Calvinists & Ariminians Are More Alike Than You Might Think

The great theologian Karl Barth once wrote that truth walks the razor edge of heresy. Indeed, the road to truth is surrounded by a ditch on either side.

Be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left (Deuteronomy 5:32).

Sectarianism and elitism have been in the drinking water of the body of Christ ever since the fault lines of the Corinthian church began to fracture over their favorite apostle.

“I’m of Apollos . . . I’m of Peter . . . I’m of Paul” still lives in our bloodstreams. We simply exchange the names for that of others.

I’ve met some Christians who promoted the idea (though not in these exact words) that “unless you receive John Calvin into your heart, you cannot be saved.”

While others preached the gospel of “unless you receive John Wesley into your heart, you cannot be saved.”

I tip my hat to Calvin and Wesley as being great men of God (though both were not without their flaws as are all servants of God, including Paul and Peter).

But to enshrine them . . . or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or John Howard Yoder or Watchman Nee or (fill in the blank) beyond mere mortal status is to err.

I have another post brewing entitled (tentatively) Why I’m a Calvinist and an Arminian. But that will have to wait.

Lynyrd Skynyrd and I put it this way in our book, Jesus Manifesto:

The truth is, most Calvinists live like Arminians (they hold themselves and others responsible for their actions). And most Arminians pray like Calvinists (they submit their requests to the will of God) . . .

The Christ who is truly (but only partially) present in our doctrine and experience is the true substance of the Christian faith. As for us, we will always “know in part” until we meet Him “face to face.”

Concerning the reality of Christ Himself, all the fullness of God dwells within Him. It is for this reason that every theological system breaks down somewhere. Every systematic theology, no matter how coherent or logical, eventually meets some passage of Scripture or passage of life that refuses to fit into it. Such passages have to be bent, twisted, and forced to fit the system.

Why is this? It’s because Christ is too immense, too imponderable, and too alive to be tied into any immovable system of thought constructed by finite humans.

Thus, He will always break out.

As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in the hit movie Jurassic Park—“Life will find a way.” (That was his response to the idea that scientists had created an ironclad, airtight system to keep dinosaurs from reproducing.) Jesus Christ is too alive to be caged in any human system. As Paul exclaimed in holy exasperation, “How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

Life will find a way.

Jesus is not just one way, a better way, a pleasant way on a good day. He is the way.

Jesus is not just one truth, a higher truth, or a more personal truth. He is the truth.

Jesus is not just another life, a nicer life, a more abundant life. He is the life of God Himself.

In short, following Jesus doesn’t mean trying to create a weapons-grade theological system to analyze, explain, and contain Him. Neither does it mean trying to obey His teachings by the power of our own volition . . .

So, Christianity is not an allegiance to a complex doctrinal or ethical system, but a passionate love for a way of living in the world that’s rooted in living by Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life. Our theologies, doctrines, and subjective experiences are designed to flow organically from our loving relationship to Christ, but they are never to substitute for it.

Without the Way, there is no going. Without the Truth, there is no knowing. Without the Life, there is no living (Thomas à Kempis).

Calvinism and Arminianism are imperfect theological systems, both of which have their strengths. As a model for prayer and devotion, Calvinism excels. As a model for taking responsibility in life, Arminianism excels.

Notwithstanding, every Calvinist I’ve ever met takes responsibility for their choices just like Arminians do. (I’ve never met a Calvinist who said, “It doesn’t matter what I do because God’s will is going to get done regardless.”)

In like manner, every Arminian I’ve ever met prays like their Calvinist brethren. (I’ve never met an Arminian who prayed, “Lord, bring Jethro to the point of making a decision for you.” Instead, Arminians pray things like, “Lord, open Jethro’s eyes, change his heart, convict him of his sin, etc.”).

While there are exceptions to everything, this has been my observation and experience over the years.

You can go through your Bible carefully and find biblical texts that better fit the Calvinist model, while others have to nearly be bent to fit it. The same with Arminianism. Some texts refuse to fit neatly into its mold.

Why is this?

Because the Bible wasn’t written to Western minds shaped by Aristotelian logic. And so it’s difficult for us (Westerners) to embrace paradox.

Yet Scripture is full of paradox, and Jesus Himself is the Ultimate and Absolute Paradox. He is God. He is Man. He is Divine and Human.

From that paradox flows all others.

Since Christ is Truth incarnate, spiritual truth contains the element of paradox.

The old story of John Wesley and Charles Simeon highlights this point in bold relief. After Simeon (a Calvinist) quizzed Wesley (an Arminian) on what he believed about those points that were important to Simeon, Simeon responded to Wesley’s answers with, “In that case I put up my sword, for this is all my Calvinism.”

Those two men had more in common than they assumed at first blush.

About Frank Viola

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  • Alex H

    Thank you for this article – helped me very much in my struggle with it. I found myself often in a black-white thinking: can I take this or that teaching from an non-calvinist teacher as true or not. The tension between these two systems brought a lot frustration in my walk with god. You explain and solve this tension really well! I am looking forward to “Why I’m a Calvinist and an Arminian”. Thanks again. God bless you!

  • Frank Viola

    Yes. Many Arminians fit that description also.

  • Roger Wolsey

    However, I have met more Calvinists who vote Republican than who vote Democrat, and Republicans tend to not be concerned about environmental stewardship (e.g., taking actions to reduce human overpopulation and to control CO2 output to reduce human aggravated global warming, etc.) and hence, in reality, many Calvinists do embrace a “it doesn’t matter what I do, God will take care of things” stance.

  • Frank Viola

    Yes indeed, Sweet & I expand the point in “Jesus Manifesto.” Love Chesterton. Thx. for the tip. Appreciated.

  • T.S.Gay

    Your points on paradox are interesting and could be expanded. Chesterton’s Chapter VI in Orthodoxy is an interesting take on the paradoxes of Christianity. As a side note, Fowler’s stages put paradox as a higher mark of growth. The Calvinist/Arminian debates seem a smaller issue when considering the frontiers( this analagy makes them as driving while looking in the rear-view mirror).