Arminianism and the False Dichotomy

Someone once mentioned to me the trivia fact that “straight” and “Gentile” are the only two terms that a minority has successfully applied to a majority. I later thought of a third term. It is, of course, “Arminian.”

Of these three, I think “straight” has the best case for existence. Gender itself being a largely binary state, there are relatively few possible types of sexual orientation*, and each one can be precisely defined. “Gentile” is a little bit superfluous, since we seem to get by without a term for, say, non-Buddhists or non-Sikhs, but at least it doesn’t encapsulate any additional meanings besides “non-Jew.”

The term “Arminian,” however, is misleading and contradictory to the point of being useless. For those of you not up on your church history and/or Calvinist doublespeak, Arminianism is a view created by Jacobus Arminius in response to Calvinism. It counters the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) with its own five points, which are essentially polar opposites. (If you don’t know them, you can look up the points on your own for now; TULIP is heinous enough that I intend to address it letter by letter.) The term “Arminian” would be perfectly reasonable if it were just used to refer to the followers of Arminius’ teachings, but it isn’t. Calvinists also use it as a blanket term for any Christian who is or was not a Calvinist**, past and present.

It should be obvious that, while the first usage is a subset of the second, the two terms are widely disparate and that there are plenty of ways to be the second without being the first. Simple combinatorics reveals that, assuming the five points of TULIP aren’t logically equivalent (as in, point one: I am Jordan’s wife; point two: Jordan is my husband), there should be many instances of ~[T, U, L, I, P] aside from [~T, ~U, ~L, ~I, ~P]: [~T, U, L, I, P], [T, ~U, L, I, P], and so on: 31 combinations in all, and that’s assuming that one’s position on an individual point must be a binary agreement or disagreement, which is also not necessarily true. The two meanings of “Arminian” are not the same at all.

Calvinists don’t bother to clear up the distinction because they honestly don’t believe there is one. They don’t see how there could be any way to not be a Calvinist besides being an Arminian. An altogether too typical conversation I once had with a Calvinist, whose name will be concealed to protect the guilty, went roughly as follows:

Him (referring to Catholics): …Arminians.

Me: They’re not Arminians. They’re Catholics.

Him: Oh. Well, but people who hold the Arminian view.

I wish I could say that the latter statement were uttered with the wide-eyed innocence of one who had never realized that there might be a way to disagree with a complex position other than to hold the exact opposite position (cheap shot follows: he’s also a conservative), but I must admit that it was instead uttered with the superiority of one who doesn’t see any point in splitting hairs among views that he knows are all wrong anyway. A dismissive hand gesture may even have been involved.

This is the sort of frustrating conversation, already commented on over at Slacktivist, that makes one suspect that Calvinism is less of a theological view and more of a cult of smugness. That would explain why they know all the nuances of their own position forwards and backwards and from the middle, but show no interest in whether there might be differences between other views, let alone whether any such view might have any sort of merit. You instead get half-acknowledgments like this one:

Today’s Arminians are not necessarily the same caliber as those of old. Historic Arminianism is altogether heretical. However, contemporary Arminianism is often confusing; it melds together a number of different theological ideas to come up with a theological “soup”… But for the most part, each “Arminian” must be dealt with individually in order to assess their understanding, or flavor, of theological soup. It may very well be that they are believing a damning heresy. It may very well be that they are simply confused and need help to understand the doctrines of God’s grace, or their depravity.

This Calvinist seems to be on the brink of realizing that he’s using the term “Arminian” to refer to a million different things, but in the end he collapses back into thinking that “Arminian” can only refer to two things: real Arminians, who are smart but evil, and people who are just too stupid or ignorant to realize that Calvinism is right.

In short, Calvinists have constructed a false dichotomy between Calvinism and Arminianism. There are plenty of people who were neither Calvinists nor Arminians, starting with every Christian who lived before the sixteenth century and encompassing the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran churches, among others.

I’ve never had any luck explaining this to a Calvinist, though.


*Even the very creative have only managed to come up with polysexual, pansexual, and pomosexual, none of which itself has much of a case for existence since they’re functionally all the same as bisexual, and, for that matter, effectively the same as each other. Basically, they’re people who wanted to strengthen their social or political views by injecting them into something as immutable and fundamental-sounding as their sexual orientation, or else people who really, really wanted to be special and so invented a new sexual orientation for themselves.

**If the Calvinist is a gracious one. Ungracious Calvinists, my once-adored Mark Driscoll among them, would deny that non-Calvinists are Christians at all.

Here’s a typical case of such lumping (Romanist is, of course, a derogatory term for Catholics), found partway through this post at Christian Clarity Review:

Thus Arminians/Romanists/Eastern Orthodox are always saying things along the lines of “but you haven’t answered all my objections”: they seek to portray that their objections are founded on a commonly shared gospel as universals when they in fact are simply part of a scheme to lie.



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6 responses to “Arminianism and the False Dichotomy

  1. Pingback: Calvinism and Pride « Chimaera

  2. Pingback: Worst. Bible. Ever. « Chimaera

  3. Phil

    Well if you like you can think of it as Pelagianism, semi-pelagianism, and Biblical fidelity. Judging by your silly statements against Calvinism on your various blog posts, my guess is that you are a semi-pelagianist. Keep studying and soon you will be a Calvinist. Once upon a time I made silly statements too, so fear not, there is plenty of hope.

    • Doad

      There IS plenty of hope! I was once a silly semi-pelagian, but then I became a silly Calvinist, but then when I studied *even more* I stopped being so proud of all my studying and fell to the ground in awe of God’s power and mystery.

      (Doesn’t it feel great when somebody makes an argument by being patronizing? It convinces *tons* of people every day!)

      Lastly, as someone who has bothered to look up the definitions and history of the terms “pelagian” and “semi-pelagian,” I humbly submit that you have no clue what you’re talking about. You may need to find another word to use as a pejorative, hopefully one that actually applies. Then you really will be making progress towards stopping making silly statements.

      • katz

        Fear not, fair Doad, for through my bloggerly clairvoyance I perceive that Phil posteth from a Yahoo address, and mayhap his knowledge of theology stemmeth from Yahoo Answers. For verily, behold how he answereth not mine objections, but indeed maketh derogatory statements about mine character and personal beliefs, and heedeth not the words of the ad hominem fallacy, where it is written that the truth of an argument standeth or falleth by its own merits, regardless of the wit or ability of the speaker, as indeed was discussed on this very blog not three months past.

        And still truer words were ne’er spoken than yon Slacktivist commenter who spake thusly: “Calvinists useth not the term Arminian to disparage their foes. Verily, they calleth them semi-Pelagians.”

  4. Doug

    I agree calling Calvinism a ‘cult of smugness’.
    I fear for the smug individual who patronizes the wrong ‘Pelagian, Finnian, Arminian heretic’.
    After years of dealing with them, I’ve found they have two mains saws they play on.
    1. If you point out what Calvinism really is and what it really teaches, their cognitive dissonance leads them to cry “Straw man, straw man”. That is you are attacking their argument (pardon me, a “misrepresentation” of their “argument”).
    2. If you point out how blind, stupid, and smug they are, they cry ‘ad hominem, ad hominem!!!!’ that is, you are attacking their person.

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