Taking the Fork in the Road: Discussing Arminianism and Calvinism, Part 2

tulipThis is the second part of a rather lengthy two-part blog post on the first two chapters of Dr. Manfred E. Kober’s article “Divine Election or Human Effort,” a paper based on a workshop given by Kober on October 25, 1971 in a faculty meeting at Faith Baptist Bible College, and provided to answer student questions about Arminianism and Calvinism. If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 of this post before proceeding here.

I want to talk a little bit about Calvinism and TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints) and to do so, I looked up TULIP on the Calvinist Corner website:

The doctrine of Total Depravity is derived from scriptures that reveal human character: Man’s heart is evil (Mark 7:21-23) and sick Jer. 17:9). Man is a slave of sin (Rom. 6:20). He does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12). He cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). He is at enmity with God (Eph. 2:15). And, is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3). The Calvinist asks the question, “In light of the scriptures that declare man’s true nature as being utterly lost and incapable, how is it possible for anyone to choose or desire God?” The answer is, “He cannot. Therefore God must predestine.”

When talking about part of this with Pastor Randy, he’s the one who brought up man being created in the Image of God. That means, in some sense, that even though human beings are fallen, there is still something of us that carries a spark of the Divine. Jewish mysticism makes a great deal about these “sparks,” but I won’t open up that topic right now. I do want to say that I don’t believe the “T” in TULIP takes “the Image of God” in man into account. It’s what separates human beings from the rest of creation. Plants and animals behave the way they do because they are responding to their design. While we humans also respond to our design, part of that design is to seek God. Most of the time we fail but the drive to do it is inborn. It’s woven into the fabric of our being. It’s the image of God in man.

God does not base His election on anything He sees in the individual. He chooses the elect according to the kind intention of His will (Eph. 1:4-8; Rom. 9:11) without any consideration of merit within the individual. Nor does God look into the future to see who would pick Him. Also, as some are elected into salvation, others are not (Rom. 9:15, 21).

The “U” in TULIP seems to assume that we live in a “flat” universe where God and man operate on the same level or plane of existence (of course, God being infinitely powerful). It also assumes that God is subject to linear time (note the “look into the future” language above) as Kober states:

These acts are the result, not the cause of God’s choice. Election therefore was not determined by or conditioned upon any virtuous quality or act foreseen in man.

-Kober, “Chapter 2: The Decrees of God,” pg 7

Kober’s statements are just saturated with references to linear time and causality when I believe it is totally inappropriate to attribute those qualities to God or to believe God is subject to them.

Kober writes that the main point of Calvinism is that God saves sinners. I don’t deny that, but from Kober’s viewpoint, the statement would be better rendered God saved sinners since he did so from before the creation of the earth. There’s no active process, it’s just a “done deal” and was a done deal before we were ever born.

Yet, from a lived human experience here on the ground, people are unsaved, are in the process of approaching a decision for salvation, are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. If Calvin was right, why bother preaching and teaching the word of God. Saved is saved and unsaved is unsaved. It’s already happened. The “decision” of the people involved isn’t even a formality since there’s nothing for them to decide.

It occurred to me that Calvinism also seems to contradict prophesy.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NRSV)

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Joel 2:28-29, 32

Pouring waterOne day everyone will “know God” and the Spirit of the Lord will be poured out upon “all flesh.” Depending on your point of view, either that means all human beings everywhere or all human beings who have turned to God. Either way, these events have yet to occur and are signposts of the Messianic Age. But according to Calvinism, the “elect” already “know God” and those who were not chosen never will.

For that matter, referring back to Jeremiah, why would the prophet write something like “know the Lord” as if it really mattered; as if we really had a choice to know God or not know Him if Calvinism is true? “Knowing the Lord” is totally irrelevant to those who were specifically chosen by God not to know Him. And yet they are horribly and eternally punished for this “non-decision.”

In summarizing Arminianism (page 11), Kober states that the Arminianist position is that “Divine sovereignty is incompatible with free will and therefore God’s sovereignty is limited.” There’s another “either-or” statement. I disagree that God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will are mutually exclusive states. They are from a human standpoint since we are limited in how we can conceptualize this “mystery,” but I don’t doubt that from God’s point of view, there is no dissonance and that He is both sovereign and people also experience choice.

On pages 12 through 14, Kober writes about “The Sequence of the Decrees.” I remember Pastor Randy mentioning that last Wednesday, and I remember objecting to imposing “sequencing” on God because it (again) makes God subject to linear time. It’s funny how all of the linear time and either-or arguments are a human effort at limiting God’s sovereignty over His own existence and experience while we discuss God’s sovereignty over man and salvation.

But as part of this section of his chapter, Kober cites Henry Clarence Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1949), pp. 343-344 in describing different variations on Calvinism including Supralapsarian view, Intralapsarian view, Sublapsarian view, and Modified Sublapsarian view. I won’t list all of the points of each perspective, but they illustrate that even within Calvinism, there is a variability about how the “mechanism” of Calvinistic salvation operates. Not all Calvinists everywhere agree on all the details. Does that mean it isn’t all that evident from scripture exactly how God saves?

Calvinists are wrestling with each other over how salvation works but perhaps they’d be better off wrestling with God and living with a particular amount of uncertainty, rather than trying to pin God down, so to speak, so that we can believe we have the last word on the Word of God. MacArthur said the Bible was sufficient, not that it contained literally all the information we desire. I believe God left some stuff out of the Bible. It may not be able to tell us certain things, at least down to the finest details.

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.

2 Peter 2:1 (NRSV)

Kober quotes this verse on page 16 as he’s describing Biblical support for Modified Calvinism. This is a school of thought that supports all five of the TULIP points except for Limited Atonement, what is considered the weakest link in TULIP’s chain. Apparently, according to this perspective, Christ’s redemption is universal, and Kober says that some people “insist that even Calvin accepted the unlimited theory of the atonement later in life.”

Again, there’s a certain amount of “wiggle room” within the Calvinistic blanket.

I keep thinking about a couple of things.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NRSV)

If the choice were made for the Israelites, then why would God exhort them to “choose life” and to love and obey God and His commandments?

One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God.

Luke 5:17-25 (NRSV)

welcome-to-faithJesus saw the faith of the men who brought the paralyzed man to him through the roof. He forgave the man of his sins and then healed him. Was the paralyzed man all part of “the plan,” already saved from before the creation of eternity, paralyzed for the glory of God so he could be forgiven and healed by the Son of Man?

What about this?

Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Mark 9:21-24 (NRSV)

Did the boy’s father believe or not? Did he have faith or not? Did he progress from a state of unbelief to a state of belief and did Jesus help with that process?

Jesus was often critical of his disciples and others around him having “little faith” as if they had some sort of control of their faith. According to Calvinism, we have no control of our faith. It’s either present or not, like a light switch flipped to either on or off. Yes these passages seem to introduce a set of inconsistencies that question many Calvinistic assumptions.

Kober mentions that the beginning roots of Arminianism and Calvinism stretch all the way back to the fifth, fourth, and even the third centuries C.E. but both Arminius and Calvin lived during the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. James, Peter, Paul and the other apostles were dead for 1600 years by the time these doctrines had been constructed and both theories have experienced modifications and adjustments for the last 400 or so years.

I wonder what Paul would think if he could read the first sixteen pages of Dr. Kober’s article or for that matter, what would he think of the history of the Baptist church and the other denominations of modern Christianity? The theories of Arminius and Calvin are largely based on the Gospels and on Paul’s letters, so I imagine the ancient sage and emissary to the Gentiles might have an opinion or two on this matter.

I’ll continue to read Dr. Kober’s article. I’m sorry if it seems that I’ve been a little rough on him. It’s not my intent and I really don’t feel “hot under the collar” about all this. I just think that all of the arguments pitting Arminianism and Calvinism against each other are making a tragic mistake by assuming that God has to construct spiritual realities the way we write scholarly papers on theology and church doctrine.

The Bible is supposed to be a source of illumination, not a straight-jacket.

Whereas the Greek philosophical way includes defining things and relationships with precision, the Israelite way was to define things with story.

Derek Leman

113 days.


4 thoughts on “Taking the Fork in the Road: Discussing Arminianism and Calvinism, Part 2”

  1. You make some very good points James, and list some reasons I couldn’t pick “either or” , but especially Calvinism, when told I must.

    However, I also understand the need for boundaries to define what we believe about important things like God. And I don’t knock people for doing it, for we’d never effectively communicate without such boundaries and definitions.

    The rub for me is when we take the somewhat necessary box we create–based on our limited capacity to comprehend God–and make it dogmatic, and then buttress our position by claiming it’s goes way back to the very beginning…

    Christianity *is* something, and it’s mostly good, but it’s missing a vital piece of the puzzle, as A. Fruchtenbaum has said: Israelogy. The Church hasn’t factored that (huge) piece into its theology and it’s a glaring omission. So it’s no wonder that neither of these two positions satisfy one who notices the promises He made to Israel, and believes He will keep.

    I do want to mention tho, that it’s a human condition as opposed to a Christian issue, for you can see the same types of things in Judaism.

  2. However, I also understand the need for boundaries to define what we believe about important things like God. And I don’t knock people for doing it, for we’d never effectively communicate without such boundaries and definitions.

    I understand that as human beings, we categorize and pigeon-hole in order to understand our world and in order to “understand” God, but we must not mistake our human need to create “models” for a reality that may be beyond our comprehension.

    For instance, we have weather models and climate models that help us try to understand those two concepts, but there’s a difference between those models and how weather and climate actually work, which is why (among other things) the weather channel can’t always accurately predict the weather.

    How much more difficult is it for a model to “predict” God?

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