Calvinism: My History 1

Calvinism: My History 1 December 5, 2011

I was fortunate to have gone to college at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, and one of the high fortunes was that Grand Rapids was filled with bookstores and book-reading folks. As a student I came into contact with some Calvinist friends, and that set me off into reading Calvinism, and beside the standard textbooks and theologies, the theologians I read the most were Calvin and John Owen. After four years, Kris and I moved to Chicagoland for seminary. When I got to Trinity in the Fall of 1976 as a student, the first thing I noticed was how tightly the theological discussion was ratcheted. These folks knew what they were talking about, and they knew biblical texts and theological discussions, and the history of the Church. It took some work just to be conversant. It was a challenge for which I am grateful to this day.

Calvinism was not a front-burner issue, but was on the stove top waiting for someone to say something uninformed. I had some wonderful lecturers: H. Dermott McDonald was an eccentric theologian from London who told us that our syllabus was the library and we should get over there and read up on “God, Man, and Christ” and then come take his exam at the end. David Wells taught Sin and Salvation, and began by telling us that his wife said that he could teach the first half of the class by giving an autobiography. McDonald was not a Calvinist; Wells was. My NT teachers didn’t raise such topics: Norm Ericsen and Murray Harris. But, then Grant Osborne came to TEDS. (So, I can blame this journey on Grant, which he’d be happy to take credit for.)

Here’s what happened. Grant is famous for his handouts, and he had one on Eternal Security. It was a lengthy handout and he asked me to work through it, add some bibliography, and generally re-write it. It was a big task for me, but it was the first real chance I had to do something at that level. To prepare for it, Grant suggested I read I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God. Which I did. From cover to cover; underlined it; took notes; checked commentaries. It took a good long while. When I came up for air in Hebrews I had been persuaded that I was wrong about Calvinism. Like C.S. Lewis getting on a bus and then getting off converted, but not knowing when or how, so with me: from the beginning of working through Grant’s notes to reading through Marshall and arguing with him until he wrestled me to the ground and pinned me, I had become convinced that I was no longer a Calvinist. Which didn’t mean I gave up the architecture of Calvinism, but I did then consider high Calvinism an inaccurate understanding of the fullness of the Bible.

It was and still is my conviction that the five points of Calvinism belong together, and both Horton’s and Olson’s recent books have confirmed that view. You might be able to give up #5 (Perseverance) somehow (I don’t think so, but some think so) and you might need to add a #6 (Responsiblity), but if the Arminian understanding of “losing salvation” is right, that is, if the effectual calling can be abandoned or undone, then high Calvinism is not right. (I’ll eventually show why the expression “losing salvation” isn’t optimal.) Let me say this more clearly: if God’s saving, effectual grace can be resisted somehow, if believers can somehow choose to forfeit their salvation, then unconditional election and irresistible grace (and probably limited atonement) and surely perseverance (as preservation) of the saints are not right.

There are (so I think) two major weaknesses in Calvinism’s theology (and also a disorientation in its architecture): first, the emphasis of its architecture is not the emphasis of the Bible. Its focus on God’s Sovereignty, which very quickly becomes much less a doctrine of grace than a doctrine of control and theodicy etc, and its overemphasis on human depravity are not the emphases of the Bible. The overemphasis of these two in high Calvinism comes more from Augustine and later Calvinists than from the rhetoric of the biblical authors. I do not dispute the presence of these themes; I dispute their narratival centrality and they are where the gravity of emphasis is found in the Bible. Yes, we all have metanarratives that put things together, and Calvinism is one such metanarrative. It works for some; it simply didn’t work for me.

Second, the exegesis of Calvinism on crucial passages is sometimes dead wrong. I was once standing, years later when I was teaching at Trinity, outside my door talking with two professors about my view of Hebrews, when I simply asked one of them, “Who do you think best answers the Arminian interpretation of Hebrews?” That professor said, “Philip Hughes.” I had just read Hughes and I thought it was weak. In fact, what I thought was this: “If that is the best, then there is no debate.” The other professor said, “I agree, Scot. Hughes doesn’t answer the questions.” Then he said, “I’m not sure any commentary really answers it well.” (Both of these professors were Calvinists, and still are, God bless ’em.) What I’m saying is that the exegetical conclusions I was drawing (in all kinds of passages) were not answered adequately by the Calvinists I was reading. We all have to give them a fair shot. But at that time I had nothing to lose and it didn’t matter where I landed; I wanted to find out what the Bible said.

So this is where I found myself when I left for Nottingham to study for a Ph.D. in New Testament. I was reared among the eternal security Baptists who took what they liked from Calvinism and discarded most of the five points. Then I became more consistently Calvinistic by reading the Puritans and Calvin while I was in college.

Then I read the Bible from a different point of view, largely through the influence of Grant Osborne and Howard Marshall’s book, and that Calvinism all came tumbling down. If the Bible teaches that a human can be a believer and somehow forfeit that status, then the theology of high Calvinism cannot be right.

This left me with a strange mixture of theology: I was reared Baptist; I had done more than my fair share of reading the low church Anabaptists and considered myself one of those when it came to where theologizing ought to begin: with Jesus. And I was now studying the Bible with some Arminian conclusions on soteriology.

Following two years in England TEDS offered me a non-tenure track job to teach NT that lasted two years, and then (by the grace of God) it was ramped up to a full-time position when Wayne Grudem, in the providence of God, shifted over to Systematic Theology.

Within two years I was asked to teach Hebrews in a survey course, and I decided to spend my entire summer going through the exegesis of Hebrews and I was determined to concentrate on those dadgummed warning passages to see if I could settle the issues once and for all.

If the view to be presented in the posts ahead is right about Hebrews, (high) Calvinism is wrong.

Wednesday I’ll start on the warning passages in Hebrews, the most notorious of which is Hebrews 6:4-6.

"It just says what Aristotle expressed before it was documented by ancient Jews ( the ..."

Acts, Diversity – and Cultural Competence
"This was a pre Christian Jewish statement taken from the Hebrew Old Testament of the ..."

Acts, Diversity – and Cultural Competence
""For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have ..."

Acts, Diversity – and Cultural Competence
"For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have ..."

Acts, Diversity – and Cultural Competence

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Scot,

    This is a timely and valuable reflection for me to read. I’m reflecting on what I’m calling my “theological progression” lately as well. Catholic to Assemblies of God to Plymouth Brethren (where I began to embrace Calvinism on my own) to E-Free to a C&MA seminary, with a large dose of Campus Crusade, all within 10 years. So I’m really just beginning to sort myself out, and just recently have I began to wrestle with the historical Arminian position (as opposed to the caricature drawn by many Calvinists). I am finding much good.

    I discovered Roger Olson through you, and you through Michael Spencer/Chaplain Mike. What a journey so far!

  • Don Schumacher

    Marshall’s book, recommended to me by Dr. Harris, was one the most notable influences from my truncated studies at TEDS. I have referred many others to it, including some in the dogmatic PCA church to which I now belong. One can explain away individual conditional passages perhaps, but it is difficult to deflect the concentrate in Kept by the Power of God. I often supplement my referral to Marshal with a comment made by Dr. Carson that both Arminians and Calvinists agree that it is those who endure to the end who are saved. (To digress, a greater impact on my theology was writing an exegetical paper on Matthew’s parable of the unfaithful servants, which led me to shed the dispensational grid I had been raised beneath.)

  • Look forward to it! To anyone who knows me, I am obviously Arminian, but in teaching Hebrews with Calvinists in the room over the years, I’ve suggested the following path for Calvinists trying to deal with Hebrews 6.

    I would argue, as I do as an Arminian with other passages, that Hebrews is not speaking precisely and that systematic theology has to introduce some distinctions the author of Hebrews does not. So we would argue that, from the standpoint of appearances, the individuals in question looked like they had truly been converted, even though they had not really.

    This is not what Hebrews says or how the author of Hebrews is thinking, so it involves a sense that theology has at times to “get behind” the presentation in order to organize theology coherently. It is, however, what I have to do with Romans 9 as an Arminian. So pick the passage that needs to be “gotten behind” and I’ll tell you which side of this issue you’re on 😉

  • gingoro

    Sounds very interesting! IMO high Calvinists also accept meticulous providence which is something I would like to see you deal with as well.

    Unless an Arminian holds to universal salvation I do not see how they can not accept limited atonement. As I see it the atonement is of infinite value and potentially adequate for all, however the atonement is limited in its effect to those who persevere. Maybe my definition of limited atonement is wrong.
    Dave W

  • I look forward to this, Scot. These issues really need to be addressed. The high Calvinists don’t have many worthy responders. It has to be done. Why are there so few takers?

  • Thanks so much for this Scot. My journey resembles yours in many ways. I’m glad you mentioned the architecture of Calvinism, as that was a key point in my move toward Arminianism. I found that Calvinism failed to do justice to the big picture of scripture–or at least that it failed to do the kind of justice it professed to do.

  • Scot, thanks for sharing your journey. I, for one, would like to hear more of that. I remember going through some similar inquiries while at Trinity, and you and Grant prompted me to think a great deal about my position. I came out of that time still fairly Calvinistic. Now my journey has led me to Lutheranism, a position that also accepts what I am thinking you will say about the Hebrews passages. In this area, Lutheran theology offers a curious mix of monergism and human agency.

  • Matt

    Scot, the following line of yours does it for me: “I do not dispute the presence of these themes [God’s sovereignty, theodicy, etc.]; I dispute their narratival centrality …”. I wonder how many readers feel that this tips the scales for them to “against Calvinism.”

  • Looking forward to the series Scot. I too have had a similar journey to yours. I’m developed some similar conclusions and it all started when I wrote a paper comparing Hebrew 6 with John 10:10.

  • Nate Ross

    Thankful for your work, Scot. This has been a battle for me for years. Really looking forward to learning from you!

  • Scot – as a fellow Cornerstone Alum, this is definitely exciting and encouraging to read! Of course, my life path has been quite different, namely from an academic standpoint in which I was enrolled at GRTS but chose to work in occupational ministry before the semester began; filled out the application for TEDS but never sent it on account that I didn’t want to leave the occupational ministry I was involved with; continued to stay involved in great conversations with a learning community and professors locally in Nashville, Trevecca Nazarene, etc.; and most recently I have met with some folks from Vanderbilt Divinity School but it just doesn’t seem like the best fit at this time in my life, though I desperately long to reengage with an Academic Community, possibly teach, write, help reform local communities from within…

    All that to say, I definitely appreciate you sharing your story and look forward to the next few weeks of posts here, Scot.

    Ahava and Shalom!

  • Andrew

    Your summary of the weaknesses of Calvinism was so well put. Thank you. I look forward to following this thread.

    The question I always ask myself is, if the Biblical writers were Calvinists, why does the metaphor of the Church as “Church in the Wilderness” appear not in one or two isolated verses but in two extended passages, 1 Cor 10:1-13 and Hebrews 3:7-4:13? As you said, the “gravity of emphasis” is skewed.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, as a Bible major at Moody Bible Institute, I was introduced to Louis Berkof’s one volume systematic theology. I devoured it and re-read it numerous times. I was a happy high-Calvinist. I was impressed by the staggering symmetry of Calvinism. When I was later trained in better hermeneutics, I began to feel uneasy with high-Calvinism’s exegetical handling of disputed passages, but still hung in there. Three influences shifted me to abandon high-Calvinism: Dr. Victor Matthews (one of your prof at Cornerstone years back) introduced me to John Sanders and Greg Boyd; you pointed me to your Trinity Journal article on the warning passages in Hebrews; and appreciating and reading the Bible as Story (narrative) versus a reservoir for Calvinistic systematic theology. No one reading the Bible will become a high-Calvinist; the person has to be discipled into it. The Story nature of the Bible demands relational theism, not deterministic theism. High-Calvinism cannot accept the “plain” reading of the Bible; it must discern a subplot. Basically high-Calvinism is allegorical.

  • Jospeh

    Are you using Dort as the standard for so called ”high calvinism”? WHat is defined as standard, middle, or high Calvinism for you?

    It seems best to get rid of ”calvinism” and say you are either Reformed/Presbyterian according to the 3 forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards, etc.. and stop defining Calvinists as 5 points when Calvin would have had Wayne Grudem burnt at the steak for his charismatic views.

  • scotmcknight

    Joseph, thanks for that. In light of the series I’ve been doing on Calvinism with Horton and Olson, I’m using “Calvinism” here as “high” Calvinism and its five points, and I would distinguish this from Reformed theology in general.

  • Thanks for sharing your journey. It is similar to mine except that I backed off on the L in TUILP, because the high Calvinist exegesis to me is forced . 1John 2:2 , just as one example.

  • John W Frye

    William (#16),
    1 John 2:2 is the first domino to fall for you in the TULIP. You think you can be a 4 point high-Calvinist? I thought so, too. I was told that what John meant in 1 John 2:2 is that Jesus is propitiation for not only our sins *here in Ephesus*, but of the sins of the “whole world” of, ready?, THE ELECT. Wow, eisegesis on steroids. It might do you well to follow Scot’s posts on this topic–his in-depth studies in Hebrews will rock your Calvinist world.

  • Allen Kleine Deters

    I guess I’m with Joseph wondering what kind of definition everyone is using. I’ve looked at other hermeneutics used to study scripture and hold to a solid “reformed” hermeneutic which seems to get to the heart of the text without “discerning a subplot”.
    But I’m most curious as to the definition here. And just so we’re clear, Calvin never taught the 5 points. That was concocted later at Dorbt and has been an item of debate for decades.

    I’m interested to see where this goes Scott.

  • TJJ

    I arrived at TEDS from an arminian and soft-calvinist background (Methodist church then EFCA). Actually encountered Calvanism in a robust way for the first time through profs and fellow students, and entertained the notion that just maybe Calvinism was the more educated/scholarly pathway of doing theology. Tried out a more Calvinistic way of thinking/theologizing for a season, but in the ends could not embrace it/live with it.

    Osborne was very important and influencial in modeling for me that an arminian approach to theology could be/indeed was just as scholarly and theologically and exegetically informed as Calvinism. I took as many Osborne’s classes as I could. His class on the Gospel of Mark was probably the best I ever had at TEDS.

  • TJJ

    Looking forward to this series of posts!

  • Scot,

    Will you address any of the literature/arguments that have appeared since your Heb warning passages article and even interacts with it?

  • DRT

    Could I talk one of you into either pointing me to a comparison of High vs non High Calvinism or write a paragraph or two? John Frye?

    I continue to be fascinated by this whole Calvinism because I was blissfully unaware of it until I was over 40. And at that point I think I had enough immunity built up that it has never even been a remote consideration.

  • DRT

    OK – How about if someone can just comment if the variations in this wiki article make sense of the high middle low understanding

  • Beakerj

    @DRT I wish I’d been blissfully unaware of this debate…it was an ENORMOUS shock when I realised that people took those doctrines seriously, if I’d been left alone with my Bible forever, it would never have entered my mind.
    This issue has been at the heart of the hermeneutical battle I’ve been in over the Biblical meaning of the word ‘good’ since my first serious bereavement last year. None of this is theory to me, alas, but about being able to trust the heart of God…again, sometime, maybe. Did the implications of these views ever bother you emotionally, Scot, as well as theologically?( I’m going to ask Chaplain Mike over at iMonk too). I pray to be in the ‘unaffected’ subset…but I’m not there yet. Really looking forward to these.

  • Looking forward to this, Scot!! And hopefully Hebrews will stay in it’s audience’s context (real Hebrew people) and not merely gentilized into later church theologies. How often do we get to hear Hebrews taught from a strictly Hebrew mind? I doubt most people even see that the title of Hebrews is an ethnic title.

    Calvinism and Arminianism aside, it is apparent that individual Jews can be part of the “chosen people” and still walk away from the God of Israel. The Bible is fraught with this history…

  • Timothy

    Both Calvinism and Arminianism constitute systems that have provided powerful tools for reading scripture coherently. And yet both have difficulties. Some of the difficulties of Calvinism are visible in the posting and the comments. How do we, if we are Calvinists, handle certain passages (the ones cited above are Heb 6 and i Jn 2:2)? Conversely, how do we, if we are Arminians, handle other passages (one that seem to be much cited by Calvinists if Rom 9)? We do need to recognise that it is the passages with which we are uncomfortable that we need to grapple with, not our pet passages.
    But one very perceptive remark is the comment that certain themes in Calvinism are clearly biblical but receive an unbiblical emphasis. The same could probably be said of Arminianism. They render the narratives, in particular the central narratives of the Bible, incomprehensible. I am particularly attracted to the challenge mounnted by NTW and Scot for a gospel founded in the central narrativs of the Bible rather than that of the soteriological gospel which presupposes a narrative somewhat alien to the Bible.

  • Harvey

    I think Olson states it well (in Against Calvinism, p. 134):
    With which (mystery) can a person live? The mystery of how God is good in spite of his foreordination and determination on sin, evil, and innocent suffering as well as the eternal suffering of the reprobate (who are reprobate by God’s design and control), or the mystery of where libertarian free choices come from? i care more about preserving and defending the reputation of God as unconditionally good than solving the problem of free will.

  • I’m very much looking forward to this, and agree with Matt (#8) that you’ve nailed it with that statement. The central themes of Calvinism are not the central themes of Scripture, imo. This conversation has been coming up again and again at my church, and I’m learning how to address these issues pastorally.

  • Rick

    Beakrj #24-

    “it was an ENORMOUS shock when I realised that people took those doctrines seriously, if I’d been left alone with my Bible forever, it would never have entered my mind.”

    This is part of the challenge. We certainly can look over it as individuals, but we also should look at such things as part of a church community, both in the present, and that of the past (history of the church).

  • Dana Ames

    “Then I read the Bible from a different point of view…

    Yup, doing that certainly can change things 😉


  • Brian Metzer

    Scot, thanks. I resonated with the two overemphases you pointed out – focus on God’s sovereignty and human depravity – not having narrative centrality. ‘The architecture’ as you put it is off. These aren’t the studs on which we’re to hang the rest of the house. All of God’s real relationships and interactions with mankind are reduced to anthropomorphisms and, in effect, God is communicating falsely about himself, so that we humans can sort of understand him. Ironically, it’s said that we misunderstand him, that there is a God different from him communication if we’re smart enough to see that he’s just interacting with children, who couldn’t understand the adult, God, communication.
    Sovereignty, man’s depravity, and God’s complete otherness are there, no doubt. But they’re inadequate. And unfortunately, God’s glory, chiefly displayed in humiliation, becomes in this system an ugly trump card, weilded with power instead of meakness.
    Over the years I’ve come to see myself more and more as a Calvinist. Only since having to confront a student who had been trained via video sermons under the likes of Paul Washer have I come to see how harsh I likely sounded to some in my own Calvinistic rhetoric.
    Looking forward to more!

  • Scot wrote: In light of the series I’ve been doing on Calvinism with Horton and Olson, I’m using “Calvinism” here as “high” Calvinism and its five points, and I would distinguish this from Reformed theology in general.

    My question: Please refer me to where I can learn about “Reformed theology in general.”

  • DRT

    This whole focus of Calvinism is obsessed with certain aspects of biblical themes. It brings to mind a commentary on Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  • DRT

    …oh, I don’t mean to imply that Calvinism is about sex, that’s not true, it is about authority.

  • scotmcknight

    Richard C, Gerhardus Vos would be one place. O. Palmer Robertson is another.

  • Harvey

    Richard C.
    Check also Hans Boersma: Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross for a contemporary Reformed critique of Dort

  • I am not interested in the supernaturalism of Christianity, but am very interested in the study of the early history of the group. I am always happy to talk to others that are also interested in this topic. My interest specifically is up till perhaps a generation or two after Irenaeus. But I would say I am interested in anything from the Maccabean revolt up till about 384CE when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.


  • Hi Scot,

    Reading through your article, you stated that there is an “if the Arminian understanding of ‘losing salvation’.”

    However, the official position of Arminianism (and reading the comments, I’m surprised no one brought this up) does not include the possibility that one can forfeit their salvation but only the possibility that it may be – or may not be – what the Bible teaches. It is suggested in the Remonstrant, Art.5, that more study needs to be done before a definite conclusion can be made on the subject.

    Arminians take opposing sides of the issue.

    This may result in a fatal weakening of your argument if it is centered forfeiting salvation (as you suggest when you stated, “If the Bible teaches that a human can be a believer and somehow forfeit that status, then the theology of high Calvinism cannot be right.”).

    Please note, I fall on the side of Arminianism and believe salvation can be forefeit.

  • Paul W

    Scot, I’m curious about your dispute of the narratival centrality of God’s sovereignty. Doesn’t that run a little counter to the King Jesus Gospel? I have not read your book (yet) so please forgive my ignorance.

    Isn’t an emphasis of the gospel that God becomes King in Jesus, that his sovereignty is being exercises through Jesus, and that his kingdom/reign is being established through Jesus and extended in some significant way through his body (i.e., the church)? And isn’t the gospel a central feature in the Scriptural story-line?

  • John K Langemann

    In dealing with the Calvinist/Arminian debate, I think that one of the essential facts to get hold of, is that the great majority of people who oppose Calvinism, are not Arminians. For the most (with minor exceptions), Arminians and Arminianism, is purely the construct of Calvinists.

    Most Calvinists know nothing about Arminius, or his works, beyond what fellow Calvinists tell them. They label opponents, Arminians, essentially to control the debate. If anyone in opposition informs them that they are not Arminian, they refuse to accept that. They determine that an Arminian says this or that, so if anyone says this or that, they are naturally Arminian.

    Secondly, the systematic theology of Calvinism has ensconced in it, what some people call ‘binary categorizations’. In other words, when Calvinists, debate ‘Sovereignty’ with a non Calvinist,the former has its own fixed predetermined meaning of the word, which is at variance with a biblicist’s understanding of the term. God’s sovereignty, to a Calvinist, only pertains to, and is restricted to, His ability and will to expedite and enforce certain tenets of the Calvinist theological system.It does not, for instance include the possibility, or probability, of God, in His sovereignty, determining to give people the free will to accept or to reject what He proposes. Or to make salvation possible and available to all people in the entire world etc etc.

    And so it is the same with other words and doctrines used in the debates. ‘Election’, for the Calvinist is inextricably linked to the doctrine of ‘perseverance’, among other things. A Calvinist cannot accept any other definition for the term which suggests anything other than the elected, or elect’s salvation is assured and cast in stone. Again, the definition is predetermined and restricted to Calvinist doctrine and dogma.To help with the thought that there could possibly be another understanding of the term, when applied to soteriology, it may be useful to think about the process of an American president being elected to the presidency, viz, the fact that after he is elected, if he behaves himself, after a term of being ‘president elect’, he will become president. But,if he murders someone during that time, or commits adultery with someone, although elected, he will cease to become president of the nation. So his election does not mean that his attainment and tenure as president is cast in stone. The same as a football player who is elected to play in a Rose Bowl final, but breaks his leg the night before in a fall. Election is a stand alone term which may have more that one outcome.

    You say: “but if the Arminian understanding of “losing salvation” is right, that is, if the effectual calling can be abandoned or undone, then high Calvinism is not right.”
    You fall into the Calvinist trap by saying: “if the effectual calling…”. The Bible does not talk about ‘effectual calling’ nor does if talk about ‘efficacious grace’ etc.These are Calvinist terms. It talks about being called, as well as, “For many are called but few are chosen”. All the terminology put out and used by Calvinists refer to its own man made constructs and definitions.

    If you study the Bible without placing a Calvinist template over it, you cannot but help coming to an ‘Arminian’ view of soteriology. Only it won’t be Arminian..just biblical.

  • Len VZ

    I recommend a new book by a young scholar at Calvin College, Re-imaging Election, by Suzanne McDonald. What “high Calvinists” have missed is that election is primarily what Leslie Newbigin called the primary missional doctrine of the church. God calls (elects) people to fulfill his mission, beginning with Abraham, to bless the whole world. God can only fulfill his mission by sovereign election because of human depravity– the inability and unwillingness to engage in God’s mission. The problem McDonald struggles with is reconciling the two sides of the doctrine, the missional and the personal, represented in Barth/Newbigin on the one side and Owen on the other. When Calvinists figure out how to bring these two together with an emphasis on the missional, election will resume its rightful position at the core of biblical theology. One thing is clear to me, that personal election to salvation is clearly inadequate and truncated from a biblical perspective.

  • Luke

    great thoughts, looking forward to reading the rest of “your history”

    one question…could someone explain the difference between “high Calvinism” and other forms of Calvinism?

  • Trav

    I know a Baptist pastor who is one of those Baptists who takes eternal security but not certain other parts of Calvinism. It strikes me as inconsistent.

    But, a question. Firstly, according to my tiny knowledge, (no doubt “non conversant” in your original circles) I agree that “the exegesis of Calvinism on crucial passages is sometimes dead wrong”. But, is the same true of Arminianism, and if so, where does that leave us?

  • Steve

    A correction needs to be given on the historical Arminian position regarding whether it is possible for believers to forsake Christ and the salvation found in union with him. Two months before his death Arminius was still undecided on the issue. Nevertheless, Arminius did hold that believers must persevere in faith in order to obtain final salvation with God, but whether it was “possible for some individuals through negligence to desert the commencement of their existence in Christ, to cleave again to the present evil world, to decline from the sound doctrine which was once delivered to them, to lose a good conscience, and to cause Divine grace to be ineffectual”—well that needed more “diligent inquiry from the Scriptures.” After the death of Arminius in 1609, the Remonstrants maintained their leader’s view on the need for persevering in faith and his uncertainty regarding the possibility of apostasy. This is evidenced in the fifth article drafted by its leaders in 1610. However, sometime between 1610, and the official proceeding of the Synod of Dort (1618), the Remonstrants became fully persuaded in their minds that the Scriptures taught that a true believer was capable of falling away from faith and perishing eternally. They formalized their views in “The Opinion of the Remonstrants” (1618). Points three and four in the fifth article read:
    True believers can fall from true faith and can fall into such sins as cannot be consistent with true and justifying faith; not only is it possible for this to happen, but it even happens frequently. True believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish.
    From this time forward I have yet to find a classical Arminian writer who affirmed some form of unconditional eternal security (UES). I have only found those who opposed it, and the list is lengthy (for those interested the list can be viewed at conditional preservation of the saints on Wikipedia). Therefore, from a historical perspective, it appears that a person could legitimately be considered an “Arminian” and be undecided as it pertains to whether a believer can commit apostasy (Arminius and the early Remonstrants were). However, Arminians (from 1618 to the 1900s) have clearly and consistently taught that a believer may fall away from God and perish everlastingly, with no Arminian theologian holding to UES. I have yet to read a published work done by a scholar who happily refers to themselves as an “Arminian” and who holds to UES. The idea that you can be called an “Arminian” and hold to some form of UES appears to be a recent invention without any historical foundation.

  • Steve, thanks so much for the history of the Arminian stand re: eternal security (your comment #44).

    Two questions: (1) Do you know where I can obtain a copy of the Opinions of 1618 you mentioned? (2) Do you know if there anything to the same effect written in the Arminian Confession of 1621 (I have that in a book form but can’t find it).

    One more: Have you ever heard of the Society of Evangelical Arminians?


  • Rich DeRuiter

    I found the blog by Scot McKnight is a thoughtful response and interaction with theology and Scripture. And as a Calvinist I find it deals with Calvinism fairly, though somewhat (and intentionally) subjectively. That’s fine too. This is a blog, not an article for a theological journal.
    The to big issues are: eternal security and total depravity as emphases in Calvinism that relate to the greater issue of Divine sovereignty. I would hope that the author of this article would recognize that these doctrines do spring out of a reading of Scripture, and were not mere inventions of people wanting to sleep better at night. I would point to John 6:37 as one example of a passage suggesting eternal security and Romans 7:7,ff as a description of total depravity (better stated as total inability, IMHO). And while we Calvinists interpret passages like Heb.6:4 in the light of John 6:37, I might suggest that an Arminian may be doing just the reverse.
    God’s sovereignty is certain a huge theme in Calvinism and defines the way we Calvinists talk about soteriology. But then Ephesians 1:11, seems to do the same thing.
    There is a great deal of mystery here as we think about the relationship between God’s will and human responsibility. It is perhaps in the desire to clarify and explain what Scripture leaves mysterious that we get into trouble.
    What I think we do all agree on is that we must choose to follow Jesus, to submit to His will, to receive Him and the gracious gift of salvation that he offers. We must also strive to yield our lives more and more to Him in obedience, as it is impossible for those who are saved by true faith not to bear fruit.
    Not sure if any other responders above are Calvnists too, but to my fellow commenters who are Arminian or in some other way non-Calvnist, I consider you brothers and sisters in the Lord first. Questions of theology such as these are way down the list of the most important things to consider.

  • BradK

    Nelson (45),

    I think the following is the 1618 Opinion of the Remonstrants…

  • BradK

    And the 1621 Arminian Confession is here…

  • Brian Abasciano

    Steve # 44: “from a historical perspective, it appears that a person could legitimately be considered an “Arminian” and be undecided as it pertains to whether a believer can commit apostasy (Arminius and the early Remonstrants were). . . . The idea that you can be called an “Arminian” and hold to some form of UES appears to be a recent invention without any historical foundation.”

    Steve, I don’t think your point here follows that because the early Arminians were originally undecided about the issue of security and then concluded in favor of conditional security that this allows for one to be considered Arminian only if undecided about the issue or adhering to conditional security. That seems too rigid. That would make belief in apostasy also not a valid Arminian option when the Remonstrants first formalized their theology. Are we to think that the original statement of Arminian theology forbade belief in the possibility of apostasy and that those who held it were not Arminians? I would think that their conviction when drafting the original statement of Arminian theology that they were not sure about its possibility left the option open for individuals within their group to take a non-binding stand on one or other side of the issue.

    I agree that the term “Arminian” has historically mostly included belief in conditional security. However, the confessional tradition began with uncertainty on the issue of the possibility of apostasy. That leaves open the option of applying the label in a general way to those who hold all the other points of Arminianism. At the same time, while there is value in being aware of the historic confessional tradition, there is also value in the identification of theological positions, the terminology of which can become modified over time. Since there is no absolute incompatibility between the other points of Arminianism and UES, it makes sense to speak of UES Arminians.

    If we think of Arminianism and Calvinism as each having 5 basic points (it’s a little more complicated than that, but this is how they are traditionally contrasted), and someone agrees with 4 out of 5 of the Arminian points (as many non-Calvinist evangelicals do), then it seems that he or she would be a 4 point Arminian. Such people are not even 1 point Calvinists, because they disagree with Calvinism’s foundation for perseverance (unconditional election). But it would be absurd to think of them as half point Calvinists or even 1 point Calvinists. To say that such peole occupy some sort of middle ground between Arminianism and Calvinism also seems unjustified. They agree with Arminianism on everything except for 1 point (and that includes other issues besides the 5 points, such as the nature of God’s sovereignty, human free will, rejection of exhaustive determinism, etc.)! Theologicaly, such people are 4 point Arminians and simply not Calvinists. Theologically, just as there are 4 and 5 point Calvinists, there are also 4 and 5 point Arminians. Calling such people non-Calvinists is not very helpful since it does not identify their theological positions clearly, and it makes Calvinism the standard of belief against which other positions are measured. Another option would be to create a completely new name for them. But that seems a bit much to identify them as holding all but one traditional Arminian points when they could just be called Arminians generally and 4 point Arminians more specifically.

  • Steve

    Brian, I am not seeing how it makes sense to call those who hold to UES “Arminians,” unless you are informing others that you are using the word in a way that has no historical precedent. UES has always been associated with Calvinism and never with Arminianism, so it would seem fair to note that UES “Arminians” are unheard of in the history of Arminian theology. I would add that I have not talked with a 4-point Arminian who did not hold to the idea of irresistible grace after conversion (i.e. either God irresistibly insures that believers will keep trusting in Jesus, or He irresistibly prevents believers from becoming unbelievers—thus making apostasy impossible). This would make them 3-point Arminians and holding to another point found only in the history of Calvinism. It makes more sense to me to either acknowledge that you are using “Arminian” in a non-historical way in describing these UES “Arminians,” or to invent a new word to describe those who do not want to be called Calvinists while holding to Calvinism’s points on irresistible grace and UES.

  • Scot,

    I think you should become an Evangelical Calvinist, then you could proclaim things like this:

    “God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” ~T. F. Torrance, “The Mediation of Christ”, 94

    This way offers a depth dimension to exegesis that classical ways don’t (it seems the way that you still might approach such things, theologically that is).

  • Brian Abasciano


    Traditionally, irresistible grace does not refer to continuing to believe in Jesus, but to coming to faith in the first place. So I don’t think it is accurate to say that what I call 4 point Arminians do not hold to resistible grace. They hold to resistible grace with respect to coming to faith, which is what the terminology normnally refers to. But the question of God preserving believers in faith is normally treated under the label of perseverance of the saints (or the security of salvation), the fifth point of the Arminian and Calvinist systems. But that gets us back to the same place — 4 point Arminians agree with all but one point of traditional Arminianism, hence 4 point Arminians.

    Also, let me repeat my historical point: the confessional tradition began with uncertainty on the issue of the possibility of apostasy. That leaves open the option of applying the label in a general way to those who hold all the other points of Arminianism. Denying the Arminian label to those who do not hold to conditional security would mean denying the label to the Remonstrants, the earliest Arminians who set forth the first official statement of Arminian theology. The fact that the early Arminians were undecided on the issue shows that the point is not essential to Arminian theology conceptually.

    But I have no problem stating that historically the term Arminian has normally included belief in the possibility of apostasy. I would simply add that in terms of theological identification, those who hold 4 of the 5 points of Arminianism (not to mention agreeing with Arminianism on all the other major questions at issue in soteriology) can rightly and helpfully be labeled 4 point Arminians.

  • John K Langemann

    Dave W. You say:”Unless an Arminian holds to universal salvation I do not see how they can not accept limited atonement. As I see it the atonement is of infinite value and potentially adequate for all, however the atonement is limited in its effect to those who persevere. Maybe my definition of limited atonement is wrong.”

    Firstly, you need to be reminded that a person who holds contrary views to Calvinism, is not automatically, nor necessarily, an “Arminian”. As I said before, that term is largely an invention of Calvinists.Very few people who hold antithetical views to the Calvinist systematic theology, call themselves Arminians. And it is not for Calvinists to label them such, as if they even knew what Arminius stood for and wrote about, aside from what fellow Calvinists report.

    Secondly, the problem within the Calvinist doctrine, which arises with respect to “Limited Atonement”, and people who argue against its doctrinal position, is not about the fact that at the end of time as we know it, only a limited amount of people will be atoned for by the death of Jesus Christ; it is about the Calvinist doctrine of “Limited Atonement” which propones that, while the Gospel is being preached abroad, only a limited amount of people CAN be saved. And that is because, according to them, God elected those who were going to be saved (and stay saved by virtue of another Calvinist doctrine of “Perseverance”) was set in stone before the foundations of the earth were set in place.

    A so-called Arminian will agree that only a few will be saved because the Bible tells him that. But he/she will not agree that the offer of Salvation was only made to a limited amount of people, or people groups, who were previously chosen by God. The Bible clearly tells us that believers can make shipwreck of their faith, so Hebrews, and even Ezekiel and other scriptures which state that fact, is not problematic to a believer who reads the Bible without first placing a Calvinist theological template over it. The Bible is replete with warnings to true believers that they should we watchful and careful lest they fall away.

    The proof verses used by Calvinists to prop up and maintain its doctrinal positions are grossly misunderstood; like for instance the John 6:39 scripture, where Jesus says that He would lose none that the Father had given Him. John 18: 9 tells us clearly that Jesus was referring specifically to His disciples and not the “elect” of all time. Or the Romans 8: 30 scripture which Calvinist read as a forward going paradigm, where, in fact, it should be read as a type of regression analysis as to what process a believer went through to come to final safety in Glory, with his/her Lord and Master. Going forward, the process may be abrogated, but once safe on the heavenly shore, it is the process of events that happened en route there.The key to understanding that scripture the correct way is the past tense that is used.

    Every argument used by Calvinists to bolster and concretize its own theological system, always incorporates one or more of its other doctrines synchronously. No point can be argued alone without the help of its particularly interpreted Calvinist understanding of other doctrinal positions. It is a fully orbed system which attempts to come to the rescue with all the other elements of its system when any particular point is attacked by an outsider.

    It is a sad, miserable system which only brings a faux joy to the the elitest, triumphalists who are sold out to its system.

  • Kent Dickerson

    Scott and several of the responses here describe being on a journey in their theological development. I have been in churches most of my life that clearly would be described as Arminian (though we never used that term). Currently I] am at a place in my own journey where I believe both that God calls all men to repent and He chooses who He chooses. I also believe that we can feel totally secure in our eternal destination and yet are warned to persevere to the end. I know somehow all are true because they are scripture. I no longer worry that I can’t reconcile everything in a nice package of defined theology. I’ve come to realize that God is bigger than my understanding will ever be, even in heaven. We’ll be always learning because His nature is eternal and far beyond us even there. Another truth of scripture which helps my understanding in this area is that God is beyond time. This fact is so important that it is being stated 24 hours a day in heaven, “Holy, Holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 6). He is Amazing!

  • Kent,

    Arminians believe that God chooses who he chooses. We simply observe from Scripture that those whom he chooses are believers “so that it [enjoyment of God’s saving promise] may be by grace” (Rom 4:16). This removes the basic tension you mention and allows one to have a consistent theology, as one would expect from God’s word and the truth. It is one thing to leave room for mystery, but another to hold logically incompatible ideas.

  • Kent Dickerson

    Arminian, my understanding is probably not that different from yours. But I am at a place where I realize my understanding is pretty small compared to God’s.
    This has done away with any “tension”.
    I am also convicted by 1 Cor. 1:10 and following where Paul is trying to eliminate quarrels and division. He is appalled that some would be saying they follow Paul, Cephas or Appollos. It is only Christ that we should be focusing on. I have joined in with most of a denomination in the past in rejecting everyone who doesn’t agree with our little group on every position. We regularly had sermons on “denominational doctrine” where we tore apart and condemned all others. I (and a good percentage of that denomination)am no longer willing to be involved in such activity. I suspect Calvin and Arminius are both saddened looking down from heaven and seeing so many quarrel and taking on their names. Don’t get me wrong, I urge you to continue to study scripture and affirm what you believe (or change it if scripture is leading you there), continue sharing about it. But let us all fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith and share in His overriding love though the discussion.