The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 4: A Litany of Inaccuracies and Misrepresentations

As stated before, Mr. Brown says that his primary objective in writing his short book was for the purpose of clearing up misunderstandings concerning what Calvinists believe.  In the process of doing this he has also engaged in trying to demonize the opposing system of belief: Arminianism.  I say demonize because Brown, like so many Calvinists, treats Arminianism as if it were a total perversion of Biblical teaching that the church has always rejected (which we pointed out in Parts 1 and 2 is a gross inaccuracy).  Since Brown is so concerned with properly representing Calvinism, one would think that he would be equally concerned about fairly representing Arminianism.  Sadly, this is not the case at all.  In the next two posts we will address and set the record straight on several more of those inaccuracies expressed throughout Brown’s book, before getting into a careful examination of his treatment of the so-called “five dilemmas” of Calvinism.

Craig Brown writes,

Each [protestant] church developed its own confession of faith, but they all agreed on the basic doctrines of Scripture and stressed the biblical teachings of Paul as they had been interpreted by Augustine and the early church leaders (p. 17).

As noted in Part 2, Augustine misinterpreted Paul, introducing doctrines into the church that were unheard of prior to him.  Brown is wrong to say that the “early church leaders” interpreted Scripture and Paul in the same way as Augustine [1].  They did not.  They did not hold to unconditional election, nor did they hold to irresistible grace or exhaustive determinism.  In fact, such doctrines were standard features of the Gnostic sects that the early church leaders fought against. [2]  If you read some of the earliest Christian polemics against the Gnostics, you will see that they sound just like  Arminians arguing against Calvinist doctrines!  In fact, the Gnostic sects used many of the same “proof texts” as Calvinists do today in order to defend their peculiar doctrines of exhaustive determinism, unconditional election, and inevitable perseverance (like certain sections of Romans 9 and John 6).[3]  The earliest church writers (the ante-Nicene fathers) combated those claims just as Arminians do today, using many of the same Scriptures and arguments as Arminians continue to urge against Calvinists. [4]  They argued fiercely for a libertarian view of free will (though they did not use the phrase “libertarian free will”) [5].  With this in mind, we can see that Brown’s attempt to say that Augustine and Calvin were simply restoring what the early church has always believed is essentially backwards.

Brown continues,

In his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin put down on paper the doctrines that were the foundation for all Protestant groups at the time of the Reformation- especially the Sovereignty of God in salvation [which is simply a Calvinist catch phrase for the doctrines of exhaustive determinism, irresistible grace, and unconditional election/reprobation] (ibid.)

This statement is also inaccurate.  The Reformers were not in agreement with Calvin’s novel doctrines of unconditional election, exhaustive determinism, unlimited atonement (though some scholars maintain that unlike five point Calvinists today, Calvin did not actually teach limited atonement), and inevitable perseverance.  There were many within the protestant movement that found Calvin’s doctrines to be reprehensible, essentially making God into the author of all sin and evil.  The Lutheran church never accepted Calvin’s teaching of inevitable perseverance for the regenerate, and came to reject his essential denial of free will as well.  Even Augustine had held that many regenerate believers fall away from faith into perdition (those who have not been given the “gift of perseverance” by God).  While the protestant church at large agreed with much of what Calvin wrote (those teachings which were in harmony with the five solas of the reformation), Calvin’s doctrines of exhaustive determinism, unconditional election and reprobation, and irresistible grace (doctrines that Brown refers to as “the Sovereignty of God in salvation” above), remained controversial and were rejected, to various degrees, by many key figures during the Reformation movement.

Later, Brown falls into the typical and oft repeated Calvinist blunder of equating Arminianism with Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism:

The beliefs of the Remonstrance [i.e. the Arminians], were not new.  They were a rehashing of the views of Pelagius and Cassian [a semi-Pelagian] in the fifth and sixth centuries, teachings that had been decreed heresy.

Calvinists never seem to tire of drawing this false correlation between Arminianism and the doctrines of Pelagius.  Pelagians denied the existence of a corrupted nature in man, and believed that man could exercise his free will towards salvation apart from any grace of God whatsoever.  Semi-Pelagians believed that God’s grace did intervene, but only after man took the first step towards God unaided by enabling grace.  Arminians believe neither of these things, but rather affirm as fully as Calvinists that, due to man’s depraved state, God’s enabling grace must intervene before any sinner can exercise saving faith in Christ.  The only difference being that the Arminian sees this necessary divine intervention as resistible (i.e. the sinner is capable of resisting this grace and remaining in unbelief or yielding to this grace in faith towards God), whereas the Calvinist sees it as irresistible.  Therefore, Arminianism cannot be rightly called Pelagian or semi-Pelagian, nor can it be rightly called a “rehashing” of either.

James Arminius wrote,

This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace (The Works of James Arminius Vol. 1, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD, pg. 218)

It is obvious from this quote that Arminius gave God’s grace the preeminence in all things pertaining to the salvation of man.  Arminius again states concerning the will of man in his natural state and subsequent total dependence on the grace of God,

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace (ibid. 470).

Consider also these pointed words by Arminius,

It is that perpetual assistance and continued aid of the Holy Spirit, according to which He acts upon and excites to good the man who has been already renewed, by infusing into him salutary cogitations, and by inspiring him with good desires, that he may thus actually will whatever is good; and according to which God may then will and work together with man, that man may perform whatever he wills.

In this manner, I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good, and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation, without this preventing [i.e. preceding] and exciting, this following and co-operating grace. From this statement it will clearly appear, that I by no means do injustice to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free-will. For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?” That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace, (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions or operations as any man ever did,) but it relates solely to the mode of operation, whether it be irresistible or not. With respect to which, I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered (ibid. 219).

Again, we see that the main point of contention between the Calvinist and Arminian is not the necessity of enabling prevenient grace (grace which precedes faith and conversion and makes a faith response possible), but the question as to whether or not such grace can ultimately be resisted by the sinner.  The Arminian says such grace can and often is resisted, while the Calvinist says such grace cannot be resisted and inevitably leads to conversion.  Therefore, Calvinists like Craig Brown need to stop misrepresenting Arminian theology by trying to compare it to Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, when it has no more in common with those systems of belief than does Calvinism [6].  Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams are a bit more honest in rejecting the typical Calvinist attempt to poison the well by correlating Arminianism with Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism,

Does the antipathy between Calvinism and Arminianism suggest that Pelagius, the arch-opposite of Augustine, is the proper ancestor of Arminianism?  Calvinists have often sought to paint Arminianism in Pelagian colors.  Associating your opponent with a position that the historic faith has repeatedly judged heretical can only help one’s cause.  However, the allegation that Arminianism is Pelagian is unfortunate and indeed unwarranted.  From Jacob Arminius and the ‘Remonstrance Articles’ on, the Arminian tradition has affirmed the corruption of the will by sin and the necessity of grace for redemption.  Arminianism is not Pelagianism….The Semi-Pelagians thought of salvation as beginning with human beings.  We must first seek God; and his grace is a response to that seeking.  The Arminians of the seventeenth century, however, held that the human will has been so corrupted by sin that a person cannot seek God without the enablement of grace.  They therefore affirmed the necessity and priority of grace in redemption.  Grace must go before a person’s response to the gospel.  This suggests that Arminianism is closer to Semi-Augustinianism than it is to Semi-Pelagianism or Pelagianism. (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 39)

Therefore, Craig Brown’s assertion that Arminianism is simply a rehashing of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism reveals again a basic unwillingness (or inability) to accurately research and present the historical data in an seeming effort to paint Calvinism as orthodoxy while making Arminianism to look as heretical as possible (perhaps we should counter that Calvinism is just a “rehashing” of fundamental features of early Gnosticism into a more “Christian” framework).  Such persistent inaccuracies stand against his own testimony to his supposed careful historical investigation in stating,

Above all else, this [book] will be an exciting exploration of the truth of the sovereignty of God.  I have spent a lot of time studying church history, and reading and thinking about divine sovereignty, and I have come to the conclusion that an understanding of this truth is essential if one’s faith is to stand up against the world.  However, most Christians today do not give much thought to this subject.  But if you will approach this journey with an open mind and heart, at the end of this book I believe you will have gone from seeing the relationship between God and man like this:

God      Man

to seeing it more like this:

[in the book is pictured a graphic of “God” in very large bold font, next to “man” in very small font.  Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to type in larger characters]

(pg. 21)

Not only does Brown prove that the time he has spent reading church history has not prevented him from making numerous erroneous historical claims, but he also proves to have a much distorted view of how Christians generally view God (which is likely due to his inflated view of Calvinism as the purest representation of gospel truth).  The end of his quote would seem to suggest that those who read his book (who apparently are not Calvinists) will naturally begin by seeing God and man as essential equals.  Where does he get this idea?  Basic Christian theology could never come to such a conclusion regardless of whether that theology is driven by Calvinistic presuppositions or not.

Christian theology and Christians as a whole would begin just where Brown says his book will lead them, with a view of a God who is immeasurably greater than man in every respect.  But this is likely more of an attack on Arminianism than anything, since Calvinists are fond of calling Arminianism a “man centered” theology (nothing could be further from the truth).  However, no Arminian would suggest that we view God and man as equals or object to Brown’s second illustration of God as very big and man as very small.  This seems to be yet another attempt, by Craig Brown, to misrepresent and mischaracterize Arminian theology for the purpose of exalting Calvinism to a superior theological position in the minds of his readers.

It should not surprise us, however, that Brown has such a woefully inadequate understanding of what Arminian theology entails, since it becomes clear, throughout his short book, that he has relied on Calvinists, and not Arminians, to teach him and his readers what Arminians believe (in fact, one will search Brown’s book in vain for a single quote from anyone who represents an Arminian view of theology).  This will become even clearer in our next post where we examine still more of Brown’s numerous misrepresentations of Arminian theology.

Before ending this post, we need to ask ourselves one more question concerning Brown’s quote above.  What do we make of his claim that, “…I have come to the conclusion that an understanding of this truth [the Calvinist understanding of “sovereignty”] is essential if one’s faith is to stand up against the world?”  What can we possibly take from this?  Is Craig Brown truly suggesting that only those whose faith is grounded in the Calvinist understanding of sovereignty “can stand up against the world?”

This is truly an amazing and bold claim.  Is he really suggesting that only Calvinists, throughout the history of Christianity, have successfully stood up against the world?  Surely he can’t be serious. Is he questioning the faith and ministry of the ante-Nicene fathers (men like Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, etc.), many of whom went to their deaths for the sake of their commitment to Jesus Christ?  Is he likewise questioning the faith of men like John Wesley who preached a doctrine of holiness unmatched in the history of the church, who preached well over 100,000 sermons, and whose commitment to Christ is unquestioned by any serious student of history?  Is Craig Brown likewise suggesting that non-Calvinists today possess a faith that is incapable of standing up against the world?  This is plainly contrary to Scripture where John says,

For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world- our faith.  Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 1 John 5:4

Scripture, contrary to Brown’s claims, says that the faith that overcomes the world is the belief that Jesus is the Son of God.  It certainly does not say that faith in the Calvinistic conception of sovereignty (i.e. exhaustive determinism) is the “faith” or “victory” which overcomes the world.  In his zeal to promote Calvinism, Mr. Brown has essentially added a belief in Calvinism to the simple saving gospel message of faith in Jesus Christ, and has thereby violated one of the fundamental battle cries of the Reformation (sola fide– faith alone).

What could possibly motivate such an outlandish claim as this?  I can only guess as to what Mr. Brown was trying to convey, but it seems inescapable to me that such unguarded and bizarre statements could only serve to further prejudice his readers against anything that is not strict five point Calvinism.

Go to Part 3

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[1] Marston and Forster point out that,

“Actually, Augustine can really not be called an ‘early church father’, since he was some 350 years after Paul – further than we today are from King Charles II.  Unlike some key earlier figures, he spoke a different language, struggled with Greek, and knew little or no Hebrew.  It is therefore very surprising that so many writers conclude that he got it right and effectively everyone else before him got it wrong.” (God’s Strategy in Human History, 291)

[2] For example, Marston and Forster write, “…we find striking agreement among early church leaders over the issue of freewill.  The same teaching was held by mainstream and fringe groups, by scholars and ordinary ministers, by the Greek, Latin, and even Syrian traditions- by everyone, in short, except total heretics.” (God’s Strategy, pg. 305- emphasis mine)

[3] For example, Origen (c225) says of the Gnostics who misuse passages such as Rom. 9, “Some of those who hold different opinions [i.e. the Gnostics] misuse these passages.  They essentially destroy free will by introducing ruined natures incapable of salvation and by introducing others as being saved in such a way that they cannot be lost…” (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, by David W. Bercot, pg. 290)

Likewise, Chrysostom, countering the misuse of John 6 by the Gnostic Manichaean sect (the sect Augustine belonged to for nine years prior to converting to Catholicism), writes,

“The Manichæans spring upon these words [in John 6:44], saying, that nothing lies in our own power; yet the expression shows that we are masters of our will. For if a man comes to Him, says some one, what need is there of drawing? But the words do not take away our free will, but show that we greatly need assistance. And He implies not an unwilling comer, but one enjoying much succor.”

For the full response by Chrysostom on John 6, see here.

[4] For example, Irenaeus (c130-200) made use of Matthew 23:37 in Against Heresies XXXVII:

“This expression, ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not,” set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free (agent) from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God.  For there is no coercion with God, but a good will (towards us) is present with Him continually.  And therefore does He give good counsel to all.  And in man as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice…so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves….

If then it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things and to abstain from others?  But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of freewill in whose likeness man was created, advice is always given to him to keep fast the good, which thing is done by means of obedience to God.” (quoted in Chosen But Free, by Norman Geisler, pg. 151)

Likewise, Arnobius of Sicca (c253-327) made use of Rev. 22:17, described a sort of universal prevenient grace, and argued forcefully against any notion of God irresistibly inclining man’s will towards faith and obedience (a key feature of the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace),

Against the Heathen: 64 “I reply, does not He free all alike who invites all alike? Or does He thrust back or repel anyone from the kindness of the Supreme who gives to all alike the power of coming to Him?  To all, He says, the fountain of life is open, and no one is hindered or kept back from drinking…

65. “Nay, my opponent says, if God is powerful, merciful, willing to save us, let Him change our dispositions, and compel us to trust in His promises.  This then, is violence, not kindness nor bounty of the Supreme God, but childish and vain strife in seeking to get the mastery.  For what is unjust as to force men who are reluctant and unworthy, to reverse their inclinations; to impress forcibly on their minds what they are unwilling to receive, and shrink from…  

Bardaisan of Syria (c154-222) echoes the objections of numerous early church fathers  against the fatalistic God of the Gnostics (in this case, the followers of Marcion) who would thereby be ultimately responsible for all that His creatures did (including sin),

Fragments: “How is it that God did not make us that we should not sin and incur condemnation?” – if man had been made so, he would not have belonged to himself but would have been the instrument of him that moved him…And how, in that case, would a man differ from a harp, on which another plays; or from a ship, which another guides: where the praise and the blame reside in the hand of the performer or the steersman…they being only instruments made for the use of him in whom is the skill?  But God, in His benignity, chose not so to make man; but by freedom he exalted him above many of his creatures.

Likewise, Methodius of Olympus (c260-martyred 311) saw such theistic determinism as making God the author of all sin and evil,

The Banquet of the Ten Virgins xvi: Now those who decide that man is not possessed of freewill, and affirm that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate…are guilty of impiety toward God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils.

(All quotes taken from God’s Strategy, pp. 300, 302)

Cyril of Jerusalem (c312-386) argued in his Lecture, IV 18-21, for freewill and against the Gnostic concept of one being controlled irresistibly by one’s nature alone (another key doctrine of Calvinism today),

“Know also that thou hast a soul self-governed, the noblest work of God, made after the image of its Creator, immortal because of God that gives it immortality, a living being rational, because of Him that bestowed these gifts: having free power to do what it willeth…There is not a class of souls sinning by nature and a class of souls practicing righteousness by nature; but both act from choice, the substance of their souls being of one kind only and alike in all…The soul is self-governed: and though the Devil can suggest, he has not the power to compel against the will.  He pictures to thee the thought of fornication: if thou wilt, thou rejectest.  For if thou wert a fornicator of necessity, then for what cause did God prepare hell?  If thou wert a doer of righteousness by nature and not by will, wherefore did God prepare crowns of ineffable glory?  The sheep is gentle, but never was it crowned for its gentleness; since its gentle quality belongs to it not from choice but by nature.” (quoted in Chosen But Free, pp. 154, 155)

[5] “Augustinian sympathizer Alister E. McGrath admits:

‘The pre-Augustinian theological tradition is practically of one voice in asserting the freedom of the human will.’

This is actually true for all the divergent branches of early church theology, in all areas into which the church was carried…Not a single church figure in the first 300 years rejected it and most of them stated it clearly in works still extent.  We find it taught by great leaders in places as different as Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Carthage, Jerusalem, Lycia, Nyssa, Rome, and Sicca.  We find it taught by the leaders of all the main theological schools.  The only ones to reject it were heretics like the Gnostics, Marcion, Valentinus, Manes (and the Manichaens [the followers of Manes and the sect that Augustine had been involved with for nine years prior to his conversion to Catholicism]), etc.  In fact, the early Fathers often state their beliefs on “freewill” in works attacking heretics.  Three recurrent ideas seem to be in their teaching:

1. The rejection of freewill is the view of heretics.

2. Freewill is a gift given to man by God – for nothing can ultimately be independent of God.

3. Man possesses freewill because he is made in God’s image, and God has freewill.” (God’s Strategy, pg. 296- the entire section [pp. 289-344] called “Early Teaching on Free Will and Election” is excellent in documenting early church beliefs in contradistinction to the later radical novelties of Augustinian and Calvinist teachings, among other things).

[6] Writing over a thousand years before Arminius, Jerome (c347-420) sounded very “Arminian” in opposing the Pelagians (affirming genuine free will in man that is completely dependent on God’s gracious enabling power),

Letters CXXXIII It is in vain that you misrepresent me and try to convince the ignorant that I condemn freewill.  Let him who condemns it be himself condemned.  We have been created endowed with freewill; still it is not this which distinguishes us from the brutes.  For human freewill, as I said, depends upon the help of God and needs His aid moment by moment, a thing which you and yours do not choose to admit.  Your position is that once a man has freewill he no longer needs the help of God.  It is true that freedom of the will brings with it freedom of decision.  Still man does not act immediately on his freewill but requires God’s aid who Himself needs no aid.

Against the Pelagians, Book 111, 10: But when we are concerned with grace and mercy, freewill is in part void; in part, I say, for so much depends upon it, that we wish and desire, and give assent to the course we choose.  But it depends on God whether we have the power in His strength and with His help to perform what we desire, and to bring to effect our toil and effort. (God’s Strategy, pp. 303, 304)