My position on the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is that the more moderate forms of each are both plausible and orthodox. Hyper-Calvinism can slide into the heresy of fatalism, or the denial that God loves all people; hyper-Arminianism slides, of course, into Pelagianism. It is only the moderate forms of each which are, I say, plausible and orthodox. These moderate forms, I hold, represent two different man-made philosophical and theological systems designed to uphold the same doctrines revealed in Scripture. I believe that when the disagreement actually reaches all the way down to Biblical hermeneutics, rather than staying in the realm of systematic theology, it is usually the case that someone has strayed into the "hyper" realm. We ought to be able to state what the Scripture says in a "topic-neutral" way because the Scripture does not reveal to us a theory of grace or of soteriology that reaches this level of detail. Now, the revealed doctrines I'm talking about are often considered to be specifically Calvinist doctrines. The reason for this, at least among the people I talk to, is that all of us find that the majority (though by no means all) of the Protestants we talk to fall into two categories: those who accept various forms of hyper-Arminianism implicitly and unreflectively, and those who accept Calvinism consciously and reflectively.
I believe in the compatibility of the Biblical doctrines of grace and election with a moderate Arminianism. I believe that this compatibility is most clearly seen in two verses: John 6:40 and Romans 8:29. Note that I am not claiming that the Bible teaches Arminianism. (Personally, I believe in the moderate Arminian theory I am outlining on grounds of philosophical considerations related to human freedom and personal responsibility.) What I am claiming is that these two verses (and others) teach a doctrine of election/grace/predestination that is compatible with a moderate Arminianism. In outlining what this moderate Arminianism would look like, I hope to offer Biblical considerations against (1) the view that only Calvinism can adequately account for the Biblical doctrines of grace, and (2) various hyper-Arminian views.
John 6:40 reads, "For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." Christ says that this is the will of the Father. That is, the Father has made an effectual, sovereign pronouncement. This pronouncement relates to a specific group of people: "everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him." It also has a specific content: they "may have eternal life, and [Christ] will raise [them] up on the last day." There is no natural necessity or connection between seeing the Son and believing (trusting) in Him and having eternal life. Rather, the connection is forged entirely by the sovereign will of God. Those who trust the Son do not thereby work any part of their salvation or come to deserve eternal life. The work of salvation is entirely independent of the individual. In this way, we can, as Arminians, claim that everyone is free to accept or reject Christ, while nevertheless assenting to the Biblical doctrines of election ("You did not choose Me, but I chose you" - John 15:16) and grace (i.e. the view that we are undeserving of God's favor - which is, in fact, the meaning of the word 'grace' as it is used throughout the NT).
Similarly, Romans 8:29 reads, "For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers." This passage picks out a specific group of people who God has predestined to be conformed into the image of Christ: "those He foreknew." In order to make sense of this verse foreknowledge must be distinct from, and prior to, predestination. Moderate Calvinist and Arminian views can both do this, but more extreme ones cannot: hyper-Calvinism collapses foreknowledge into predestination, and hyper-Arminianism collapses predestination into foreknowledge. What we need to say in our moderate Arminian theory is that God foreknew something about these people - something they would choose freely - and predestined something entirely unrelated for those people on the basis of his foreknowledge. As in John, we may say that what God foreknew is that they would "see the Son and trust him." The verse itself says what they are predestined for: to be conformed into his image. There is no natural connection or necessity between trusting the Son and being conformed into his image, so by trusting him we do not accomplish our own sanctification. Those who trust the Son do not thereby become worthy to become like him, and therefore we still receive this as a gift of grace.
The core Biblical doctrine that moderate Calvinists and moderate Arminians agree on is this: God, in his sovereignty, has freely chosen, on the basis of his foreknowledge, to save a group of people, the elect, who are unable to contribute anything to their own salvation and are totally undeserving of salvation. The disagreement is over what God foreknew. Our moderate Arminian theory claims that God foreknew decisions which were made freely by the individual members of the group, but which neither contribute to salvation nor render the individual worthy of salvation. The Calvinist denies that the free decisions of humans enter into the equation at any point.
An objection to this view is that human beings are incapable of simply "choosing" to trust the Son:
... both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, as it is written:
There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
together they have become useless;
there is no one who does good,
there is not even one. (Romans 3:9-12)
John Wesley deals with this problem with his doctrine of prevenient grace. This doctrine asserts that God intervenes in our lives by his grace in order to enable us to choose him before we ever begin to seek him. But prevenient grace, unlike the grace of God in the Calvinist conception, is not irresistible. An Arminian Molinist can (but need not) still believe in infallible grace, by holding that God only extends prevenient grace to those he knows will accept it, and denies it to those he knows will never accept it so that it is possible to resist prevenient grace, but this never in fact happens. There are, however, reasons for rejecting this view. The principle one is that God seems to feel the need for what political theorists call public justification. That is, although God already knows the our guilt or innocence, he nevertheless plans to hold a public judgment in order to show us his reasons and his justice (Joel 3, Revelation 20:11-15). So it seems that God might want to go through the motions of offering grace even to those he knows will reject it. The alternative is to hold that every person, at at least one moment in his or her life, is elevated by God's prevenient grace out of his or her bondage to sin to just such a degree as to be able to freely chose to trust, or not to trust, in Christ. Some Calvinists will no doubt object that it is impossible that a person who is free in this way should reject Christ after seeing him. This gets into difficult questions of free wills naturally choosing the good and of akrasia, i.e. weakness of the will. The latter is a big problem, especially for the Augustinian/Platonist account of the will that (I think) most Calvinists hold. Nevertheless, I think it should be evident by the time we get to this objection that I have achieved what I set out to achieve: we are well beyond Biblical hermeneutics and deep into the realm of philosophy, guided not by revelation, but by human reason.Posted by Kenny at February 18, 2008 10:10 AM
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