Arminians and others who misrepresent Calvinism should also be ashamed of themselves

Arminians and others who misrepresent Calvinism should also be ashamed of themselves June 25, 2011

Ken Stewart supplied me with some examples of non-Calvinists misrepresenting Calvinism.  I have run across other examples over the years.

So, in fairness, let me shame non-Calvinists who misrepresent Calvinism.  (Ken has himself corrected Calvinists who misunderstand and misrepresent it in his book Ten Myths about Calvinism which I reviewed in Christianity Today.)

Contrary to what many non-Calvinists think and say:

1) Calvinism is not fatalism.  Fatalism is belief in an impersonal determinism.  It does not include God or any other personal power guiding or governing the course of human affairs.

2) Calvinism is not anti-missions or anti-evangelism.  Calvinists have long been in the forefront of world missions and evangelism.  Nothing in Calvinism as a theological system militates against these.

3) Calvinism does not say that how a person lives is irrelevant to their salvation or spiritual status.  Like all Protestants, Calvinists say that true saving faith is never without accompanying works.

4) Calvinism does not make persons automata (machines, robots).  Calvinism claims that people have free will and are fully responsible for their decisions and actions.  (Whether this is consistent with other things they believe is another question and rightly a matter of doubt and debate.)

These are four of the most common misrepresentations of Calvinism.  Feel free to add others.

People who spread these misconceptions of Calvinism and Calvinists should be ashamed.  “Before saying ‘I disagree’ be sure you can say ‘I understand’.”

Now, having said all that, there’s nothing wrong with arguing that Calvinism is unbiblical and/or illogical.  I don’t object when Calvinists say that about Arminianism.  I will argue back that they are wrong, but I won’t object that their claims, if limited to those without misrepresentation of Arminian beliefs, are unfair.

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  • Rob

    I am interested in how he defends #1. I hear Calvinists insist that not only is history determined but that it is predetermined by God. If anything occurred apart from God’s sovereign decree, God would not be all-powerful. Now if God decrees every single thing that happens from the beginning, how is that not theological fatalism?

    • rogereolson

      With most Calvinists I use the term “fatalism” to label any impersonal determinism (e.g., the ancient Stoics). I do believe, contrary to some Calvinists, that traditional Calvinism is deterministic. Sproul rejects the term determinism, but most dictionaries say that determinism is any view that regards all events as totally dependent on antecedent forces or causes. I go into this in some detail in Againt Calvinism which should be out in October.

  • Unlike Arminianism, which as a response to Calvinist soteriology, is primarily a soteriological system, Calvinism is not reducible to TULIP but has broader socio-political teachings as well. This fact seems to be missed by both non-Calvinists and neo-Calvinists, who seem determined (no pun intended) to focus on soteriology. But it’s the socio-political teaching that creates the most friction with Anabaptists. (Cf. the dialogue between John Howard Yoder and Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstoff, and other Calvinists.)

    • rogereolson

      Historically true. But I prefer to distinguish between “Reformed” and “Calvinist” in this sense. I know many Calvinists who don’t fit the traditional Reformed profile with regard to socio-political teachings. So far as I know, John Piper, perhaps the most influential Calvinist alive today, does not follow the traditional Reformed line on that.

      • Your Calvinist/Reformed distinction seems practical when discussing soteriology with evangelical neo-Calvinists. However, I think a lot of Calvinists outside of the American evangelical world would be surprised to hear that they aren’t “Calvinist” without TULIP. I once had a conversation with Alvin Plantinga, a self-described Calvinist philosopher, in which he seemed to reject most of TULIP and didn’t find that all too problematic for his Calvinist convictions. (He holds strongly to libertarian freewill, for example.) I think this is typical of many from the Calvin College Dutch Reformed version of Calvinism (cf. James K.A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist). They have little to no interest in John Piper’s brand of Calvinism but are drawn to Calvin himself as well as Edwards, Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, etc. Again, you’re distinction between “Calvinist” and “Reformed” may be helpful in conversations with the folks with which you typically engage, so long as you recognize that it is a bit artificial. Indeed, as you of all people know, TULIP was a response to the Remonstrants, so if it weren’t for Arminianism, there wouldn’t be a Calvinism as you define it.

  • Does fatalism necessitate an impersonal power or impersonal determinism? I’m not saying Calvinism is Fatalism but wouldn’t narrowing the scope of what Fatalism is (ie: impersonal deterministic Force) limit it to something only Heroditus need worry about?

    • rogereolson

      And the Stoics. And some folks who don’t believe in God or anything spiritual but just believe everything is somehow determined by forces beyond any person’s control.

  • You seem to be arguing these positions by assertion.

    1) Fate was seen as personal by the Greeks. Quite literally if something is subject to the will of fate and not under human control it is fatalistic. The current definition is, “philosophers usually use the word to refer to the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.” I can’t see how this doesn’t apply to Calvin’s view of salvation. All 5 points of TULIP are designed to assert that salvation is a matter of fate not choice.

    3) Actually it does. Unconditional election what I do have no impact on whether I am in the elect; similarly irresistible grace, I can’t even choose not to be elected. Finally Perseverance of the Saints makes this permanent and unchanging.

    4) Yes Calvinism asserts that people are morally responsible for things they have no control over. Which is like holding more morally responsible for US average rainfall this year.

    • rogereolson

      You should supply the source of that definition of “fatalism.” Generally speaking, fatalism refers to the impersonal determinism of the Stoics (and others like them).

      • Rob

        In contemporary philosophy, fatalism just means the view that what occurs in the future is inevitable in the strongest possible sense. We distinguish between logical fatalism, metaphysical fatalism, and theological fatalism depending on the mechanism for making what happens necessary. There is a good article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about it. I think Calvinists have to really do a lot of fancy philosophy to avoid being committed to fatalism.

      • Roger,
        Theological Fatalism is a rather well thought out aspect distinct from the logical fatalism you seem to want to impose upon any use of the term. Islam, as an example, imposes a theistic fatalism upon its particular paradigm of God’s providence. Hard determinism seems to fit such descriptions as well particularly if defined as The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states it, “the view that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do”. Are there Calvinists who will readily admit that each of us can thwart the will of God and do that which He has not decreed? I suppose there may be but from my interactions they would be few and far between. Granted, Calvinists deny they are “Fatalist” and we should not call them such as individual brethren in the LORD. However, should we also deny the logical end of hard determinism? What is hard determinism but a theological fatalism?

        Richard Coords, of our SEA, has provided an informative post on his site that demonstrates from the writings of Calvin and others that the logical end of Calvinist determinism points straight at a concluding theological fatalism. Calvinists do not like the term stamped upon them and I can understand and respect those wishes but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the end game of hard determinism is anything but the label they so eschew. Even “hard determism” is so hard to swallow among some of them that they have created a philosophical escape called compatibalism.

        • rogereolson

          Again, I think you miss the point of my post. Calvinists deny that their theology is fatalism. Fine. Then what we should say is “Calvinists do not believe in fatalism, but fatalism is the good and necessary consequence of what they do believe.”

          • Rob

            I don’t think that is strong enough, many (if not most?) Calvinists straightforwardly claim that agents do not have the power to thwart God’s will. Its not like theological fatalism is some logical consequence that requires several syllogisms to tease out. The content of their claim just is theological fatalism. They don’t like calling it that.

    • There are different usages of the word fate, and it is true that most people seem to use the word as synonymous to determinism – in which people cannot escape, through other choices, an ending which is already determined by something.

      However, Calvinists do general react against the word fatalism for one of two reasons. The first reason is some view “fatalism” as meaning “without personal responsibility” and want to emphasize that they do believe that we are responsible for our choices (as inconsistent as that may be with their deterministic beliefs). The other reason that they usually react against the word being used to describe their belief system is that fate is also understood by many to be an impersonal force.

      In his book, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination,” for instance, Calvinist Loraine Boetner writes that his doctrine is not fatalism for the following reason:

      “There is, in reality, only one point of agreement between the two, which is, that both assume the absolute certainly of all future events. The essential difference between them is that Fatalism has no place for a personal God… Fatalism holds that all events come to pass through the working of a blind, unintelligent, impersonal, non-moral force which cannot be distinguished from physical necessity, and which carries us helplessly within its grasp as a mighty river carries a piece of wood… [it] excludes the idea of final causes.”

      In the end, then, I agree that it is more helpful to use words that they can relate to (e.g. determinism) rather than words which they interpret differently than we mean and could take offense to.

  • Prathab

    Dear Dr Olson,
    Thank you for your post. I understand what you mea. I for one have faced numerous false reprsentations from Calvinists about Arminianism. In the same ven, I also strife not to misrepresent Calvinism. One Calvinist once said to me: “Brother, predestination and election is a biblical teaching!” I replied: “Yes brother, I agree. I never said predestinitaion and election are not biblical. Beside predesination, shipwrecking of one’s faith is also a biblical (warning). What I am saying is that I disagree with Calvinist interpretation of predestnation and election!”.

    I have been readng Calvin’s Institutes for some. Some Calvinists have come to me to say that the Arminian charge of “double predestinination” toward’s Calvinism is wrong. Some Arminians even say that Calvin hmself may not be a Calvinist!

    But by readng Calvin, and a whole lot of literature from Calvinists, I found these to be true:
    1. Calvinism is an accurate reflection Calvin’s writings
    2. While TULIP was formulated later, but I have no doubts that TULIP is accurate reflection of Calvin’s writings.

    But a whole lot of Calvinists I speak to and often debate, argue that humans have no free will…since the fall of Adam. Since God predestines some to honour and some to dshonour, does it not make us all automatons?

    Besides, since Calvinism emphasises regeneration as a precondition to faith, does it also make humans devoid of free will?

    I am totaly with Arminians, and I believe that their system of theology restores God’s glory, justice and love for His creation. Pls let me know if I am wrong here.

    Thank you for your blog. Keep it going! God bless.

    • rogereolson

      Sounds good to me. I would just disagree that Calvin did not believe in limited atonement. I argue that in my forthcoming book Against Calvinism.

  • gingoro

    “Calvinism does not make persons automata…” is a very easy conclusion to come to. I clearly recall a High Calvinist preaching at a former church raising his arm and saying in effect that God willed that he would raise his arm. My pastor agreed with my statement that many of the High Calvinists appear to be fine grained determinists at least in their writing and preaching. To my mind this sounds like automata, what am I missing. Yes I know some claim free will and determinism are consistent but I can’t reconcile this in my mind, probably due to lack of mental acumen.

    In a week or two I am planning on unsubscribing from your blog. I have learned a lot from you and from your book and thank you for that. But I am trying to follow too many blogs and can’t keep up. As I am moderately reformed in my theology I find the High Calvinists have little to contribute that I find profitable and I just don’t run into them that often. I also think that evangelicalism as we knew it 20 years ago is fast being taken over by fundamentalists and the neo Calvinists and thus my interest in evangelicalism is waning as I no longer consider myself an evangelical given the modern definition. Thanks again!
    Dave W

    • rogereolson

      Well, we will miss your voice here. Evangelicalism needs the moderates who are leaving. Leaving just turns the whole movement to the neo-fundamentalists. By “automata” I mere machines–unconscious, unwilling mechanisms. Calvinists believe God bends the will of the sinner; he doesn’t make sinners do something against their will or without their will being involved. I do think that’s inconsistent.

  • Scott

    Roger, are you becoming a Calvinist? Read what John Calvin asserts (Darkness of Calvinism). Calvinism is an evil cult. You are ignoring that the otherside of pure unconditional election is unconditional reprobation. That is no free will to choose, like zombies everyone is controlled by a God. God rejects the hope of a man and punishes those by death by rejecting salvation to the unelect. Calvinism ignored the god of love in scripture and is heresy. If anyone can help me explain romans 8,9 14 against calvinism i would appreciate it. Scott

    • rogereolson

      Ha! Me–becoming a Calvinist? That’s funny. But I actually enjoy being accused of that–it gives me ammunition when people accuse me of being rabidly anti-Calvinist. No, Calvinism is not an “evil cult.” First of all, a cult has to be organized. There’s no one Calvinist organization. But, even more, I’ve blogged about the word “cult” here in the past and it’s a term we should probably all drop entirely or use very cautiously. Not everything you disagree with is a “cult.” That empties the term of any meaning.

  • gary foster

    Thank you Roger! When I was a Calvinist and a SBC member in the70’s I heard all that and more. Nearly all dialogue was closed before it could start.
    Lets at least understand each others real positions
    . One of these days I hope never to hear the term “hyper-calvinist” as a description of my standard Calvinist position.

  • Aaron

    Would it be accurate to call Calvinism a “Christian form of Fate?”

    • rogereolson

      Again, we should say that Calvinism does not teach fatalism but that what it does teach amounts to or leads to fatalism. However, I’d prefer to say it leads to determinism or amounts to determinism. I still think (in spite of what some have said here) that “fatalism” is non-personal determinism.

  • Danny

    Been a lurker here for a while. What exactly would be the difference in Calvinism and Hyper Calvinism? RO what would be your distinguishers? What would be the Sproul-esque distinctives?

    • rogereolson

      Hyper-Calvinism is rejection of indiscriminate evangelism because the gospel cannot be a “well meant offer” to all. The classic example is Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema (not to be confused with the Hoekemas).

  • Scott

    Illustration: Calvinism makes God like a father who commands
    his son not to go in the street, and if he goes, the father will
    spank him. Then the father carries the son into the street and
    spanks him for going there!

  • Keith Noren

    The problem with Calvinism is logical consistency.

    I have been surrounded by Calvinists in my family, neighbors, and various churches I used to attend. They do do evangelism, they do say they have “free will”, they do call for rigtheous living and they deny they are “fatalistic”.

    But at the same time, they also say that all that will ever be/happen was determined by God BTFOTE (before the foundation of the earth) per the WCOF Article on God’s Eternal Decree. Nothing can ever happen w/o God specifically causing it. Sometimes (e.g one former pastor) has said that “perhaps” what we think in our minds is not predetermined but that was in a form of a concession.

    They are doubleminded and do not even see it. But most are good people.

  • Celestiaetterra

    If Calvinists truly believed that they were totally spiritually depraved; that they had nothing good in them to offer to God; that the only reason they were able to believe in any divine truth was solely because the Spirit had made them alive with His power of regeneration; that they would always have resisted Him had He not sovereignly moved into their hearts; that they had nothing to contribute to their own salvation and that they were rightly deserving of damnation in themselves etc, then why, oh why, are they so staunch in their prideful-ness and please don’t tell me that they are no more or less prideful than the others. There is difference.

    • rogereolson

      I agree that many are prideful–at least of their theology. I guess they would say that becoming saved in the first place was all God’s doing, but arriving at true beliefs (“the doctrines of grace”) is somehow partly their responsibility and achievement in cooperation with God’s sanctifying grace. Still, if they rigorously reject all merit before God you’d think they would be more humble about their doctrinal system even if they think it is totally true to the exclusion of others. My experience is, it is mostly young Calvinists who seem to exhibit pride in their theology as if it were some kind of badge of special favor. I chalk that up to immaturity.