This is the fourth and final article in a series written to assist Methodist members to be aware of their own doctrinal position which is Arminian. In the first article, we explained how the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement has brought Calvinism back onto the theological centre-stage, and raises challenges to our Arminian beliefs. We discussed issues of God’s sovereignty, human free will, and the problem of evil and unbelievers. In the second article, we examined some of the key Scriptural passages in this debate. In the third article, we looked at some common misunderstandings about what Arminians actually believe. Here, we put forth our suggestions about how to address differences and disagreements in our church communities and in wider Christian circles. We hope that this series of articles will help us not only to understand our doctrinal position and the Scriptures that support it but also to see it as credible, and be able to articulate and defend it – and with this article, to work out our differences in a manner that honours God.
Do We Need to Talk/Teach About This?
Theological differences over Calvinism and Arminianism have created dissension among fellow believers, split local churches, and caused denominational splits. Many Christians have gone through their whole lives without ever learning about this issue and seem to be just fine in their faith journey. Why can’t we simply shelve this issue, which seems to be more trouble than is worth addressing, and let people believe whatever they want to believe? We (the writers) obviously think this is an important issue, or we would not have dedicated four separate articles to this topic. Here is why we think our churches need to teach on this issue.
The issue of salvation is important to Christian belief and practice. It informs our understanding of our relationship to God, to our sinful past, and to the future destiny to which we have been saved for. The Scriptures clearly and repeatedly state that salvation is God’s initiative, not ours, and that Christ gave us life while we were dead in our sins. Both Calvinism and Arminianism attest to this. When we fail to teach a sound doctrine of salvation, we create a vacuum that can be filled with false teachings. In many Christian circles, the default understanding of salvation is semi-Pelagian, which amounts to “I chose God of my own free will,” without the acknowledgement in Arminian theology that it is God’s grace that enables any choice at all. This faulty understanding claims human credit for God’s gift, and can lead to pride and a misplaced sense of worthiness. Going back to the Scriptures for biblical teaching on salvation will quickly lead to passages that discuss both the divine and the human role in the process of salvation. Any effort to form a coherent and consistent understanding on the subject will lead to Arminianism, Calvinism, or some other position. Thus, it is not possible to study salvation deeply (and to the degree that the writers think we ought to) without grappling with the issues at stake in this theological debate.
Given that this is such an important yet divisive issue, we need to know how to work out our differences in a loving manner without pretending that these differences do not matter. In the remainder of this article, we provide some suggestions for our interactions with individuals, in our churches, and in interdenominational spaces.
Addressing Differences with Our Fellow Believers
When we began this series of articles, we pointed out that the debate on Calvinism and Arminianism has been ongoing between evangelical Christians for over 400 years. It is not going to be resolved soon – and will probably not be until Christ returns! When encountering a fellow Christian with whom we disagree on this issue, let us remember first and foremost that they are a brother or sister, a fellow believer in Christ. This means our response should not be to treat them like an unbeliever that we need to convert to our point of view. There are some within the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement who treat Calvinism as if it were on par with the gospel, Arminians as deficient Christians, and aggressively attempt to convert them. It was such incidents that led us to write this series of articles. We are unaware of Arminians doing the same in the Malaysian context, and hope that remains the case. We call all sides to put this matter in proper perspective. Salvation is an important topic and our understanding of the process of salvation has tremendous implications, but neither Calvinism nor Arminianism is the gospel. The gospel that Jesus preached is “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15). Paul writes about the gospel in Romans 1:16 that “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The gospel is God’s kingdom and power and the invitation to participate in both through repentance. And, thank God that our salvation and participation in God’s kingdom does not rest upon our ability to correctly understand and articulate the process of salvation!
There is certainly room for dialogue and debate. In this, we encourage fellow believers on both sides to seek to understand the other, and hope that our tone and approach have been a model for how to do so.
Addressing Differences in our Churches
We think and hope that what he have written thus far is uncontroversial. How this debate plays out in our churches, however, is more difficult and may bring back unpleasant memories for some of our readers. Let us make clear that what we suggest here is in our best attempt to grapple with this matter in the context of imperfect knowledge, communities, and organisations. We have already laid out our case for teaching a robust theology of salvation. Naturally, if that is to take place, it must happen in our churches. How do we decide what to teach? What should we do if we do not agree with the teaching in our church? These are difficult questions we will try to answer here.
A compromise that seems appealing at first glance is to teach all the theological options we consider consistent with the Scriptures, and let individuals decide what to believe. The first difficulty with this is how a church community decides what is consistent with the Scriptures – many Calvinists have seen Arminian theology as incompatible with the Scriptures, and John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, did not think that Calvinism was an acceptable option either! Assuming, that a church was able to agree to teach both Arminianism and Calvinism while closing the doors to other theological options, it would still face the challenge of achieving consistency and coherency in teaching and pastoral care. This debate on salvation has implications far and wide, touching on the origin of evil, the problem of suffering, and understanding how God’s sovereignty and human choice interact not only for salvation but on all other matters as well – including subjects such as prayer and seeking guidance. When incoherency on such a scale is exposed, it generates confusion and dissonance, and tends to lead to a desire for resolution, unless these logical incompatibilities are hidden by generally avoiding teaching and discussion on these subjects.
If churches need to make a choice on what to teach, who exactly gets to make that decision? That depends. In some denominations, stances on many theological issues are decided at the local church level, and it is appropriate that the church leadership and members resolve these issues according to the decision-making framework they have already established. In the Methodist Church, we commit to sharing a broad array of theological stances at the denominational level. From an organisational perspective, this is important as pastors belong to the denomination – not the local church – and it is unhelpful for teaching and pastoral care in a local church to undergo massive changes whenever a pastor is transferred in or out of the local church. The Methodist Church has historically been Arminian in its stance – and our founders and their successors played a significant role in shaping this theology. We may have neglected this teaching in various local churches from time to time, but when we examine our beliefs as a denomination and draw upon our shared history and heritage, it would take a seismic and unforeseeable event to re-evaluate a position so core to our roots.
What does it mean for the Methodist Church to be Arminian? It does not mean that we exclude Calvinists from our community. It does, however, mean that preaching and teaching in the Methodist Church should be consistent with Arminian beliefs, and that those in preaching and teaching roles take care not to use their platforms to contradict these beliefs. These are rules and guidelines that enable church communities – Arminian and Calvinist alike – to function. We think it wise for Christians to seek church communities that they can be at home in. If a Calvinist finds his or her home in a Methodist church and can live with teaching and preaching consistent with Arminian theology, well and good! But, if an Arminian goes to a Calvinist church and finds those teachings difficult, they should either resolve to make the best of things without stirring up debate or seek out another church community that is a better fit.
Addressing Differences in Inter-Denominational Spaces
We have advocated that churches ought to teach theologies of salvation in spite of the controversy that can arise because on the importance of sound and biblical belief. It is an unfortunate reality that differences in doctrinal conclusions (among other factors) create denomination divides, and that while we recognize each other as brother and sister in Christ, we may need to work out our faith and practice in different spaces while we await Christ’s return. It is good for us to come and work together wherever and whenever we can. In these spaces, it is right and appropriate to de-emphasize differences. Inter-denominational spaces can be a good place to dialogue about different beliefs, but seeking to emphasize differences and win debates only serves to further fragment the broader church.
A particular inter-denominational space that we should seek to preserve are college and university Christian Fellowships (CFs). These are important both for Christians seeking to find fellowship in their place of study, and as a witness to the non-Christian community looking in. We have made the case for solid and robust teaching in local churches, and empathise with those CF leaders who would like to see the same in their organisations. We urge you, however, to consider the unique position you are in: the diverse theological backgrounds represented in your midst, the visibility you have to non-Christians, and that most of your members are also part of a local church. We know of several CFs that have run into significant difficulties over Arminian and Calvinist theology. Do consider carefully what role you will play in advancing God’s kingdom where you are, and what doctrinal essentials are necessary in that role, and who you include and exclude in the process. Short of splitting the CF, those Christians who cannot accept your essentials have no alternative to participate in.
Thank you again for accompanying us across these four articles. We hope that this will provide a helpful reference point for a difficult subject, and that it will serve as a guide not just for the debate, but how we ought to approach this subject with one another.
We have only sketched an outline of this topic. For some, that will be sufficient. Others may have a deeper interest in this subject, and will wish to read further. For the latter group, we include some suggested readings, many of which have had an influence on the authors’ perspectives and understanding of this issue.
For those new to this subject, and would like an example of advocates for Calvinism and Arminianism interacting with each other Four Views on Eternal Security presents a dialogue by Michael Horton, Norman Geisler, Stephen Ashby, and Steven Harper.
Among contemporary theologians and preachers, John Piper is perhaps the most well-known advocate for Calvinism. There are many writings on this subject at the Desiring God website, including What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism. Michael Horton is another theologian who has written at length in support of Calvinist theology, including the book For Calvinism. Another influential Calvinist voice in the evangelical movement was J.I. Packer, who voices some of his views in the paper Arminianisms. Finally, the Gospel Coalition is an evangelical Calvinist network of churches. This network produces and disseminates a wide variety of resources, not limited to Calvinism. These resources are generally of high quality and well thought-through. We note, however, that the views espoused there are almost exclusively from the Calvinist/Reformed/Puritan wing of the evangelical movement (the other historical wing being the Arminian/Holiness/Pietistic wing). One article we recommend for its relevance to this discussion is an interview of the Wesleyan theological Fred Sanders by John Starke, in the article You’re a Calvinist, Right?
For further Arminian resources, we begin our recommendations with Ben Witherington. The Asbury Seminary where he lectures at has a You Tube channel, Seven Minutes Seminary, in which faculty covers a wide array of topics, including Witherington’s Romans 9-11: Seven Minute Seminary. He also wrote The Problem with Evangelical Theology, in which he critiques weaknesses in prominent evangelical theologies, including the Calvinist perspective on predestination and election as well as the Arminian concept of prevenient grace. We previously referenced Roger Olson and his book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities in the third article in our series. He also has a blog at patheos. com, with many posts on this and other theological subjects. Another important theologian who passed on in December 2016 is Thomas Oden, who discusses God’s relationship with human beings in The Transforming Power of Grace. There does not exist an Arminian counterpart to the Gospel Coalition in terms of its reach of audience, prolificness of writings, and scope of study. However, the Society of Evangelical Arminians will have solid and extensive resources on Arminian theology.
Those who wish to dig into the historical writings on this subject will have to begin with Calvin’s Institutes. Translations of James (Jacob) Arminius’ writings – which are the beginnings of modern Arminian theology are available at Wesley Center Online. The Wesley Center Online also hosts the sermons and other writings of John Wesley. His most famous polemic against Calvinism was Predestination Calmly Considered, which may have benefited from a calmer disposition! Among his many writings, the longest treatise he wrote was The Doctrine of Original Sin: According to Scripture, Reason, and Experience.
One final suggestion for further reading. One reason why the Calvinism and Arminians debates have often become so fierce and acrimonious has been the frequent perception that the gospel truth itself is at stake. We have said earlier in this article that salvation is part of the gospel message but is far from the whole thing, and that at the centrality of the gospel is God’s kingdom and rule. We do not have time and space explore this here, but recommend The King Jesus Gospel by Scott McKnight and How God Became King by N.T. Wright as good introductions to this subject. We hope that with a focus on what we share in common, other important but secondary differences can be put into perspective.
Printed with permission from TRAC