The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism
Craig R Brown
2007 Ligonier Ministries
Perhaps you might have heard of the Sunday school teacher who refused to cooperate with department leaders because one of them was “a Calvinist.” Or of the church deacon who criticized the preacher’s pastoral skills because he was “a Calvinist.” In neither case did the suspect call himself such, announce his doctrinal preference, criticize those nefarious “Arminians,” or do anything remotely suggestive of creating or perpetuating that infamous row between the followers of Jacob Arminius and the results of the Synod of Dort.
The former suggested using Baptist catechisms in the children’s Sunday school hour; the latter believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation. You might have encountered these or similar situations played out in Southern Baptist churches (and others) all over the country. I’ve even heard a conference speaker — pushing his own version of a systematic theology, for sale, of course — decry “Calvinism” and other “shade tree theologians” because Calvin had once foisted his systematic theology (Institutes of the Christian Religion) on unsuspecting believers.
What could cause all these seemingly irrational and uncharitable denunciations? Calvin, and all things “Calvinist,” it would seem, have become the favorite red herring and proverbial straw man against which to rail.
Craig R Brown has taken it upon himself to issue a rejoinder against some of the “misconceptions” about Calvinism, avoiding a rehash of the typical comparison/contrast between the five points or articles of each system, and instead confronting the criticisms of Calvinism raised from the standpoint of “American common sense.” Brown is a layman, writing from his experience as an elder in the Presbyterian church (Orthodox and PCA).
R.C. Sproul does the honors of an introduction, notably quoting George Whitfield, who said that “We are all Arminians by nature.” Sproul indicates that though Brown’s effort is worthwhile, “Craig and I would not always employ the same arguments or come to the same conclusions.” Regrettably, Sproul did not spell out these differences.
Before addressing various “misconceptions,” Brown reviews the history of the struggle between Calvinism and Arminianism. Pelagius and Augustine first differed over the extent of original sin and its effect on salvation. In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned as heresy the Pelagian view that sin had not impaired man’s moral ability. Cassian later taught that man is able to move toward conversion. Though God’s grace is necessary, salvation is dependent on man’s exercise of free will. The Council of Orange in 529 condemned Cassian’s view — Semi-Pelagianism — as heresy.
Followers of Jacob Arminius drew up five articles against the teaching of Calvin and various accepted confessions. In 1618 the Synod of Dort met to discuss Arminianism, a “rehashing of the views of Pelagian and Cassian.” Arminianism was condemned as heresy, and the Synod developed five articles (the TULIP acrostic) in refutation of Arminianism.
In view of Brown’s recount, many believers might bristle at the idea that their concept of soteriology has been so consistently and roundly characterized as heresy.
Brown then gives a side-by-side comparison of the TULIP and the “Daisy”: the five points of Calvinism compared with the corresponding Arminian version. The summary is fair, but anyone desiring more complete information about the opposing systems would need to consult other sources more directly on point. He then discusses the “dilemmas.”
Dilemma One: Responsibility. That is, if God is in control, how can he hold anyone accountable? Brown points out that Arminianism posits falsely that human freedom and divine sovereignty are mutually exclusive concepts, while Calvinism posits that both are true simultaneously. Wayne Grudem characterizes the Calvinist view as “concurrence.”
Dilemma Two: Motivation. If we are not saved by works, what’s the point? Brown proposes that we should do good works 1) because God asks it; 2) out of appreciation; 3) from fear of the Lord; and 4) to earn rewards in heaven.
Dilemma Three: Obedience. If God predetermines everything, why pray and evangelize? Brown asserts that Calvinism, despite its caricature, promotes prayer and evangelism. We should pray because it 1) is commanded by God; 2) is a means of worship; 3) is a blessing; 4) exposes our insufficiency; 5) is used by God to execute his plan; 6) teaches dependency.
Dilemma Four: Evil. If God is sovereign and good, why is there evil? Brown handles the other “misconceptions” fairly well, if not altogether thoroughly, but in this discussion he becomes a bit sloppy. Brown makes statements such as “nothing is outside the providence of God, and that includes evil. Everything that happens in this world comes from the hand of God.” Further, “Although God decrees evil, He does not directly perform morally evil deeds.” I would have preferred a bit more clarity regarding what comes “from the hand of God” and regarding how, exactly, God “decrees evil” without participating in it.
Brown also proposes his own “Theory of Opposites” to explain evil. Many concepts are known in contrast: white/black; fast/slow; light/dark. According to Brown, this explains evil. “But when He created good, evil automatically came into being as the antithesis or opposite of good.” However, many of Brown’s examples are not opposites, but examples of degree (mathematically, the opposite of 10 is not 0, but -10). More troubling, though, is the idea that evil “automatically” came into being as an antithesis to good. And Brown does not explain how the angels, or God himself, could understand evil without the presence of evil.
Dilemma Five: Babies. Where do babies go when they die? Brown recounts some of the standard responses to this very real concern. But his “additional reasons” to believe that babies go to heaven prove more helpful, and are worth considering.
I have long believed that when most believers rail against “Calvinism” it is a caricature that they attack. If the caricature were accurate, the attack would be justified. Brown’s treatment of the “misconceptions” is worth considering, and goes a long way toward clarifying common unjustified criticisms of Calvinist doctrine. Many readers will be reminded of other different “misconceptions,” perhaps to develop responses as Brown has.