25 May 2016

Arminianism, Calvinism, and Pelagianism.

Eek! -Isms!

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. Arminianism is named after Dutch theology professor Jakob Hermanszoon (1560–1609), whose Latin name is Jacobi Arminii, and in English that became James Arminius. He attempted to bring Calvinism away from what he (and we Arminians) considered extreme views about salvation, and get it back in line with the scriptures and historic Christian theology. His objections to what Calvinists taught were spelled out in the Five Articles of Remonstrance, presented in 1610 by Arminius’s followers to the Dutch National Synod. A lot of the reason there are so many Arminians in the United States is ’cause John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was Arminian; and the Pentecostal movement came out of Methodism, so most Pentecostals are likewise Arminian.

Oh yeah, Calvinists. Calvinism is named after French theologian Jehan Chauvin (1509–1564), whose Latin name is Joannis Calvini, or as we know him, John Calvin. He became the bishop of Geneva during the Protestant Reformation, and is arguably the most influential Protestant after Martin Luther. Calvinism stems from his 1536 book Institutio Christianae religionis (“Institutes of the Christian Religion”), where the 25-year-old spelled out his beliefs for the king of France—and anyone else who needs an introduction to Protestant thought. He revised the book throughout his life. His disciples took over the Church of Scotland, started the Reformed, Presbyterian, and Puritan movements. In recent decades a lot of argumentative young theologians have adopted Calvinism as their favorite cause, ’cause they’re under the impression it makes ’em look clever.

Since I’m bringing up those guys, may as well bring up the third major stream of theology we commonly find in Evangelical Christianity: Pelagianism, named for Welsh monk Morcant (c. 354–418), Latin name Pelagius. Greatly concerned about the constant problem of Christians taking God’s grace for granted, Pelagius overcompensated and wound up teaching we’re saved by our own efforts. St. Augustine, and a few subsequent church councils, condemned Pelagius’s teachings as heretic; and since a lot of the early Protestants were big fans of Augustine, they don’t like Pelagius either. However, Pelagius’s views are precisely what pagans believe. And since a lot of paganism has leaked into the church, plenty of Christians are Pelagian too.

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.

Total depravity. Humans don’t start off good and become sinful. Sin, selfishness, and evil are written into our DNA. God originally created humans to be good, but sin has warped us into the messed-up humanity we see today. Hence we can’t save ourselves, and need Jesus. Jn 15.5 Extra-total depravity. Calvinists agree, but add we’re so depraved, we’re “spiritually dead.” (Loosely based on Romans 7.11.) We really can’t save ourselves, or even turn to God for saving—we’re dead! First the Holy Spirit has to raise our spirits from the dead. Then we can repent. Humanity is good. God created humanity and called us good, Ge 1.31 so we’re naturally inclined towards good. After all, look at all the well-behaved pagans throughout history. We might sin out of ignorance; we had to learn depravity. But underneath all that, we’re really good people.
Unlimited atonement. Jesus died for everyone, and redeemed the sins of the world. 1Jn 2.2 Of course, if you want redemption, it’s for believers. Jn 3.16 Limited atonement. Jesus died as a ransom for many Mk 10.45 —meaning only those people God chose to save. After all, why would Jesus die for people who’d never apply his redemption? Seems a waste of grace. 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. Jn 3.36 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. Pp 3.13-14 So don’t slack off, and lose all the gains you’ve been making. Keep striving to be good, day by day.
Indwelling perseverance. “Abide in me,
 and I in you.” Jn 15.4 Once we’re in the Father’s hand, absolutely nothing can snatch us away. Jn 10.28 
He’ll never forsake us. So don’t forsake him!
[Wait, can we forsake him? Well, that’s what the scriptures indicate. Ga 5.4 Though technically Arminianism doesn’t take a side on the issue, many Arminians will.]
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 Jn 6.66 were never truly saved to begin with: Once apostate, always apostate. No perseverance. We’re saved by being good. Choose life, and live. Dt 30.19 Choose evil and death, and you lose your salvation and go to hell. Plain and simple.
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. Ac 7.51 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. 1Co 13.5 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 TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance. Kinda appropriate, since the Dutch did start this whole debate, and you know how they have a thing for tulips.

Purely for my own amusement, you might’ve noticed I also rearranged the Arminian points into TULIP:

The Twitter meme I mentioned earlier. (Hey, I like tulips too.)

Dr. Brian Abasciano of the Society of Evangelical Arminians prefers his acronym FACTS—but just to remind you, I’m not a big fan of acronyms. If it’s memorable, learn it; if not, don’t worry about it. (Having two different TULIP mnemonics probably won’t help.)

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 sola scriptura, only the bible. Problem is, show Calvinists the bible’s actual teachings and they’ll fall right back on their traditions. Same as most of us do.

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.