I made an observation recently that may be completely off base, or it may just betray the reality of the tight Evangelical circles in which I travel most of the time. Either way, here it is:
Calvinists have a corner on theologically-themed conferences. Arminians have apologetically-themed conferences. Leadership conferences don’t do theology.
Is this true? It seems true from my standpoint. Think about the major conferences out there that are theological in nature: Desiring God, Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and Ligonier Ministries. All of them fill churches and arenas with thousands of people. Passion fills the air as speakers talk about theological issues in the church. John Piper, Don Carson, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Tim Keller, and the like are invited to speak. Diversity runs deep in these theology conferences. Dispensationalist and Covenant Theologians, paedobaptists and credo baptists, charismatics and non-charismatics, and premillenialists and amillenialists are all represented. However, it is hard to find an Arminian invited to (much less putting together) such engagements. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect that it is because Arminianism, as a theological distinctive, just does not preach. Don’t get me wrong. I did not say that Arminians can’t preach. They most certainly can. And I did not say that Arminianism is not true (This is not the question on the table). It is simply that the distinctives of Arminianism do not sell in such settings. Evangelicals love to hear about the sovereignty of God, the glory of God in suffering, the security of God’s grace, the providence of God over missions, and yes, even the utter depravity of man. This stuff preaches. This stuff sells tickets.
For the Arminian to put together a distinctive conference, things would be a bit less provocative. Things like “The Responsibility of Man in Suffering,” “Man’s Role in Salvation,” or “The Insecurity of Salvation” won’t preach too well. Think about how hard it is for a Calvinist to try to plug in a token Arminian at a general theology conference. On what subject do you let them speak? “Roger Olson, I would like you to come to our conference and speak on . . . (papers ruffling) . . . ummm . . . (papers ruffling more) . . . Do you do anything in apologetics (except suffering)?”
Of course, there was the John 3:16 conference, which was Arminian. But that was not a general theology conference. It was a specific conference which amounted to a polemic against Calvinism. During the conference, the speakers simply countered all five points of Calvinism. This is symptomatic of so much of the Arminian distinctives with regard to their message. Much of the time Arminianism is simply seen as “Against Calvinism,” whereas Calvinism is more affirmatively focused on the sovereignty of God. Even the latest books published on the subject betray such a reality: For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson. I think one can find this same general approach in the theological blogosphere. Calvinists have something they are for, while Arminians are always on the defensive, fighting what they are against. Finally, as far as I know, the John 3:16 conference only happened once (in 2008). That it, or anything like it, has not been renewed or rebooted may serve to prove my observation.
Now, apologetics seems to be a different story. Not only to do you have Arminians filling the pulpit when it comes to defending the faith, they seem to dominate. William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Paul Copan, Norman Geisler, and Gary Habermas are all on the roster. It is “Team Biola.” This is not to say that Calvinists don’t do apologetics. However, they normally do so in a less “evidentialist” style that just won’t teach. Have you ever tried to teach people to defend the faith using presuppositional and transcendental arguments? Enough said. The simple observation I am making is that apologetics is heavily dominated by Arminians today. However, I don’t think there is anything distinctive about Arminianism which would make them more equipped to hold apologetics conferences. Perhaps, the focus on the free will of man makes the whole apologetics enterprise more necessary and effective in Arminianism. Theoretically, Calvinists, because of their compatibleness (holding the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in tension), could teach evidentiary apologetics just as truly as an Arminian. “Did Christ Rise from the Grave?”, “Who is Jesus?”, “Is God a Moral Monster?”, or “Responding to the New Atheists” are all topics on which Calvinists and Arminians could teach together without sacrificing their theological integrity. There may be some distinction with a topic such as “If God is Real, Why is There Evil?” But that is the only apologetic issue which I think could be an exception in this group of topics.
Leadership conferences, on the other hand, are normally very diverse. Why? In all probability, they are not very theological in nature. Stirring passion about finishing strong, leading by serving, and preparing a sermon does not require any theological commitment one way or another. However, if the leadership conference turns on men’s issues or women’s issues, the complementarian/egalitarian elephant enters the room. And, generally speaking, most complementarians are Calvinist and most egalitarians are Arminian.
That said, these observations are not timeless. They are what I see today. I think they represent the chicken or the egg question (I don’t know which comes first) to the resurgence of Calvinism in the pews today. My hypothesis is that Calvinism preaches better than Arminianism. In a confused world of suffering and pain, we want to know that God has it under control, not man. Calvinism instigates more of a dramatic change in theology than does Arminianism. We are more naturally inclined toward the Arminian idea of free will and God’s sovereignty. People normally don’t “become” Arminians. But nearly all Calvinists can tell of a passionate “conversion” experience as to how Calvinism dramatically changed their way of thinking about God. This creates incredible passion. Therefore, we invite Calvinists only to these theology conferences (even when the organization, itself, claims to be more broadly Evangelical). And people leave with a full heart. On the other hand, when we want to fight against the New Atheists, we do not need to discriminate against the finer points of theology too much. Therefore, we invite either Arminian or Calvinist apologists.