Section 1.3 of Theology Corner sets forth the core beliefs of Christianity as 8 points in logical succession with a traditional Southern Baptist, Wesleyan/Arminian flavor. Many Scriptural references are given in support of these core beliefs. Legions of Reformed theologians have issued there own sets of core beliefs which also seem to be supported by Scripture. How can the casual observer make sense of this great divide?
The Wesleyan/Arminian advocate and the Reformed advocate can probably agree on logic and reason, based on Scripture, regarding the first three of the 8 core beliefs:
The Bible is the inspired, infallible and inerrant word of God.
(see Sections 13.15, 13.16 and 13.17 of Theology Corner and Chapter 10 of Christian Handbook of Reason and Insight for Scientists and Technologists)
The one true God exists as three distinct, transcendent, immanent, infinite, eternal, and immutable persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
(See Section 1.19 of Theology Corner)
Jesus Christ is God the Son. Jesus Christ is man. Jesus Christ is one person whose divine and human natures cannot be changed, divided, separated or mixed. Jesus Christ was resurrected bodily from the dead. Jesus Christ was born of a virgin.
(See Section 1.19 of Theology Corner)
The Wesleyan/Arminian and the Calvinist might also find, at least, superficial agreement on the fourth core belief which is often called Total Depravity:
Every person since Adam and Eve, except Jesus Christ, was born with a sin nature and no person, except Jesus Christ, has lived a sinless life. (T)
But the apparent agreement does not survive close scrutiny. For the Wesleyan/Arminian, this core belief implies faith must precede regeneration. For the Calvinist, this implies regeneration must precede faith. Both sides believe in the Total Depravity of the human soul but the two sides do not share the same definition of Total. An analogy will serve to illustrate the difference. Imagine every person is swimming in a dark, bottomless, violent ocean surrounded by wind, rain and terrifying, towering waves – the perfect storm. Jesus Christ is the captain of a magnificent, unsinkable ship. He is supervising as the crew throws doughnut shaped flotation devices, with ropes attached, into the violent waters. Calvinists believe that, occasionally, a flotation device will land exactly on a person's head. Such persons will be encircled and buoyed by this life preserver while being pulled aboard ship. These are the elect of Calvinism. Jesus obviously instructs that "ringers" be thrown to catch the elect without any effort whatsoever on their part. Of course, the greater portion of mankind is so far from the nearest life preserver that rescue is impossible; they are the reprobate of Calvinism and surely deserve to drown.
In contrast, the Arminian believes the ship's captain never instructs the crew to throw a ringer for anyone at any time. Instead, He dispatches His First Mate, a powerful swimmer, to dive into the water and push each person to within arm's length of the nearest life preserver. Then the First Mate says, "Confess your sins, repent and believe; take hold of this life preserver and you will be saved." The Arminian believes many will accept this gift of life made available by Prevenient Grace. Many will reach out their hand, grasp the flotation device and be pulled aboard ship. But the Calvinist insists that the First Mate has never been dispatched by the Captain to push anyone to a life preserver. Even if He had been dispatched, not one person would have the ability to take hold by exercising their own free will. All persons would be stopped by the Total Depravity of their miserable souls. Furthermore, even if one person fortuitously floated near a life preserver and extended their hand by one centimeter to grasp hold, that act would constitute a human work and would mean, contrary to Scripture, that the person was saved by a work.
The Calvinist teaches that you are so Totally Depraved that you cannot be saved unless Jesus instructs His crew to throw a ringer around you! The Arminian believes you must, by an exercise of free will, extend your hand in response to the Prevenient Grace of God.
The Wesleyan/Arminian and the Calvinist find no common ground in the remaining 4 core beliefs.
Salvation from the consequences of sin is offered to all persons by the grace of God and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. (L)
The Calvinist would say: salvation from the consequences of sin is given only to the elect of God chosen before the world was formed. The remainder of mankind (the reprobate) are allowed to be born so they can glorify God by going to Hell.
The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all persons: (a) the requirements of the law are written by God on every heart, (b) Jesus Christ knocks at the door of every heart, (c) the Holy Spirit calls and convicts each person and (d) God's eternal power and divine nature are evident in the world around us. Nevertheless, many resist the grace of God. (I)
The Calvinist would say: the person on whom God bestows grace will be saved; God’s grace is irresistible.
Each person who responds to God's grace and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ by confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience receives the great gift of salvation. Each person who resists God's grace is condemned to everlasting punishment. (U)
The Calvinist would say: salvation of the elect is unconditional; they were predestined to Heaven before they were born. Condemnation of the reprobate is also unconditional; they were predestined to Hell before they were born.
Faith precedes regeneration; faith is an act of human free will responding to the grace of God.
The Calvinist would say: regeneration precedes faith; faith is regeneration’s fruit, not its cause.
The Reformed theologian adds intellectual force to his argument by invoking the work of Augustine (354 – 430 AD), the towering intellect who developed a fundamental theological system which lay dormant for the next 1100 years. It was curiously resurrected by John Calvin (1509 – 1564 AD) around 1540 and now goes by the name Calvinism. But Christianity existed for 400 years before Augustine. What did earlier Christians believe before Augustine developed, in essence, the foundations of Reformed Theology during his intellectual struggles with Pelagius?
Let us look at the works of Athanasius (298 – 373 AD) of Alexandria. He was a child at the beginning of the Diocletian persecution (303 – 311 AD) and grew up seeing many of those around him martyred in the name of Jesus Christ. So, he was not just a Sunday morning ritual Christian.
The following quotes are taken from “On the Incarnation” written around the time of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). As you read these quotes, decide whether they mesh with the 8 Core Beliefs of Christianity as presented in Section 1.3 of Theology Corner and repeated in this Section; or do these quotes reveal a Calvinist flavor in the theology of Athanasius.
- He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.
- The Saviour is working mightily among men; every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world, both within and beyond the Greek speaking world, to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching.
- The Saviour works mightily every day, drawing men to religion, persuading them to virtue, teaching them about immortality, quickening their thirst for heavenly things, revealing the knowledge of the Father, inspiring strength in the face of death, manifesting Himself to each and displacing the irreligion of idols.
- The Son of God, living and effective, is active every day and effects the salvation of all.
- Let those who are still in the blindness of unbelief recognize the Godhead of Christ and the resurrection which He has brought about through His manifested power in others.
- He it is Who in these latter days assumed a body for the salvation of us all and taught the world concerning the Father.
- Now that the common Saviour of all has died on our behalf, we who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died afortime, in fulfilment of the threat of the law.
- For this reason, He did not offer the sacrifice on behalf of all immediately He came, for if He had surrendered His body to death and then raised it again at once He would have ceased to be an object of our senses.
- He it is Who has destroyed death and freely graced us all with incorruption through the promise of the resurrection having raised His own body as its first fruits and displayed it by the sign of the cross as the monument to His victory over death and its corruption.
- It was not things non-existent that needed salvation, for which a bare creative word might have sufficed, but man – man already in existence and already in process of corruption and ruin.
- It is indeed in accordance with the nature of the invisible God that He should be thus known through His works.
- He provided the works of creation also as means by which the Maker might be known. Men could look up into the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation, come to know its Ruler.
- God also made provision by giving them a law.
- They could converse with holy men, and through them learn to know God.
- The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.
Do any of these items portray a God who rejoices with smug satisfaction as He watches the vast majority of mankind – the reprobates -- descend into Hell?