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Fair and unfair criticisms of Calvinism and Arminianism

Fair and unfair criticisms of Calvinism and Arminianism June 20, 2011

Actually, what I have to say here applies to ANY criticism of ANY theology.  We need to distinguish carefully between criticism and misrepresentation.  Fair criticism is valid; misrepresentation in order to criticize (straw man treatment) is invalid and should itself be criticized by everyone.

Reformed theologians especially have long pointed out what they believe to be the “good and necessary consequences” of certain Arminian beliefs.  That’s fine, so long as the critics point out that Arminians themselves DO NOT believe the things they are arguing are good and necessary consequences of the things Arminians do believe.

So, for example, Reformed theologians have often argued that works righteousness (salvation based at least partly on human merit) is a good and necessary consequence of Arminian belief in the necessity of free response to the gospel for salvation.  While I disagree, I accept that as fair criticism SO LONG AS the critic clearly says (in some way) “This is not what Arminians believe; it is what their belief logically entails.”

Now, let me give an example of unfair Reformed criticism of Arminianism.  In the youtube video entitled “Arminianism: The Root of ‘Christian’ Liberalism” the presenters argue that Arminianism makes the inspiration of Scripture impossible because it holds free will in such high esteem that God wouldn’t have been able to control the biblical authors so that they wrote infallibly what he wanted them to write.  This is unfair because classical Arminianism DOES NOT hold that God never over rides free will or controls human beings.  It only holds that God does not decide and render certain who will be saved and who will not be saved.  Arminians only value free will to avoid making God the author of sin; we have no problem saying that God is the author of all the good that we do.

Now, Calvinists such as those who made that video may think Arminianism is inconsistent.  But that doesn’t seem to be their point and their point is based on a gross misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Arminian theology.  They should say “We don’ t understand how Arminians can believe in the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, but they do.  We just think they’re inconsistent.”  That I can handle even if I disagree. But so much criticism on both sides is based on misrepresentations of the other side’s theology.

The only solution to this, as I have argued in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (in the conclusion about rules of engagement) is for both Arminians and Calvinists to stop attributing to the others beliefs they do NOT hold just because they think those beliefs are good and necessary consequences of what they believe.  This is an all-too-common tactic of critics on both sides and it is unfair and even unchristian.

It is perfectly proper for Calvinists to say “Arminians don’t believe that the atonement doesn’t actually save anyone, but we don’t see how they can deny it given what they do believe.  That seems a good and necessary consequence of what they believe.”  Too often, however, that isn’t what Calvinists say.  One leading Calvinist critic of Arminianism says that Arminians “must say” that the atonement only gives people an opportunity to save themselves.  That’s too ambiguous.  He ought to add “But they don’t say that.”

Similarly, Arminians are perfectly fair to say “Calvinists don’t believe that God is the author of sin and evil, but we don’t see how they can deny it given what they do believe.  That seems a good and necessary consequence of what they believe.”  What would be wrong would be for an Arminian (or anyone else) to say “Calvinists believe God is the author of sin and evil.”  Most of them don’t.

My forthcoming book Against Calvinism will probably be judged too harsh and even unfair by some critics, but they need to notice that throughout I make clear that most Calvinists do not hold the beliefs I say are good and necessary consequences of what they do believe.  I am accusing them of inconsistency, not blatant blasphemy or heresy.  Calvinists do the same routinely to Arminians and I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is Calvinists (or others) who claim to know Arminian theology but have never read Arminius or any other leading Arminian theologian and who proceed to criticism Arminianism based on woeful misunderstanding of it while misrepresenting it.

So, to reiterate, we must make a clear distinction between criticism and misrepresentation.  It’s really that simple.  People on both sides of the debate confuse the two.

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