Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

18 Sep 2014

On Being a "Biblicist": Why You Can’t Choose "None of the Above" on the Calvinism/Arminianism Question

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For my whole life I’ve been broadly a part of an ecclesiastical culture/movement that has been disinclined to commit either to Calvinism or Arminianism. A steady stream of articles, essays, and blog posts have kept this delicate balancing act alive for decades (for a recent and more-than-usually scholarly example, see the ongoing series here—I was going to wait for the conclusion, but I ran out of patience). I don’t believe, however, that this position is ultimately sustainable. And so my thesis in this post is simply this: the principal question in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate is a fundamentally binary one: you have to choose one or the other.

Of course, I am not so naïve as to imagine that variations and nuances of the two basic positions do not exist. I am, after all, editor of a soon-to-be-released book detailing THREE perspectives on the extent of the atonement (and in my introduction I suggest that there are others). So by saying that the principal issue is binary, I am not saying that it is simple. I recognize, for instance, that there are some Arminians who deny prevenient grace and affirm eternal security; likewise there are some Calvinists who deny particular redemption and assert the priority of faith to regeneration. IOW, there are some who are not historically pure Arminians or historically pure Calvinists. But while I concede the existence of variations of Arminianism and Calvinism, this is where my concession stops: there is ultimately no neutral ground here. There are Arminian-types and there are Calvinist-types, and a single, binary question distinguishes them.

The question is this: Do believers play any independent role in their own regeneration? This is the watershed issue and it is absolutely binary.

Note that the issue is not whether or not believers play any role in salvation—both sides agree that believers choose to believe. The question is not even whether or not believers have divine aid in choosing to believe—both sides believe in assisting grace of some sort (if you believe that the believer needs no help at all from God, you have embraced the Pelagian heresy and your very Christian identity is at stake). The issue is whether a believer is in any sense an independent arbiter of his own regeneration.

Arminian-types are ultimately obliged to admit that what ultimately distinguishes a believer from an unbeliever is not divine grace (which for the Arminian is always indiscriminate); rather it is the informed but autonomous choice by grace-assisted persons to either embrace or reject Christ. Calvinist-types on the other hand, necessarily affirm that while human faith is requisite to salvation, the ultimate efficiency of that faith is not human but divine.

“None of the above” is not a valid answer.

20 Responses

  1. Steve Bradley

    Amen! Didn’t even bother reading that series. Once I saw the title, all I could think of was “baloney.” It’s political correctness in the Calvinism / Arminianism debate. Let’s not upset anyone and remain neutral.

  2. Kevin Subra

    Define “independent.” Romans 10 says that one cannot believe in Him in Whom they have not heard. That would say “no” to the question (because you have to have the Gospel preached to you which requires outside action). I don’t think the question nails the binary argument as you suggest.

    1. Bill

      This is the correct understanding, but it begs the question, is the Gospel sufficient to lead a person to faith, or not. If it is then the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. If it is not then it is not the power of God unto salvation by its self. according to the reformed view, the Gospel alone is not powerful enough to save. The person must ALSO be pre ordained and ALSO unable to resist what ever power is above and beyond the Gospel, namely Devine Sovereignty

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    Kevin,

    By independent I mean autonomous or not effected by any external power or authority.

    Either God alone effected my regeneration, efficaciously suppling both the means and the ends, or else I made some independent contribution to my own regeneration. These are mutually exclusive options.

    MAS

  4. Lutherans, of course, find the binary taxonomy of believers being either/or some kind of Calvinist or Arminian as a source of parody for their amusement. Try a global 3-D view of theological development which appreciates and respects proprietary views for different sects, etc. and one that is a bit less self-serving (besides, everyone knows Calvinists are Augustinianists anyway, right?).

    That aside, Titus 3:5 seems abundantly clear that the Holy Spirit is the re-generator:

    he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.

    Especially with the use of the genitive.

    Now when that occurs is another thing. I have read your exegetical considerations of when regeneration occurs and believe it suffers from a very easily identified logical flaw but still, it is a good effort, as you suggest it occurs before one believes the gospel.

  5. h

    “Do believers play any independent role in their own regeneration?”

    The Bible explicity helps clarify this for you (Eph 2): the answer is a categorical, resounding “NO!”

  6. Hi Mark,

    I’ve appreciated your articles here. What’s tough to wrap one’s brain around are all the iterations of these two words, but I’ll bring it to you, if you don’t mind answering. Perhaps I’ve offended someone unknowingly there.

    I think that it is God from start to finish, that is, faith is a gift from God, but I can’t explain it according to the five points. I don’t like the five points, how they put things — they don’t seem to get it right. So if I believe it is all God, I’m a Calvinist? I’m fine with that, but I think some people wouldn’t want me to be one. I do know this. I behave more like a Calvinist than most Calvinists, so it makes me wonder.

    In the end though, does it really matter. It isn’t a scriptural issue, that is, Calv/Armin are neither in the Bible. If you exegete all of scripture and preach only it, what does it matter? It has to be post reformation, and if we believe the gospel has been preserved from Christ outside of Roman Catholicism until now, for most of history, you couldn’t be one, so it would seem what matters most is that we preach a biblical gospel. If we do that, the people who get saved will still get saved and were going to get saved, except we didn’t know, until they did.

  7. Mark,

    Thanks for your articles. In some ways I’m with Kent on this because I don’t think in those terms although others might peg me Calvinistic if push came to shove. I have no interest in using either term to describe myself, neither did Christianity for centuries, neither do most believers in the world today. Where I work and witness it doesn’t mean anything. I think we all share the same commitment to preaching Christ and Him crucified and have this treasure in earthen vessels. Salvation is of the Lord beginning to end. We seek Him only because He first sought us. And I’m willing to admit there are depths of mystery I can’t plumb. I see the logic of regeneration preceding belief but I don’t (yet) see it exegetically. And if I recall from the Institutes neither did Calvin (who I do no want to misrepresent). Keep up the good work.

    Grace & Peace,

    Steve Davis

  8. M Coughlin

    Salvation does not come to a man until he believes the gospel, that is rather plainly stated in the Scriptures, I am sure you would agree.

    Acts 16:31a: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”.

    Titus 3:5 describes that salvation, in part, with emphasis on our regeneration in which we are washed clean or as some say, sanctified. It states, “he saved us by the washing of regeneration”.

    I am hard pressed to find a reason to believe my washing or sanctification by God occurs before I receive the gospel when it states elsewhere I must believe the gospel to be saved and part of the salvation, which comes after I believe the gospel, is the washing of regeneration.

    1. Thanks, Alex. And Bill, thanks for the document. I will read it if I have time. Alex, if you write something please post it here as I get emails when it updates.

      Bill, FYI – my questions was posed to Alex’s earlier point. I am already of the understanding that without the regenerating, effectual work of the Holy spirit, no one possesses the ability to believe – thus, regeneration must precede belief. I was interested in Alex’s interaction with biblical text.

  9. Micheal
    “It states elsewhere”, is with reference to the theological assertion by some that, “the washing of regeneration”, precedes faith. That elsewhere is Titus. I see the potential for misunderstanding in my phraseology, hope that clears it up.

    I was not attempting to indicate that Titus gives us the point of the washing or cleansing, Titus gives how we are saved in regeneration – being washed clean/sanctified – (the text is emphasizing this aspect of our salvation, not to asset it is the only property of salvation, Paul presents both the whole and individual properties of salvation throughout his epistles).

    The Acts passage (with many parallels throughout Scripture, John 1:12, John 3:36, Romans 10:13, but alone it suffices) tells us when we receive that salvation, namely, when we believe.

    Again, if anyone wishing to assert otherwise – that we receive the properties of salvation, one or all, before believing – go ahead but as I said, the logical and grammatical gymnastics for me are too great to be compelled, particularly here where the cleansing or sanctification stands central to the act and meaning of regeneration; a cleansing which can only be performed by God justly (God the Holy Spirit here, doing the bidding of the Father and Son), that is with just cause and that cause, as we all know, is Christ’s atonement which is only applied to a person when they believe.

    I think, time permitting (thank you for the link Bill Combs) I may re-form a rebuttal to Mark Snoeberger’s central argument from his paper on the matter.

    AG

  10. Mark Snoeberger

    The rest of the Perspectives volumes are available on Kindle, so I am assuming this will be the case for our volume on the extent of the atonement.

    MAS

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