In yet another of history’s attempts to diffuse the unending debate between Calvinists and Arminianists, I would like to summarize my experiences with the dispute. This caused me a great deal of grief in my first years of university, and I will be quite happy if I can immunize anyone to the arguing by informing them about it before it becomes a “stumbling block” to them.
First, I have identified the most fundamental difference between the two systems of belief to be that Arminians believe that sinful humans possess “free will” or “freedom of choice,” while Calvinists believe that sinfulness precludes choice. All further differences can be extrapolated from this one point and a few obvious observations about the world. Therefore, the most core difference between the two theological systems is a disagreement about man, not about God. (Total Depravity.)
The different views of choice lead to different views of the lead-up to salvation: The Arminian sees God approach a sinner and offer him a chance to change his ways, and the sinner willfully ceases his rebellion, consents to being changes from within, and agrees to begin working for the Kingdom; while the Calvinist sees God selecting a sinner and going to work in him without any questions or profferings. (Irresistible Grace)
The different views of choice also lead to different views of the lead-up to non-salvation: The Arminian sees God approach a sinner and offer salvation, but the sinner declines to accept it, much to God’s dismay; while the Calvinist sees no dialogue take place, as God has already rejected that sinner for reasons he has not disclosed. (Unconditional Election.)
The different views on the distribution of salvation are mirrored by different theories about the available supply of salvation: Arminians believe that Jesus took up the sins of everyone so that the door might be open to everyone; while Calvinists believe Jesus only took up the sins of those who would, in fact, ultimately be saved, because it would be pointless for Jesus to suffer for sins whose committors will carry them in Hell anyway. (Limited Atonement.)
(The remaining Point of Calvinism is Perseverance of the Saints. Whether or not someone can lose their salvation depends purely on how the word “saved” is applied, which is not really part of the overall disagreement. It’s purely a difference in terminology.)
The different views of non-salvation, a topic people naturally feel strongly about, lead to different descriptions of God’s character: The Arminian describes God as unconditionally loving and with arms always open, constantly wooing people to come home; while the Calvinist may perhaps describe God as a mighty ruler building his kingdom, purposefully and with discernment, to glorify himself.
The Arminian’s favorite word is “love,” while the Calvinists’s is “sovereign.” Due to differences in rhetoric, each side believes their favorite to be absent from the other’s theology, creating caricatures of each: Calvinists think Arminians don’t take God’s rule seriously, while Arminians think Calvinists believe God holds humans to be worthless unless useful. Any contestation that develops between the two sides serves to further polarize the rhetoric.
Both of these caricatures are sometimes correct: There are people in the church who believe in works-based salvation (whether consciously or not), and there are others therein who think God hates them.
The caricatures cause “straw men” in any argument that takes place between Calvinists and Arminianists: The Arminianist thinks he’s arguing about the scope of God’s love, while the Calvinist thinks he’s arguing about the scope of God’s rule, when in fact the two are in agreement about both. The argument typically doesn’t resolve, but is terminated by an exclamation of, “Well, at least we can agree that we’re both saved by grace through the blood of the Lamb!” or something to that effect.
Both descriptions of God’s character can be taken too far: God’s love, taken too far, leads to universalism, while God’s sovereignty, taken too far, leads to fatalism.
The different views of choice stem from different individual conversion experiences: One Christian, who came slowly to understand and accept God’s work in their past, will find that Calvinism describes the process better; while another, who had salvation explained to them by an existing Christian and then wanted to get in on it, may find that Arminianism describes the process better. Likewise, I imagine there are nonbelievers who have understood and rejected Jesus, and others who die without ever knowing.
You will encounter people on both sides who acknowledge the correctness of both — either believing that each correctly describes the same God with different terminology, or believing that they serve as a sort of Yin and Yang that describe God well complementarily but poorly individually — and you will encounter those who adhere fiercely to one and war against the other.