There has been significant interest over the past decade in a resurgent Calvinism (or Reformed Theology). Some call it a “New Calvinism” (as per Collin Hansen’s book Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists). The popularity of John Piper as well as the renewal of Calvinism among the Southern Baptists (specifically Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a signal of a new vibrancy for the Reformed tradition. Read a review and discussion of this new phenomenon here.
The blogosphere is full of ongoing discussions between Arminians and Calvinists. My blogroll contains two such sites–Evangelical Arminians and John Piper’s Desiring God. The discussion is seemingly endless.
My own training was at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1977-1979 (M.A.R.) and 1981-1985 (Ph.D.). Consequently, I have a certain familiarity with the Reformed tradition, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith. At the same time I grew up in the broadly Arminian Stone-Campbell tradition (often more Pelagian in character than Arminian) and have taught in schools within that tradition for twenty-five years. I have a certain familiarity with Arminianism as well. Indeed, I once told one of my Westminster Professors that my biblical, theological and historical studies at Westminister had helped moved me from Pelagianism to Arminianism but I could not cross the Rubicon into Calvinism.
I have a rather deep appreciation for Reformed theology as a whole though I cannot embrace the theological system itself as characterized by the TULIP. My books on sacramental theology, for example, evidence a great indebtedness to Reformed formulations. But I also have a deep appreciation for classic Arminianism (Arminius himself) and its related evangelical expression in Wesley.
It is important, I think, to understand what the Calvinist and Arminian think is so important–what is it that they want to preserve? This is a crucial question. It can be a significant starting-point for mutual appreciation even though we may not find full agreement.
At the heart of Reformed theology is the desire to give God all the glory and to exclude all human boasting in the work of salvation. Faith is wholly located in God’s electing grace and sovereign work. The ground of election is God’s own will. Humans cannot boast of their salvation in relation to anything within themselves; salvation is rooted in God’s act of election. Calvinists seek to preserve the glory of God as the sole cause of salvation.
At the heart of Arminian theology is the desire to proclaim God’s love for all humanity–for every single human person. The philanthropy of God is the root of salvation and this love extends to all; God does not desire the loss of any human. Arminians seek to preserve the faithfulness of God to his own relentless love for every one of his creatures.
The two cross swords in answering the question, “Why are some damned?” The Calvinist responds: “because they were not chosen” (or more specifically, they are damned because of their own sin and God chose to leave them there). The Arminian responds: “because they did not believe” (or more specifically, unbelief is a human rejection of God’s gracious offer of salvation). Calvinists accuse Arminians of making faith a meritorious cause of salvation which becomes a ground of boasting and detracts from the glory of God (in other words, humans save themselves with their own faith). Arminians accuse Calvinists of subordinating the love of God to the glory of God in that God leaves some in their sin to demonstrate his justice as well as for the sake of his own glory (in other words, he loves his own glory more than he loves his world).
Calvinists ask how faith as a human act does not become a human work of righteousness if God himself has not elected a person to faith out of his own grace. Arminians ask why everyone does not believe if the sole cause of faith is the gracious work of God in election and God loves everyone. The Calvinist wants to preserve God’s glory and the Arminian wants to preserve God’s love.
Ultimately–at least at a theoretical level or in the context of the Arminian/Calvinist debate–one must choose which is the priority of God’s heart: is it his glory or his love? Or, do we have to choose? That is a subject for another post.