Those who are beginning to study the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism tend to entertain two related but mistaken assumptions. The first is that the debate involves only two primary positions. The second is that the more extremely one implements either position, the more distant one must be from the other position. The first of these assumptions is simply untrue. The second is true, but only to a point.
Like visible light, positions in the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism form a continuous spectrum. Every Christian who has an opinion on the issues can be located somewhere along that spectrum. The issues that define the positions, however, are not necessarily those that one might expect.
Participants in this debate will be found arguing about divine sovereignty versus human freedom, about the ordo salutis, about the extent of human depravity, about the role of prevenient grace, and about whether election is unconditional, conditional, or corporate. To be sure, all of these questions are important, but they eventually lead to one critical problem. That problem is the definition of divine foreknowledge.
Divine foreknowledge is the hinge upon which all the other debates turn. One’s definition of foreknowledge will determine whether one ends on the Arminian or Calvinistic side of the debate—and everyone who expresses an opinion is on one side or the other.
Arminians see God’s foreknowledge as His foresight. God looks ahead through the corridors of time and sees what free people will choose. For Arminians, divine foreknowledge is essentially reactive.
For their part, Calvinists see God’s foreknowledge as causative. God’s foreknowledge does not passively observe the future, but rather shapes it. God’s foreknowledge makes things happen. According to Calvinists, foreknowledge is not so much God’s foresight as it is His forethought.
Once a definition has been chosen, the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place almost unavoidably. If God’s foreknowledge is causative, then election must be unconditional. If election is unconditional, then divine calling has to be efficacious. That being so, prevenient grace cannot have reversed the volitional effects of depravity. In other words, most of the Calvinistic system follows with logical certainty from a particular definition of foreknowledge. The exception is the negative side of particular redemption—i.e., the denial that Christ provided redemption for the non-elect.
By the same token, most of the system of Arminianism necessarily flows from viewing God’s foreknowledge as foresight. The exception here is the denial of eternal security. Just as some Calvinists affirm a universal provision of redemption, some Arminians affirm eternal security.
This observation implies that shades and gradations exist on both sides of the dividing line. Strict Calvinists affirm limited atonement, while moderate Calvinists do not. Strict Arminians deny eternal security, while moderate Arminians affirm it.
In other words, the debate involves not two, but at least four positions. These are strict Arminianism, moderate Arminianism, moderate Calvinism, and strict Calvinism. Beyond these four, other positions stretch out both sides of the spectrum.
Much ink has been spilled over the phenomenon of hyper-Calvinism. Unfortunately, this term is generally used as a bare pejorative. The abuse of the term, however, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that a genuinely hyper-Calvinistic position does exist, though its adherents sometimes prefer to call it “High Calvinism.”
What are the characteristics of a hyper-Calvinist? Four particularly bear mentioning. These include the denial of common grace, the adoption of a supralapsarian order of the decrees, the acceptance of a doctrine of reprobation or double-predestination, and a refusal to make a free offer of the gospel. More extreme versions of hyper-Calvinism might also teach the doctrine of eternal justification or a form of antinomianism. To the extent that a person holds these four beliefs, that person is going beyond traditional Calvinism as defined at Dort, and that is what makes the position hyper-Calvinistic.
A corresponding position exists on the Arminian side of the spectrum. This position does not really have a label, but for sake of designation it could be called hyper-Arminianism. How does this position differ from historic Arminianism?
Traditionally, Arminianism and Calvinism take similar views of depraved human nature. This similarity is evident in Article Three of the original Arminian Articles, which affirms,
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.”
Theological students who encounter this statement for the first time often mistake it for a Calvinistic affirmation. It is not. For both traditional Calvinists and traditional Arminians, the will has been so affected by the fall that humans, left to themselves, are utterly incapable of any positive response toward God (in other words, they have lost the moral ability to believe). The difference between Calvinists and Arminians consists in how they solve this problem. According to Arminians, God restores some element of moral ability to all humans as an aspect of prevenient grace. Calvinists believe that God restores full moral ability, but only to the elect as part of saving grace.
This original disabling of the will is what hyper-Arminians deny. In their mind, every human being already has complete freedom of will in every sense, and is always and fully able to choose God at any time. Effectively, hyper-Arminianism denies that depravity has affected the human will. (This position is sometimes mistaken for Pelagianism, but Pelagian theology also denies the imputation of original sin.)
In today’s debates, hyper-Arminians often prefer to call themselves Biblicists. They usually insist that they are neither Calvinists nor Arminians. In one sense, they are right: their position is much more extreme than historic, traditional Arminianism. Nevertheless, their definition of foreknowledge places them firmly on the Arminian side of the spectrum.
So does their insistence upon a libertarian definition of freedom. By this definition, the will is not free unless one might actually make the contrary choice. For Calvinists, however, freedom consists in the ability to do what one chooses without constraint or restraint. Most Calvinists have believed that the will can be shaped and even determined in a number of ways without damaging genuine freedom. The debate between libertarianism and compatibilism corresponds closely to the divide between Arminianism and Calvinism.
This debate also propels some Arminians into an even more extreme position. They reason that if God knows our choices in advance, then we necessarily will make the choices that He foresees. If we will necessarily make a particular choice, however, then it is not really possible to make the contrary choice. In other words, even with a “soft” definition of divine foreknowledge as foresight, libertarian freedom becomes impossible.
The logic of this position is really air-tight, and it results in a pretty abysmal choice. One can affirm foreknowledge and remain biblical, but sacrifice reason. Or one can deny foreknowledge and remain logical, but be forced to reinterpret Scripture in radical ways. Those who deny foreknowledge are known as Free Will Theists or Open Theists. For the most part, Open Theists insist that their theology is simply the logical extension of the core ideas of Arminianism.
Opposite to Open Theism is a position that denies any form of human freedom and subjects every event and decision to “hard” determinism. In extreme versions of hyper-Calvinism, this position makes God so much the author of sin that humans bear little or no actual responsibility for their acts. All Arminians and most Calvinists are horrified by these ideas, just as all Calvinists and most Arminians are horrified by Open Theism.
At this point in the spectrum, an odd thing happens. On one end of the spectrum, hard determinism turns into fatalism (choice is merely an illusion, but people are really ruled by fate). On the other end of the spectrum, freedom becomes so loose as to become virtually random, and therefore essentially a matter of chance, luck, or fortune. But fate and luck are simply different names for the same thing. In other words, the two ends of the spectrum meet. Someone who goes far enough in either direction will end up in exactly the same place.
In the present essay, I am not trying to argue for one direction or the other. Nevertheless, I would like to draw out certain lessons. First, understood in these terms, all Christians who express an opinion end up in some version of Calvinism or Arminianism. Second, more than two positions are possible. Both Arminianism and Calvinism have moderate and extreme versions. Third, it is not proper to critique any position by pointing to its extreme expressions, for the most extreme expressions of both directions are identical to each other. Fourth, there is no one distinctively “Biblicist” position. People from extreme hyper-Calvinists to hyper-Arminians (and perhaps many Open Theists) believe that they are deriving their conclusions from the text of Scripture—and invariably the advocates of one view think that the advocates of all the others are overly influenced by extra-biblical considerations.
Nevertheless, some positions are more biblical than others, and that leads to a final observation. The issues that come into play in the “electrum” are of different kinds. Some of them are serious enough to affect fundamentals of the faith. Any position that makes God the efficient cause of sin is blasphemous. Likewise, any theory that denies exhaustively definite foreknowledge constitutes an implicit denial of the gospel. Furthermore, any theory that makes ultimate salvation dependent upon human work or merit damages the very foundations of the faith.
Having said that, Christians of good will should not impute these extreme theories to the more moderate expressions of Calvinism or Arminianism. To say that every Arminian is an Open Theist or a Pelagian is slander. To suggest that Calvinists necessarily make God the author of sin—as if God Himself induced people to do evil—is to engage in distortion to the point of deception. Each position needs to be understood in its own terms and represented fairly.
Other points of argument, however, are of lesser significance. The definition of foreknowledge is important, but it is an issue over which Christians may charitably disagree. The same is the case with the position of faith and regeneration in the ordo salutis, the definition of election, and the role of common grace in restoring the moral ability to choose God. To be sure, these questions matter a great deal, but they are not the sort of questions over which Christian fellowship and cooperation must fracture. We should be able to discuss such things without raising tempers and voices.
Those discussions would be more fruitful if they began with a spirit of curiosity. A Calvinist ought to wonder how an Arminian can hold the system of faith together with putative integrity and consistency, and the Arminian ought to wonder the same thing about the Calvinist. Therefore, the first step in the discussion should not be to look for evidence that the other is wrong, but to discover those parts of the system that make it seem right. Even if we want to refute another position, the first step toward being able to do that is to learn to articulate it in a convincing way. If each of us would extend this courtesy to the other positions in the “electrum,” we might often change the character of the debate.
All Mortal Vanities, Begone
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
All mortal vanities, begone,
Nor tempt my eyes, nor tire my ears;
Behold, amidst th’eternal throne,
A vision of the Lamb appears.
Glory His fleecy robe adorns,
Marked with the bloody death He bore;
Seven are His eyes, and seven His horns,
To speak His wisdom and His power.
Lo! He receives a sealèd book
From Him that sits upon the throne;
Jesus, my Lord, prevails to look
On dark decrees and things unknown.
All the assembling saints around
Fall worshipping before the Lamb,
And in new songs of gospel sound
Address their honors to His Name.
The joy, the shout, the harmony,
Flies o’er the everlasting hills
“Worthy art Thou alone,” they cry,
“To read the book, to loose the seals.”
Our voices join the heav’nly strain,
And with transporting pleasure sing,
“Worthy the Lamb that once was slain,
To be our Teacher and our King!”
His words of prophecy reveal
Eternal counsels, deep designs;
His grace and vengeance shall fulfill
The peaceful and the dreadful lines.
Thou hast redeemed our souls from hell
With Thine invaluable blood;
And wretches that did once rebel
Are now made favorites of their God.
Worthy forever is the Lord,
That died for treasons not His own,
By every tongue to be adored,
And dwell upon His Father’s throne!