In late August, Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer debated Timothy Jones and Daniel Montgomery on the subject of Calvinism. In the two-part debate, Brian and Austin propose that unconditional predestination is incongruous with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Timothy and Daniel propose that humans have absolutely no part in their salvation—not even in the decision to believe.
Suffice it to say that I do not think Timothy and Daniel were able to explain how God can be Christ-like if he created the majority of people for damnation—not because of their goodness or badness, but simply because he wanted to. Indeed, they didn’t even try to explain—they just said not to question it.
Here, I want to address a something that was (unintentionally) overlooked. In what was supposed to be Jones’ rebuttal to Fischer in the second part of the debate, Jones makes a new proposition:
Even in Arminianism, God is selective. Even if everyone agrees that humans can choose God, we still have to admit that some people have a greater opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel.
“We don’t make our choices on Free Will Island,” says Jones. Innumerable factors influence our potential to become Christians: Our upbringing, geographic location, biology, personality, friends, etc.
Since everyone does not have an equal chance to hear the gospel, and since God does not intervene equally in everyone’s life, this necessarily means that God chooses those to whom he will reveal himself.
Jones suggests that Arminianism cannot answer this question. God is selective in who hears the gospel. Period.
However, I’m aware of two different ways Arminians have answered this question:
The first way is to believe that if a person who has no access to the gospel becomes aware of God’s general revelation (i.e. creation and conscience), God will send a missionary so that person can hear the gospel and respond to it. The problem with this view is that 1) we know of entire groups of people who have never heard the gospel, even to this day. And 2) if we are free to reject salvation we are also free to disobey God’s call to be missionaries, so entire people groups might be damned forever simply because one person disobeyed God.
Arminians who believe that God reveals himself to some and not others have the same problem as Calvinism. Namely, it makes God a hypocrite who, in spite of declaring his love and desire for all people to be saved, prevents almost everyone from being saved–which is why I struggled with it for some time…until I learned of another way.
The second way rejects the presupposition that people do not have equal opportunities to respond to the gospel. God does not judge people according to the amount of knowledge they have of the gospel, but according to the faith they place in whatever knowledge they have received. So, if a person follows her or his conscience, acknowledges the good creator to which creation points, and determines to live rightly in accordance with God’s revelation in those things, then her or his faith is counted as righteousness. Embedded in this view is the belief that, ultimately, God loves and wants every. single. person. to be saved. God meets us where we are and reveals himself in terms we understand, because he understands our limitations. So, the process of salvation begins with our “leap of faith,” not with our intellectual assent. We see it in Abraham’s obedience to that strange voice he’d never heard before. He obeyed and it was counted as righteousness. Simple as that. The gospel for him was no more complex than God’s faithfulness in keeping his promises.
(Of course, this view has its own problems, including a couple verses that seem to contradict it. I interpret those passages differently, but since this isn’t an attempt to prove my beliefs I’ll leave that for another time. If you’re really interested, check out Clark Pinnock’s, A Wideness in God’s Mercy.)
So, Jones is absolutely correct: Arminianism—in and of itself—does not answer the question of why some people have more opportunities to hear the gospel than others. However, Jones is wrong to suggest that this is an Arminian problem, for it is only within the Arminian view that you can find the answer to that question (that is, unless you agree with Karl Barth that God has predestined everyone to be saved).
However, to believe that everyone has the same opportunity to accept the gospel leads to another, more difficult question…
I’ve had this discussion with a Calvinist friend who asked, If everyone has the same opportunity, why do some believe and others don’t? Am I wiser than they, simply because I believe? And if I am wiser, is it my own wisdom (meaning that my salvation came from something in and of myself, which is not biblical) or was it God’s gift (meaning that God chose to give me the means for salvation and not someone else)?
I still wrestle with those questions.
Honestly, it’s the only argument I have heard that makes any sense of Calvinism.
I have a feeling that Austin Fischer would jump in here and say, as he did several times in the debate, that Calvinists “hang their hats on the wrong mystery.” That is, Calvinists assert that the mystery of salvation is in how God can decree our choices and then hold us responsible for those choices. Non-Calvinists say that the mystery is in the ability God gives us to choose—John Wesley called it “prevenient grace.”
There is tension in every theology. When I come to the tensions of unanswered questions that naturally occur within my worldview, I look for the answer. In this case, the answer is only found within a worldview that I don’t hold. In fact, it’s a worldview that has its own tensions. So, my choice is no longer about which view has an answer (though that is important); it’s about which tensions are acceptable.
I can have this question answered, but that means that I have to live in the tension of other unanswered questions, including: “How is it Christ-like for God to hold people responsible for sins he ordained that they would commit?” Daniel Montgomery suggested we relieve that tension by ignoring its existence–by accepting it unquestioningly, because it’s a sin to question (which is, essentially, fear-based faith…which isn’t really faith at all).
I can live in the tension of not understanding why one person chooses God and another does not. Somehow, God gives every person equal opportunity and equal means to accept him and yet some don’t.
As Roger Olson has said, “There are problems in any theology, and to a certain degree, I’m an Arminian because it has the problems I can live with.”
While Calvinism answers one of the questions that Arminianism cannot, the portrait of God described in Calvinism is simply not one that I can live with and, therefore, my question will remain unanswered (at least until I find a better solution).
What do you think? What are the tensions in your worldview? What is the strongest argument for the view you do not hold? Can we ever find a theology/worldview that doesn’t have tension?