Few discussions regarding Christian theology bring with them so much heat and so little light than the ones regarding Calvinism versus Arminianism.
At Apologetics Index we tend not to get involved in discussion on this topic. Instead we provide a brief overview, and point to two articles — both hosted on this website — that present what we consider to be a balanced point of view.
We highly recommend the pamphlet Free Will vs. Predestination: Calvinism and Arminianism Explained by ROSE Publishing. It is an excellent synopsis that helps Christians begin to think through and understand these issues.
[A] theological movement in Christianity, a liberal reaction to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. The movement began early in the 17th century and asserted that God’s sovereignty and man’s free will are compatible.
– Source: Arminianism, Encyclopedia Britannica
According to Calvinism:
Salvation is accomplished by the almighty power of the triune God. The Father chose a people, the Son died for them, the Holy Spirit makes Christ’s death effective by bringing the elect to faith and repentance, thereby causing them to willingly obey the Gospel. The entire process (election, redemption, regeneration) is the work of God and is by grace alone. Thus God, not man, determines who will be the recipients of the gift of salvation.
– Source: The Five Points of Calvinism
The Church has dealt with the conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism for centuries. Here is how The Greenville News, a secular newspaper, reports the issue as it played out in some South Carolina churches:
At issue: Calvinism, a 16th-century doctrine emphasizing God’s sovereignty and its corresponding doctrines of grace. Most Baptists, whose denomination has deep Calvinistic roots, go along with at least three of the five points of Calvinism: man is totally depraved, the Holy Spirit can provide irresistible grace, and God’s people will persevere to the end (once saved, always saved).
Where some balk are the two points that say God, not man, chooses who will be saved, and that Jesus died only for those chosen ones. For them, that flies in the face of that most beloved of all Bible verses, John 3:16: ”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the doctrinal controversy has flamed into a hot, sensitive topic in the Upstate.
Frenchman John Calvin (1509-1564) is considered by many scholars to be the greatest thinker of the Protestant Reformation. His ”Institutes of Christian Religion” sought to defend Protestant believers against the slanders being made against them as they pulled away from the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
Central to Calvin’s thinking, said Dr. Loyd Melton, the Erskine professor writing an explanatory series for The Baptist Courier, ”is the sovereignty of God. God is always God, and human destiny, especially salvation, is first and last in his hands and under his control.”
From that fierce belief that God knows and controls everything came the doctrines of predestination and election. Calvin pointed to Paul’s writings in Romans 9-10 and in Ephesians, and to verses like this one in Acts 13:48: ”And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”
Calvin’s purpose, said Melton, was to reassure believers that their salvation was firm because of God’s grace and was not dependent on their works.
In succeeding decades, Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) argued that Calvin’s doctrine of election took away human responsibility. Humans can resist grace, he said. And while only believers would benefit from Jesus’ death on the cross, he died for everyone.
The Synod of Dort reacted against Arminius by formulating the five points of Calvinism in 1618 — 54 years after Calvin’s death.
Through the centuries, the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism has never really ceased. The foremost preachers of the 18th century’s Great Awakening, George Whitefield and John Wesley, came down on opposite sides.
In more recent history, the controversy has rolled through the Southern Baptist Convention as pastors wrestled with the implications of inerrancy. For every Acts 13:48 that Calvinists point to, Arminians answer with a Romans 10:13: ”For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
But for laymen, the issue seems to have burst on the scene fairly recently.
In 1997, Dr. William Estep, a distinguished Southern Baptist historian, wrote an article in the Texas Baptist Standard decrying ”this newfound fascination” with Calvinism. He appealed to 20th century concepts of individual liberty and fairness when he wrote, ”To say God created some people for damnation and others for salvation is to deny that all have been created in the image of God.”
Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, responded. ”Many Southern Baptists find predestination and other doctrines difficult to understand and even offensive to our pride,” he wrote. ”But we cannot read the New Testament without coming again and again to these doctrines.”
Undoubtedly, it’s a question that has intrigued theologians and historians for four centuries: Is the responsibility for salvation God’s or man’s?
In any discussion of Calvinism, this anecdote is quickly introduced:
When the believer dies, the first thing he will see is the gates of heaven with the words ”Whosoever will” emblazoned across the front. As he passes through, he turns and sees on the gate’s back side ”Chosen before the foundation of the world.”
For neutral pastors around the state, it’s not an either/or proposition but both — even as they acknowledge there’s some contradiction in that.
”Yes, God is sovereign, but yes, I have the responsibility to choose,” said Melton, who is the only Southern Baptist on Erskine’s faculty. ”It leaves you confessing two truths that from any logical point of view are mutually exclusive. But logic is a human invention. The mistake of fundamentalism, in my judgment, is assuming that all truths can be reduced to logic.”
”The Bible teaches both viewpoints, and they’re diametrically opposed,” agreed the Rev. Tony Beam, pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Fountain Inn. ”We’re talking about the mind of God. If we ever get to the point where we can figure out the mind of God and explain God completely on every subject, then he ceases to be God.”
Many pastors express puzzlement — and sadness — that the issue has flared to the point of church splits and pastor resignations. It’s a no-win situation, declared Dr. Mike Hamlet, pastor at First Baptist Church of North Spartanburg, because both free will and predestination are taught in the Bible.
”We’re not going to solve this dilemma,” he said. ”There are those who think they can pick a side on this and say, ‘We’re going to win this one way or the other.’ That’s where churches make a tremendous mistake, because the church has been dealing with this for centuries.”
– Source: Calvinism’s stern, centuries-old doctrine causing upheaval among Upstate’s Baptists, The Greenville News (South Carolina), Nov. 26, 2000 [No longer online]
Free Will or Predestination?
The pamphlet Free Will vs. Predestination, by Rose Publishing, introduces its helpful comparison between the Calvanism and Arminianism as follows:
The expression “being saved” points to the beginning of a wonderful relationship with God. These words means much to Christians because they encompass much: A new relationship with God and other people, the renewal of our hearts and minds, the growth of faith and obedience in our lives, and much more.
How does this salvation happen? More importantly, once we are saved, can we lose our salvation? Is sharing the good news of the gospel even necessary? Do we have to do anything to be saved?
Before seeing two ways to answers these questions, let’s focus on the points with which all Christians agree. Regarding God’s merciful work of salvation, Christians agree that:
- Because of sin, all humans need God’s grace
- Salvation from sin and condemnation is an act of God
- Salvation is accomplished only by grace through faith in Christ
- Word, good works or works of the Law, cannot lead one to salvation
However, Christians do not agree on how God’s sovereignty and human freedom (free will) related to each other in connection to salvation. Two views answer these questions differently: from a Calvinistic (predestination) or an Arminian view (free will).
Although the answers available are not simple, they are important for our understanding of God’s mission in the world and our responsibility as believers.
– Source: Free Will vs. Predestination: Calvinism and Arminianism Explained, ROSE Publishing
- Calvinism, Arminianism, and The Word of God (Balanced) A Calvary Chapel perspective. Includes an overview of the Five Points of Arminianism, as well as the Five Points of Calvinism. By Chuck Smith.
- What Calvinism And Arminianism Have In Common (Balanced) by Edward Fudge
- My Evangelical Theological Arminian Musings by Roger E. Olson, author of ‘Against Calvinism.’ Olson says he intents his blog to be “a place for irenic exploration and conversation; it is not for insulting people or movements or flaming them,” and notes, “Constructive criticism is, of course, fine.” We think his blog is fine example of constructive dialogue. At the same time we must include a buyer beware: Olsen has stated on his blog that in his opinion the Seventh-day Adventist church (SDA) is ‘not a cult.’ Not only is he a bit confused on the distinctions between theological and sociological definitions of the term ‘cult,’ but he apparently believes that SDA is not theologically a cult of Christianity — a position that is difficult to defend in like of the movement’s doctrines.
- Against Calvinism (Contra) by Roger E. Olson, professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University
Calvinist theology has been debated and promoted for centuries. But is it a theology that should last? Roger Olson suggests that Calvinism, also commonly known as Reformed theology, holds an unwarranted place in our list of accepted theologies. In Against Calvinism, readers will find scholarly arguments explaining why Calvinist theology is incorrect and how it affects God’s reputation. Olson draws on a variety of sources, including Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, to support his critique of Calvinism and the more historically rich, biblically faithful alternative theologies he proposes.
Addressing what many evangelical Christians are concerned about today—so-called ‘new Calvinism,’ a movement embraced by a generation labeled as ‘young, restless, Reformed’ —Against Calvinism is the only book of its kind to offer objections from a non-Calvinist perspective to the current wave of Calvinism among Christian youth. As a companion to Michael Horton’s For Calvinism, readers will be able to compare contrasting perspectives and form their own opinions on the merits and weaknesses of Calvinism.
– Source: Publisher’s book description
- For Calvinism (Pro) by Michael S. Horton, the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.
The system of theology known as Calvinism has been immensely influential for the past five hundred years, but it is often encountered negatively as a fatalistic belief system that confines human freedom and renders human action and choice irrelevant. Taking us beyond the caricatures,
Michael Horton invites us to explore the teachings of Calvinism, also commonly known as Reformed theology, by showing us how it is biblical and God-centered, leading us to live our lives for the glory of God. Horton explores the historical roots of Calvinism, walking readers through the distinctive known as the ‘Five Points,’ and encouraging us to consider its rich resources for faith and practice in the 21st Century. As a companion to Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism, readers will be able to compare contrasting perspectives and form their own opinions on the merits and weaknesses of Calvinism.
– Source: Publisher’s book description
- Free Will vs. Predestination: Calvinism and Arminianism Explained, ROSE Publishing. Highly recommended. Explains both positions, highlights points of agreement, lists additional issues and refers to Biblical passages. An excellent synopsis that helps Christians to think through these issues.
Do people have free will or does God predestine them to be saved? If God elects us, is there any reason to spread the Gospel? Can a person lose his salvation? This easy-to-understand pamphlet compares the teachings of Arminianism with Calvinism and gives the key Bible verses you need to understand this important topic. Size: 8.5 x 5.5, unfolds to 38 inches. Fits inside most Bible covers. 14 panel, glossy coating for durability.