April 19, 2007

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.

  1. "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.
  2. "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.)
  3. "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.
  4. "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
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I consider this to be a straw man. It's putting words into your opponent's mouth that the opponent wouldn't accept. It thus misrepresents the view you're criticizing.

I agree with you on all counts, I think. It's a very similar point to one I make about criticisms of open theism that take open theists to deny omniscience, when they generally affirm omniscience by insisting that God knows all truths, while denying that God knows all the things that others think God knows.

I think Protestants are often guilty of the same mistake when they accuse Catholics of denying salvation by grace. Catholics affirm that God's grace is fully involved in bringing people to live the good lives that are then judged to be good at the end of life, so even if you want to call it salvation by works it's not the salvation by works that Luther condemned (that was the dominant Catholic view in Luther's own day). Contemporary Catholics insist that only by God's grace can someone be brought to a life that God can judge meritorious, and it's only by God's choosing to judge such a life as meritorious that it is (it's not inherently so). Now this isn't what Protestants mean when they say salvation is by grace, but the disagreement isn't over whether salvation is by grace. It's about what that means.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at April 21, 2007 10:44 AM

I wonder if Article V of The Remonstrance could be interpreted as below:
That it teaches it is possible for the believers (regenerated Christians) to fall away if they remain indifferent to the assistance of the Holy Spirit. However, the possibility of losing one�s faith and salvation through negligence or non-intention is to be determined from the Holy Scripture.

Nevertheless, in �
The Opinion of the Remonstrants (or the Arminian Confession of Faith) in 1621 by Simon Episcopius
On the Perseverance of True Believers in Faith

3. It is possible for true believers to fall away from true faith, and to fall into sins of such a description as cannot consist with a true and justifying faith; nor is it only possible for them thus to fall, but such lapses not infrequently occur.
4. True believers are capable by their own fault of falling into flagrant crimes and atrocious wickedness, to persevere and die in them, and therefore finally to fall away and to perish.

Posted by: Wesley Wong at April 25, 2007 5:44 AM

hey-- so... what are u a christian or catholic or what?

Posted by: beth at May 15, 2007 8:48 PM

Beth - I'm not sure if that question was directed at me or Jeremy (since Jeremy is the one who was talking about Catholicism), but we are both Protestants. I belong to a Calvary Chapel, and I believe that Jeremy is a Presbyterian.

Posted by: Kenny at May 16, 2007 12:06 AM

I really think you make some very excellent points on your blog. I wish more Arminians and Calvinists would extend grace while maintaining their positions. I am a Calminian church planter in Central Europe. Before anyone picks up stones, i should say that I was an insider in everything from Radical Arminian to Radical Calvinist Churches and now am part of the Evangelical Free Church which allows both sides, and stresses that the greater mark of spiritual maturity is not points of an acrostic, but how much grace do they extend to a brother. I have been a member in Baptist, Wesleyan, PCA, Nondenominational Churches and now EFCA. The one thing that really resonates in your article that I have seen all around the country, is people making assumptions about what the other person believes, and also starting with the wrong definition. Either it is out of ignorance, or else it is intentional malice, but Calvinists often say that Arminians teach and believe Universalism, when in fact they do not. Wesleyans do not, Nazarenes do not, Bible Methodists do not, Church of God Holiness do not, nor do Baptists, or Evangelical Free. It it better to give them the benefit of the doubt --that they don't know the difference between Universalism and Universal Invitation. Universalism is the Unbiblical notion, that everyone is/or will be saved, which is not only contrary to Scripture, but to simple observation. Arminians believe
1. That Christ died for everyone, all mankind, the ungodly, he lost, for sinners, that means every human being. It is like the vaccine for a deadly virus. It is completely free to anyone and everyone who accepts it, but not every one is cured or will be cured, by the offer alone.
2. Christ repeatedly offers eternal life, living water, forgiveness, Salvation to anyone, everyone, whosoever will, who ever seeks, who ever calls, whoever knocks, who ever thirsts, etc,etc,but many will not accept it.

Much of the conflict is caused by faulty assumptions and asking wrong or invalid questions. For example, the question "Is Christs death Limited?"... Will animals be in Heaven? ...and Can a Christian lose his salvation,are all invalid questions. Most all Calvinists agree that Christ's atonement was totally effective and not limited in its power or ability. A better question is "Are there any clear verses that explicitly say that Christ died for all mankind, that he died for the whole world, that he died for the ungodly, or that he is the atonement for not only the sins of the elect, but also the whole world...." We can disagree about the interpretation, but the question is unambiguous. "Are there any verses that explicitly say that Christ's death was only for some, but not for others, or explicitly that he died for the elect, and not the rest, or that he is the propitiation exclusively of the elect. Again, we can disagree about the interpretation but the question is not vague or nebulous. [The second question is invalid. The real question is Do animals have a spirit, that part of the creature that understands repentance.] The third question is also invalid, "Can a person lose his Salvation?" The ambiguity goes to the typical common understanding of lose as in "temporarily and randomly misplace and then find again" as one's car keys, or the remote, or your train of thought. No one believes that people can "misplace their marriage or their home or children". A valid question is this. Are there any verses that say explicitly that some can or will depart from the faith?...fall from grace, turn aside again after Satan, lose their first love? make shipwreck of their faith, overturn the faith of others, or become rejected/disqualified? If there are, what does it mean? This is a valid question. Are there any verses that say explicitly and clearly that a true believer can never fall from grace, that a true believer can never depart from the faith, abandon the faith? that a true follower of Christ can never deny Christ, or turn back after believing? Again, believers may lovingly disagree as to the interpretation of the verses, but the question is at least fair to both sides. The questions are intentionally phrased multiple different ways, so that each phrase could be its own question. Another fair question for both sides, that often gets missed in the debate. Do you believe in the Perspicuity of Scripture? --Do you believe that God intended that regular people from all walks of life can read the Bible and that its meaning can be understood for the Gospel and four our lives- [of course I do not mean that we read poetry or apocalytic literature and make it normative] Lastly I commend you for defining your terms. However, Pelagianism, is defined or characterized primarily by denying original sin. Wesley, and Arminius, and every mainstream Arminian denomination denounces/denies Pelagianism, and teach emphatically that all mankind is totally sinful from conception.

Posted by: Salt Agent at November 23, 2007 7:56 PM

Salt Agent - Thank you for your comments. I especially appreciate your remarks about the question "Can a person lose his Salvation?" I have, for years, responded to that question by saying "well, you can't accidentally misplace it, but you can willfully reject it," and I think the distinction between the two is absolutely critical.

On Pelagianism - I believe that Pelagianism is defined as the conjunction of my usage with your usage, i.e. as the view that human beings, though in need of salvation, are not so tainted by sin as to be unable to attain it themselves. Wikipedia is more or less in agreement with this definition. Of course you are right that all of the major Arminian groups denounce Pelagianism on all reasonable definitions of that term.

Posted by: Kenny at November 25, 2007 9:26 PM

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