The spiritual dangers of Calvinism and Arminianism

January 31st, 2017

The argument on the ground between Calvinists and Arminians never goes away.

As a Wesleyan Christian ordained in the United Methodist Church, I have lots of occasions to appreciate this fact. Some of my evangelical family members attend a Bible church with a TULIP pastor, so I get to have these conversations in my family. (What a gift to have an extended family in which theology matters!) (If TULIP is unfamiliar to you, you might just pause briefly and Google it.) Moreover, I frequently seem to meet really sharp young Christians trained in Reformed/Calvinist theology, people as thoughtful as they are convicted and zealous for the glory of God. At the same time, some of these young Calvinists are disturbed by the character of God as presented in their TULIP upbringing, and are seeking around for intellectual options that are convincingly Christian and biblical. (Truth be told, I've known folks who have joined the UMC as a happy respite from Calvinism, and also folks raised UMC or Wesleyan/Arminian who have joined a TULIP Evangelical church as a happy and clear respite from wishy-washy theology they ran into in their upbringing.)

Why does this Calvinist-Arminian argument never go away? Lately I've started to appreciate that the argument lives on because it has deep and practical spiritual ramifications. These ramifications bear on the character and possibility of our worshipping the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Let me be a bit more specific, even though it means being a bit provocative. There are spiritual dangers of Calvinism and spiritual dangers of Arminianism. Both of these theological positions, as commonly presented, present a weakness or problem that diminishes the glory of God.

The spiritual danger of Arminianism

The spiritual danger of Arminianism is in believing that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not sovereign enough, not powerful enough, to save all.

But how could this be? Is God weak? The problem of God's ability to accomplish God's will arises, of course, because Arminians and Wesleyans are more likely to unequivocally affirm the clear biblical teachings that God desires to save all (1 Timothy 2:4) and that Christ's death atones for the sins of all (1 Timothy 2:6; John 1:20; 1 John 2:2). So, can God accomplish God's will in creation, or not? Is God's will that all be saved really able to be eternally bested by the intransigence of the wills of puny finite sinners? God certainly seems to turn St. Paul's life in an entirely surprising direction — as St. Augustine, John Calvin and so many since have noticed and experienced first-hand. Is our will really just autonomously 'free' to say no to God's grace? And if not, what is there to stop God from accomplishing God's will to save all? One understands the Calvinist's dilemma in evaluating the Arminian/Wesleyan claims. After all, how confidently and peacefully can one worship a God who, at the end of the day, doesn't seem to be all that in control? Infinite goodness and power, it seems, can be trumped by the bored "Naaah" of a 125 pound sinner. Can one really trust, fully trust, fully hope in a God like that? In the darkest storms of life? Wesleyan though I am, I think the Calvinists are exactly right to worry here.

The spiritual danger of Calvinism

But the TULIP Calvinists have a problem that is, if anything, even worse. The doctrine of double predestination as held by, say, John Piper, means that God, from before the foundation of the world, elects some for eternal suffering in hell. To point this out is not news, least of all to the TULIP folks themselves. Nonetheless, their theology convicts God of evil of the most monstrous sort: willing the eternal damnation of a lot of human persons created good and in the image of God. That humans are fallen and helpless, and don't seem to want saving, doesn't help God's case (in this theology), because God holds all the cards, and indeed has determined them all, from before the foundation of the world. Yet this "gloriously" manifests "justice", one is told. To spell it out further, the problem is that it is hard to see how Piper Calvinists are not lying when they claim that God is all good, or, "God is love" (1 John 4:8). How is willing the eternal damnation of even one person from before the foundation of the world consistent with the claim that God is all good, much less that God is pure and perfect love?

The spiritual danger of TULIP Calvinism is in believing that God is not loving enough, not good enough, to save all.

Robin Parry, who wrote The Evangelical Universalist originally under the pen name Gregory MacDonald (Gregory of Nyssa + George MacDonald), experienced this problem first hand and in the depths of his soul. Long before becoming a Christian universalist, Parry wrestled with evangelical doctrines of the eternity of hell in relation to God's ability to choose who will and won't be saved. His experience is worth sharing:

Could I love a God who could rescue everyone but chose not to?... I sang and prayed; but it felt hollow and so I stopped. I no longer loved God, because he seemed diminished. I cannot express how deeply distressing this was for me — perhaps the most anguishing period of reflection on my faith I have ever experienced. (3)

For Parry, this theological pickle — brutally intrinsic to TULIP Calvinism — brought on a "doxological crisis — wanting to believe that God was worthy of worship but unable to do so" (1).

Diminishing praise — The state of the problems with Calvinism and Arminianism

If the above analysis is close to correct, the 'on the ground' theological arguments between Christians of the various Arminian-type streams and TULIP Calvinists never go away because both of these positions have acute intellectual problems that surface doxologically. They diminish our ability to praise God in the full, trusting and confident way the Bible leads us to praise God, which is also the way our souls need to praise God.

Hence Calvinism and Arminianism start to look like two sides of the same coin.

Typical Arminians don't believe that God is powerful enough, or sovereign enough, to save all. This is a problem. Nobody should have to believe that about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The praise of God is best and most full when one trusts that God is sovereign enough, is powerful enough, to save all.

TULIP Calvinists don't believe that God is good enough, or loving enough, to save all. This is a problem. Nobody should have to believe that about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The praise of God is best and most full when one believes with every fiber of one's being that God is infinitely good, and infinitely loving, and so desires with an infinite goodness and love to save all.

Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism, to...

We are able to love God most fully when we believe that God is supremely good and supremely love, and so desires to save all, and also believe that God is supremely sovereign and all powerful, and so is able to save all. Where does that lead us?

For one, it leads us to a healthy, deep, patient and bold Trinitarian Christian spirituality, a spirituality that conforms confidently to the unchecked goodness of our Lord Jesus Christ, and moves with the love of the Spirit poured into our hearts. The experience of the Holy Spirit in Christian spiritual practice inclines us more and more to the truth that we can really trust Jesus. Over time, we learn that we can really trust Jesus with ourselves, and we can really trust him with everyone else too. We should pay attention to that. It can free us to live for Jesus, and share his gospel without shame, once we glimpse the infinite goodness, wisdom, tenderness, by which he has offered himself for all.

For another, it leads us into varied and persistently interesting company, intellectually speaking. The communion of saints includes many fascinating figures who have been shown similar vistas. We are in the company of spiritual-theological giants like Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh, Origen of Alexandria, Julian of Norwich, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Sergius Bulgakov, David Bentley Hart and George MacDonald, to name but a few. That is to say: we're in the company of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians drawn from every age of the church's history. There are indeed lively speculative questions that arise when we trust Jesus in this way. Will all, in fact, be saved on the last day? What is hell, and what is it for, on this view of things? The figures above have various ways of approaching and answering these and related questions. Yet I think the spiritual posture of unqualified trust in the goodness and power of God is more primary than how one works out the speculative questions. At the least, we have good grounds to hope for the ultimate salvation of all. Moreover, we trust that when we pray for the salvation of all, we are praying a scriptural prayer, and praying along with the will of the Spirit of God.

We might even discover that we haven't moved beyond Calvinism or Wesleyanism at all. Karl Barth certainly didn't think he had moved beyond the Reformed theological tradition. Personally, trusting in God's ultimate — and truly good — sovereignty frees me and leaves me feeling more Wesleyan than ever.

In closing, I would like to say one more thing about Karl Barth, which sheds some light for us, whatever Christian tradition we call home. Not only did Barth not move beyond the Reformed theological tradition. He opened a new possibility within it. He saw a way to move beyond TULIP while still standing with St. Augustine, and with John Calvin, and even in a new and deeper way with St. Paul, who once concluded, "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all" (Romans 11:32).

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