Some thoughts about conversations/debates between Calvinists and Arminians

Some thoughts about conversations/debates between Calvinists and Arminians October 7, 2011

Now that my book Against Calvinism is published I’m receiving invitations to debate Calvinists.  What I want to say is…everything I have to say on the subject is in the book.  Read it.  What I am doing in the book is NOT trying to shoot down Calvinism; I’m trying to explain as clearly as I can WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST.  Unfortunately there is already a book of that title.  I happen to think my book is different even though the material overlaps some.  I wouldn’t have written my book if I didn’t think there’s a better way of presenting the case against Calvinism.  So that’s what I did.  But I fear people misunderstand and think I’m trying to attack Calvinists.  Not at all.  I’m simply trying to explain why I’m not a Calvinist.  If that has some other effects, fine.  But I’m not out to shame or blame or marginalize Calvinists.  What I do find, however, are many, many Calvinists who treat me as someone who simply hasn’t studied the Bible enough or hasn’t thought hard enough (or prayerfully enough) about God.  I’m trying to present my “case,” as it were, to refute those perceptions.  Those of us who are not Calvinists have good reasons; it’s not as if we just haven’t thought about it or don’t read or study or believe the Bible or whatever.  And I think there are many non-Calvinists out there who need help explaining why they’re not Calvinists.  I hope my book provides that help.

The other day I was the guest on a 30 minute Christian radio program hosted by a 5 points Calvinist.  He treated me very cordially, but tried vigorously to prove Calvinism true and Arminianism false–in 30 minutes!  It seemed to me that he assumed that somehow I simply was ignoring certain Bible passages and just needed to hear them read to me “one more time,” as it were.  I wasn’t offended, but I was bemused.  Does he think I haven’t studied the Bible?  Does he think there are no other interpretations of, say Romans 9, than his?  I always come away from encounters like that (and I have more of them scheduled) just somewhat bewildered.

The feeling I have during and after them is like a ship passing another one in the night.  We are on such different wave lengths with regard to presuppositions (we both have them even if they don’t think they do), visions of the character of God, hermeneutics.  And maybe underlying all of it is a different approach to Scripture.  I’ve blogged about this before.  Reading Smith’s book brought it back to mind forcefully.

I’m beginning to think even more than before that most 5 points Calvinists I know approach the Bible very differently from most non-Calvinists I know.  (I’m talking only about evangelicals here; I’m not including in “non-Calvinists” liberals or unbelievers.)  For example (I’m musing here because I’m not sure about this): It seems to me that most 5 point Calvinists I know seem bound and determined to believe anything they think the Bible says regardless of how horrific that may be.  In other words, IF they became convinced that somehow they had been overlooking something in Scripture (as they think I do) and, in fact, God and the devil are actually the same being such that God is evil, they would believe it because the Bible says it.  I, on the other hand, presuppose that God cannot be evil; that goodness and being belong inextricably together or else there is no ground for basic trust.  This is why Wesley said of Romans 9 (paraphrasing here)–whatever it means it cannot mean that!  He means, no matter how much Romans 9 (and other Scripture passages) SEEM to say that God selects some people to save UNCONDITIONALLY, leaving others WHO HE COULD SAVE (because election to salvation is unconditional and saving grace is irresistible) to eternal torment in hell, it cannot mean that.  Why?  Because God is good.  Even Calvinist Paul Helm, a leading evangelical Calvinist thinker, agrees (as I show in my book) that “goodness” attributed to God cannot be totally different from every understanding of goodness (and love) we know of.  When Wesley rightly said of Romans 9 that it cannot mean “that” (what Calvinists believe it means) he wasn’t dismissing Romans 9 as uninspired, not part of God’s Word.  He was saying IF it means that (and fortunately there are other valid interpretations than the Calvinist one) God is not good but a monster worse than the devil because at least the devil is sincere.  (Wesley is talking about God’s universal will for salvation–1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, etc.).  To those of us who are not Calvinists this seems right.  That’s why we cannot be Calvinists–because IF WE believed what Calvinists believe God would not be good and therefore could not be trusted.  We realize that Calvinists (at least most) do not believe God is a monster, but we are saying if WE believed what they believe we would find it necessary to think of God that way–as indistinguishable from the devil.  I find most (all?) Calvinists simply sweep that aside as unworthy of consideration and fall back on quoting isolated Bible passages that they think prove their view of God and salvation, etc.

Now, I know some Calvinists (and maybe some others) will accuse me of vilifying Calvinism.  But I simply respond that they do the same thing with my Arminianism–they vilify it by saying Arminians “must” say that the cross of Christ did not save anyone but only gave people the opportunity to save themselves.  NO ARMINIAN SAYS OR THINKS THAT!  But Calvinists MEAN that IF they believed what Arminians believe THAT’S WHAT THEY WOULD HAVE TO BELIEVE.  Fine.  I can accept that.  So long as they DON’T say or imply that that is what Arminians DO believe.  I never, never say that Calvinists believe God is evil or a monster, etc.  I go out of my way to make clear to readers and listeners that what I am saying is that Calvinists are confused–just as they think I’m confused.

Another dimension to this problem of Arminian-Calvinist meeting of the minds (which never seems to happen on this subject) is that most Calvinists I talk to THINK the disagreement can be settled by mere exegesis.  Obviously it can’t.  It’s been going on between equally scholarly Christians for hundreds and hundreds of year (going way back before Arminius or Calvin!)  Obviously the disagreement has something to do with differing gestalts–“seeing as.”  That is when Calvinists read Scripture they see God and salvation AS such-and-such whereas when Arminians read Scripture they see God and salvation AS something else.  Not totally something else, but importantly something else.  In other words, the disagreement is perspectival which is why it cannot be settled by exegesis or even philosophy.  Both accounts of God and salvation (etc.) are reasonable ones.  It’s just that one, taken to its logical conclusion (it’s “good and necessary consequences”) lands in one place and the other one lands in a very different place.  And the further you push the good and necessary consequences the further apart the two perspectives get from each other.

For those of you who think no Calvinist would agree with that I’ll go out on a limb (which I rarely do in this particular manner) and name a name.  At a conference of Calvinists to which I was invited to present the historical, classical Arminian view, Paul Helm stated very forthrightly that the difference cannot be settled by exegesis.  His argument is that it has to be settled by looking at the good and necessary consequences of each view.  He claimed that Arminianism necessarily leads to denial of salvation as a gift.  I disagree.  But here (and in my book) I am claiming that Calvinism necessarily leads to God as a monster–barely distinguishable from the devil.  Helm didn’t say that Arminians deny salvation is a gift; he said IF pushed to its logical consequences it ends up there.  That’s what I’m saying about Calvinism.  But Calvinists seem to insist on hearing my argument as saying they actually believe (maybe secretly) that God is a monster.  I have never said that.

I wonder if everyone involved in this debate saw it as I do whether there would be any need for debate.  What are we doing when we get together (in person or on the radio or whatever) and try to explain ourselves to each other and to listeners?  Does anyone honestly think some new information is going to appear?  I doubt it.  Is any argument going to come forth that has never come forth before?  Hardly.  What we are doing, I assume, is trying to get listeners to see God and salvation AS we see them.  We are pointing to the same evidence but we see that evidence AS different things.  What if we all just admitted that?  I do.  I don’t think I have any new facts to point out that no Calvinist has recognized before.  Hopefully we aren’t just trying to outdo the other in quoting Bible verses to impress our listeners!  But this possibility did occur to me as the radio talk show host quoted verses and verses rapid fire as I sat and listened.  Surely he didn’t think one of them was going to suddenly, magically convert me to Calvinism!  Maybe he thought one of them (or more) would would suddenly convert a listener to Calvinism or convince a wavering Calvinist to stay Calvinist.  But my impression was that this whole endeavor was so artificial.  In these encounters we could just shout Bible passages at each other, but that settles nothing.  All of them have been explained for both sides!  I happen to think some Calvinist explanations of some of them are extremely weak, but they Calvinists think the same about some of my explanations of verses.  So we could end up just spending hours and wasting breath shouting Bible verses at each other when that isn’t going to really solve anything or rightly convince anyone of the truth of our positions.

So that brings me back to the question–why did I write the book?  Because I hope to show all interested parties that there are good reasons for not being a Calvinist; that it’s not just a matter of not having thought about the issues or not honoring Scripture or being spiritually blind or whatever.  I don’t expect my book will suddenly convert Calvinists to Arminianism.  What I do hope for is that people on the fence, so to speak, will see that there are good reasons for not going completely over to the other side–that they don’t HAVE to to be theologically and spiritually fulfilled.  And I hope to remind evangelical leaders that Calvinism is NOT the only respectable view and that it in fact has serious problems–that non-Calvinist evangelicals are not dishonoring Scripture or moving toward liberalism, etc., etc. (as I know for a fact many evangelical leaders do think!).

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