Why I'm Not a Calvinist . . . or an Arminian, Part 1

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)

My Response

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)

My Response

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.)

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JC's picture

A worthy article that recognises that the Bible and not 'subsequent human-labeled systems' is the foundation for our identity.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The debate is a good example of the difficult of handling the tensions well.

  • On the one hand we have the fact that God is systematic and logical (there is no "human logc" vs. "divine logic" ... it's only logic at all to the degree it conforms with Logic). And so systematizing is an indispensable part of our our knowing Him--and our believing and doing as He wills.
  • On the other hand, we have limited information and our minds are hindered by the effects of the Fall as well as their built-in limitations. In other words, we are neither good enough nor smart enough. So there is a need to uphold systems--and use them--with appropriate humility.

Another pair of tensions involved is

  • the duty to interact with Scripture as directly as possible and elevate it above all human understandings, and yet, in the other direction, 
  • the duty to properly honor the efforts and wisdom of those who have studied the Bible for generations before us.

So too much regard for the great Christian thinkers of the past runs the risk of giving them effective authority that rivals that of the Word, but too much independence strays into the evil of arrogance (in our age, especially the Enlightenment variety).

Ed Vasicek's picture

I think your points are well taken.  We have to decide whether the Bible or a creed/confession(i.e., Westminster) is the final authority.  While some profess that the Bible is the final authority, their practice may demonstrate otherwise. Smile

Although I am not a confession guy (except for, "I done it"), I am a doctrinal statement guy.  In a sense, the mentality is similar: we list what we believe the Bible teaches and where we set our parameters.  Our doctrinal statement could be criticized in a similar manner, but there is a difference: we can amend our doctrinal statement.  Sadly, a traditional, historical confession exists locked in time.  It cannot be honed.  Therefore, any inaccuracy or false assumption or "jump" is locked into place.

I think we all have to make judgment calls as to what the Bible teaches, but we need to distinguish the simpler, more obvious truths (as defined in the "fundamentals") and the more refined truths.  The intricacies of divine election are a case in point.

Much of the problem we suffer from is that we do not allow for what we do not know.  We are to camp upon the truths of Scripture, and I firmly do camp upon Sovereign Grace and unconditional election.  But there is much we do not understand.  We know that election is not based on human merit/works, but the Scriptures are just as clear about human responsibility (as you point out and will probably elaborate upon).  We must learn the discipline of presenting truth as truth, not necessarily WHOLE truth.  We must leave room for what we do not know. Substituting "whole truth" for a partial truth is the error of even the greatest theologians. This is a special danger for the extremely knowledgeable, who, while intelligent and filled with information, may not have the most open of minds (or the creativity it takes to imagine that there is truth outside of known information).

I might have to label myself as a "ChristopherConeist."  It reads better than another label I have, an "Amyraldist." 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

JohnBrian's picture

Quote:
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.)

God is completely sovereign - Agreed - Daniel 4:35

All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;
He does according to His will in the army of heaven
And among the inhabitants of the earth.
No one can restrain His hand
Or say to Him, “What have You done?”

We are held by God to be completely responsible - Agreed - Acts 17:30

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 

Quote:
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)

Election to salvation and the passing over to damnation are not symmetrical.

The term double predestination has been used to refer to the dual concepts of election and reprobation in Reformed theology. This is largely a pejorative term which leads to misconceptions of the Calvinist (or Reformed) doctrine. It has been used as a synonym for a "symmetrical" view of predestination which sees election and reprobation being worked out in an equally parallel mode of divine operation.

The classic position of Reformed theology views predestination as double in that it involves both election and reprobation but not symmetrical with respect to the mode of divine activity. A strict parallelism of operation is denied. Rather predestination is viewed in terms of a positive-negative relationship.

a gross misunderstanding:

The doctrine of double predestination is frequently argued against in the most passionate of terms, in large part because of a gross misunderstanding of what the doctrine actually asserts. Opponents of the doctrine often operate under the assumption that the way in which God brings the elect to salvation must be precisely the same as the way in which he brings the reprobate to damnation. 

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AndrewSuttles's picture

JC wrote:

A worthy article that recognises that the Bible and not 'subsequent human-labeled systems' is the foundation for our identity.

I agree that we should derive all knowledge about God from the Bible, but simply saying that is not enough.  All the heretics say the same thing.  Formulating a summary of what we believe the Bible teaches is necessary.  The fact is that everyone has some systematic idea about what the Bible teaches.  You may not write it down, you may not give it a label, it may not be coherent or correct, but you have one.  In fact, the author above is advocating his own.

Ron Bean's picture

Suppose one were to say, "I'm not a Baptist or any other denomination" or "I'm not dispensational or covenant" or "I'm not pre-millenial, a-millenial, or post-millenial".

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

AndrewSuttles's picture

I'm a bit confused by some of the arguments.

1) Does the author not believe in the Federal headship of Adam?  He seems not to.  I'm not sure I understand the distinction you are trying to make here.  Do you believe that Calvin did not believe in original sin?  He most certainly did.

2) Regarding election.  Have some angels fallen?  Yes some have fallen, others have not.  The angels who have not fallen are regarded as elect angels as in 1 Tim 5:21.  Also, if the hardening in Romans 9 has "nothing to do with election" then why is this given by the Apostle Paul in his explanation of how "that God’s purpose in election might stand". 

You didn't really interact with much of what Calvinist's believe regarding God's gracious election.  What the Cannons of Dort stated above is that God uses means to call and convert some sinners and the rest he passes over.  You didn't make it at all clear what is was that you disagreed with in that.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Cone seems to be for seminal headship, vice federal headship. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

alex o.'s picture

TylerR wrote:

Cone seems to be for seminal headship, vice federal headship. 

Bauder has affirmed, I believe, there exists no necessary conflict between the 'natural' or "Federal" view. Adam could have been a representative as well as well as progenitor. 'Natural Headship' makes much sense, without taking away a possible "Federal" understanding when one looks at the Virgin Birth of Christ. Though Mary was conceived of a male and female (contra Romanism) "sinful nature" seems to be passed by the male.

Eve partook of the forbidden fruit first but it was Adam following the woman instead of God that plunged humanity into sin. It is "in Adam" that we are condemned sinners if without Christ.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

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mrecker's picture

Does not much of Calvin's system and five points hinge on saying that regeneration must proceed faith?  How dead is dead is a key question.  

As the Westminster Confession says and quoted above: "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation."

All agree that man cannot save himself.  A agree that God must do something in a man's heart before he will seek God.  Non-calvinists say that God convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and gives man the grace to believe.  And faith is not a work, and a man dead in sin is responsible to believe.  

Calvinists say man is too dead to believe until he has been regenerated. Once you go there, the four other points of Calvinism are indisputable.  

Regeneration before faith is the key to soteriological Calvinism, is it not?

C. Matthew Recker

AndrewSuttles's picture

TylerR wrote:

Cone seems to be for seminal headship, vice federal headship. 

OK Tyler.  Thanks for the clarification.  Maybe I need to re-read what he is saying in light of that. 

Just so I cam clear, he believes Adam's sin is not imputed to us in Adam's fall, but rather transmitted physically?  

AndrewSuttles's picture

mrecker wrote:

Does not much of Calvin's system and five points hinge on saying that regeneration must proceed faith?  How dead is dead is a key question.  

As the Westminster Confession says and quoted above: "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation."

All agree that man cannot save himself.  A agree that God must do something in a man's heart before he will seek God.  Non-calvinists say that God convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and gives man the grace to believe.  And faith is not a work, and a man dead in sin is responsible to believe.  

Calvinists say man is too dead to believe until he has been regenerated. Once you go there, the four other points of Calvinism are indisputable.  

Regeneration before faith is the key to soteriological Calvinism, is it not?

I think you hit on the key point!  How dead is dead?  Does the natural man understand/receive the things of God?  Does he seek God?  Is he dead in his trespasses and sins or wounded?

Anyhow, regarding regeneration and faith, it is only said that regeneration logically precedes faith - not in time.  If either were to preceed the other in time, you could either have a believer who is not yet saved, or a person who is saved who is not yet a believer.  Both are impossible!  Rom 8:29-30 puts the gospel call (the work of the Spirit) before justification, so we put it that way too.

JohnBrian's picture

Jay wrote:
Are you a covenant theologian?
No, I'm pre-trib, pre-mill, dispensationalist, although I don't hold to eschatology as tightly as I hold to soteriology.

and thus will not believe.

Jay wrote:
Can you provide Scripture for that last bolded part, or is that something that you're adding into the text to make your point?  I think you are referencing John 17, but am not sure.

John 17:9-12
9 “I pray for them. [b]I do not pray for the world[/b] but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. 10 And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. 12 While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.

Only those who God has given to Christ (v.9) are kept through God's name and none of them are lost (v.12)

v.8 tells us that those whom God has given to Christ believed that God sent Christ, and in v.20 Jesus adds to His prayer those who will believe because of the testimony of those spoken of in vs 6-19

John 10:26-30 
26 But [b]you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep[/b], as I said to you. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30 I and My Father are one.

Here we learn that those who do not believe, do so because they have not been given by God to Christ.

Jay wrote:
Except for all those pesky passages that I and others have already cited from John, Peter's epistles, John's epistles, and other places in the NT?  The ones that talk about Jesus dying for the "sins of the world" (to use one Johaninne phrase)?

World can mean all without distinction rather than all without exception. The Rev. 5 passage shows that Christ did die for the "sins of the world" in that all nations are represented in the redeemed.

Jay wrote:
You contrasted John 3 with Revelation 5 earlier, but those passages do not have much to do with each other.  In John, Jesus is teaching the woman about salvation and her mistaken doctrine/belief.  In Revelation 5, those who are already in heaven are praising Him because He is glorious and worthy for his redemptive work, and yes, they do mention that Jesus has saved some from every nation.  The two passages are as similar as baseballs and boomerangs.

I think you are confusing John 3 with John 4. My point is that John 3:16 speaks of God's love for the world, and Rev 5:9 speaks of a representation of all nations of the world, showing that God does in fact love the whole world.

Jay wrote:
I'm not arguing that the atonement is limited in effect.  Not everyone will be saved - we know that.  But I can't take the passages that Greg Long, I, Don, and others have used and therefore decree that Jesus died only for some (and it's kissing cousin, reprobation).

Yet you affirm that for the OT there are some that God has no intention of saving; in the case of Noah it was all men (and women) everywhere that were not his family, and later on in the OT it was all men everywhere who were not descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, with a very few exceptions. These examples show that there are people God has no intent to save. Yet when you come to the NT, you insist that God desires to save all without exception based on your understanding of the word world.

Here's where the divide comes. Calvinists affirm that world does not necessarily refer to all without exception but can mean all without distinction. The non-Calvinist affirms that it does mean all without exception. I am quite sure this divide will not be resolved until Jesus comes.

Jay wrote:
In short, I think that Mike Harding nailed it when he said:

Sufficient for all; efficient for those who believe.  Does that accurately blend the two ideas without formally holding to a LA position?

This sufficient/efficient idea comes from Dordt:

The Canons of Dordt - Second Main Point, Article 3

Article 3: The Infinite Value of Christ's Death

This death of God's Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

In a post on Mark McCulley's blog titled Sufficient for All, Efficient for Believers? McCulley references Nettles quotation from Abraham Booth's 1803 book titled Divine justice essential to the divine character (confused yet!) The quotation shows that the sufficient/efficient question has been around for a long time.

While cheerfully admitting the sufficiency of Immanuel’s death to have redeemed all mankind, had all the sins of the whole human species been equally imputed to Him, we cannot perceive any solid reason to conclude that his propitiatory sufferings are sufficient for the expiation of sins which he did not bear, or for the redemption of sinners whom he did not represent. For the substitution of Christ, and the imputation of sin to him, are essential to the scriptural doctrine of redemption by our adorable Jesus…

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Wayne Wilson's picture

mrecker wrote:

Does not much of Calvin's system and five points hinge on saying that regeneration must proceed faith?  How dead is dead is a key question.  

As the Westminster Confession says and quoted above: "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation."

All agree that man cannot save himself.  A agree that God must do something in a man's heart before he will seek God.  Non-calvinists say that God convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and gives man the grace to believe.  And faith is not a work, and a man dead in sin is responsible to believe.  

Calvinists say man is too dead to believe until he has been regenerated. Once you go there, the four other points of Calvinism are indisputable.  

Regeneration before faith is the key to soteriological Calvinism, is it not?

Matthew, it is the key in my opinion.  And I believe it, but I don't accept Limited Atonement. As one of the four points, what makes Limited Atonement Indisputable based on a Reformed view of regeneration?  Am I missing something?

JC's picture

AndrewSuttles wrote:

 

JC wrote:

 

A worthy article that recognises that the Bible and not 'subsequent human-labeled systems' is the foundation for our identity.

 

 

I agree that we should derive all knowledge about God from the Bible, but simply saying that is not enough.  All the heretics say the same thing.  Formulating a summary of what we believe the Bible teaches is necessary.  The fact is that everyone has some systematic idea about what the Bible teaches. 

 

Actually, I have a really big problem with calling someone a heretic just because they don't hold to the same 'human theological system' as I do.   If I can't call out their theological error straight from the Bible, then chances are they are not in error. 

AndrewSuttles's picture

JC wrote:

Actually, I have a really big problem with calling someone a heretic just because they don't hold to the same 'human theological system' as I do.   If I can't call out their theological error straight from the Bible, then chances are they are not in error. 

Brother JC, I think I understand what you are saying and I appreciate your dogged determinism to base everything on God's Word!

I recently heard NT Wright (New Perspective) say that he was simply believing what the Bible says regarding the NPP, whereas traditional protestant views on justification were based on creed and tradition.  Many of the non-Trinitarians say that the diety of Christ was invented at the Council of Nicea and that orthodox Christians accept it based on creed and tradition.  That is not true.  We accept these doctrines based on what the Bible says.  We give them theological terms to describe our position regarding what the Bible says and we hold those outside these views as holding to something less than Bible Christianity.  

I guess my point is that everyone has some systematic understanding of what the Bible teaches.  You may not put a name or label on it, but you have one.  I think your point is that we shouldn't accept another's doctrinal formulation as the final word, but it all should be tested by Scriptures and I appreciate that very much!

mrecker's picture

Wayne Wilson wrote:

Matthew, it is the key in my opinion.  And I believe it, but I don't accept Limited Atonement. As one of the four points, what makes Limited Atonement Indisputable based on a Reformed view of regeneration?  Am I missing something?

Wayne, it would seem that once one places regeneration before faith, that this would limit the atonement to those God sovereignly chose to regenerate according to His good pleasure.  Once one concedes that regeneration proceeds faith, that would also make his grace irresistible and the perseverance of that one so chosen undeniable.  It's like the first domino and the others fall into place once regeneration before faith is believed.  However, i am sure that some will dispute the point of Limited Atonement for a variety of reasons.  Some say Calvin may also dispute it but I guess we will never know for sure.

C. Matthew Recker

AndrewSuttles's picture

Quote:

Once one concedes that regeneration proceeds faith, that would also make his grace irresistible and the perseverance of that one so chosen undeniable.  It's like the first domino and the others fall into place once regeneration before faith is believed.

I think the first domino, if there is such a thing, is the nature of man.  What does it mean that the natural man cannot receive the things of God?  I'd also like to point out (again), that faith and regeneration happen at the time time, but God's work naturally precedes man's work when we talk about these things (see Romans 8, for example).

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