I don’t know if this is a James R. White original but James has often stated that theology matters. I wholeheartedly agree. It has been said that your theology (or lack thereof) determines your faith and practice to which I also agree. I guess what I am going to say here isn’t going to be very original to some who might read this, however this whole discussion may challenge some peoples thinking.
In my last blog I briefly compared the differences between the views of John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius to demonstrate in part where ideas come from and how they develop, but also that how we interpret scripture can determine our theology. We can either arrive at our theological conclusions contextually or by proof texting.
I noted that both Calvin and Arminius drew much of their thoughts from other sources. Calvin was a big fan of Augustine and Arminius was a big fan of Pelagius. These aren’t the only sources they drew their theology from but it is fair to say that both looked at faith and theology from two clearly opposing perspectives. At some point one needs to ask the big question about which was right and who was wrong.
If you have ever cared to read the works of Francis A. Schaeffer, he notes in one of his works what he has labeled the line of despair. The line of despair looks at the devolution of thought away from antithetical thinking (if this is right then that must be wrong) to synthesis (the combining of opposing ideas to form a mixture or blend but lacking truth or a conclusion) Schaeffer was almost prophetic in his prediction that within 20 or 30 years postmodernism would become the prevailing thought to which Christianity would need to respond. Schaeffer made this prediction in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s.
The direct consequence of synthetic thinking or Hegelian dialectic resulted in the very thing that Schaeffer predicted; the idea that there is no final authority or no final truth that we call postmodern thought. Each one according to postmodernism determines their own narrative or truth. It may differ from others and may even contradict others truths but both opposing views are equally valid.
Returning to our subject of Calvin verses Arminius, if synthesis is a valid argument and postmodernism is the framework on which we now hang our theology, how can anyone determine if there is such a thing as a final truth or authority. Can any Christian who holds to this idea really proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as an authoritative source for salvation over Islam or one of the various cults parading as Christianity? The answer has to be no.
If the above is true can a Calvinists claim their theology is any more valid or consistent than Arminianism? The answer once more has to be no. This means one can choose from the franchise of popular theologies that suit the individual or group to make them comfortable. If postmodernism is true then all paths lead to god. There is no single theology that defines Christianity or the true path to salvation. Obviously I disagree with that whole point of view the bible is clearly antithetical it is a polemic against anything and everyone who does not agree with it or live by it’s standards. The bible according to Francis Schaeffer is a proposition from God to man on how live in relationship to Him and also each other.
If the bible is a true communication from a holy and righteous God who has set the conditions by how we can and should live in a relationship with Him and each other, and those conditions are based on absolutes, then there are clear limits as to how we can do this. In other words how we think about God and how He has communicated His truth to us is finite not infinite.
So returning to our discussion on theological coherence, if theology matters, we also have to conclude that there is good theology and bad theology. Once more, using Calvin and Arminius as our example we have to make a distinction between them without compromising on one or the other. Both positions can’t be true. One or the other is based on a poor interpretation of the scriptures and draws faulty conclusions from the text. We can’t reach a correct view of scripture based on false assumptions.
The most alarming thing about these false assumptions from which we form our theology is that we often make the assumption that what we base our theology on is true. One only has to look at the presuppositions underlying both Calvinism and Arminianism to see they cannot coexist with each other. There are many who have tried to reach a compromise between the two positions, however the basic assumption underlying both positions cannot be reconciled with each other. That assumption pertains to the nature of man and the fall of man through Adam’s sin.
In general discussion if you asked both sides of this debate about how they come to their conclusions on the nature of man, both will claim biblical authority. If you ask both sides if man is a sinner in need of the grace of God, they will agree. If you ask both sides if man can please God in his own strength they will say no. Where they begin to differ and go awry is when you ask them can man make the choice to follow God through Jesus Christ , does man have a free will to choose one, will say yes and the other will say no.
Now if you ask the Calvinist why man can’t freely choose to follow God, the Calvinist should answer because of man’s fallen nature he is spiritually dead and incapable of responding to the call of repentance without God first enlivening us by His Holy Spirit. It follows that if God chooses to save you it is God’s choice not ours and He may choose whomever He pleases according to His good pleasure and will.
Ask an Arminian that same set of questions and they will say that man is a fallen sinner but that he has free will to choose or reject the gospel. Man is spiritually dead until he asks God to forgive his sins and repents. Man is fallen but is still able to make right choices.
One of these positions definitely paints a brighter picture of humanity than the other does. Arminian’s accuse Calvinists of being fatalistic or deterministic. Arminian’s argue that for God to be truly loving and merciful there must be a free choice involved in that decision. Otherwise we are simply robots and if God chooses one person over another that is unfair.
The Calvinist response should be would God be unfair if He sent us all to hell? After all that is what we all deserve according to the bible. If we all deserve to go to hell and God in His mercy chooses to save some and not others what does that say about God?
I could go back and forth with this dialogue but the point here is to show that the two positions are not consistent with each other and if you push the argument hard enough you eventually get to the premise from which these two positions originate. They don’t originate from the same view of man. Even though they both claim biblical authority there is a fundamental difference regarding the nature of man and his ability even if one or the other side disagrees that there is a fundamental difference between the two. The conclusion if we are honest is inescapable that the two positions can’t be reconciled with each other and therefore one or the other is wrong.
I do realize that within the franchise of theological positions that now exist one could argue that both are wrong and some other position is correct however these two are the basis from which many other theological positions have emerged. Calvinism or the high position of God’s sovereign Grace and His election and predestination of men to salvation for His own glorification has a long standing rich tradition that found in scripture. Arminianism also has a long tradition however it stems from an objection to the idea that God will elect some to salvation and not others.
Pelagius believed that man could merit salvation through good works. Although Arminius rejected this idea he still believed man could make the right choice. That one idea begs the question which is if man can choose to do right of his own free will and repent or reject the gospel isn’t that merit on mans behalf? Arminian’s would argue no.
A basic tenant of Arminianism is that there is enough goodness left over that man can make a choice. In other words at the fall man didn’t completely fall from grace. Man fell enough to deserve eternal punishment but not enough that he is incapable of doing right. Arminian’s would argue that I am painting a false picture of them. Many would reject the charge that being able to repent of one’s own free will in obedience to the gospel is a work although they then have to explain how that is not merited to them but is solely the work of God. Could it be fairly argued then that they cooperated with the Holy spirit? Could it be argued that they were actively involved in their own salvation? I would argue yes and the charge of synergism can be laid against anyone who holds such a position.
So far as theological coherence is concerned this does matter because how one arrives at one or the other position is dependent upon how one interprets the scriptures. One can create a list of proof texts that support a position but can that position hold up under scrutiny when put in the context of the passage or passages from which it came.
From what has been said here and in the previous blogs the burden of proof lays at the feet of the one who makes the claim that their view is consistent with the biblical text. I would ask how they arrived at their conclusion. Simply put, does the context support their assertions. Is their the view consistent with the revealed character and nature of God? Does their theology fit show the revealed will of God?
You could ask a lot more questions of this nature but this will do for now