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Why Arminianism Doesn’t Sell

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.

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140 Responses to “Why Arminianism Doesn’t Sell”

  1. PS…Let me introduce you to a good book on Tertullian, i.e. “Tertullian, First Theologian of the West, by Eric Osborn, (Cambridge, paperback 2003). Check out Tertullian’s great Antitheses in God!

    And btw, I am an old teacher and professor, I taught and lived in Israel in the late 90’s. READ to live, live to Read! ;)

  2. I never accused you of having not read them. I simply argued that an appeal to the church fathers doesn’t help Calvinism very much. The seminary that I went to was paleo-orthodox, and started every theological question with an examination of church history. But history, much like the Scripture, must be interpreted, and if you bring up church history in support of your position, you should expect it to be challenged.

  3. I own Tertullian’s works. I don’t need a “good book” on him. Still, I might consider reading it. There’s nothing wrong with reading an expert on his writings.

  4. Challenge away mate! ;) But remember this is just a blog, and were not in the classroom! Oh if were were, ouch! lol Nothing like good old face to face!

  5. jc_freak: I was not attempting a hermeneutic, just to provide a reference because many say that these concepts are found nowhere in scripture. If used properly, including the context of the passages and all of scripture, I find this reference a very helpful tool in examining whether Reformed soteriology is biblical.

    Additionally, I took a look at the scripture reference list you provided and a number of these are among the ones commonly held to be advocating that all men are able to be saved but do not address the total inability of the man who is dead in sin to make a spiritual choice for anything other than rebellion against a God he hates. (Romans 3:10-18)

    Bob: Of course Dr. White starts with the presupposition that all of Scripture is God-breathed and true. :-) I challenge you to show where his exegesis is wrong instead of simply inferring that from his presuppositions that he must be. Many of the texts he interacts with have been thrown at me as Arminian proof texts before.

  6. Another common argument I hear from non-Reformed folks is that the ECF prior to Augustine didn’t teach predestination or other concepts attributed to Augustine, rather than to Jesus and Paul who teach them in the NT. I suggest anyone making such claims should be aware of John Gill’s work, “The Cause of God and Truth”, part 4 of which is a detailed analysis of the ECF on “Reformed” topics. You can read the whole thing here: http://www.thescripturealone.com/Gill_CauseOfGod&Truth.pdf

  7. Nick S: “Bob: Of course Dr. White starts with the presupposition that all of Scripture is God-breathed and true. I challenge you to show where his exegesis is wrong instead of simply inferring that from his presuppositions that he must be. Many of the texts he interacts with have been thrown at me as Arminian proof texts before.”

    Do you have a particular text in mind?

    First, while I disagree with White’s analysis (and the analysis he leverages from others), I understand why he would take the approach he does as a Calvinist. We both approach the text from a hermeneutic of trust, but I suspect our methodologies might differ a bit.

    Second, as I stated to Fr. R., this forum does not lend itself to this type of discussion, primarily because of the limitations of the each blog text.

    If you can suggest another venue and a text you are concerned with (such as the discourse on Paul’s first missionary journey or another), then I could probably interact a bit.

    Email perhaps?

  8. Bob, a great idea, sir.
    For the benefit of others, the short list of “most frequently offered Arminian proof texts” that I have interacted with (as does James White in the Potter’s Freedom) are:
    1 Timothy 2:4-6
    2 Peter 3:9
    John 3:16
    1 John 2:2
    Matthew 23:37 (usually this one is conveniently misquoted!)

  9. Btw, I rarely use evidential arguments, save perhaps someone’s book/books, etc. And I was a late comer to the blog! But, I will go along a bit with a historical and philosophical argument. I also lived thru much of the existential time in philosophy. And early being educated there in the RCC, we simply must allow, as have been mentioned, a kind of paleo-orthodox (i.e. Oden).. this kind of thinking and thought incorporates, both Catholic and some aspects of Protestantism. And as I have said many times on the blogs, how much I value certain aspects and places in the theology of the EO, (Christology and their Trinitarian doctrine). But their positions on Imputation and Adoption, are very lacking to the NT Pauline in my opinion!

    It is good to discuss many things we disagree on, as Calvinism verses Arminianism, etc., but we must do so in the Spirit of Christ! The bane of the blog has always been that we say things here, we would no doubt never say to someones face!

  10. Nick, I will not publish my email here, so is there another way of getting hold of you?

    It should be an interesting discussion.

    I suppose both sides have their favorite “proof-texts,” since John 6, Romans 9:6-29, Acts 13:48 are leveraged by Calvinists.

    But I think proper exegesis even of these passages is very revealing.

  11. Bob, fortunately, there is a very handy service for just such situations as this. Click on this link to get my Email address: http://scr.im/rp75

  12. Nick:
    I was not attempting a hermeneutic, just to provide a reference because many say that these concepts are found nowhere in scripture. If used properly, including the context of the passages and all of scripture, I find this reference a very helpful tool in examining whether Reformed soteriology is biblical.

    Fair enough.

    Additionally, I took a look at the scripture reference list you provided and a number of these are among the ones commonly held to be advocating that all men are able to be saved but do not address the total inability of the man who is dead in sin to make a spiritual choice for anything other than rebellion against a God he hates. (Romans 3:10-18)

    That’s because we are Arminian and believe in Total Depravity. We would we list verses against an idea we believe in?

  13. Fr Robert:
    It is good to discuss many things we disagree on, as Calvinism verses Arminianism, etc., but we must do so in the Spirit of Christ! The bane of the blog has always been that we say things here, we would no doubt never say to someones face!

    Amen! I also think that what we say comes out harsher than it would in person because of lack of body language and instant visual feedback from the listener. Sometimes it is good to step back and say, “We are brothers in the Lord and I look forward to having all of this sorted out once we are together with Jesus.”

  14. Nick, that last sentence should be “Why would we list verses against an idea we believe in?”

  15. There some kind of bug in the comments system instantly giving 7 plus likes to every anti-Calvinist post? All this yellow is blinding…

  16. This is utterly simplistic. I think Arminians like Tom Oden & Roger Olson have said plenty about what they are for, not against.

  17. “Calvinism” is a theological construct that is for the grace & glory of God, and only against evil itself, but even greater, it is sovereign and providential over evil itself.

  18. Richard Worden Wilson April 24, 2012 at 1:40 am

    I posted this on Jesus Creed:

    Reformed theology tends to emphasize God’s sovereignty, or rather control, over everything, including our will. Arminian theology tends to emphasize the sovereignty of the human will (granted as prevenient grace) and the latter can sound almost heretical for those frightened by their own behavior. The Bible acknowledges both the sovereignty of God and the freedom of humans, but the Arminian view may seem too threatening in light of our abject sinfulness and lack of spiritual monogamy if that is who we are. We consciously or unconsciously realize we are continuing in sin and disobedience–if not fully submitted to the Spirit of Christ–and can’t acknowledge that our behavior can alienate us from God. God is surely too good and too powerful to allow us to be one of those to whom Jesus will say: “Truly I say to you, I do not know you,” or “from the one who has not, take away even what he has” (Matt 25:12 & 29), isn’t he? [More to come in next post]

  19. Richard Worden Wilson April 24, 2012 at 1:40 am

    Of course God is faithful and able to save, but he doesn’t do that against the will of the ones he saves. Those not obeying him know that their only chance is if God just “chooses” and “elects” them despite their disobedience; their only chance is if the claims of Reformed “theological certainty” trumps their spiritual unfaithfulness; of course this “sells” big time. Conversion to the theological certainty of this neo-Reformed perspective is most likely conversion to “another gospel,” but it isn’t currently seen as such because of the same kind of cultural and theological “kinetic energy” that kept those in the Roman Catholic Church from seeing its excesses (however partially) until after the Reformation. Wasn’t the main spiritual problem of the scribes and Pharisees that they believed they were irrevocably “the elect,” the “sons of Abraham” and therefore saved? Pray for another reformation before Christ comes back. In either case there will be a lot of surprises,…

  20. Richard W said, “Arminian theology tends to emphasize the sovereignty of the human will…”

    Richard – Arminians are frequently falsely saddled with the idea that Arminianism centers around free-will. It doesn’t.

    Arminianism – pure and simple – is about one thing and one thing only. The character of God. Arminians seek to understand God’s character as seen in a plenary understanding of the God’s Word. We believe that proper theology centers around God’s character.

  21. 22. Is very confused Arminian theology, and simply poor historically, i.e. Roman Catholicism, etc. Also Augustine used the idea of prevenient grace. And lest we forget, Calvin received much of his thought and ideas from Augustine, as too even Luther. Augustianianism was the backdrop of the Reformation.

  22. I think the reason that Arminians or non-Calvinists have more apologetics conferences is the that they also apply the laws of logic to their theology. And no, that is NOT an oxymoron. Once you apply logic to your theology then Calvinism tends to self-destruct.

    The comment that leadership and/or apologetics conferences don’t do theology is ludicrous! Just because we don’t spend all our time touting and defending TULIP doesn’t mean we don’t do theology.

  23. C. Michael, I’ve always enjoyed your endearing candor as yourelate theology to the common man. I’ve been doing alot of soul searching as of late in regards to the Arminian question. We would all do well to remember that our sins did not nail an Arminian, nor a Calvinist to the tree atop Golgotha, but rather our Christ. We should be reminded that we are Christians. Whatever else we may be comes somewhere way down the road from the foot of the cross. Our Soveriegn Redeemer is not glorified when we take liberty in the flesh to treat someone poorly for the position of their conscious. The Arminians amongst us would do well to be thankful for the likes of Edwards, Whitfield, and Spurgeon for fanning the flames of revival. The Calvinists in our midst should be thankful for men such as A.W. Tozer, Leonard Ravenhill, C.S. Lewis, and John Wesley. We should all heed the words of James regarding the destructive nature of the tongue…Satan’s great tool.

  24. Rob, you said: “We would all do well to remember that our sins did not nail an Arminian, nor a Calvinist to the tree atop Golgotha, but rather our Christ. We should be reminded that we are Christians. Whatever else we may be comes somewhere way down the road from the foot of the cross.”

    I must give you an “Amen” on this. It seems many believe that the “gospel” is some form of Calvinism or Arminianism. But Paul is very clear that the “gospel of God” is what was promised beforehand by the prophets concerning his Son, the descendent of David. If anything, we should understand that the gospel is not Calvinist or Arminian in character. If anything, it is Jewish in character.

    The gospel is God’s gospel, not Calvin’s, not Wesley’s, not mine (thank goodness!).

    It is truly “good news” for all.

  25. It’s likely preferable to be biblically sound then popular. Remember, Christ didn’t sell all that well either.

  26. I’m a little surprised at the reaction to this post. It seemed to me to be nothing more than a snapshot of the current practices of the various doctrinal positions. There didn’t seem to be any normative flavor to it – just pointing out some interesting dissimilarities. The vitriolic response by some Arminians to this innocuous post is puzzling to me.

    If you’ll be so gracious, I’ll tell my story. Moderator, feel free to delete if you deem it’s appropriate to do so. Thanks. I’ll continue in the next several posts.

  27. The reasons I came to embrace Calvinism are myriad indeed. Of course I started out as Arminian, as I believe most new Christians do by default. I didn’t even know what Calvinism was, and when I was first exposed to it, I was terribly confused. I didn’t understand the terms, the theological implications, or the significance. I was utterly confused.

    But as I read my Bible (as a new believer and default Armenian), there were many passages that just didn’t make sense to me. How was it fair to Pharaoh that God hardened his heart? How come his choice was taken away from him? Same for Judas, why was he a devil from the beginning? What is Paul talking about in Romans 9? These (plus more) are questions that really troubled me and I could not see how they were reconciled with Christianity as I was learning it.

    My thirst for all things Christ stoked my perseverance to re-engage with Calvinism so I could at least understand it. As I gradually began to comprehend what Calvinism teaches about the bible, I was very much intrigued – indeed fascinated – was not yet sold on it. But as I began wrestling it, I kept Calvinism in the back of my mind as I read the bible. Suddenly everything seemed to start to fit together in a way I had never seen before. All those confusing passages suddenly made sense.

  28. The enormity of God’s grace began to dawn on me. Oh my! What can I do but fall on my face in absolute gratitude and humbleness and shame and love for a God who sovereignty chose to adopt me for absolutely no reason that I can claim for my own! Why me? I’m so undeserving! What is this grace? Once I “got” grace, my world, my theology, my everything was turned absolutely upside down.

    With Calvinism in mind, I started looking back on my journey as a Christian. I remembered the Saturday night before Easter, April 22nd, 2000, when I was an unbeliever asleep in my bed, when suddenly at about 3 in the morning I literally sat bolt upright in bed, absolutely wide awake with the conviction my soul that I absolutely *had* to go to Church that Sunday morning. I was so energized, so excited that I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got dressed in the best clothes I had and headed out the door well before dawn. I wanted to be the first person at the first service that Easter morning. Prior to that morning, and when I had gone to bed that night before, thoughts of God and church were the furthest thing from my mind. So when I headed out that morning, I had literally no idea where I was going or what to expect.

    I just drove around the city until I found the first church I saw. I went in and found myself excited for another strange reason – I was excited for the *sermon!* – the very same sermon I always dreaded and found hopelessly boring whenever I happened to be in church before. I was excited to lean about Jesus and his plan for my life! Once the first service was over, I drove around until I found another church with another service. I did that the rest of the day. I just wanted to drink it all in.

  29. From that day, I continued on my Christian journey and always that night when I was convicted was strange, but I never had an answer for it. I continued my Christian walk – at this point still completely oblivious to Calvinism’s even existence – until several years later I started to stray from the faith.

    I lost my zeal, I lost my compassion and my enthusiasm until I eventually settled back into my sinful, secular, empty way of life. Sure I believed in God still, but there was no evidence of him in my life. I became apathetic and I really didn’t care that much about God anymore. So I resumed my life of sin and sure enough it took me to the very edge of the pit.

    I had screwed things up royally and was absolutely mired in sin – the consequences of which were extremely grave, for me and those around me. It was a very dire, ugly situation. But God in his sovereignty used that to bring me back to him. I was in desperate need of comfort, so God in his grace softened my heart enough so that I ran to him instead of away from in my time of trouble.

    I repented for my apostasy and was renewed with vigor to lean about the things of God. It was during this time that I really began to read my bible, indeed sat down and read it cover-to-cover, reading for many, many hours a day, every day, not stopping until I was finished. I read multiple versions of the Bible concurrently, to mine the nuanced meaning that could only come from multiple translations. I consulted commentaries and apologetics websites. I was determined to really learn about this God that brought me back to him and his mysterious ways. The time was over for my immature faith of years past. God had brought me back from the pit despite the fact I was absolutely headed for destruction.

  30. Why would he do that? Could he possibly love me enough to save me? Make no mistake, I know I was dead – dead! – in my sin. It was God who sovereignty pulled me out of the pit, with absolutely no cooperation on my part. If it were left up to me I would have perished, continuing in my sin.

    So I felt I owed it to God that I learn more about him so I could love him more fully and give him his due praise. It’s at this time I really started diving in to Calvinism that I described earlier. Everything I was learning about Calvinism “fit.” It explained those confusing and hard passages in the Bible, it explained my dramatic conversion experience, it explained how God allowed me to fall off the path temporarily to use suffering to purify me, it explained why I wasn’t ultimately lost and he pulled me back despite my total depravity, and it explained why two people could read the exact same passage and one’s heart is melted and the other’s is hardened.

    Quite simply it fit neatly into every experience in my entire life, or rather, my entire life fit neatly into the meta-narrative that is Calvinism, or more properly, the gospel.

    Not content to stop there, I continued to study Calvinism, because as so many have pointed out, Calvinism’s not without its difficulties either. What was I to make of these? The more I studied philosophy, the more I studied logic, the more I studied history and economics the more certain of Calvinism I became.

  31. It just seemed to fit together not only with the world, but with itself. I found it very easy draw one logical conclusion about a certain point of Calvinism from another point of Calvinism. For instance, if God sovereignly chooses us before time, then of course his grace will be irresistible and of course his saints will persevere. God doesn’t lose those he’s willed to save. Because it’s not about us! It’s about God’s sovereign plan for his own glory!

    There is a love affair between and among the persons of the Trinity. Because the Father loves the Son so much, he wants to give the ultimate gift – a redeemed humanity that forever praises the Son for their redemption from the sin they know they were deserving of and powerless to avoid.

    Don’t you see? We are caught up in a cosmic expression of love! And God in is grace allows us to be an integral part of it! We’re not redeemed for our sake, but for the Son’s! The love gift from the Father to the Son is an elect segment of humanity that is conscious of – and eternally grateful for – the pure, sovereign, beautiful grace that allows them to be part of such a wonderful experience. The Son’s gift is that he will forever be praised by those who love him not only for what he did, but because of who he *is!* And he’s worthy of this praise – it’s only right that he receive it.

  32. Thus we are saved for his sake, not ours. So when we read in the Bible that we were chosen before foundation of the world, that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, that he doesn’t lose *any* of those the father gave him, and that he does this not for us but for his name’s sake, it all makes perfect sense!

    Thus, I’m a Calvinist because of my life experience, because the Bible very clearly makes the case for Calvinism, because it’s logical not only within itself and internally consistent, but it’s externally logical and consistent with the world we see out there and the very character of God himself. In my experience, the case for Calvinism is absolutely formidable and has passed every test and destroyed any argument against it.

    But that’s just my own personal conclusion from my own unique experience. Thanks for listening.

    Austin

  33. You said: “or it may just betray the reality of the tight Evangelical circles in which I travel most of the time.”

    I think that is the best answer. You are generalizing a GREAT deal based upon your limited exposure.

    Not very helpful, sorry.

  34. Hi,
    I like all the men that you mentioned both Reformed and Arminian. When I read the Reformed men I cringe when then mention predestinaton because I am Arminain. But they are all informative.

  35. Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is fundamental and all. Nevertheless think about if
    you added some great images or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”!
    Your content is excellent but with images and video clips, this site could definitely be one of the greatest in its niche.
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