Heresy, Or Honest Disagreement?

Tulip daisey frameFighting for sound doctrine certainly is important, and too few evangelicals engage in  contending for the faith. Partly, laziness keeps people from digging into Scripture. Many Christians my age and younger read the Bible superficially, more intent on finding a “personal word for the day” than patiently mining it to learn what the Lord has revealed about Himself and His plan for history. Such study requires a time commitment, an abandonment of self-referencing and good old-fashioned hard work!

People also shy away from doctrine because it divides, and one cannot deny the nobility of that motive. Many New Testament passages  command unity among believers. And arguably, a Church (meaning Christians as a whole rather than specific congregations) at war with itself can often discredit the Gospel before a watching world.

We walk, therefore, in tension. On one hand, we see the enormous responsibility to uphold sound doctrine, studying both carefully and tirelessly to understand the Lord’s perspective and His nature. And on the other hand, we appreciate the value of setting aside disagreements for the sake of unity. As usual, the Lord calls His people to both postures…presumably to show us our complete dependence on Him.

This tension presented itself to me a few years ago as I scrolled through my Twitter feed. I noticed a Tweet from a woman who shares my Calvinist convictions. Quoting Michael S. Horton (with whom I agree 99% of the time), she tweeted:

“The evangelicals who faced this challenge of Arminianism universally regarded it as a heretical departure from the Christian faith.”Horton

As a former Arminian, I had great difficulty characterizing my old approach to theology as “heretical.”  While I now believe salvation is exclusively God’s work, and that the Bible overwhelmingly teaches election rather than free-will, I recognize that my Arminian friends study Scripture as diligently as I do and have drawn slightly different conclusions about man’s role in salvation. Obviously, I no longer agree with them, but I know the verses that lead to their theology well enough to understand how they’ve formed their views.

Some Arminians, please note, sincerely believe Calvinists are heretics. As they see it, we teach that God is a capricious manipulator Who reduces us to mindless robots. For that reason, they can’t see a possibility of us actually loving the Lord. Furthermore, they believe the doctrines of election and predestination cancel out the need to evangelize the lost. I well remember holding such opinions of Calvinists.

Those characterizations of Reformed theology show a misunderstanding of its doctrines, and I do see good reason to question the Arminian doctrine of free will. I confess that I easily forget how tenaciously I once clung to that very doctrine, sincerely convinced that Scripture substantiated my position. I need to remember that I held those beliefs out of an honest love for God and His Word. My Arminian brothers and sisters have a love for Christ, and come to their conclusions because they love Him.

Do I now think Arminianism is wrong? Yes. And I’m much firmer in my Calvinism than I ever was in my Arminianism. Reformed theology has been like coming home for me; it makes sense of Scriptures that I’d always allowed pastors and Bible Study teachers to explain away. So I do disagree with that approach to Scripture.

Christians in both camps, however, believe that salvation comes through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Even though Arminians would emphasize human responsibility in “accepting” God’s grace, calling them heretical seems extreme and uncharitable. Can’t we pray for them to better understand the doctrines of grace, perhaps helping them see how Scripture supports our position, and still recognize that they do adhere to the fundamentals of the Gospel. Doctrine should divide us from false teaching, not from variations within the truth.

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3 thoughts on “Heresy, Or Honest Disagreement?

  1. This is an area with which I’m familiar. I grew up in unbiblical, shallow evangelical churches, including Wesleyan Arminian (Free Methodist). The difference with me is that when I came to understand reformed soteriology, it was a major step toward realizing I was a false convert (which I came to understand within a few weeks after that). I had been something of an antinomian and semi-pelagian, and worshiped an idol that more resembled an impotent Santa Claus than the All-Sovereign Creator of the universe. I’m not saying all Arminians do in our culture (I’m not sure I even really knew what an Arminian was at the time, but probably would have said I was one), but that was my case, and I think it’s fair to say that most Americans who would self-identify as Christian are actually some stripe of Pelagian.

    I knew my zeal in finally understanding the gospel of grace, and the biblical doctrines that under-gird it, could be incredibly dangerous if I didn’t salt my speech on the matter with grace. I tried to avoid talking about it and to be measured in what I said. Love, grace, and patience do amazing things. I was able to help my mother along in her understanding, as gently as I could. I didn’t do it perfectly, but the Lord was good to us both and she’s now a Calvinist, though I wouldn’t say reformed.

    It’s important to deal graciously with people with whom we disagree in understanding the context in which we live (as well as other believers throughout history). For example, I think we should be incredibly gracious to (repentant) believers who struggle immensely with temptation and sexual sin because our culture is so lascivious and depraved and we’re swimming in it. The Puritans could be far more chaste than we can even imagine because their culture allowed and expected as much. If a godly man or woman from our culture could be transported back 300-400 years, the Puritans would think they were reprobate just based on behavior.

    Similarly, we must be gracious in regards to the “Christian Climate” of our country and culture. I’m a reformed baptist, but I can’t be too hard on Luther and Calvin for their understanding of the sacraments. They were battling the antichrist, apostate church of Rome. We’re lucky they reformed and rediscovered as much solid theology as they did. So then, having grown up in the same American churchianity that I have, I have to be extremely gracious and patient with others who do not yet understand these things. I’m not going to write someone off as a heretic because they don’t have a fully formed, consistent and biblical theology. They may not have even been challenged to have good theology and they’ve likely sat under weak, shallow preaching their entire life and don’t know any better.

    Also, it’s important to understand that the only true unity we can have is over doctrine which is biblical. I believe it’s not accurate (and maybe you didn’t intend it this way) to say:

    “People also shy away from doctrine because it divides, and one cannot deny the nobility of that motive. Many New Testament passages command unity among believers. And arguably, a Church (meaning Christians as a whole rather than specific congregations) at war with itself can often discredit the Gospel before a watching world.

    We walk, therefore, in tension. On one hand, we see the enormous responsibility to uphold sound doctrine, studying both carefully and tirelessly to understand the Lord’s perspective and His nature. And on the other hand, we appreciate the value of setting aside disagreements for the sake of unity.”

    The fact of the matter is that scripture repeatedly states that doctrinal division is the fault of those who depart from the truth (for example Rom 16:17) and pastors are to guard their flock from such error (throughout the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus). Doctrine does divide. It divides truth from error and sheep from goats and Jesus himself told us it would be so (Matt 10:34-39). I wouldn’t characterize shying away from biblical truth as noble, but just the opposite. I struggle with fear of man issues too (in spite of Isaiah 2:22), and I understand not wanting to rock the boat, but lovingly, sometimes starkly, confronting people with the truth is a very necessary thing, especially in our day and culture. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the overwhelming majority of those who claim Christ in the west (the US particularly) are lost. I was one of them and still would be, but for the grace of God.

    Now, all of that is an important preface and disclaimer to say this. The reformers rightly viewed Arminianism as heresy (to various degrees), in the sense more of heterodoxy than blatant damnable heresy, because it was, in essence, a repudiation of the reformation. The Roman Catholic system of salvation was (and still is) a semi-pelagian, synergistic system where man contributes his continuous meritorious efforts and faith, bolstered by God’s grace in order to be justified before God, and he can lose his salvation if he fails to keep maintaining his standing.

    Arminianism, even the most conservative and bible-oriented forms, still, at the end of the day, require a meritorious work on the part of man. Because man has to contribute faith, which he somehow musters out of his depraved heart (in complete contradiction to Phil 1:29, Eph 2:8-9, Acts 11:18, and 2 Tim 2:25 which clearly state that faith and repentance are gifts of God and do not come from us) thanks to the magical philosophical band-aid of “prevenient grace.” In spite of Arminian objections, this actually turns faith into a meritorious work, because the only thing that separates the man who believes from the one who doesn’t, though they both hear the same message, is not God’s grace (which he apparently gives equally to both), but it’s dependent upon the man himself, leaving room to boast – though I’m sure most would say they believe this because they don’t want to “blame God” for not saving people (which betrays an utter lack of understanding of human depravity, God’s holiness, righteousness, justice, and actual, biblical grace). For more on this I recommend the intro of J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston’s translation of Luther’s “Bondage of the Will.”

    I know I’m preaching to the choir here and you know all this, which is why you’re a Calvinist. Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that anyone who claims to be an Arminian is automatically a hell-bound heretic or lost. I have to assume to start with that they’ve grown up in this culture and been fed theological garbage their entire life because that’s very common here. I do, however, get a bit more nervous when they show something of an understanding of theology (especially if they are pastors or teachers) and reject proper, consistent exegesis of clear texts like Romans 8-11, Ephesians 1-3, various points throughout the gospel of John, etc. Certainly if they have an exceeding hatred for the doctrines of grace, that’s a real issue and an indication that they have some kind of spiritual problem. So, in short, ignorance of bible doctrine is one thing, hatred of bible doctrine is quite another.

    I hope I didn’t come across the wrong way in this comment. I’m glad you wrote this article and I saw it, as it’s a worthwhile subject of conversation. I just figured I’d add my two cents. Also, as a reformed guy, I feel kind of odd for commenting on a woman’s theology blog… is that weird or am I okay? Haha


    • I’m accepting your comment because you raised points that deserve attention. I don’t entirely agree with you; I believe many Armininians do know Christ. Standing against false teaching is one thing; presuming to know the salvation of someone who claims Christ and exhibits the fruit of the Spirit but who hold an Arminian approach to salvation based on Scriptures that indicate human responsibility is quite another. God calls us to humility.

      But you violated my comment policy by writing well over 150 words. Might I suggest starting your own blog, and linking to pertinent posts in my comments section if a shorter comment won’t suffice. Could you have made your points more succinctly?

      As for your gender, I’m wondering why you read a blog clearly written for women? You must know that 1 Timothy 2:11-14 prohibits women from teaching men. Are you trying to set me up so you can claim that I’m disobedient? If so, that’s completely unfair!


  2. Another of “those topics” that I have wrestled with, and I enjoy Adam’s thoughts on this as well. I have had my share of arguments with Arminians, and have made some “enemies” along the way. These days the Lord has given me a sense of rest on this issue, not that it isn’t important, it is, and certainly we are to guard our hearts from anything that is unbiblical or would work at dismantling the truth of God’s grace. However He is in control, not by making robots, but by freeing all His own sheep from sin, from errors, and from every idol (self worship is probably the worst one and the one that is most difficult to spot in ourselves) that stands in the way of our true worship and adoration of what He has done, does, and will do for all who truly come by His grace to Him.


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