When Systems Collide

Do systems collide in your campus conversation with other Christ-followers?

I have had the privilege to Skype with Benjamin and personally hear his rich passion for the Gospel in daily life and the performance/study of music. Below is a submission he shared with me on “Calvinism versus Arminianism,” what he considers “a very relevant issue for collegiate Christian circles.” Do you concur? Do you have stories to share regarding how a ministry in which you’re involved with remained “one” even with Calvinism versus Arminianism an open topic for conversation? As you may have guessed with my studies at Grove CityGeneva, and Evangelical, the topic has regularly been a part of my educational campus life. I appreciate Benjamin’s invitation to healthy dialogue.~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Editor.

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One of the most typically and sadly divisive discussions to surface in college Christian fellowships and other heterogeneous Christian circles is the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. It is often rife with misconceptions, miscommunications, mistrust, and misplaced allegiances.

I am not interested in arguing for one label or the other. But neither will I posit (as many do) that truth is to be found somewhere in a motley synthesis of the two systems, which inevitably proves inconsistent. Rather, I intend simply to walk through the five points that broadly outline each system, trying to understand the position of each camp in light of Scripture, in order to foster unity in the gospel and a productive discussion of differences.

 1). “Total Depravity”: a point of agreement

Calvinists and Arminians agree on this one: the totality of man’s faculties are so depraved and impaired by the fall that his will is enslaved by sin, warped away from God, and dead toward Him. Both agree that without God’s intervening grace, man would never choose God.

Where the Calvinist and Arminian systems differ is on the effect this intervening grace is believed to have.

2).  “Irresistible Grace” vs. “Resistible Grace”

Calvinists believe God’s grace has a sovereignly determined effect: God gives us a new heart that freely chooses Him in faith. The outcome is certain. This is what Calvinists mean by “irresistible grace.” By contrast, Arminians believe that God’s grace is not determinate: it gives us the ability to choose or reject Christ freely, but the outcome is not guaranteed. This is the “resistible grace” of Arminianism.

A simple consideration may give clarity. A free soul’s decision is only uncertain to the extent that the two options are comparable. If you were offered a choice between a Rembrandt and a cigarette butt, would the outcome be uncertain? When it comes to accepting or rejecting Christ, we’re talking about a choice in which the options are infinitely more extreme. If the sin-enslaved soul is theoretically able to choose Jesus but is certain not to, how much more would the truly free soul be theoretically able to embrace the horror of separation from God but shiver at the travesty of the very thought?

In other words, a free soul will freely choose God. Freedom is not opposed to the certainty of our choosing God—rather, it’s precisely what guarantees it! We are certain to freely embrace God to the extent that we are truly free. Conversely, it is only impairment or the coercion of evil that could account for someone not choosing God. Praise God that Jesus has come to give sight to the blind and to set the captives free!  And the glorious promise is that if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

3).  “Conditional Election” vs. “Unconditional Election”

Here there is room for confusion. If the Arminian emphasis on “conditional election” is used to refer to God’s choosing (electing) to justify, adopt, sanctify and glorify those and only those who have faith in Him, then it is a premise that any Calvinist would agree is purely Biblical. Neither Calvinists nor Arminians believe that you can be justified, adopted, etc. without faith in Christ.

But if it is true that our faith itself is an uncoerced but guaranteed result of the eye-opening, chain-breaking, new-life-giving grace of God, then whatever label we subscribe to, we must agree that the initial grace that brings us to the point of faith cannot be conditioned upon anything in us. And indeed I think the Bible is clear that it is not. This is what Calvinists mean by “unconditional election.”

4).  “Unlimited Atonement” vs. “Limited Atonement”

To understand this point, we have to first recognize that “unlimited atonement” and “limited atonement” do not necessarily suggest contradictory ideas: they refer to different aspects of the atonement upon which both Calvinists and Arminians would agree.

When Arminians speak of “unlimited atonement,” they are referring to the unlimited availability of the atonement: the invitation is open to all. Any traditional Calvinist would agree. But Arminians also believe that the only ones who are actually saved are the ones who put their trust in Christ. But that is exactly what is meant when Calvinists speak of “limited atonement”—they are referencing its actual extent, not its availability.

5). Once you’re saved, can you fall away from salvation?

Calvinists and some Arminians claim that once you’re saved, you’re always saved. Other Arminians claim that you can fall away and lose your salvation. Which is it?

Scripture is soberly clear that one can have sincere faith and experience new life but yet fall away permanently to destruction. We all should agree there. But there’s a further consideration: was such a person ever truly saved to begin with?

Calvinists and Arminians agree that the term “salvation” refers to being saved from the wrath of God at the Judgment and being given eternal life. But someone who falls away permanently, being outside Christ, tragically does not escape God’s wrath at the Judgment; and if whatever new life this person experienced didn’t last forever, then by very definition it couldn’t have been eternal life. In this light, it seems that such a person can’t be said ever to have been “saved” in any meaningful sense, and thus they couldn’t be said to lose a salvation they never had.

So again, both sides make valid points. The one warns of the very real danger of backsliding. But those who claim “once saved, always saved” correctly (if somewhat counter-intuitively) articulate the premise that true salvation is that which, by the grace and providence of God alone, endures to the end.

But we must be careful: the moment we start worrying about whether our faith will endure, we are putting our faith in faith rather than in the God who sustains us and calls us not to comprehend His ways but simply to trust Him step by step, believing that He is faithful.

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Benjamin Shute

Benjamin Shute is Visiting Assistant Professor of Violin at Dickinson College. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, he studied at the New England Conservatory (Boston) and the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg (Germany). He enjoys sharing the echoes of the gospel in music in a variety of settings, performing frequently as recitalist and chamber musician, serving periodically as concertmaster of the Boston Chamber Orchestra, and teaching at the Csehy Summer School of Music and other festivals in Europe and Asia. He is a regular contributor to the Center for Gospel Culture.

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8 Comments

  • hughe036@gmail.com'
    Joel commented on May 3, 2013 Reply

    This is a critically important topic–glad to see the post. I am reading “Against Calvinism” by Roger Olson and another good read is (probably-I haven’t read it but it is the complementary treatment of the topic) “For Calvinism” by Michael Horton.

    I think most people encounter Calvinism in Reformed Theology, which is extremely prevalent in heterogeneous Christian circles.

    For me, the most troubling disagreement between these systematic theologies (and related, such as dispensationalism) is not over “TULIP” but rather the implications for hermeneutics, ecclesiology, evangelism, and sanctification (also eschatology, but this doesn’t seem to affect us as much on a day-to-day basis). A group’s position on very practical things like whether or not the law is a means of growth flow from their systematic theology. I would go so far as to say that all Christian parachurch organizations focusing on faculty and graduate students (e.g., IVCF, Campus Crusade) are largely populated by people whose theology is best understood as Reformed/Calvinist.

    What do you think? Are there any people with more Armenian or dispensational leanings out there? Reformed theology seems to infuse the ethos of evangelical parachurch organizations.

    • contrapunctus84@aol.com'
      Ben Shute commented on May 3, 2013 Reply

      Joel, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, there is certainly far, far more to “Reformed” theology proper and its various counterpoints (Arminianism, Dispensationalism, etc.) than so-called “TULIP.” But I wanted to address the “five points” here (if only briefly and superficially) simply to try to “clear the waters,” because so often the ground-level argument between professing Calvinists and Arminians not only focuses on these points but is based on misconceptions of them. For instance, Calvinists frequently charge that Arminians think they’re saved by some merit of their own– but almost any professing Arminian you’ll talk to eschews the idea. On the other hand, Arminians often charge that Calvinism negates human dignity by negating the will and thus also every call to Christian action (why be holy if you’re already “elect”? why evangelize if God will save his “elect” anyway?) But that is a sad misunderstanding (which some Calvinists may also fall into): what Calvinism actually teaches is not that God’s sovereignty negates or replaces the human will but rather that all the necessary acts of will that God calls us to (e.g. responding to His grace in salvation, striving for holiness, etc.– and they are indeed necessary!) are in fact out of our ability as fallen humans and therefore must be enabled only by His sovereign power.

      Of course, sometimes the charges of one side against the other are true in practice (if not necessarily a consequence of the system of theology). Some Arminians *do* indeed lean toward Pelagianism or open theism. And some Calvinists *do* indeed take a cold, callous, and patently un-Christ-like approach to the lost, whom they term “reprobates.” It is important to remember that doctrine is more than a system (which is why there is the discipline of Biblical theology to compliment that of systematic theology), and taking a particular system (which is designed to explain or represent an *aspect* of theology) as if it were a total theological schema can lead to distortions of emphasis that can amount to outright error or travesty (like when Calvinists fail to weep for the lost as Jesus wept over hostile Jerusalem).

      But what especially troubles me is when each side appears to rally around its own label at least as much as it rallies around Christ. “The Arminians” or “the Calvinists” become the enemies to be shot down rather than brothers to be discoursed with and (if they are seen to be in error) restored gently… and just maybe I might find myself learning something from them– gasp! If we find ourselves agreeing with the premises of a system because that is what we see the Bible as teaching, that is well and good– and it means we should be willing to lay our system down or revise it if we find we have falsely understood what either it or the Bible is saying. When we are unable to do that, I suspect what we’ve done is to place our identity in the system rather than in Christ, making it our idol. There is, of course, far more to say, but I’ll leave it at that…

      • contrapunctus84@aol.com'
        Ben Shute commented on May 3, 2013 Reply

        But as to whether parachurch organizations tend to be primarily “Reformed”… In my limited experience, I haven’t necessarily seen that to be the case. Certainly, I have known some folks in IVCF, Cru, etc. who are consciously of “Reformed” affiliation. But I’ve also heard some teachings that seem to stand at odds with “Reformed” persuasions. Others don’t disagree with a soteriology that Calvin would have subscribed to but yet differ from him on a number of other points of subsidiary belief, emphasis, and practice (e.g. Anabaptists). Still others (like John MacArthur) may share similar beliefs and emphases to the “Reformed” but yet consider themselves “Dispensationalist.” So there’s quite a variety, which, frankly, I think is a good thing. We all have things that we can learn from our brothers and sisters of different persuasions, so long as all things are passing under the rule of the Word of God as we seek to understand it more deeply, fully, and truly– not just individually, but as one body in Christ.

        • hughe036@gmail.com'
          Joel commented on May 3, 2013 Reply

          You are right that diversity is a good thing. The appeal in scripture to unity is best understood as unity in the local fellowship and not unity in all sects of Christianity. You are also right that many varieties exist; reformed theology but dispensational eschatology, etc. Most “Armenian” types I know would hold to the perseverance of the saints. What I hope is that people will be encouraged to read something and learn something–there is a lot of ignorance and caricatures out there, and we need to at least understand the positions and learn to get along. All Armenian and Calvinist evangelicals are good brothers and sisters–these are not heresies, but “family squabbles” (not that it isn’t important).

  • snoke@pitt.edu'
    D.W. Snoke commented on May 5, 2013 Reply

    For me and many others I know, it simply comes down to, when I read Romans 9, John 6, and so many other passages, does the language of Scripture fit better with the language of Calvinism or Arminianism? After I was convinced, essentially against my will, that the language of the Bible is that of God choosing us, not us choosing him, then I sat down to think out the philosophy and decided it made sense. But without first being challenged by Scripture I never would have agreed with my Calvinist friends.

  • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
    Frank Sr. commented on May 6, 2013 Reply

    The problem that Calvinists and Arminians have, is that both arguments are entirely scriptural. The dilemma can only be resolved by admitting the obvious: The bible is not an infallible book of absolute truth. It is not even a book of consistent arguments. It is a book that contains a diversity of theologies, opinions and positions. It also contains a variety of concepts of deity, held by different authors at different times.

    Once these theologians can overcome this major flaw in their assumptions, they can begin the process of forming their own sets of beliefs while accepting the validity of the “other side.”

    • contrapunctus84@aol.com'
      Ben Shute commented on May 7, 2013 Reply

      Frank, thanks for your input. That the Bible contains a variety of different views, theological angles, etc. is certainly true. The deeper question is whether those views are consistent (for example, I may consistently and accurately speak of another human being in a way that represents a diversity of moods, perspectives, etc.) I respectfully submit that, in my own familiarity with the writings of Scripture, I have certainly found (and enjoyed) its diversity of moods, theological angles, etc., but yet have not encountered anything that strikes me as strictly inconsistent or irreconcilable. (I am happy to continue this dialogue if you wish: you may reach me at Contrapunctus84@aol.com).

      As to the question of the “infallibility” or “absolute truth” of Scripture. Of course, on the Bible’s own terms, outright contradiction or inconsistency would pose a major obstacle to any claim that it is indeed absolutely true; and even if it were perfectly consistent, of course, that doesn’t mean that it is either true or the Word of God. But when I read through the Biblical story (with its diversity of human authors and perspectives!) and see the way its centerpiece, Christ, is so clearly detailed and anticipated from the beginning– yet in such a way that, when he shows up, he is not recognized (as was also foretold)– I cannot comprehend that the story that seems to be unfolding through the variously written documents was merely a successive human invention (which, again, I am happy to elaborate further in private discussion). As improbable as one would think it, I have to conclude that the message recorded in Scripture was in fact superintended by God– and if the words of that message claim to be “God-breathed” (presumably by a God who does not make mistakes), then that is a claim for which there is (as I see it) already a wealth of evidence and which must therefore be investigated to see if there can be any evidence found against it. Whether we are speaking of the Genesis account of creation, or the slightly differing order of events recorded in the gospels, or simply theology itself, I have found nothing to suggest a lapse in plausible factuality *when we understand how the genre is straightforwardly asking to be read* (for example, the gospels will sometimes group material thematically rather than chronologically– this isn’t a lapse in factuality: it’s part of the literary style and is simply understood to be conveying a literal significance other than mere chronology.)

      And finding no lapse in plausible factuality, I consider the evidence in favor of the Bible’s claim to be the accurate and living word of the God of truth. I see, for example, the minutely specific fulfillment not only of explicit prophesy but of the entire Biblical story (which, again, leaves itself manifestly unresolved– e.g. the law that show righteousness but never make on righteous, sacrifices that are “for sin” but yet don’t truly expiate guilt, etc.) in the humanly unforeseen Christ. I see the way the gospel story, alone of any story I know (“religious” or otherwise), gives a foundation to such things as meaning and hope that we assume every day (and indeed must in order to live our lives)– as if it were one story this world was waiting for without knowing it. This, too, I am happy to discuss further. In light of this, the most reasonable conclusion seems to me to be the factuality of the Biblical narrative and the authoritative truth of the word that describes it (by virtue of its own claim to such truth and authority).

      And as to how this relates to Calvinism and Arminianism: I will say that I think both sides make Biblical points, but I respectfully disagree with the premise that that both arguments in their entirety are wholly scriptural: I do not believe that the Bible will simply accommodate or subsume the full implications of both systems (to the extent that they make contradictory claims). I do believe the Bible teaches *a* theology, and in my experience, in every single instance where competing theologies make contradictory claims but yet claim Biblical support, one can identify precisely where one (or both) sides misread or misapply the evidence they claim supports them (according, of course, to how the Scriptural text in question itself asks to be read), or perhaps merely misunderstand the implications of their own system. True, the Bible’s theology is an extremely rich, deep, and multifaceted theology which can be seen from many angles and which contains tensions from a human perspective (e.g. God is sovereign, but yet his heart longs that none should perish even while some do)– but I do believe it is a unified theology nonetheless (especially as most of those tensions are actually articulated not by different writers at different times but actually in the same document, sometimes almost or actually back-to-back– i.e. whatever they are, they’re not a product of the Bible’s diversity of authors.) So my intent in this short article was to try to articulate the extent to which, to my understanding, each side of the Calvinist/Arminian debate adheres to Biblical teaching, in hopes of promoting unity among the two sides in their attempt to come closer to the heart of the Bible’s single-but-multifaceted theology.

      • eltopiafrank@wildblue.net'
        lockwoodsblog commented on May 7, 2013 Reply

        Ben Shute:

        Thank you for your reply. I will make my answer brief: I think you must continue to believe what you do, for as long as you can do so in good conscience.

        The inconsistencies that you have not encountered may be found on any good Progressive Christianity web site, and on many Atheist sites for that matter, so there is no point in my belaboring them here. Wish you the best.

        Frank

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