Thursday, June 2, 2011

Baptist Bingo: What the Sam Hill do you guys believe, anyway?

There's about a 100% chance that at some point this month, I'll go to church and hear a sermon about how we are completely depraved and how God wants to save us, and sent His son Jesus to die on the cross and bear God's wrath for our sins, offering himself as a substitutionary atonement to erase our bad standing with God. Then there will be an appeal for us to ask Jesus to come into our hearts, because only when we freely choose to accept the crucifixion for our sins will we experience God's saving grace. From that point we can rest assured that we are guaranteed to enter into Heaven when we die.

That is the personal doctrine of my church's interim pastor. He is a huge fan of penal substitutionary atonement theory. He's also an Arminian.

To clarify, Arminianism is Jacob Arminius' Reformation-era teaching that humanity is not predestined to salvation or damnation, but that God permits human action to be a determining factor. This over and against Calvinism, John Calvin's Reformation-era teaching that God holds the reins in our journey of salvation. Both of these teachings have been split into various subgroups over the years.

Calvinism and Arminianism usually come with some tag-alongs. For instance:

-Calvinists generally fall into the once saved, always saved camp
-Arminians often, but not always, believe that salvation can be rejected at some point after it was accepted
-Calvinists are hugely into penal substitutionary atonement
-Arminians are sometimes into other atonement theories
-Calvinists generally believe that human suffering is part of God's salvific work
-Arminians generally believe that human suffering is the result of human free will
-Calvinists generally believe that they can experience assurance of their salvation. They occasionally believe that Arminians can't be assured of salvation and are a bunch of quivering fools
-Arminians generally believe that they can experience assurance of their salvation. They occasionally believe that Calvinists are a bunch of self-justifying jerks

If only these two men could be combined into a single theologian wearing both the hat and the ruff. He'd come up with some doctrine worth writing home about.

Wait, I have to pick one of these?
Not really. If you're a Presbyterian, you belong to one of these traditions already (I think; I've never been a Presbyterian and don't know what they've been up to lately.) If you're nothing remotely resembling a Presbyterian, you don't need to bother with this debate at all. But if you're something kind of similar to a Presbyterian, such as a Baptist or a non-denominational evangelical, you were probably taught one of these traditions as if it was as basic and clear as the Ten Commandments.

But why is it necessary to fall into one of those two camps? I like a vicious debate as much as the next internet user, but does each and every member of a given church have to be a whole-hog Arminian or Calvinist? Why does salvation have to be explained in those particular technical terms to non-Christians? Why do we accept these intricate answers to our questions about God's power, our suffering, and God's intent for us when Moses, Job and the apostles didn't get answers?

Now, Baptists aren't part of the Reformation tradition. The Reformed churches are sort of an estranged grandparent of ours. We showed up during the Radical Reformation, and we showed up in stages. The earliest Baptists were Arminians, and a later, unrelated group was Calvinist. (Source)

Fast-forward four centuries, and there's a jumble of different Baptist churches in the U.S., most of which inherit more from the Arminian side and some of which inherit more from the Calvinist side. So what does that mean? It means that you find a fair amount of blended theology in a typical congregation, and even in a single Baptist. It means that you'll find Arminian free will used to explain why suffering and damnation isn't God's fault, and Calvinistic assurance and once saved, always saved theology used to explain how we are so much more awesome than everybody else.

Not to be confused with human suffering caused by Armenian free will
The Arminianism of contemporary evangelicals is sometimes self-contradictory and usually a little stale. I wish it weren't so. I wish people wouldn't get up and preach something that I don't believe is critical doctrine, and more than that, I wish people wouldn't get up and preach it badly.

This is because I'm a fundamentalist on the wagon. I'm used to shaping my way of thinking around what my pastor thinks, and I'm used to my pastor telling me something that was carefully crafted to stand up to apologetic scrutiny. This plain-spoken smattering of reinterpreted Reformation theology doesn't hide its warts behind impressive words.

I grew up toeing the line of somebody else's doctrine for so long that I took it as Gospel. It's hard to change that way of listening. If my pastor's way of explaining salvation has holes in it, I should consider the holes instead of rabidly claiming that they aren't there. I should sit up and listen carefully, taking note of the strange, the contradictory, and the just plain obnoxious within my own tradition. This reminds me that salvation is from God, not from Baptist doctrine. This also makes it easier to stop thinking that I'm an improperly-saved heretic when I look for new perspectives of God's overwhelming grace.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ouisi, thanks so much for commenting on my blog last week! I always enjoy connecting with readers. I really appreciate your thoughts on Calvinism / Arminianism. I'm one of those who thinks the mystery is just too big to fit into five simple points. And I like it that way.