In Search of a Coherent NarrativePart 1: Arminianism – A Seemingly Attractive Narrative
Part 5: A Biblical Universalism
Part 6: Biblical Support for Universalism
Part 7: A Systematic Understanding of Universalism
Part 6: Biblical Support for Universalism
Part 7: A Systematic Understanding of Universalism
Photo by Stuart Anthony
This series is about a search for a coherent scriptural narrative of our lives in relation to God and the world that we live in. Looking at reality, we all create some sort of narrative or way of understanding the world around us - sometimes realised and sometimes not. Within Christian circles today, two grand narratives go head to head. They are the narratives of Arminianism and Calvinism. These two narratives are not synonymous with each other even though they both fall under Christian belief. At first glance, they seem to be a dichotomy, but I do not see them as necessarily being so. This series will seek to draw a sought after unity between concepts within Arminianism and Calvinism with regards to their inherent difficulties. The first analysis will cover the key concepts of Arminianism - what it is, why it is attractive, and why I believe it does not work. The second analysis will cover Calvinism - what it is, why it is attractive, and why I believe it doesn’t work. The third analysis will provide a potential solution to the inherent difficulties within the Arminian and Calvinistic narratives.
Before I begin, I will share a little of my background surrounding these issues to shed some light on where I am coming from. I grew up in a dedicated Christian family who taught me to search for truth. Ever since I was young, I enjoyed mulling over idealistic views about life. I relished the challenge of explaining reality in a way that others could understand. My journey ventured into trying to provide an answer that tied together the disparities between Arminianism’s “man’s free will” and Calvinism’s “God’s free will”. I originally held to Arminian thought but became more and more unsettled by it. I valued human choice. To me, if we were without choice, then questions like these arise - how can one have love for God? Or – How can one be loyal without the opportunity to be disloyal? I understood love to be a choice and therefore not compelled. Not only that, but as I read the Bible it seemed to me that man’s free will was evident, especially considering that God required and expected certain actions and outcomes from people. However, emphasizing man’s responsibility meant that I read over many of the passages that talked about predestination and the role that God played in choosing who would be His chosen people (the elect) and who would not be. I tried many a time to get around these passages. This disparity left me perplexed - how God could expect actions and outcomes from people contrary to what He had already predestined them to do? For a good while, I simply saw this inconsistency as a paradox and trusted in God’s love and grace to bring about the best outcome for individuals and humankind. However, I have since studied these disparities more closely and discovered an idea that I believe provides a possible resolution to these otherwise opposing narratives.
To further explore Arminianism and Calvinism, I will first give an overview of the KEY components of each respectively. At the end of each overview, I will raise in more detail the scriptural, philosophical, and moral struggles of each that I have found inherent in their thought. Now I realise there are multiple variants of Arminianism and Calvinism, such as the difference between Moderate Calvinism and High Calvinism. However, I believe they all fundamentally have the same core issues. It is predominantly these core issues that I will address.
Part 1: Arminianism – A Seemingly Attractive Narrative
The key components of an Arminian worldview are found in the five points of Arminianism, which is given in a little more detail here (http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/reformed-theology/arminianism/calvinism-vs-arminianism-comparison-chart/). A key concept in the Arminian thought is the very common idea of Freewill. (For the purpose of this series, in order to help distinguish what I mean by Freewill, I will use a capital “F” for Freewill when referring to Arminian Freewill.) Here is my brief summary of the five points of Arminianism:
Freewill or Human Ability. This understanding of man’s relationship to sin and God consists of a Freewill that is not bound. Man can freely choose to have faith in God but can also choose not to. Man’s will is not entirely subject to the sin nature. Once a man freely accepts God and puts faith in Him, then that is when the Spirit provides the needed assistance and intervenes in a person’s life.
Conditional Election. This is a reference to the process of how God choses those whom He will save. “Conditional Election” is where God chooses based on foreknowledge of the future as to who would place their faith in Him and who would not. Therefore, humankind ultimately chooses whom God chooses to be saved. God’s choice for salvation is a reply to man’s faith in Him.
Universal Redemption or Universal Atonement. This covers the scope of atonement provided by Christ on the cross. “Universal Atonement” says that Christ died for everyone’s sins, but that redemption will only come into effect if a person accepts what He has done for them on the cross. If a person rejects Christ, then there remains no atonement for their sins and therefore no forgiveness.
God’s Holy Spirit can be resisted. Similar to the above notions, this concept emphasises man’s Freewill. The Holy Spirit will work in people’s lives by calling them to Himself, but only will have effect for salvation when He is not resisted by them.
Falling from Grace. Some Arminians (not all) consider that those who are truly part of God’s people can still turn away from God. Some others believe that once a person has turned to God they cannot then turn away, thus creating division on this thought.
Taking all these key ideas together, they create a narrative or “worldview”. This narrative goes something like this: In the beginning, God created humankind. He created us like Himself so that we have Freewill to determine our own outcomes. We are ultimately our own sovereign over the outcome of our lives. Some say the reason for this is that God wanted a people who would be able to love Him freely and without compulsion. It would be impossible to have loyalty without the opportunity to be disloyal. God gave Adam and Eve this Freewill, but they used it to turn against God and put all of humanity in a state of separation from God. This grieved God. It grieved Him so much that He wanted to restore mankind to Himself. Yet God must keep justice by punishing evil. If He merely let Adam and Eve do as they wish with no consequences, He would be unjust as the Sovereign Creator. Therefore, He separated mankind from Himself because dark could not dwell with light. His grand plan was to send a Redeemer (Jesus Christ) who was to pay for the evil done by mankind, thus fulfilling the justice due. At the same time as this desire to draw mankind to Himself, He still values man’s Freewill and wants to draw them to Himself according to their choosing. If He forces mankind to choose Him then it would defeat one of the purposes of creating them in the first place – to have a people who would love Him freely and without compulsion. It would violate their Freewill. Thus God is divided – He wants good to reign and yet at the same time have Freewill. God values Freewill over all other desires of His, including the salvation of all people. Being a righteous judge, He must punish those who chose evil while still respecting their Freewill, and thus sends them to an eternal separation from Himself. Evil and light will not forever dwell together. In conclusion, sin is the result of mankind’s choice. However, mankind can seek after salvation and then form a partnership with God that will ultimately restore them into the image of God.
Another scenario that may help to explain the saving relationship between God and people is the drowning man (borrowed from David Pawson, http://davidpawson.org/). To an Arminian, salvation is like a man drowning in a river. God sees the man and throws him a rope to pull him ashore. The man then chooses whether he will grab hold of the rope or not. Many will reject it but some will accept it. As the man is pulled to shore, it would be incorrect to say that he saved himself. Yes, he did choose to grab hold of the rope, but God is the One who ultimately pulls him to shore.
The reasons behind accepting this paradigm are potentially many. The key ones that I see as the most relevant are:
- Arminianism takes the responsibility for sin away from God and places it on the individual. The alternative would state that since God is the Creator of all then that also makes Him the Creator of sin. If we were not responsible for our sins (that is, if God was responsible for sin) then that would seem to make God unfair – it paints Him as having unreasonable expectations of people, especially if He then sentences them to eternal conscious torment for acts of sin that they had no choice in. However, the Bible requires us to love God. Some Arminians believe that if God is the Creator of all and we are to love Him, then he must be lovable. Arminianism gets around the problem of a God who does “evil” (through directly creating sin) by attributing the existence of sin to mankind’s Freewill, thus letting God off the hook.
- Arminianists believe that people ultimately do not have a predisposition to choose God or not. When God judges people, He judges us according to our Freewill deeds. God would be unjust to judge us according to predisposition, because He created our predisposition.
- If man’s Freewill did not exist, then love or loyalty would not exist because it would not be free. How can one be loyal without the opportunity to be disloyal? We would be robots, mere play figures in the Creator’s world of evil and good.
- Much of scripture supports the Arminian belief. The general message of the Bible is that man is responsible for our sins and that God holds us accountable for our every action and thought.