Some visitors to my blog may notice on my blogroll that I have both Arminians as well as Calvinists that I read from. If that indicates that I am perhaps straddling the theological fence, that’s probably because I am. I can see strengths and weaknesses in both theological viewpoints, and if you asked me point blank which camp that I place myself into, I would probably respond; “God’s camp,” although I primarily identify with Wesleyanism and hence Arminianism. With that said, there are a lot of scriptures that I can’t simply explain away that would indicate that Calvinism is at least partly correct.
The primary issues dividing the two camps are those of Election and Atonement. The Election debate in its simplest terms is a question of whether God chose us or whether we choose Him (Predestination vs. Free Will). The Atonement debate is a question of whether Christ died for the sins of the whole world or only for His elect (we’ll leave aside for the moment how the elect became the elect since that goes back to the Election debate).
This theological debate has waxed and waned over the centuries. It initially began in the fourth century between the followers of Augustine (the original Calvinist, although many Calvinists will claim that Paul was the first Calvinist theologian) and Pelagius. The majority of Christendom sided with Augustine, declaring Pelagius to be a heretic and the debate simmered down for a few centuries. It fired back up in the sixteenth century during the Reformation and primarily centered on the teachings of Jacobus Arminius who affirmed free will and John Calvin, who denied it. The debate has continued to wax and wane since then, and in the last twenty years or so has once again become a hotbed issue because of a resurgence of Calvinism in many Protestant churches and seminaries.
There are a number of scriptures found throughout the Bible that seem to support the idea that God predestined those of us who would accept Christ. Romans 8:29-30, John 15:16, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Ephesians 1:11-12, 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, 1 Peter 1:2, Ephesians 1:5 and Ephesians 2:10 are just a few.
However, there are also a number of scriptures that indicate that it is up to us to choose salvation in Christ. Deuteronomy 30:15-18, Joshua 24:15, John 15:6-7, Acts 6:10, Acts 7:51-55, Revelation 22:17 and of course John 3:16 are a few of these verses that indicate that the onus is upon us to decide whether we choose Christ or not.
So it would appear that there is a contradiction in the Bible about whether God chooses us or we choose Him.
Or is there?
Many theologians don’t think its as nearly cut and dried as one might expect. They term apparent contradictions such as the one between free will and predestination as “tension.” There are a number of other areas in theology where there is similar “tension.” How do we resolve this apparent Biblical tension and come up with clear-cut answers?
Well, one way is to come up with a man-made system of theology such as Calvinism or Arminianism and use the answers that these theologians came up with as our own. I call this “putting God into a box.” Personally, I find problems with leaning too far to either side of the Free Will/Predestination debate. On the one hand, it is easy to slide the slippery slope into a fatalistic hard determinism known as Hyper-Calvinism (a fairly new term for me that I’m still studying). On the other hand is Pelagianism, in which we tend to limit God’s power and grace and become gods unto ourselves.
Additionally, one of the things that I have observed in this debate is what I like to call Theodolatry, which is where one puts the the worship of their theological system and/or theologians who have devised that system above the worship of God. It’s kind of like Bibliolatry, where people worship the Bible or their version of the Bible above the worship of God Himself (see King James Onlyism). I have witnessed many who throw around quotations of their favored theologians as though they were scripture themselves.
George Marshall once made a statement that I think applies to what I call theodolatry. “We must stop setting our sights by the light of each passing ship; instead we must set our course by the stars.”
When it comes to putting God into some sort of theological box, I’m simply not a fan of that. It seems to me that every time that humans think they have God figured out they’ve turned out to be wrong. He is simply too large and powerful to be contained by any box that we mere humans could ever come up with.
Another way to resolve this apparent tension is to simply decide to accept it for what it is and understand that we don’t have all of the answers.
In other words, live with the tension.
I have a friend of mine who is a pastor at a local Baptist Church who explained living with this tension in a manner that I found particularly comforting. He was actually painting a classic picture that was originally attributed to J.I. Packer.
Imagine, if you will, approaching the Gate to Heaven. As you look up, you see on the front of the gate an inscription that reads:
You gratefully pass through the gate to Heaven, but glancing back at the gate, you see another inscription on this side of the gate that reads:
I don’t think that the Predestination/Free Will debate will end until Christ returns and reveals all truth and knowledge. We can of course make earnest attempts to understand, and I deeply appreciate the work that many have dedicated their entire lives to make scripture more understandable to us. Without their pious dedication we would undoubtedly still be living in the Dark Ages or even worse.
Myself? I hope that through prayer and study I may one day become somewhat more convinced of truth on one side or other of this debate, but I imagine that I will always live, to at least to some degree, with the tension of the two sides of this debate. In the final analysis, I know that I belong to God and will one day see Him. Whether I freely chose salvation in Christ, or He chose me before the foundation of the world matters not nearly as much to me as does what my proper response as a child of God should be to the grace that He has given me.
In my next post, I’m going to try and paint a picture of an illustration that came to me that might make it clearer on how to reconcile the ideas of God’s foreknowledge (Arminianism) as it might apply to the Calvinist conception of Limited Atonement. I’m sure that there are a lot of theological holes that both sides may be able to poke in my illustration, but I kind of like it. Stay tuned….