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.

12 thoughts on “The Road to Rome?

  1. Enjoyable post.

    Interestingly Dave Hunt argues that Calvinism is what leads to Rome via it’s close association to Augustinianism. I don’t find his argument very convincing, though it has the nice side benefit of getting James White all fired up. At best it can be said that Calvinism is related to a type of Augustinian Catholicism that no longer really exists in the Catholic Church.

    The real question is does Calvinism take the road to Mecca? 😉

  2. Ben wrote:

    “. From the ridiculous “Arminians are Semi-Pelagians” 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],”.

    The fact that someone like Sproul can engage in this kind of caricature shows we should not be surprised when some internet calvinist engages in spurious and false characterizations as well.

    Regarding the claim that Arminianism logically entails open theism. This one really puzzles me. I have heard James White on numerous occasions claim that consistent Arminianism leads to open theism. I know some really sharp noncalvinists, Jesuits, Eastern Orthodox, Molinists, etc. And none of them is flirting with or embracing open theism. They affirm the traditional Christian belief that God has foreknowledge of all things including the free choices of human persons. Call this the “simple foreknowledge view”.

    It is the majority view of Christians throughout church history, whether they be Catholics, Protestants, or Eastern Orthodox. Sabellianism which espouses the claim that God does not know the future, and open theism which makes the same claim, have been rejected by these other groups repeatedly.

    The simple foreknowledge view is that we have libertarian free will and yet God is able to foreknow even future actions involving LFW. Look at the church fathers, look today, look at educated and informed noncalvinists and you see none arguing that their simple foreknowledge view logically entails open theism’s denial of God’s ability to foreknow future actions involving LFW. And yet James White repeatedly makes this claim. White knows better and the fact that he continues to engage in this false characterization of noncalvinist views shows lack of scholarship on his part and just plain old prejudice and dishonesty against the noncalvinist view. If White were a real scholar in this area and honest he would not make this claim at all and definitely not make the claim repeatedly.

    The claim that noncalvinism leads to universalism is a similar intentional and false misrepresentation made by some calvinists. Again, look at church history, and you will find the majority of Christians across all theological spectrums affirming that Jesus died for the world AND that some will reject Christ and end up suffering eternal punishment.

    The fact that calvinists must engage in these intentional and false characterizations of noncalvinists views shows them to be dishonest in their argumentation. It may also be a sign of desperation. They cannot take on a strong version of noncalvinism so they must create straw man that are more easily dealt with.

    Kevin asked:

    “The real question is does Calvinism take the road to Mecca?”

    That is an interesting question for me, I have encountered some Muslims in prison who hold the following view: the all wise and merciful God [Allah] has already decided who would experience salvation and who would experience damnation. This wise and merciful God controls all things and so He makes sure that his choices will stand in history. If we are one of His, praise be His name. If we are not, we will be damned, and again Praise be His name as He is the all powerful one who does whatever He wants to do and always accomplishes His will.

    Now how does **that** differ from calvinism where God predetermines the salvation and damnation of all people before they are born?

    Based on statements like these from Muslims, I don’t think calvinists need to take the road to Mecca as they are already on the same determinist road that leads to the identical same conclusions as the determinist Muslims.


  3. Thanks for the comments guys. Sorry to hear that you’re on the receiving end of the same nonsense Trav. Kevin, Robert, I’ve often drawn the comparison myself between Sunni Islam and Calvinist determinism, especially for those who push the idea that the only thing that separates true Christianity from all false religion is monergism. Of course implying that such a remarkable similarity makes Calvinists into “semi-Muslims” would be stupid, — about as dumb as say, labeling Arminians as ‘Semipelagians.’

  4. It seems to me that theological positions get stuck in the historical conflicts that formed them. My impressions, coming from a Reformed seminary, are that any slippage from a High Reformation position (read, Calvinism or Lutheranism) entails sliding back into Catholicism. That’s theology by reaction; it’s also continuing to fight a 400-year-old-battle long after the circumstances that created it have moved on.

    Having said that, I find Erasmus one of the most interesting characters in the Reformation. Asked by the Catholic Church to write a rebuttal against the Reformation, he chose to attack…. monergism (in “Freedom of the Will”). Luther famously attacked back in “Bondage of the Will,” but if you’ve ever read “Bondage,” it’s mostly ad hominem.

    I don’t think we should be afraid of the charge that our soteriology “leads to Rome.” In my opinion, the High Reformers misinterpreted some of the Pauline material and overshot the mark in their reaction to medieval Catholicism. If we want to be biblical, we need to move in whatever direction the biblical material leads us, regardless of whether it appears to move toward an undesirable goal. In the end, all the critics have is a faulty “slippery slope” argument.

  5. I suppose we might make the charge that Calvinism has some papal tendencies in the way that they hold up their theologians and believe that they alone hold the keys to a proper interpretation of Scripture. Those who disagree with their interpretation have historically been persecuted and silenced. Sounds very Roman Catholicish to me 🙂

    God Bless,

  6. J.C. the person in “question” is not only “parroting” Toplady, but also Whitfield, Luther, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Edwards, Foxe and yes Calvin as well. Not exactly a universally recognized list of heretics.

    I have read Dave Hunt mentioned as one of the “authorities” on this subject, that clearly says it all.

    J.C. ,your post is the classic sales tactic “Confusion Illusion” in which a salesman bombards a prospect with pile of meaningless data (much like a discovery process in a trial). After the prospect has been sufficiently overwhelmed and confused with meaningless data, a conclusion is offered. Not buying it on this end.

    In response I tender this simple reply (nothing else is needed):

    Not the labour of my hands
    Can fulfil Thy law’s demands;
    Could my zeal no respite know,
    Could my tears for ever flow,
    All for sin could not atone;
    Thou must save, and Thou alone.

  7. Zechariah,

    I doubt if Luther, and Calvin said the samething as Toplady.

    Did Arminianism exist when Luther and Calvin were around? If not then how can you mention both Luther and Calvin in regards to this subject? As if Luther and Calvin wrote about Arminianism leading bacl to Rome.

    Come on man, get real.

    And how can you call this “meaningless data”? It seemed meaningful to me. What J.C. said had alot of truth in it. I personally can’t see how you can deny it.

    Well, to each his own.


  8. Zechariah,

    1. I never said any of these men were heretics.

    2. I didn’t mention Dave Hunt, that was a sideline comment by a reader.

    3. You fail to demonstrate how or why what I present is ‘meaningless.’

    4. You fail to list any of the comments by the supporting sources you claim (good observation JNORM, I wonder what Luther’s opinion of the not-yet-existent Arminians was indeed).

    5. I don’t think it can be reasonably shown how a few lyrics from a hymn by Toplady are supposed to justify his errant accusations.

    You were saying about meaningless data?

  9. Kevin,

    As a Catholic, I can asssure you that Augustinianism is alive and well in the Catholic Church.

    God Bless,

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