Calvinism and Arminianism Compared by Roger E. Olson
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- What is Calvinism? A) Belief that God foreordains and renders certain everything that happens without any exceptions; everything that happens in creation is designed, ordained and rendered certain by God; B) Belief that God alone decides, unconditionally, who will be saved, that Christ died only for them (“the elect”), and God saves them without any cooperation on their part (“irresistible grace”). “A” is called “meticulous providence,” “B” is called “double predestination.”
*There are some varieties of Calvinism that deviate slightly from above, but above is classical, historical, evangelical Calvinism as taught by Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, R. C. Sproul, John Piper and all other classical, historical, evangelical Calvinists.
- What is Arminianism? A) Belief that God limits himself to give human beings free will to go against his perfect will so that God did not design or ordain sin and evil (or their consequences such as innocent suffering); B) Belief that, although sinners cannot achieve salvation on their own, without “prevenient grace” (enabling grace), God makes salvation possible for all through Jesus Christ and offers free salvation to all through the gospel. “A” is called “limited providence,” “B” is called “predestination by foreknowledge.”
*As with Calvinism there are varieties of Arminianism that deviate slightly from above, but above is classical, historical, evangelical Arminianism as taught by Arminius, John Wesley, Charles Finney, C. S. Lewis, and Dallas Willard and all other classical, historical, evangelical Arminians.
- This debate (between Calvinists and Arminians) actually predates Calvin and Arminius by centuries. Early church father Augustine of Hippo was a Calvinist before Calvin, and the Eastern Church fathers were all Arminians before Arminius. (Although both Calvinism and Arminianism are Protestant and therefore emphasize salvation by grace alone through faith alone in a way that perhaps the ancient church fathers did not.)
- This debate will never get finally settled before the eschaton (consummation of God’s plan at the end of history) because both find much support in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral).
- The central biblical passage supporting Calvinism: Romans 9 (“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy….”) The central biblical passages supporting Arminianism: 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4 (God wants everyone to be saved).
- If Scripture wears both aspects and neither “side” is doing violence to Scripture, how can a Christian decide which to embrace?
- The underlying issues are not free will or predestination; both Calvinists and Arminians say they believe in both. (But they interpret them differently.) The underlying issue one has to consider is the character of God. The Arminian emphasizes God’s love; the Calvinist emphasizes God’s power.
- According to Arminianism (as espoused and explained for example by John Wesley), double predestination and meticulous providence make God morally monstrous and not good in any meaningful sense of the word. Why?
- According to Calvinism, salvation is completely produced by God from beginning to end with no free cooperation on the part of the sinner being saved. God decides to save some unconditionally and damn others when he could save them because grace is irresistible. Christ died only for the elect—those God decreed to save. Both the saved and the damned have no “say” in their eternal destiny (heaven or hell). Of course, they both feel as if they are making free decisions, but from God’s perspective everything, including sin, is part of God’s plan and purpose—including hell. Calvinist Theodore Beza (Calvin’s successor in Geneva): “Those who find themselves suffering in the flames of hell for eternity can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God.” Hell is necessary for God’s full self-glorification because God’s self-glorification (God’s purpose in creation) requires that all of his attributes be manifested. One of God’s attributes is justice and wrath, including hell, is necessary for the full manifestation of God’s justice. (Arminians argue that the cross on which Jesus died was a sufficient display of God’s justice and wrath.)
- Arminians believe God genuinely wants all people to be saved and does everything possible to bring that about—without taking away free will. The gospel (the Holy Spirit through the gospel) frees the sinner’s will from bondage to sin and makes it possible for him or her to respond with repentance and faith.
- Arminians make a distinction between two wills of God: “antecedent” and “consequent.” God’s antecedent will is what God wishes were the case; God’s consequent will is what God permits to be the case. Sin has no place in God’s antecedent will; neither does hell. These exist only because of human persons’ free (not foreordained) rebellion against God and refusal of God’s mercy.
- According to Calvinism (as espoused and explained for example by Jonathan Edwards), the Arminian view of salvation makes the human person’s free decision to accept God’s grace by means of repentance and faith the decisive factor in his or her salvation and therefore makes salvation less than a free gift; it becomes partly a “work of man.” This contradicts (they argue) many passages of Scripture including, of course, Ephesians 2:8-9.
- Calvinists believe God wishes it could be true that God saves everyone, but for his own good reasons knows it is not possible—if his main purpose in creation is to be fulfilled (viz., his own self-glorification by means of the manifestation of all his attributes including justice).
- Calvinists make a distinction between two wills of God: “decretive” and “permissive.” (They also distinguish between God’s “decretive will” and God’s “prescriptive will,” but that is not directly pertinent here.) God’s decretive will is all-determining; it decides and then God renders certain all that happens without exception for his glory. However, God does not cause anyone to sin or do evil; God renders these certain. There are two or three different Calvinist explanations of how God renders sin and evil certain without being guilty of them.
- Arminians argue that Calvinism, with its all-determining decretive will of God, cannot escape making God the author of sin and evil.
- Calvinists argue that Arminianism, with its emphasis on the necessity of human free acceptance of God’s grace (free meaning able to do otherwise) makes salvation something other than a sheer gift and ultimately falls into works righteousness.
- Arminians deny that (#16 above) and explain that only “prevenient grace” or “enabling grace”—a work of the Holy Spirit through the gospel message—gives sinners the freedom to repent and believe. Without prevenient grace no one would repent and trust in God alone.
- The Calvinist view of salvation is called “monergism” which means “one energy” or “one activity” produces salvation—God’s irresistible grace. The Arminian view of salvation is called “synergism” which means “two energies” or “two activities” cooperating to produce an effect (salvation). However, Arminian synergism emphasizes that God’s grace is the effectual cause of salvation while the person’s faith is its instrumental cause.
- According to Calvinism, evil, including sin, is efficaciously permitted by God (meaning his permission renders it certain) for a good purpose—his own glory in redeeming his elect people from sin and evil and his own glory in punishing the wicked (showing forth his justice and power).
- According to Arminianism, evil, including sin, is non-efficaciously permitted by God (meaning his permission does not render it certain) for a good purpose—his desire to have a relationship with human beings created in his own image and likeness that is not coerced but is free. God grants (self-limitation) human beings the ability to resist his will. God is sovereign over his own sovereignty; he can remain sovereign and permit sin and evil which are not his antecedent will.
- Calvinists respond that if God foreknew that some of his human creatures would reject and disobey him and created them anyway, he is just as responsible for their sin as if he foreordained it and rendered it certain. Arminians respond that God’s foreknowledge does not cause sin and evil but only “corresponds” with it. God foreknows because it will happen; his foreknowing does not render it certain.
- This debate will almost certainly go on forever—until God settles it in heaven. Both sides can point to Scripture passages that seem to support what they believe. The debate has gone on since at least the writings of Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century. Although Eastern Orthodox Christians have never really dealt with it (they believe in free will), the debate in various forms has happened repeatedly throughout Catholic and Protestant histories and theologies. The Catholic Church condemns double predestination. Protestants are deeply divided over it. From time to time Protestants have agreed to disagree and cooperating with each other in spite of their differing views of God’s sovereignty. At other times some Protestants have accused “the other side” (either Calvinism or Arminianism) of heresy and refused fellowship with them. For the most part, however, Calvinists and Arminians have developed their own denominations and churches while acknowledging the Christian status of the others. This is comparable, for example, to different Protestant practices and beliefs about baptism. Some Protestants practice infant baptism; others practice only baptism of believers (over a certain age or in a certain stage of development—old enough and mature enough to express faith in Christ). For the most part these practices and beliefs and about baptism do not co-exist in single denominations. (There are some exceptions where denominations allow parents to decide.) This generally does not stop them from cooperating and having Christian fellowship with each other across denominational lines. This has been the case with regard to Calvinism and Arminianism for the most part. However, occasionally an influential Protestant Christian minister, evangelist, writer, speaker, theologian, will declare “the other side” (viz., Calvinists or Arminians) “profoundly mistaken” if not heretical and break off Christian fellowship with them.