Arminianism, Calvinism, and Pelagianism.
Some years ago I joined the Society of Evangelical Arminians. (Hey guys! Thanks for helping me tweak the Twitter meme.) Some months ago I also joined their Facebook debate group. Officially it’s called a discussion group, but let’s be honest: Debate happens. Even when we largely agree. Hey, so long as we keep it respectful. Most of us can.
Whenever I mention to people I’m in this group, it confuses ’em. Y’see, they don’t know what an Arminian is. Most of the time they think I mean Armenian, and are surprised: I’m so pasty white! I’ll get sunburn on an overcast day. Don’t Armenians tan way better than that?
Nope, not Armenian.
Oh yeah, Calvinists.
Since I’m bringing up those guys, may as well bring up the third major stream of theology we commonly find in Evangelical Christianity:
Calvinists love to accuse Arminians of being Pelagian, but mostly that’s because Calvinists don’t know what Arminians are, and assume since we don’t do Calvinist theology, we must do none—we think like pagans. Plus they don’t bother to investigate any of the anti-Arminian slanders their fellow Calvinists spread. They have bigger fish to fry.
Hence this article, which’ll sort out the three views.
Five points of contention.
To explain the views, I’ll start from Arminianism. The Arminians had five objections to Calvinism—the Five Articles of Remonstrance. The Calvinists objected to three of the Articles. In the Synod of Dort (the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618–19), they responded with the Five Heads of Doctrine—which evolved into what’s nowadays called the “Five Points of Calvinism.”
I had to extract Pelagius’s views from his letter to Demetrias, which is the only writing that survived after anti-Pelagian Christians got rid of the rest. (It managed to survive because it got mixed up with some saint’s letters.) You’ll notice, disturbingly, many Christians still think like this.
So like I said, Arminians and Calvinists disagree on three points. Pelagians disagree with all five.
|ARMINIAN VIEW||CALVINIST VIEW||PELAGIAN VIEW|
|Total depravity. Humans don’t start off good and become sinful. Sin, selfishness, and evil are written into our
||Extra-total depravity. Calvinists agree, but add we’re so depraved, we’re “spiritually dead.” (Loosely based on
||Humanity is good. God created humanity and called us good, |
|Unlimited atonement. Jesus died for everyone, and redeemed the sins of the world.
||Limited atonement. Jesus died as a ransom for many
||What atonement? Since we’re good, we merit heaven. If you shine in glory here, you’ll shine in glory in heaven. If you don’t—if you’ve buried your good nature under loads of sin—you can still repent and earn heaven back. The yoke of Christ is hard work, but you can do it, and God promised us great rewards for being good.|
|Linked election. God is relational. So his decision to save us, and our response to his salvation, are linked. Before creation he determined to save everyone who believes in Christ Jesus, everyone who perseveres in faith and obedience till the end. Believe in the Son, see life in the next age; disobey the Son, experience the wrath to come.
||Unconditional election. Before creation God decided to save some and doom others, based on nothing other than his secret will. ’Cause if it’s in any way linked to our faith and practice, we really saved ourselves. Jesus taking sin and death with him on the cross? Ppppfff. Peanuts.||Election isn’t salvation. Y’know, Paul was elect, but even he didn’t presume he was saved; he had to press on to God’s upward call. |
|Indwelling perseverance. “Abide in me,
and I in you.”
[Wait, can we forsake him? Well, that’s what the scriptures indicate.
|Absolute perseverance. Once saved, always saved. ’Cause if God does all the saving, it’s ridiculous to imagine we can un-save ourselves: If he’s chosen us for heaven (or not), it’s his decision; we have no say in the matter. Those who look like they quit Jesus
||No perseverance. We’re saved by being good. Choose life, and live. |
|Prevenient grace. Because we’re so depraved, humans can’t be good unless God provides us with enough grace to help us out of the mess we’ve created. It’s up to us to accept his grace, and not fight it.
||Irresistible grace. When God chooses to save us, he makes us “spiritually alive”; he douses us with so much grace it’ll melt the hardest heart. You can’t fight him. You can’t resist his salvation. Love does insist on its own way.
||Conditional grace. Since we’re naturally good, we don’t really need grace, but God grants it to us if we remain good. We get grace by merit. We earn grace. [Yeah, that’s an oxymoron. But it’s what Pelagius taught.]|
Calvinists took their five points and rearranged ’em into the handy mnemonic
Purely for my own amusement, you might’ve noticed I also rearranged the Arminian points into
The Twitter meme I mentioned earlier. (Hey, I like tulips too.)
Dr. Brian Abasciano of the Society of Evangelical Arminians prefers his acronym
Anywho. Where Arminians agree with Calvinists, for the most part, would be on total depravity, and sometimes perseverance. And you’ll notice neither of us jibe with Pelagians.
So what’s with the Calvinists?
- Me. “Do you believe Jesus died for everybody?”
- He. “Of course.”
- Me. “Do you believe God wants to save everybody?”
- He. “Of course.”
- Me. “Then you’re an Arminian. That’s what we believe.”
- He. “Okay. What about Calvinists?”
- Me. “They don’t believe Jesus died for everybody, and don’t believe God wants to save everybody. For his own private reasons, God decided to save some of us and destroy the rest. They claim God being arbitrary like this shows off his almightiness, and brings him glory.”
- He. “Seriously? Good grief. What is wrong with them?”
- Me. “They might know God. But their doctrine takes priority over anything they know.”
Ironic thing is, Calvinists are really big on proving their theology from the scriptures. That’s why they write a buttload of theology books. Most of my seminary textbooks were written by Calvinists. The head theology professor at my school was Calvinist—contrary to the solidly Arminian background of the Assemblies of God. (He went Calvinist in grad school.) Calvinists love theology. Or at least they’re trained to believe they do.
So why do Calvinists embrace propositions which wind up contradicting God’s character and the scriptures, and producing bad fruit?
Primarily it’s because Calvinists are way more traditional than they’re willing to admit. Calvin developed most of his theology in French Catholic schools, and became a big fan of St. Augustine’s deterministic ideas about God’s sovereignty. Namely that God’s in such control of the cosmos, our free will doesn’t matter, and even sin and evil and death become incorporated into God’s plan. Even after he became a Protestant in 1533, Calvin never put aside that idea—scriptures to the contrary. Instead he just bent the scriptures to suit the propositions. Or ignored the discrepancies. Or yada-yada’d past them, just like Calvinists do whenever we try to pin down how they think God plans evil yet keeps his hands clean.
Calvinism was one of the first theologies developed in the Protestant Reformation. Its fans insist it’s the Protestant theology—that Lutheranism and Anglicanism are simply too Catholic in the long run. They don’t adhere to any traditions; for them it’s
Calvinists insist their theology is logically consistent with the scriptures. For that matter, Christian-worldview proponents like Francis Schaeffer, Charles W. Colson, Nancy Pearcey, and Marvin Olasky, teach if we combine Calvinism with limited government, supply-side economics, science rejiggered to suit young-earth creationism, and a replacement theology which swaps ancient Israel for Christian nations, it presents a perfect holistic Christian concept of the world. Believe this, and you now live in peaceful certainty. Your theology is absolutely right; your salvation is absolutely certain; you can now defend your viewpoint to the death, and don’t even have to worry about being a fruitless jerk about it. ’Cause you’re not unsaved by your works of the flesh. Ain’t that handy.
So if you’re the argumentative type, if you love always being right, and if you don’t wanna spend the rest of your life studying the scriptures so you can know God better, Calvinism’s the system for you. Join up, memorize the doctrines, and spend the rest of your life fortifying the walls on the little white box you’ve stuffed Jesus into.
Getting the idea I’m not a Calvinist? This’d be why.
I will say, and should point out, Calvinists aren’t heretics like the Pelagians. What they teach isn’t inconsistent with classical, creedal Christianity. They believe in one God in three persons, that we’re only saved through Jesus, that he lived and died and lives again and is coming back. But their idea that God wields such control of the universe that he suborns evil… okay it’s not technically heresy. But it sure is blasphemy.