Last evening I spent about an hour in conversation with a 22 year old ministry student at a Christian liberal arts university. We came together at a mutual friend’s home for dinner and dialogue. This young man is a “four point Calvinist” by his own confession; he struggles with limited atonement but not with the other four points of TULIP. His own denominational background is not Reformed; he came to his Calvinist convictions through friends, his own Bible study and reading web sites and listening to sermons and talks on the internet by John Piper and other Calvinists.
I think this young man is typical of many (and perhaps most) “young, restless, Reformed” evangelical Christians–bright, personable, committed to Christ, determined to be biblically faithful, sincerely interested in knowing the truth. Unfortunately, like most I have encountered, he did not know very much about Arminianism except what he had heard or read from Calvinists such as Piper.
When I asked him what attracted him to Calvinism he said immediately “total depravity.” In other words, he was shown total depravity in Scripture (by a friend) and concluded that Calvinism is the only soteriology consistent with that. Nobody had explained to him that Arminians also believe in total depravity and he did not know about prevenient grace. Unconditional, individual election and irresistible grace seemed logically to follow from total depravity and he believes they are taught in Scripture. We had a discussion about the crucial word “draw” in John and whether it means compel or persuade. (I deal with this at length in my forthcoming book Against Calvinism.)
My only goal in this conversation was to inform the student about classical Arminianism. He seemed surprised to learn that Arminians also believe in total depravity and election and grace. Of course, I explained that to us “election” is corporate and conditional with regard to individual inclusion in God’s people.
We talked about the tendency of many Calvinists today to act as if Calvinism is the only theology that is truly Christian and God-honoring. He did not think that was common among his friends who are Calvinists and I accept that. But during our conversation he mentioned John Piper’s testimony of how he converted from Arminianism to Calvinism during seminary. According to this student (I have not heard this myself) Piper said it was a change to a whole new worldview. We talked about the meaning of “worldview” and how traditionally Calvinists and Arminians agree that we share the same worldview: creation out of nothing, a transcendent and immanent God, etc. To me, when Piper says his conversion to Calvinism was a change to a whole new worldview he is suggesting (whether he means to or not) that Arminianism is not even authentically Christian. In other words, this wording suggests that Calvinists and Arminians do not even share the same faith.
I have long suspected that somewhere deep in his heart of hearts Piper (and other leaders of the “young, restless, Reformed” movement) think this. Piper told me to my face that “Arminianism is on the precipice of heresy.” He also said, however, that he would not try to get a professor at a Christian college fired merely for being an Arminian, so I think these are mixed signals. (He did tell me he would get me fired for not siding with him in his crusade to get my open theist colleague fired.)
This young college student absolutely does not think that Arminianism is heresy or non-Christian. But I had to point out to him that MAYBE Piper and/or some other leading Calvinists do think that and I cautioned him to continue to seek truth wherever it may be found and to continue to be irenic about these disagreements. I did not try to convert him to Arminianism; all I wanted to do with him was inform him about classical Arminian beliefs and encourage him to compare classical Calvinism with classical Arminianism based on thorough knowledge and understanding of both. He agreed that he wants to do that.
I came away from that conversation greatly encouraged that this young man has a bright future in God’s kingdom and is a faithful servant of God and Jesus Christ even as a Calvinist. I have no problem with a student like him or anyone, for that matter, being a Calvinist so long as they know what that entails and know the arguments on both/all sides. Karl Barth said that a person who knows only his side of an argument knows little of that. Many Calvinists and Arminians could benefit from that word of correction. This young man is committed to truth and I am confident will continue in his search for it.
You might wonder if I benefited in some way from this encounter? I confess that I did. I always benefit from a respectful dialogue with a fellow believer whether he or she be Calvinist or whatever. I came away from the dinner conversation greatly encouraged that God is at work in young people’s lives and raising up a generation of young Christians for his kingdom work. That he and many of they are Calvinists is not troubling to me so long as it does not become an issue of division and exclusion. I learned from him that it does not have to be; he has a generous and open spirit towards those who may not agree with him.