How to Debate Calvinism (7 Tips Written by a Calvinist)

How to Debate Calvinism (7 Tips Written by a Calvinist) November 3, 2018

Having been a Calvinist for almost two decades, I have experienced my fair share of debating Calvinism with Arminian-minded thinkers. Many offer well-read, thoughtful arguments based out of scripture and formed with clear logic. While, I may disagree with their logic and exposition of scripture, at least their approach was genuine, intellectual, respectful, and in love. I’m truly optimistic that the interactions were a worthwhile exercise for all of those involved. I am thankful that I can call these folks brothers and sisters in Christ.

What about those not encapsulated in the “many of those” statement above? Well, while I still may be thankful to call them brothers and sisters in Christ, their arguments were usually fatuous. I recently had one where the gentlemen simply just kept saying “WHOSOEVER BELIEVETH” over and over. He kept vehemently pointing to John 3:16 (arguably, the most popular bible verse in the world) as if I had never read it or thought about it. He was mistaken. Most Calvinists have read and deeply considered that verse within the framework of their theological system. Here are some of my thoughts on it.

This recent “debate” inspired to me offer my Arminian friends some pointers, if I may. So below are 7 tips for debating Calvinists respectfully and credibly. In my best Tom Cruise impersonation: Help me, help you.

  1. Don’t repeatedly point to the word “whosoever” or “world” in John 3:16’s verse. These may be rooted in a reasonable question, if you are unfamiliar with a Calvinistic interpretation of the text, but this is not a place to hinge a debate. If you’re online, typing in all caps will not gain you any friends either. Spend some time and understand how a Calvinist understands this verse in the context of the passage. If you’re going to try and actually form a compelling argument from the text that is opposed to Calvinism, be prepared to address John 19-21 at length.
  2. Don’t quote The Message Bible. Well-reasoned and well-read Calvinists are very careful in considering the text they study. Almost all prefer a word-by-word translation to a thought-by-thought. Unsure of the difference? Here’s a helpful resource for understanding the different types. Become familiar with the ESV, NASB, or KJV, as those are the most commonly used in the reformed camp. Since you will only have success debating a Calvinist with arguments rooted in scripture, it is best to get on some common ground.
  3. Don’t start a sentence with “God told me”. First, He probably didn’t. Second, if you cannot reconcile what God has told you with scripture, you will lose credibility with a Calvinist. Most, although not all, Calvinists believe that the miraculous sign gifts have ceased, and that God now only speaks to us directly through His word. That is not to say we cannot be led and influenced by the Holy Spirit. But, there is no new revelation from God by which we can learn about spiritual matters.
  4. Be prepared to speak to the atonement. One question that almost every Arminian I have ever debated struggled with is: What was accomplished on the cross? If you believe in a penal substitutionary atonement, then you may be asked to logically explain how Christ died for all sins of all men and yet some still go to hell. A Calvinist thinks very logically and systematically, and being able to exegetically and logically reconcile this dichotomy will be critical.
  5. Avoid saying we have “free will”. This might prove to be the hardest of any on my list for an Arminian to abide by because it is a presupposition for most. So why avoid it? Well, the phrasing is nowhere in scripture. The idea of “free will” is more of a philosophical ideology than a scriptural one. If you try and make the case from scripture, you will fail. At the very least, you will not convince your opponent.  The Calvinist will come prepared with a dozen or more texts of examples where we are enslaved to sin and unable to seek God. If you think you can clearly prove “free will,” on a scriptural basis alone, be my guest in the comments section.
  6. Avoid the ad hominem fallacy and straw man arguments. In other words, don’t attack the person and make it a point to understand what he/she really believes. Honestly, this is advice for both sides. It’s very easy to get worked up when the discussion is something someone is extremely passionate about. Try and remember (and remind your opponent regularly), that both sides are one in Christ. Though we may disagree on some issues, we are united in ways with eternal weight and significance.
  7. Define your terms. While this may seem like common sense, it often doesn’t happen. A good example of why this is important is “Total Depravity”. Classically speaking, both sides agree to the term but may differ in how it is interpreted and applied. Understand where the Calvinist is coming from and it will make the conversation flow much better.

In closing,  I hope whosoever (pun intended) reads this understands that it usually takes several conversations to change someone’s mind on an issue. Be patient. Pursue truth. Pursue unity. Pursue Christ and never forsake the gospel.

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  • Jake Swink

    Jack,

    The “Free Will” one, I do believe is a little more complicated. I believe that free will should be defined in these discussions, because we wouldn’t deny free will, depending on what one means by the term. As long as it is properly defined, we can have a great discussion about it. Thoughts?

    Jake