Arminian Misunderstandings

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I've been reading through some commentaries on Isaiah for the Bible study on Isaiah 29 that I'm leading tonight, and I discovered something very interesting in John Oswalt's commentary, which is an excellent book overall, one of the two best commentaries on Isaiah of our time as far as I'm concerned (the other being Alec Motyer's).

Oswalt is an avowed Arminian. He thinks a significant degree of human choice involves a freedom that makes God's plan, in effect, holey and not just holy. God's sovereignty could but doesn't cover every human choice, particularly the ones we're morally responsible for. On the other hand, Reformed theology(sometimes identified with Calvinism, though perhaps it's more an association than an identity) takes God's sovereignty to cover every single event throughout history. God isn't morally responsible for all these events, but he does in some sense stand behind every event as sovereign over them. At the very least this would be because God could have prevented any event that he didn't want happening. Reformed thinkers tend to want to say something stronger than that, though, that God in some way causes every event.

As I was reading through Oswalt's comments on Isaiah 29, which deals in some ways with the issue of God's sovereignty over human rejection of God, I discovered a common misunderstanding of Reformed thought. I've found many Arminian theologians who really just don't understand Calvinism or Reformed thought, and I think this case is a good example of that.

Oswalt's comment, first from the main text:

Characteristically for a Hebrew prophet, it is God who gives enabling grace, and if a people stubbornly misconstrue his words, then that enabling grace is withdrawn.

Then he continues in a footnote:

Young seems to wish to support double predestination. However, Calvin, whom he quotes approvingly, does not speak of a people who, despite their best efforts, are unable to hear. Instead he talks of God depriving of light those who "by a wicked and depraved hatred of truth of (their) own accord wish for darkness."

I see two things here. First, in the main text Oswalt points out that God's grace is often manifested in the lives of those who will eventually reject that grace. Reformed thought has no problem with this. The doctrine of common grace says that even those God has not ordained for salvation experience the benefits of his grace bestowed on creation as a whole. Only some more extreme versions of Calvinism deny that. That he goes on to defend this in the footnote against Calvinism shows that he misunderstands the Calvinist view.

Second, in the footnote he seems to misunderstand the doctrine of predestination itself. He points out that Calvin talked about God blinding the eyes and hardening the hearts of those who of their own accord hate God and wish for darkness. It's not as if they, by their best efforts, still fail to understand the gospel, as if they try and try, but God hasn't preordained them. The Reformed view is that God is behind anyone's coming to have a desire for the truth, to love and seek God. Oswalt's reference to Calvin fits with this.

Yet Oswalt thinks this view that Calvin endorsed would undermine the view of double predestination. Double predestination is just the idea that God ordains both those who will be saved (to salvation) and those who will not (to damnation). Calvinists do believe that people's own desires, beliefs, and deliberations lead to their actions, as Oswalt noted with Calvin's own case. They just also believe that God is somehow behind that whole process, as Oswalt is resisting with the case of Young. Then he's acting as if Calvin wouldn't have held the second thing simply because he said the first thing. Yet Reformed theology affirms both equally. Calvin and Young both would affirm both statements.

Oswalt seems to be claiming that those who follow Calvin should hold that people are responsible for their actions and therefore don't go to the extreme that Young goes to with double predestination. So Young is going beyond Calvin, according to Oswalt. This just shows Oswalt's lack of understanding of the Calvinist view.

This notion of double predestination, as if it's somehow stronger than predestination by itself, is nonsense anyway. If God doesn't ordain which people are not saved, then he must not have ordained those who would be saved. After all, there are only two categories. By determining which people are in one category, God has already determined which people aren't in that group and are therefore in the other. The only way for God not to have determined which people aren't saved is for him not to have determined which will be saved, and then you have full-blown Arminianism with no predestination at all.

In the end I'm not sure what Oswalt is trying to say unless he just doesn't understand that Calvinists believe people are responsible for their own actions and come to their decisions based on who they are, what they believe, what they delight in, etc. Calvinists do believe that that's how God has ordained people to salvation or to destruction. I've found that most Arminian arguments I've encountered labor under this misconception, and I just don't understand why it's so common. This isn't just at the popular level. Oswalt is a top-notch biblical scholar who has taught at some of the finest evangelical seminaries. He is an Old Testament and Semitic language specialist and not primarily a theologian, but it's still a pretty gross misunderstanding for someone working in Isaiah studies, where theology is especially important.

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In the end I'm not sure what Oswalt is trying to say unless he just doesn't understand that Calvinists believe people are responsible for their own actions and come to their decisions based on who they are, what they believe, what they delight in, etc. Calvinists do believe that that's how God has ordained people to salvation or to destruction.

I think they don't understand it (and I agree with you--this misunderstanding is fairly universal in those who aren't Calvinists) because they don't see how the two things can logically fit together: God's ordination of events (including salvation or destruction); and people's ability to make genuine decisions for which they are justly held responsible. And given their assumption that an ordained event (like the reformed believe salvation is) can't come about by a free choice, and also their assumption that the ability to make an autonomous choice is necessary for someone to be held responsible for a decision, this is a reasonable conclusion. But they just can't see beyond those assumptions even to the point of seeing that reformed people don't make those same assumptions. So they see one statement by a reformed thinker--like someone saying that our salvation is ordained, and they automatically come to the conclusion that we don't believe in a free or responsible choice then, because they just can't imagine that we don't have the same basic assumptions they do.

And all this means that many Arminian arguments against Calvinism are pointless, because they are arguing against something no Calvinist actually believes.

Arminians generally don't understand what Calvinists believe because in general they don't understand what they themselves believe. Most churches in America of an Arminian persuasion do not have very strong theological teaching (well, that could be said of most churches, peroid). I can hardly think of a person of Arminian persuasion who can actually clearly articulate their own view. I know a couple, but they are by far the exceptions.

Most people who claim to be Arminian are Semi-Pelagians anyway, but don't know the difference between that and a "true" or "classic" Arminian (which is not that different than a Calvinist. They share all the same assumptions of Augustinians/Calvinists, but differ in their soteriological conclusion when it comes to the actual moment of choice a person makes for Christ. Semi-pelagians assume capacity for such a choice from the get-go, pre-regeneration, which they think comes after the choice-moment anyway.)

So yes, their arguments are pointless because they don't even have a solid foundation of their own theology to compare it against. All they know is that they don't believe Calvinism.

Most of the Arminians I've known are not extreme at all. I've rarely even met someone who thought it was possible to lose one's salvation. They believe in total depravity of the will that God has to do something to fix, but then they say that that's not sufficient. The person also has to believe freely, where freedom isn't consistent with God's predetermination. They believe God's work of grace is necessary but not sufficient. Once they've been saved, however, they don't seem to mind holding to a notion of God's sovereignty in sanctification. Even in salvation they admit of God's role when they pray for people's salvation, believing that God can bring it about. This really is most Arminians I've known. Maybe it's a matter of location and which circles I've run in.

I think this again exposes the fundamental problem in Arminianism: the underestimating of sin. He seems to come right out and say it in his footnote.

Young seems to wish to support double predestination. However, Calvin, whom he quotes approvingly, does not speak of a people who, despite their best efforts, are unable to hear. Instead he talks of God depriving of light those who "by a wicked and depraved hatred of truth of (their) own accord wish for darkness."

"Despite their best efforts?" Oswalt, as most Arminians, fails to understand that in Calvin's view (which I believe is biblical), ALL of us naturally have that wicked and depraved hatred of the truth. Only God, by giving that light, can make us hear. And similarly, by depriving us of it, he can leave us in our depravity.

Instead, Oswald implicitly sees God rewarding the light-seekers who by their own best efforts have finally heard and embraced the gospel, and punishing the wicked ones who have failed to be as humble and teachable as the former.

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