Randy Alcorn on Calvinists, Arminians, and Everything In Between

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alcornrandy-47bb17880e497-bigOver the holidays, I read Randy Alcorn’s newest book, hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice. Randy is a writer with a unique ability to delve into some of the most perplexing issues of life and theology and emerge with accessible, while almost encyclopedic explanations for his readers.

  • If God Is Good probes the depths of God’s goodness and human suffering.
  • Heaven answers more questions than you would know to ask.
  • Randy has also seen success at writing fiction, which is why I was grateful for his kind endorsement of my own foray into fiction with Clear Winter Nights.

If you’re looking for a concise, charitable exploration of the Calvinism and Arminianism discussions, you can’t go wrong with hand in HandRandy is at his best here, and I’ve invited him to the blog today and tomorrow to discuss the issues addressed in his book.

Trevin Wax: You use the historic terms “Calvinist” and “Arminian” while recognizing that these labels can obscure whenever they are used to conclude that “all believe A” or “none believe B.” You also warn against taking the other side’s terms and applying them to our definitions. How do our labels and terms frustrate and hinder meaningful conversation on these issues?

Randy Alcorn: My wife Nanci and I learned years ago that we got into trouble by attaching our own meanings to the other’s words. One of us would reason, “If I said that, what I would mean is this.” Then we’d take each other’s words to their logical conclusion (according to our own logic, not the other’s). Only when we realized this did we learn to understand and appreciate each other.

For example, an Arminian says, “People have the freedom to choose as they wish.” A Calvinist responds, “Oh, so you don’t believe people have sin natures or that God is sovereign?” Shocked, the Arminian responds, “What? I believe in both!” The Calvinist insists, “No, you don’t,” because he doesn’t understand that what to him are logical conclusions to the Arminian’s statement are not logical conclusions to the Arminian!

Similarly the Arminian hears the Calvinist say, “God elects people to salvation and empowers them to believe.” The Arminian concludes, “Then you don’t believe people have the ability to make choices; you think they’re robots, and there’s no point in prayer, evangelism and missions.” In his mind, all these are perfectly logical conclusions to the Calvinist’s statement. But they are not what the Calvinist believes! That’s why we need to ask a person what they believe and listen to their answer, asking clarifying questions, instead of reducing them to a theological stereotype.

Both Calvinists and Arminians say “God is sovereign,” but mean different things by sovereign. The same goes for the term “free will.” When Calvinists and Arminians use these terms in conversation without understanding what it means to the other person, miscommunication is inevitable. Then tensions rise, and soon one or both are frustrated and defensive.

It’s fine to label ourselves, but I think it’s wise and kind to avoid labeling others. No one likes being put in a box. (I am always amazed to hear people tell me what I really believe!) When it comes to terminology, especially in conversations regarding God’s sovereignty and meaningful human choice, I’d recommend using our definition or understanding of terms in place of the terms themselves until we know we’re on the same page. It may take longer to explain, but we’ll know what we’re really talking about.

Trevin Wax: Like you, I am not 100% on either the Calvinist or Arminian scale, which has prompted some friends from both sides to try to better inform or persuade me! You write that “all positions have strengths and weaknesses; be sure you know the strengths of others and the weaknesses of your own.” That’s a good word, and you seek to point out strengths and weaknesses in a manner that is fair and charitable. I wonder, though, if those who are fervently committed to one side would agree that the other side has strengths or that theirs has weaknesses. Is this a problem, or is this to be expected when someone is deeply convinced regarding their position? 

Randy Alcorn: If we imagine our position on sovereignty and free will is the only one without problems, we’re kidding ourselves, and need a dose of humility. All positions have snags, whether biblical, logical or practical inconsistencies. A position can be entirely true, but there will always be arguments against it, and if we don’t understand those arguments, or if we dismiss them as if only a stupid person could believe them, we can’t effectively communicate. God deliver us from theological arrogance!

I think it’s a mistake for anyone to attach too much importance to being consistent with our own system. I was an Arminian, as a young Christian in an Arminian church, and after years of studying Scripture I gradually changed my view on election and predestination. But had I allowed my theological system to hold sway, I wouldn’t have changed my views, but would have stayed logically consistent, and that would have been a mistake.

But we Calvinists can do the same thing. We end up being accomplished logicians rather than pure biblicists. If we’re attempting to be card-carrying Calvinists, trying to keep in step with our theological comrades, our real authority is our theological system, or our logic, not the Bible. (If we depend too much on logic, we would never believe many biblical doctrines, including the Trinity—the mathematics don’t add up, do they?)

I recommend being willing to have “leaks” and inconsistencies in your theological system, while remaining unwilling to do violence to Scripture to make it fit your system. When we were translating every verse of the Greek New Testament over the course of three years, my Greek prof would remind us to grapple with the text before us, and let it speak for itself rather than seeing it through the lens of doctrines we’d been taught in our Bible and theology classes. I can still hear him saying, “Better to be at home with your Bible and not your theology, than to be at home with your theology and not your Bible.” When there’s a conflict between the two we need to alter our theology, and I’ve done that considerably over the years.

This is why I think we need to read good books by Bible-believers who argue against our positions. Inevitably, the authors will cite passages I tend to ignore. I reflect on those passages. I try to allow God’s Word to surprise me and change my mind and modify my positions. I like to learn. If I come to God’s Word unguarded, with my shields down, God uses it to grab me, taking me where he wants me to go. If the Bible never changes your mind because you’ve already got everything figured out, you’re missing the joy of discovery.

Trevin Wax: One of the things I appreciated about your book is your insistence that we should let the Bible speak, and we shouldn’t be afraid to sound like the Bible when we talk. Case in point: some argue against saying “God allows” because they think “God causes” is more biblical and consistent with his sovereignty. But since Scripture uses the more passive “allow,” permit,” or “let” along with the active “cause” and “make,” why shouldn’t we? Should we sound more “calvinist” or “arminian” depending on the passage of Scripture we are explaining?

Randy Alcorn: An Arminian can carefully avoid the predestination and election passages, or so redefine the word meanings that they nullify those doctrines. On the other hand, a Calvinist can skip or gloss over where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says, “How often would [Greek thelo] I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would [thelo] not!” (Matthew 23:37). Jesus uses the same word for what he willed as for what fallen creatures willed. And whose will was realized? That of his fallen creatures.

Yes, this isn’t the only text, and many other texts affirm God’s sovereign purposes won’t be thwarted. But I would say to an Arminian, “if this text were the only one on the subject I would have to change my theology—and it certainly serves as a balance to it.” This gives us much more credibility when we call upon them to be faithful in interpreting other texts that are more deterministic in their portrayal of God’s sovereignty.

The Bible features a staggering breadth and depth of truth that selective proof-texting can never reflect.

Trevin, regarding your mention of the language of permission, I’ve heard Calvinists argue against saying “God allows” because they think “God causes” is more biblical and consistent with his sovereignty.

But what does the Bible say? Of course, there are “God determines” passages, such as Romans 9:18, but there are also the “God allows” passages. For instance, an ax head flies from its handle and kills someone. So what does God say? “If [the man] does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate” (Exodus 21:13, ESV). It doesn’t say God caused the accident but rather “lets it happen.” The term “let” or “allow” or “permit” are all good translations. Or, take Mark 5:12-13, where demons beg Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs and Jesus “gave them permission.” God said of disobedient people, “I let them become defiled” (Ezekiel 20:26).

Similarly, Arminians should accept the language of determinism whenever Scripture uses it. God told Abimelech, “I have kept you from sinning against me” (Genesis 20:6). When casting out demons, Jesus “would not allow them to speak” (Luke 4:41).

I like what you say, Trevin, about being willing to sound more Calvinist or Arminian depending on the passage of Scripture we’re explaining. Let’s not posture ourselves and worry about whether we sound Calvinistic or Arminian, but focus on whether we are being biblical. Since Scripture uses the indirect “allow,” “permit,” or “let” along with the direct “cause” and “make,” I think we should do the same. Don’t we need both kinds of words to get the full biblical picture?

~~~~~

Tomorrow, Randy will be back on the blog to discuss meaningful human choice, the rise of Molinism, and his hope for the church.

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