Before posting some thoughts on the Calvinism-Arminianism debate, it seems necessary to do two things. 1) Define the terms. And 2) explain why it matters.
First of all, the definitions.
Calvinism follows after the teachings of John Calvin, a French reformer (1509-64) who played an instrumental role in defining the theology of the Reformation. To be more precise, Calvinism specifically focuses on Calvin’s view of God’s saving of humanity. Many Calvinists, while espousing Calvin’s view of salvation, do not hold to his teachings on infant baptism, the sacraments, the church-state union, or the end times.
Calvin, or more accurately his followers, developed five basic beliefs regarding God’s work in salvation. These five beliefs are commonly presented with the acronym, TULIP.
Total Depravity. All of mankind is totally dead in sin. We are corrupt, depraved, rebellious, and completely unable to save ourselves. We are “spiritual corpses” and only God can save us.
Unconditional Election. Before the creation of the world, before any person was created, God predetermined and selected individuals (the elect) to be saved through His Son, Jesus Christ. This selection was not based on any attribute or foreseen faith response in a person but completely on God’s sovereign will.
Limited Atonement. Since God had already predetermined who would be saved, then Christ’s death on the cross was only for the elect.
Irresistible Grace. When God determines to save a person, He will save them. God powerfully bends a person’s will to His own so that no one is able to resist His saving intent.
Perseverance of the Saints. Those who are truly elect will manifest it by continuing in their faith until the end. Once they are saved, they will always be saved and they will demonstrate it by their works.
The one word description often used of Calvinism is “monergism” which literally means “the work of one.” It means that, when it comes to salvation, God works alone. He saves apart from any cooperation, input, or response of man. In fact, God actually must regenerate a person before that person can exercise any faith in Him. So, in effect, a person must be saved before they can exercise the faith that saves them.
Arminianism originated with Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch theologian in the Reformed movement who tried to modify several tenets of Calvinism. While he agreed that man was totally sinful and unable to save Himself, Arminius believed that God’s pre-enabling grace, through the Holy Spirit, brought a person to the point where they could receive or resist God’s gracious offer of salvation. Thus, though God took all the initiative, man still had a role in salvation. This view is sometimes summarized as “synergism” which means “to work together.” God takes the initiative and man responds to His initiative in salvation.
Okay, those are the terms. So why does it matter?
For the most part, it doesn’t. Calvinists, Arminians, and Cal-minians (who leave the two doctrines in tension) generally agree on the major tenets of Christianity. God is holy, righteous, sovereign, and loving. Man is a creation of God but also sinful. He cannot save himself. Jesus, God in the flesh, came into the world to seek and to save the lost. Jesus died on the cross to be our righteous substitute, bearing our sin. He rose again from the dead to show His power over sin, death, and Satan. A person is saved from sin by faith alone in Christ alone.
When these details are left in their simplest form, then there is agreement. When they are defined more closely, particularly in the process of salvation “behind the scenes,” then disagreement begins.
I have generally left the debate alone since my college days. Overall, it hasn’t been a big concern in my ministry or with the people in the churches where I have served. But recently Calvinism is making a resurgence. Time Magazine (March 12, 2009) even listed it as one of the top ten ideas changing the current world. And for the most part, I am glad. When Christians start thinking theologically, it is always a good thing…especially in today’s shallow culture. But, unfortunately, Calvinism can also bring unhealthy debate and division into a church. I have seen it recently in a church I am familiar with which split over issues related to Reformed doctrine.
So my prayer is that by sharing a few cautions and thoughts in the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I can encourage Christians to continue to think deeply about God’s great salvation and also continue to show grace and humility as we seek to comprehend the incomprehensible mind of God.