Calvinism: My History 7

What difference does it make, really, to be either Calvinist or Arminian in one’s interpretation of the Warning Passages of Hebrews? There are lots of ways to talk about “difference,” but at the level of concrete Christian living does it make all that much difference?

I begin with this observation. It makes a huge difference for the contemporary Evangelical who believes in eternal security, assurance of faith, and that anyone who has received Christ cannot genuinely fall away. The slogan “once saved, always saved” is put into deep threat by the view of Hebrews I have offered.

For the classical Calvinist and the Arminian — and I know this may sound like a bundle of hooey to many — there is precious little difference in this regard: both believe that perseverance is necessary. Which means that both believe that only those who do follow through in their relationship and obedience will find that eternal rest.

But, I have given you a bit of my own journey. Here’s what I noticed.

First, I sensed a renewal of the fear of God that is so prominent in Hebrews. Once I came to the conviction that a person, yea that I, could believe and fall away, sin became more important and the prospect of falling away more realistic. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t live in some morbid fear. Assurance accompanies faithfulness for both the Calvinist and the Arminian. Both, at least in my case, knowing that redemption is rooted in the saving powers of Christ and that faith — in the sense of faithfulness and trust — is required.

Second, it influenced how I presented the gospel. However one wants to present the gospel, through some tract or through personal story or through some piece of rational logic, the summons to believe for me is a summons to become a believer — not just to believe once and for all in a singular moment. It is a summons to live under the rule of King Jesus. The summons to perseverance is part and parcel of the summon to believe.

Third, I am persuaded that holding to this view does not mean that I (or anyone who shares it with me) believes that I contribute to my own salvation. Instead, what this doctrine encourages me to do is to believe, to watch, and to persevere. It makes me more conscious of the need of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Fourth, and here I ask for your indulgence in a question I have asked for 20 years: is it possible that some biblical writers are more Arminian and some more Calvinist? If so, we’d have to ask in what the unity of Scripture consists. Does it consist in a systematic theology that somehow is behind everything said or does it consist in the essence of the gospel and the summons to live before God in the community of faith? That’s for another time, but this is an area that deserves to be explored.

Before signing off, let me mention two pieces of reading that differ with me.

T. Schreiner, A. Caneday, The Race Set before Us.
T. Schreiner, B. Ware, The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • RJS

    Thanks Scot,

    This has been an interesting series.

  • Michael J. Teston

    Yes Scot. It IS exactly at the point of real living, where the rubber meets the road where this difference makes a world of difference, two worlds of difference, two Kingdoms difference.

  • Paul

    I have been pondering again the “election” language in Paul’s letters. Do you think that the NT writers describe faith as a gift from God, produced by God in us?

    I would find it helpful if you blog on why Paul tells his readers what God has done in Christ before the foundation of the world, rather than just speak of what He has done in Christ in history. Why is it important that we hear this “outside of time” perspective?

    Thanks for your blogs.

  • http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/ Richard

    is it possible that some biblical writers are more Arminian and some more Calvinist?

    This, to me, is the most interesting question. I’d answer in the affirmative.

    I don’t think the bible gives us a system. Rather, what we get is a suite of theological “hot spots” which hang in tension with each other creating a very fluid and dynamic system. It forces you into a dialectic and, thus, I think, gives the Spirit room to work and refresh the imagination of the church across time and space.

  • Matt

    I appreciate your comments, Scot. I think something very important but missing from contemp evangelicalism is a healthy fear of God but without the pathological, legalistic, Zeus-like, God-is-going-to-zap-me-the-second-I-sin mindset. Perhaps people have ignored/misinterpreted these passages from Hebrews because they have confused the former and the latter.

  • http://blog.benirwin.net Ben

    Thanks for doing this series, Scot. I’ve journeyed in and out of Calvinism as well, and it seems that its big draw is that it offers a neatly contained, internally coherent system. But the Bible doesn’t always lend itself to neatly contained, internally coherent systems of thought (to your point about some writers sounding more Arminian and others more Calvinist). That’s where Calvinism ultimately broke down for me. It just seemed like there were too many places where I had to force the Bible into an ill-fitting box in order to make it conform to my theology.

  • TSG

    Do you know that Newcomb’s paradox was derived from the idle argument and not the calvin/arminian argument? The first from the classroom and the second from scripture. I love Wesley’s question “How to reunite the two so long divided, knowledge and vital piety?” Interestingly, The Scripture and Hermeneutics Society, rooted in covenant theolgy and formed in 1998, called its first 10 years “The Bible and the University”.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Paul,
    I am with you.

    Having grown up in Calvinism and gone to well, Calvin College, I have agreed with you over and against a systematic theology approach. I find a scripture to be a narrative story that does not fit neatly into any system or around any system.
    Personally, I see systematics as attempts, although odd ones, to reduce scripture to a system of beliefs that, quite ironically, frees us in some ways from actually wrestling with scripture and the Spirit.

    Peace,

  • http://www.hopespringsint.com Lee Hodges

    Thanks Scot. Great series. Much appreciated!

  • Jason

    Scot, good post but all this leaves me with the same questions this topic always leaves me with. What is required to “fall away”? How does struggling with sin fit in? Will I “know” that I have fallen away or could it be a big surprise at the judgment?

    Maybe these aren’t important questions…but they’re the ones everyone in my congregation would ask.

  • Jayflm

    Rather than viewing different biblical writers as leaning toward Calvinistic or Arminian interpretations, I see the apparent differences in approach as grounded in the inherent limitations of any human analogy or metaphor. Just as any effort to extend the applications of Jesus’ parables to the minute details of the images He uses leads to absurdity, so the efforts to work out the implications of the concepts Paul and other biblical writers employ can quickly bog us down in concepts that they did not intend to communicate.

  • Ann

    I am (kind of!) a Calvinist, but lean towards an Arminian understanding of Hebrews.

    Ironically, new Calvinism seems to promote more fear through teaching perseverance of the saints than an Arminian understanding does. When a prominent Calvinist preacher says that he “could” fall away from the faith at some future point and thereby prove he was never truly saved – what does that do for assurance of salvation? We may as well all become Amish and say that no one can know until death that they’re saved.

    Besides that, I’ve seen too much obsession with determining who is “really” saved in Calvinism. Perhaps, even if a Calvinist understanding of perseverance is correct – and really, from God’s perspective, isn’t it? If He’s not bound by time like we are, and sees the end from the beginning, then He knows whether a person will continue in salvation or not. If a thousand years is as one day with Him – He’s not waiting around for 70 years to see if we make it. He’s omniscient. He KNOWS whether I’ll continue in the faith – and He’s always known. But perhaps – from our perspective, we are to see each other charitably, as believers. It is not my place to determine if professing believers are “really” saved. If they start to walk away from the faith – I am to warn them, not do mental gymnastics to try to figure out how it is that they were “faking” all along.

  • Jeremy

    I mentioned it in a comment on a previous post, but I find D.A. Carson’s essay, “Reflections on Christian Assurance” immensely helpful. He defies the Calvinist caricatures that I come across in many comments on this series of posts. One of the things that sticks out for me is that we tend to use either John to explain away the force of Hebrews or vice-versa. Carson does a good job of resolving some of the tension while not making the error of trying to resolve all of it.

    http://soundliving.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/ReflectionsonAssurance-Carson1.pdf

  • scotmcknight

    Jason, great question but the question wants to know something so that things can be settled — in vs. out — and the entire issue in Hebrews is framed, not so folks can know if they are in or out (and safe), but so they will persevere. There’s an unsettledness about this for many, but assurance can be had in faith and in relationship with God and in observance of one’s life… but there’s always the need, in both Calvinism and Arminianism, to keep on keeping on.

  • Tim Marsh

    I agree with Ann’s comment above about Calvinism and Arminianism to an extent. I once heard a pastor talk about the difference between “perseverence of the saints” and “preservation of the saints.” The latter is what is usually taught as “once saved always saved.” However, whether it is Calvinism or Arminianism, perseverence is necessary. However, (and I say this tongue in cheak) I imagine in Calvinism it is God who enables the perseverence. So, if a “Christian” falls away in this scheme, it is because they thought they were saved, but they were never really saved to begin with. What kind of a God would that be?

  • Michael J. Teston

    The whole “saved” language thing need be questioned. The assumption and assertions behind the reductionistic use of that term have led us to a place where its all quite irrelevant.

  • Ron Fay

    Scot,

    Reading Hebrews is what turned me from being a nominal Calvinist (raised in a Calvinist tradition but my parents taught me to read Scripture for myself) to being an Arminian because I just could not reconcile the Calvinist reading of Scripture with the plain reading of Hebrews. To this day I feel like Calvinist center on Paul and exclude the rest of the NT cannon in order to formulate their theological grid. I have always felt the gospels play a middle role, Paul tends toward Calvinism (except for Romans 8), and the Catholic Epistles tend toward Arminianism. And as William Lane Craig would say, I take the middle road, I am a Molinist.

  • Stone R

    I see a Divinely-designed “tension” when it comes to the matters of faith and perseverance. God wants us to never forget that Jesus is the author and perfector of our faith, while, at the same time, remembering that we are individually responsible to persevere in that faith. Peter said believers “are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time……obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:5,9). This tension keeps me trusting God to provide my salvation through Jesus, while at the same time motivating me to take my walk seriously, remaining faithful to the end.

  • craig

    Scot, I know you’ve written before that you’ve never encountered a satisfcatory response to the arguments you’ve raised. Given that, are the two pieces you mention the best attempts you’ve encountered, or are they more “representative” of the typical arguments made? Or are those the same thing? Thanks.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    I agree with Jeremy, Carson is well worth reading.

    I dislike intensely calvinist/arminian labels and any other labels (especially if used for partisan purposes). I belong to a church where people with moderately Calvinistic views and moderately Arminian views happily share fellowship and appreciate each other.

    Scott, I don’t think some writers are more Arminian and some more Calvinistic, I think each emphasises what the pastoral situation demands. Where the underlying need is gospel assurance the emphasis seems to be ‘God’s grace’: where the underlying need is a challenge to complacency then the emphasis is likely to be ‘human responsibility’. Pastoral need informs perspective.

    All NT writers write from within the context of OT revelation and their sovereignty/responsibility theology is informed by this. Unless you see this as ambiguous, which I don’t, there can be no ultimate contradiction. In any case, I believe the real author is the Spirit of God who speaks on all occasions ‘truth’; truth admits perspective but not antinomy.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    @17

    Ron

    Don’t you think the more biblical position is to live with both perspectives; emphasize God’s sovereignty in salvation history where the occasion demands; emphasize human responsibility where the occasion demands.

  • Fred

    Gee, thanks Scot. I was just becoming comfortable in my agnosticism. Now I have to keep thinking…and wondering. ;)

    Richard #4
    Interesting way of putting it. Thanks.

  • Maim

    Great article, and I appreciate the practical applications of what you’ve discussed here.

    Are some authors of the Biblical texts more Arminian or Calvinist? Of course they are. I believe the theological spectrum of what the authors believed is wide and diverse, if not even contradictory. The very fact we have this timeless debate points to the idea that maybe the Bible expresses both Calvinism and Arminianism to an extent, though I don’t like to use those terms might insert anachronistic debates in documents written millennia ago.

  • Susan N.

    Well, I always appreciate a healthy (edifying) dialogue on a tough subject. I’m grateful to those bloggers who are able to facilitate such an exchange. Also, the element of personal story/testimony is one that I value highly. So thank you for that.

    Reading today’s installment in this series of posts, I don’t feel a strong need to take a position on either side of the systematic theology debate. I guess I feel less defensive of my faith these days. Miracles still happen!

    Just now, I was remembering the lyrics of a favorite song on Sara Groves’ new CD ‘Invisible Empires.’ The song is ‘Obsolete’, and this refrain is running through my head:

    “you don’t know where you stand, and did something pass you by, and if you are dismissed, will you get another try?”

    and, “Though I walk through these invisible empires you are always there to take me in.”

    Beautiful… The question is, do I (we?) believe the best about God, or fear the worst of and from Him?

    The eternal goodness of God is occasionally so real and tangible to me that I know (believe) that I am safe with Him. He, being the stronger party in the covenant between us, has carried (in Christ) and does carry, and will always carry, the heaviest share of fulfilling his promises to me. That is grace, to me.

  • SWNID

    The orthopraxy of classical Calvinism and Arminianism are indeed very congruent, which perhaps speaks to the way that the narrative of the gospel is more powerful in penetrating the human consciousness than the contours of our attempts to systematize it.

    I do believe that I’ve detected a difference in the rhetoric of the two camps, however.

    My Calvinist friends are more likely to urge an audience with weak discipleship to reconsider whether their conversions were valid, and so to seek a true, valid surrender to Jesus.

    My Arminian friends and I are more likely to urge the same audience to build on what they started, however weakly they’ve followed it since the start.

    And I believe that the deep structure of my Calvinist friends’ rhetoric is in fact the same as my surface structure. We’re both calling on people to affirm again what they’ve already affirmed about the good news, and so to act on it.

    It’s the disconnection between the surface and the depth structures of Calvinist rhetoric that I believe exposes the essential flaw in the system.

  • Wade Sikes

    Having followed a journey similar to yours, I have found the objection that Arminians believe that we in some way contribute to salvation to be a constant Calvinist objection. I was greatly helped by Greg Boyd’s explanation that to accept a gift in no way involves merit on my part, i.e. if I accept a birthday gift, I have done nothing to merit the gift, all I have done is to receive it.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    Susan

    ‘The eternal goodness of God is occasionally so real and tangible to me that I know (believe) that I am safe with Him. He, being the stronger party in the covenant between us, has carried (in Christ) and does carry, and will always carry, the heaviest share of fulfilling his promises to me. That is grace, to me.’

    I like this a lot.

  • Dana Ames

    “Is it possible that some biblical writers are more Arminian and some more Calvinist?”

    Scot, I am frankly surprised that you would frame things this way. I suppose one could put quotes around Arminian and Calvinist, but even so, you know that the Hebraic view out of which the bible arose was neither. C&A arose out of the Reformation and were not defined before that time – although the elements of both were probably within the swirl of late Medieval theology that birthed the Reformation.

    One of the things that led me out of Evangelicalism was that at a certain point – about age 45 – I just got tired of the whole C&A business; it seemed like they were both spinning their wheels in never-ending argument, still perched just this side of the Reformation. In a sense, I thought what commenter #16 did. It occurred to me that maybe there was a “third way” on the other side of the Reformation. I had no intention of becoming a Catholic revert, but I did follow the Northumbria Community to the ancient paths, seeking a way to be a Christian that did fall prey to this kind of argumentation. I wasn’t looking for “an authoritative church”, but rather for a praxis. That’s what attracted me to the Emerging side of things.

    I think the reality of all this is what Susan said:

    “The eternal goodness of God is occasionally so real and tangible to me that I know (believe) that I am safe with Him. He, being the stronger party in the covenant between us, has carried (in Christ) and does carry, and will always carry, the heaviest share of fulfilling his promises to me. That is grace, to me.”

    Trying to nail it down any further, to me, leads to a dead end theologically, and my soul to thinking I’m better than those “on the other side”. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    Dana

  • Dana Ames

    That is, “did *not* fall prey to this kind of argumentation”.

    D.

  • http://Johnmarkhicks.wordpress.com John Mark Hicks

    Scott

    I agree that there is little practical difference between the two. As we live and think within the economy of redemption, both live by faith. I have arguednthis in my article available at http://johnmarkhicks.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/electionbyhicks1.doc

    John Mark Hicks

  • http://www.normmacdonald.wordpress.com Norm

    There are times when reading this series that I would have liked to hear from someone who has decided NOT to persevere. Personally, I know such a person. For them it was not an accident nor was it a decision to go back to a life of sin as so many are wanting to depict it. It was a very simple issue of cost. After several personal crises for which he could not reconcile God’s grace and the outcome of those events, he simply said “I don’t want to pay the price any longer. The cost of discipleship is too much” and he walked away.

    Here is what is life is like now. He goes to church and Bible study regularly. He yearns for the days of old. He cries when he sings in worship. It is never well with his soul. He is like an outsider looking in. Yes, sin pits his life as it does anyone else but it’s not a lifestyle. He talks to God about many things knowing that the conversation is more counseling than that which issues from a personal relationship. Is he miserable? To some degree, at least that’s my observation. But perhaps not any more miserable than pastors who bang their head against the wall of disciple making wondering why people choose lethargy over learning the life of Christ.

    Yes, they are out there. They simply don’t have a sign around their neck that says “I am an apostate.”

  • EricW

    @30. John Mark Hicks:

    OT – Thank you very much for writing your book Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper. I found many of my own conclusions confirmed in/by it.

    God’s blessings on all your work and writings!

  • DuWayne Lee

    Scot. I appreciate what you said recently about “rubbish theology”. Do you think that it applies to the members of he Grace Evangelical Society who deny that perseverence in faith an obedience is necessary to final salvation?

  • Terry

    Scot, thanks for sharing all this, and for doing so personally. This has been a great series. I think there’s much depth in numbers one through three of your post, perseverance is the work and walk of the follower of Christ. Anything short of that, well supported by this series, leaves more insecurity than security. I think I’m quoting you when I say in order to be a follower of Jesus you have to actually be following of Jesus.

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    Scot, this has been an excellent series. I have enjoyed very much this series regarding your spiritual journey out of Calvinism. I especially enjoyed this post where you articulate some of your observations regarding the impact of this change.

  • http://churchintheworld.com Steve Godfrey

    Remember fondly your teaching @ TEDS on this.

    Having lived for several years within the orbit of Eastern Orthodoxy I wonder sometimes if a problem for Western Christians is our commitment to rationalism. To appeal to mystery might seem an easy way out, but is appealing to the soundness or sufficiency of our own cognition really any better? The Hebrews’ dilemma was moving from an understanding of the Temple as a building to the Temple as Jesus. Is the Western church (much less Evangelicalism) bound to a temple of its own cognition?

    This said, agree with you that “to believe” is not a one-time event, but spans a lifetime.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I loved this series. But, as sure as I sin everyday, DeYoung posted a great question from a reader.

    Scot said [somewhere in this series] that both Arminians and Calvinists need to *keep on keeping on*. Well, that’s exactly what this reader is asking and I am quite taken aback by the fact that the most obvious answer was no where to be seen. They ask, “Why do we need to keep doing good?”

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/12/15/why-then-must-we-still-do-good/

    Why isn’t the answer because if I believe in Jesus then I want to try and be like him?

    Yes the first response says because the holy spirit is working in us to make us more like Jesus, but that is hardly taking ownership! I can see the poor person sitting there saying “why, Holy Spirit, do you not try harder to make me do good works?”. Yikes!

    This is why I have a big problem with the *believe* language. The common usage of the word does not mean that you chose to follow him and commit yourself to him. It only means that you believe and it promotes this kind of thinking.

    And, of course, it goes back to the gospel. If the gospel is that you are saved by your faith, then the question makes perfect sense. But if the gospel is Jesus is Lord! Then it makes no sense.

  • Ron Fay

    John Thomson,

    When I preach, that is exactly what I do. However as a theologian, I come down more on the Arminian side and find the Molinist position best fits me Biblically, theologically, and philosophically.

    And saying Molinism is a middle position is a joke by WLC.

  • Deb

    @DRT, #37

    A couple of thoughts…

    As you note the contemporary understanding of ‘believe’ is not first century Palestinian understanding. The question to us therefore, is what did it mean then.

    Belief and action are not separated in the Hebraic NT as we have separated them in our reductionistic, Greekified world. You did what you believed; your actions demonstrated your belief (James). And, with our roots in Judaism, the belief was that Jesus was the Christ, was the fulfillment of the law and the prophecies. If one believed that ‘in their heart’ it was visible in their life – they became a follower of this Jesus, living as he had lived, doing as he had called them to do.

    Second, Christ tells us to remain IN him (wish I could italicize, but alas and alack…), tells us to fulfill the Shema, tells us that those who love him WILL obey him, that his sheep KNOW his voice. The love relationship is central – knowing him – and the life that results, the obedience, is the demonstration of that love. It is by our fruit that we are known, and in particular, by our love.

    I have always been struck with Jesus’ warning that not everyone who calls him Lord will be saved – only those that do the Father’s will. “But Lord, didn’t we prophesy, drive out demons, and perform miracles in your name?!”…”Depart from me, for I never KNEW you…” (Matt.7:21-23)

    Perhaps I misunderstood you?

  • http://www.truthmill.com C.S. Countryman

    @26 Wade Sikes

    I think that’s exactly it.

    The way that I try to explain it is simply to understand what God’s salvation really is, and what our acceptance of it really is.

    See, in order to accept God’s salvation we must stop trying to save ourselves. As God said in Isaiah, if we continue to try and light our own fires instead of accepting His light, all we can expect is to lay down in torment (Isa 50:10-11).

    To accept God’s salvation instead of trying to manufacture our own, is to admit to God THAT WE HAVE NO MERIT.

    We must come to Him as a beggar with no other hope, accepting a hand-out that we could never earn and do not deserve. It must be accepted as a gift.

    But this very act obviates the truth that what we are doing in repentance and faith, while obedient, is not meritorious: it is a self declaration agreeing with God that we are indeed ultimately and completely anti-meritorious. That is the battle cry of those that place saving faith in Christ.

    Although this act is obedient because God has commanded everyone to repent and turn in faith to His Son, it cannot be meritorious. This is because salvation is by faith and not by works. Therefore even our obedience to God cannot in any way be considered meritorious. If it were it would negate itself because then it would be by works of merit and not by faith – and as Paul said, then grace would no longer be grace.

    Our acceptance of God’s salvation is actually agreeing with the horrible judgment against us (which removes any hope of merit) and from that perspective seeking mercy from God because His revelation to us has advertised His mercy, love, and forgiveness.

    I love God and the way He works! The work of salvation is indeed God’s and God’s alone. It’s His plan, put into motion and completed with His will and His blood, advertised through His Word, testified to by His Spirit, and enabled in each and every hearer of the Gospel via the faith that He enables to creatures dead in sin.

    The act that we take of acceptance is not a work, although it is a verb. One of the important things to realize is that although all works are verbs, not all verbs are works.

    In Rom 9:32, Paul clearly shows that meritorious works and faith are not synonymous – yet they both are verbs – something that we do. I find that often people seem to place themselves at odds with God’s revelation on this point and try to say that a sinner exercising faith that God has enabled, is somehow to be understood as a work because they are “doing something” – a verb.

    The only way one can believe that is by rejecting God’s definitions of these terms and substituting their own. To me this is one of the foundational errors in Calvinism as I understand it.

  • James Ulmer

    Do you have your blogs on Hebrew Warnings in a form that I can read? Like a pdf file.

    We just begin talking about this in our church. I actually wrote a study on Hebrews 6. From a personal perspective, it was that a person could not fall away from salvation.

    Although, I am more incline to think about the possibilty of falling away. So, was wondering if you have a pdf of this work.

    Funny, I told a friend of mine that I am a closeted Calvinist with an Arminian door knob.

    I am the only semi-non calvinist in leadership at our church. I think they love me anyway.

    Books that you might suggest would be helpful as well.

    Blessings in Christ…James

  • scotmcknight

    Send me an envelope at my school address (SMcK, NPU, 3225 W Foster Ave, Chicago IL 606025) and I will send you a hard copy.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X