Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Dilemma of Two Theologies

For the last four months, I have engaged in serious theological study regarding the two major theological systems—Calvinism and Arminianism. Over the last four months, I have also talked to certain friends and acquaintances of mine around campus regarding which of the two systems they believe is most biblically correct. The response I’ve received, to say the least, has not been very eventful. Most people respond with the expression, “Well, I’m somewhere in the middle” or “I’m somewhere in-between,” or “I’m a little of both.”

These statements are shocking to me for two reasons: first, because I work and live on a seminary campus where it seems that theology is what I, the professors, and students study every day! Secondly, and most important for this post, is that this is shocking because there is NO SUCH THING as a “middle of the road position” BETWEEN Calvinism and Arminianism. In the words of Roger Olson,

“It is not unusual in evangelical circles to hear sincere and well-intentioned Christians declare themselves ‘CALMINIANS,’ a combination of Calvinist and Arminian. I have encountered this claim numerous times when presenting Calvinism and Arminianism to classes in colleges, seminaries or churches. Often students ask, ‘Why can’t there be a middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism?’ TO which someone replies, ‘There is—it’s called CALMINIANISM!’ A sincere desire to bridge the gulf that has caused so much conflict underlies this misconception. By no means should the desire for unity be belittled; it is ADMIRABLE even though its fulfillment is, in this case, IMPOSSIBLE…if unity is the overriding concern, their stark particularities can be artificially softened. When they are defined in ways that diverge from their classical definitions, combining them is simple. Thus their so-called unity is determined by how we define and describe them. However, when Arminianism and Calvinism are understood in their HISTORICAL, CLASSICAL SENSES, NO SUCH COMBINATION IS POSSIBLE; they will always remain alternatives, especially in soteriological matters” (Roger E. Olson, “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, pages 61-62).

Olson clearly asserts that Arminianism and Calvinism as originally defined CANNOT be combined to produce a unified system. This stands in stark contrast to today’s theology, where students (and professors alike, not to mention the everyday churchgoer) attempts to create a combination of these two theological systems.
So, to show the insanity of “Calminianism,” this post will address both five-point theological systems and we will see if we can combine ANY TWO views on any of the points and create a unified whole. On your mark, get set, go…

Point Number One—Total Depravity. Interestingly enough, both Calvinists and Arminians agree. Man has been marred by the fall, and every place within and without man has been “darkened” because of the corruption of sin. As a result, unless God’s grace goes before him, man cannot do anything spiritually good or anything that will reap a reward in the kingdom of God. Apart from God’s grace, man can do nothing (John 15).

Point Number Two—Unconditional and Conditional Election. Calvinists believe that the elect are UNCONDITIONALLY elected to salvation (Christ chose them before the world was created because He wanted to), while Arminians argue that election is conditional upon faith in Christ. If you combine these two together, we have a situation where “only the elect” are allowed to have faith in Christ. But if their election is UNCONDITIONAL, then why do they even need faith in the first place?

Point Number Three-- Limited and Unlimited Atonement. Calvinists espouse “limited atonement,” which says that Christ only died for some of humanity (called “the elect”), while Arminians say that Christ died for all (“unlimited atonement” because everyone can be saved). If we combine these two together, we now get “a limited unlimited atonement”—where Christ died for some while dying for all! Does that make ANY sense to you? It sure doesn’t to me. If you think this point is weird in the “Calminian” system, it gets worse…

Point Number Four—Irresistible and Resistible Grace. Calvinists say that God’s grace is irresistible, which means that the elect cannot fight against it. Although they rebel for a time, eventually God’s grace “overwhelms” them (to use terms similar to that of the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon) and they come to Christ. Since God has “unconditionally” elected a certain amount of humanity, He will do everything He must do to make sure that the elect’s salvation comes about (including “dragging” someone to faith by His grace). Arminians, on the other hand, believe that grace can be resisted. Arminius did too, and he based his view on Acts 7:51. Personal experience testifies to those who “resist” God’s grace, even though they see the Lord working. And all Calvinists, at one point, RESISTED the grace of God (they are an irony to themselves!). If we put these two thoughts together, we now have an “irresistible resistible grace”—God’s grace is irresistible but can be resisted? So now, even though God’s grace is “irresistible,” He ALLOWS people to resist? What kind of a system is THAT? God’s grace cannot be both at the same time.

Last but not least, POINT NUMBER FIVE—Perseverance of the Saints. Calvinists argue for UNCONDITIONAL perseverance, meaning that, since God chose you to be saved (for whatever reason He did), He will persevere you to the end, cause you to endure this life until the end. In the words of Edwin Palmer, perseverance is not the perseverance of the believer, it is “the perseverance of God”:

“It is possible to use another term to describe this fact, namely, THE PERSEVERANCE OF GOD. For really the perseverance of the saints DEPENDS ON THE PERSEVERANCE OF GOD. It is because Christ perseveres in His love toward His church that the church perseveres in its love toward Him” (Edwin Palmer, “The Five Points of Calvinism.” Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972, page 68).

Arminians, on the other hand, argue for CONDITIONAL perseverance—this says that perseverance is not guaranteed, but is based on the lifestyle of the individual. In other words, God is not responsible for the believer’s perseverance; THE BELIEVER IS! According to the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews,

“Therefore since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that SO EASILY ENSNARES US, and RUN WITH ENDURANCE the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-2, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

So, if we put these two together, we end up with both God and the believer persevering at the same time. The problem with such an analysis, though, is that God has ALREADY PERSEVERED, when He “endured the cross” that was set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). Hebrews teaches us that Christ, having endured already, calls for us to endure, making Him our example (Hebrews 12:2).

Now I’ll admit—the above scheme of a “Calminian” system is pretty insane; and most people don’t embrace both views of both systems in everything. Usually, most “Calminians” at heart embrace a little Calvinist doctrine, a little Arminian doctrine. But I think the problem with most believers is that they’ve rarely investigated such theologies to come to terms with what they believe. Chances are, someone told them something to the effect of “Calvinists believe in the sovereignty of God and Arminians believe in free will” and they ran with that piece of information and have resigned themselves to “Well, I believe in both, so I guess that puts me SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE.” However, that too, is a misconception. Such an assessment is due to misguided information; Arminians hold to the sovereignty of God as well (contrary to what Calvinists may believe)…

Matthew 6:24 tells us that “No one can be a slave of TWO masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. YOU CANNOT BE SLAVES OF GOD AND MONEY.” Even though the issue being discussed involves our beliefs ABOUT God, and not so much about serving God (or money), one thing rings true: we cannot advocate TWO theologies: either we will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one theology and despise the other. We cannot have it both ways.

Before all believers lay the dilemma of two theologies. As far as which to choose, I’ll let you decide…

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