Theological Identity Crisis (A)

December 22, 2010 — Leave a comment

Let’s try a little thought experiment shall we?

Many people I know who are interested in theology would classify themselves as Calvinists. They do not all have the same theological convictions, but for the most part they would agree with TULIP:

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints

This acronym of Calvnistic belief is rather well known. What sometimes escapes well meaning people is that this only has to do with the doctrine of salvation, not the entirety of Calvinistic thought. What you think about other doctrines (doctrine of man, God, etc.) determines in a large part how you interpret these positions, and how you ultimately define them.

But anyway, back to the thought experiment. Suppose you more or less agree with these, but you add some qualifications. You’re not sure about limited atonement because you feel that several passages very clearly indicate that Christ died for all in some sense. You’ve seen a lot of people walk away from the faith, and so in principle you agree with irresistible grace, but with the qualification that someone can walk away.

Beyond this, you make a priority in the doctrine of God of asserting love and goodness as the fundamental attributes. In addition, while strongly asserting God’s sovereignty, you also argue for a libertarian version of man’s free will (an act is only free if it is not constrained by outside forces). Because of this, election rather than being arbitrary on God’s part is based on God’s foreknowledge of which people will, with their libertarian freedom, moved by His grace, choose Christ.

Now, what does this make you?

Here’s a hint: Not a Calvinist

Most of what is detailed above are the qualifications Jacob Arminius made against Calvin. What is striking is not that Calvin affirmed the 5 points, while Arminius denied them. Arminius argued strongly for God’s sovereignty, for the depravity of man, and for the priority of God’s grace in salvation; all of which are traditional hallmarks of Calvinistic theology.

The continental divide between Calvinists and Arminians is actually in the doctrine of God. Arminians qualify God’s sovereignty by his goodness, while Calvinistis qualify God’s goodness by his sovereignty. The difference is not which attributes are affirmed and which aren’t, but which attribute is seen as fundamental. A lesser divide, but still rather significant is which understanding of man’s freedom you have. If you have a libertarian version (defined above), you are by definition in the Arminian camp.

While some may object to this being the determinative factor in your theological identity, it is nonetheless the issue between the two systems. Having just finished Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, I’ve now seen this dividing line laid out by both sides (for a good Calvinist account, I would recommend Cornelius Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology). It is not so much that if you believe in a libertarian free will you have to be an Arminian, it’s just that you can’t be a Calvinist. If you’ve always thought of yourself as the latter, this is the fast track to a real identity crisis.

The reason you can’t quite be a Calvinist and hold this view is that not only did Calvin not hold to it, he strongly argued against it. While there may be some debate about how Calvin precisely understood the atonement (see here), his understanding of God’s sovereignty and the will of man are pretty transparent. It seems rather contradictory to claim someone’s namesake while not following their actual teachings. Kind of like “Christians” who use the name but have no real commitment to Christian teaching or practice.

In defining a theological identity, one should see that there are really two questions involved:

  1. Historically, what did Calvin/Arminius teach? (which parses out who should be using who’s name)
  2. Exegetically, what does Scripture teach? (which should be the ultimate determining factor in either system)

Ultimately, what matters most is the latter question, and good Calvinists and Arminians place a priority on it over the historical question. But, you can’t really run roughshod over the historical and still retain the name. Generally speaking, this applies to Christianity as well, as noted by one of its biggest objectors. Consider this interchange in a recent interview. You can read the whole article at that site, but here’s a key Q/A:

The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Even a staunch atheist like Christopher Hitchens is able to see that historically Christians have believed certain key things and that to disregard or abandon those beliefs, yet still retain the name is kind of silly. The problem that I think happens with Calvinists and some Arminians (as Olson notes in his book) is that they were never familiar with the teachings of their namesake, and so it’s not so much an abandonment of once held truths, as a hypocritical use of Calvin or Arminius name in vain.

For this reason, I would suspect that many people who think they are Calvinists, but have never read Calvin and tend to qualify God’s sovereignty by a libertarian version of free will are actually Arminians and just don’t know it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as after reading Olson’s book, I now see they are not so far apart in the areas they do affirm. Maybe you would think a synthesis is possible.

But, as we’ll see tomorrow, that is not really possible either.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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