Monday, September 20, 2010

The Nature of the Divine Choice: Why Calvinists Fail to Understand Classic Arminian Theology

“With our fallen tendency to make God in our own image, you would think that we would project upward to God, and argue that God is the most free Being, is the most unrestrained, is the most unlimited, that HIS ABILITY TO CHOOSE IS THAT ABILITY WHICH IS GREATER THAN ALL AND MUST NOT BE ENCROACHED UPON AT ALL; but honestly, we don’t. We may very well say...that God is sovereign and God rules over all things, and that He is at work in all events, but honestly, when it comes down to it, GOD’S SOVEREIGN FREEDOM...IS LIMITED BY OUR SOVEREIGN FREEDOM, our sense of the ability to make other words, WE LIVE WITH A MAN-CENTERED VIEW OF THE WORLD” (Thabiti Anyabwile, “Romans 9,” at the Nine Marks Biblical Theology Conference, Session 2; September 10, 2010. Held at Binkley Chapel, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary).

“The doctrine of election is the full weight of God’s foot standing upon THE IDOL OF SELF-CONTROL AND AUTONOMY. This is God’s big foot crushing the idea of UNRESTRAINED HUMAN LIBERTY” (22:48—23:06).

“Salvation is also not a matter of human merit. Paul is completely destroying any natural, inherent grounds upon which we can make some claim on God’s mercy and God’s love...FOR SALVATION TO BE COMPLETELY A MATTER OF GRACE, IT CANNOT DEPEND ON HUMAN MERIT...IT MUST BE A MATTER OF GOD’S FREE CHOOSING.”

“God says, ‘I choose sovereignly. God is God. He controls Himself. God is not just sovereign over things and people and events; HE IS SOVEREIGN OVER HIS OWN MERCY, HE IS SOVEREIGN OVER HIS OWN LOVE.”

Dr. Thabiti Anyabwile was one of the Nine Marks Conference Speakers at Southeastern Seminary this past week. He preached on the entire chapter of Romans 9 (the video footage for his sermon was about one solid hour!). When I heard about his sermon through a classmate’s presentation in my theology class, I decided to listen to the sermon for myself. I enjoy the debate regarding Romans 9 and often seek to gain further understanding on this controversial chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

The quotes above by Dr. Anyabwile are some of the statements he made in the course of the one-hour sermon. I decided to focus on the statements above because I think they are key to the never-ending debate between Calvinists and Arminians.
Statements like Dr. Anyabwile’s above are typical of Calvinist theologians and preachers...and Dr. Anyabwile is a five-point Calvinist. However, what may shock Calvinists everywhere is that I agree with every single one of the statements above. Yes, let the last sentence sink in: I agree with ALL of the statements of Dr. Anyabwile above!

But my agreement with these supposedly “Calvinist” statements may shock Calvinists all over the country and the world; why? Because I’m a Classical Arminian...and the assumption is that Arminians disagree with such statements as “God’s freedom” and “God’s sovereignty,” etc. But this has become the “root” of disagreement between the two theological camps because Calvinists fail to hear Arminians when they say that they hold to the sovereignty of God and divine freedom. Roger Olson writes:

“Many Calvinists learn in their churches and educational institutions that Arminians do not believe in the sovereignty of God...and yet some version of this misconception pops up frequently in Calvinist thought...Arminians are more than slightly puzzled by these Calvinist claims about Arminian theology. HAVE THEY READ ARMINIUS ON GOD’S PROVIDENCE? HAVE THEY READ ANY CLASSICAL ARMINIAN LITERATURE ON THIS SUBJECT, OR ARE THEY SIMPLY USING SECOND-HAND REPORTS ABOUT ARMINIAN THEOLOGY? My impression is that many Calvinist critics of Arminianism have never perused Arminius or Arminius's theology” (Roger Olson, “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, pages 115-116).

Let it be known here that Classical Arminians, like Classical Calvinists (of which Dr. Anyabwile is one), hold to the sovereignty of God and God’s freedom to do as He pleases. We in no shape, fashion, or form deny God’s freedom in salvation.

HOWEVER (and this is where I draw the line), we differ with Classical Calvinists on the nature of God’s sovereignty and the nature of divine freedom. While we agree with the Classic Calvinist that God is free to choose to save however He pleases, we differ with WHAT God chooses to do! The question then becomes, does God save by picking some and damning others? Or does God decide to elect on the basis of faith?

When we arrive at Dr. Anyabwile’s quote regarding God choosing to save sovereignly (based on Romans 9:15), Classic Arminians desire to ask the Calvinists, “If God is sovereign, then is He not free to do what He wants?” Calvinists will answer “yes” to this question, but they arrive at a loss of words when Classic Arminians ask them, “If God is free, then is He not free to save on the basis of faith (just as He is also free to save some because of His whim)?” What Calvinists desire to do is monopolize God’s sovereignty such that sovereignty in their view can ONLY consist of God picking some and not offering grace and salvation to all. Here is Olson once more:

“Of course, when Calvinists say that Arminians do not believe in God’s sovereignty, THEY UNDOUBTEDLY ARE WORKING WITH AN A PRIORI NOTION OF SOVEREIGNTY SUCH THAT NO CONCEPT BUT THEIR OWN CAN POSSIBLY PASS MUSTER. If we begin by defining sovereignty DETERMINISTICALLY, the issue is already settled...however, WHO IS TO SAY THAT SOVEREIGNTY NECESSARILY INCLUDES ABSOLUTE CONTROL OR METICULOUS GOVERNANCE TO THE EXCLUSION OF REAL CONTINGENCY AND FREE WILL? sovereign rulers dictate every detail of their subjects’ lives, or do they oversee and govern in a more general way?” (Olson, “Arminian Theology,” page 116)

Dr. Anyabwile’s sermon was very well-prepared from a very eloquent man of God. However, as a Classic Arminian, I must say that I think the sermon was more aimed at the Pelagian than the Classic Arminian...and until Calvinists start battling those who hold to Reformed theology like themselves (of course, of a different brand like Classic Arminianism---which is also called “Reformed Arminianism”), they will continue to insist upon sermons directed at Pelagianism. Romans 9 tells us that God is free in salvation; but there are two options before us regarding the divine choice. God can either choose to pick certain individuals and pass by others, or He can choose to save on the basis of faith in Christ. Both are worthy of consideration before Calvinists rule out the possibility of the Arminian notion of God’s freedom.


The Seeking Disciple said...

I think that in some cases the Calvinist is guilty of taking their "doctrines of grace" and presupposing them upon Scripture. For instance when it comes to Romans 9 they presuppose that Paul is speaking here about individual salvation and that he is seeking to defend unconditional election. But I ask, as do most Arminians, on what basis do we presuppose this? Surely not on the context.

Great post.

Michael Gormley said...

There is No One Righteous

"As it is written: There is not any man just... (Rom. 3:10-18).

These verses are twisted by Reformers to support their doctrine that Man is totally depraved, incapable and uninterested in seeking after God.

But what about the Reformers' premise? It is decidedly destroyed when one considers that in almost every Psalm quoted; Ps. 14:1-6, Ps. 53:1-6, Ps. 5:4-10, Ps. 140:1-12, Ps. 10:3-12, Ps. 36:1-10, there is some mention of "the just," "the righteous," "them that are right in heart," and so on.

How can the Psalmist be saying that there is literally no one who is righteous, who seeks after God, when he then goes on to use phrases like, "But as for the just, they shall give glory to thy name: and the upright shall dwell with thy countenance," and "For the Lord is in the just generation?"

The Reformer must concede that he has utterly missed the point of St. Paul's argument, and that he has done what St. Paul would never do: wrenched Old Testament texts out of context.

Deidre Richardson said...


Thanks for the encouragement as always. It's so good to know that when I go on my little "rants" against Calvinism, you're always there to support me :-)

You're right: We agree with the Calvinist premise that "God is free to do as He pleases in salvation"; we disagree, however, on the conclusion "Therefore, God picks some and leaves others to their own destruction." The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise.

It's funny how Calvinists claim that Arminians lock God in a box; but don't they do it in their own theology? Is it not a case of "the pot calling the kettle black" when they say that God can only be sovereign if He picks and eliminates?

I just pray that more and more Calvinists come to see their inherent presuppositions that govern their thinking. Once they acknowledge that our view of God is a valid notion, they can then begin to examine the Scriptures and see that their own notion of God does not match the God of the Bible. Until that day, though, we'll write more and more posts for the kingdom of God.

God bless...

Deidre Richardson said...


Calvinists have twisted depravity to mean what it does not. They seem to forget in their theology that the image of God is still in man, however tainted and corrupted man may be.

The problem with Calvinism, however, is that ultimately, their view of depravity (despite the lip service) carries over into their theology. Because they view man as completely darkened within (as if he doesn't even have the image), God "has" to pick and choose who He wants to regenerate before they believe. Man, in Calvinist theology, has to have the knowledge of the truth "supernaturally transplated" before he can come to faith. But the question to ask is, "Does this actually represent the Scriptures?"

What about Romans 10 where Paul writes that "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom. 10:17, NKJV)? If faith comes by (or through hearing), then a person must hear the Word and understand before they believe. Of course, the Spirit must convict that person, since without conviction, man will never know his sin...but that's different than saying that he is so dark that he cannot even come to the knowledge of the truth with the grace of God and the stirring of his heart and mind by the grace of God.

I have never seen where the Scriptures themselves say that we are "saved to believe"; rather, the Scriptures tell us that we "believe to be saved." If this is a sufficient starting point for theology, then Calvinism cannot be right simply because it's starting point is wrong.

Michael Gormley said...

I have never seen where the Scriptures themselves say that we are "saved to believe"; rather, the Scriptures tell us that we "believe to be saved."

Dear Deidre,
But what are we to make of words, "Esau I have hated?" Doesn't the Scripture say that "God is love?"

How can a God who is, in His very essence, love, say that He hates anyone?

The trouble here is that we don't understand God's love, or His hate (don't hate, appreciate) (don't hate (don't hate, appreciate), appreciate), and we can only interpret these words through our own weak, fleshly experiences.

God, in fact, loves Edom just as He loves Israel, and it is because of His love that He opposes them.

In other words, He loves them enough to desire that they repent and turn to Him, and the only way to do that is to oppose their wickedness.

Any good parent will understand this. If your son or daughter wants to go out on a Friday night with some friends of ill-repute, your love for them and your desire for their safety causes you to oppose them, and you say, "I'm sorry, but I won't let you go."

And what do they say? "Oh, Mom (or, "oh, Dad"), you hate (don't hate, appreciate) (don't hate (don't hate, appreciate), appreciate) me!"

And it's true! You hate (don't hate, appreciate) (don't hate (don't hate, appreciate), appreciate) them (in the sense of opposing them) now, precisely because you love them.

This is what St. Paul reveals about God in Romans 1:
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice...

Wherefore, God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness: to dishonour their own bodies among themselves." (Romans 1:18, 24)

The wrath of God is shown when He lets us have our own way ("God gave them up to the desires of their heart").

His mercy is shown when He brings tragedy and calamity upon us, when He opposes our wicked desires by putting all manner of obstacles in our way, in the hopes that we will wake up and repent of our sin.

This is the "hate (don't hate, appreciate) (don't hate (don't hate, appreciate), appreciate)" that God shows to Esau, and it is not based upon some arbitrary decision on the part of God, some passing fancy, wherein He decides, quite randomly, "I think I want to hate (don't hate, appreciate) (don't hate (don't hate, appreciate), appreciate) someone today... yes, Esau, you're the one!"

Rather, it is based upon the actions of His children that He decides to either love them through "hate (don't hate, appreciate) (don't hate (don't hate, appreciate), appreciate)", by way of opposition and affliction, or to love them through mercy, by giving them prosperity and blessings.

Michael Gormley said...

God alone initiates salvation. He always turns toward man first and seeks him, as when God walked in the Garden (Genesis 3:8). Man does not seek God or turn to him without God first calling man to Himself (John. 6:37, 44; 1 John. 4:10,19).

Second, God’s initiative does not exclude man’s free response, but demands it (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Catechism], nos. 154, 155, 2002; Philippians 2:12, 13). In other words, God wills that man be free to choose His grace or reject it.

Third, salvation is extended to each and every human person, not limited to just some, and one can fall away from grace (Hebrews 2:1-4; 6:4; 2 Peter 1:10; 3:9; 1 John 5:16, 17).

Furthermore, it is imperative that once one is touched by grace, he perseveres in charity lest he forfeit the free gift of salvation (Lumen Gentium [LG], no. 14). Within the confines of these principles, Catholics have sought to understand the mystery of predestination.

Though opinions and formulations have varied among Catholic theologians, with these principles left intact, there is room for legitimate speculation.

The only proper framework to understand predestination must be rooted in the notion of a communion of persons in love. Why? The nature of God as Trinity is this very kind of communion and God created man to share in that “blessed life” (cf. Catechism, no. 1).