June 30, 2016

Causal vs Social Centered
Part IV: Depravity


The differences in Depravity are perhaps the most interesting for our topic since both Calvinists and Arminians agree on the basic concept. However, I do think we think about Total Depravity a bit differently, in that it plays a slightly different role. And this can be seen the most clearly in how we interpret the Biblical phrase of being "dead in sin".


Both of us understand Total Depravity to mean that we are incapable of doing any true good apart from the grace of God, including having saving faith. However, the Calvinist stresses this incapacity idea. To the Calvinist it is our lack of power that is the ultimate issue.To the Arminian, Total Depravity isn't as (ironically enough) human focused. Rather for us, the point of the doctrine is to stress our need for God. It is much more about that brokenness between the human and God.

To put it more simply, the Calvinist is saying that we can't do it, and the Arminian is saying that we need help. Now one implies the other, and I want to stress that there is no difference of actual doctrine here. Arminians admit that we can't save ourselves; that's why we need help! Likewise the Calvinist will admit that we need help; after all, we can't do it! But while the Arminian is more concerned with what it means for our relationship for God, and explaining the need for prevenient grace, the Calvinist is more concerned about ensuring that humanity doesn't get credit for salvation and that the power ultimately comes from God Himself. Same belief, but we think about it differently, and the role it plays in our theology is a bit different.

Dead Men Can't Do Nothing Right

Probably the most interesting difference is the way we interpret the "dead in sin" phrase in Scripture. Calvinists compare a human in the the depraved state as being dead: unable to act. They stress the complete immobility of a corpse. Now I don't necessarily have a problem with this analogy, seeing how I believe in human inability, but it's not what the Scripture means. This is apparent in two ways. First, Jesus uses this same term in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and there is no way it could mean that in that context. Second, in Romans, which really stresses the relationship between death and sin, in chapter six it describes us as being dead to sin, and yet no Calvinists believes this means that Christians are unable to sin.

It is more accurate to think about this relationally. When your grandfather dies, you generally don't interact with him much anymore. You relationship with him is severed. This is where the expression "you're dead to me" comes from, and it seems to be how Scripture is using the term as well. To be dead in sin is to be cut off from God because of your sin. There is no relationship there to work with. This is more consistent with the Prodigal Son text and Romans 6:11, and also perfectly consistent with all other texts where the imagery is used. To be spiritually dead is to be cut off from God. And this is of course why we need God.

Next we'll be talking about the most complicated topic of this series: grace.

June 29, 2016

Causal vs Social Centered
Part III: Atonement


The atonement debate is really interesting to me because to some degree it is a red herring. Both sides seem to think that the issue has to do with the nature of the Atonement. However it doesn't. Consider the following:
  1. Both agree that a person is not born justified
  2. Both sides agree that a person becomes justified when they have faith
  3. Both sides agree that a person is completely justified once the atonement is applied to them
    • So we agree on efficacy
  4. Both sides agree that Christ's atonement was substitutionary
  5. Both sides agree that Christ's atonement of infinite in power
    • So no difference in "spilt blood"
  6. Both sides agree that it is particular in application
So... what's the actual difference? The difference has to do with the texts in Scripture that teach that Christ died for all. We have to deal with the fact that Christ died to save all, yet not all are saved. We differ in how we deal with this discrepancy.

Limited Atonement

When talking about being casually centered, what we are talking about is a concern a about cause and effect relationships. There are two aspects of casual centeredness that come into play with the issue of the atonement. One is a concern for power. Since power is the ability to cause things, naturally power is a casual  concern. More on this later. The second issue is a tendency to describe things in mechanical ways. In a machine, this gear causes that gear to move, which causes that doohickey to do the thing, and voila, the clock works. We can certainly see this in the way they describe the will.

We see this clearly in the way they often handle the Scriptural passages regarding the universality of the atonement. For their view to be correct, they must somehow qualify the statements that God wanted to save everyone to affirm the Scripture. Historically they've done this in a couple of ways1, but for our purposes of displaying the mechanical nature of their thought, we are going to focus on the most popular approach today: the two-will theory.

The two-will theory is the idea that God's will is complicated. There is a part of His will that really does want to save everyone, but there is another part of His will that only wants to save the elect. Therefore, it is fine for God to express that first desire, even if it is the second desire that He desires more. So it is true that God wants to save the whole world, but He wants to save only the elect even more.

Now look at the way in which the will of God is treated. It is segmented, and the question of which segment brings about action is emphasized. Now mostly I see this as a theological trick to get around a hermeneutical problem, but the intriguing thing to me is that it treats God's will kind of like a machine with parts that have different functions.

Before we move one, I do want to make an apologetic point. First I don't think this idea is as mysterious as the Calvinist makes it out to be. We experience this kind of thing all the time. It's called ambivalence: the wanting of two contradictory things at the same time. It's not really a more "complex" will than ours2. It's just ambivalence. 

Now if you remember at the top of this section I said that there were two issues, and one was a concern about power. Here I am going to get back to that. While the above is an explanation of how they justify Limited Atonement with Scripture, it isn't why Calvinists think Limited Atonement is important. That is the power concern. This has to do with whether or not God can be defeated.

Now for most of us, I don't see why there is a problem, but I think we need to hear what the Calvinist is thinking here. If God is acting with the intention of accomplish something, and what He wants doesn't happen, it appears that He has been overpowered. If God is overpowered, than He is not omnipotent. Now, Calvinists don't frame it this way, but this is the legitimate concern behind their thinking, and I think we need to answer it. So how?

Well, I think the Calvinists are on the right track when it comes to the notion of a complex desire, but I don't think ambivalence is the correct kind of complexity. A better way to think about it is a contextualized desire. This is when you want something, but you want it in a certain way and under certain conditions.

So, for instance, Lebron James may want to put the basketball through the hoop. However, he doesn't use his full range of power to try to achieve this goal. He doesn't punch the other players, knock the hoop down to reach it better, or get a ladder, or anything else like this which is clearly within his physical abilities. Rather he chooses to try and put the ball in the hoop under certain constraints. Why? Because he isn't just interested in putting the ball through the hoop. He is interested in playing a basketball game and "putting a ball in the hoop" falls into the context of that game, but with certain parameters.

Now the above analogy isn't really designed to explain what is going on with the atonement, since someone stuffing James's shot would be him being defeated.."3 The analogy is simply designed to explain what is meant by a contextualized desire in a causal manner. The way that Arminians actually understand this is much more, well, social.

The key here is love. God doesn't simply want to save us. He wants us to love Him. Here I'm going to used a tired Arminian analogy, but it is tired for a reason. This is the fact that when you fall in love with someone, you don't really want to force that person to love you back. You want them to love you back on their own. Even if you had access to some kind of pill that could make them believe that they loved you, it wouldn't be true love. If God desires us to truly love Him as He loves us, it makes sense that He doesn't simply want to save all, but to save those who return His love. And someone refusing to love Him isn't Him being defeated; it is simply them choosing their own way. As Paul says in Romans 1, God gives them over to their desires, even though they are destructive.
So defeat isn't the right way of looking at it. It is that God wants to save within a particular context which includes free will. This makes it a contextualized desire.

Unlimited Atonement

Being socially centered, Arminians are more focused on personal attributes, and one of those is God's character. God's character is consistently good. When it comes to the atonement, as I said before, the difference here isn't really on the nature of the atonement. Rather the difference is God's intention and His honesty. For the Arminian, principle concern is the authenticity of God's offer of salvation. Limited Atonement seems to make God a liar.

Often the Calvinist would counter that they don't know who the elect are, so therefore it isn't inauthentic. Well, it is true that it doesn't make them a liar. But it would make God a liar when Scripture says things like "We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men and especially of those who believe" or "So by the grace of God He might taste death for each one" or "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance"... etc. These texts are not contextualized with His will to display justice or whatever purpose the Calvinist proposes He has for allowing some to be damned.

When it is contextualized, it is contextualized with the condition of faith, not God's greater desire. We would expect it to be contextualized by God's greater desire if these are examples of ambivolence. For instance, let's say I really want to eat some pizza. However, I also really want to lose weight. So I have to decide which is more important. Afterwards, if I were to express regret at not eating the pizza, I'll say, "Oh, I really wish I had that pizza. But I'm glad I won't have the extra calories." It is the other option that qualified the choice.

This is what we would expect in the text if these expressions were out of ambivalence. But we don't receive this. Rather we receive an open invitation to any who would believe. If Calvinism were true, this just strikes us as deceptive. Now God has the sovereign right to be deceptive if He wants, but it wouldn't be good of Him. It seems clear to us that God truly does want to save every single person, and He acts towards the salvation of all, even those who ultimately are damned. Now, this means that He must be acting in a way that allows them the ability to resist Him, for He is powerful enough to cause them to comply if need be. But their damnation is on their own shoulders, not God's.

Unfortunately, I don't know too well how a Calvinist would really respond to this. I usually get an answer back in the fashion of "who are you oh man to challenge God" or "that is a man-centered concerned", so I cant really show how Calvinists would approach this from a causal-centered direction. Rather, it seems to me that Calvinists have trouble recognizing that there is a problem. This doesn't show causal-centeredness, but it does show that we think about things very differently.

1 One is to quibble on the meaning of terms like 'world' and 'all'. Another is to take Calvin's route, and not understand these terms literally, but rather as God accommodating to our language and limited understanding. I find these mostly to be hermeneutical tricks and rather unconvincing, and they don't really show the causal-centeredness of Calvinist thought anyway.
2Now I do think that God's will is different than ours. God is eternal and doesn't deliberate like we do. Likewise, He is taking more into account for His choices than we do. I just don't think that this two-will theory constitutes a difference.
3Mutumbo's smiling right now.

June 28, 2016

Causal vs Social Centered
Part II: Election


The question of election isn't whether or not God chooses who to save, but whether or not He does so unconditionally. The question is whether or not our differences on this question are grounded in a causal vs social dynamic.

Unconditional Election

The Calvinist thrust on the question of election is the fact that it is entirely unconditional. This means that there is no quality or action which distinguishes the elect from the non-elect save election itself. So why is this so important to the Calvinists.

The answer has to do with who causes election. The Calvinist feels that if there is a condition for election, than obtaining that condition causes God to elect the person. This would mean that the human causes God's election. Therefore, since God's glory should be grounded on Him having power over things, this would certainly apply to His own choices.

Arminians of course don't see it that way. First of all, I don't see why obtaining a condition for election would cause election if A)God still has to actually make the choice and isn't forced to and B)God is sovereign over what conditions He cares about. My preference of sausage over pepperoni doesn't mean that sausage pizza has control over me. However, notice the social dynamic of my point. The Calvinist view sees conditionality as a cause; I see it as a reason. Causes are physical concepts, while reasons are personal concepts. Saul was the cause of the spear being thrown, but jealousy was the reason. If faith caused God to choose us, then the Calvinist would have a point. Rather faith is the reason why God chooses us, and that is an entirely different matter.

Second of all, the principle issue that we have with unconditionality is that it makes God's choice arbitrary. Now most Calvinists object to this, but to me unconditional and arbitrary are synonyms. The second simply sounds worse. I don't mind the idea of God having no particular reason to save me, but I do have issue with God having no particular reason to not save someone else. Yes, He doesn't have to save anyone, but then I'm not claiming He has to. That's a causal concern. My issue is one of character. If He loves them, why would He abandon them without a reason? That simply isn't love, which is a social issue.

Conditional Election

Arminians believe that God chooses who to save based on faith. He does this because He wants to establish relationship with us, and faith is something that He values in His friends. It is also important to note that Arminians tend to be very insistent that faith is not intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Rather faith is trust in Jesus Christ saving us. Faith is a social rather than epistemic term.1 This is why faith prevents one from boasting; if you trust in your faith then you aren't trusting in Jesus Himself. To boast about it is to prove that you don't have it.2

The Calvinist concern here is basically what I said above about why they believe unconditional election. However, let me run their most common argument here so I can give them some space. They often argue that if you have faith, and someone else doesn't, then there must be some cause for you having faith that the other person doesn't have. Either you are smarter, or nicer, or something else. Therefore there is something making you superior, and that is what is really causing God to choose you.

Well... This ignores the social aspect of faith. The idea behind this is that faith requires a cause, but while it is true that there may have been some reason why a person comes to faith, that reason may vary dramatically. Sure John may have faith in Christ because he is simply a trusting sort, but Paul believes in Him because of an over-whelming experience, and Peter by intellectual reasoning. It doesn't matter how faith came about; merely its presence matters. Because of this, the reason for one's faith isn't actually a factor in God's election at all. Just faith is.

And so what if God chooses the faithful. He chooses them because He wants us to be faithful. He didn't have to choose the faithful. Nothing is forcing His hand here. Indeed, if I have all the faith I have right now, and God still chooses to condemn me, He would do me no wrong. Ultimately my assurance isn't grounded in my faith, but in God's promises. I struggle to even appreciate the concern here. But then, I don't think like a Calvinist does.

1I have not provided a causal-centered definition of faith here because, to be honest, I'm not sure how to. Ultimately, I don't think that Calvinism needs to be committed to a particular definition of faith since their concern would remain for any condition.

2Like humility.

June 27, 2016

Causal vs Social Centered
Part I: Glory


What Is Centeredness

I have often heard it said by Calvinists that they are God centered while we are man centered. Now as far as I have seen, they've never really given a definition about what it means for a theology to be "centered" on something. This has left us to guess what it is that they mean, which makes it very difficult to counter the accusation.1 Now I have attempted to guess what they mean by this in the past, but after much analysis I think I now have a really good idea what they mean, and how the two theologies are truly centered.

I think my first mistake was that centering involved a central doctrine; that is some kind of central belief. However, I think that Calvinists mean more of a central theme. Also I don't think that centeredness necessarily has to be something that is consciously at the heart of someone's theology. Rather, I think it has to do with how a theology is developed or constructed. So let me give this basic definition:
Centeredness refers to the controlling theme or idea that shapes the way someone thinks about a particular topic.
So, what do they mean by God-centered and man-centered? Well here I think they are intentionally vague because I doubt that they are really that consistent on it. I do think that by "God-centered" they basically mean Soli Deo Gloria: that every aspect of their theology is designed to give God glory. Likewise, "man-centered" must mean the opposite.

However, if this is true, both of us are God-centered. This is because I think one of the central differences between us is what we think gives God glory. Both of us are equally focused on Soli Deo Gloria. After all, Calvinists are most concerned with God's sovereignty while we are most concerned with God's character. But both traits have God as their subject.2 So I think this scheme is seriously lacking.

I propose then a different scheme: causal centered vs socially centered.

What is Causally-centered?

To be causally centered is to be concerned with questions of causation and power. By 'power' I don't mean anything pejorative: I don't mean power hungry or anything else like that. Rather power is simply defined as the ability to get things done. Calvinists, in my estimation, are principally focused on how things in salvation are caused. Therefore we can think of power or causal-centeredness as when someone defines terms or weighs doctrine on questions of cause and effect.

Therefore it is little wonder that the Calvinist would understand 'glory' in terms of sovereignty and determinism. If their greatest concern is how things are accomplished, then it stands to reason that giving God the credit for everything that happens would give Him the most glory.

It also makes some sense that they would think that LFW gives human's glory. We don't think about it in that way, but to the Calvinist LFW means that you get to be the cause of what happens in the world. That is a little taste of glory to them. Therefore since humans have more power in Arminianism than they do in Calvinism, Arminianism would be more "man-centered". However, this is a causally-centered analysis, and has nothing to do with how Arminians think or even develop their theology. Because it doesn't represent how Arminians actually think, it can't be accurate. Rather it is Calvinists reading their own interests into Arminian theology.

What is Socially-centered?

By social, what I mean is that we ask questions about how God has relationships with other things. This also includes Himself within the Trinity. Having relationships is what defines a being as being personal. So it is more these personal ideas that drives our thinking. This is why our core ideas are God's personal attributes such as love and goodness.

Therefore, it is of little wonder that we would understand 'glory' in terms of goodness. To us, it is declaring God as good which gives him the most honor and glory. Indeed, power based glory strikes me as cheap and human. When the Jews expected to see the glory of the Messiah, they expected Him to come in power and defeat Rome. Rather He died on the cross out of love for the world. (I Corinthians 1:18-31)

In fact, determinism strikes me as dishonoring to God. I think that humans do tend to define glory in terms of power, and us expecting God to do the same is thinking of God like He's a human. Now I wouldn't call this "man-centered", but I do think that it dishonors Him, making Him more like us, rather than us trying to be more like His Son.

Subsequent posts

My next few posts will be taking us through the 5 points in the order of the Articles to see how my theory may help clarify our differences. While I will be arguing for Arminianism in these posts though, I don't really think of this as exposing the underbelly of Calvinism. Calvinists can embrace this distinction and argue that we should be more causal-centered. My actual hope is to develop a more helpful distinction that will facilitate communication between. A foghorn so we don't merely pass each other in the night.

So Calvinists, please don't take this distinction as criticism, but an attempt at understanding each other. We are brothers, and it is my greatest hope that this sibling rivalry would stop distracting us with the mission for the kingdom.
1Note how it isn't difficult to counter due to any merits of the argument. It is simply ambiguous.

2A Calvinist may argue that being focused on God's character is still man-centered because it has to do with how God treats man. Man is the object of God's love ("God loves man": God-subject; love-verb; man-object). However, the same can be said about sovereignty since it is man that God is sovereign over ("God rules man": God-subject; rule-verb; man-object). And as an Arminian, I'm not just concerned with His love for us, but also about His love for Himself within the Godhead. Now it is true that this doesn't come up that much within soteriology, but that is because man is the object of salvation ("God saves man": God-subject; save-verb; man-object).This really makes it impossible to avoid.