Can the Calvinist/Arminian Debate Be Settled By Exegesis?

Derek Ouellette —  October 16, 2011

I join the ranks of countless Arminians who are frustrated with what seems to be an assumption by most Calvinists I’ve read and engaged. That assumption seems to be that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians can be settled by exegeting the Scriptures. Roger Olson puts it like this:

[T]his problem of Arminian-Calvinist meeting of the minds (which never seems to happen on this subject) is that most Calvinists I talk to THINK the disagreement can be settled by mere exegesis.  Obviously it can’t.  It’s been going on between equally scholarly Christians for hundreds and hundreds of year (going way back before Arminius or Calvin!)  Obviously the disagreement has something to do with differing gestalts–”seeing as.”  That is when Calvinists read Scripture they see God and salvation AS such-and-such whereas when Arminians read Scripture they see God and salvation AS something else.  Not totally something else, but importantly something else.  In other words, the disagreement is perspectival which is why it cannot be settled by exegesis or even philosophy.  Both accounts of God and salvation (etc.) are reasonable ones.  It’s just that one, taken to its logical conclusion (it’s “good and necessary consequences”) lands in one place and the other one lands in a very different place.  And the further you push the good and necessary consequences the further apart the two perspectives get from each other. (Here)

Because there are valid interpretations of every passage employed by both sides, for me it comes down to which side one can stomach. For some people – I think – they are convinced that exegetically the scriptures fall on the side of Calvinism. Some people don’t have a problem with that, others do. Yet because for them it makes the best sense of the scriptures, they accept it even though they don’t like it. Still there are some, the most moderate of them, who will speak of the positive of what the scriptures teach about the elect and leave any other potential talk (the “good and necessary consequences”) as something we ought not think about.

But I have already thought about it. I can’t undo that. If there is a single reason why I cannot accept Calvinism it is here: the “good and necessary consequences” of Calvinism irreparably mars the character of God.

God cannot be trusted and my faith is in vain.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dave Leigh

    Great job, Derek! I think you’re right about the impasse. For me it is not a matter of rejecting the answers either side lives and dies by, but I have rather come to the place where I reject the questions–which ultimately limit the possibilities for one’s understanding. For me it is not: Is the glass half empty or half full. It is, rather, the wrong glass.

  • Dan Martin

    You’re right, Derek. I personally think good exegesis comes down on the side of free will…as you know from my blog I think even Arminius didn’t go far enough and that honest engagement of the scriptures leads to an Open View of God. However, and this is the most important point you make in this post, the reality is that we all read the scriptures through the lenses of our own predisposition and/or experience. The same words mean different things depending upon how we see them.

    As I like to tell my Calvinist friends: “You have chosen to believe in predestination, and I am predestined to believe in free will.”

  • drwayman

    Derek – I agree that there is good exegesis on both sides of the debate. Moreover, I agree it is “it comes down to which side one can stomach.” For example, in the problems of evil, the logical conclusion of Calvinism is that God determines every evil act that occurs. For Arminianism, the logical conclusion is that God divinely concurs with every evil act that occurs. On our side of eternity, the end result for humanity is the same: evil happens. However, I would prefer a God who allows evil rather than a God who determines evil. That simple illustration for me makes a difference in the character of God.

  • LCK

    I recently read through “Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views” in preparation for a series of blogs about why I am not a Calvinist. In the book, Paul Helm and Bruce Ware present the classical and modified Calvinist views, Roger Olson presents the classical Arminian view, and John Sanders presents the Open View. One of the things about the debate that the book made clear was that ALL the views have scriptural support. Both sides can philosophize, proof text, and exegete ’til the cows come home but the place we land has a lot to do with whether it’s more important that God be meticulously in control of everything or that His character be fathomably loving and just.

    Great post!

    • Derek Ouellette

      That’s a great book. John Sanders chapter – as I recall – commanded respect from even Bruce Ware, it was that good!

  • Bill Brennan

    The reason for the dilemma is because both sides are wrong. Calvinists are wrong about God’s love and Arminians are wrong about his power. God is both powerful enough and willing enough to save all. So why are all not being saved? They are! That’s the problem with those two systems. The doctrine of endless torment is not a biblical doctrine. The resolution to the problem of evil is to understand that evil exists only temporarily and for a good purpose.