Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dueling Duo: Rhetoric and Arminianism

Are Calvinists the only one who have bad rhetoric in the Calvinism vs. Arminian debate? Are Arminians the only ones calling for fair play? Even with the rise of so-called 'New Calvinism,' which is really a discovery of all that is great about the doctrines of grace in Old Calvinism, it seems neither side has cornered the market on civility or unbridled passion lacking in charity.

I used to do these things I called dueling duos. Most times I'd put two quotes side by side, whereas the first one was newer, the second one was usually something I agreed with that was older than the first quote and had long since refuted the idea of the first quote. Other times, I'd just put two quotes side-by-side. This is going to be one of the latter. They are by the same Arminian author.

This is a reason why I increasingly view evangelicalism as two movements rather than one.  We are like ships passing in the night even though we both call ourselves evangelicals and stand in that movement’s historical trajectory.  Wesley and Whitefield have been pitted against each other.  Indeed.  Thank God they could both serve as catalysts for the Great Awakening, but their profoundly different views of God largely kept them apart.  Wesley’s hermeneutic was captivated by God’s love revealed above all else in Jesus Christ.  Whitefield’s hermeneutic was captivated by God’s glory revealed above all else in God’s sovereign election of individuals to heaven or hell.
How can these two evangelicalisms work together for the greater glory of God?  Well, they probably cannot–especially so long as either side casts aspersions of “idolatry” at the other one.  It always starts as a vigorous disagreement about God’s sovereignty and human free will.  Next comes the caricaturing of views.  Then follows the angry epithets of philosophical reasoning over biblical faithfulness followed by charges of heresy and idolatry.
While I acknowledge that some Arminians have been guilty of such, overall and in general it is representatives of the “new Calvinism” (or sometimes just plain old decretal theology Calvinism) that engage in the most vitriolic rhetoric against other people who are allegedly (so one might have thought) their fellow evangelical Christians.   (Many people in the world wide Reformed fellowship are not guilty of this at all.)

There is much that is helpful in this excerpt. [For Calvinists saying similar things see here]

All that is to say that Arminianism’s critics are the proverbial people casting stones while living in glass houses.  They talk endlessly about God’s glory and about God-centeredness while sucking the goodness out of God and thus divesting him of real glory.  Their theology may be God-centered but the God at its center is unworthy of being the center.  Better a man-centered theology than one that revolves around a being hardly distinguishable from the devil... 
One finds no hint anywhere in Arminius of any concern for human autonomy for its own sake.  Arminius’s only reason for affirming libertarian free will is to disconnect sin from God and make the sinner solely responsible for it.  His one overriding concern is for God’s glory in all things.  There can be no doubt that he would agree whole heartedly with the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism “What is the chief end of man?”  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Time prohibits me from rehearsing a litany of Arminian affirmations of the glory of God after Arminius.  Suffice it to say that all classical Arminians have always agreed with Arminius about this matter.  I challenge critics of Armininism to display one example of a classical Arminian theologian who has elevated humanity to an end in itself or in any way made God’s chief end the glory of man.  It doesn’t exist.
I conclude with this observation.  The difference between Arminian and Calvinist theologies does not lie in man-centeredness versus God-centeredness.  True Arminianism is as thoroughly God-centered as Calvinism.  A fair reading of classical Arminian theologians from Arminius to Thomas Oden cannot avoid finding in them a ringing endorsement of the God-centeredness of all creation and redemption.  The difference, rather, lies in the nature and character of the God who stands at the centers of these two systems.  The God who stands at the center of classical, high Calvinism of the TULIP variety is a morally ambiguous being of power and control who is hardly distinguishable from the devil.  The devil wants all people to go to hell whereas the God of Calvinism wants some, perhaps most, people to go to hell.  The devil is God’s instrument in wreaking havoc and horror in the world—for God’s glory.  The God who stands at the center of classical Arminianism is the God of Jesus Christ, full of love and compassion as well as justice and wrath who voluntarily limits his power to allow creaturely rebellion but is nevertheless the source of all good for whose glory and honor everything except sin exists.

1. It is a shame that these quotes are by a professional theologian who is worthy of respect.

2. There is a double standard here, to say the least, within the second quote itself. 

One the one hand, he would have people represent Arminianism fairly in that their is an aspect of their theology that is concerned with God's glory. One the other hand, we could challenge him to find in Calvinism such a grotesque portrayal of God so that he does not even treat Calvinism as he wants Arminians to be treated. 

So he will not allow the Calvinist to offer an external critique of Arminianism when we say "they aren't God-centered." Of course a Calvinist does not deny that an Arminian cares about God and God is somehow central to his thinking, rather the critique is that their theology does not place enough emphasis on God and His glory in the same manner and to the same extent that the Biblical text does. Yet it is an external critique of the Arminian evaluating Calvinism from the outside Calvinism that makes such a gross caricature possible. No Calvinist would say this of their own system (just as no Arminian would say they aren't 'God-centered').

3. It strike me as odd that "vitriolic rhetoric" and "the caricaturing of views" can be so deplored on the one hand in the first quote. And then on the very next post one can say Calvinism "hardly distinguishable from the devil." To this we might reply respectfully: Physician, heal thyself! 

4. I am unconvinced that this issue is somehow not about 'who is God-centered vs. who is man-centered.' If, as we are told, Calvinism makes God like the devil, then that is indeed idolatry. And if it is idolatry, then it is man-centered and not God-centered. If the God of Calvinism is, as we are told, "is a morally ambiguous being of power and control who is hardly distinguishable from the devil," then he has been remade in an idolatrous man-centered approach. I fail to be convinced that a debate about the attributes and character of God is not a part of the 'man-centered vs. God-centered' debate. Any person who is adding or taking away from the attributes of God as Scripture portrays them is then doing something that is man-centered instead of something that is God-centered. 

At the end of the day the debate is not about which side thinks they are more God-centered and not man-centered. Of course both sides argue that they are God-centered. The debate is about who is actually more faithful to the Biblical attributes and character of God. Claiming "we are God-centered because we think we are" is not the point of the debate. We cannot say 'I think therefore I am.' The grounds for legitimate debate is not what each side thinks about itself. 

The author knows full well no Calvinist thinks God is like the devil but he brings his criticism to bear. I do not think the criticism stands but the author brings it to bear because from his system and perspective he has interpreted his opponent. A response should deflect the criticism and show this is untrue of Calvinism both theologically and Biblically. At the same time, a Calvinist can and should know that Arminians claim to be God-centered. If someone disagrees they should show why this is not actually true. Readers and listeners of such debates are then able to decide who is right and who is wrong as they compare it to Scripture.

In the end, it is right to call for fair representation and honest debate. Straw men should be put to rest and ended by all involved. Digging in with epithets and charges of damnable heresy serves no purpose. It is unfortunate that the same author who applauds such fairness and honest debate in the end considers his opponent's view of God as "hardly distinguishable from the devil."

Let's not pretend it is only the Calvinists, New Calvinist, 'conservative evangelicals' or *gasp* fundamentalists who have a zeal that can at times get the better of them. We used to respect people who stood by their convictions and critiqued other based upon those convictions, even while we disagreed with the principles.

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