Arminian | Calvinist

Wednesday, June 4th 2008
Sep/Oct 2006

In the interviews that follow, the editors of Modern Reformation asked a series of five questions to two able defenders of their respective systems: Robert A. Peterson, Calvinist and professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri; and Jerry L. Walls, Arminian and professor of philosophy at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Both men are used to this sort of dialogue: Walls is a co-author of Why I Am Not a Calvinist (InterVarsity Press, 2004), and Peterson is a co-author of the companion book, Why I Am Not an Arminian (InterVarsity Press, 2004). In order to understand the practical effects of both systems, the questions asked concern areas of church life and pastoral practice that are sometimes overlooked during theological discussion. Not every question that could be conceived was asked. But these questions might help make this discussion more meaningful for the thousands of pastors and laypeople who wrestle with the implications of their beliefs and practices.

Arminian: Interview with Jerry Walls

1. How would you describe Arminianism to someone unfamiliar with the term or the theology?
The heart of what distinguishes Arminianism from Calvinism is a profound difference in how the character of God is understood. Arminians hold that since the very nature of God is holy love, God unconditionally loves all of his creatures and sincerely acts to promote their true flourishing and well-being. That is why Arminians reject the Reformed doctrine of election as unthinkable, for that doctrine holds that God unconditionally chooses to save some, while passing over the rest, thereby consigning them to eternal misery. A God of unconditional love would never pass over any of his lost creatures in this fashion.

Since God is holy, however, a right relationship with him is not unconditional. To be rightly related to God, we must love him, trust him, and obey him. As we come to love and trust God, we come to experience the love of God more and more and to know him better and better. But since we are free, we may choose not to trust him and even decline his offer of a loving relationship. So even though God's love is constant and unconditional, as that is his very nature, our experience of that love depends on our faith and obedience.

What this points up is that Arminians have a different understanding of how God has chosen to exercise his sovereignty in our world, and a correspondingly different view of human freedom, than Calvinists do. Calvinists typically hold that God is sovereign in the sense that he determines everything that happens, including our choices. Thus, for the Calvinist, freedom means that we willingly do whatever God has determined for us to do, even though we could not will or act otherwise. In this understanding, freedom and determinism are compatible.

In the Arminian view, by contrast, freedom and determinism are not compatible. Sovereignty means that God is in control, but he does not normally determine our choices. Since he is in control, his kingdom will come and he will defeat evil. But if we are not part of his kingdom in the final reckoning, this will be due to our free choice to reject his love and grace, not because we were not among the unconditionally elect.

Now the point I want to emphasize here is that these differences with respect to sovereignty and freedom flow from the even more fundamental difference concerning God's character. We can see this if we consider an extremely significant implication that follows from the Calvinist view that freedom is compatible with determinism, namely this: God could save everyone without overriding anyone's freedom. Indeed, he could determine all persons freely to love, worship, and obey him at all times. In fact, however, as the Calvinist sees it, God has determined that some will freely come to Christ and some (perhaps the majority) will reject his grace and be lost forever.

Here is where the Arminian view of God's character is profoundly at odds with the Calvinist view. According to the Arminian understanding of God's character, he would never, as a matter of sovereign choice, determine sin, evil, and ultimately eternal misery for any of his creatures, let alone for vast numbers of them. This is not to deny that God could have created a world in which he determined all our choices. No doubt he could have. But Arminians hold that if he had chosen to determine all things, the world would be a very different place than it is. If God determined all things, the world would not be full of sin, evil, and misery.

The fundamental issue here is therefore not a matter of God's power (what God could do) but a matter of his character (what he would do). God would not determine any to be lost if he could save all without overriding freedom.

2. What different kinds of comfort do you think a Calvinist and an Arminian pastor would offer to a Christian who is struggling with his or her faith?
This is a great example of a practical issue that brings into sharp focus the profound differences between these two theological traditions. It is a well-known fact that believers in both traditions sometimes struggle with their faith and wonder about the status of their relationship with God, sometimes doubting whether they are even saved. The theological interpretation of this doubt varies considerably, however, due to the very significant differences in their theology.

To oversimplify, the Calvinist doubt can be summed up in the question, Does God really love me? whereas for the Arminian the question can be summed up, Do I really love God? The Calvinist disquiet, which flows from the doctrine of unconditional election, is a fear that perhaps one is not really elect after all, that one is a victim of the dreaded "false hope" that Calvin warned against. The Arminian anxiety, which flows from the doctrine of conditional election, is a fear that one is not responding appropriately as God requires in terms of faith or obedience.

Now what is interesting is that both traditions have highly developed doctrines of assurance, and that both appeal to similar things to encourage wavering Christians. Both cite the promises of the gospel, both emphasize the importance of the witness of the Holy Spirit, and both urge that believers can "make their election sure" by cheerfully obeying God and walking before him with a good conscience. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that some of these factors, such as cheerful obedience and good conscience, are somewhat subjective. In addition to these subjective considerations, believers struggling with their faith need objective grounds for assurance. Now the objective ground of our salvation is the death of Christ. But it is precisely here that important differences emerge. These differences crystallize in the Calvinist doctrine that Christ died only for the elect or, at the very least, died for the elect in a very different sense than he died for the rest of the world.

Now given that none of us can be in a position to know whether or not another person is truly elect, a Calvinist pastor cannot with good conscience assure a struggling person that Christ died for him or her without claiming to know more than his theology permits. What a struggling believer most needs to be assured of is that God loves him, that Christ died for him, that God truly desires his salvation, and that God's grace is at work in his life. Given the Arminian view of God's love, the Arminian pastor is able to say all of this without equivocation. A Calvinist, however, cannot say this without claiming to know more than his theology warrants.

The certainty that God loves us and Christ died for us and makes available to us the resources of his grace provides great encouragement to a believer who is struggling with his faith. It is God's love and grace that enable us truly to believe and obey God. We love him because he first loved us, as John tells us.

The worst case scenario for the Arminian is that he has, in fact, lost his faith and broken his relationship with God. But even then, God still loves him and wants the relationship to be restored. For a believer who is struggling with this worst case scenario, the reminder that God loves us and by this very love empowers us not only to have faith in him but also to love him in return, is just the assurance he needs. By contrast, the worst case scenario for the Calvinist is that he is not elect after all and is the victim of a false hope. If his worst case scenario is true, there is no word of hope for him and he will be lost forever.

In short, it is far more devastating to doubt that God really loves us than to doubt that we really love God. And the doctrine of unconditional love is a far more powerful resource for helping struggling believers than the doctrine of unconditional election.

3. Where in the practice of Christian living do you think Arminianism proves more beneficial than Calvinism?
First, there is a difficulty for Calvinism in the practice of evangelism that is similar to the problems their theology poses in the matter of Christian assurance. The difficulty stems, again, from the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election and the related notion of limited atonement. Frankly put, there is no meaningful sense in which Calvinists can claim that God loves the nonelect. These are persons that God could save, without overriding their freedom (as Calvinists understand freedom). God could move on their hearts and make them willingly repent and come to Christ. But he has chosen instead to pass over them and consign them to eternal misery. Since we are not in a position to know who among the unconverted are elect, the Calvinist evangelist cannot proclaim, without equivocation, that God loves the unconverted. The good news, in other words, must be carefully qualified and muted, if Calvinists are to be true to their convictions.

Second, because legal metaphors have tended to dominate Reformed theology, salvation has primarily been understood in terms of forgiveness and justification. Arminian and Wesleyan theology, by contrast, highlights sanctification and transformation. Wesleyan theology is thus better situated to do justice to the Trinitarian nature of God and the personal nature of our relationship with him. Again to simplify, it is the difference between seeing salvation primarily as a pardon by an offended monarch whose justice has been satisfied, and seeing salvation primarily as a transforming relationship with a loving Father, through the atonement of the Son, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

4. Do you think there are any challenges in Christian living unique to Arminians-that is, challenges that Calvinists do not face (or, do not face as often)?
The Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification and transformation can become a legalistic burden or a performance-oriented perfectionism if it is forgotten that the transformation God requires is a gift of grace that is the overflow of a loving relationship. When the relational dimension is forgotten or ignored, Christian discipleship can become a joyless demand or a heavy task.

5. What are the benefits of pastoral counseling from an Arminian pastor? What is "lost" in pastoral counseling from a Calvinist pastor?
Many of the toughest cases that pastoral counselors deal with have to do with the problem of evil and suffering. The big challenge is how to discern the will of God in all of this. To make the point more concrete, let us take a particular instance of evil, one that counselors in our society unfortunately have to deal with all too commonly, namely, a case of sexual abuse inflicted on a child by a relative, say an uncle. Suppose a young woman has come to her pastor with painful memories of such abuse, that she has struggled in relationships with men, and has had great difficulty in her efforts to develop healthy attitudes toward sexuality and intimacy.

Now this is a difficult case regardless of one's theology. However, I would contend that Calvinism makes such hard cases even worse. For given the Calvinist account of sovereignty, God determined things to happen so that these painful events would happen exactly as they did. God could have determined this woman's uncle to have treated her with love and respect-and to have done so freely-and thereby to have nurtured healthy attitudes in her. But he chose instead to determine things so she would be abused and experience the painful humiliation and shame that she did.

Now given this account of things, it is hard to say that God is really against evil, that it is really against his will. This is what is lost in counseling by a Calvinist pastor, if he is true to his principles. If God determined things in such a way that the woman's uncle abused her, but could have determined her uncle freely (in the Calvinist sense) to have nurtured her in a healthy way, then it seems clear God preferred for the abuse to occur. Such a picture of God, I would contend, is neither theologically sound nor healthy from a counseling perspective.

Again, such cases are difficult regardless of our theology. Anyone who has a robust view of God must admit that God permitted this terrible event under the reins of his sovereign control. But there is a vast difference between saying that God permits such things as part of the price of freedom (as Arminians understand freedom), and saying God determines such things.

The Arminian pastor can assure this young woman that even though God did not will this abuse to occur, he can redeem it and bring good out of it. We can trust God that he will not allow any evil to occur that will prevent him from achieving his ultimate loving purpose of conforming us to the likeness of Christ and restoring us to a perfect relationship with himself. God's creative grace can bring healing and beauty out of tragic evil and crushing pain. We can say this while strongly condemning the abuse as something hateful to God that he would never will to happen.

In short, I think Arminian theology allows us to hold together a realistic view of evil and tragedy along with a robust view of God's sovereignty and healing grace.

Jerry L. Walls is professor of philosophy at Asbury Seminary (Wilmore, Kentucky). His most recent books include Heaven: the Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford University Press, 2002); Why I am Not a Calvinist (with Joseph Dongell, IVP, 2004); and The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy (co-edited with Gregory Bassham, Open Court, 2005).

Calvinist: Interview with Robert Peterson

1. How would you describe Calvinism to someone unfamiliar with the term or the theology?
Calvinism is that branch of Reformation theology and practice that derives from the reformer John Calvin, as distinguished from Lutheranism and Anabaptism, to name two other tributaries of the Reformation. The major influences on Calvin's thought were the Bible, Augustine, and Luther. I will summarize some of the accents of the theology that bears his name today. Some of these accents are shared by Bible-believing Christians of other traditions.

Calvinism has a high regard for the Holy Scriptures, and regards the Bible as the chief authority for theology (what we believe) and ethics (how we live). It bows to the testimony of Scripture that fallen human beings are unable to save themselves and are utterly dependent upon the free grace of God for salvation.

Calvinism extols that grace of God by emphasizing his freedom in all aspects of salvation, from his gracious choosing of a people before creation, to his making full atonement for their sins in Christ, to his opening their hearts by his Spirit, to his preserving them for final salvation at the resurrection on the last day.

Calvinism holds to a high view of the church and regards its sacraments as means of grace parallel to the Word of God. It thus differs from Rome's too high view of sacramental efficacy but also from believers who hold that baptism and the Lord's Supper are ceremonies of profession and remembrance, respectively.

Calvinism views all of life under the Lordship of Christ. Following the Dutch Reformed tradition of Abraham Kuyper, most Calvinists pray and work for the transformation of human cultures through the worldwide spread of the gospel and its attendant concerns for justice and mercy.

Calvinism believes in the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, the eternal suffering of the lost in hell, and the eternal joy of the resurrected righteous in the immediate presence of the Trinity on the new earth under the new heaven.

2. What different kinds of comfort do you think a Calvinist and Arminian pastor would offer to a Christian who is struggling with his or her faith?
(See answer to #4.)

3. Where in the practice of Christian living do you think Calvinism proves more beneficial than Arminianism?
(See answer to #4.)

4. What are the benefits of pastoral counseling from a Calvinist pastor? What is "lost" in pastoral counseling from an Arminian pastor?
These questions are so similar, that I will address them together. I do not want to overemphasize the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism and thereby distort the Bible's teaching and harm the unity of the church. Conservative Calvinist and conservative Arminian Christians and pastors have the most important things in common, including belief in: the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, the Holy Trinity, our need as sinners of divine rescue, the necessity of God's grace for salvation, the orthodox view of the person of Christ, the necessity for persons to trust his death and resurrection for salvation, the indispensability of the Holy Spirit for a fruitful Christian life, and more.

I will begin, therefore, by affirming that believing pastors of both traditions would in their counsel offer struggling Christians listening ears, compassionate hearts, and holy hands lifted in prayer. Both would use the Word of God as their primary means of bringing comfort. Both would look beyond their resources to God for help and both would hold Christians responsible for their sinful attitudes, speech, and behavior. Both would thus urge struggling believers to repent and trust God in order to live a healthy Christian life.

But there are differences. Arminian pastors have to reckon with the possibility of the struggling person committing apostasy and so falling away from Christ, perhaps beyond repair. Calvinist pastors do not reckon with that possibility because they believe in the preserving grace of God that will not let his people go (John 10:28-30; Rom. 8:28-39; Heb. 7:23-25). Calvinist pastors would remind believers that God is the Lord of the (Abrahamic/ New) covenant he has made with his people. He has committed himself to them in Christ and will never abandon them (Heb. 6:13-20). This means that there is always hope for believers, no matter how much they may struggle. In fact, their very struggling with sin is evidence of their possession of the Holy Spirit of God and their yearning for final salvation (Rom. 8:23). If they repent and draw near to their heavenly Father, they will find forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:8-10). This is because he has promised to forgive and draw near to them who humble themselves before him (James 4:6-10). Calvinist pastors, then, can better minister confidence, perseverance, and comfort to parishioners with the Word of God's sovereign grace (Acts 13:48; 18:9-11; 2 Thess. 2:13-15; 2 Tim. 2:10).

Calvinist pastors, like Arminian ones, delight to extol God's grace; both much prefer to speak of grace than to confront professed Christians with their sin. But both regard such confrontation as a biblically mandated and therefore important aspect of their ministry. They thus would both urge perseverance and warn parishioners that those who sow unbelief and disobedience are in danger of reaping destruction. But the two diverge when they describe the threatened destruction. Pastors of both traditions acknowledge the possibility of persons who made false professions of faith suffering God's wrath on Judgment Day (Matt. 7:21-23). But, once again, because of their reliance on God's sovereign grace, Calvinist pastors would not threaten true believers with condemnation. By contrast, Arminian pastors, because of their belief that human freedom can override God's sovereignty, sometimes would warn believers that if they persist in sin, condemnation may result.

Calvinists here appeal to Paul's warnings in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 concerning the Corinthians' abuses at the Lord's Supper. If they judged themselves, God would not judge them (v. 31). But eating and drinking without discernment results in judgment (v. 29). And, in fact, that is exactly what many Corinthian believers have done and as a result have reaped weakness, illness, and death (v. 30). It is important to note, however, that even God's visiting the wayward Corinthian believers with death does not result in their being damned. Rather, "When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world" (v. 32). God's fatherly punishment of his children may even involve taking their lives, but he does not put them out of his family. Thus Calvinist pastors, eager to promote covenant fidelity, sometimes warn their flocks of the dangers of sin. But they do not include threatening them with the loss of salvation as one of their resources. On the other hand, Arminian pastors sometimes could appeal to the fear of the loss of salvation to keep their flock in line. But such an appeal, if Calvinist exegesis of Scripture is correct, is improper and harmful to the sheep.

5. Do you think there are any challenges in Christian living unique to Calvinists-that is, challenges that Arminians do not face (or, do not face as often)?
Here again the first thing to say to avoid theological distortion and sectarianism is that believers of all stripes face many of the same challenges. These include saying yes to God and no to sin, walking in the Spirit rather than the flesh, loving God wholeheartedly above all else and loving our neighbors as we naturally love ourselves, having a proper zeal for worship, fellowship, and witness, and living in the light of our Lord's return.

Frankly, however, Calvinists historically have had unique challenges to Christian living. Chiefly, the major problem has been the error of hyper-Calvinism. This way of thinking starts out right and goes wrong. It correctly affirms the biblical view that God is the only Lord of all and that he exercises absolute sway over all of his creatures, including human beings (Ps. 33:10-11; 103:19; 139:16; Isa. 14:26-27; Eph. 1:11; Rom. 11:36). But then it elevates human reason over Scripture in drawing conclusions from God's absolute control that the Bible never draws by downplaying human freedom and responsibility. Ironically, hyper-Calvinism-when it appeals to rationalism-is similar to its theological opponent, Arminianism. Anthony Hoekema, when affirming that Scripture teaches God wants all human beings to respond to the call of the gospel, highlights the irony:

The Bible teaches … that God seriously desires that all who hear the gospel should believe in Christ and be saved. The same Bible also teaches that God has chosen or elected his own people in Christ from before the creation of the world. To our finite minds it seems impossible that both of these teachings could be true. A kind of rational solution of the problem could go into either of two directions: (1) To say that God wants all who hear the gospel to be saved; that therefore he gives to all who hear sufficient grace to be saved if they so desire; this grace is, however, always resistible; many do resist and thus frustrate God's design. This is the Arminian solution, which leaves us with a God who is not sovereign, and which thus denies a truth clearly taught in Scripture. (2) The other type of rational solution is that of [Herman] Hoeksema and the Hyper-Calvinists: Since the Bible teaches election and reprobation, it simply cannot be true that God desires the salvation of all to whom the gospel comes. Therefore we must say that God desires the salvation only of the elect among the hearers of the gospel. This kind of solution may seem to satisfy our minds, but it completely fails to do justice to Scripture passages like Ezekiel 33:11, Matthew 23:37, 2 Corinthians 5:20, and 2 Peter 3:9. (1)

Hyper-Calvinism errs when in the name of emphasizing God's control it downplays the need for Christians to pray and evangelize. Hyper-Calvinism maintains that because God has sovereignly chosen to save people, evangelism is unnecessary. Contrary to the claims of hyper-Calvinism, Scripture teaches that Christians are to evangelize, and that for at least four reasons:

First, we should share our faith in obedience to God's Great Commission. We are responsible to obey God's commands, not only when we can figure out his ways, but even when we remain in the dark. It is the part of God's servants to obey, whether or not they understand their Master's mind.

Second, we are ignorant of many things that God knows, including the identity of the elect. God knows those whom he has chosen, but we do not. The only way that we know that people are chosen for salvation is when God draws them to salvation in the gospel. This is why 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 says: "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction." Since we do not know the identity of the elect, we freely share the gospel, trusting God to bring people to himself.

Third, we evangelize because God is absolutely sovereign in all aspects of salvation. Scripture and experience teach that God uses means to accomplish his ordained ends. Consider our physical health and well-being. We do not regard God's sovereign protection of us as an excuse for our not exercising human responsibility to take care of ourselves. Rather, we live responsibly by eating, sleeping, and getting exercise, all the while putting our final confidence not in ourselves, but in God's sovereign control of our lives.

It is the same in evangelism. God alone is Lord. God the Father sovereignly chose people for salvation before creation (Eph. 1:5). God the Son sovereignly redeemed them in his death on the Cross (Gal. 4:5; 3:13). God the Holy Spirit sovereignly enables people to call Jesus "Lord" in truth (1 Cor. 12:3). We cannot choose people for salvation, die on the cross, or open hearts to the gospel. Nevertheless, God has told us to witness, and if we are faithful, we will obey his command. And as we do, we are using God's ordained means to his ends. He has planned to use the means of person-to-person evangelism to accomplish his end of drawing his people to salvation.

Fourth, instead of stifling evangelism, belief in God's supremacy in salvation invigorates it. God's sovereign grace assures us of results. We can be led by the Spirit to pray for or witness anywhere in the world with a confidence that God has people there. Twenty years ago I smiled when I heard that a group of students at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, where I taught, was praying for the country of Albania. Why did they choose Albania? They chose the most difficult mission field in the world to glorify God's grace. Then Albania was an officially atheistic country, complete with a museum to atheism. In my heart I thought the students were foolhardy at best and were spiritual show-offs at worst. Well, it turns out the joke was on me. God heard the prayers of my students and many other people and with the downfall of Communism in Europe, the doors of Albania opened to Christian missions. In the same place where the supposed monument to the complete victory over God stood, the museum of atheism, the gospel was preached. My students were more consistent in their application of the Reformed theology that I taught them than I was. God's sovereign grace transcends all boundaries, political or otherwise. And his grace guarantees results.

Hyper-Calvinism, when it discourages prayer or evangelism, is unbiblical and is therefore to be rejected. I commend to readers J. I. Packer's helpful book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, which steers clear of the extremes of hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism and beautifully sets forth the Bible's teaching that God is sovereign and human beings are responsible.

Robert A. Peterson is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO) and author of Calvin & the Atonement (Christian Focus, 1999), coauthor, with Michael Williams, of Why I Am Not an Arminian (InterVarsity Press, 2004), and is currently completing a manuscript on predestination and free will (forthcoming from P&R Publishing).

1 [ Back ] Prof. Peterson's quotation from Anthony Hoekema is taken from Hoekema's Saved by Grace (Eerdmans, 1989), p. 79.
Wednesday, June 4th 2008

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