Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Is This The God of Calvin?

What I’ve discovered over the years when observing and even participating in religious debate is that most have learned and studied diligently the side they defend but few have done due diligence in learning just what the other side believes. As associate pastor of a Nazarene church and a strong follower of Arminian theology, I am astounded over and over again when Calvinists accuse my team of promoting salvation by works. A thorough study would reveal to them that Arminius was not one to promote salvation by works. I can only believe that those accusers are confusing Arminianism with Semi-Pelagianism.

It is also shocking when advocates of Calvinism peg Arminians as humanists. The accusation goes something like this, “Arminians believe that their salvation is dependent on what they do rather than on what God does, therefore it is human centered.” They believe that Arminians overemphasize the human responsibility of confession and de-emphasize God’s desire to forgive. In my entire lifetime I’ve never heard an Arminian praise God for his salvation without giving God all the glory for the work that was done.

Many Calvinists seem to think that Arminians would limit the sovereignty of God by suggesting that human decision can in some way diminish the will of God. Arminians are, indeed, strong advocates of free will. But empowerment is foreign to our perception of free will. Free will is God’s gift to men because he desires something more than a contract relationship. He wants relationship to be meaningful and without free will that is impossible. Free will is not a display of man’s power, it is a demonstration of the tenderness in the heart of God. Many Calvinists would frame the argument in such a way as to declare that God cannot compromise his sovereignty by giving us free will. The Arminian would first reply that God can do anything he chooses to do and secondly, it may appear that God’s sovereignty is compromised but only if you measure sovereignty in human terms. It seems a bit haughty to an Arminian to even suggest that the decisions of men could in anyway threaten or compromise the very nature of God. “How great is God – beyond our understanding.” (Job 36:26)

Arminians are also accused of placing too much emphasizes on an emotional experience whose ultimate goal is an inner feeling of happiness. The Calvinist would proclaim that the chief end of God is to bring glory to himself. Arminians are not in disagreement with that but Arminians are often accused of promoting the idea that the chief end of God is to bring happiness to the heart of man. Most Arminians would strongly refute that accusation by declaring strongly that the chief end of God is NOT the happiness of man but the holiness of man.

The high-Calvinist idea of irresistible grace is confusing to many Arminians. Human decision is entirely removed from the salvation equation. According to this interpretation, humans are so utterly depraved that they cannot cooperate in any way with God for salvation. Only those elect sinners are fortunate enough to receive salvation, not because they chose Christ, but because Christ arbitrarily chose them. Arminians agree with Calvinists that no man can come to Christ unless he is first drawn by the Spirit of God but they also believe that God allows man to accept or reject his salvation. Arminians have difficulty with the belief that if God chooses some for salvation he must also choose some for damnation. This portrays a God who assigned a significant portion of humanity to hell unconditionally.

If this is the God of Calvin, Arminians strongly resist the idea that God who would simply assign certain people to hell to meet a quota. They interpret this as heartless and unjust. If those people were assigned to hell before the foundation of the world how can they be held accountable, how are they deserving? My Calvinists friends provide this answer to that question: “We all deserve hell, some of us were just fortunate enough to be chosen to go to heaven?”

Arminians are declared arrogant by certain Calvinists when they make free will statements such as, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” If that is an arrogant statement, isn’t a Calvinist’s declaration that they are one of the chosen (predestined) ones every bit as arrogant?

Arminians question the nature of a Calvinist God who seems to be the author of sin. The Arminian believes that sin entered the world as a result of abusing God’s gift of free will. Man and man alone is responsible for sin. The Calvinist must credit God with being the author of sin. They would declare that God’s purpose is to reveal his holiness.

To declare that all that happens is the will of God because he is ultimately sovereign and nothing can happen that is not within his will makes God morally ambiguous. It seems contradictory to say that a child dying of starvation is God’s will even though it is extremely grievous to his heart. This requires us to believe in a God who uses suffering and sin as vehicles to reveal his goodness. How can we love a God whose goodness can only be known by observing the horrendous suffering of his creatures?

Making God responsible for sin instead of man distorts who God really is. Theologian David Bentley Hart frames the dilemma: “It requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of – but entirely by way of – every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It is a strange thing indeed to seek (making God ultimately responsible for such things and removing the human contribution)…at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.” (Eerdmans, 2005, p. 99)

To all my Calvinist friends, please don’t receive my words in the wrong spirit. I’m wanting much more to defend Arminianism from false impressions rather than to be critical of another’s belief system. Most of the disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians is due to misperceptions and failure to understand. I want to have a clear mind and heart when considering these matters. If any of my statements in this paper are off the mark please help me understand more accurately the teachings of Calvin.

Kevin Probst - Is a teacher of Apologetics and History at Calvary Christian School and Associate Pastor of Crosspointe Nazarene Church church in Columbus, Georgia.

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