this objection myself, before I made the realizations I'm reporting in this post. The idea of this objection is that the God described by Calvinists is a God who punishes (some of) his creatures for their sins, when, in fact, he is responsible for their sin. As soon as it is phrased the way I have just phrased it, the problem becomes obvious: this isn't the sort of God Calvinists describe at all! Calvinists go about loudly and frequently proclaiming that "God is not the author of sin." Both Calvinists and the "Arminians" who make this objection agree that if human beings are responsible for their sins, then God can justly punish them. Furthermore, both sides agree that human beings are responsible for their sins, and God isn't. What the "Arminian" should be saying is that the Calvinists claim that God is not the author of sin is incompatible with his or her other beliefs, and this claim on the part of the "Arminian" objector is not obvious and so needs an argument to support it. Furthermore, since the contradiction is not obvious, it is not at all difficult to imagine that, even if there is a genuine contradiction, the Calvinist could happily hold both beliefs simultaneously - though, of course, if he or she does come to see the contradiction, then some of the claims ought to be rejected or revised to render the set consistent.
- "The God of the Calvinists is not Universally Benevolent." This is closely related to the first objection, and I imagine I probably used to make this one too (actually, I think I used to mix the two together). The idea here is that the God of the Calvinists does not love all of his creatures since he only (meaningfully) extends the offer of salvation to some. Now, this objection is a little bit better because many Calvinists do believe the latter half of that sentence. (Actually, depending on how you interpret the word "meaningfully" it may be the case that all Calvinists accept this claim.) However, the Calvinists, of course, do in general believe that God is universally benevolent and the question is, again, whether this is compatible with their other beliefs. (I inserted the words "in general" because a few hyper-Calvinists do indeed reject universal benevolence - I know someone who is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who does not believe that God loves the non-elect. However, the majority of Calvinists would, I think, regard this view as not only false but heretical.)
- "Arminians Deny that Salvation is by Grace Alone." "Arminians" are emphatically not Pelagians. Many "Arminians" are semi-Pelagians, but (1) there is good reason to believe that it is possible to be an Arminian and an anti-Pelagian (see below - I am using "Pelagianism" to mean the view that human beings work their own salvation; "semi-Pelagianism" to mean the view that human beings contribute something to their own salvation; and "anti-Pelagianism" to mean the view that human beings contribute nothing to their own salvation), and (2) it is not actually clear (to me) whether semi-Pelagianism, as defined, is really outside the bounds of historical orthodoxy to begin with. The Baptists and non-denominational Evangelicals who talk about salvation and say things like "you take one step, God takes ten" don't seem to me to be heretics - though perhaps we should say that they are just being sloppy and are not really intending to claim that you contribute something to your salvation. How do "Arminians" avoid semi-Pelagianism? There was a good article on this in Faith and Philosophy, I believe in the 2005 volume, but I don't have the reference handy (does anybody else?). At any rate, the simplest route is for the "Arminian" to simply say that God does all the work of salvation, but he picks out whom to save by some non-arbitrary criterion. "Arminians" reject unconditional election, but needn't thereby claim to work their own salvation, or even contribute anything to it. Thought experiments can easily be constructed: think of any case where someone promises to do something for you (something you can't do for yourself) if and only if you perform some action which is very easy to perform and is unrelated to the purpose (e.g., if you say "please"). In this case, you are not contributing anything. Furthermore, many "Arminians" think it's the other way around: God saves you unless you do something (the person promises to perform some action unless you say "no"). It is ridiculous to claim that on these views human beings earn, merit, or work their own salvation, or contribute anything to it. But that isn't the point I'm trying to make. The point I'm trying to make is that "Arminians" purport to believe in salvation by grace alone, and so the Calvinist who objects that they reject this doctrine is making the wrong objection. The Calvinist (presumably) believes instead that there is a contradiction within the "Arminian's" belief system, but the contradiction is (as the above discussion demonstrates) far from obvious.
- "Arminians Deny Divine Omnipotence (or Sovereignty)." Again, the same problem appears. In this case, the objection is, I think, even more misplaced because in the above objections Calvinists and "Arminians" do at least have slightly different understandings of some of the key terms involved in the discussion ('just', 'benevolent', and 'grace', respectively), but here we are generally working with the same definition: virtually all of us would say that divine omnipotence means that God can do the logically possible (i.e. whatever does not contain a contradiction). The "Arminian" claim is that the statement "God causes me to freely choose the good" contains a contradiction. Millenia of philosophical debate shows that this is a non-trivial claim which intelligent, well-informed people can disagree about. If this claim is correct, then "Arminianism" will not contradict divine omnipotence, but if the claim is false, it will. Because the claim is so difficult, the Calvinist needs to argue that it is false, rather than simply asserting that Arminians deny divine omnipotence.
This fallacy does not, as far as I know, have a name, unless we want to call it a species of Strawman (which I suppose is fairly accurate). At any rate, staying away from it will, I hope, make debates far more civil and productive.
Posted by Kenny at April 19, 2007 5:43 PM