The most obvious characteristic of the debate between Calvinism and Libertarians (whether Arminians or Traditionalists) is its unending futility. Very little is ever accomplished. The same old straw-man misrepresentations are continually presented, and the same old misunderstandings continually occur. It often seems as if the two sides are speaking different languages as they talk past one another. The frustration is familiar to both sides: “Why do they have such a mental block that they just cannot understand?”
Greater unity can be found through a better understanding of how the other side thinks. When we understand them better, we will find at the bottom of their argument a valid presupposition that they will not surrender even at the cost of inconsistency and unintended results. Of course, neither side will admit what they do not intend, even if it is the logical result of their argument. And, both sides have logical results that they do not intend. Thus, the most frequent complaints are that one side is misrepresenting and the other side refuses to address the real issues. Until both sides talk to each other rather than talking past each other, no real progress is attainable.
I suggest that the valid presuppositions that underlie the whole debate are as follows:
- The Libertarian’s view of God leaves no room for any disparity in God’s full desire to save all men (which would impugn God’s goodness and love for all men); and,
- The Calvinist’s view of man leaves no room for any disparity in the sinners’ complete aversion toward God (if merely “enabled” to make a free choice, all men would freely reject God, else some men are less depraved and better than other men).
When, for example, the Libertarian argues for the salvation decision to be ultimately in the sinner’s hands, and the Calvinist objects that the credit for his salvation must then go to the sinner who chose rightly (as opposed to the sinner who chose wrongly), the Libertarian seems to have a mental block at that point and will never acknowledge what amounts to a valid criticism. The problem is that freedom of will is not where the Libertarian starts. It is not his primary goal to defend free will but to vindicate God’s goodness—defending free will is merely a means toward that end. So when the defense of free will leads to the quagmire of having a superior group of sinners acting rightly to save themselves, the discussion bogs down.
The Calvinist emphasis on grace results from his view of the equal depravity and aversion to God, since such a condition would require that the grace of God of itself bring the man to faith, accomplishing what the man does not have within him to accomplish or even assist in. Calvinists are not primarily arguing for passivity for its own sake, but rather, they are arguing primarily for equal aversion to God (equal depravity). The Libertarian version of depravity is not the same as the Calvinist—it is not an equal depravity (inconsistent objections to the contrary notwithstanding). The inequality shows up when the Libertarian posits that there is a decision point just short of actual faith, at which God has enabled sinners to arrive, and in which God has left the decision up to the men, resulting in some who accept and some who reject. The Calvinist objection that such believers have earned their salvation is not the real objection—the Calvinist is really objecting to the unequal aversion to God such that some are more averse to God and some not so much. Such a moral disparity is the logical result of the Libertarian view, but not what they primarily are arguing for.
For an example on the other side, when the Calvinist argues in ways that seem to invalidate the role of the will of men all together, and the Libertarian objects that it makes God the author of sin, the Calvinist seems to have a mental block at that point and will never acknowledge this valid criticism. The free will of men is not what the Calvinist is really denying, though he seems to use such arguments. His real goal is to defend the tenet of equal depravity of all men, such that no disparity of moral quality or spiritual responsiveness exists. So the discussion bogs down at that point.
The Libertarian objects to determinism primarily because it has God predestinating people to hell (even if only by default), which impugns God’s goodness and love for all men. The objection to God being author of evil is offered in support of this primary objection. It is not in response to the Calvinist’s main presupposition, but is one of those critiques of the logical result of the opposing view, which is—of course—denied because it is an unintended result.
Understanding these motivations in the other side, and acknowledging them in our own arguments, can serve to open up the dialogue to the possibility of real communication, and with God’s grace, progress toward Southern Baptist unity.
Ken Hamrick, 2013