Sunday, November 11, 2012

Two Mysteries: One Way of Viewing the Calvinism v. Arminianism Debate

I think a lot about the Calvinism vs Arminianism debate. For the uninitiated, Calvinism and Arminianism are paradigms for interpreting the Biblical Scriptures. There is a lot of overlap between them in terms of what they affirm and what they deny, but the reason they are typically viewed in opposition to one another is because of their differing views over the issue of predestination.

Both paradigms affirm that Heaven and Hell are realities, but disagree over the role of human decision in determining who goes where. Calvinists believe the Bible teaches that God has chosen who will go to Heaven and who will not prior to the creation of the world. Some people have been chosen for salvation, others for condemnation. Those who have been chosen for salvation will manifest their chosen-ness by coming to faith in Christ at some point in their lives, whereas those who have been chosen for destruction will never come to faith. Arminians, on the other hand, believe that God has chosen to make it possible for all people to come to faith. People, then, have some actual power of choice to say "yes" or "no" to the love, grace, and revelation that God offers (whether this is precisely what classical Arminianism argues I can't say for sure, but it is what most people who call themselves Arminian today actually believe).

Now, the undeniable reality is that there are Scriptures in the Bible that can be used to support both positions. If you are a Calvinist who thinks there is no Scriptural case for Arminianism, you are not being honest. In the same way, if you are an Arminian who thinks there is no Scriptural case for Calvinism, you are also not being honest. This is not to say that both interpretations are equally valid. That is a discussion that needs to be had. The point I'm trying to make, though, is that whatever side you choose there are Scriptures available to make your point.

But if there is a case to be made for both sides, why do people choose the side they choose? Is it just because one side is more objective than the other? Why do Calvinists emphasize the "Calvinistic" Scriptures and try to explain away the Arminian ones? Why do Arminians emphasize the "Arminian" Scriptures while trying to explain away the Calvinistic ones?

I don't think these questions can be answered easily. Some people are Calvinist or Arminian simply because it's the interpretation they've been taught. Others hold one over the other for emotional reasons, and some just go along with one or the other because it's what their denomination believes. What I sincerely doubt, though, is that the majority of us come to our conclusions through purely honest, objective analysis of what the Bible says.

The reason I think this is because both the Calvinistic and Arminian positions require the Christian to believe something that appears impossible - a mystery. This means that no matter how objectively an individual searches the Scriptures to reach a conclusion about this issue, the conclusion he or she reaches will always requires a willingness to assent to two seemingly contradictory propositions. Calvinism offers one mystery and Arminianism offers a different mystery, and I believe a big part of how we interpret Scripture regarding this issue is influenced by which mystery we are more willing to accept.

The mystery that Calvinism asks us to accept is the idea that even though God is loving and good, He still predestines some people to everlasting suffering.

The mystery that Arminianism asks us to accept is the idea that even though God is all-knowing and in control, people still have actual power of choice when it comes to whether or not they receive salvation.

Calvinists seem to be more willing to accept the mystery of Calvinism than the mystery of Arminianism, and Arminians seem more willing to accept the mystery of Arminianism than the mystery of Calvinism. Either way, the individual must accept two seemingly contradictory propositions.

Personally, I find it much easier to accept the mystery of Arminianism than the mystery of Calvinism. Here's why: the mystery of Arminianism is an affront to my logic, but the mystery of Calvinism is an affront to my heart. When it comes to the mystery of Arminianism, I admit that I cannot logically reconcile the two propositions. Yes, it does seem impossible for humans to have power of choice and at the same time for God to be sovereign and all-knowing. But just because it seems impossible doesn't mean it is - especially when we consider that this mystery is in large part centered around our understanding of time (something God is not bound by). As a finite being within time and space trying to comprehend the operations of an infinite being who is not subject to either, I am willing to accept the idea that there is a way to reconcile these propositions that I am not presently capable of understanding. For this reason, I can look at the mystery of Arminianism and say, "Yeah, I don't really get it - but I accept the mystery."

However, I cannot do this with the Calvinistic mystery, because the contradiction between the two propositions of the Calvinistic mystery has to do with something I can actually understand: relationship. I may not be able to understand how time, human will, and Divine sovereignty intersect (the Arminian mystery), but I can understand love - and love does not create beings who have no other option than to suffer eternally. As far as I can tell, the Calvinistic mystery can only be resolved by accepting the notion that what we mean when we say "love" is so far removed from what the Bible actually means when it says "love" that the word is essentially meaningless.

Which mystery do you prefer? Which one do find more easy to accept? I think we need to ask ourselves these questions, and we need to ask not only what our answers reveal about God, but what they reveal about ourselves.


  1. QUOTE: "Either way, the individual must accept two seemingly contradictory propositions."

    Respectfully, I don't think you've studied the issue enough to make that assertion. As a fairly well informed Arminian, who have read quite a bit (and still reading) on this subject, I can tell you that the mystery is only present when you accept the Calvinist view. Calvinists must attribute some mystery to God in order to remain sane while holding their particular view of God's sovereignty (they define it as meticulous governance, and require "compatabilist" free will that is not contradictory to divine determinism).

    Arminians don't attribute anything in this matter to the mysteriousness of God - well, I guess it depends how well you grasp Arminian soteriology, and it's not that hard. It takes some reading though, from good primary sources and not secondary sources.

    If you're Arminian simply for a common-sense belief in free will, then you will probably assert what you have by believing that Arminians hold to some mystery. On the other hand, if you've studied classical Arminianism a bit alongside TULIP Calvinism, then there's no mystery.

    I can point you to some sources if you like.

    Much blessing - Marius Lombaard

    1. Marius, thanks for your comment. Please note that I said "seemingly contradictory propositions," not "ACTUALLY contradictory propositions." I maintain that the Arminian assertions that (a) God is in control and (b) people actually have legitimate power of choice - are seemingly contradictory. I don't think they actually ARE contradictory, but they do appear so. There are ways of explaining how the two can be reconciled - and I much prefer any of those explanations to the mystery of Calvinism - but I very much disagree with the idea that there is no mystery involved in the Arminian perspective (mainly because there is mystery inherent in the concept of how free will is even possible).

  2. via David Bentley Hart (EO theologian):

    "To assert that every finite contingency is solely and unambiguously the effect of a single will working all things -- without any deeper mystery of created freedom -- is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is, for any meaningful distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of cosmic eventuality has collapsed. If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real freedom within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else. Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of its God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good an evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous -- some are created for eternal bliss an others for eternal torment, and all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might. Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism. Quite apart from what I take to be the scriptural and philosophical incoherence of this concept of God, it provides an excellent case for atheism -- or, for that matter, Gnosticism."