The appeal of Calminianism

Every now and then, I hear some one say that they are Calminian. By this, they generally mean that they do not wish to affirm determinism (that God is meticulously in control in the world, so that even moral creatures always act according to God’s eternal will [Calvinism]), but they also do not want to affirm indeterminism (that God has chosen not to have that comprehensive control, so that moral creatures can be libertarianly free [Arminianism]). Instead, these people propose that both of these are true, God both is and is not completely in control, and humans both do and do not determine much of what happens in history. In other words, neither Calvinistic monergism nor Arminian synergism is true to the exclusion of the other, but the truth exists in a position at the very top of the great mountain peak that constitutes the watershed between monergism and synergism.

The impossibility of Calminianism

Both classic Arminians and classic Calvinists have asserted that Calminianism is impossible. It violates the law of non-contradiction, which acknowledges that something cannot be and not be, in exactly the same way, at the same time. So, if we are going to live according to a coherent theological position, we must decide whether monergism or synergism, determinism or indeterminism, is the reality; we cannot assert that both are true.

I don’t recall hearing, from any self-professed Calminians, a denial of the law of non-contradiction, in favour, for instance, of the non-duality that Hindu philosophers have characteristically propounded. When we have time to pursue the issue, it sometimes becomes apparent that what they wish to affirm is not really Calminianism; it would better be given a different name. In the interests of definitional clarity, therefore, I’ll identify a few things which are not Calminianism but are sometimes what its professing believers have in mind.

What Calminianism is not

Calminianism is not uncertainty about whether monergism or synergism is true

Sometimes, I discover that people are really expressing their inability to declare one or other of these exclusive options to be true. This sometimes results from having grown up with teaching or influence from both sides. Most evangelical churches in the credobaptist (Radical Reformation) heritage, which predominates within North American evangelicalism, do not take a position on this issue in their statements of faith. They leave the matter open. So children grow up in church hearing Calvinism from some teachers and preachers, and Arminianism from others.

Often, evangelicals may even hear both Calvinism and Arminianism from the same teachers or preachers, depending on the passage of Scripture that is being read at a given time. This is because, in churches that have not made monergism or synergism a faith commitment, the teachers and preachers who grow up in that environment have not developed a coherent theological position on the matter. Some of them may be consciously attempting to propound a Calminian theology but, in my experience, many more of them are personally uncertain, and some may even have concluded that it is best not to reach a position on one side or the other, because that is divisive. That leads to my  second negative definer.

Calminianism is not eclecticism

Christians who have never developed a coherent theological position on one side or the other of the “determination watershed” do not always acknowledge that they are uncertain on the matter. They have quite firm convictions about the meaning of particular passages of Scripture, but they have never worked out how the monergism they see in one text or area of theology coheres with the synergism they see in another text or topic. After years of meeting this situation in my theology classes, both in Asia and North America, I wrote Providence and Prayer. I had become frustrated when I heard people pray in ways that did not cohere with theological statements I had previously heard them affirm, so I wanted to people to develop a coherent theology and to pray consistently with their theology.

Among the inconsistencies that I have met quite frequently is a conflict between people’s doctrine of divine providence and their soteriology. There has been enough Calvinist thinking, in what these people have heard and read, that they have been drawn to a Calvinist doctrine of providence. When someone has a car accident, or their apartment is broken into, or an injustice is done to them or some Christian they know, these people speak about the situation as one in which God had been in control. God had “permitted” these evils to occur, but he has good purposes in doing so. Those same people, however, are horrified at the suggestion that God might be in control of who is saved and who is not. This must be a matter determined by libertarianly free creatures, it surely cannot be determined by God. But if I ask how God is able to maintain the sort of general providential control that they affirm with gratitude, if he has given humans the sort of freedom that makes it impossible for him to save all the people from hell whom he is trying to save, these people often get flustered, and maybe even hostile, at being urged to work out their theological framework more coherently.

I can see how one might coherently assert that God has determined to be more in control in one area than another, but that is not often where eclecticists are coming from. I have the impression, for instance, that, although Luther was a clear monergist in regard to final salvation, he inclined to a synergist position in regard to God’s general providence. I can see how one might hold that position in a coherent way, though I think it would be harder to demonstrate exegetically. I find it more surprising, though more common, however, when people are synergistic soteriologically but monergistic providentially. Why God would maintain meticulous control in the areas of temporal well being such as apartments robbed or people mugged, but leave people’s eternal destiny to their own determination, is hard for me understand.

More often than not, however, what I find in credobaptist evangelicalism, is not a well thought out theological position in which God has maintained more control in some areas of life than in others. More commonly, I meet an unsystematic eclecticism and an impatience with discussions of theological system or consistency.

Calminianism is not compatibilism

A third situation comes to mind in regard to misidentified Calminianism. Some evangelicals have never read or heard a well stated Calvinist compatibilism. Their reading of Scripture has left them with a general impression of God’s meticulous control. But they have also been impressed by the strong emphasis in Scripture on human responsibility. There is a great deal of biblical exhortation to do one thing instead of another; it is embedded in the 10 commandments, but it goes much further than that. Scripture is also strong in its insistence that people who do what is wrong, particularly what they believe to be wrong but do anyway, are morally culpable for that decision and must give account for it to God. These people have never had anyone patiently unpack how Calvinists believe both that God is meticulously in control, and that humans are morally responsible for their acts of disobedience to God, without asserting contradiction. So, they have the impression that Calvinists believe that God is meticulously in control, but only Arminians believe that humans are free in a morally responsible way. From Scripture, these people have come to believe that both of these are true, and so they think that they must be Calminian.

I am aware that well studied Arminian theologians consider compatibilism to be contradictory but, though many Calvinist theologians readily admit that they find the compatibility between divine determination and human responsibility to be somewhat mysterious, they affirm them both, and they insist that the two must be compatible because Scripture teaches them both. Others have found the soft compatibilist philosophy enunciated most clearly by Jonathan Edwards to be persuasive, so they find compatibilism less mysterious, but few of us live without some sense of mystery in this matter.

While I am on this subject, I want to put one other factor on the table. It is a thesis that I proposed to an Arminian theologian and a Calvinist theologian, last year, in the wake of conversation between them, and from my own experience. Here it is:

Thesis: synergists feel the pull of monergism when they conceptualize justification, and monergists feel the pull of synergism when they conceptualize sanctification.

For quite a few years now, I have heard great frustration from Arminian theologians at the propensity of Calvinist theologians to complain that Arminian synergistic soteriology requires that the glory for salvation be shared between God and human believers. It appears to us that, since the determinative factor in one’s salvation is the human decision, not God’s action, it makes sense for us to congratulate those who believe for having made the wise decision which many others could have made but did not. On this blog, in our journey through Roger Olson’s objections to Calvinism, we looked at this issue a few times.

I have been struck by the force with which Roger (and other Arminians) insist that salvation is all God’s doing and that humans must give the glory to God for his grace, taking no credit themselves. I am mystified by this, at a theological level, since God has purportedly done exactly the same thing for the saved and the unsaved, but I am delighted at the level of Arminian worship. There is something profoundly healthy about that Arminian approach to their salvation, even though I can’t see how they get there theologically. What I am observing, however, is that on the matter of justification, Arminians feel a strong pull to speak, think and worship monergistically, as though it really were all God’s doing.

For Calvinists, the pull seems to come at the point of sanctification. Shortly before writing to my Arminian and Calvinist friend, I had been listening to the reading of a book on holiness by a well known Calvinist preacher and author. It was clear to me that the author wanted to approach his subject from a solidly monergistic framework. But there was a decided ambiguity in his treatment, so that he often wandered into synergistic ways of speaking. Just that morning, I had heard him say something like: “as we do our part in pursuit of holiness, we find that the Holy Spirit does his part.”

I won’t tell the story again here but, in Who Can Be Saved?, I recounted the development in my own theological perspective that came about through lengthy correspondence with Ardel Caneday, after I had been an outside reader of the fine manuscript that he and Tom Schreiner had written on the doctrine of perseverance (The Race Set Before Us). For years, I had been thinking and teaching that, though justification is monergistic, sanctification is synergistic. I am grateful for Ardel’s patience through the long conversation that led me to see my error. If salvation is not monergistic from beginning to end, it is synergistic.

In the process of that discussion, however, I retraced my theological development and I could see where I had been led astray. In the work of leading Calvinist theologians, I had read descriptions of sanctification which were synergistic or, at the least, ambiguous, and it had not been hard for me to move in that direction. It was not easy for me to reach a consistent monergistic (and compatibilistic) soteriology, which asserts that I am as holy as God has determined I would be, but that I am responsible for not being more holy. But I eventually got there, and I now recognize that sanctification must be as monergistic as justification is or the whole of salvation becomes a synergism (as in the doctrine of initial and final justification of Thomistic Catholics).

What all of this impresses upon me, however, is the tension we all live with, Arminians and Calvinists alike. If we are coherent theologically, we eventually come down on one side of the monergist/synergist watershed or the other, but none of us gets there without some degree of ongoing tension.

We don’t become Calminians, because we know that we cannot affirm contradictory statements, but we do feel some pull from the direction we have not taken.

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