Seven Point Armalvinism
Firstly, I need to define some terms. When I refer to the five points of Arminianism, I mean the Five Articles of Remonstrance agreed upon by the Remonstrants in 1610. The five points of Calvinism refer to the Canons of Dordt, which are the decisions of the Synod of Dordrecht on the five disputed points of doctrine in the Netherlands in 1618-19. The latter are usually known by the acronym ‘TULIP’: Total depravity of man, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. The former, perhaps less neatly, are sometimes known by the acronym ‘FACTS’: Freed by grace to believe, Atonement for all, Conditional election, Total depravity of man, and Security in Christ.
The sharp-eyed among you will notice that one of the five points is common to both acronyms: the total depravity of man. Here’s how the Articles of Remonstrance expressed it (article 3):
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving Faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.”
Because the Canons of Dordt were a response to the Articles of Remonstrance, they only disagreed with them where they felt the Articles were inadequate. On this point, they didn’t, so they affirmed it (and, in a manner that is often true of Reformed theologians, expressed it at considerably greater length!) This means that both Calvinists and Arminians believe that man, since the Fall, has been dead in his sins and unable to save himself. It also means that even the most diehard five point Calvinists are, if you like, at least one point Arminians.
For those who are mathematically troubled by my seven point Armalvinism, that explains how you can believe in six of the ten points. But how can you believe in seven? Where else might duplication be found? The answer is in the way the Remonstrants explained their fifth article, on security in Christ:
That those who are in corporated into Christ by true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: “Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our mind.
Translation: nothing external can stop a believer from persevering, and we’re going to read our Bibles very carefully before teaching confidently whether anything internal can. I think that’s brilliant, humble and thought-provoking; and interestingly, it is not contradicted by any of the nine ‘rejections of the errors’ included in the Canons of Dordt on this point. So I believe in the perseverance of the saints as expressed in the Canons of Dordt, but I also give a point (literally, in this case) to the Articles of Remonstrance. That’s how six becomes seven.
As such, there are only three areas of direct disagreement between the two sets of statements, and not five. They are:
1. Is election unconditional (Calvinist) or conditional (Arminian)?
2. Is atonement limited (Calvinist) or unlimited (Arminian)?
3. Is grace irresistible (Calvinist) or prevenient (Arminian)?
As some readers of my last post guessed, I (like many Calvinists, and arguably John Calvin himself!) find unlimited atonement to be a much more biblical idea than limited atonement, even though I understand where the logical impulse to define the atonement as ‘limited’ comes from. If I’m honest, I cannot see any of the verses usually cited in support of limited atonement – the idea that Christ only died for the elect – carrying the weight they are asked to, and find myself wholly in agreement with the second Article of Remonstrance:
That agreeably thereunto, Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
On election, on the other hand, I find the reverse: I understand the quasi-logical impulse to believe in the Arminian conclusion, which is conditional election (as I talked about a bit last week with reference to Roger Olson), but find the biblical material to support the Calvinist one, which is unconditional election. That could be the subject of a post (or a book!) in itself, so I won’t go into it here. But it does show why, despite my seven points being split 50/50 at the moment, I would still see myself (and others would still see me) as more Calvinist than Arminian – unconditional election, probably rightly, has been seen as the key area of debate between the two camps, and it was the first article in both the Articles of Remonstrance and the Canons of Dordt.
So, finally, why the half points? What could be wrong, I hear many ask, with the doctrine of irresistible grace? And what could be right with prevenient grace? Haven’t you read Tom Schreiner’s chapter in Still Sovereign?
Well I have, and I agreed with virtually all of it, and that’s why I would never give a point to prevenient grace in the Wesleyan sense. It’s also why I give half a point to the Calvinist doctrine of ‘irresistible grace’: God’s saving grace, when it operates on somebody who is dead in their sins, is irresistible, and turns them from corpses into children of God, by not just enabling faith, but effecting faith. (Again, I could quote lots of scriptures here, but this post is long enough already). Well, says the Calvinist, you have no business handing out half points then: you are a four point Calvinist, so you might as well lump it. But oh, those pesky Articles of Remonstrance, with their seemingly unachievable brevity and theological precision! Here’s what article 4 actually said:
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But respecting the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.
And I agree. Nobody can do any good without grace; grace is that which awakens, follows, cooperates and empowers the believer. But is all grace irresistible? It doesn’t seem to be in Acts 7:51, where Stephen accuses not just the Sanhedrin, but generations of Jews, of resisting the Holy Spirit. And it doesn’t seem to be in Paul; sections of his letters (Galatians 5, for instance) seem to be addressed precisely to those who are at risk of resisting the grace of God in the sense expressed in the Articles, even if not in the sense meant by all subsequent Calvinist theologians. In that sense, while saving grace is irresistible, I don’t think the scriptures say that all grace is. (And in fairness, the Canons of Dordt don’t argue that it is; to be scrupulously even-handed, I should probably treat them on their own terms, and affirm four of their five points. But then that would make me a seven and a half point Armalvinist, and that would be just plain silly.)
So there you have it. T, U, P, A, T, S, and half a point each for I and F. Some call it fractional Calvinism, others call it Armalvinism, but I (following the acronym) am thinking of calling it STUPIFAT. I wonder if it will catch on.