On Objective Christianity, Part 2: Limited Options

This is the second part of a series arguing that American Christianity is a victim of self-deception more often than most of us would like to acknowledge. For the first part of this series, click here. This topic is important because the tendency towards self-deception is subtle, universal, and blindingly overpowering. If (when) we are guilty of self-deception, we are almost certainly not aware of it.

There are some things that are more commonly debated in the sorts of circles many of us hang out in. For example, some people love to argue about Calvinism vs. Arminianism.[1] You know the type. Hell, you might be the type. If you spend very much time in church, or in a Christian school, everyone figures out they have to pick a camp to be in: Calvinist or Arminian. Then, if you’re a Calvinist, you get to decide if you’re going all the way (all 5 points!) or if you’re going to half-ass it (4 points).[2] This effect is particularly pronounced on those raised in the Church. That is to say, Christian kids grow up in an environment where this question is easily one of the three or four questions most dominant in the Christian discourse, and that has to have a powerful effect on them.

Incidentally, do you know what R.C. Sproul calls a 4-point Calvinist?An Arminian.

The point I wish to highlight is that everyone thinks there are (basically) three options: Calvinism, Arminianism, and the Catholic idea/salvation by works/Semi-Pelagianism. Now, we can quickly rule out the third option, since everyone knows it’s bad. The debate for us Protestants always revolves around Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Unless you are interested in salvation by works (and you’re not), then these are your options, or some variation of one of these two.

The problem is, we only think in terms of this dichotomy because of a long series of historical accidents. Arminius (Arminianism is named after him) was a student of Calvinism, and his theology was a response to it. (Also, to be precise, what we call Calvinism was only clearly articulated in response to Arminius at the Synod of Dort, but that’s a side issue.[3])The point here is that Arminius’ particular objections are not an independent model that he devised while sitting alone reading Scripture. His ideas are a reaction to an already existing idea: proto-Calvinism. Without the cultural environment that Arminius happened to be born into, his views would never have existed, and we would be left without the dichotomy that plagues Sunday Schools and freshman theology courses. Think about that.

Now let’s not overlook the fact that Calvinism itself is derivative, the result of a series of historical accidents. The 5-points we consider modern Calvinism (the TULIP) were only articulated in response to Arminius. However, even Calvin’s thought is fundamentally a response to the dominant view of his culture: the semi-Pelagianism of the Western Church. He did this by standing on the shoulders of Augustine, whose theological position was, again, a 4th Century response to Pelagius.

Ok, the entire debate is based on historical debates, so what? The issue I would like to highlight is that our current debate is the result of a series of historical accidents. It’s purely by chance that we came to this debate instead of a radically different one. Don’t believe me? Look at Orthodox Christians, who avoided this whole stream of thought discuss salvation. In the Eastern Orthodox Church nobody has even heard of Calvinism or Arminianism.[4] They have a radically different model which looks nothing like either of these two ideas. They don’t just reject a couple of the 5-points, they have a totally different, though equally scriptural, idea of how precisely salvation works out (dependent totally on the grace of God).

The view of salvation we fight about, we spend so much energy on, is a historical accident.  Some will argue “you may call this a series of accidents; I call it the providence of God.” I understand how this seems intelligent and faithful, but I don’t think it is. First, if we take that view, we are arguing that God created a series of historical events to lead Christians who happened to live in one part of the world (Europe) to the truth of how salvation works, while abandoning the rest of Christianity. God coordinated a sequence of events to develop (not protect, but develop) correct thought in one small, under populated part of the Christian world, but did not do so in a way that also shared that truth with the rest of God’s followers? Seems unlikely. Second, this argument means that, for hundreds of years, God let millions of God’s followers die without understanding how they were saved.

A much more likely explanation is that this is simply an historical accident. It is a simpler explanation, and it explains all the evidence. According to Occam’s razor, the idea that explains the most with the simplest explanation is to be preferred. Arguing that God created a series of accidents to create the view we already hold to, while abandoning the vast majority of the Christian world and Christian history leaves much more to be explained than a simpler, and much more theologically robust, “shit happens ( Luke 13:4).”

Result: we are distracted by an historical accident. These are the questions we continue to ask, since these are the questions we put our thought and energies into. These are the questions Christian children are raised to think about. These questions dominate our conversations, and become the ideas which must be defended. In effect, these questions become the Gospel. Once this has occurred, it is almost impossible to ask other important questions. Ideas have consequences, and if we get hung up on ideas that we inherited by random accident, the consequences will be just as random.


[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Calvinist%E2%80%93Arminian_debate It lacks adequate citations, but it’s a good article nonetheless. Back to Article

[2] If you don’t know what the five points of Calvinism are, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinism#Five_points_of_Calvinism Back to Article

[3] Also, I should say the following, though it is a side issue. The view of salvation (this is called soteriology) that we call Calvinism was never discussed in depth by John Calvin himself. If Calvin were to learn of Calvinism, he would likely agree with it, but it was hardly central to his thought. His writings rarely touch on the subject. Back to Article

[4] The Eastern Orthodox Church is generally ignored by Protestant laymen. This is for understandable reasons, since most people have enough to think about without worrying about the theology of people they will likely never meet, but it has an unhappy result: most American Protestants consider, articulated or not, the Eastern Orthodox essentially “Catholics without a pope,” or something like that. For a discussion of this topic, and an excellent introduction to  Eastern Orthodox theology, which is quite accessible, see James Payton, Light From the Christian East (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2007).  For the purposes of the present discussion, suffice it to say that many (most?) of the brilliant Christians in history have been from the Eastern Church, and, were it not for a few other historical accidents, like the Mongols, it would be impossible to ignore them today. You will doubtlessly meet millions and millions of Orthodox brothers and sisters in the life to come. Back to Article

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  1. Hey Stephen,

    Thanks again for posting here! I love that we have great bloggers to complement each other.

    I’m not sure I’d say that Calvinism and Arminianism are primarily soteriological systems. I think that, if you avoid the problem of works-based salvation, you have to land on grace/faith (and some sort of working between the two). Salvation, for both the Calvinist and the Arminian, is done by that. I’d argue that Calvinism and Arminianism have more to do with how we get to that place of grace/faith. Does God pull us in, or do we run to Him?

    I’m not convinced that ‘historical accident’ or ‘historical context’ is enough to rule out the importance of our debates. Even the doctrine of the Trinity came largely out of a reaction to teachings by Sabellius (I believe? I might have that name wrong). But should we say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a moot point? I don’t think so.

    While I agree that reactionism is something that should make us pause and consider the situation, much like other aspects of historical contexts, it alone is not enough to make us discount the whole of the argument. I mean, Protestant theology is reactionary, at its base.

    All that said, I think this particular debate is kind of silly. I spent too many years debating it, and ultimately, I just want to live my life the way Jesus and His apostles taught me.

    Anyways, I’m still working out my own theories on this sort of interpretation (of reactions in history and such). Good thoughts!

    • Stephen Hale
    • December 1st, 2010

    You’re right, of course. Sometimes ideas develop as reactions to questions people never asked before, or didn’t ask as clearly before. This question demands a coherent response. This is sort of what happened with some of the early councils, and was important in the development of ideas like the trinity, the dual nature of Christ, etc. Good!

    On the other hand, it’s important to note that lots of decisions were made for less…intellectual reasons. The First Council at Ephesus (where Nestorius was condemned) was driven more by politics than a genuine doctrinal issue (See Philip Jenkins new “Jesus Wars” for a clear and easy presentation of this point), but we still have the doctrines clarified there today. Were they right? Yeah, more or less, in this case. However, a caricature of Nestorius prevailed. Now, that caricature had a wrong view, but that view was never held by a real person. So later councils that had boundaries established by the Council at Ephesus had to be careful not to trip on certain landmines that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. That is to say, they had to avoid tripping on bombs planted by Cyril years earlier for political points. This limited their options, since anyone arguing anything even vaguely similar to the pseudo-Nestorian view was going to be accused of it, whether or not it was a fair accusation. Had Cyril not made shit up, people would have been much more free to simply think clearly and be responsible bishops.

    That may have been a bad example of my point…let me try and explain my real concern more clearly:

    Sometimes questions and ideas raise responses that force people to clarify what good sense and Scripture demand. On the other hand, sometimes questions and ideas raise responses that are just a Hegelian way-too-strong counter response. How does one tell the difference? I think there are a couple of ways. 1)Examine the history of the debate in detail to see if the responses were calm and thoughtful, or driven more by personality (as with Cyril/The Royal Family vs. Nestorius).

    The second question could be something more along the lines of: How necessary is the particular answer to this question, or the existence of this question in the first place, to living the grand picture of Scripture? In this case, it’s pretty clear that the East has done/is doing at least as well as we are, and so it doesn’t seem this particular argument is that crucial.

    Both of those are fairly subjective questions, but such is the nature of history!

    Eh…I think this comment wasn’t that clear…It’s fairly likely I’m going to revise it again, later…

  2. Those are some good thoughts, certainly.

    Your points made sense, though I’m not sure if that’s because you made them clear. Took a few readings 😛

    On your first point (the ‘is this a fair response or an over-response?’ question), it seems that while a response may be too much, it might still be in the correct category. What I mean by this is that we should call out heretics, but perhaps should call less people heretics.

    On your second point, I’d argue any particular doctrine may not be necessary to all people, but still necessary to some. What I mean is that people have different needs. There are some doctrines that are necessary to all people (Jesus is the only way, for example), but some people have different psychological, different emotional, and different spiritual needs. It seems that, for example, doubting Thomas needed more assurance than the other apostles. Paul needed Jesus to directly converse with him, while many of do not need that.

    Maybe we have psychological/spiritual needs concerning Calvinism/Arminianism? Maybe I need to reconcile predestination language with free will language in the Bible?

    I’m really just doing thought experiments, here. Not committing to anything.

    • Kristen Girard
    • December 1st, 2010

    Mr. Arnold, I think that is a wonderful observation: people have different psychological, emotional and spiritual needs that make a particular doctrine more or less necessary for them.

  1. February 2nd, 2012

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