Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Saturday, January 05, 2013

An Irenic Discussion of Arminianism and (Moderate) Calvinism

For the last week, I have been enjoying a healthy and deeply interesting dialogue about Calvinism and Arminianism with Dr. Roger Olson on his blog site. This has been an occasional but ongoing conversation since he first started blogging back in July of 2010. Although we are poles apart on a number of theological issues, Dr. Olson has been gracious in his dealings with me as an "opponent." I am including our back and forth comments below for the benefit of curious folks who want to know whether this can even be done . . . and for contentious folks who don't think it can be done. I am also posting this because it contains defenses of key Moderate Calvinist stances regarding theological paradox, compatibilism, the extent of the atonement, God's decrees, and other matters.

As followers (and representatives) of Christ, we must be unified in our love for one another, even if we are not unified on every point of doctrine. It's more important for Calvinists and Arminians to love one another than to "defeat" one another.

See it all here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/12/calvinism-and-the-god-as-author-analogy/#comments


  1. Derek Ashton says:
    Dr. Olson,
    Interesting topic here! Speaking for myself as a more-or-less Piper-esque Calvinist (and not implying that he would claim my views), I want to address the line of reasoning some previous commenters have chosen. Specifically, I would like to address the idea of taking certain tenets of Calvinism to their “logical conclusion.”
    It is worth noting that the Desiring God article linked in your post is a good bit more in-depth and honest about the tensions than many of your readers may realize. I would also suppose that Calvinists in general have much more sophisticated views than the “determinism taken to its logical conclusion” approach which seems to be a “straw man of choice” in this thread. In itself, the term compatibilism implies that “determinism taken to its logical conclusion” is insufficient to describe the viewpoint to which compatibilistic Calvinists adhere. In fact, the term contains an implicit denial of “determinism taken to its logical conclusion.”
    Compatibilism certainly involves some mystery and tension. But let’s be honest–all Christians embrace logical tensions to some degree. Take the statement, “Jesus is God” to its “logical conclusion” and we have grounds to deny essentials like the virgin birth, the humanity of Christ, the death of Christ (and therefore the resurrection), etc. because God can’t “logically” be born, be a creature, die, etc. Take “Jesus is a human being” to its “logical conclusion” and we have grounds to deny His deity, eternality, etc. Such reasoning is obviously not valid (at least not for Christians), yet I see no difference between this and the kind of reasoning contained in some of the comments above (note that I am not saying anyone here is not a Christian; only that the reasoning employed is invalid for Christians). Many core doctrines of the Christian faith contain this kind of tension, and it would not be proper to take one facet of the doctrine to its “logical conclusion” without overlaying and nuancing through appeals to other aspects of the doctrine. Let’s not sugar coat this, or pretend that every aspect of every Christian doctrine can properly be “taken to its logical conclusion.”
    One could ostensibly take selected portions of the ancient creeds and use them to argue against the truths contained in other portions of the same creeds. Even Arius would have agreed with parts of the Nicene creed; then, by taking them to their “logical conclusion,” he would have argued against the other parts. Arius took portions of the Biblical teaching to their “logical conclusion” without embracing other portions because, in his mind, it would not logically make sense to do so. Is there not a danger in this kind of reasoning, which seems to make human understanding, rather than God’s Word, the ultimate measure of the Truth. Arius was, after all, a genuine heretic on both Calvinist and Arminian terms.
    What I appreciate in the writings of compatibilistic Calvinists like Piper is a willingness to honestly accept all of the Biblical data, even when it goes beyond the ability of the human mind to reconcile all of the ensuing tension. While I admire the rigorous commitment to logic on the part of many Arminians, I have yet to find one that (to my satisfaction, at least) admits all of the Biblical testimony into the system. For me, losing precious Biblical propositions is worse than having inexplicable holes in the system. And with that said, I am a Calvinist today because I do not find a more logically consistent system that takes in all of the Biblical data. I easily find more logically consistent systems that don’t take it in. For me, it’s Sola Scriptura first, and then the fun part of working out the logic as far as possible.
    Note: I am not saying Arminians don’t believe the Bible; I am saying their system, especially as represented in this thread, seems to inconsistently elevate human logic in opposition to the Calvinistic doctrine of Providence while readily accepting the logical tensions of the Incarnation and other orthodox doctrines. No Arminian says of the humanity of Christ: “Whatever the Bible means in those passages, it can’t mean that!”
    Finally, to answer your questions in the post, I would take the position that evil does not become good simply because God ordains it. It would never become a ground for rejoicing simply because God ordained it. Our sadness at the atrocities in this world may in fact reflect God’s own heart and mind in the matter. However, along with Him, we rejoice exuberantly in all of the good that He ultimately brings about through the evil that is done. Per Romasn 8:28.
    To illustrate this in a more personal way: by God’s grace, I hate and abhor my own sins. I am deeply saddened and shamed by them. Yet I also rejoice in the forgiveness and grace that I could never have experienced if I was sinless. I don’t love being a sinner; but I love being redeemed from sin! Yet I couldn’t have been redeemed if I had never been a sinner. Thus, as a forgiven perpetrator of heinous crimes against a holy God and His creatures, my Calvinistic theology lines up perfectly with my experience and what I find in the Scriptures. If anything, a true Calvinist will ask God for MORE feelings of moral repugnance against evil. And at the same time he will ask for more JOY in God’s good grace as well. All of this lies right at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Apparently He believes in paradoxes, too.
    A happy New Year to all, and much joy in Christ!
    Derek Ashton
    • rogereolson says:
      Derek, I always appreciate your civility even when we sharply disagree. You will not be surprised to read me say that, in my opinion, it is Calvinism that seeks logical consistency over biblical fidelity. I will point this time to only one example: limited atonement (which I realize some Calvinists reject but which seem to be part and parcel of what you call eloquently “Piper-esque” Calvinism). As I have explained in Against Calvinism, the high Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement must ignore much Scripture. Of course, I think you would agree, neither side in this debate really “ignores” any Scripture. What we are calling ignoring is really interpreting in a non-natural sense. I hope you will agree that no intelligent Arminian literally “ignores” any of Scripture. What we do is interpret Scripture differently (than Calvinists). So, to be fair, I don’t believe any informed, intelligent Calvinist literally ignores any of Scripture. What happens, in my opinion, is that much of Scripture is interpreted in non-natural ways in order to make it fit with the system. I’m sure you would admit that’s what you really mean when you say non-Calvinist systems of theology overlook or ignore crucial passages of Scripture. In my opinion, limited atonement does exactly what Piper argues we must NOT do in his long footnote about Clark Pinnock in (I think) Desiring God. He argues that Pinnock believes some things because Scripture allows it and logic requires it. I can’t believe any Christian does otherwise. We all believe some things because logic (or evidence) requires it and Scripture allows it. That’s how I view limited atonement. I don’t say Calvinists who believe in it ignore or overlook Scripture; I say they take something they believe (e.g., unconditional election of some sinners and irresistible grace granted to them only) and force it to its logical conclusion (limited atonement) and then interpret Scriptures no non-Calvinist would interpret this way as supporting limited atonement. As for your explanation of your feelings about evils God ordains I will just say I can’t even imagine living with that level of cognitive dissonance. If I came to believe that God ordained and rendered certain an event such that he manipulated the thoughts and motives that sinfully caused it I would have to celebrate all of that and not isolate the good results and celebrate only them. That seems absurd to me. I realize it doesn’t to you. However, I thank you for joining the discussion. Your Calvinist voice is always most welcome here because you are not insulting or uncivil. I wonder if you would answer this question I have put to many Calvinists without satisfactory answers? From where did the first evil inclination come?
      • Derek Ashton says:
        Dr. Olson,
        Thank you for your very kind words.
        I actually agree with what you mentioned concerning non-natural exegesis used in support of limited atonement. My views on that topic are more in line with Richard Baxter (and many other puritans, including numerous Westminster divines), R.L. Dabney, William G.T. Shedd, Bruce Ware, and (I suppose) John Calvin. I am drawn to the moderate historical stream within Calvinism whose adherents are apt to take texts such as I John 2:2 at face value. I disagree at least partly with Piper’s approach on this.
        There are admittedly those on both sides of the Calvinist/Arminian spectrum who engage in system-driven exegesis (and some on both sides who tend not to, thankfully). One of the arguments I have made to fellow Calvinists is that they should take a more moderate view on limited atonement simply because it fits more consistently with God’s universal love/saving desire for all people (which is strongly affirmed by Piper) and the free offer of the Gospel (also strongly affirmed by Piper). These mainstream Calvinist essentials, which unfortunately aren’t conveyed well by the TULIP acronym, logically argue for a less limited atonement than most of today’s vocal Calvinists are promoting.
        Concerning the doctrine of Providence, I don’t think a Reformed view requires that God “manipulates the thoughts and motives” behind sinful actions. All mainstream Calvinists retain, at the very least, the concept of “unconstrained” and “voluntary” creaturely actions (thus no one is “manipulated” under normal conditions). This is one of the critical distinctions entailed in compatibilism. Of course, I understand that this quibble probably doesn’t make the Reformed approach any more attractive for committed Arminians.
        Your question about the first evil inclination certainly provokes thought. My Biblicist side wants to say Scripture leaves this entirely in the realm of mystery. And that is probably the best place for me to leave it, as much as I would like to speculate. Do you see Open Theism, Arminianism, Molinism or any other non-Calvinist system answering this in a more satisfying way?
        You probably know that Augustine danced around with this question in the Enchiridion, chapters 10-23. His answers are paradoxical: God only created good; evil is a corruption/privation of that good; thus evil cannot exist apart from good, while good can exist apart from evil; anything totally evil would cease to exist because in it there would be no good thing left to corrupt with evil; thus a being cannot be evil without also being good in some sense.
        Augustine’s answer is sensible enough, but still leaves your question unanswered. What prompted the initial privation of good? I suppose only God truly knows.
        Blessings,
        Derek
        • rogereolson says:
          Derek, I always appreciate your irenicism (which doesn’t in any way dilute your strongly held theology). The problem I have with any Calvinist appealing to mystery when faced with the question of the source of the first evil inclination is the typical Calvinist doctrine of providence which, according to my understanding of it, anyway, excludes anything real (and even evil, though a privation of the good only, is real in that it exists) from escaping God’s ordination. Surely, if God is as all-determining and controlling as most Calvinist theologians assert (e.g., Helm and Sproul), then nothing, not even the first evil inclination, can fall outside God’s plan and determination. The way most Calvinists have handled this (including Edwards) is to say that God brought it about by withholding the grace needed for the creature not to develop an evil inclination. Edwards admits that this amounts to making God the author of sin and evil in a restricted sense. God, he argues, is not the cause of them, but, like everything else, they only exist because God desires them to and renders them certain. (I have expounded this and documented it in Against Calvinism.) It seems to me a key difference between Calvinism and Arminianism (and this difference existed also between, say, Luther and the Anabaptists) is that one side sees evil as having purpose above, higher than the purpose of the creature (e.g., selfishness). It has divine purpose, ultimate purpose. The other side regards evil as a surd, lacking any purpose at all. God can bring good out of it, but it has no divine purpose behind it. God never intended for it to come into existence. The problem with the first view, it seems to me, is that, from an ultimate perspective, evil is not really evil. Anyway, that is how I would have to regard it did I hold that view.
          • Derek Ashton says:
            Dr. Olson,
            I see your point, and this is truly an important difference, as you noted. On Calvinistic terms, no event (including the first evil) can ever be viewed as non-ordained or unforeseen by God. He could not have been “surprised” when the first evil occurred.
            However, does the classical Arminian approach really view evil as entirely purposeless? It would seem that God’s omniscience entails an awareness on His part of every evil that ever will or can occur, and His omnipotence would include the ability to prevent or allow it. If this is so, then He must maintain ultimate control over evil (and therefore have some kind of purpose in allowing it). If not, He could choose not to allow it.
            Blessings,
            Derek
          • rogereolson says:
            Purposeless in terms of intentionality. Of course God had a purpose in allowing it. The difference lies in intentionality. In Calvinism, as I understand it (having read scores of books by Calvinists including Calvin himself), every event is foreordained and rendered certain by God for a specific purpose. God intends it to happen, not just to permit it to happen (Calvin rejected the language of permission in discussing divine providence). In Arminian theology we distinquish between two wills of God: antecedent (in which evil does not exist at all) and consequent (in which God permits evil in order not to control creatures so that they can only do what he intends for them to do). Thus, in Arminian theology, evil has no purpose in God’s overall plan. It happens. God deals with it, overcoming it and, when possible, bringing good out of it.
          • Derek Ashton says:
            Dr. Olson,
            Thank you for explaining this in further detail; those are useful distinctions. Does this approach make the cross “plan B” rather than God’s original design?
            Much has been made of Calvin’s critique of divine “permission,” but he makes it clear that what he opposes is a “bare permission” by which God would relinquish His Lordship and Providence, and merely respond to human wills rather than rule over them.
            I really appreciate your taking time to discuss these matters with me. At the end of the day, we are fellow Christians. That is what counts!
            Blessings,
            Derek
          • rogereolson says:
            Thanks, Derek. I always enjoy having dialogue with you. But, as I’m sure you have noticed, we tend to go around in circles–always returning to the same questions and answers and differences. I wonder to what extent our basic differences (also between most evangelical Calvinists and evangelical Arminians) are a matter of perspective? I’m not relativizing the matter because I do believe one of us is right and the other wrong (or we’re both wrong). But I’m continually puzzled by how equally sincere, God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, reasonable people can see God’s sovereignty in Scripture so differently? To answer your question. I don’t think of the cross as “Plan B” in the ordinary sense because, as a classical Arminian (not an open theist) I think God knew all along what was going to happen. I do think the cross is part of God’s consequent will, not God’s antecedent will. But just in case you have difficulty with that, think about the fact that ONLY (not shouting, just emphasizing) a supralapsarian can really say that the cross is God’s “Plan A,” part of God’s antecedent will. An infralapsarian (most Calvinists) will also have the same challenge (from a supralapsarian) as you give me. I once asked John Piper about this, hoping to trap him (we were having a very irenic, civil discussion but he was trying to trap me, too–into affirming open theism) and he said he “might be” a supralapsarian. He indicated he was leaning in that direction. I think that would be the way anyone would have to go if they affirm that the cross is “Plan A” in the sense of logically preceding God’s decree to permit the fall. What do you think? Can an infralapsarian say that the cross is God’s “Plan A” in the sense you mean–”God’s original design?”
        • Derek Ashton says:
          Dr. Olson,
          Yes, I have noticed that our discussions (and most between Calvinists and Arminians) seem to always take the same turns. It is easy to get frustrated with this and start pressing harder (or louder) in an effort to get things resolved. But I doubt it is necessary to get past the differences; perhaps just understand them better. That is what I most appreciate about our dialogues. You have been involved in this discussion with many different Calvinists and for a good while, so your restraint in this regard is very much appreciated. It says much about your character.
          Regarding your question, I believe the cross was/is “Plan A,” but not because of supralapsarian leanings. Some infralapsarians would take all of the decrees together and call that, collectively, “Plan A.” From this standpoint, every Calvinist can (and should) view the cross as “Plan A” or God’s original design. This is perhaps similar to your approach in the comment above, which seems to take God’s antecedent and consequent will(s) together as “Plan A.” The move seems warranted in both cases, and perhaps points to an important similarity between the two schools of thought when backed into the same corner!
          As a side note, I like the approach taken by R.L. Dabney, who said the following (so much better than I can say it):
          “… he who apprehends the action of the infinite mind reasonably and scripturally at once, sees that, while the sublapsarian is right in his spirit and aim, both parties are wrong in their method, and the issue is one which should never have been raised. As God’s thought and will do not exist in his consciousness in parts, so they involve no sequence, neither the one nor the other. The decree which determines so vast a multitude of parts is itself a unit. The whole all-comprehending thought is one co√ętaneous intuition; the whole decree one act of will. But in virtue of the very consistency and accuracy of the divine plan, and infinity of the divine knowledge, facts destined to emerge out of one part of the plan, being present in thought to God, enter into logical relation to other parts of the same plan. As the plan is God’s thought, no part precedes any other. But none the less those parts which are destined to be, in execution, prior and posterior, stand in their just causal relations in his thinking. One result decreed is to depend on another result decreed. But as the decree is God’s consciousness, all is equally primary. Thus there will be neither supra- nor infra-lapsarian, and no room for their debate.” (This is from Dabney’s essay entitled, God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, as Related to His Power, Wisdom and Sincerity)
          While slightly more sympathetic to the infralapsarian position, Dabney stands with a number of other Calvinists in the moderate stream who disparaged the lapsarian debates in general. In their view, the whole project goes well beyond the bounds of Scripture and involves us in questions that are ultimately unanswerable (or at least defy systematization). Herman Bavinck was another notable representative of this viewpoint.
          So it would appear that we can both agree that the cross is viewed as God’s original design from each of our perspectives. Now, please don’t take the following as an attempt to “trap” you (and I doubt I could successfully trap you, anyhow) . . . but does this put you in the position affirming that evil, in general, was also part of “Plan A,” or God’s original design? And would this not make evil “intentional” and “purposeful” from the divine perspective, even if taken as God’s consequent will? Finally, does this potentially put us in the same boat as far as theodicy is concerned? Maybe the differences can be illustrated more succinctly in this attempted summation:
          ***The Calvinist says God (in His secret, sovereign will) deliberately decrees to permit evil (for a purpose), and every evil is used for the greater good.
          ***The Arminian says God (in His consequent will) knowledgeably chooses to permit evil (for a purpose?), and some evils are used for the greater good.
          Both are taking measures to maintain that God is not directly “responsible” or “culpable” for the evil that occurs. Yet both view evil as God’s “will” in some sense. However, if my summations above are correct, Calvinism more satisfactorily vindicates God’s permission of evil by putting every evil to good use. For Calvinists, this is part of what is meant by “works all things together for good” in Romans 8:28.
          Blessings,
          Derek

7 comments:

  1. It comes down to this: The spiritual unity of Protestantism is intact; regardless of such disagreement.
    However, the case for election, and predestination is exaggerated in Calvinism due to man's inability to posses the mind of God. Even still we maintain our will within Christ; one way or the other. Our will became free; on Calvary.

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  2. Our will is entirely free?

    This interesting article shows how it's heavily affected by outside influences. Maybe, just maybe, one day people will acknowledge that God sometimes influences the way we choose.

    http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/paying-a-price-for-impulse-20130101-2c421.html?rand=1357039079301

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    Replies
    1. Coke Can,

      Interesting article. I don't think my discussion with Dr. Olson has touched upon "free will" (although that subject is never far off from this type of discussion). Dr. Olson, as a Classical Arminian, actually would not agree with your statement, "Our will is entirely free." He has said in the past that fallen man has "situated freedom," rather than absolute freedom. Obviously, we Calvinists don't find this distinction all that convincing or helpful (or Biblical). On the other hand, my version of compatibilism leaves fallen man as free as he can possibly be, within the confines of:

      A) God's immutable decrees, which govern all things; and
      B) The binding nature of sin, which affects every aspect of our being, rendering us totally depraved

      So I guess that doesn't leave us very free . . . but it leaves us free enough that:

      A) We voluntarily choose our own behavior using our own wills; and
      B) We are justly held responsible for these choices

      Thank you for *choosing* to comment.

      Blessings,
      Derek

      Delete
  3. Thank you very much. I'm beginning to see I'm a moderate Calvinist in many ways. Finally having read the Institutes, I really didn't see much at all I disagreed with. I'm still not sure about infant baptism, but I'll let that one go. This was a very good read. I love reading anything about God's providence. I will start on the Puritans very soon, with Flavel being the first.
    Jeff

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    Replies
    1. Jeff,

      A few months back, I read slowly through the sections of Calvin's Institutes where he makes the case for Total Depravity and the bondage of the will. I was surprised to discover a clearly defined compatibilism there. His tone was much more balanced and nuanced than I expected it to be. However, this should not be too surprising, since his theological mentor Augustine took a similar tack a thousand years or so earlier.

      I am glad you are reading so many good books! There is no doubt you are testing everything against the immovable cornerstone of Scripture. May God bless your studies.

      Grace & peace!
      Derek

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  4. Hey Derek,

    Your closing comments nailed it. At the end of the day, there is not a lot of difference between carefully qualified classic-moderate Calvinism and Evangelical Arminianism in principle. God permits the fall for wise reasons and to accomplish wise ends. God never causes or effects sin. Both sides must appeal to mystery at some point. The unknown inexplicable, why did God permit the first sin? etc etc.

    And unless we want to go Hyper or Open Theism, we must say that permission of sin must have some grounding relation to foreknowledge rather than direct causation.

    I think what drives lapsarians nuts is their inability to treat creation as a genuine "end" in itself. They have to make explicit its "purpose" that is becomes subservient to redemption in Christ. As Bavinck said, they want to see the unity in the divine plan. We all must see unity in the diving mind, but that does not make the God's creative and providential actions all subservient to a single teleology.

    What is really wicked is when calvinists go "ultra" or "hyper" and insist on saying that God causes or effects sin directly. Others 'want' it to be direct, act and speak as if it is direct, but just wont come out and say its direct. They really cant handle real contingency (from the human perspective) as that seems to weaken the God of Power.

    David

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    Replies
    1. David,

      Thanks for sharing these thoughts. To give credit where it is due, much of my clarity on this topic has come from our discussions. And all of the backing needed for accepting these views as "authentically Calvinist" is in your research.

      Blessings,
      Derek

      Delete

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