Calvinism, Arminianism, Biblicism

In The Nick of Time
Some fundamentalist leaders have recently and publicly registered their objections to Calvinism, but they prefer not to be called Arminians. They believe that both Calvinism and Arminianism are man-made systems that predetermine one’s interpretation of Scripture. These leaders wish to start at the other end, with Scripture, and to arrive at a conclusion on the basis of the study of the text. Consequently, they prefer to be called Biblicists.

Fortunately, these recent pronouncements are irenic in tone. This is a token that fundamentalist theology is maturing. Not long ago, it was difficult to find criticism of Calvinism that did not end in a rant. If these recent publications are an example, however, we are now able to discuss Arminianism and Calvinism in a deliberate and thoughtful manner.

Nevertheless, the term Biblicist seems to have only limited usefulness in this debate. Which of us does not try to start with Scripture and to draw conclusions by studying the text? Which of us wishes to set aside any of the Bible in favor of a human system? No, we are all Biblicists here.

Since we are conversing as Biblicists, I would like to raise a question. Which problems do we Biblicists have to solve in order to be entitled to say that we have a biblical answer to the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism? I would like to suggest four specific problems for which we must find biblical solutions.

The first problem has to do with the effects of human depravity. Is the natural, human will totally disabled from responding rightly to God, or is it only partially disabled? Calvinists, of course, have answered this question by saying that humans, left to themselves, cannot make any positive response to God. Most people assume that Arminians give the opposite answer, but consider the following words from Article 3 of the Arminian Articles:

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.”

These words plainly show that classical Arminians saw the natural will as completely disabled from making a positive response toward God. Of course, some people do argue that the will is only partially affected, and that humans can respond rightly to God if they only exert the effort. That position, however, is not really Arminian. It is beyond Arminianism. It is, in reality, hyper-Arminian.

How has the will been affected? There are two solutions to this problem: either the will has been disabled (as Calvinists and Arminians say), or it has merely been weakened (as hyper-Arminians suggest). A true Biblicist will look for an exegetical solution to this problem, not a solution that is driven by philosophies about what freedom must require or theologies about what would make God unfair.

The first problem introduces the second. If humans are naturally unable to make, or even severely limited in making, any right response toward God, then what does God do to help them, and when does He do it? This is the point at which Calvinists and Arminians truly part company.

Arminians answer that God has restored to all people the possibility of making an initial response to Him. This restoration is not complete, but it is sufficient to enable the sinner to turn toward God. This restoration is an aspect of God’s prevenient or common grace. To every sinner who turns, God will respond with saving grace.

Calvinists, on the other hand, answer that God liberates the wills only of the elect, passing over others. This liberation is an aspect of saving grace, and it is completely effective. The will, thus freed, always does actually turn toward God in saving faith. In terms of their moral freedom, the non-elect still cannot come because they will not come.

The second problem, then, is when and for whom God restores the ability to respond positively toward the gospel. Arminians and Calvinists solve this problem in very different ways. A true Biblicist will examine the Scriptures for a solution to this problem, and will not be content with philosophical speculations about whether it would be fair for God to require people to do what they lack the ability to do.

The second problem is tied directly to the third. Upon what basis does God select those who will receive eternal life? To put this question in other words, What is election? Here, three solutions have been proposed.

The first solution is “category election.” This solution says that God elects groups, not individuals. There are different versions of this view. One is that the church is the elect body, and Christians become elect as they are joined to the church. Another is that Christ is the Elect One, and Christians become elect when they are united to Christ.

The second solution is that God elects those whom He foresees will exercise saving faith. God, having decided to restore initial freedom to all humans, looks through the corridors of time to discover who will actually believe. When He foresees that someone will exercise saving faith, God elects that person. This theory is called “conditional election.”

The third solution is that God elects according to the good pleasure of His will. He never tells humans why He chooses one person for salvation but not another. His election is according to foreknowledge, but foreknowledge is more than simple foresight. This theory is called “unconditional election.”

All Calvinists hold to unconditional election; indeed, it is the “U” of the “TULIP.” Most Arminians affirm conditional election, though some prefer category election (category election tends to be unpopular because it simply moves the problem back one step: does God have any say in who gets into the category?). One thing should be clear by now, however. The decision about theories of election is not driven by theological systems, but by exegetical concerns.

Implicit in the discussion of election is the final problem. What is the nature of divine foreknowledge? On the Arminian view, foreknowledge is foresight, and it is reactive. On the Calvinist view, foreknowledge is more like forethought, and it causes things to happen. These are really the only two possible solutions to this problem, and the solution that one adopts determines whether one is a Calvinist or an Arminian.

The definition of foreknowledge is the nub of the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. The solution, however, must not be found in a theological system or a philosophical assumption. This is where Biblicism becomes extremely important. A Biblicist will not be content with anything less than an exegetical solution. Therefore, all true Biblicists must scour the Scriptures for an exegetical understanding of divine foreknowledge. Are there passages that clearly limit God’s foreknowledge to His reactive foresight? Or can one find some passages in which God foreknows things that He has not merely discovered, but purposed? Might there even be passages in which God’s foreknowledge actually causes those things to happen?

All of these problems (human depravity, the restoration of human freedom, the nature of election, and the definition of divine foreknowledge) are connected like a chain. If we can discover the nature of divine foreknowledge, then we will pretty well know the answers to the other problem. For a Biblicist, however, the answers must be grounded in the fair exegesis of the text of Scripture. Whether we end up on the Calvinistic or the Arminian side, we Biblicists will not tolerate answers that are derived merely from theological or philosophical systems.

I Dye Alive

Robert Southwell (c.1561–1595)

O life! what letts thee from a quicke decease?
O death! what drawes thee from a present praye?
My feast is done, my soule would be at ease,
My grace is saide; O death! come take awaye.

I live, but such a life as ever dyes;
I dye, but such a death as never endes;
My death to end my dying life denyes,
And life my living death no whitt amends.

Thus still I dye, yet still I do revive;
My living death by dying life is fedd;
Grace more then nature kepes my hart alive,
Whose idle hopes and vayne desires are deade.

Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live;
Not where I love, but where I am, I die;
The life I wish, must future glory give,
The deaths I feele in present daungers lye.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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