Calvinism and Arminianism Will Stunt Your Spiritual Growth

Systematizing your faith is like trying to simplify God.

Attend a church Bible study long enough and you're likely to hear two, strange terms: Calvinism and Arminianism. In short, they're two competing systems used to describe the relationship between divine sovereignty and human free will.

Calvinists will tell you that God predestines us to be saved and that all of us are chosen before we ever have a chance to choose. Arminians, on the other hand, will say that he simply foreknows our decisions and that his plans for our future are built around them. In either case, God's sovereignty and our free will are exalted at the expense of the other.

Nevertheless, many Christians happily subscribe to them because they resolve the glaring contradiction in Scripture that sovereignty and free will coexist.

It gets better. When Christians first discover Calvinism and Arminianism (which usually happens when they realize there's more to the Bible than the gospel of John and the Psalms), their new-found enlightenment often brings a false sense of spiritual growth.

I've seen it happen to lots of people, including myself (I know, hard to imagine). Like any other alienating jargon, I've used those terms to label the ignorant as "baby Christians". Which I guess made me a big fat toddler who no longer needed to be spoon-fed the gospel but was still prone to make a mess of it.

To be fair, confronting the difficult parts of Scripture is a good thing. No one will grow spiritually by ignoring passages like Romans 9 or Hebrews 6 (or if you're really advanced, Isaiah 45). But we adopt a contrived maturity by embracing theological systems that sacrifice biblical adherence to logical coherence--a posture ironically achieved by ignoring sections of the Bible.

It may come as a shock to other toddler Christians who, like my two-year-old daughter, think that there are only two foods in the entire world (fruit and yogurt), but there are other systems besides the false dichotomy of Calvinism and Arminianism.

Thomism addresses the relationship of sovereignty and freedom by suggesting that the nature of our free will is predisposed to desire the movement of God. But since we are fallen and unable to respond despite our desire, God extends what Thomist's call efficacious grace that allows us to follow him.

Molinism is another system that operates on the principle of middle knowledge, which is the knowledge of what might be. According to Molinists, God knows how we would respond in every possible situation, so he constructs a world around us that leads us to follow him.

And we're not even getting into open theism (God limits his knowledge for the sake of our freedom), supralapsarianism (God predestines people to heaven and hell), process theology (God isn't exactly perfect and is still learning), or fatalism (God is a questionably-benevolent tyrant and we're his robots). Few orthodox Christians subscribe to any of these, but they demonstrate how much more complicated our faith is than your Bible study might make it.

The sovereignty/freedom debate is not a solvable dilemma unless you pretend that certain passages don't exist. Calvinists have to ignore numerous verses on our ability to resist God (like these), and Arminians have to ignore all of the ones that indicate his will supersedes ours (like these).

Thankfully, we were never expected to understand God like Calvinism and Arminianism feebly attempt to do. Paul often referred to the faith as a mystery manifested in the person of Christ living within us. Our relationship is the essence of divinity joined with the substance of humanity, united in being yet distinct in person. We confess a faith of bold contradiction. And it should rightfully drive us crazy.

But when he wrote about this to the Corinthians, Paul indicated that this mystery was not only hidden from unbelievers but from the immature as well. In fact, the deep things of God are only known to the Spirit and are reserved for those who have progressed from milk to solid food (the true toddlers in Christ).

The difference between milk and solid food should be obvious. Milk requires no effort on our part to swallow while solid food requires us to actually take the time to chew lest we choke. Learning that Jesus loves us is the milk. Learning that he orders our steps as we make our plans is a little tougher. We can't mature until we accept that solid food; however, we also can't mature if we accept it but never chew on it.

Mature Christians are not those who are able to swallow the truths of God without effort. To the contrary, they spend their lives meditating on the mystery--a mystery resolved in the person of Christ, not in our minds. Thus, spiritual maturity is not a resolution of tension but rather a daily acceptance of it. Welcome to the everyday agony of following Jesus, not the convenient systems of dead men.

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  1. Hmm, from an experiential standpoint, I disagree with the title of the article. In my own experience, when I became convinced that arminianism is the best way to understand God's sovereignty and man's free will, I became elated. More specifically, when I became an open theist (shh, don't tell anybody :), I felt a profound sense of love and thanksgiving for God's way of working in the world. It especially helped me deal with the problem of evil (you should read Greg Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Evil and his prequel God at War). I grew to love God and thank God even more, and as most theologians recognize, true love for the other comes from a sense of thanksgiving to God. Anyways, that was my own personal journey, but I know of others that think the same way (you should look up Jessica Kelly's new book about dealing with her child's death from an open theist's perspective). But I see your point about theological arrogance. It is a temptation that all students of theology and philosophy must resist (or any student for that matter). But in my own experience, Calvinism tends to more often create that theological arrogance. I've heard stories of people that label their change from arminianism to calvinism as a conversion experience; they went from being immature, self-centered, heathen arminians to God-fearing, Christian calvinists. It as though they believe that they were not saved when they were arminians. Arminians, for the most part (again, in my own experiences in the real and virtual worlds), tend to be less confident in their assertions about their theological system. While they hold to arminianism with a passion, they are usually more willing to show respect to calvinism as a system and calvinist Christians.

    Second, I really would not recommend using the world "contradiction" to describe the interaction between God's will and man's will. Now, if you define God's sovereignty as God's complete determination and control of all things, then yes, there is a "contradiction" between man's free will and God's sovereignty; although even calvinists do not say this. Instead, they simply redefine free will as complementarian free will (complementarianism). They abuse the term so much with the result that any Jane and Joe off the street would not recognize it as free will.

    Furthermore, you mention a "false dichotomy" between Arminianism and Calvinism. I agree and disagree. Personally, Thomism is more or less a sub-class of calvinism. Thomas Aquinas, like Augustine before him and Calvin after him, believed that God determined all things. They may have used different theological jargon to describe it, but it was basically the same thing (in my opinion). Many theologians argue and believe that Molinism is a sub-class of Arminianism. The same applies with open theism. And the Supra- and Infra- and Subra- Calvinist isms are all in the Calvinist family. I guess this also depends on how you define Arminianism and Calvinism. If you are using those terms more generically, as is the case in much of current discussions, then I think my point stands.

    Finally, while I agree that God is incomprehensible (can't be fully understood), I do not believe that means that we cannot know anything about God and his creation. The existence of Scripture assumes we can know some things, even if only analogically. For example, while I believe that Jesus' atonement paid for the sins of all of humanity, I do not understand how this is so, how one man's death can cover the sins of many. I accept it on faith. There is much mystery in the Christian faith, but mystery is not contradiction.

  2. Just remember we follow Jesus Christ, not Paul, Peter, or Apollos, or Mr Calvin for that matter. He will teach you all things. John 14:26 So keep feeding yourself by reading the Word of God; so that you will grow.

    And beware...

    Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. Colossians 2:8


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