I am often asked whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian. Honestly, it is not a simple question because these are not simply-defined theological categories that can be chosen as one would choose from a menu at a restaurant. I certainly understand the importance of the question, as our answer reveals much about our understanding of God’s character and how He works with humanity. But neither label—Calvinism nor Arminianism—is adequate in explaining the biblical position. In fact, the labels aren’t even adequate in explaining the positions of the men they supposedly represent.
For example, Calvin himself had nothing to do with the formal five points of Calvinism, and in reading Calvin over the years, I am convinced he would not have been a good Calvinist. The five points were really developed through the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) in response to the teachings of followers of Jacobus Arminius. These followers were called Remonstrants, after the document published in 1610 called the Remonstrance, which challenged the Belgic Confession (1562-1566) and some of John Calvin’s and Theodore Beza’s teaching. So when we engage this question, we need to understand that we are dealing with decades (and now centuries) of intense theological controversy over theological perspectives and statements.
I recently stated that in examining my writing and theology, one might conclude I was a four point Calvinist, but that conclusion would not quite be an accurate representation of my understanding of Scripture. When asked the question, I generally answer that I am neither Calvinist or Arminian, but that I am a Biblicist. While this may sound like a cop-out, I suggest it isn’t. If we engage only the biblical data without extending beyond what is written, then we will not conclude in favor of either system. These articles attempt to address how both Calvinism and Arminianism differs from a simple biblical approach. (If you want the quick version, I understand that God is completely sovereign, and we are held by God to be completely responsible.) We start with Calvinism, considering the classic TULIP system of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of saints.
Westminster Confession on Total Depravity
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto (Westminster Confession, 9:III)
This statement is consistent with Romans 3:9-20, 5:1-12, and Ephesians 2:1-3 in describing our former estate. The insufficiency here is in the explanation of how man is presently in a state of sin. Calvin advocated the idea of federal headship—that Adam was representative of all humanity in his sin. But the biblical conception of human depravity is not simply that we are all in sin because Adam represented us. Adam’s son was born in his image and likeness (Gen 4:3). So the sin Adam bore is passed down to all of us as an inherited trait. We have the sin nature just as Adam. Insofar as all are sinners by nature (Rom 5:12; Eph 2:3), we all bear the consequences of spiritual death (Gen 2:17) and physical death (Gen 3:19). This is likely why David referred to himself as having been brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Ps 51:5). In short, depravity seems to include representation in Adam, but extends beyond that to an ontological depravity due to our own individual natures: we are born from a sinner—in the image and likeness of that sinner—therefore, we are by nature, sinners.
Westminster Confession on Unconditional Election
III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.
IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it can not be either increased or diminished.
V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.
VI. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
VII. The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice. (Westminster Confession, 3:III-VII)
In these assertions there are some overstatements. Angels are predestined to eternal life? Where does the Bible assert that? Their number can be neither increased or diminished? Upon what biblical basis? These statements are possibly true, but they go beyond what is written. There is a subtle problem here, and it is not necessarily in the conclusion of double election (that God elected believers to salvation and unbelievers to damnation). The problem is in the means of arriving at that conclusion.
The Canon of Dort, Rejection of Errors, First Head, Paragraph 8 quotes three passages: Romans 9:18 (“he hardens whom he wants to harden”), Matthew 13:11 (“not revealed to them”), and Matthew 11:25-26 (“you have hidden these things from the wise”). But in each of these three cases the Canon of Dort goes too far. The content of the what was hidden in Matthew 13:11 was the mysteries of the kingdom—the things Jesus was sharing with the disciples in private—the things of the kingdom, not of individual salvation. And are we to understand Matthew 11:25 as restricting saving knowledge from the wise and intelligent? If so then Paul is wrong, because he admits there are some wise who are saved (1 Cor 1:26). The hardening of Romans 9 has nothing to do with election. In fact, the first biblical instance of hardening is done with Pharaoh after the fact (Ex 4:21). We cannot say whether Pharaoh was ever a believer or not, because the Bible doesn’t reveal it. While double election seems logically necessary, it is not exegetically provable. It may even be probable, but it cannot be justified as biblical fact.
(Tomorrow: Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints.)