Oh boy. Now there’s a title that just screams “controversy!” to most Protestant readers. It may just improve traffic on my site as people stream in to tell me how wrong I am for choosing one side or the other.
In actual fact, I must admit I am professedly neither Calvinist nor Arminian; most of the theological distinctions that divide them are details of soteriology (theology of salvation) which I have yet to develop firm opinions about. Furthermore, while I have long known a few committed and informed Calvinists, I’ve only recently come across some committed and informed Arminians. As a result, I’ve discovered that I’ve been rather ignorant as to (some of) the actual theological positions of Arminians. Not that I have a ton of time to spend studying these two traditional sparring partners, but something I hope to be able to do, bit by bit, is examine the differences between them more closely and assess where I find myself able to agree, disagree, or take up a third stance.
As an Anglican, and especially as a high-churchman, I have no preconceived sense of loyalty to one side or the other. My Evangelical seminary education has leaned me slightly in the Calvinist direction, but I never spent much time even there considering closely the distinctions between Calvin and Arminius. Thus, my aim is to consider Calvinism as if I were a Calvinist, and Arminianism as if I were an Arminian. Really it’s the only way to understand a debate: treat each side to be correct until one proves convincing over the other, should such a resolution arrive.
Anyway, on to the preliminaries. How might Calvinism and Arminianism be compared with one another on a very basic level?
When divisions in the continental Reformed churches came to a head in 1619 at the Synod of Dort, the Calvinist party put together the acronym TULIP to highlight their particular theological stances as opposed to the Arminians. While the five points do not exactly summarize what Calvinism is, in sum, they do summarize distinct positions that they hold in contra to the Arminians.
T = Total Depravity. This is the doctrine that every aspect of the human person is touched by sin, and nothing is spared from its blemish. One of the big results of this situation is that each of us are entirely unable to save ourselves from the results of our own sin.
U = Unconditional Election. This is the doctrine that God elects (chooses, predestines) individuals to be saved unconditionally, that is, with no regard to that person’s merits, good works, or even faith. Faith itself is a gift from God.
L = Limited Atonement. More frequently called “definite atonement” today, this doctrine is the view that Christ’s atonement on the Cross was made for the people whom God had already elected to save. The atonement, therefore, is not a potential salvation for everyone, but an actual salvation for all God’s people.
I = Irresistible Grace. This doctrine sets forth the almighty power of God to save his people despite themselves. Those whom God elects, and atones for, will and do come to faith; there is no uncertainty: God’s grace will unfailingly bring his people to him.
P = Perseverance of the Saints. In accordance with the tenor of the previous points, this doctrine sets forth the assurance that those whom God elects and calls will not only come to faith by God’s grace, but will persevere unto the end. Once saved, always saved, because the Father decreed so in the beginning, Christ effectually worked it on the Cross, and the Holy Spirit successfully applied it to the believer.
As with most theological camps, there is some wiggle room even with this simple five-point summary. The most frequently-debated point here among Calvinists, as I understand it, is the middle one – Limited/Definite Atonement. The mainstream affirm it, but there seems to be an acceptable range of deviation from that stance.
In recent times, Evangelical Arminians have put together an acronym TAFCS (or “FACTS” rearranged) as a sort of reply or rebuttal to the Calvinist TULIP.
T = Total Depravity. Despite frequent misunderstandings, Arminians are not Pelagians on this point; they agree heartily with the Calvinist view that we are entirely tainted by sin and unable to bring ourselves to salvation. The initiative of God is required.
A = Atonement for All. This is the doctrine that Christ’s atonement on the Cross for everyone in the entire world; He even died for the sins of people who don’t believe. So, rather than the atonement being limited in scope and unlimited in effectiveness (as the Calvinists say), the atonement is unlimited in scope and limited in effectiveness.
F = Freed by Grace to Believe. Sometimes called the doctrine of “prevenient grace,” this is the belief that God, in His sovereignty, frees the will of sinners to become able to come to faith, and thus come to salvation. Due to the situation of Total Depravity, this is a necessary work of God, taking the first step to allow and enable us to put our faith in Christ.
C = Conditional Election. This is the doctrine that God elects (or predestines) people to salvation on the condition of their having faith. Classically, this means that everyone who is saved was individually predestined to salvation (just like in Calvinism), on the basis of God’s foreknowledge of who would come to faith in Christ (unlike Calvinism’s unconditional fore-decision of God). A more recent variant of Arminian thought, though, has taken a more corporate view of this, saying that Christ is the predestined one, and anyone who comes into union with him (by faith) shares in that election unto salvation.
S = Security in Christ. This is the doctrine that a believer’s salvation is secure as long as they remain “in Christ.” Historically, Arminians have believed that a true Christian can forsake the faith and thus lose this security in Christ, though some believe that the Holy Spirit guarantees security in Christ (much like the Calvinist position of the Perseverance of the Saints).
So where do we stand? I have found a chart comparing these points which seems like an accurate summary to me. As for my own thoughts, here’s how they seem to line up thus far:
- Both have the same starting point; the human person is entirely incapable of attaining unto salvation without a divine intervention of grace.
- For the Arminian, that divine intervention is the gracious work of God enabling (certain?) people to come to faith in Christ and thus meet the conditions required to enter into salvation. For the Calvinist, that divine intervention is the decree of God in eternity past of whom he will save.
- Another way of putting this is that for the Arminian, faith leads to regeneration, while for the Calvinist, regeneration leads to faith.
- The concept of having “saving faith” thus is understood differently by each side. Calvinists see “saving faith” as a gift given by God; Arminians see “saving faith” as a gift enabled by God.
- Who makes our salvation happen? To the Calvinist it is monergistic (that is, there is only one worker: God). The Father elects, the Son atones, and the Spirit sanctifies. Our faith is a passive necessary factor in the whole process. To the Arminian salvation is somewhat synergistic (that is, God and man work together). God does the primary work of providing the grace, and man does the secondary instrumental work of accepting God’s grace.
- The Atonement made by Christ on the Cross is understood differently. To the Calvinist it’s God the Son’s part of the Trinitarian work of salvation. To the Arminian it is God’s offer to everyone that salvation is (now) available.
- Calvinists believe that salvation cannot be “lost” by a believer, because if he has been truly called, he has been atoned for and the Spirit will preserve his faith. Some Arminians agree that the Spirit will preserve those who come to faith in Christ, though most believe that Christians have the freedom to un-accept Christ just as God gave us the freedom to to accept Christ in the first place.
My general impressions are that Calvinism is a more tight-knit theological system with better coherency and consistency throughout. Yet, there are aspects of it that seem to make God’s will painfully arbitrary, requiring the believer to resort to appeals to God’s wisdom and mercy that He would deign to save any unworthy sinner. Arminianism, meanwhile, seems a little “scarier” in the sense that we have to accept Christ and not later reject Him. At the same time, though, it appears to do better justice to the many Scriptural calls to believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. And, by my limited understanding of the Church Fathers’ views on free will, Arminianism seems to line up better with its doctrine “Freed to Believe” (prevenient-yet-resistible grace).
So both sides certainly have their attractions and their issues. This may well prove to be a very interesting journey!
By the way, good readers, I know that many of you have studied these details more attentively than I. If you think I am misrepresenting one side or another, please pitch in; this isn’t a journey I can make by myself.