Wednesday

Debating Calvinism

I received an e-mail the other day from Relevant magazine. Relevant is a Christian publication targeting those who are interested in God, life, and progressive culture.  There were two articles that I thought were interesting.

Debating Calvinism: Part 1

Debating Calvinism: Part 2

You might want to read these articles and then give them some thought because this debate deeply affects Protestantism. I've heard about it since I was a teenager, which was a longer time ago than I care to admit sometimes. The debate has actually been going on for hundreds of years.

I've got to tell you, after being a Nazarene - a Wesleyan denomination - all my life, I tend to fall on the Arminian side of the debate, but not without careful thought. As a Wesleyan, I believe that God made us with free will. Why else would a loving God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden and then offer Adam and Eve the option of obeying or disobeying? Whether you believe that the Adam and Eve story is a metaphor or real, you've got to wonder -- if you believe in predestination, what would be the point of offering a choice? If God had already decided the fate of Adam and Eve, offering them the choice seems like he was toying with them.

 It would be like me putting out a fresh plate of homemade steaming sugar cookies in front of my husband and telling him not to touch. By his own free will, Mike will decide  whether to make his wife happy, or not. Adam and Eve had that same choice - follow God or go off in a direction he strongly advised against. God put the tree in the garden because he wanted Adam and Eve to follow him by choice. If they chose not to, then he could always come up with plan B ... or C ... or D ... or E ...

God's plan is another debate point between the two theologies. Does God plan everything down to the very detail of who will be saved and who won't? Does he predestine some to eternity in heaven no matter what they do here on earth and others to hell no matter what they do? If now you're saying that it's not by works that we are saved, you are correct. It's by grace, which Webster defines as "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification." So if God offers grace, according to Calvinistic thinking, God chooses who will receive it and who will not. The choice is not up to us.

But then how does God decide? Is it because of someone's family background or because they have blue eyes or because an ancestor had a tight relationship with God? Or maybe God decides to give someone grace because the Almighty thinks that person is cute? How does God decide who will receive grace? And if the recipient make no choice in the matter, is it really grace?

Arminians believe that grace is offered to everyone but that some will receive grace and that others will not by their own choice. The point of difference here is that even though God allows people to choose which way to go, God is always working to draw people to himself. The work that God does before someone is "saved," or comes to know God through Jesus, is called prevenient grace, or the grace that goes before.

Do people have the ability to accept God's grace in their own power? Arminius and Calvin would agree that they do not. Here is an excerpt from a blog post I found on the Society of Evangelical Arminians website on Arminius vs. Calvin on Total Depravity. It shows that the two theologians didn't have much about which to argue. It's a little long, but I think it's important:

Arminius, as did Calvin, championed the cause of the wretchedness of sinners as taught in Scripture. He writes:

In the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with "righteousness and true holiness," and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him. This admits easily of proof from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created (Gen. 1:26-27), from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it (Gen 2:17), and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:24; Col. 3:10).

But man was not so confirmed in this state of innocence as to be incapable of being moved by the representation presented to him of some good (whether it was of an inferior kind and relating to this [natural] life, or of a superior kind and relating to spiritual life), inordinately and unlawfully to look upon it and to desire it, and of his own spontaneous as well as free motion, and through a preposterous desire for that good, to decline from the obedience which had been prescribed to him. Nay, having turned away from the light of his own mind and his Chief Good, which is God, or, at least, having turned towards that Chief Good not in the manner in which he ought to have done, and besides having turned in mind and heart towards an inferior good, he transgressed the command given to him for life. By this foul deed, he precipitated himself from that noble and elevated condition into a state of the deepest infelicity, which is under the Dominion of Sin. . . .

In this state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.3

Calvinist R. C. Sproul comments:

The above citation from one of Arminius's works demonstrates how seriously he regards the depths of the fall. He is not satisfied to declare that man's will was merely wounded or weakened. He insists that is was "imprisoned, destroyed, and lost." The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius. . . .
Arminius not only affirms the bondage of the will, but insists that natural man, being dead in sin, exists in a state of moral inability or impotence. What more could an Augustinian or Calvinist hope for from a theologian? Arminius then declares that the only remedy for man's fallen condition is the gracious operation of God's Spirit. The will of man is not free to do any good unless it is made free or liberated by the Son of God through the Spirit of God.4
Both Arminius and Calvin believed in the total depravity of all human beings as maintained in Scripture. And both Arminius and Calvin believed in the total inability of all human beings to do anything towards salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. The major difference between the two concerning their doctrine of depravity appertains to the solution of God in overcoming the effects of the fall. For Calvin, an unconditionally elect person must first be infused with faith in Christ Jesus in order to be justified and regenerated. For Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza, an unconditionally elect person must first be regenerated and then infused with faith in Christ Jesus in order to be justified.
For Arminius (and most of his followers), a person must be graced by the Spirit of God in the overcoming of the depraved nature so that the person may be freed to believe in Christ Jesus. If such is accomplished and not resisted, then the person is justified and regenerated. But sinners must be enabled by the Spirit of God because they are totally and utterly depraved, captured and enslaved by sin, and completely undone.

That's enough for this post. Maybe we can chat about it in the comments? Tell me what you think.