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The personal blog of Nate Tinner.

The Troubling Trends in Arminians' Critiques of Calvinism

As a New Calvinist myself (or should I say, "Neo-Puritan"?), I am constantly on the defensive concerning my positions about soteriology from those who align more with non-Calvinism, also known as Arminianism—and to be fair, often I'm the one who brings the debate up.

Nevertheless, the burden of proof usually ends up on me, for a variety of reasons.

What always strikes me as odd is the fact that Arminians are often willing to enter the debate without understanding Calvinism completely, and yet rejecting it based on that understanding. From my perspective, almost every Arminian with whom I've discussed Calvinism misunderstood it at some level—though perhaps even if they did understand it, they'd still reject it. My point is that while most (New) Calvinists were formerly Arminians and therefore probably do understand completely the Arminian position, most Arminians have never identified as a Calvinist and probably exhibit a blind spot or two when it comes to critiquing it.

In steps Jonathan Merritt, son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president (a denomination in which Calvinism is more controversial than ever), who recently published an article for the Religion News Service in which he critiques what he sees as negative aspects of the New Calvinism movement. The problem is that he exhibits the aforementioned error.

He accuses the movement of 3 chief "markers": Isolationism, Tribalism, and Egotism. I will discuss them at some length where I think he may have judged New Calvinists unfairly.

Concerning Isolationism, he says the following:
"My [Calvinist] friends consume Calvinist blogs and Calvinist books, attend Calvinist conferences, and join Calvinist churches with Calvinist preachers. They rarely learn from or engage with those outside their tradition."
Now I won't assume he means that Arminians do not do the same (they do), but it seems an odd critique, and equally odd if leveled against any movement, religious or otherwise. People identify with a movement because they agree with it, which probably entails reading about it, meeting with and learning from others in the movement, and, in the case of a Christian movement, attending a church that teaches it (if possible). Again, most New Calvinists are former Arminians, and for that reason may not be so keen on reading (at length) the theology of a movement they know all too well, and have abandoned for theological reasons; the same goes for their home church and pastor. That said, many of the New Calvinist leaders Merritt names publish annual (or more frequent) reading lists, most of which are rife with non-Calvinist authors.

Next comes Tribalism, "the kinship tendency within a group to protect insiders while combating outsiders." While he may have a point here (heck, everyone may have a point about within argument they make, so don't misunderstand that as a commendation), I don't think he uses fair or reasonable examples to make his point. Merritt mentions that many Calvinist leaders he reached out to for comment refused to do so for fear of their comments being used to "disparage the movement." Given that his article largely disparages the movement, this is hardly a critique. No one wants their position misrepresented, and that is precisely what he has done in the article. Shockingly, one man who did agree to speak on behalf of his position was the rabidly anti-Calvinist Roger Olson, who penned "Against Calvinism" in 2011.

For his argument concerning Calvinists' tendency to critique all but their own, Merritt uses the examples of Donald Miller, the Emerging Church leader who recently admitted he doesn't really attend church much anymore (and later attempted to justify it). Calvinists rightly critiqued this position as historically and theologically heretical. Another example used was Rob Bell, who in 2011 (apparently a really rough year for historical orthodoxy) espoused a view of Hell that completely removed the idea of God's eternal wrath from the pages of the Bible, through less-than-careful eisegesis and a barrage of emotional appeals. As seen in the linked review, Calvinists tore that to shreds as well, as the Apostle Paul encouraged us to do (Titus 1:11, 2 Cor. 10:5, etc).

These men are compared by Merritt to Calvinists like Mark Driscoll, who paid for a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list, and was falsely accused of sexism and plagiarism; Tullian Tchividjian, whose near-antinomian tendencies got him kicked off The Gospel Coalition's blog cadre last month; and Tim Keller, whose theistic evolutionist position is apparently not drawing enough ire from the Calvinist faithful. The aforementioned Olson attributes this to "mentality that [Calvinists] have to support each other because they are a minority on a crusade."

Now Calvinists are certainly in the minority, but this is hardly the reason they don't critique their own the same way they critique Miller and Bell. Those two have expressed views that cut right at two pillars of New Calvinism, as expressed by John Piper in the first link of this blog: the local church and God's sovereignty. Not to mention the fact that if ever there were theological essentials, two of them would be a belief in eternal judgment (from what other eschatological reality would one need to be "saved"? cf. 1 Thess. 1:10, Rom. 5:9) and the necessity of local church involvement for those who are able (Heb. 10:25).

Merritt even contradicts himself by stating that (the ever-Calvinist) Carl Trueman's timely critique of Mark Driscoll's alleged plagiarism got him "relegated to the margins"; but wait—I thought Calvinists didn't critique one another! The simple fact is that the allegations against Driscoll were unfounded and fueled by angry "discernment bloggers", usually Calvinist (!) women who already disliked Driscoll. Trueman's critique was too quick, and was for that reason dismissed. By Calvinists. Merritt attempts to criticize Calvinist tribalism from all angles, and in the end makes arguments that defeat one another.

Lastly comes Egotism. Now forgive my Calvinistic Tribalistic tendency to critique outsiders (as I have assumed throughout this blog that Merritt is an Arminian), but Merritt's entire blog post smacked of the very errors of which it accuses Calvinists, egotism especially. The fact that he—as an Arminian in a country where Arminianism reigns (hence the necessity of the article at all, given the resurgence of Calvinistic theology in America)—believes himself qualified to critique Calvinism on the grounds of three arbitrary criticisms of his own choosing, smacks of a sizable (theological) ego. But as far as Merritt's own criticism goes, he says:
"Talking so much of sovereignty and salvation and atonement can inflate the ego."
While this may be true, it's not at all intuitive. Confessing that all of creation, salvation specifically, operates at whim and will of God, doesn't exactly scream "It's all about me!" in the same way that we Calvinists believe "free will" does. We do believe Calvinism is Biblical, but it also creates a radical humility if taken to its logical end. Nevertheless, Merritt goes on:
"...listen to the way some neo-Calvinist leaders frame every ethical issue of the day, not as a difference of opinion among Christians of mutual goodwill, but rather an affront to the gospel itself."
As if sin were an affront to the Gospel... But, alas, Olson adds to the fun:
"The perspective of many today is that if you aren’t a Calvinist, you don’t really have a grasp of the gospel."
Well, to be honest, if you believe your ability to believe the Gospel ultimately came down to your unaided "free" will, then your position is juuuuuuust foreign enough to Scripture for me (and many a Calvinist) to say "You don't fully understand the Gospel." That's not egotism; all soteriological positions that contradict Scripture—not just Arminianism—are faulty understandings of the Gospel. This is why most Calvinists love to debate with Bibles open (though probably with a prohibition on eisegesis of John 3:16).

Merritt hones in on Piper's "Farewell, Rob Bell" tweet, which Piper sent out after learning that Bell had, as previously stated, completely misrepresented Jesus and the Apostles' teachings on Hell and attempted to convince millions (billions?) that God will save everyone everywhere and that there is no such thing as God's eternal wrath.
It would seem Piper was insinuating that Bell had exited the Church proper and declared himself a heretic. He had. But Merritt takes this bold and honorable display of theological realism (admittedly common to Calvinists) in another direction:
"Sometimes it seems as if Calvinists view themselves as judge, jury, and executioner of the Christian movement at large—determining who is faithful and not, who believes the gospel and who doesn’t, who is in and who is out."
I wonder if Merritt would ever be willing to call someone unfaithful, non-believing, or "out" of the Church, no matter how egregious their false teaching. Being able to judge between truth and falsehood is essential to Church leadership—not that Merritt claims to be a church leader—but this radical non-commitment to theological gatekeeping and church discipline (as seen in 1 Cor. 5 and throughout the New Testament) is common to American evangelicalism, and probably the Southern Baptist Convention in general, in which I assume Merritt finds his church home. He article comes to a head with this adage:
"Those who opt for a mean or arrogant tenor—whether real or perceived—have a short-shelf life in the span of history."
Admittedly, it was at this point in the article that I dismissed Merritt's thesis entirely. It is apparently the meanness of Calvinists that is the downfall of the movement. Now granted, this blog post of mine has had a decidedly edgy tone (and trust me, it was worse before I toned some things down), but based on Scripture I feel that such is called for at times. If it is meanness that marks short historical movements, I am absolutely baffled at how Christianity has survived for so long, what with all the meanies in the New Testament. I mean (no pun intended), Jesus and Paul both called people "[sons of] the devil" (John 8:44, Acts 13:10), and it's really hard to think of any other New Testament author who did not at some point have mean choice words for those who contradicted Scriptural teaching.

But hey, Merritt is a genius. At the core of it, his critique is structured and worded in a way that makes any critique against it guilty of the errors he describes, while leaving the non-Calvinist position gleaming and pristine (as the writings of Roger Olson could hardly be described as "charitable" or "nice"). In that respect, Merritt has succeeded and has surely bolstered the faith and theological confidence of Arminians the world over. Well done. Bravo. Encore.

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