Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Arminianism vs Calvinism as a "whole life theology" or a "one-sided theology"

William Birch, of I, Jacobus Arminius, begins his post “Is there more to Arminianism than its five points?”:

John Bugay of Triablogue posted a comment from Stephen Wolfe's Facebook page that suggests Roman Catholicism should be the Calvinist's greatest focus and opponent, not Arminianism; that the latter should be reduced merely to its five points, but, conveniently, Calvinism should not; and that Arminianism is not a way of life, as is Calvinism. (link) Is this even close to being accurate with regard to Arminianism? Not surprisingly -- at least not from the Calvinist's errant perspective of Arminianism -- the answer is no.

In the article to which Birch refers, Wolfe says “Calvinism is ultimately a comprehensive view of living in the world, just as Roman Catholicism is a comprehensive view of living in the world” and by engaging in “The ‘five points’ debate”, Calvinists “demote Calvinism to a pathetically limited set of doctrine.”

Wolfe's comments are interesting in the way that they challenge the “New Calvinism” mindset. It is a New Calvinist tendency, especially among Calvinist Baptists, to equate “Reformed Theology”/”Calvinism” with the 5-points, rather than embracing fuller Covenantal theology (which would exclude Baptist “Calvinists”). This mistaken understanding of what it means to be "Reformed" is also the reason so many Calvinists have a hard time understanding how one can be a "Reformed Arminian" (that is, a Classical Arminian).

Dr Roger Olson has noted that this is really an American phenomenon (link):

Except in the United States, “Reformed Theology” has largely turned its back on Calvin’s (and Beza’s, Edwards’, and Hodge’s) views of God’s sovereignty without abandoning God’s sovereignty as in process theology. This is what makes the American habit of equating Reformed theology with traditional Calvinism ironic. The rest of the Reformed world has by-and-large shifted away from “decretal theology” and divine determinism to a highly modified, often paradoxical (dialectical) view of God’s sovereignty that leaves room for human freedom. British Reformed theologian (who taught also in Germany) Alasdair Heron (d. 2014) stated in his article on Arminianism in The Encyclopedia of Christianity that much Reformed theology has come around to embrace the basic impulses of Arminianism.

Personally, I wonder if American Calvinism’s continued focus on T.U.L.I.P. is a result of the individualism of American culture painting our reading of the Scripture (so that, for example, we read individualism into words like "election" in the New Testament, rather than seeing it corporately as the early church did, and as we do through the Old Testament--for more on this, see: Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd Explain the Corporate View of Election).

Is Arminianism a “whole life theology”?
It’s true, in a sense, that Arminianism might be reduced to its five points: it is a theology of salvation.  Often Wesleyanism (John Wesley) or Covenant theology (Jacob Arminius) are added to it.  However, even as a theology of salvation, it is a “whole life theology” in the sense that it forces us to wear a “Gospel-lens” over all of our interactions, and thereby becomes a "theology of practice". Birch points out (link):
Arminianism, and especially Wesleyan-Arminianism, is missional in nature.  […] Arminianism very naturally gives expression to missionary endeavors, as God loves each and every person, and desires, according to Scripture, the salvation of each and every person. This biblical truth motivates the believer to witness to her or his faith in Christ toward the salvation of others. Evangelism is the heart of God and of Arminian theology.

Or, as Omar Rikabi, a United Methodist Pastor, has written (link), “the gospel doesn’t discount anyone from grace and salvation[…] If we believe in prevenient grace—that Jesus is pursuing every person—we can only know what he’s up to by entering into their story through holy love.”

Arminianism, then, is a whole life theology in that it drives us, everyday and with every part of our lives, to engage those around us with the Gospel, knowing that God is already seeking them and we are cooperating in His pursuit.

What About the 5-points of Calvinism?

Could 5-point Calvinism be a “whole life theology”?  On this point I think Wolfe is correct in so far as he argues that, when reduced to it's 5-points, it cannot. For the Remonstrants, I do not think the 5-points of Arminianism were ever intended to cover the whole of the Christian life; recall that the Remonstrants were Reformed in the broad sense, embracing Covenant Theology.  The five points they introduced in the “Articles of Remonstrance” were the areas where they disagreed with the Reformed Church at the time. In the other areas, as I understand it, they had unity.

Those who make the 5-points of Calvinism the whole of the Christian life--sometimes even equating them with the Gospel--are really basing their worldview on the one area where the Reformed Church disagreed rather than the areas where the church was in unity.

Five-point Calvinism might be considered a “comprehensive view of living in the world” in the sense of accepting a determinist worldview; that God has caused all that happens, whether the utmost evil or good, but as I’ve suggested before, I believe this amounts to a “theological system [that] leads inexorably to ethical blindness, comprise, duplicity, and evil. […A] view of God [that] lead[s the Calvinist] to live falsely in the world” (link).

The only true “whole life theology” is Jesus

If 5-point Calvinism and the 5-points of Arminianism should really only be considered a “whole life theology” in so far as they affect your worldview--5-point Calvinism towards a deterministic worldview, and Arminianism towards an evangelism worldview (at least that's been my experience, first as a Calvinist and now as an Arminian)--then how do we assess them?

I think both sides would agree that the only true “whole life theology” is Jesus.  He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3); He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15); He is the only One who could say, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  Moreover, He is the one we are to imitate: “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

Which worldview, then, is more Christ-like, and more like Christ’s?  

As far as an evangelism worldview, I would hope both sides could agree: the Lord himself said "the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10; cf Matthew 18:11--though Calvinists may disagree on whether Jesus' mission includes all people or only the elect).  

But did Jesus also have a determinist worldview? Dr Greg Boyd writes (link):
How can you, and why would you, revolt against something you believe can’t be other than it is?   
I suggest that Jesus had a very different mindset, as did most of the early Church fathers.  
When Jesus encountered people who were physically, socially or spiritually oppressed, he never once encouraged them to resign themselves to their situation as being part of God’s mysterious plan. He rather viewed their various afflictions as the direct or indirect result of Satan’s will – and he revolted against them.   
For example, when Jesus confronted a Jewish woman with a deformed back, he asked, “should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free …”(Lk 13:16, emphasis added)? This is what we consistently find throughout the Gospels. Peter summarized Jesus entire ministry by saying he “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil…” (Ac. 10:38, emphasis added).   
Far from supposing that things like diseases and deformities were part of a great divine plan or that they glorified God, Jesus revealed God’s will and glorified God by coming against these things! Jesus ministry was not about helping people accept the world as it is – as though it now reflected God’s will. His ministry was about helping people revolt against the world as it now is – in order to bring about God’s will.

One-Sided Theology

Responding to the fellow Calvinists of his day who would equate the 5-points of Calvinism with “the faith of God’s elect”, the early dispensationalist Calvinist CH Mackintosh (1820 – 1896) wrote (link), “We believe these five points, so far as they go; but they are very far indeed from containing the faith of God's elect. There are wide fields of divine revelation which this stunted and one-sided system does not touch upon, or even hint at, in the most remote manner.”

Commenting on some of the Scriptures which should challenge us to question 5-point Calvinism, he wrote (bold mine):
Then again we rarely find a mere disciple of any school of doctrine who can face scripture as a whole. Favourite texts will be quoted, and continually reiterated; but a large body of scripture is left almost wholly unappropriated. For example; take such passages as the following, "But now God commandeth all men everywhere to repent." (Acts 17:30.) And again, "Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2.) So also, in 2 Peter, "The Lord .... is long-suffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9.) And, in the very closing section of the volume, we read, "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely."  
Are these passages to be taken as they stand? or are we to introduce qualifying or modifying words to make them fit in with our system? The fact is, they set forth the largeness of the heart of God, the gracious activities of His nature, the wide aspect of His love. It is not according to the loving heart of God that any of His creatures should perish. There is no such thing set forth in scripture as any decree of God consigning a certain number of the human race to eternal damnation. Some may be judicially given over to blindness because of deliberate rejection of the light. (See Rom. 9:17; Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26, 27; 2 Thess. 2:11, 12; 1 Peter 2:8.) All who perish will have only themselves to blame. All who reach heaven will have to thank God.  
If we are to be taught by scripture we must believe that every man is responsible according to his light. The Gentile is responsible to listen to the voice of creation. The Jew is responsible on the ground of the law. Christendom is responsible on the ground of the full-orbed revelation contained in the whole word of God. If God commands all men, everywhere to repent, does He mean what He says, or merely all the elect? What right have we to add to, or alter, to pare down, or to accommodate the word of God? None whatever. Let us face scripture as it stands, and reject everything which will not stand the test. We may well call in question the soundness of a system which cannot meet the full force of the word of God as a whole. If passages of scripture seem to clash, it is only because of our ignorance. Let us humbly own this, and wait on God for further light. This, we may depend upon it, is safe moral ground to occupy. Instead of endeavouring to reconcile apparent discrepancies, let us bow at the Master's feet and justify Him in all His sayings. Thus shall we reap a harvest of blessing and grow in the knowledge of God and His word as a whole.  
A few days since, a friend put into our hands a sermon recently preached by an eminent clergyman belonging to the high school of doctrine. We have found in this sermon, quite as much as in the letter of our American correspondent, the effects of one-sided theology. For instance, in referring to that magnificent statement of the Baptist in John 1:29, the preacher quotes it thus, "The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the whole world of God's chosen people."  
Reader, think of this. "The world of God's chosen people!" There is not a word about people in the passage. It refers to the great propitiatory work of Christ, in virtue of which every trace of sin shall yet be obliterated from the wide creation of God. We shall only see the full application of that blessed scripture in the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. To confine it to the sin of God's elect can only be viewed as the fruit of theological bias. There is no such expression in scripture as "Taking away the sin of God's elect." Whenever God's people are referred to we have the bearing of sins — the propitiation for our sins — the forgiveness of sins. Scripture never confounds these things; and nothing can be more important for our souls than to be exclusively taught by scripture itself, and not by the warping, stunting, withering dogmas of one-sided theology.  
NOTE It is deeply interesting to mark the way in which scripture guards against the repulsive doctrine of reprobation. Look, for example, at Matthew 25:34. Here, the King, in addressing those on His right hand, says, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." Contrast with this the address to those on his left hand: "Depart from me ye cursed [He does not say 'of my Father'] into everlasting fire, prepared [not for you, but]for the devil and his angels." So also, in Romans 9. In speaking of the "vessels of wrath," He says "fitted to destruction" — fitted not by God surely, but by themselves. On the other hand, when He speaks of the "vessels of mercy," he says, "which He had afore prepared unto glory." The grand truth of election is fully established; the repulsive error of reprobation, sedulously avoided.

Further Reading:
  • Don Thorsen, Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice (Find in a library). You can read a review from Seedbed here, and one from Dr Olson here.

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