Sunday, December 24, 2006

Reformed or Arminian- Theological Definitions

In the introductory post of this series I asked: what practical difference does one's theology make in living out Christian faith? I suggested that although theological beliefs may not be consciously held, they strongly influence the manner in which we practice our faith.

I also observed that in popular Christianity today there is heavy emphasis on the immediate benefits in this life of believing in Christ-- a tendency to make the gospel a means to the end of improving one's life in the here and now.

It is true that the benefits of being a Christian ought to be experienced immediately; after all, Scripture says Christians are those who have received the Holy Spirit and whose fundamental identity has been changed from "darkness" to "light". Yet when popular teaching emphasizes so much what being a Christian does for me now (primarily in terms of earthly benefits-- how it improves my marriage and relationships, my lifestyle, my prosperity, my health, etc.), then the message of the gospel becomes more "man-centered" than "God-centered". I think this is a serious distortion of the true gospel.

It seems to me that there may be a connection between the "man-centeredness" implicit in this popular message and a fruit of Arminian theology. But before exploring this idea further, I want to define the positions of Arminianism and Calvinism, their similarities and differences. Since excellent materials on these subjects can be found at Wikipedia and Theopedia, I have excerpted large portions from those sites here.

Arminianism (From Wikipedia)
Arminianism is a school of soteriological thought in Protestant Christian theology founded by the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. Its acceptance stretches through much of mainstream Protestantism. Due to the influence of John Wesley, Arminianism is perhaps most prominent in the Methodist movement.

Arminianism holds to the following tenets:

* Humans are naturally unable to make any effort towards salvation
* Salvation is possible by grace alone
* Works of human effort can not cause or contribute to salvation
* God's election is conditional on faith in Jesus
* Jesus' atonement was potentially for all people
* God allows his grace to be resisted by those unwilling to believe
* Salvation can be lost, as continued salvation is conditional upon continued faith

(From Theopedia):
The Arminian party (followers of Arminius) suggested five anti-Calvinist corrections, articulated in the Five articles of Remonstrance of 1610, which gave rise to the historic controversy (between Arminianism and Calvinism) and are summarized as follows:

1.Universal prevenient grace
This grace purportedly restores man's free will which was impaired by the effects of original sin and enables him to choose or refuse the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ. Some would say that freedom of will is man's natural state, not a spiritual gift — and thus free will was not lost in the Fall, but cannot be exercised toward good apart from the grace of God. In either case, God's universal prevenient grace works upon all alike to influence them for good, but only those who freely choose to cooperate with grace through faith and repentance are given new spiritual power to make effectual the good they otherwise impotently intend. As John Wesley stated more forcefully, humans were in fact totally corrupted by original sin, but God's prevenient grace allowed free will to operate. This is in contrast to the Calvinist view of total depravity which denies universal prevenient grace and moral ability to turn to Christ.

2.Conditional election
This point holds that man is the final arbiter of his election, and that God elects him on the basis of foreseen faith which is exercised by libertarian free will, thus making man ultimately decisive.

God has decreed to save through Jesus Christ, out of fallen and sinful mankind, those foreknown by Him who through the grace of the Holy Spirit believe in Christ; but God leaves in sin those foreseen, who are incorrigible and unbelieving. This is in contrast to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election.

3.Unlimited (or universal) atonement
Christ's death was suffered on behalf of all men and benefits all men alike. God then elects for salvation those whom he foresees will believe in Christ of their own free will. This is in contrast to the Calvinist doctrine of Limited atonement.

Arminians believe that whatever the atonement accomplished, it did so universally for all alike, not just the elect. This point rejects that the atonement has any component which is decisive or effectual in gathering of the elect. Rather, the atonement is seen as a universally effective propitiation and the basis for a universal offer of salvation. The key verse used for this position is 1 John 2:2.

4.Resistible grace
This point holds that God never overcomes the resistance of man to His saving grace. While both Calvinists and Arminians hold that men often resist God's grace, Arminianism teaches that this resistance is never conquered by God because this would be a violation of man's libertarian free will. The grace of God works for good in all men, and brings about newness of life through faith. But saving grace can be resisted, even by the regenerate. This is in contrast to the Calvinst doctrine of Irresistible grace.

5.Uncertainty of perseverance
Those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith have power given them through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit, sufficient to enable them to persevere in the faith. However, it may be possible for a believer to fall from grace. This is in contrast to the Calvinist's Perseverance of the saints.

Not all Arminians have historically embraced this fifth point as stated. Some have embraced a form of eternal security which does not require perseverance in the faith and an attitude of repentance for final salvation. The majority of Arminians, regardless of their position on this point, still affirm that man retains libertarian free will throughout the entirety of earthly life.

The following are also distinctive doctrines and emphases of Arminianism:

Libertarian free will
A key tenet of Arminianism is libertarian free will. This means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. All "free will theists" hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility, for if our choice is determined or caused by anything, including our own desires, they reason, it cannot properly be called a free choice.

God's love for the world
Arminianism emphasizes God's love for the whole world and denies that God has any sort of electing, particular love that secures one's redemption from the foundation of the world. It infers from this universal love that God would never predestine anyone to hell or hate anyone without reference to their wickedness.

Calvinism (From Theopedia):
Calvinism is a theological system based on the understanding that God is completely sovereign and has preordained all that comes to pass. "In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will..." (Ephesians 1:11). Because the Bible clearly teaches that all people are not saved and that God is not frustrated in his plans or desires, Calvinism maintains that God has predetermined who will be saved and sovereignly dispenses his saving grace accordingly. The theological terms most often associated with Calvinism are predestination and election which refer to the particularity of God's grace in salvation.

(From Wikipedia):
Calvinism is a system of Christian theology and an approach to Christian life and thought within the Protestant tradition articulated by John Calvin, a Protestant Reformer in the 16th century, and subsequently by successors, associates, followers and admirers of Calvin, his interpretation of Scripture, and perspective on Christian life and theology. Calvin's system of theology and Christian life forms the basis of the Reformed tradition, a term roughly equivalent to Calvinism.

The Reformed tradition was originally advanced by stalwarts such as Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger and Peter Martyr Vermigli, and also influenced English reformers such as Thomas Cranmer and John Jewel. However, because of Calvin's great influence and role in the confessional and ecclesiastical debates throughout the seventeenth century, this Reformed movement generally became known as Calvinism. Today, this term also refers to the doctrines and practices of the Reformed churches, of which Calvin was an early leader, and the system is perhaps best known for its doctrines of predestination and election.

Summaries of Calvinist theology
Calvinism stresses the complete ruin of man's ethical nature against a backdrop of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. It teaches that fallen humanity is morally and spiritually unable to follow God or escape their condemnation before him and that only by divine intervention in which God must change their unwilling hearts can people be turned from rebellion to willing obedience.

In this view, all people are entirely at the mercy of God, who would be just in condemning all people for their sins but who has chosen to be merciful to some. One person is saved while another is condemned, not because of a willingness, a faith, or any other virtue in the first person, but because God sovereignly chose to have mercy on him. Although the person must believe the gospel and respond to be saved, this obedience of faith is God's gift, and thus God completely and sovereignly accomplishes the salvation of sinners. Views of predestination to damnation (the doctrine of reprobation) are less uniform than is the view of predestination to salvation (the doctrine of election) among self-described Calvinists.

In practice, Calvinists teach these doctrines of grace primarily for the encouragement of the church because they believe the doctrines demonstrate the extent of God's love in saving those who could not and would not follow him, as well as squelching pride and self-reliance and emphasizing the Christian's total dependence on the grace of God. In the same way, sanctification in the Calvinist view requires a continual reliance on God to purge the Christian's depraved heart from the power of sin and to further the Christian's joy.

The theological system and practical theories of church, family, and political life, all ambiguously called "Calvinism," are the outgrowth of a fundamental religious consciousness that centers on "the sovereignty of God." In principle, the doctrine of God has pre-eminent place in every category of theology, including the Calvinist understanding of how a person ought to live. Calvinism presupposes that the goodness and power of God have a free, unlimited range of activity, and this works out as a conviction that God is at work in all realms of existence, including the spiritual, physical, and intellectual realms, whether secular or sacred, public or private, on earth or in heaven.

According to this viewpoint, the plan of God is worked out in every event. God is seen as the creator, preserver, and governor of each and every thing. This produces an attitude of absolute dependence on God, which is not identified only with temporary acts of piety (for example, prayer); rather, it is an all-encompassing pattern of life that, in principle, applies to any mundane task just as it also applies to taking communion. For the Calvinist Christian, all of life is the Christian faith.

The five points of Calvinism
Calvinist theology is often identified in the popular mind as the so-called "five points of Calvinism," which are a summation of the judgments (or canons) rendered by the Synod of Dort and which were published as a point-by-point response to the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance. Calvin himself never used such a model, and never combated Arminianism directly. They therefore function as a summary of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism but not as a complete summation of Calvin's writings or of the theology of the Reformed churches in general. The central assertion of these canons is that God is able to save every person upon whom he has mercy and that his efforts are not frustrated by the unrighteousness or the inability of men.

The five points of Calvinism, which can be remembered by the English acronym TULIP are:

* Total depravity (or total inability)
As a consequence of the Fall of man, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. According to the view, people are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures.

* Unconditional election
God's choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to himself is not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people. Rather, it is unconditionally grounded in God's mercy.

* Limited atonement (or particular redemption or definite atonement)
The death of Christ actually takes away the penalty of sins of those on whom God has chosen to have mercy. It is "limited" to taking away the sins of the elect, not of all humanity, and it is "definite" and "particular" because atonement is certain for those particular persons.

* Irresistible grace (or efficacious grace)
The saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (the elect) and, in God's timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith in Christ.

* Perseverance of the saints (or preservation of the saints)
Any person who has once been truly saved from damnation must necessarily persevere and cannot later be condemned. The word saints is used in the sense in which it is used in the Bible to refer to all who are set apart by God, not in the technical sense of one who is exceptionally holy, canonized, or in heaven.

Calvinism is often further reduced in the popular mind to one or another of the five points of TULIP. The doctrine of unconditional election is sometimes made to stand for all Reformed doctrine, sometimes even by its adherents, as the chief article of Reformed Christianity. However, according to the doctrinal statements of these churches, it is not a balanced view to single out this doctrine to stand on its own as representative of all that is taught. The doctrine of unconditional election, and its corollary in the doctrine of predestination are never properly taught, according to Calvinists, except as an assurance to those who seek forgiveness and salvation through Christ, that their faith is not in vain, because God is able to bring to completion all whom He intends to save. Nevertheless, non-Calvinists object that these doctrines discourage the world from seeking salvation.

An additional point of disagreement with Arminianism implicit in the five points is the Calvinist understanding of the doctrine of Jesus' substitutionary atonement as a punishment for the sins of the elect, which was developed by St. Augustine and especially St. Anselm. Calvinists argue that if Christ takes the punishment in the place of a particular sinner, that person must be saved since it would be unjust for him then to be condemned for the same sins. The definitive and binding nature of this "satisfaction model" has led Arminians to subscribe instead to the governmental theory of the atonement in which no particular sins or sinners are in view.

Now that we have looked at the history and defining characteristics of these two theological systems, I want to examine the similarities and differences between them. I think doing so will help us understand them both better, and perhaps we can create for each system a brief but accurate definition. However, I leave this further pursuit to the next post, which I will try to produce in shorter order than I have this one.

Related posts: Reformed or Arminian: What Difference Does Theology Make? (Introductory Post)

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