Calvinism VS Arminianism: Why the battle continues

   Very few subjects ignite a heated conversation for as long as this subject I am writing about has. What I find odd about this debate is how it seems to be so furious, at a time when most mainstream evangelical churches just roll over to accommodate for each other on so many other theological issues. Being Calvinist, I have found very little that invites argument like my theological stance. And while the United States is a big place, so I am unable to speak of experiences others may have in their respected regions, It seems at times subscribing to reformed theology in small town Midwest America you are an oddity. But why? How did we get here? How did we get to a point where holding the word of God found in the Holy Scriptures as the authority in our lives and churches, where understanding that salvation is through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone, and having full reliance on a sovereign God become so opposed by the small town middle American church. To understand this we first have to understand where this debate began, and it was not with John Calvin, and Jacobus Arminius.
    Early Christian theologian and philosopher Augustine, the bishop of Hippo Regius in north Africa held to the traditional view within the church of mans state of depravity. Adams sin had corrupted all of mankind, and now mankind was fallen and apart from God could do nothing as far as his own salvation and needed divine aid in performing any good works. British theologian Pelagius was an advocate for mans own free will and believed that Adam’s sin did not wound mankind, and humans were able to fulfill God’s law without divine aid. Pelagius is known as the father of free will. His views would come to be known as Pelagianism and were deemed heresy by the Council of Carthage in 418. Pelagius view that man could live a sinless life by power of his own will of course drew the ire of his contemporaries and especially Augustine of Hippo. While this is a very simplified history of these two men, this debate on the Sovereignty of God and His grace as it pertains to mans salvation and free will did not stop with them.
     For the sake of time and typing we can fast forward to the debated issue with the two figures most notable by their name sake in this debate; French theologian and pastor John Calvin and Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. Much has been written about these two men and the theologies that wear their names. Calvin held to the doctrines of Grace, which is most often today called “Calvinism” and Arminius while holding to the five solae of the reformation like Calvin, his teachings were very distinct from Martin Luther, Calvin, and other protestant reformers. There have been many books and great articles that cover these differences better than a blog post, so I would suggest if interest peaks you looking into more detailed coverage of those differences. But what seemed to be the most often debated aspect of these two belief systems was what part mans will, if any played into his salvation. Can man, on his own in his natural state apart from God, choose to be saved? Or is salvation solely an act of God’s sovereign grace, and by HIs will alone?  Can man come to saving faith in Jesus Christ on his own by his own will, or does God draw those whom He has elected for eternal salvation?
     Jesus, as you can imagine had quite a bit to say on this matter.
  John 6: 44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”
     That would seem pretty clear cut, but Jesus would reiterate this point a few verses later
      John 6: 65: ‘And He said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
         By scripture it is apparent that the belief of the Apostles was that salvation was through Grace alone and in no way through mans own will
    John 1: 12-13 “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God”
       Paul covers the topic of God’s sovereign grace better than anyone in the book of Romans chapter 9.
       Now these are a small example of the many scriptures which confirm mans salvation through God’s grace and by His sovereign choice and will. Again if the topic intrigues you an inductive biblical study would come in handy. But the larger question is how did the doctrines of Grace get pushed out of the American Church? The earliest settlers were dominantly subscribers to the reformed theology, Calvinist if you would. Johnathan Edwards, possibly the greatest American pastor himself subscribed to the doctrines of Grace and reformed theology. In the latter part of the 1800’s the “Prince of Pastors” Charles Spurgeon over in England had great influence in Churches all over the world, and he was a strong “Calvinist”. How did we get here? Well the answer is part study in cultural trends, and part study in man’s own desire.
     From about 1760 to 1840 the world experienced the industrial revolution. Industry transitioned from hand production to machines, increase in iron production, and the rise of the factory system. Prior to this it was easy to understand man’s need and reliance on a sovereign God, and in most protestant churches that was the clear message. There was clear teaching on the greatness of an almighty, perfectly Holy and righteous God in comparison to the condition of fallen depraved man. But suddenly man could now sit back and marvel at his creation. New buildings, grandiose cities, modern transportation, and then man did not look so small. Man like he has done since the very beginning of creation has desired to marvel at himself, and be in God’s position. To man after the industrial age, God as creator did not seem so big.
     In the mid 1800’s in New York an American Presbyterian minister named Charles Finney became a leading voice in the second great awakening. Known as the father of modern revivalism, he was teaching ‘Christian perfection’ or that one could achieve spiritual maturity and perfection along with the “second blessing” and baptism of the Holy Spirit”. Finney taught, like Pelagius and Arminius, that man had enough grace in himself to come to Christ and salvation on their own by their own will. Finney designed a very emotionally based evangelistic method to pressure the sinner emotionally to make “decisions” by their own will to come to Christ (Many of the charismatic cults came out of this movement and would adopt these same practices). Well this teaching that man himself could, by his own will and decision, be saved was tailor made for a culture coming off of a pride filled, ego centric high while marveling at their own creations. And it caught on. And suddenly the churches, or cults, that spawned from these teachings began growing in numbers. While more biblically based, traditional reformed churches were seen as no longer relevant in a culture where man himself was master of his own destiny. So many churches buckled to the pressure and began making concessions in their own theological stances to appear more attractive to this growing mindset. And merely two generations later the prevailing teaching within the American church  was the very heavy Pelagius and Arminian flavored theology, sprinkled with Finney’s more charismatic teachings.
     In 1900 a split in two very opposite directions seemed to have appeared within the American church. In one direction we saw Charles Parham, an evangelist and self proclaimed faith healer who was heavily influenced by the teachings that spawned from Charles Finney’s movement begin teaching that speaking in tongues was the evidence of spirit baptism, and with this saw a restoration of what he claimed were “spiritual gifts”. This led to the Pentecostal movement and saw William Seymour found and lead the Azuza Street revival in Los Angeles. This resulted in the mass spreading of the Pentecostal movement, and the “revival” movement which saw charismatic self proclaimed healers and prophets travel through the southwest and Midwest setting up tents and attracting huge crowds to the spectacle. More traditional churches by now had seen a great decline in their attendance, so many in effort to curb the mass exodus, began endorsing the more charismatic teachings through the early and mid 1900’s, even adopting may of their practices.
     The second line of the American mainstream church coming out of 1900 was a more
  intellectually based theology. It put more emphasis on scriptural authority with biblical study and less on emotional experience. This line could not have been anymore directly opposed to the charismatic fanatic approach. It was nothing new, merely a new take on the ideas of the reformation. The problem facing this theological view, which would grow to adopt the reformed theology, and adhere to the doctrines of grace, was the more animated and spectacle based practices of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement had penetrated deep into the Christian culture of many mainstream denominations. It would be the emotionally charged practices of that movement which would become the face of Christianity for the next several decades. The problem was not only did that theology not hold to scriptural authority, as it would grow to recognize modern apostles, and continued prophecy by self proclaimed new prophets of the age. But the secular culture in America in and of itself  was growing more and more distant from the Christian movement and it used the “Holy Roller” spectacle as an example of the nonsensical behaviors of the entire faith.
     When the very word and authority of God was challenged in both the legal courts and the courts of public opinion in the early and mid 1900’s, the more charismatic movement in effort to appease a growing secularized culture found it easy to make concessions to appease the worlds view. Since they had already relieved the scripture as authority in their own churches, making concessions to not have to take scripture as literal interpretation came easy.
     If we move forward to the later part of the century, by now several generations had grown up in churches influenced by the more charismatic mindset and been under the more widely accepted(in American churches) Arminian theology. Christian literature of the late seventies and throughout the eighties was flooded with tales of personal prophecy and new revealed revelation. People hearing the voice of God, seeing God, dying and going to meet God only to return with wild tales, and those who claimed to know all about the end times were some of the most popular. The emotionally driven movement was at an all time peak and this made the churches a wide open field for charlatans and hucksters to take advantage, preaching a slick prosperity message of how God desired everyone to be wealthy and healthy. The greatest benefactors of this false teaching was of course the teachers themselves as they began living like royalty. By the time the eighties had rolled around with the expansion of cable television, these flamboyant fast talking “healers” and “prophets” were tailor made to be on the television screen hocking phony prayer clothes, blessed water, and a wide array of products that continued to make them rich and make a mockery of God’s word.
     Early in the new millennium though, a new generation had emerged. A generation coming out of the postmodern period where truth was relative, and based on each individual. This new generation was looking for definitive truths, seeing the failures of the previous generations view. And they had become disillusioned with a church movement that spawned from the culturally friendly “youth group explosion” of the eighties, and what they saw as the disappointment of a unbiblical prosperity movement. This new generation was looking for something the mainstream churches and denominations caught up in the ‘seeker sensitive’ movement could not offer them, depth and truth.
     So this new generation discovered the classic reformed theology. They were dubbed the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” and they were a new type of Calvinist. As a matter of fact there theology was called “new Calvinism”,  And while there were some stark differences from the classic reformed view (In full disclosure being a traditional Calvinist and adhering to the doctrines of Grace myself, I at times struggle with some of the “new” camps views), the emphasis on scriptural authority was placed paramount, and the preaching of a Christ centered gospel was coming from the pulpits. The movement grew, even in the face of the very liberal, culturally friendly emergent church movement, which faded into near obscurity.
     Today we see a continued resurgence in reformed churches, gospel centered preaching and a call to biblical authority. It only seems fitting in this the 500th anniversary of the reformation. We must remember, the reformation was not a one time event, but an ongoing process to continually reform the church from culturally friendly teaching which waters down the gospel message to appear relevant. We must never allow the gospel to be hijacked by those whom would elevate man and attempt to lower God, so we must be constantly referencing back to God’s word, and God’s word alone. It is by the scripture alone that we read how we are saved by Grace Alone through Faith Alone in Christ Alone for the Glory of God alone.

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