I decided a few months ago to dive head first into the works of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius with the hope of finally figuring out where I land on the spectrum between these two Reformers. I have been wrestling through the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate over the past several years, never, as of yet, feeling comfortable hanging my hat on either system. I would like to write a handful of posts as I work through this material to help me to organize my thoughts and in the hope that some of my observations might be useful to others curious about the subject. Before I get into that; however, I think it may be beneficial to lay out a little of my background and current mindset so that people can see where I come from.
I have grown up in my faith in primarily Calvinist environments; I accepted Christ in a Southern Baptist church, and have attended a couple Acts 29 churches and a Sovereign Grace church. Everyone filters the bible and interprets it through the lenses of the traditions they have been trained in, and in those environments I was trained to read the bible through a Calvinist perspective. I filtered each difficult passages in scripture through the lens of God’s complete sovereignty, mans total depravity, and unconditional election.
Despite having grown up in those environments, throughout my Christian life I have often wrestled with the assertions of Calvinism. I found it difficult to reconcile certain propositions of the system with scripture, yet I couldn’t see any viable alternative, especially with regard to the passages concerning election and predestination. Nevertheless, I have generally defaulted to a Calvinistic mindset, albeit somewhat uncomfortably.
Over the past several years, I have read a number of books about both Calvinism and Arminianism, such as The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented by David Steele, For Calvinism by Michael Horton, Against Calvinism and Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger E. Olsen. I listened to sermons on Calvinism by John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and others, and I have read various blogs and articles on both systems. Most recently, over the past several months, I have been reading through the works of the namesakes themselves. Specifically I have read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, a collection of Arminius’s works, and for good measure I also read Martin Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will.
One thing that has stood out to me during my studies is that the question is not a simple either/or between two discrete views. Apparently, over the past 400 plus years I am not the first person to struggle with these systems, and that has led to a handful of variations of each. For instance, there is High Calvinism, Low Calvinism, Classical/Reformed Arminianism, Wesleyan Arminianism, Molinism, Lutheranism, and probably several others I’m not even aware of at this point.
So where does this leave me on my search for understanding? Frankly, I’m not sure yet. This study has helped to reinforce the Gospel to me, as that seems to be the most consistent thread between them all. If I had to pick a spot on the spectrum of belief right now, I’d say that I am probably closest to a Classical/Reformed Arminian perspective. A year ago, I would have said I was a Low Calvinist.
Ultimately, the lesson that I have been reminded of the most, so far, is that the Bible is a complex book. The wisdom of God is beyond my understanding or that of the faithful men and women who have worked so hard to build systems that help them understand scripture and the multifaceted nature of God. Every system we have developed since the writing of the New Testament labors under the weight of human weakness, and each falls short in various ways. Yet both of these systems and most of their derivatives are faithful to preserve the Gospel. Each address important issues which we, as the church, need to wrestle with on our road to glorification, and by their study we can learn much about God and scripture. So, to echo Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians, let us remember that we were not baptized into Calvin or Arminius (or the name of your favorite theologian), but into Christ Jesus. Insofar as these men have labored to point our eyes to Christ, we can learn much from their teaching and way of life.
As I continue to work through this material, I hope to post more, and I hope that there may be some out there who are interested in engaging in dialog. My tendency is to isolate myself and learn in a bubble, but that is not the way of the Church. As my friend, Thom Chittom, has often said to me: to join the Church is to be invited to participate in a 2000 year old debate amongst friends seeking to love God together through the sharing of truth. With that I will leave you with the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 10-17 (ESV):
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Portrait of a Man [Portrait of a man sometimes identified as John Calvin. The artist responsible for this portrait has not been identified, but was formerly attributed to Hans Holbein.]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Calvin_by_Holbein.png
Hieronymus van der Mij (1687-1761) after Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt (1566-1641). (n.d.). [Jacobus Arminius, oil on panel]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacobus_Arminius,_by_Hieronymus_van_der_Mij.jpg