Thinking Out Loud

July 30, 2013

Guest Post: An Engineer Looks at Doctrinal Systems

My guest writer today is my son Chris, who I should describe more accurately as an engineer in training. He brings a scientific mind to a study which divides people, the issue of the Calvinist doctrinal system versus the Arminian doctrinal system. He is trying to show here how each of the core beliefs of Calvinism is rooted in the belief which precedes it. To that end it is a systematic theology. Since Arminianism is historically a response to Calvinism, he contrasts each doctrinal element with the corresponding Arminian perspective. For someone not trained in such matters, I personally think he does an amazing job here, even inventing a few new words in the process.

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.

Calvinism versus ArminianismThe 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.

~Chris Wilkinson



  1. Yes, I know there’s no such word as Arminianist, but I liked the cadence it creates.

    Please limit comments on this one to the method of analysis itself; using this space to debate the two perspectives would defeat the purpose.

    Comment by Paul Wilkinson — July 30, 2013 @ 9:01 am

  2. I’m profoundly grateful that I haven’t indulged in the Arminian/Calvinist debate in over a decade. It seemed terribly important at bible school, and terribly unimportant since.

    Comment by trevor — July 30, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  3. Your father might know of a Christian bookstore owner in Toronto several years back who was a bit crusty when it came to his staunch views on Calvinism. I walk into the guy’s store, start chatting it up … things are going fine until I – at the tender age of 14 – get a serious going over about how I didn’t choose God, God chose me. I mean he was red-faced and nearly yelling at me when I tried to impugn his hard-line position. He was so vehemently (and unpleasantly) dictatorial that I went home in tears to my mom, who thankfully was able to calm me down and help me get a grip on things by first lambasting the dude’s teaching approach to a kid!

    The concept of Calvinism, as presented by this guy almost shipwrecked my faith. Made me go into that, “What’s the point?” mode, ya know? (By the way, saw the guy later at a concert a few years after that and we were all fine and at peace, God has a way of doing that!)

    Strangely, I now lean a little further towards Calvanism, but for me it works like this: “God chose me to have free will to seek Him when He calls me … day by day”. Can it be summed up any simpler? Judgement is God’s territory, so why harp on how God works and stay focused on working God’s focus for us, his people.

    C.S. Lewis, who via the character of Aslan describes the Almighty as being like a lion, “but He’s not a tame lion!” is how I think we should all view this whole debate. God is solidly O.O.O. while still being somewhat unpredictable (and He likes it that way). Why else would (as pastor Charles Price suggests) God have decided to heal blind men in completely different ways? What? A Saviour without a standard healing method? What gives?!

    Further reading of Lewis’s logic/apologetic on “why pray?” is also a good place to find a position that’s transferable into the realm of Free Will/God’s Choice.

    Glad you got it worked out there, Christopher. Good thoughts, great writing … keep ‘er up.


    Comment by Flagrant Regard — August 2, 2013 @ 4:54 am

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