December 11, 2008

Why I Am An Arminian
Part II: Calvinists

Introduction

Considering that I have always been an Arminian, deciding between Arminianism and Calvinism was a matter of whether or not Calvinism challenged my own beliefs enough for me to lose my trust in them. They could do this through biblical evidence, theological argument, and/or demonstration of good fruit. Needless to say, this never happened.

I'm going to examine each of these in turn, but right now, I am going to focus on fruit. According to Scripture, we know what is Christian by its fruit, the most basic fruit being love. Now love is not understood as some sappy idea where you are nice to everybody. Love is a matter of priority: do you prioritize others above yourself. Most Calvinists I meet certainly lack this.

Now, I want to be fair here. There are a lot of Calvinists that exist out there that bear all of the true fruits of the Spirit. I've even met a couple. However, there currently is a movement, now called the Calvinist Resurgence, which manages to create some of the poorest Christians one could imagine. The main reason I have fully embraced the label of Arminianism is to oppose this group who I believe to be undermining the integrity of the gospel and Christian truth.

Calvinist Resurgence

[What follows is an extrapolation of my thoughts expressed in this article I submitted to SEA: Personal belief as to the reasons of the Calvinist resurgence]

My opinion and thesis is that the Calvinist Resurgence is basically a backlash to the Postmodern Movement. What is the Postmodern Movement? Excellent question.

Well, no one really knows. The postmodern movement is a negatively defined stance, and like all negatively defined stances, it lacks something to stand on.

By negatively defined, I mean it defines itself by what it is not, i.e. it is not modernism. Modernism itself began with the Enlightenment which believed in the omnicompentence of human reason, as well as a strong expectation of progress. Ancients were seen as inferior, and they believed that we are progressing to a greater state of life. However, the various atrocities of the 20th century modernist philosophies have shaken the West's confidence in this world view. The result is what is known as postmodernity.

Postmodernity can be seen as essentially an overall attitude stemming directly from the rejection of modernity's main points. The result of this that I believe is most pertinent to the conversation is the rejection of a cultural epistemological standard.

Epistemology is the study of understanding. It deals with such things as how we determine truth, and what are the standards upon which we sort out fallacy and what do we mean by 'truth'. Our present culture lacks any epistemological cohesion. In modernity they relied on reason; in the ancient world they relied on revelation. Today, we rely on personal opinion, which is hardly a standard at all. Indeed, the less systematized, the less authoritative, the less orthodox an idea is, and the more personally it is expressed, the more legitimate it sounds to the postmodern ears. Ancient heretics are seen as open-minded thinkers, and flash and pomp mean more than substance.

There is a backlash going on in this culture attempting to reestablish past epistemological norms, though they would hardly phrase it like that. They see themselves as the last champions of orthodoxy at Thermopylae, standing the tide of heretics, gluttons, and liberals who are tearing the world apart. However, it is this "world" that they are protecting. They are trying to fix the damage already done, and return things to the old order so to speak. However, this backlash is just as much of a smorgasbord as postmodernity itself, since different groups see the "old order" differently.

I believe one of these groups see the "old order" to be protected as Calvinist theology. They somehow believe the Reformation put the world in order, and ever since then liberals have been driving it apart. I might add that they don't tend to see the difference between a liberal and a postmodern, meaning that they often see themselves as fundamentalist. Indeed, they really are fundamentalist in attitude, doctrine, and politics. Whether or not this is a slow transference of fundamentalism opposing liberalism to opposing postliberalism, or whether or not it is a reaction against postmodernity which is absorbing fundamentalism is beyond my capacity to speculate. I would say though that this particular group's reliance on Calvinism is tied to postmodernity's loss of epistemological standards.

This group neither represents Calvinism historically, nor Calvinism proper, but I do believe it represents most Calvinists we see on the net, including James White, Reformed Mafia, and Pyromaniacs. My thesis is that most of the attitudes that we find distasteful are a result of the combination of Calvinism with their reactionary position towards what is going on in the world.



EXAMINING SOME ATTRIBUTES:
Apologetic Theology

By apologetic theology, I mean that they develop their understanding of God and the world based off of what works the best in debate. Indeed, I would argue that it is the cause of their devotion of Calvinism, rather than a result from it. However, there are a lot of new Calvinism ideas (that are considered to be the traditional Calvinist view by these people) for exactly this reason. Compatiblism comes readily to mind. Another is regeneration before salvation, along with its "dead man" analogy.

Again, we return to a lack of epistemology. Truth is what is the most convincing. Therefore, since they were convinced by these ideas, they are truth. They do not truly understand the ideas, they just know that they find them convincing, and parrot them back against the "enemy"

Elitism

Recently on the Ben Witherington blog, Ben put up a post expressing John Piper's opinions regarding the elitism of certain Calvinists. I only reference so that you may compare them with my own, for I disagree with him considerably, but have respect for the man so I offer him as a second opinion.

By elitism, what I mean is an attitude that considers one to have the high ground. To them, it is our responsibility to convince them, and if they remain unconvinced, then we have been "defeated". As long as their system survives, they are victorious. In other words, they don't really have to prove anything.

Many of my Arminian brothers have speculated that this elitism that we see is a natural result of a caste system consisting of the reprobate and elect inherit to Calvinist theology. I disagree, though I do think this caste system is a reasonable conclusion from Calvinism.

The elitism is drawn from several factors, the greatest of which is the erroneous presupposition that Calvinism is the default Evangelical, if not Christian, position. I don't really know where this particular presupposition comes from, but I do believe that it is connected to the need of an epistemology. Without a unifying epistemology, each person is forced to create for themselves their own standards of truth. Calvinism offers this, providing a framework of understanding which is easily grasped (this is not a negative). The result is the person judges new information based off of this framework making it impossible to turn around and judge the framework itself.

The militant nature of the movement is also tied to this. Remember we are dealing with a kind of fundamentalist here. This is a group of people who are also angry at the changing cultural tides, whether they see them as liberal or recognize them as postmodern. Regardless, they cast those accepting these cultural changes as the enemy, creating an us/them mentality.

This mentality combines with Calvinism much like baking soda and vinegar. The us/them attitude is casted in elect/reprobate rhetoric and theology. Their hatred of the enemy becomes justified through God's hatred of the reprobate. They use this to justify their anger and behavior. Casting God as vindictive justifies their vindictiveness.

Apologetics Over Evangelism

There is nothing wrong with Apologetics. Each of us is gifted differently, and some of us are more gifted in the area of apologetics than in the area of evangelism. I am included in this, since I am more of a theologian than anything else.

However, these people seem to be dramatically drawn to apologetics, mostly because the foundation of their whole worldview is based on an opposition to certain ideas. They want to defeat what they see as liberalism, which eventually develops into any false Christian perspective. Therefore, they care more about converting "false Christians" than converting non-Christians.

Some of this isn't bad when applied to groups like Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. But when it gets extended to actual Christian groups, like Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and, of course, Arminians, they end up wasting their energy sheep stealing.

Pragmatic Hermeneutic

Similar to apologetic theology, pragmatic hermeneutics is tied to usefulness in debate. However, here instead of ideas, I'm referring to methodology. There are a couple of examples of this:


  1. The Machine Gun Hermeneutic
  2. Lack of contextual understanding (like knowing Romans 9:9-24 but being ignorant of Romans 9:7-8)
  3. Focus on verses instead of books
  4. Favorite memory verses.

All of those go hand in hand but are slightly different. The fourth isn't really a negative thing, except when joined with the other three issues. The point of all of this, is that Scripture is a tool which they use to prove their point, rather than what they use to shape their opinion. Indeed, there is an assumption that their opinion is already formed from Scripture. After all, their teacher knew a lot of Scriptures...

This is mostly tied to their militant nature. All fundamentalists do this. They claim that their belief in Scriptural inerrancy is giving authority to Scripture (which itself is tied to their rejection of liberalism), but in reality, it is granting their opinions inerrancy since they are "derived" from Scripture. Though I have no problem affirming that there are no mistakes in Scripture, I do not grant my interpretation of it the same respect.

Reason/Consistency

This is the bit that I had the most difficulty is writing. Due to the complex relationship of fundamentalism with liberalism/postmodernity, they have a kind of love/hate relationship with reason.

Liberalism is, in essence, the acceptance of Enlightenment epistemology as the norm of the church. Fundamentalism fighting against this movement not only rejects this claim, but also bases their own arguments on Enlightenment epistemology in an attempt to combat liberals. The result is that Enlightenment epistemology crept into the Fundamentalist perspective anyway, often creating objective irrational arguments.

When Postmodernity came along, and started rejecting Enlightenment epistemology, fundamentalists made a fatal mistake: they equated postmodernity with liberalism. The result is that now they think that liberals are the ones rejecting Enlightenment epistemology, and that it is the fundamentalist's job to defend it. Combine this with the still present inherit hatred of the liberal arguments and positions in the past, as well as commitment to the authority of revelation over human reason, and you have one really messed up epistemology.

Enter Van Til. Cornelius Van Til was an apologist in the mid 20th century who first proposed what is known as "presuppositional apologetics". Without getting into details, part of the theory is that the highest goal of a philosophical/theological position is consistency. Anyone who has entered the fray with these Calvinist fundamentalists have heard of the world "consistent" before. Indeed, Van Til himself was a Calvinist.

This whole position creates an excellent resource when dealing with a culture that lacks epistemology. When accepted a person can sort through all of the conflicting opinions with this rule of consistency as a guide. However, since no one person can possibly grasp all of the various implications of all philosophical systems around them, the result is that the person will be attracted to theologies that are an easily presentable interlocking system. Naturally, 5-point Calvinism becomes very attractive.

This has an unfortunate consequence. In my experience, those that appeal to Calvinism's inner-consistency are often really poor judges of inner-consistency of other systems. I have found that Arminianism often fails the "inner-consistency" rule by failing to be consistent with Calvinist presuppositions. This is because, to some degree, Calvinism is becoming the basis of these people's epistemology. Personally, Arminianism is not the foundation of my epistemology. Instead the Incarnation is. However, for this group, Calvinism is absolutely their epistemology, adding to the elitism already mentioned.

Pathos-based Rhetoric

In formal rhetoric, there are three factors which are considered to enter into convincing a person. They are logos (Greek for word or reason, referring to the soundness of an argument, or it's logical coherence), pathos (Greek for emotion, referring to the passions aroused in the audience), and ethos (Greek for ethic or character, referring to the projected character of the speaker for the sake of creating trust). Therefore, by pathos-based rhetoric, I mean that they tend to use emotional arguments, and are often rather emotional themselves.

Now this isn't entirely bad, except that they absolutely fail in the area of ethos. There's some logos there, I admit, but very little ethos, if any at all. This is, of course, a result of the elitism.

I brought this attribute up last because it ties back into the title of this series: Why I am an Arminian. Because I started as an Arminian, I am in part an Arminian because Calvinists failed to convince me otherwise. They failed to convince me otherwise because of the shear lack of character displayed by the Calvinists I met. I didn't trust them enough to really listen to them.

You may ask how this isn't elitism, since I am demanding the Calvinist convince me instead of allowing both sides to stand on equal ground. The difference is that here we are dealing with my own heart, rather than a public discussion. In a public discussion, I don't insist that all I have to do is disprove the other side's arguments. But when it comes to my own heart, I'm not going to change my mind on something unless I am convinced otherwise.

But, these Calvinists didn't even cause me to doubt my position. If anything, they bolstered by displaying the fruits of the world rather than the Spirit. It is rather unfortunate actually, because if they merely showed me kindness, they may have convinced me back then. Now, I am not so ignorant about Arminianism itself. This is not why I reject Calvinism now, but it was why I didn't even consider it back then.

15 comments:

bethyada said...

I have found that Arminianism often fails the "inner-consistency" rule by failing to be consistent with Calvinist presuppositions. This is because, to some degree, Calvinism is becoming the basis of these people's epistemology.

Interesting call. I find this also with some atheists.

I guess we all prefer our own system, else we would change to our preferred system. But when pointing out inconsistencies with another system one has use their presuppositions!

Jc_Freak: said...

Well, that's kind of different. Atheism is the epitome of the Enlightenment movement which attempted to use objective reasoning to raise one's perspective above all others and judge them accordingly. So, I would absolutely agree that atheists judge us based off of their own presuppositions. However, they're forthcoming about it.

Besides, it isn't actually wrong to judge another system based off of your own presuppositions. As you say, it is essentially inevitable.

What I was pointing out though is the fallousness of these Calvinists' claims of the inner-inconsistancy of Arminianism. The test of conisistancy is meant to judge a system based off of its own presuppositions. These Calvinists fail to do this precisely because their epistemology is so ad hoc that they lack the necessary tools to make the very assessment they claim to be making.

Besides, traditional Reformed theology actually fails this inner-conisistancy test anyway with its strong affinity towards dialectic. Luthor was big on the concept (and Barth made it his focus). Much of John Calvin's original work also used dialectic as a means of dealing with theological tensions. I don't see anything wrong with this (I personally like the idea of dialectic myself), but this again demonstrates the ignorance that these Calvinists have, for they don't really understand Calvinism itself or the Reformation that they claim to be respresenting.

bethyada said...

I wasn't disagreeing with your comment, I was adding that I have found atheists similar. They assess Christianity based on Atheism and conclude that it is incorrect based on atheist presuppositions (surprise!). But to show them that they are assuming atheism in proving it seems a thankless task.

I presumed that you were saying something similar about Calvinists. They have trouble seeing Arminianism on its own terms. Arminianism may be incorrect judged by Calvinist presuppositions but that is a far cry from being internally inconsistent.

I think that Calvinism is both internally inconsistent (if one accepts logic) and scripturally incorrect.

One can argue both with a Calvinist. Show them that according to their axioms that Calvinism is logically inconsistent, as well as showing them that it contradicts Scripture. Though I am not certain I am successful. And their interpretation of Scripture is so different to mine in places I am not certain we are on the same page.

Eg. I understand the challenge that Romans 9 is to Arminianism and how Calvinists interpret the verses, but some interpretations of other verses I am unable to see how that could possibly come from the words written down.

Jc_Freak: said...

Good thoughts. ;-)

cawoodm said...

If truth is characterised by coherence and correspondence then Calvinism is going to score badly. On the surface they are consistent (read "hardliners") but they seem to me to be consistent only in their incoherence.

Calvinism is perhaps the most simple theology in dealing deal with difficult passages is in the Bible (wrath, blood, pre-destination) but it simply cannot be the best one. It so emphasises these few isolated passages at the expense of missing the big picture, the true Gospel where things like free will, a loving God etc. are taken for granted.

I reject Calvinism because of it's incoherence and lack of correspondence to my experience of the real world and of God. Their God is monstrous, their theology a muddle.

You spoke of apologetics: what on earth can apologetics or even evangelisation mean within a framework of:
1) No free will
2) Total depravation
3) Unconditional election
4) Irresistible grace

I imagine a true Calvinist mission sounds like this: "Would all the unregenerated elect please stand up and come to the front, we have a booklet for you. Thank you and good night."

Mason said...

JC,
Thank you for a well thought through post that manages to be quite gracious for such an obviously contentious issue. I’d like to make a couple comments on sections that stood out to me as particularly insightful, and then issue a bit of a challenge if I may.

“This group neither represents Calvinism historically, nor Calvinism proper, but I do believe it represents most Calvinists we see on the net, including James White, Reformed Mafia, and Pyromaniacs.”

Thank you for making clear that you understand these groups do not necessarily represent the best of true Calvinism. I live in something of a Calvinist Mecca now, and in both their theology and in the fruits of their lives, the Calvinists I know do not fit the people you are describing here.

"When Postmodernity came along, and started rejecting Enlightenment epistemology, fundamentalists made a fatal mistake: they equated postmodernity with liberalism."

Again, good point, and highly ironic is it not? I do not think we can wholeheartedly embrace modernity or postmodernity which I was actually just blogging on in a review (or conservatism or liberalism for that matter), but it saddens me how many Christians just write off postmodernism as liberalism without seeing the differences.
And now for my challenge…

“The main reason I have fully embraced the name of Arminianism is to oppose this group who I believe to be undermining the integrity of the gospel and Christian truth.”

Even if we assume for arguments sake that this group is undermining the integrity of the gospel, I still have a couple questions.
First, if as you admit these groups do not represent the best of Calvinism, why let them affect how you see it? The net is a haven sometimes for extreamism and bad arguments, and if you are going to disagree with those groups that is understood. However, are you really rejecting Calvinism then? Should it not be based on the best of the tradition that you decide on their theology?

Second, how does it follow that your rejection of Calvinism ought to lead to an embrace of Arminianism?
After all, Calvinism being wrong by no means implies that Arminianism needs to be any more correct does it?

I’m sure you have good reasons for where you stand, but at the same time setting yourself against position A and assuming that means you need to take position B can be a dangerous move.

Look forward to your thoughts.

Pizza Man said...

Very insightful.

Jc_Freak: said...

Mason,

I am very encouraged by your comments since I was worried about being clear regarding the very points you highlight. I am glad that I was successful.

As for your questions:

"First, if as you admit these groups do not represent the best of Calvinism, why let them affect how you see it? The net is a haven sometimes for extreamism and bad arguments, and if you are going to disagree with those groups that is understood. However, are you really rejecting Calvinism then? Should it not be based on the best of the tradition that you decide on their theology?"

I believe you misunderstood me in this instance. The last sentence of my original post answers this question to some regard: This is not why I reject Calvinism now, but it was why I didn't even consider it back then." My present position is founded upon research and reflection into both the historical texts and various dialogues. You are absolutely right in your assessment, which was I had looked into Calvinism in Seminary. I didn't want to be accused of judging a system based off of its worse adherants.

My point is one of history. There was a time when I was ignorant enough that they could have convinced me. However, they missed that chance because of their behavior. I didn't trust them enough to accept their challenges to my position, but I also didn't trust them enough in their descriptions of Calvinism. The result was a looked into both systems, and became stronger in my Arminianism.

"Second, how does it follow that your rejection of Calvinism ought to lead to an embrace of Arminianism? After all, Calvinism being wrong by no means implies that Arminianism needs to be any more correct does it?"

Again, I think you misunderstood me. To make this clearer, I actually went back and changed the sentence you quote, changing 'name' to 'label'. I did not embrace Arminianism because I reject Calvinism. Rather, a desire to combat this group caused me to openly refer to myself as Arminian.

Most Arminians reject the label, often saying "I'm just Christian" (though there are some that are legitmately neither. These are rare.) From what I can tell, there are two reasons. 1) They misunderstand what Arminianism so they don't think they are Arminian. 2) They don't want to get involved in the debate, so they refuse to accept either title so they are left alone.

To some degree, excepting the name 'Arminian' or 'Calvinist' is much like joining the army. You don't have to be a member of the army to believe in your nations ideals, but once you join the army, you can't avoid fighting for them. I am no longer just a civilian. What I meant in the comment you quote is that these Calvinists made me willing to join the fight.

I hope I answered your questions satisfactory. Please, feel free to pose more. You get me thinking ;)

Mason said...

"To some degree, excepting the name 'Arminian' or 'Calvinist' is much like joining the army. You don't have to be a member of the army to believe in your nations ideals, but once you join the army, you can't avoid fighting for them."

So what about someone who is not fully comfortable with either and sees flaws in both, they are what, insurgents, or perhaps the Taxpayers party in the US?

I worry that in setting up the options as A. Calvinism, and B. Arminianism, with everyone who is to be seen as orthodox taking one of those two views, leaves little room for real dialogue or refinement of our doctrines.

Also, it seems to be a particularly modern Western Protestant sort of thing. Both in the fact that we have a tendency to set up two positions, assume one of the two is valid, and fight to the death (in politics, theology, sports, any countless other areas).
And also insofar as this excludes the soteriology of the East Orthodox church and Roman Catholic church as inherently non-Christian. They might be wrong on much of it (I think they probably are) but I do not think we ought to set this up in a way where anyone who is not a Calvinist or Arminian is by default a heretic trending towards either Determinatalism or Pelagianism.

Jc_Freak: said...

Again, I believe you misunderstand me. I never said that only Arminians and Calvinists or orthodox. If I have said this, then I gladly and enthusaisticly retract it.

My point is that there are many Arminians out there the reject the label for the reasons that I gave, and why I personally decided to accept the label. My reasons are why many Arminians who claim that they are not Arminian.

There are also many others who claim that they are not Arminian simply because they are not. The RCC and EOC are perfect examples of orthodox Christians that are niether Calvinist or Arminian. I would consider Open Thesists to be Christian (though there are those who disagree), but they also are not Arminian or Calvinist. Then there are the Finneyists, who fall short of Arminianism by rejecting TD, but avoid Semipelagianism by still teaching prevenient grace. Then there are still more that don't fit any label.

My only point is that there are many who deny the label of Arminianism who actually believe in it. I used to be one of them. Now I am not.

Pizza Man said...

Hi Mason,

I agree with you that no systematic theology is perfect. However, on certain issues that A & C address there really is no middle ground.

For example: Either election is conditional or it is not. Either the atonement is limited or it is not. Either grace is resistible, or it is not. On these issues it's not really possible to say "both".

Interestingly in these three examples, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would agree with the Arminian position.

Mason said...

Pizza Man,
Maybe there is no middle ground, or maybe this is in part a framing issue. We frame it so that certain questions must be answered and certain themes addressed, with the assumption that whatever system deals with those questions and themes correctly is the 'right' one.
What if we are asking the wrong questions to begin with though? What if, when all comes to light, both systems are equally wrong but in different ways?
Just something to think about...

Pizza Man said...

Hi Mason,

There are certain questions that are bound to arise when discussing Christian theology. We may arrive at the wrong answer, but there is no wrong question. Among those are: Is God good? What is sovereignty? What is the nature of grace?

These are questions that are central to any Christian theology. A and C both give coherent answers to those questions. It doesn't bother me that they arrive at different answers. It also doesn't bother me if someone has an intelligent "third option" they want to present for consideration. That's great.

However, I don't find it all appealing to leave these sorts of questions unasked, or unanswered. I also don't think it is reasonable to discuss them without some sort of framework.

David B. Ellis said...


I guess we all prefer our own system, else we would change to our preferred system. But when pointing out inconsistencies with another system one has use their presuppositions!


True, when pointing out internal inconsistencies.

But there are also other forms of inconsistency. For example, inconsistencies between the factual claims of a worldview, philosophy or religion and the empirically verifiable facts about the world.

To give an example we'd both probably agree on, the predictions of the end of the world believed by the Millerites and its failure to come to pass.

Another matter that must be kept in mind is that one is always capable of adding presuppositions to one's worldview like "any apparent inconsistencies in my religion's scriptures are only APPARENT and not real inconsistencies".

Adding in such presuppositions make it impossible to criticize the person's worldview from the inside. One is left only with pointing out the ad hoc nature of the presupposition.

Which brings up another matter. In regard to presuppositions the most important thing to be addressed is what makes a presupposition sensible and reasonable and what makes one the opposite.

Surely not all presuppositions are created equal and, despite what Van Til would have us think, consistency alone (especially internal consistency alone) is not a very high bar to set.

The solipsist is capable of being as internally consistent in his views as the rest of us who believe in other minds but we still consider such a person a nut.

David B. Ellis said...


but there is no wrong question. Among those are: Is God good?


Actually, I've had many discussions with christians who thought the question above involves a mistaken assumption: that there can be a standard of goodness, of right and wrong independent of God.

And thus that it is, in fact, a wrong question.

I happen to disagree with them. I think such thinking always falls afoul of the Euthyphro dilemma (or some variation of it depending on the specific tenets of their meta-ethical theory, be it divine command theory, divine character theory or whatever).