Myths and Caricatures of Calvinism Part Two

Can be mixed with Arminianism.

A common myth or caricature of Calvinism is that it can be mixed with the opposing viewpoint. This view is commonly espoused when someone remarks that they’re a two or four-point Calvinist (a Calminian if you will) or when degrees of Calvinism are discussed (“strong” or “weak” Calvinism which are usually shorthands for hyper-Calvinism and just normal Calvinism). Unfortunately, this viewpoint is not correct. Steve Cowan noted the necessary linkage between all five points. He said:

The five points of Calvinism, however, besides being drawn inductively from Scripture, are all logically dependent upon each other. They represent a closed system in which Biblical date are carefully balanced in order to achieve a consistent picture of Christian theology. Even critics of Calvinism concede this fact. I. Howard Marshall, for instance, remarks that “the systematic formulation of Christian dogmatics by Calvinist theologians leads to a set of basic and mutually related principles. When one rejects or distorts any point of the Calvinist system he ceases to be a Calvinist in any meaningful sense of the word. He is then dealing with an entirely different theological formulation.

Furthermore, in spite of common ground, Calvinism and Arminianism are incommensurable systems of Christian theology; on issues crucial to both there is no stable middle ground between them. Any theological system that denies the doctrine of total depravity or posits a loophole for its radical, anthropological and soteriological implications is by definition not Calvinist. Calvinism, at its foundational level, is committed to monergism. Synergism in soteriology belongs to a different brand of theology all together. Those who hold to the “moderate Calvinist” position are more aptly titled “moderate Arminians” because of what they have in common with that system; especially its notions of libertarian freedom.

Roger Olson in his book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, agrees with most Reformed theologians in rejecting the idea of a hybrid. He said:

On several crucial issues related to soteriology, no middle ground or hybrid between Calvinism and Arminianism is logically possible. Calminianism can only be held in defiance of reason; ultimately Calminianism turns out either to be a disguised form of Calvinism or Arminianism, or it slides inexorably into one or the other. Many people claim to be “four-point Calvinists,” by which they usually mean they agree with totally depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints but reject limited atonement. When pressed, however, such four-point Calvinists often turn out to have misunderstood the Calvinist idea of limited atonement…Some Arminians call themselves “two-point Calvinists,” especially if they live, work, and worship in contexts where Reformed theology is considered the norm for evangelicalism…by rejecting [a tenant of the system], they show that they are really Arminians or not Calvinists at all.

This myth should be considered for what it is, just that.

Is not the only system taught in Scripture (it also teaches Arminianism).

Some will say that certain passages of Paul or even Jesus for that matter surely teaches points of Calvinism but other passages in the Old Testament or other places teaches some facade of Arminianism. This is not even possible for two reasons: it violates the law of non contradiction and it undermines what Scriptures says about itself. The law of noncontradiction ~(p & ~p) states that nothing can both be and not be at the same time in the same respect. Nothing can posses incompatible properties; that is, nothing can be what it is not. Relating to the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, the statements that “you can lose your salvation” and “you cannot lose your salvation” cannot both be true. It is either one or the other.

Those who hold to this idea really have a problem with what Scriptures teaches about itself and the nature of God himself. In evangelical theology, the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is defined as the Holy Spirit’s superintending over the writers [of Scripture] so that while writing according to their own styles and personalities, the result was God’s Word written—authoritative, trustworthy, and free from error in the original autographs. The core of the doctrine is the acknowledgement that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) and that the writers of Scripture “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:21) The evangelical doctrine appreciates the dynamics of human personality in the inspiration process (Ecc. 12:9-10; Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30-31, 21:24-25) yet affirms the supremacy of God’s intentions and supervision. Scripture is truly the written word of God [rising] above the personalities of those who wrote it and above cultures in which it was written, reflecting the omniscience, truthfulness, and immutability of God himself. If Scripture really is the emanation of the will of God (2 Tim. 3:16) and God cannot lie or bear false witness about himself, then this claim is demonstrably false. What is more likely is that anyone asserting this myth isn’t correctly interpreting a passage of Scripture.

Necessarily entails believing everything Calvin believed

This idea is false because of the presence of various theologians, pastors, and scholars who are theologically Reformed and denominationally not associated with the Presbyterian or Reformed churches. One can certainly have a different viewpoint of the Lord’s supper but believe wholeheartedly with the Reformed perspective concerning the doctrine of salvation. The idea that believing in Calvinism necessarily entails believing everything Calvin himself believed is turned upside down with the recognition that John Calvin himself was not the first Calvinist, that he was not the only shaper of the Reformed tradition, and that the pastor/scholar never identified the five points let alone the doctrines of predestination or divine sovereignty as the center of Reformed theology. The Reformed believe that Scripture explicitly teaches the five points of Calvinism and variations of the points can be found in the works of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory Rimini, and many others. Other Church leaders were also pivotal in the construction of the Reformed faith such as Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, Heinrich Bullinger, and many others. Lastly, Calvin spoke of the doctrine of justification as “the primary article of the Christian religion.”

Does away with an age of accountability

Many Reformed theologians believe in the doctrine of the age of accountability such as John Piper and John Macarthur. Arguments for the doctrine can be found here. Other Reformed writers opt for a more agnostic viewpoint concerning what happens to children when they die young. Regardless, there is no necessary link between believing in Calvinism and the nonbelieving that God saves children who die young based upon the merits of Christ.

Lays a system on Scripture

The Reformed see the system of Calvinism much like most orthodox Christians see the system of Trinitarianism in the Scriptures. Christians believe that God exists as a Trinity. The Bible teaches two clear things: 1) there is one God and 2) there are three persons referred to as God within the Scriptures. What does this mean? It means that God exists as one being or essence yet exists as a plurality within himself. Instead of being a strict unitarian monotheist, Christians are trinitarian monotheists. Although not itself a biblical term, “the Trinity” has been found to be a convenient designation for the one God self-revealed in Scripture as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three “persons” who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeternally God. A barebones definition of the doctrine of the trinity is “God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.” The doctrine of the trinity was a progressively revealed doctrine found within the OT and NT. It is a way of looking at how the Father is described, how the Son is described, and how the Spirit is described and logically ascribing to them their attributes as laid out in Scripture. Calvinism no more lays a system on Scripture any more than Trinitarianism. It is merely an attempt to believe and systematize what Scripture teaches on one subject.

Worships the man John Calvin.

This idea is patently false because Calvinists obviously worship Jesus. Most people who say this are rather implicitly revealing a hint of anti-intellectualism. “Christianity is not about logic, knowledge, or beliefs but about a feeling, a relationship, or a presence.” The life of the mind is crucially linked to the Christian life because God has revealed himself through a piece of literature and the world around us. John Piper in his book The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God said:

…We should be eager to investigate all the works of God, all the traces of God’s influence, and all the evidences of God and pointers to God in nature and in his Word. For God has ordained that “the Light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6) shine with self-evidencing brightness in and through objective, historical communications of himself through deeds and his words. God does not take pleasure merely in being known and loved in an abstract way disconnected from his work in Creation and redemptive history. God created the world and has worked in history not so that Creation and history would be ignored. Christ did not become a man so that the story of his life and work recorded in a book would be disregarded in favor of a mystical bypass to God. This would not honor the Christ of history.

God has given the Church pastors and teachers to train up the body of Christ unto all maturity (Eph. 4:11-13). To discount orthodoxy, to belie higher education as idol worship, to reject the use of commentaries and other books and what they teach is to spit in the face of years of scholarship and, as a lay person, set yourself up as the authority of what is most likely in the text. To perform the job of handling the Word correctly, one must study Biblical languages, contemporary biblical cultures, and hermeneutics in a broad spectrum. In explanation, if one wants to know the right things about God and the world, they need to study. Studying the works of Calvin or any other great person in Church history is not idol worship, its I AM worship. Phillip Schaff once asked, “How shall we labor with any effect to build up the Church, if we have no thorough knowledge of her history, or fail to apprehend it from the proper point of observation?  History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s Word, the richest foundation of wisdom, and sweet guide to all successful practical activity.” This myth and the anti-intellectualism associated with it should be rejected. We do not have the luxury of ignorance any longer in the midst of a needy culture that has ten thousands of smokescreen objections to the truthfulness of Christianity.

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10 responses to “Myths and Caricatures of Calvinism Part Two

  1. Hey Austin! Glad to see you blog…good starting point for some fun conversations. I hope you don’t mind me responding a little to your post on here. I’m sure such responses will allow for wonderful discussions in the dorm as well. We already know that we come from different perspectives on the topic, but I know that we can discuss it in a respectful way.

    As for the portion about both Calvinism and Arminianism both being taught in scripture, I agree that they are not compatible (as Olson argued), but I have to disagree that they are the only two options. They are contrary, but neither of them is necessrily the right position in the case that the other is wrong. So, you are right that both cannot be true at the same time, but both could be wrong at the same time and in the same way. Your example for this section was the point of perseverance of the saints. This is denied by many arminians, but one does not have to be a Calvinist to hold this doctrine. So, I don’t know that this would be the most volitile point to present as contrary in the argument since many non-Calvinists will agree that the interpretation of Scripture that allows for falling from grace is flawed. However, when we get into the other arguments of the Calvinist position, I don’t think we can so easily appeal to the clear concensus of all Biblical texts to support the claims. While the Bible does not teach both Calvinism and Arminianism, the Bible does present concepts that would imply some of the claims from both positions when read at face value. Figuring out which of these positions (not only the two in question, but all of those proposed) has correctly interpreted the Scriptures then becomes a very challenging quest of logically wading through the copious relative texts in Scripture. So, ultimately, I agree in one way and yet disagree in another.

    Also, I think that the asumption of Calvinism being read from Scripture as naturally as Trinitarianism is questionable. I personally don’t think that ”Calvinism no more lays a system on Scripture any more than Trinitarianism,” so I would like to see a defense of why you think that. The explaination of Biblical trinitarianism you presented is great! I agree entirely on that, but it does not lead to the conclusion that Calvinism is just as easily read from the Scriptures. I personally consider Trinitarianism to be a much more natural rendering of the description of God’s nature from the BIble than Calvinism is for the description of God’s method of working in his creation.

    I’ll stop at that for a while and see what you think.

    • Brantley,

      I appreciate the feedback on my blog. I look forward to those discussions in the dorms. I’ve had them in my men’s ministry for the past three years and remember the dorm talks in my undergraduate as well. Theology always belongs in the context of community and because of that, I welcome your comments.

      I agree that both cannot be right but both can definitely be wrong. The only problem I see though is the paucity of other options. Molinistic, Neo-orthodox Barthian, or some other readings of the relevant soteriological texts lack the sort of explanatory power the other two systems possess. In fact, I think molinism is a brand of Arminian thinking because of its commitments to libertarianism as-well-as synergism. Barth himself was working from a Reformed perspective albeit he did not end there. So, I agree but also would like some examples of the other mediating positions that can account for all the biblical data. I of course do not include any strong or weak process theology, open theism, or pantheist readings because I think they deny just too much core doctrines of Christianity.

      Concerning the brief comment about perseverance of the saints (or preservation of the savior), you’re right. I know many Baptists hold to “eternal security” while denying the label of either Calvinism or Arminianism. I think though that this is where Olson’s comments are helpful. The Baptists do not get a free pass on labels because they dislike a portion of the systems. When cornered, they would describe themselves as something that either aligns more closely with Calvinism or Arminianism (without ascribing to the systems themselves). They likely could be Amyraldistic or some other hybrid. But, there entails the problem. Perseverance of the saints, to be held consistently, requires more than just a “once you get yourself in, you’re good” reading which can be supplied through the system of Calvinism. I likely should have chosen election as the example for typically only three options exist: Calvinistic (unconditional), Arminian (conditional), or Barthian (practically no one holds his viewpoint).

      I’m not sure I would agree that the Bible “does present concepts that would imply some of the claims from both positions when read at face value.” My qualm will be with the descriptor “face value.” The prima facie reading of many texts should be weighed with good commentaries or helps because of our philosophical presuppositions we bring to the text and the various, hermeneutic distances (distance of time, culture, geography, and language) that exist. An example I’d give would be our culture’s use of the term world. We typically use the word “world” meaning every individual on this planet and read such a meaning into the text. In fact, within the Calvinism and Arminian debate, one side usually says “world means world,” “all means all,” etc. Unfortunately, this reading isn’t always accurate. Tom Nettles, in his review of NOBTS’ publication Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, takes issue with this reading. He says:

      “No linguistic, exegetical, or theological grounds exist for reducing the meaning of ‘world’ to ‘the elect.'” (80). This flattening of the meaning of those words simply is not the way that the Bible uses them. Without contention, Romans 3:23, at the close of Paul’s discussion of the universal impact of sin, means every person without exception. At the same time “the whole world” in 1 John 5:19 contextually taken does not include each and every individual for it specifically excludes those “born of God.” So Jesus distinguished the “world” from His people in His intercessory prayer in John 17:9, 14-16. Jesus’ use of “all” in John 12:32 [“will draw all men to me”] has reference to His crucifixion as embracing the non-Jewish peoples as well as the Jews when seen in the context of John 12:20-23. It is easy empirically to demonstrate that His death does not draw each and every individual but certainly does extend the manifestation of the “eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20) to all the peoples of the world. Paul’s argument in Romans 11:11-15 identifies “world” with “Gentiles” as opposed to Jews and could easily be applied to his “all men” and “all” in 1 Timothy 2:4, 6 as he asserted and defended the legitimacy of his mission to the Gentiles (7). The covenantal embracing of Gentiles, the world, scandalized the Jews who missed justification by failing to see that they, in conjunction with the world, were dependent on the operations of electing grace. (Romans 10:1-13). Paul’s application of Joel 2:32 “whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” and his inclusion of the Gentiles in the “remnant whom the Lord shall call” upset the religious equilibrium of Israel. The New Testament from beginning to end hovers over that concept expressive of the New Covenant, so an interpretation of “all” and “world” with that as background lacks no exegetical warrant.”

      The face value reading of rendering “world” as all without exception will lead to interpretive and theological disarray (I can provide more examples of this if need be. Robert Reymond has an excellent section in his New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith). I do appreciate the agreement and disagreement and would love to further dialogue on it.

      Concerning the analogy of Trinitarianism and Calvinism, I know ( and knew) this analogy will create some issues because every, orthodox Christian affirms God’s existence as being triune but not God’s soteriological work as being Calvinistic or monergistic. I however think they’re analogous because, once all the relevant data is taken into account, Scripture teaches both. Scripture teaches explicitly the doctrines of original sin, effectual calling, God’s election, actual atonement, and the perseverance of the saints. That does not mean I don’t think there are difficult readings for the Reformed interpreter. But, neither do I think that for the Trinitarian interpreter (passages about Jesus’ lack of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. require some tough, exegetical work). The question is not whether or not I can find explicit Trinitarianism or Calvinism in each passage throughout the Bible. It is one of “what system can account for the most number of texts without doing hermeneutic back flips?” This response may or may have not been helpful.

      I think I take my past discussions about these issues in my undergraduate studies granted. I did not begin with blogs about the truthfulness of the Calvinistic system but caricatures because I had those discussions in class, in dorms, and meals with friends. Regardless, the myths and caricatures likely should be dealt with beforehand so that intellectual clouding and theological misfiring will not occur in conversations about these issues as they arise. Also, I think there’s a host of easy accessible literature on the internet (like http://www.monergism.com/) that does a better job of discussing the validity of Calvinism from the text than this blog writer. My goal is to remove smokescreen issues from this debate. Again, thank you for your comments.

    • I would also like a list of mediating positions between that you find acceptable that aren’t a hybrid.

      I would like to clarify two things. First is that the propositions made by scripture contain implications. Some like man isn’t responsible because God is sovereign are erroneous as far as scripture is concerned. While others such as the doctrinal formulation known as TULIP are not directly in the text. Paul never says, limited atonement directly, that does not mean that it isn’t implicit in other NT ideas.

      Second I would like to defend Calvinism as mystery, in a vain similar to the trinity. For the trinity we hace the chalcedonian definition which gives four fences which one cannot pass as one talks about the trinity. The proposition one is left with is mysterious, where God is one being who exist eternally in three persons. In calvinism the two doctrinal positions which are held in concord by Peter in Acts 2:23 that God predetermined an event (Christ’s death) and that men were still responsible. This position though an antinomy, denies neither of the propositions. Yet arminianism redefines what it means for God to plan something to solve the tension. Like trinitarianism suffers from things like modalism, or other trinitarian heresies, election and the doctrines of grace suffer by trying to solve a scriptural tension rather than uphold it. So it is very akin to trinitarianism in that it is an attempt to hold a mystery of the faith rather than erase the tension.

  2. Excellent post! As a Reformed Christian and consistent Calvinist, it is disheartening to find myself constantly butting my head against these and other myths. I particularly like your paragraph debunking the notion that Scripture can teach both Calvinism and Arminianism—a notion that flatly contradicts the historic Christian view on biblical inspiration. I just uploaded a video on that topic to my readingscripture.org web site, and it’s also available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHZ0YYC5k_E. It’s very basic and introductory in nature, but your post here has given me ideas for directions to take in future videos on the same general topic. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Myths and Caricatures of Calvinism Part Five « Austin's Blog·

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