Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Calvinism and Arminianism: Round Two

Well, here we are again. Since I posted my first essay on the Calvinism-Arminianism debate last summer, it has become one of this blog's most beloved and popular entries. I'm really thankful that people have been so blessed by it. It's good to hear that I really am using the gifts of intellect that God has given me to bless others and build up the church, and not just indulge my curiosity or speak eloquently into the void of the internet. Now, nine and a half months and a few major spiritual revelations later, I'm revisiting the debate to correct the mistakes of the first essay and (hopefully) shed a bit more light on this point of contention.

By way of a quick summary (though I really recommend the first post for all its flaws I'll get to soon), I basically looked at the five points of Calvinism and the counterpointing articles of remonstrance, weighed their relative merits, and explained which side of each I fell on. (Except total depravity, which has only one side) I also did a tangent on how God exists outside of our perception of time, which led into my key point, that God's free and sovereign will, and our free will, are mysteriously able to coexist. This seems self-contradictory on its face and I may never fully understand it on either side of Heaven, but I still believe it now.

Part of the inspiration for this post was the point-counterpoint feature Relevant Magazine (which does a pretty good job of engaging modern culture from a Christian perspective) did on Calvinism and Arminianism, where one writer from each viewpoint explained their position. They were pretty good and enlightening, but I felt like neither writer really fully understood the other viewpoint, instead arguing against some degree of a straw man. The Calvinist writer seems to think Arminianism is infused with humanism, and the Arminian writer asserts that if Calvinism is true, then God predetermines acts of evil; or that if everything is part of God's plan to bring Himself glory, then nothing is truly evil. The Arminian writer also seems to focus on God's love to the exclusion of His other attributes; God is love, but He is much more than that.

Additionally, I would break with them both on the very first question in the interview: "Why do these debates matter to ordinary Christians?" I believe that they do not. The common ground of Calvinism and Arminianism includes every doctrine and teaching necessary to live as fulfilled and authentic Christian. Most of all, I'm glad that both writers acknowledge that salvation by faith alone is not on the debating table. The tension caused by Arminianism's insistence on the role of human free will and Calvinism's branding it as humanism seem unwarranted. If someone is rescued from drowning, it doesn't matter whether they are floating unconscious or actively reaching for the rope--they are in no way responsible for their being saved and completely dependent on the rescuer for life.

The three issues on which the views disagree--the nature of God's sovereign election, the extent of Christ's atonement, and the efficacy of the Spirit's calling, are entirely spiritual issues that need not inform how we view God or live for Him. He is still infinitely glorious, salvation is effected by His work alone, and we gain eternal life by our faith in Jesus alone (among other truths). The Calvinism-Arminianism debate is a great example of why having a perfect theology is (thankfully) not a requirement for salvation. I'm returning to this issue solely because of my bottomless curiosity.

With that said, on to the other thing I wanted to address: the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. My treatment of this point has been bugging me lately; in my first essay, I came up with such a weak argument for it that I was able to conclusively disprove it. I don't think this is how theology is supposed to work, so I found an extremely well-thought-out and researched essay on limited atonement with the help of a friend. So well-thought-out, in fact, that it has helped sway me to its point of view. Hopefully now I can give this point of contention the treatment it deserves. Since they are all closely related, I'll be touching on the U, I, and P of Calvinism again as well.

To start, I took a step back from the essay or any other argument from someone else and looked purely at the Biblical data. This involved putting every verse I could find on the subject onto about 40 cards, laying them all out, and processing them until things started to click. I was able to isolate the four main tensions, the four "yet"'s that I think help to drive the big debate.

Note: Google's new Blogger interface has a bug that makes it difficult to add links, so you're unfortunately on your own to look up all these Bible references.

God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), yet not everyone is saved. (Matthew 7:13-14)

This tension gets to the heart of God's sovereignty. If He desires everyone to be saved, what does it mean that not everyone is saved? Is God being insincere? Is He not in control? Since it raises questions like these, both Calvinism and Arminianism have found answers for this. Calvinism says that "all men" in 1 Timothy 2 is better understood as "all kinds of men"; the classic Arminian response is that while Jesus did extend God's salvation to everyone, not everyone freely chose to believe in God and so not everyone is saved.

I don't like either of these answers. I can't believe in good conscience that God doesn't really want some people to be saved; that seems to undermine His loving character. On the other hand, what I didn't seem to realize about the Arminian view last year is how much it weakens God's saving grace and Christ's atonement. It's basically implying that our refusal can defuse Christ's death on the cross for us, cause it to "not work", and paints a picture of a God whose best-laid plans are readily subverted by the exercise of our free will. Either way, an answer to this tension must reconcile the difference between what God wants to happen and what actually happens. Traditional responses use the idea of multiple, differing wills: with Calvinism we have God's "revealed will" as distinct from His "secret will", and in Arminianism it is God's will over and against ours.

I already addressed this tension pretty well last year. My response focuses on Romans 9:22-24, which I will quote again:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
I hadn't noticed the parallelism in this verse last time--"vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" and "vessels of mercy" "prepared for glory". The analogy used in previous verses is that of earthenware vessels being made for different purposes. I wouldn't say God has two different wills, but He does have two desires--to display His wrath, and display His mercy. Though they are very different on our end, they are both part of God's overarching desire to glorify Himself.

I will stop here to acknowledge that this is a very hard teaching to accept. This is what opponents of Calvinism like to call "double predestination", the idea that God predestines people for hell as well as for heaven, which I think is loosely held by Calvinists largely because of its difficulty to swallow. I really don't think there is any functional difference between "single" and "double" predestination; if you  take one, you get the other. The alternative would be God predestining His elect for salvation, and leaving everyone else to decide for themselves, which is (pardon the expression) just plain weird.

But anyway, this idea is understandably hard to accept. "I believe in a God of love", many Christians say. The idea of hell in general is very unpopular of late and many Christians (most notably Rob Bell) look for ways to soften its impact or significance in Christian theology. (I recommend Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle as a much better treatment of the subject than this aside) The thought that God predestines some people to hell without giving them a choice (though my non-contradicting view of God's will and ours would argue that this is a misrepresentation) is even harder. Hell is tragic because evil itself is tragic, and the fact that the alternative is an unjust God who lets the most evil among us to share in eternal life is little conciliation. How I think about it now is that God sincerely wants every single person to be saved and enjoy eternal life with Him, but those who reject Him he is ready and willing to cast out, knowing that the display of justice will also enhance His glory. Hopefully that helps at least a little.

Anyway, on to the second tension, which turns out to be much happier...

We are all commanded to repent (Acts 17:30), yet repentance is a gift from God. (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25)

This one was new to me and gets back to the nature of free will. If God is the one who gives us repentance and all that comes with it as a gift, how then can He command us to repent? Put the other way, the command to repent implies some action or initiative to be taken on our part, to obey--and if repentance is something we do, then how is it a gift? The Calvinist view, again putting all the initiative on God's side, argues that Christ's death not only purchases our salvation but also secures the conditions for it, including repentance. The Arminian response is to again take the universal command to repent as evidence for universal atonement--that Christ died for everyone and now everyone is called to freely accept Him and be saved.

This one was really confusing me until I remembered that God doesn't always command us to do things we are able to do--e.g. "be perfect" in Matthew 5:48, or the entire law in general; the purpose of the law is to show us that we are sinful, not for us to obey it (Romans 5:20). In light of this, I would say that God commands us to repent, and that repentance is to be real and freely given, but He also gifts us with the ability to obey the command and repent. This is an example of the grace He extends even to those who don't yet have Christ.

Jesus loses no one the Father gives to Him (John 6:39-40, 10:28-29), yet it is possible for those He died for to be "destroyed". (Romans 14:15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 2 Peter 2:1)

This tension is one half of the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement; a clear example of Jesus dying for people who are ultimately not of God's elect. The Calvinist view focuses on the meaning of "bought" as being more phenomenological (based on visible, external factors) than spiritual; in the words of one theologian, “The non­elect enjoy many benefits that accrue from the atonement but they do not partake of the atonement.”

For a while I thought the Arminian position on this tension seems the most convincing; on this and the next one, it really seems to take the relevant passages (some of them, anyway) at face value. Jesus died for some who will be "destroyed". I envisioned a distinction between Jesus dying for someone and that person being elected or "given" to Jesus. This seems to resolve the tension, except it flies in the face of verses like Romans 8:32, which draws a direct line of reasoning from Jesus dying for us to our being graciously given "all things", including salvation. More on this in the last tension.

Then, as I considered the Calvinist view further, the outward-appearance-of-salvation view began to make more sense. Since, as Ephesians 2:8 beautifully says, we are not saved by anything we ourselves do, whether inwardly or outwardly, but only by faith in the atonement of Jesus, there will always be at least a bit of fuzziness in knowing whether we ourselves are saved--how much more when trying to know for others! The only way to be absolutely certain we are saved is to remain faithful until the end. In light of this, it's much more feasible that Paul is using terms like "bought" and "died for" with the highest level of certainty we can have about each others' salvation--which leaves room for people who really appear to be Christians, but later fall away.

This point is also pretty scary and sobering--as I said last time, the idea of strong, mature Christians later turning against God and the church frightens me. But these mentions of the possibility of falling away aren't meant to scare people, but to encourage the church to be loving and considerate to the faith of weaker believers (the context of Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11) or to warn and exhort the church to cling to the truth rather than to false teachings (the 2 Peter verse). The worst possible response to these verses is to start worrying over whether or not you are really saved. 1 John 3 talks about how to tell if we are children of God or of the devil. If we believe that Jesus is the Christ (5:1) and cultivate a habitual lifestyle of righteousness, we have nothing to fear.

The extent of the atonement: Jesus died "once for all" (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 10:10) and for the whole world (1 John 2:2), yet He gave Himself up for His bride the church. (Ephesians 5:25)

This is the heart of the limited/universal atonement debate. Both sides have strong Biblical arguments for their view, as that essay shows. Picking one view requires you to somehow deal with all the evidence for the other. I'll try to carefully lay out both sides before explaining my position.

A key verse for the Calvinistic view I missed last time is Romans 8:32:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
The chain of logic goes like this: if God gave His son for us, then He will give us all things, presumably including salvation. You can't separate the gifts. Also, 2 Corinthians 5:14 says that those for whom Christ dies died with Him, and Romans 6:5-8 makes clear that those who died with Christ will also live with Him. It is very difficult to read the Bible as saying that those for whom Jesus died can remain lost and die in their sins The Calvinistic view also points to verses like John 10:26-29, Acts 20:28, Ephesians 5:25, and Titus 2:14 that indicate exclusivity in Jesus' sacrificial act. For a different kind of argument, if Christ died for His bride the church, then dying for those outside the church is kind of like polygamy.

The Arminian view simply points to verses like Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, and 10:10; 1 John 2:2, and 1 Timothy 2:6 which all use universal language in referring to the extent of Christ's atonement: "all", "the world", etc. It also points of that the verses cited above to say Christ's death was for the church do not say it was only for the church. Again, Arminians would say that Christ died for everyone, but His death is only efficacious for those who freely accept Him.

Like in the previous tension, the Arminian view seems to have simplicity on its side, and this had me convinced for a while. If Christ died for all, then He died for all, right? Well, it turns out that Greek has a somewhat more nuanced definition of "all" than some translations would suggest. The passages cited by the universal atonement view use one of three words to indicate the universality of Christ's death: πας (pas), κοσμος (kosmos), and εφαπαξ (ephapax).

πας is a very common word in the New Testament that is translated many different ways, including "all" and "all kinds of" (Matthew 4:23, 12:31, Acts 10:12, and Revelation 21:19, to name a few). So the "all kinds of men" rendition of such universal verses really is plausible. Kosmos, similarly, just means "world". Obviously the pharisees did not mean in John 12:19 that absolutely everyone was following Jesus. Or if Jesus died for the sins of the world (John 1:29), but Jesus said His disciples were not of the world (John 17:16) can see the need for a more nuanced definition of "kosmos" that isn't always universal.

Ephapax is the hardest one. This one appears just five times in the Bible (Romans 6:10, 1 Corinthians 15:6, Hebrews 7:27, Hebrews 9:12, and Hebrews 10:10) and is used either to say Jesus died for sin "once for all" or that he appeared to over five hundred people "all at once". I'm still not entirely sure how these verses don't prove universal atonement, but they are not mentioned in the extremely scholarly and well-researched essay that otherwise provides good support for the position, so I think they may not simply mean that Jesus died once for every single person; perhaps "once and for all" would be more accurate.

And finally, distasteful as it may seem, limited atonement makes a surprising amount of sense if you take the idea of God's election (which, again, is strongly supported by scripture) to its logical conclusion. If God is really sovereign, will He not do everything necessary to enact the salvation of those He chooses to save? If the elect really have been exclusively chosen for salvation, it makes sense that they would also be exclusively chosen to partake in Christ's death for sins.

And so, I find myself a four-point Calvinist--just not the usual four points. (Limited atonement is the one usually left out) Irresistible grace, the idea that those God chooses to save are saved apart from their own choice or willingness, which can do nothing to impede their salvation. While it is true from a certain point of view, I think it negates the role our free will really does (paradoxically) play in effecting our salvation.

I hope you don't get so bogged down in all this theology that you miss the big picture of which this debate is only one small part. Studying it has helped me to appreciate how powerful, awesome, and merciful the gospel is. When we were lost in our sins, rightly condemned to death for our treason against the God who made the universe and our souls, He gave up His son so that we could be reconciled to Him and even adopted into His family. What an amazing gift the gospel is! Understanding this and really appreciating it is much more important than having all your theological ducks in line.

Addendum 7/1/2012: After more thinking and debating, I am back to unlimited atonement. I realized that limited atonement's money verse, Romans 8:32, also uses πας, so by my logic it could be rendered "He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all kinds of things?" The absurdity of this got me completely fed up with noodling around with the various possible meanings of Greek words. I later realized that this verse furthermore isn't actually drawing an if-then relationship (if God gives Christ up for someone, then they receive all things, even salvation) but simply using Jesus as an example of God's perfect, amazing generosity as an encouragement to faithfully expect more glorious blessings beyond our salvation (such as the things in verse 30). I am still going to question the meaning of one word: namely "for". I think there is a difference between Christ's death being intended for you (which is true of everyone) and His death being effective for you (if you are saved), just as there is tragically a difference between God intending all people to be saved and their effectively being saved.

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