Challies: Defending Arminians Unfair to Their Accusers

Recently, Tim Challies did a review of Roger E. Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities,

He cites a paragraph from the book:

“When conservative theologians declare that synergism is a heresy, they are usually referring to these two Pelagian forms of synergism. Classical Arminians agree. This is a major theme of this book. Contrary to confused critics, classical Arminianism is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian! But it is synergistic. Arminianism is evangelical synergism as opposed to heretical, humanistic synergism.”

To which Challies responds,

“Such claims always make me nervous. Much like those who hold to Open Theism or the New Perspective on Paul, their claims depend on suggesting that other theologians of the past and present just haven’t properly understood. When Steve Lawson, R.C. Sproul and countless others have examined Arminianism and declared it to be Semi-Pelagian, they just haven’t quite understood the details. They unfairly typified Arminianism, confusing it with Semi-Pelagianism. Or so men like Olson have to conclude. Careful and skilled researchers that they are, I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion. To redefine Arminianism before defending it seems more than a little disingenuous.”

Keith Schooley points out Challies’ mischaracterization of Arminianism at on his blog; what I wish to address is Timmy’s accusation that Olson is being unfair and his reasoning for doing so.

First let’s look at the accusation that Arminianism is Semi-Pelagian. I’ve written on this subject before, but to recap: What exactly is Semipelagianism?

[Semi-Pelagianism], while not denying the necessity of Grace for salvation, maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.
(Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F.L. Cross, Oxford Univ. Press, rev. 1983, p.1258)

[Speaking of Semipelagianism] An early theology which accepted original sin, but taught that a person could initiate faith in God first, and God would grant the grace for one do continue on.
(A Handbook of Theological Terms, Harvey, Van A., p.218-219)

Easy enough. Semipelagianism says that God’s grace is needed to be saved (as opposed to full Pelagianism which denies this), but man takes the first steps towards salvation apart from the grace of God. Both Pelagianism and Semipelagianism are heresies, so for someone to be a Semipelagian necessarily entails that he or she be a heretic. Thus when Calvinists identify anyone who disagrees with their theology as a Semipelagian, they are effectively saying that such a person is a heretic, making this label an oft-employed bludgeon against Arminians and other Non-Calvinists. But what exactly is actually taught in classical Arminianism? Does it line up with Semipelagian doctrine?

“That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of an by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.” “
Article 3 of the Remonstrance

“That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ, but respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.”
Article 4 of the Remonstrance

Man “has not saving grace of himself,” and God’s grace is “the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good.” Thus from virtually its very inception Arminianism strongly distinguishes itself from the ancient heresies of Pelagius and Cassian by directly contradicting their defining points of doctrine. The only major common denominator is that all three belief systems espouse some measure of free will, but it is the belief that free will enables man to come to Christ apart from God’s grace that makes Pelagianism/Semipelagianism heretical; free will by the Arminianism definition is still in bondage apart from the grace of God. So why do many Calvinists such as Lawson and Sproul try to equate Arminianism with the Pelagian heresy? It’s simple. They’ve been so thoroughly entrenched in Calvinist dogma that they will make any accusation or slander, regardless or merit or truthfulness, in a panickingly confused and fanatical attempt to color all of their opponents as heretics. There’s simply no way around it, Reformed scholars who make this accusation about classical Arminians are either impetuous liars who are guilty of the worst kind of blatant equivocation, or simply ignorant of basic doctrinal terms and history. It being quite obvious upon examination that many of the more educated in their number are either raving madmen or among the most terrible of fact-checkers, the blundering false allegations made by many of the elite of Reformed Theology cast serious doubt upon their objectivity and basic interpretation of facts as well as their general abilities as biblical expositors. The judgment of the venerable heroes of their doctrinal system being called into serious question as well as the loss of their favorite club to bash Arminians over the head with is too much for many of Calvin’s disciples to deal with rationally. Challies retreats straight into the la-la land of faulty appeal to authority, asserting that Sproul and Lawson simply couldn’t have been wrong. Sorry Timmy: Facts are facts, Sproul’s a quack (at least in this matter). Then in one of the single dumbest statements ever written (yes, even on the internet), he states, “…I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion.”

Yeah, how dare that Olson contend that he and other Arminians aren’t heretics! That’s completely insensitive to the hard-working Calvinists who for years have striven to sustain their damning allegation!

Defense: “So you see lady and gentlemen of the jury, my client was nowhere near the scene of the slaying, he was over 200 miles away at the time as can be verified by footage from CNN, as well as several hundred eyewitnesses…”

Prosecution: “Objection your honor! The defense’s claim that his client is not guilty is both rude and unfair to the very capable staff of the prosecuting party that have put such earnest effort into indicting this man.”

What kind of brainwashing is needed for a man to accuse another of heresy, and then unfairness to his accusers for issuing an intelligible defense? That’s the absolute pinnacle of egocentrism and arrogance. Such theological prejudice and conceit fueled Calvin’s Geneva. His theology bred the same prejudice into his followers in the Netherlands, which sparked their cognitively diseased attempt to condemn any opposing views, culminating in their persecution of the Dutch Arminians and their sympathizers (including the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt). And as Challies succinctly demonstrates, that same blind prejudice is exactly what the swing towards militant Reformed Theology is breeding in its adherents today. Defense rests.

Clarification: I am not indicting all Calvinists as errantly accusing all Arminians of Semipelagianism. Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams both examine the issue much more objectively and reach a conclusion about Arminianism quite contrary to Sproul’s in their work, Why I am Not an Arminian. Perhaps Challies will take them to task next for being ‘unfair and uncharitable.’ Examination fueled by intellectual honesty rather than the militant prejudice befits children of God, and our assessments of what is fair and unfair should be determined by the God’s word and fact, not hero-worship of some faddish authors.

Arminian Perspectives Welcomes JC Thibodaux

I met JC about a year ago while visiting his website http://www.indeathorlife.org/ . I sent him an e-mail and we have been corresponding ever since. I have come to know him as not only someone who argues forcefully against Calvinism but as someone with a genuine concern for others and a true heart for God. I am honored that he will now be posting periodically at Arminian Perspectives. I encourage anyone to check out his website as well.

Fletcher on Being “Dead in Sin” Part 2

Fletcher demonstrated that the Scriptures use the word “dead” in more than one way, and to understand the term “dead” with regards to spiritual issues as meaning dead as a physical corpse renders many of these passages, like Rev. 3:1-4, nonsensical. Fletcher also demonstrates the inconsistency in Calvinist thought between what it means to be “dead in sin” and “dead to sin”. He states:

I wonder at the partiality of some persons. If we assert, that “strong believers are dead TO sin,” they tell us very properly that such are not so dead, but they may commit sin if they please, or if they are off their watch. But if we say, that “many who are dead IN sin, are not so dead, but in the strength imparted, together with the Light that enlightens every man, they may leave off some of their sins if they please,” we are exclaimed against as using metaphysical distinctions, and dead must absolutely mean impotent as a corpse.

I believe this to be Fletcher’s most significant argument. Calvinists will often appeal to Eph. 2:1, “you were dead in your trespasses and sins”, and Col. 2:13 which also speaks of being “dead in your transgressions”. From these passages the Calvinist deduces that one can no more respond to God’s grace than a dead corpse can respond to outside stimuli. It is said that there must first be a resurrection [spiritual regeneration] before one can respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation. We are then told that the regenerated person will “freely” choose Christ according to this new nature. There are several problems with this Calvinist argument.

1) When the Scripture speaks of death it is speaking of the separation of the spirit from the body. To be “dead in sin” is to be separated from a holy God who cannot tolerate sin. Our sin has caused separation from God and has effected our spiritual death (Rom. 6:21; James 1:14, 15). The only cure for our pitiful state is to come into vital union with the only source of life: Jesus Christ (Jn. 15).

2) The Scripture speaks of the believer as being “dead to sin” and a “slave to righteousness” while acknowledging that those who are so dead are still capable of sinning. Paul draws a strict parallel between being “slaves to sin” and “slaves to righteousness” and being “dead in sin” and “dead to sin” in Rom. 6:12-23. Since the believer who is “dead to sin” and a “slave to righteousness” can still yield to the influences of the sinful nature, the world, and Satan, there is no reason to believe that one who is “dead in sin” and a “slave to sin” is incapable of responding to the gracious working of the Holy Spirit without first being regenerated. The Spirit of God bridges the gap of deathly separation and enables the sinner to yield to Christ.

3) There is only one way that a sinner can experience the new life, and that is by union with Jesus Christ. Just as surely as separation from God caused spiritual death, union with Christ is the only way that the sinner can experience new life. It is impossible to have life outside of Jesus Christ. This poses a serious problem with Calvinist doctrine. Calvinism has sinners being regenerated before coming to be in union with Christ. We can only experience the benefits of the cross, however, through union with Christ. Through that union His death becomes our death, His life becomes our life, and His blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness. None of this can happen prior to union with Him. The Bible is clear that we come to be in union with Christ through faith. Consider the following passages:

But God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no man may boast. (Eph. 2:4-9)

Many Calvinists like to quote portions of the above text because they believe it supports their conclusions that regeneration precedes faith and that faith is a “gift” that God irresistibly gives to the elect. When one reads these passages together such a conclusion cannot be drawn. All of the gracious spiritual benefits of verses 4-7, including the spiritual resurrection described in verse 6, are “through faith” (verse 8). The grammar of verses 8 and 9 do not allow for the interpretation Calvinists often assign to them. The “gift” of God does not refer to “faith” but to the gracious gift of God’s salvation. To interpret the gift as faith would render verse 9 nonsensical. It would essentially say that “faith” is not “of works” which would be a meaningless statement of the obvious.

All of these spiritual blessings are said to be “with” and “in” Christ [verses 5-7] which is a recurrent theme in Ephesians and in all Pauline writings. It is especially prominent in Ephesians Chapters 1 and 2. Ephesians 1:13 explains how one comes to be in union with Christ and Ephesians 3:17 tells us how Christ comes to dwell in our hearts. In both cases this union is by faith.

This same thought is paralleled in Col. 2:9-12:

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (see also Rom. 6:4)

Again the theme of union with Christ is obvious. We can also see that our spiritual resurrection is “through faith” in the working [or power] of God, who raised [Christ] from the dead”.

It is undeniable that the unregenerate need a spiritual resurrection. It is also undeniable that this resurrection comes by the faith that brings us into saving union with Christ, whereby we can experience all the benefits of His death and resurrection.

Conclusion:

There is no Biblical reason to accept the Calvinist understanding that being “dead in sin” means that one must first be regenerated before being capable of exercising saving faith. This does not discount the need for a powerful working of the Holy Spirit on the unregenerate, but demonstrates that this working does not result in regeneration until the sinner first meets the condition of faith. When the sinner responds in faith to the gracious working and enabling of the Holy Spirit, he or she is immediately grafted into Christ and receives all the benefits of His atonement, which includes regeneration.

I would also like to point out a problem with the Calvinist insistence that one who is regenerated will “freely” choose to put faith in Christ. I believe that it would be more honest for the Calvinist to say that God “causes” the regenerate to put faith in Christ. To say that one freely chooses is misleading. Most Calvinists understand such “freedom” in a compatiblist sense in which we “freely” do what God causes us to do [whether directly or indirectly through circumstances, etc.]. If the Calvinist wants to insist that one freely chooses to put faith in Christ in a libertarian sense [without being caused of necessity], then it quickly becomes apparent that one could not guarantee that the newly regenerated individual would choose to put faith in Christ.

The Calvinist wants us to believe that once a person is regenerate he or she will naturally choose according to the new regenerated nature. The problem with this explanation is that Calvinists also affirm that one is never completely free of the sinful nature until after death. If this is the case then the newly regenerated person can now choose to either yield to the new nature or the old sinful nature. This would mean that there would be no way to be sure that a regenerated person would choose to follow Christ if one is free in a libertarian sense. He or she could choose instead to yield to the sinful nature which still dwells within. The only way to be certain that the regenerate person would choose Christ is to admit that God must irresistibly cause him or her to do so. If that is the case then Calvinist should be honest enough to drop the “freely choose” rhetoric.