Adopting and Abandoning Calvinism: Misunderstanding Arminianism

Yet another Calvinist friend of mine has abandoned Calvinism. Not only does he confess that he became highly argumentative, as a result of adopting Calvinism, and that it actually changed his personality, whereas he previously spoke of the Lord and what He was doing in his life and marriage, he could not help but to obsess about Calvinism; but he also confesses that his new-found beliefs nearly destroyed his marriage. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have learned of a husband adopting Calvinism, while his wife rejects it, and the resultant tension caused great strain in the marriage -- especially when the husband (or the wife, in the opposite case) makes Calvinism a daily, primary issue.

This is, of course, not to suggest that Calvinism wrecks marriages. This is also not to suggest that Arminians never have problems in their marriages or never end in divorce. Moreover, this is not to suggest that only Calvinists are argumentative, or mean-spirited. We could suggest that neither Calvinism nor Arminianism are the problem: people are the problem. But when some Calvinists agree, that there appears to be an element inherent in Calvinism that instrumentally causes some Calvinists to be argumentative or mean-spirited, à la Justin Taylor (my words, not his), then we find a bit more support for the claim that Calvinism instrumentally causes significant negative changes in the behavior of some people.

For example, when asked why many Calvinists are angry, negative, or mean-spirited, John Piper proffers his opinion: "But I think there is an attractiveness about them [what they call "the doctrines of grace," or Calvinism] to some people, in large matter, because of their intellectual rigor. They are powerfully coherent doctrines, and certain kinds of minds are drawn to that. And those kinds of minds tend to be argumentative." (link) (emphases added) In case you miss the nod toward intellectual arrogance and snobbery, Piper continues, "So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn't tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender." (link)

R.C. Sproul perpetuates this same intellectual arrogance in his book, Chosen by God. Forming a list of Calvinists, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Edwards, he forms a list of opponents, including Pelagius, Arminius, Melanchthon, Wesley and Finney, and then proudly boasts: "It must look like I am trying to stack the deck. Those thinkers who are most widely regarded as the titans of classical Christian scholarship fall heavily on the Reformed [he means Calvinistic] side."1 In order to substantiate his claim, he has to deny the intellectual fervor of non-Calvinistic men throughout two thousand years of Church history.

For example, Calvinists have to ignore the intellect of such non-Calvinistic men as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan; as well as Melanchthon, Arminius, Episcopius, Grotius, both Wesley brothers and Adam Clarke; and brilliant non-Calvinistic and Arminian theologians today such as William Lane Craig, William Klein, I. Howard Marshall, Thomas Oden, David L. Allen, Bruce A. Little and Jeremy Evans, just to name a few. So, to suggest that those thinkers "who are most widely regarded as the titans of classical Christian scholarship fall heavily on the [Calvinistic] side," is not only misleading but entirely unsustainable.

To his credit, John Piper concedes that not all Calvinists are regenerated, "It's a sad and terrible thing that that's the case. Some of this type [of angry, mean-spirited Calvinists] aren't even Christians, I think. You can embrace a system of theology and not even be born again." (link) That is a wise, honest, and humble concession. (By the way, not all non-Calvinists or Arminians are regenerate, either.) But then, to his discredit, Piper proffers the following.

In a video, Piper spoke clearly what was on his mind regarding this issue. When first asked the same question a few years ago, he begins by deflecting, insisting that he has met some rather "feisty" Arminians. (mark 0:33-0:39) He agrees that his response is negative, and insufficient, so he states further:
There's another reason [why some Calvinists are angry, argumentative, or mean-spirited], perhaps: When a person comes to see in the Bible the doctrines of grace [he means Calvinism], he's often amazed that he missed it, and can sometimes be angry that he missed it -- that he grew up in a church or a home that never talked about what's really there in Romans 8, and really there in 1 Corinthians 2, and really there in Ephesians 2 -- they never talked about it; they skipped it [passionate emphases original]; and he's got this anger inside that he was misled for so long [emphasis added]; and that's sad. It's there, it's real, the church did let him down. There are thousands of churches who ignore the truth and won't say it; and, so, he has to deal with that. (mark 2:06-2:53)
The fundamental flaw in Piper's response is obvious even to the novice: Piper, in a nearly conspiratorial manner, speaks as if all non-Calvinists or Arminians know absolutely that Calvinism is true -- evident at Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 2 and Ephesians 2 -- but quite intentionally keep the truth hidden. Look at his own words: those (non-Calvinist and Arminian) churches never talk about what is really there in Romans 8, and what is really there in 1 Corinthians 2, and what is really there in Ephesians 2. His naïve realist approach to biblical interpretation undermines and contradicts his opinion that Calvinism perpetuates intellectual rigor.

But people are, at times, convinced that Calvinism offers the Christian world a robust theology, in spite of evidence that, again, at times warrants the exact opposite conclusion. From all appearances, when some people claim to have converted from Arminianism to Calvinism, we later discover that they were never truly Arminians from the outset. Arminianism is not merely non-Calvinistic theology or philosophical ideology. Many traditionalist Southern Baptists have been attempting to make this very point for the last few years.


Arminianism is a distinct theology from other non-Calvinistic theological systems (e.g., Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Ramism, Socinianism, Barthianism, Adventism, Anabaptism, Processism, Open Theism). While some of these systems share some commonality, they do so no more than does hyper-Calvinism with Calvinism, and thus cannot be confused and, thus, conflated. Hence being a non-Calvinist does not make one an Arminian.

Some have confessed to being awed when first encountering the Calvinistic view of the sovereignty of God (and later horrified by the same), believing that Arminians deny God's sovereignty. Calvinist scholars even aid this conclusion. Edwin Palmer states as much: "the Arminian denies the sovereignty of God."2 Palmer, as much as any Calvinist scholar, constructs his straw men against Arminianism: "The Arminian teaches the unnatural concept that a spiritual nonbeing can desire to be born -- can believe on Christ and then be born again."3 Both of his statements are entirely false regarding genuine Arminian theology.

Calvinist apologist James White insists: "So many are quick to say, 'Oh yes, I believe in the sovereignty of God.' Yet, when pressed to believe consistently that God truly can do as He pleases without getting permission from anyone, including man, we discover that many who in fact confess such a belief in practice deny it."4 (emphasis original) He equates the sovereignty of God with meticulous, exhaustive determinism, yet fails to consistently follow through his beliefs in naming God the Author of sin. Moreover, Arminians do not frame the sovereignty of God in terms of "granting Him permission" to do anything, so his assumption speaks more to his failure of appropriately representing his opponent's views.

If Calvinists would deign to actually read orthodox Arminian theology then there is no viable sense in which one could render such outlandish comments. Is God sovereign in Arminian theology? Not only is God sovereign, as properly and biblically framed in Arminianism, but we think that Arminians propose a higher view of God's sovereignty than do Calvinists. Why? Because for an omnipotent God to strictly control all people is easy and effortless. Like moving chess pieces on a chessboard, the movements are swift and carefree. The pieces move wherever the overseer places them without the slightest challenge whatsoever.

But when considering the individuality of each created being, coupled with their complexities and, at times, irrationality, to say nothing of their will, God is still able to work "all things according to his counsel and will" (Eph. 1:11), and to do so without controlling and manipulating His creatures (via decree, or by primary or secondary causes, because human beings are not chess pieces or objects). You can make an object obey you by controlling it. But wooing a human being to love and obey you is another matter entirely -- one which requires honesty, vulnerability, and relationship.

The Calvinistic view of God's sovereignty5 actually undermines God's glory rather than causes it to shine brighter. When the Calvinist lays the blame of every event of human history at the decree and will of this über-free God, he or she cannot avoid besmirching His glory, defaming His integrity, redefining His justice, holiness and love, and altering His character from that displayed in Jesus Christ.

Yes, God actually is in the heavens, and He actually does whatever He pleases (Ps. 115:3). What the believer needs to ask, when encountering a text like Psalm 115:3 (cf. Ps. 135:6), that God "does whatever he pleases," is, "What pleases God?" If sin or evil pleases God, then, yes, He is pleased to have foreordained and to have been presently bringing about sin and evil throughout history. But God is not pleased with sin or evil (cf. Gen. 38:10; Num. 14:34; Deut. 12:31; 16:22; 1 Chron. 21:7; Ps. 11:5; Prov. 6:16; 24:18; Isa. 59:15). Are we, then, permitted to believe that God has foreordained for people to commit evil only for Him to then punish people when they commit evil? Such a concept is beneath our glorious God, who is just, holy, righteous, full of light, truth, and integrity.

Concerning the doctrine of election, Arminius affirms that God "does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do,"6 again, affirming that no act (even salvation) is left to chance, but that all things without exception are governed by God. But what he and all orthodox Christians deny -- that is, those who carry a high view of Scripture and of God's sovereignty, character, glory and integrity -- is that God decreed sin and evil as though He needed evil in order to accomplish His plan for history. If sin and evil are necessary, and thus God wills or decrees sin and evil, and they are such for the glory of God, then I fail to see how sin and evil will be unnecessary in the eschaton (in God's future kingdom).

We stand in awe of God, who is able to work all things according to the counsel of His will, in spite of sin and evil, while maintaining both respect and allowance for human freedom, limited and governed as our freedom may be. But the conception of God controlling all things which people choose and say and do, as Calvinists maintain, is a very low and demeaning view of God's holy and just character: determinism cannot escape maintaining a low view of God's sovereignty. Arminianism presents the view of God's sovereignty which is, accurately, absent of any notion of strict determinism. This is due, simply, to the fact that the word "sovereign" does not biblically lend itself to the conception of determinism.

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1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Knowing God's Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Streams: Tyndale, 1994), 6.

2 Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972), 85.

3 Ibid., 21. Palmer inaccurately continues: "The Arminian compares the unregenerate to one who jumps out of a second story window, cracks three ribs, breaks his leg, and still lives. The man knows that he is seriously injured and therefore needs a doctor. In fact, he can call for help from a passer-by or drag himself to the phone and call the doctor. He wants to be made whole and well." This is a prime example of a Calvinist who has never read Arminius or Arminian theology. (link) If he actually claims to have read Arminius, the Remonstrants or other Arminian theologians, then these types of comments from Palmer could be rendered as actual lies. We do not frame the issue of depravity as he states.

4 James R. White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen but Free (Amityville: Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 41.

5 Calvinists favor certain cherry-picked verses, and use their interpretation as a hermeneutical grid for interpreting all of Scripture in a deterministic fashion. "He removes kings and raises up kings" (Dan. 2:21 NKJV), so Calvinists will remind us, assuming an exhaustive measure of unilateral determinism in the ways of God. Yet they neglect to properly address, to say nothing of balance their hermeneutical grid, by other verses, such as Hosea 8:3, 4, where God complains: "Israel has rejected the good; the enemy will pursue him. They set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge [or approve] them." (emphases added) If God always without fail removes and raises up kings, then how could He complain that Israel established their own kings, and quite without His approval? Calvinists fail to engage this issue by taking into consideration the entire corpus of biblical information.

6 Jacob Arminius, "Disputation XVI. On the Vocation of Men to Salvation," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.