27 November 2010

Why I Am Not an Arminian

That's the title of a 2004 IVP book by Robert Peterson and Mike Williams. (They preferred the positive title Why I Am a Calvinist but the publisher wanted to retain balance with the simultaneously written Why I Am Not a Calvinist by Jerry Walls and Joe Dongell).

Peterson and Williams hit a home run and I find it to be one of the clearest and most persuasive defenses of Reformed soteriology available. But what is most striking about this book is its tone. From the start, Peterson and Williams refuse to castigate their Arminian interlocutors, repeating time and again that they all share in a common faith and are brothers in the Lord. Having sat in classes with both of these men I can attest that what they write is how they live.

Here are a few excerpts from the introductory chapter. I commend the whole book.
By and large, Calvinists feel duty bound to attack Arminianism at every opportunity. And far too often the debate between Calvinists and Arminians has failed to glorify God, promote understanding or honor one another as fellow members of the body of Christ. It is our aim, however, to treat our Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ as we would want to be treated. . . .

The Arminian Christian believes that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh to save sinners and that the saving work of Christ comes to the sinner by way of the grace of God received through faith. Whatever issues relevant to salvation we disagree upon, let us agree on this: the Calvinist and the Arminian are brothers in Christ. Both belong to the household of faith. The issue of debate is not between belief and unbelief but rather which of two Christian perspectives better represents the biblical portrayal of the divine-human relationship in salvation and the contributions of both God and man in human history.

Christians may disagree with each other, and disagree profoundly over issues close to the center of the faith, yet affirm one another as fellow believers. For some on both sides, we are sure that this might seem to subtract from the seriousness of the divide between Calvinism and Arminianism. We do not seek to disvalue the issues of contention. They are real and important. . . . But neither do we want to overestimate the debate. In the division between Christianity and Islam, the Arminian is our brother. . . .

With all of the foregoing in mind, we will seek to write under a number of self-imposed strictures that we hope will help us in addressing the issues of the contention without adding to the strife of the debate. Far too often, polemical works are not actually targeted at the other side of the debate. That is to say, they are not aimed at engaging the other side in discussion, or at seeking to persuade the other of the plausibility or truth of the author's own position. Many of the discussions we have read--from both sides of the debate--seem to be written to those who already agree with the author. The point often seems to be one of arming one's own troops, giving them ammunition for future firefights.

We will not follow this strategy. We write as Calvinists to Arminians, as persons who hold the Word of God precious and worthy of our most careful reflection to other believers who share that same commitment of the heart. (from pp. 10-14)

The point here, I say for neither the first nor the last time on this blog, is not to be a Calvinist and also to be really, really nice. That's not enough. It's not merely a both/and. It's an if/then.

Haughtily held Calvinism is inherently self-contradictory and betrays Arminian functional belief beneath a veneer of Calvinist doctrinal belief. If we are confessing Calvinists and yet are impatient, splintering, divisive, condescending, or emotionally elitist, etc, then we're not really Calvinists. It doesn't matter what we say we believe. We don't really believe it's all--all--of grace.

To lack grace in our living is to deny grace in our theology.


Anonymous said...

I read the post on Justin Taylor's blog, then clicked on the link to your blog, and I'm glad I did because this part was so helpful and encouraging to me:

"If we are confessing Calvinists and yet are impatient, splintering, divisive, condescending, or emotionally elitist, etc, then we're not really Calvinists. It doesn't matter what we say we believe. We don't really believe it's all--all--of grace."

I need to remember this the next time I'm tempted to be proud toward an arminian Christian!


Jason B. Hood said...

Great post Dane. I'm always grateful and encouraged when Reformed leaders model doctrine winsomely held.

"splintering, divisive"--my question is to what extent the divisions and factions we see everywhere along doctrinal lines flies in the face of what you are encouraging here?

An even tougher question: what do we do to fight against such splintering and division? Are we "lacking grace in our living" if we don't actively labor against the trend of dividing ourselves into theological affinity groups, working instead for unity in Jesus' body? (The comments you cite from Ajith on willingness to suffer other believers also hover over this question.)

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks Jason. Interesting.

I wonder if there is a way to hold our doctrinal convictions with firm resolution, all the while embracing our brothers and sisters with love who differ with us at points yet are obviously co-heirs with Christ.

In other words, clear, deep doctrine theologically wedded with rich, joyous affection.

In fact, isn't the former meant all along to lead to the latter?

The point, then, is not to become doctrinally wishy-washy or malleable, but to recognize that it is the very clarity and truth of deep, God-besotted, biblical doctrine that itself yields worship of Christ, and appropriate humility.

You are a wise and thoughtful man; I wonder how you would answer your own questions...?

Jason B. Hood said...

Hi Dane. Not sure I have any wisdom, just eager to follow your logic in this post, because I agree with it and I'm convinced it's biblical and important.

My concern is certainly not that we need to loosen doctrine.

If we're responsible not just for doctrinal precision but for avoiding divisiveness, splintering, sectarian approaches to Christian witness, in what ways can Reformed leaders help tear down barriers--denominational, cultural, etc.--that keep (say) Arminians and Calvinists or Southern Baptists and evangelical Anglicans from being in full fellowship with one another? What would efforts to better represent the unity of Christ's body to one another and the world look like? What sacrifices would be required?