The often acrimonious debates between contemporary Arminians and Calvinists are not new. The history of this discussion dates back 1600 years and has been continuous within Christian circles. It can be tracked, in part, with the following discussions:
- Augustine vs. Pelagius (early 5th century)
- Gottschalk vs. Rabanus (late 9th century)
- Bradwardine vs. Ockham (mid 14th century)
- Luther vs. Erasmus (early 16th century)
- Calvinism vs. Arminianism (early 17th century)
- Jansenism vs. Jesuits (mid 17th century)
- Whitefield vs. Wesley (mid 18th century)
- Hodge vs. Finney (mid 19th century)
- Regular Baptists/Presbyterians vs. Stone-Campbell/Methodists (19th century)
- Grudem/Piper/Hall vs. Pinnock/Cottrell/Piricilli (late 20th century)
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list and neither does it mean that each column would agree in all particulars with others listed in that column. In other words, not all the “Calvinists” would be uniform in their perspectives any more than all the “Arminians.” Wesley, for example, is no Pelagian and neither is Luther an Augustinian in every respect. The list does, however, represent the general tension with Christian history. More importantly, it represents the historic nature of the dispture.
Common Theological Ground
Despite the tension, I think there are fundamental areas of agreement between Calvinism and Arminianism within the current discussion, even on the doctrine of election. Several biblical themes provide a framework for articulating a common ground which could perhaps transcend the hostility between the two groups. I make no claim to any theological ingenuity or originality here. Quite the contrary, these theological principles are common ground between believers. It is precisely because this is true that they may provide a way to unpack a common theological framework.
1. Divine Initiative
Whatever the doctrine of election means, it at least insists that God took the initiative in redemption. God made the first move. We love because he first loved us. We believe because he first acted. We are redeemed because he accomplished redemption for us. This initiative is not limited to the first act as if God first acted and then passively sits back to see how we respond. Rather, God continuously acts as he unrelentingly pursues a people for himself. God’s love pursues, engages and moves us. This entails that all boasting is negated. We have nothing about which to boast except that God has elected us in Jesus. Election means that God has removed all grounds for human merit and has locatd the ground of salvation solely in his gracious and loving acts.
Christ is the Elect One–elected by the Father to the Father’s glory. Christ is the Father’s chosen vessel for redemption. Both Calvin and Arminius emphasized this point, and it has been powerfully renewed in the 20th century by Karl Barth. Election is Christocentric since Christ is God’s Elect One. This does not undermine the fundament theocentrism of Scripture because the Father elects Christ to the praise of his own glory (Ephesians 1). Whatever election we have, we are elect because we are in Christ. Before we become steeped in the theoretical (even speculative) underpinnings of election, we must not lose sight of this fundamental soteriological insight. God has chosen us in Christ because he has chosen Christ. We are elect only through Christ. His election is logically and ontologically prior to our own. We cannot think biblically about election if we do not first acknowledge that our election depens on the election of Christ.
3. Economic Revelation
The election of Christ, of course, is a revealed point. We only know that God has acted decisively in Jesus as the Elect One because God has revealed himself in history and interpreted his actions in Scripture. We only know our election in Christ because God has revealed his Elect One. Paul makes this point in 2 Timothy 1:8-11. God “has saved us and called us to a holy life,” and the ground of this salvation and calling is not our works, but God’s “purpose and grace.” We know this grace by God’s decisive act in Jesus. Even though it was hidden before creation, “it has now been revealed through the appearing” of Jesus. Debates about the “secret” or “hidden” will of God are unprofitable exactly because that will is unknown. We know our election through the revelation of God in Christ. God has revealed his election through Christ and we have no other access to it. Consequently, we ought to think about election within the salvation history of God’s sotry, that is, within the revealed history of God in Israel and Jesus. Thinking about election in terms of the “eternal” mind of God is speculative, but thinking about divine election in the light of Jesus is rooted in God’s historic revelation. We perceive our own election only through that revelation. When we step outside of or seek to go beyond it, we enter worlds which our minds have created ratehr than what God has revealed. Election and assurance are economically (this world revelation) tied to Christ. There the focus should begin and end.
4. Instrumentality of Faith
Faith is the means of both justification and sanctification. When we make justification dependent upon sanctifiation, then we begin a never-ending journey since we will never be sure whether our sanctification is sufficient (in terms of its depth, amount, comprehensiveness and quality). When we sever the relationship between justification and sanctification, we become antinomian and discredit the role of sanctification as evidence of justification. The way to avoid legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other is to see faith as the principle that unites justification and sanctification. We are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith. Fath is the means by which we accounted righteous (declared “not guilty”) before God and faith is the means by which the Spirit transforms us. Faith is both the means of salvation and the means of assurance. We are elect, then, through faith in Christ. Faith functions as an instrument, not as a meritorious act. It is the means by which we come to know our own election.
For Arminians, election is the effect of faith. There is an election independent of faith and this is God’s own election of Jesus Christ. God took the initiative to redeem and elected his Son to save the world. In that sense election is not the effect of faith. But in the application of redemption to believers, faith functions as a means by which election is known. It is a cooperative, dynamic relationship between God and humanity. Faith is synergistic in the sense that God yearns for reciprocal and authentic relationship between himself and his people. In this sense election is the effet of faith where faith functions as a means to election. God has elected Christ and we are elect in Christ through faith.
For Calvinists, faith is the effect of election. People come to faith because they are elect and no else comes to authentic faith. Election decrees faith; or election appoints some to faith and God gives them faith by his own free grace and initiative. God is the sole cause of faith and faith comes irresisitibly to those whom God has elected.
Economic (Practical) Common Ground
Practically, the key question for election is our historic relation to Jesus Christ–our relation to him within history. While some Augustinians in the history of theology have focused the question in terms of “Am I elect?” as if one could see into the eternal mind of God, most have recognized that this is not the proper question. No on can see into the hidden will of God to discover in the abstract whether they are elect or not. Calvin believed that one who tries this “Am I elect?” question “casts himself into the depths of a bottomless whirlpool to be swallowed up; then he tangles himself in innumerable and inextricable snares; then he buries himself in an abyss of sightless darkness…Consequently, if we fear shipwreck, we must carefully avoid this rock, against which no one is ever dashed without destruction” (Institutes, 3.24.5).
The key question is: do you trust the God who has revealed himself in Jesus? Calvin correctly says that the question is not “Am I elect?” but “Do I trust Christ?” Calvin spoke of Christ as “the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election” (Institutes, 3.24.5) Faith is the mans of election, and our only access into the electing decision of God is through faith. I see my election through faith–through trusting in Jesus as God’s Elect One. Upon this both Calvinist and Arminian can agree.
Assurance, then is christological. I am elect as I trust in the Elect One. Election “from below” (rooted in history rather than “from above” which is an attempt to peer into the eternal mind of God) is mediated through faith in Christ. Here Calvinists and Arminians can agree. “If Pighius asks me how I know I am elect,” Calvin wrote, “my answer is that Christ is, to me, more than a thousand testimonies” (The Eternal Predestination of God, 137). Only in Christ are we elect and pleasing to God and so it is to him we must turn. He is the Elect One and mediates election. The critical issue is “do we trust Christ?” According to Calvin, Christ is the mirror of our election and when we look at Christ through faith we see our own election.
This point was illustrated for me in my “Doctrine of Christ” class taught by Dr. Robert Strimple at Westminister Theological Seminary. One student raised his hand and asked Dr. Strimple if Arminians can be saved? His response was direct and terse: “Yes, if they trust in Christ.”
For a fuller discussion of this practical common ground, see my article entitled “Mediating the War Between Calvinists and Arminians on Election and Security: A Stone-Campbell Perspective” on my Academic page which was originally published in the Stone-Campbell Journal 6.2 (2003), 163-184.