Well, the short answer is that in the church to which I belong both have for many years. Some in the church, if labelled, would be ‘moderate Calvinists’ and others ‘moderate Arminians’. I suspect both are ‘moderate’ because the influence of the other has protected from extremes. This does not mean there are no discussions and exploring of differences, there are, sometimes ‘ardently’. But we have never lost respect for each other and differences have never surfaced in any aggravated way publicly. We disagree, agreeably. Why is this?
I think a number of factors contribute to the Spirit enabling unity in the face of potentially divisive issues of faith.
recognising that unity of the faith is a goal and not a given in any church
A church is a body of believers who are united in the Spirit by belief in a common gospel. Paul calls all believers to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1). Unity of life in the Spirit is the basis of all fellowship among God’s people. It is the starting point. Believers may be immature and muddle-headed about many things but through belief of the gospel they are one in Christ. From this starting point a goal lies ahead – what Paul calls, ‘the unity of the faith’ (Eph 4:13). This is an unity we are to ‘maintain’ (as with the Spirit) but a unity we should seek to ‘attain’ or ‘reach’ (4:13); the unity of life in the Spirit from which we start has as its goal a maturing in the ‘unity of the faith’ and as Paul says,
Eph 4:13-16 (ESV)
… of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
In other words, church allows for growth in understanding, wisdom and holiness. It doesn’t insist we display this maturity right away. It doesn’t demand we all think the same from the word go. It doesn’t require signing up to a full blown theology as a basis for membership. It allows that it may take many years, in fact, a lifetime, for the kind of maturing that is its goal. One reason I am uncomfortable with Confessions of Faith is that they seem to demand ‘unity of faith’ as a starting point rather than an end point; a body of divinity to which one may hope new believers eventually arrive becomes a binding force on their conscience from the beginning. This allows little room for growth and development. One must accept the whole system fairly early on or be out in the cold. Worse, inevitably a confession, every confession, any confession, even a good confession, is narrower and more circumscribed than Scripture. Its very purpose is to remove ambiguities, delimit and proscribe.
Thus, it is difficult if not impossible for a believer whose understanding is of an Arminian bent to accept the authority of a Calvinistic confession, and vice versa, though both will happily accept the authority of Scripture. Believers, united by the same Spirit, members of the same body, find it impossible to share church fellowship because confessions insist on beliefs in certain areas that belong at best to a mature ‘unity of faith’ and even then involve tensions. We should, in my view, trust the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Word to guide the church into spiritual maturity in belief and behaviour. After all, if the Lord does not build the house, then who can?
loathing stereotypical labels
I hate labels. Labels divide. Labels segregate. Labels are all too often partisan and destructive. Their purpose is generally to vilify or glorify and rarely to enlighten. In fact they cannot enlighten. They are inevitably caricatures. They take rounded people and make of them flat and wooden images. Labels do not define people, they diminish them and distort them. And people’s views, if guided by Scripture, do not neatly fit into pre-packaged theologies, for the truth of Scripture is inevitably bigger than our systems and labels. Labels impose and imply a theology, and even if it is a generally good theology it is inevitably a theology that demands more sophistication than is the basis for gospel unity in the Spirit. Labels mean a theology that leaves other believers out in the cold; they create fences not fellowship.
The more we resist taking and giving labels then the easier it will be for ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ to live together as fellow members of the body of Christ.
displaying some theological grace
Now I am aware in our postmodern age ‘theological grace’ can be abused. Some want certainty where the Bible is silent and uncertainty where it clearly speaks. I do not support this. There are many areas where we must be firm and say ‘thus says the Lord’. I am not by any means advocating a trampoline theology that can bounce in every direction that we please. There is a faith ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’. Having said this we must remember the firm words of Paul,
1Cor 8:2-3 (ESV)
If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
We should all remember that our knowledge is limited. And nowhere more so than before the inscrutability of God’s sovereignty working in and through the history of the world. At the end of the day, each view must confess there are mysteries in this topic that none can answer. This is because we are humans and not divine, men and not God. It is our privilege to go as far as God reveals and no further. We must leave some issues with God. We must, in the final analysis, allow God to be God and simply trust where understanding is withheld (Roms 9:19-22; Job 38-42). Humility about our understanding, especially here, is all too appropriate.
We should remember too that while knowledge is important, it is not all-important. In fact, knowledge is not the truest criterion of Christian maturity of relationship with God, love is. Knowledge that does not act in love simply ‘puffs up’ and is conceited. Love is never conceited. The knowledge that is mingled with love will not insist on its way. It will not expect others to understand things exactly as we do, to cross our particular ‘t’s and dot our ‘i’s. Love will bear with slow apprehension, even the misapprehension, of others. It will welcome those that Christ has welcomed but not for the sake of an argument. It will not despise the other who holds some of the recognised tensions of Scripture differently. It will not judge, but leave all judgement to the Lord. It will not seek to quarrel and debate over matters that are not clear-cut and not of the essence of the gospel (Roms 14). It will not force its will and opinion but wait upon the Lord. Truth exists to promote love not destroy it and where truth is used to bash believers we must ask whether what we are pressing is truth and certainly whether it is ‘spoken in love’.
speaking with grace and seasoned with salt
Much aggro can be avoided just by a little grace in how we say things. Too many who wave a flag for one or other of these positions (Calvinist or Arminian) insist in force feeding them on others. They use confrontationary and extreme terms to make their point. They push debate to philosophical and logical conclusions that stretch Scripture and sometimes go beyond it. They leave their opponent (that brother for whom Christ died) with no wriggle room for individual conscience. We must distinguish between persuasion and coercion, between verbal appeal and verbal brow-beating. We should work at presenting our views in ways that are honest but as palatable as possible. We should judge how able our audience is to ‘hear’ and ‘receive’ what we wish to say. We should aim to give as little offence as possible without compromising truth. Belligerent and bellicose Arminians and Calvinists do not defend truth they betray it.
listening with love
Do we listen with love and forbearance? Do we make allowances for infelicities of language? Do we make allowances for different presuppositions? When my Calvinist/Arminian brother expresses a prayer in a way that doesn’t quite gel with my theology do I make allowances and simply mentally transpose where necessary? Do I focus on the 95% that we share in common and refuse to get out of perspective the 5% on which we differ? Christian love and forbearance can cover a multitude of sins. The reality is, when we do listen respectfully to each other and avoid unnecessary abrasion then we even begin to move towards each other. Love and respect win over those who differ from us, often much more effectively than the force of argument.
recognising scripture’s differing perspectives
A great deal of the heat is taken out of the controversy when we recognise that Scripture works with two perspectives that need to be held in tandem and tension. Some NT writers focus on God and his grace while others focus on man and his faith. Now these are never presented in opposition. Nor is one ever stressed to the exclusion of the other, however, in any one book, one position is normally principal and the other subordinate. For example, in a books like Romans and Ephesians, God’s grace and initiative in salvation is primary while faith though important is secondary. In other books, such as Hebrews and the Catholic epistles, the imperative of faith is primary and the grace of God is subordinate.
The issue is not the relative importance of each. Nor is the issue (as some suggest) that some NT writers have Calvinistic leanings and others Arminian. What is written, is written by the Spirit of God and is unified truth. It has dimensions and perspectives but no contradictions. No, the differing perspective or emphasis is due not to different theologies but to different pastoral concerns. The pastoral purpose determines the theological perspective. If, as in Romans, the pastoral purpose is the proclamation that God’s promised salvation has broken into the world uniting Jew and gentile in Christ then the emphasis will be on God’s initiative in grace. Faith will be there and vital, but it will be subordinate to God’s activity in grace. If, however, the pastoral issue is a potential failure in faith then the stress will be on the human need to persevere in faith drawing from all the grace of God in the gospel to do so. In each case, to repeat, the pastoral problem determines the theological perspective.
It is always thus in Scripture. Where the issue is the trustworthiness of God then God and his grace is to the fore. Where the issue is the responsibility of man then man and his faith is centre stage. The object determines the subject.
Now, I am not naive enough to think that recognising these differing perspectives eliminates every difficulty and brings immediate harmony between Calvinist and Arminian, far from it. However, I do think it helps to ease many of the tensions. Indeed, it seems to me, that if we recognise these two perspectives and give them full credit then many of the more contentious issues disappear. The differences that remain belong more to the realms of systems and logic where we ought in humility and grace bear with each other.
In my view, if we work with these dual perspectives and live with the above principles of Christian love and forbearing we shall discover that our opponents (Calvinist or Arminian) miraculously morph from a demon with red glowing horns into my brother or sister in Christ, believers like us who by grace are being transformed into the image of Christ, fellow pilgrims to and fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Wouldn’t it be marvellous if this Christmas the ‘peace among men’ which the angels announced knew part of its realization in Calvinist and Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ sharing together the joy of church fellowship celebrating the birth of their common Saviour and Lord.