The debate between Calvinists and Arminians is nearly as old as Protestantism. In this way, our generation is not unique. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.
In modern Southern Baptist thought, many theologians consciously attempt to find a middle ground between the extremes of Calvinism and Arminianism. For example, the gold-standard for critiques of Calvinism is, in my mind, Whosoever Will. On a personal level, this book has been one of the most important books I’ve ever read and is a key reason why I am not a Calvinist. However, I disagree with one contention that the authors make: The authors claim to be neither Arminian nor Calvinist but Baptists.
Perhaps I’m wrong, and I freely admit that contributors to this book are my intellectual superiors, but I cannot see a mediating position between Calvinism and Arminianism. As I understand the debate, how I respond to one key question invariably locates me on one side of the line separating Calvinists and Arminians. This is not to say that all Calvinists hold the same beliefs. Indeed, it may be better to talk about Calvinisms and Arminianisms. My contention is that all Southern Baptists fall within one of the two camps, and that there is no middle ground to be found. I want to propose five propositions which I believe shed light on this issue.
- Everything theological position has at least one defining point.
For any theological position, there must be something that makes the position what it is. Every position has a “what-ness” about it. For example, in his The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright argues that what distinguished early Christians from pagans and Jews was early Christian acceptance of key symbols and praxes. The early church’s views on ethics, the cross, and creeds lent Christianity its “what-ness.”
Examples of this point are legion. Southern Baptist seminaries teach classes on Baptist distinctives because we know that these distinctives are what make us Southern Baptists. These key beliefs provide our “what-ness” and distinguish us from other Protestants. We can disagree on other topics, such as Calvinism and Arminianism, but we all hold to key unifying beliefs. All religious groups have some set of defining beliefs that set them apart from other groups.
- Unconditional election and irresistible grace are the defining characteristics of Calvinism.
Calvinism is a large camp containing a myriad of positions. Baptist Calvinists do not follow Calvin as far as Presbyterians. And yet, by claiming to be a Calvinist, the Calvinist who attends a Southern Baptist Church on Sundays claims to be in the same group as Presbyterians in some sense. There are obvious differences, but these two groups share something in common.
What the different flavors of Calvinism share are their twin beliefs of unconditional election and irresistible grace. Of the famous five points of Calvinism, these two inseparable points form the bedrock of Calvinism. Without accepting them, one cannot be a Calvinist.
Some Calvinists are fond of saying that all five points must be taken together. Their contention is that if I were to accept even one of the points, logic would then require me to accept all five points. However, many Calvinists reject limited atonement. Indeed, Calvin himself may have rejected limited atonement. Furthermore, according to the Baptist Faith and Message, all Southern Baptist accept the perseverance of the saints, yet not all Southern Baptists are Calvinists. Additionally, I am not a Calvinist, but I whole-heartedly accept total depravity, and I believe I am firmly within Southern Baptist thought in this regard. So, the five points are not a package deal. Many people accept a portion of the points. Protests of some Calvinists aside, the common denominator for those who identify as Calvinists is not that they accept all five points, but that they believe God’s call to redemption cannot be resisted. This decision was made in eternity past. Those who are saved were unconditionally elected to salvation.
- Conditional election and resistible grace are the defining characteristics of Arminianism.
Arminianism is also a diverse group. Many, perhaps even the majority, of Southern Baptists are Arminians according to my position. This does not mean that they all hold the same beliefs. Indeed, the authors of Whosoever Will do not hold the same beliefs on every topic. As with Calvinism, there is room for significant disagreement within Arminianism. Indeed, I believe that one debate within Arminianism is whether to accept or reject the label “Arminian!”
The unifying feature for Arminianism is that all Arminians believe God’s call to salvation can be resisted. They say yes for a variety of reasons, and these reasons create diversity within Arminianism. However, the fact that they say yes is what makes them Arminian. This answer provides the “what-ness” for Arminianism.
- Accepting a theological label does not necessarily mean I accept the extreme ends associated with or attributed to that label.
Both Calvinism and Arminianism have their extremes. For Calvinists, the extreme is a hyper-Calvinism that rejects evangelism and missions. This extreme form of Calvinist thought also tends toward theological fatalism and could even provide a basis for antinomianism. Extreme Calvinism is a cancer to the church.
Arminianism also has an extreme form. Hyper-Arminianism falls into the trap of Open Theism and deprives God of his omnipotence and omniscience. This type of Arminian thought tends toward Pelagianism. This, too, is a cancer to the church.
Fortunately, accepting a label does not require me to accept everything associated with or, more often, attributed to the label. Not all Calvinists are fatalists, and not all Arminians are Pelagians. To assert that my interlocutor is the worst form of his position is a grave error that ought not be used in theological debates between brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, Christian charity demands that we recognize the diversity of views we do not hold, that we take time to understand the nuance of others’ opinions, and that we do not use labels as an excuse for intellectual laziness.
We too easily forget the diversity that labels so easily belie. I believe this is the reason that so many Arminians do not want to be called Arminians. The name of Jacob Arminius and the term Arminian has experienced so much abuse and mistreatment that theologians are hesitant to accept the correct label.
- There is no middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism.
If what I have argued is correct, then there is indeed no middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism. In other words, attempts to find a “Calminian” hybrid are ultimately doomed to fail, as appealing as these attempts may be. The positions the contributors to Whosoever Will seek are not to be found in a possible middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism. Instead, the positions they seek are located in one of the diverse camps of Calvinism and Arminianism. If we believe that a non-believer can reject God’s call to salvation, then we are some type of an Arminian. However, if God’s election is unconditional and his call irresistible, then we are some type of Calvinist.
Notes & Sources
Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David Allen and Steve Lemke (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010), 5.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 359-70.
“Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists,” The Center for Theological Research, accessed February 5, 2020, https://v7.swbts.edu/tasks/render/file/?fileID=E626C670-D3E5-136B-BD2A516CB0D788AB.