The Road to Rome?

I came across something funny today, a commenter who shall remain nameless, on a certain Calvinist blog asserted that Synergism eventually “leads to Rome.” Doubtless he’s just parroting Augustus Toplady’s ‘Arminianism – The Road Back to Rome.’ But what exactly do Calvinists mean when they use this phrase? Many Calvinist authors over the years have displayed a talent for spurious correlations, slippery slopes, and just plain mislabeling their opposition. From the ridiculous “Arminians are Semipelagians” canard still pushed by R.C. Sproul among others, to the “Arminianism leads to either Universalism or Open Theism [because no one could possibly believe that atonement is conditional, and God can’t know the future if He didn’t cause it because God can’t do things we can’t easily explain],” I’d say the ‘Road to Rome’ fallacy is the most amusing of the lot. Let’s quantify what is meant here exactly, what does going “back to Rome” entail? Is it perhaps:

1. Becoming part of the Catholic church?

2. Agreeing with Catholic doctrines?

3. Taking on a more Catholic flavor?

4. Becoming more liberal like the Catholics?

Well, it’s doubtless that there have been converts from Arminianism to Catholicism, there are also converts from Calvinism to Catholicism; isolated examples say little about the whole. Simple fact is that Catholics have proportionally few adherents to their religion who weren’t born into it. Yet despite the Calvinist assertion that all roads except theirs lead back to Rome, history has shown quite a few Arminian and Synergist churches and denominations that have been mysteriously very slow in their march back to the city on seven hills. In fact, some appear to be marching backwards in some of the more fundamentalist groups, many of whom who hold to libertarian free will and are simultaneously often among the most vocal opponents of Catholicism. So I guess the journey to the papacy doesn’t necessarily involve becoming a proper Catholic.

So does it imply agreeing with Catholic doctrine? Thus far I’ve not witnessed masses from the Church of the Nazarene lining up to accept the immaculate conception or the primacy of Rome. I’ve had some Calvinists tell me that the denial of ‘once saved, always saved’ by many Arminians is a return to Catholic doctrine, but a doctrine that two parties coincidentally agree upon does not amount to one party accepting the other’s position as a whole. While the soteriology in Catholicism and Arminianism are similar at points, the standard Calvinist view of original sin is much closer to the classical Catholic view (inherited guilt from Adam) than that of most Arminian Evangelicals (inherited sinful nature from Adam, which manifests itself as sin that brings guilt). By that logic one could argue that the Calvinists are the ones heading back to the doctrines of the RCC. The Catholic church does in fact hold some correct beliefs, so which group is more out of synch with them is not a gauge of doctrinal correctness. Hence, such a definition of ‘leading back to Rome’ is extremely selective and indefensible.

The third proposition is downright batty. Lots of churches that accept the idea of libertarian free will and believe that election is conditional (such as in the Charismatic backgrounds Ben and I come from) are very contemporary and far removed from the traditional Catholic services. Again, it could be argued that Calvinists tend to be more like the Catholics in that respect. What about falling into liberalism? Again, many contemporary churches that hold to Arminian or similar theology (Free Methodists, many Arminian Baptists and Pentecostals) reject the World Council of Churches and the ordination of homosexuals just as fervently as their conservative, Calvinist brothers. On the flip side, their Reformed origins haven’t really stopped the PCUSA from degenerating into a very theologically liberal organization. Yet time and again we get hyper-zealous Calvinists who insist that churches that embrace Arminianism are just itching for the chance to swear fealty to the first thing that comes along wearing a funny hat. Suddenly non-Calvinists change from Christians with differing views on predestination, into a global-scale network of Jesuit spies determined to covertly subjugate everything with a pulse to the Pontifex Maximus. There’s enough conspiracy theory nonsense there to make Jack Chick wonder about its proponents’ mental stability.

So we are still left with the question then: In what sense does Arminianism lead to Roman Catholicism? The above reasons being untenable, I think that assertion is based on false dichotomy. Calvinists of this type don’t see Catholicism as just an institution, but an idea, the far end of a bipolar measurement: They see Christianity as divided between the two points on the spectrum, you are either Protestant or Catholic. Since in their view, Calvinism is Protestantism, if you are not Calvinist, you must therefore be leaning towards Catholicism, even if you’ve never thought about saying the first Hail Mary. Of course the way many Calvinists define ‘Arminianism’ finally adds some sense to the equation:

(by Calvinist redefinition)


Arminianism = Semipelagianism = not Calvinism


moving towards Roman Catholicism = moving away from Protestantism = moving away from Calvinism

then if,

Arminianism -> moving towards Roman Catholicism

it reduces to,

not Calvinism -> moving away from Calvinism

Would you look at that, the equation does make sense after all! So in other words, when Calvinists tell you that Arminianism is the road to Rome, they are simply saying that not believing Calvinism leads away from Calvinism. Heavy equivocation in expressing it, but apart from that, the logic makes perfect sense.