Calvinism and Arminianism: Two Rivers that Run Through Us
By Ron F. Hale.
He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.
While living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I loved looking down at the cityscape from the perch of Mt. Washington. You could ride the incline car up the steep hillside and see the confluence of the Ohio River as the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers came to an end at “The Point” in downtown Pittsburgh; Three Rivers Stadium is nearby. Depending on the weather in southwestern Pennsylvania, some days you could see muddy waters from one river flowing into the headstream of the Ohio River, while the other river brought much clearer water. These two rivers (one cloudy and one clear) seemed to flow side-by-side while slowly mixing and mingling together in the formation of the mighty Ohio.
Two rivers of theological thought have historically flowed through the mainstream of the Southern Baptist Convention. The waters have been muddied a bit by the Great Awakenings in America, the Sandy Creek revivalist tradition of Separate Baptists in the South, the Charleston tradition influenced more by Particular confessions of faith and their pastors trained in Presbyterian seminaries like Princeton, and the adoption of new Baptist confessions and statements of faith forged in the New World.
Dr. Steve W. Lemke’s précis of the two streams of soteriology (doctrine of salvation) meandering through our Southern Baptist history is enlightening:
To oversimplify a bit, Southern Baptists have two theological tributaries flowing into our mainstream – the Arminian-leaning General Baptists and the Calvinist-leaning Particular Baptists. Unto themselves, these tributaries were essentially free-standing streams, independent of each other. The General Baptists were first chronologically, with leaders such as John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Thomas Grantham. The name General Baptist came from their belief in a general atonement – that is, that Christ died for all the people who would respond in faith to Him. These Baptists may not have had access to most or all of Arminius’ works, but they were in agreement with many points of his theology. This theological stream was expressed in doctrinal confessions such as Smyth’s Short Confession of 1610, Helwys’s Declaration of Faith in 1611, the Faith and Practices of 30 Congregations of 1651, and the Standard Confession of 1660. The Free Will Baptists and General Baptists are the purest contemporary denominational expressions of this stream of thought.
In contrast, the name of the Particular Baptists was derived from the fact that they believed in a particular (or limited) atonement – that is, Christ died only for particular people, i.e., the elect. Their best known doctrinal confessions were the 1644 London Baptist Confession (expanded in 1646), the Second London Confession of 1689, and the Philadelphia Confession (of the Philadelphia Association) in 1742. The Second London Confession follows the language of the Reformed Westminster Confession verbatim (except at points that even Calvinistic Baptists differ from Presbyterians), and the Philadelphia Confession likewise copies the Second London Confession almost entirely word for word.
From the Headwaters of the Arminian Stream
James Arminius (1560-1609) refused to accept the teachings of Theodore Beza (1519-1605) on election and reprobation. Beza followed John Calvin at the academy of Geneva and was the architect of the view of predestination known as supralapsarianism. This view argued that before God ordained the fall of Adam, He chose certain persons to eternal life and predestined others to eternal damnation.
After studying under Beza in Geneva, Arminius rejected the teachings of his professor and taught another view. After his death, the followers of Arminius became known as the Remonstrants and they published a theological document that contended for the following five things:
- God conditionally elects individuals according to their foreseen faith.
- Christ died for the sins of the whole world.
- No one has the power within himself to turn to God without the assistance of God’s grace.
- God’s grace can be resisted.
- It is possible for a Christian to lose his salvation.
From the Headwaters of the Calvinist Stream
The followers of Arminius (the Arminians) and the followers of John Calvin (Calvinists) were embroiled in a theological debate until the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), at which time all five Arminian assertions were rejected.
The five points of Calvinism sought to respond to the five assertions of the Remonstrants (Arminians):
- Total Depravity – as a result of Adam’s fall, the entire human race is affected; all humanity is dead in trespasses and sin. Man is unable to save himself.
- Unconditional Election – Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate response to God; therefore, in eternity past, God elected certain people to salvation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response.
- Limited Atonement – Because God determined that certain ones should be saved as a result of God’s unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect. All who God has elected and Christ died for will be saved.
- Irresistible Grace – Those whom God elected and Christ died for, God draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.
- Perseverance of the Saints — The precise ones God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith. None whom God has elected will be lost; they are eternally secure.
By the time I was pulled from the pagan pool in 1975, Southern Baptists had moved away from Calvinism for almost a century, and there was very little debate between the proponents of Arminianism and Calvinism. The two streams of theological thought had mixed and mingled and the waters had settled down. However, after surrendering my life to God’s call to preach the gospel in 1977, I found the calm waters of Baptist life taking me down some rapids through the years of the Conservative Resurgence. I came out of the rapids holding firmly to the Word of God and convinced that Southern Baptists were making a difference in North America and the world. I found great joy in helping plant new congregations and evangelize in states like Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
Later I discovered the currents and rapids getting faster again with the Reformed Resurgence or the rise of Calvinism in SBC life. It seems that some rode the rapids of the Conservative Resurgence with the hopes of returning Southern Baptists to what they saw as our “historic roots” in Calvinism. Since I was happy over on Sandy Creek, this seemed new, different, and challenging. I was unfamiliar with many of the names and nuances of the doctrines of Sovereign Grace and the system of Reformed theology.
Recently I was intrigued by the writings of pastor and theologian Dr. Eric Hankins. In a journal article entitled “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward A Baptist Soteriology,” he says,
After four hundred years, Calvinism and Arminianism remain at an impasse. The strengths and weaknesses of both systems are well-documented, and their proponents vociferously aver each system’s mutual exclusivity. This paper is based on the observation that these two theological programs have had sufficient time to demonstrate their superiority over the other and have failed to do so. The time has come, therefore, to look beyond them for a paradigm that gives a better account of the biblical and theological data. Indeed, the stalemate itself is related not so much to the unique features of each system but to a set of erroneous presuppositions upon which both are constructed. As the fault lines in these foundational concepts are exposed, it will become clear that the Baptist vision for soteriology, which has always resisted absolute fidelity to either system, has been the correct instinct all along. Baptist theology must be willing to articulate this vision in a compelling and comprehensive manner.
Dr. Hankins is correct that we must move beyond the things that have always divided us. The balkanization of the Southern Baptist Convention will escalate with the quibbles and quarrels growing more intense if we do not move beyond the hair-splitting and nit-picking that has plagued this unending doctrinal debate for almost half a millennium.
Three key understandings help me stay afloat in the white water rapids of change:
- “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). My faith goes back 2000 years to Jerusalem, not four hundred years to Geneva! Jesus is to be first and foremost in my life.
- “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Books of theology can never satisfy my soul, but the precious Word of God first pointed me to the Savior and feeds my soul until this very day!
- “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). The gospel (not the finer points of theology) is the power of God unto salvation! It was the preaching of the death, burial, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave with the power to forgive me all my sins that caused my heart to trust Jesus many years ago. And, for over thirty-five years, I’ve seen the gospel break the hearts of sinners as they called on Jesus to save them.
I close with a sentence from the Baptist Faith and Message (Section 1: The Scriptures), “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.” The two rivers of Baptist theology have been mixing and mingling, and serving effectively in the SBC for the past century and a half. Without the living, vital relationship with Jesus Christ (anchored in Scriptures), our two historic rivers of theology turn into the marshy waters of a moat surrounding defensive walls. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have set up a defense when we are supposed to be on the offense. New Testament charges the Church to march forward filled with the Spirit and preach the Word of God, which is sharper than any two-edged sword!