Thursday, July 23, 2009

On debating Calvinism

I would have to admit that the Calvinists on Triablogue come across as angry, belligerent, and obnoxious. Everyone I know who has disputed with them has complained about their discussion tactics. That doesn't mean that you can't learn a great deal from them, or that they have nothing of interest to say. I would have to admit that I might treat a defender of infanticide who avoids the ad hominem better than a Calvinist who shifts from talking about my positions to talking about me. I have a different philosophy of dialogue from them, which makes it difficult for me to discuss this issue with them with much of any enjoyment.

Birch's post mentions their "rules of engagement" in which they justify the use of harsh and judgmental language, even against those claiming to be Christians. In defense of this they might point out that John Wesley's famous sermon Free Grace is loaded with emotional charges and polemical salvoes.

There is a difference, however. Wesley reserves his harsh language for Calvinism, not for Calvinists.
The Triabloggers attack persons as well as doctrines. But I am not saying that all the ad hominems are on one side of this issue. Nor do I think all Calvinists are like the Triabloggers.

Why is there so much anger in the debate about Calvinism? One is the passion-inducing nature of the controversy. Each side thinks that the other is denigrating God by taking the position that they do. Calvinists think that Arminians are turning God into a wimp, and Arminians think that Calvinists are replacing a loving God with an arbitrary tyrant who does what he wants to because he can. Calvinists further think that Arminians are undercutting the authority of Scripture, although Arminians think that their reading rightly divides the word of truth.

Perhaps contrary to what Birch thinks, we don't need any more psychology than this. You do have to show that someone is wrong before you show how (psychologically) they came to be wrong. C. S. Lewis's rule, you know.

The important question, which Birch raises, is how we go about not being angry Calvinists or angry Arminians. In the course of the discussion the other side does say things that tick us off. I think the way we do it is we avoid ad hominem arguments and misrepresentations. That takes work in this controversy, just as it takes in the controversy surrounding atheism.

Whenever the discussion shifts from a position to the people who hold position, the chance of real intellectual progress is pretty much lost.

9 comments:

Gregory said...

I agree with you, but let me offer this caveat on my own behalf.

It is one thing for a person to be obnoxious. And certainly, we all have propensities towards obnoxiousness....at least, I do. And a large part of becoming a Christian, for me, involved the desire for healing from the wounds that had given rise to anger, bitterness and the cynical resentment I fostered as a young man. What's more, I think a substantial case can be made from the Bible--and from the Church Fathers and Church history--for understanding "sin" in medicinal, rather than legal, terms. The upshot of that is a view of the Church as an infirmary for the sick, rather than a social club for the spiritually pure.

So my objection to Triablog is that it doesn't represent "healing" and "wellness". Instead, it represents the very thing that the Church is supposed to be in the business of remedying.....and it's doing it under the guise of a "cure-all", snake oil remedy....not any different than the Elmer Gantry sort.

Frankly, it doesn't matter how sophisticated the snake oil packaging is---whether it's the dumbed-down packaging of the "health and wealth" oil or the clever marketing of the "intellectualizer" oil---it's still phony and useless. But the clever package is more insidious because a more respectable, intellectual segment of Christendom sees it as a vast improvement over the "shallow", "phony" and "self-indulgent" chicanery of the TBN scene....therefore, not susceptible to the sort of criticism that "faith teachers" deserve.

Yet, as a non-religious youth, it was apparent to me that Robert Tilton was a phony. There was no spiritual insight or rational deductions needed, for me, to understand he was a fraud....a highly entertaining fraud, mind you.

But, somehow, when the terminology and educational veneer are at a collegiate level (i.e. clever packaging), then what is essentially the same problem....well, it just seems to disappear. And the respectable apologist assents to it because:

"Well, they are my kind of people."

However, like in the case of the Prosperity teachers, the truth of Christianity is undermined. But in the case of the "intellectualizers", it's even worse; because it's a scam that can fool even the most discerning thinkers....and especially them!! Yet, the ineffectiveness of the "intellectualizer" remedy is no better than the "prosperity" one. The only real difference is the packaging.

Walter Martin, in my opinion, was a good apologist. He wasn't perfect. My mentor, Bob Passantino, used to tell this story about a conversation he had with Martin about Martin's charismatic appeal. Paraphrasing, Martin said this:

"You know, Bob, that's a blessing and a curse. A great many people respect what I say because of how I say it. But, that means I have to be extra careful about what I say. It's very easy for people to take what I say as authoritative, just because I said it. So, it behooves me, as a person accountable to God for being a responsible minister, to get the information out there as accurately and fairly as I can."

And Martin had a tremendous, positive influence on Bob. And Bob Passantino is as responsible an apologist as you can find. On the flip side, there's a less than admirable Bob who was also inspired by Martin: Bob Morey.

So, Bob Passantino imitated all the best things Martin had to offer, and surpassed him in so many ways. Bob Morey, on the other hand, imitated all of the worst things in Martin and, ultimately, has failed at imitation altogether.

The upshot: I am merely making a plea in support of responsible, Christocentric apologetics.

I admit that I'm not nearly the Christian or apologist that I'd like to be. And, certainly, my posts are clear, public indications of my own short-comings. But you must understand how much worse I would be if it hadn't been for the healing love of God throughout my life. That's something that no one, but God, can really understand and appreciate.

Blip said...

"There is a difference, however. Wesley reserves his harsh language for Calvinism, not for Calvinists."

I'm not sure that that is always a good thing. Doctrinal and moral error often go together; maybe the latter inevitable follows the former at least to some degree. That might be held to justify Matthew 23-type treatment.

ZZMike said...

"I would have to admit that the Calvinists on Triablogue come across as angry, belligerent, and obnoxious."

Could that be because they're "Totally Depraved"?

Joshua said...

@Gregory: Really great insights there. Thanks for putting it so clearly. Saying that God is the author of sin is equally as idiotic as saying that God loves you so much that salvation is on your own terms -- even if it's packaged more intellectually.

a helmet said...

Very good points. I agree that the doctrine of God's authorship of sin is outlandish to the uttermost.

Gregory said...

To give some "proof" or indication of what I'm saying, I invite anyone to read Cal Beisner's essay "The Character of the Good Apologist: Appreciation of the Life and Labors of Bob Passantino", found in the book "Reasons For Faith"---(ed.) Chad Meister and Norman Geisler.

Bob was the kind of person whose character, alone, was able to dispel doubts. And that is what being a true apologist is really about.

bossmanham said...

Boy you brought the wrath of the Triablogurers on you. Their last four or five posts are dedicated to you. Wonderful!

Robert said...

Hello Gregory,

You wrote:

“It is one thing for a person to be obnoxious. And certainly, we all have propensities towards obnoxiousness....at least, I do. And a large part of becoming a Christian, for me, involved the desire for healing from the wounds that had given rise to anger, bitterness and the cynical resentment I fostered as a young man. What's more, I think a substantial case can be made from the Bible--and from the Church Fathers and Church history--for understanding "sin" in medicinal, rather than legal, terms. The upshot of that is a view of the Church as an infirmary for the sick, rather than a social club for the spiritually pure.”

Everyone has a different area of ministry, a particular niche in which they operate. It seems to me that in our particular areas we can observe the transforming power of the gospel and the changed lives that it brings. My own area of ministry is with inmates. This is a particularly interesting “laboratory of human behavior” in which to witness how the grace of God transforms literally the worst sinners into new people. Not perfect people, but new people.

What I have observed is those inmates who appear to be truly regenerate manifest this change in the following characteristics: they speak differently, they are less angry and bitter, and there is a love for those whom they would never in a million years have loved had they not been saved and renewed by the Holy Spirit. Now I know these things to be true having seen it myself as well as having reports from others who have seen the same consistent changes in inmates.

Because I have seen this, when I see some professing Christian manifest sinful behavior in their words and interactions with others, appear to be angry and bitter without justification towards both believers and nonbelievers, and show no love and grace towards others whether they be believers or nonbelievers. I conclude this is not the work of the Holy Spirit but the works of the flesh. And the apostle Paul in Galatians where he directly and explicitly contrasts the fruit produced by the work of the Spirit in a person’s life with the works of the flesh produced by the flesh in a person’s life says the works of the flesh are evident or obvious. What is particularly sad is when professing Christians intentionally engage in these obvious works of the flesh and then try to rationalize or justify their sinful behavior.

This is really sad in the area of apologetics where our character (or lack of it) really does make a difference in the effectiveness of our Christian witness. This kind of sinful behavior by those engaging in apologetics completely violates the key scripture describing how we are to do apologetics (i.e. 2 Tim.2:24-26 - “The Lord’s bond servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will”)


“So my objection to Triablog is that it doesn't represent "healing" and "wellness". Instead, it represents the very thing that the Church is supposed to be in the business of remedying.....and it's doing it under the guise of a "cure-all", snake oil remedy....not any different than the Elmer Gantry sort.”

Not only do they not represent healing and wellness, they perpetually engage in the works of the flesh. And they repeatedly engage in attempts to rationalize their sinful behavior. Back to the inmate analogy of what real biblical change looks like: they do not resemble the inmates who have been truly changed by the power of the Spirit. Instead they represent and bear uncanny resemblance to what these prisoners used to do and be **before** they got saved.

Robert

Robert said...

Hello Gregory (part 2)

“However, like in the case of the Prosperity teachers, the truth of Christianity is undermined. But in the case of the "intellectualizers", it's even worse; because it's a scam that can fool even the most discerning thinkers....and especially them!! Yet, the ineffectiveness of the "intellectualizer" remedy is no better than the "prosperity" one. The only real difference is the packaging.”

Are you comparing the Triablogers and their repeated attempts to excuse and rationalize and justify sinful verbal behavior with the slick Prosperity teachers?

“Walter Martin, in my opinion, was a good apologist. He wasn't perfect.”

In my opinion he was great apologist, a model of how it ought to be done. He had the blend of knowing the bible inside and out and backwards and forwards and knowing the teachings of the cults and false religions thoroughly and truly caring for the lost people involved in these groups.

“And Martin had a tremendous, positive influence on Bob. And Bob Passantino is as responsible an apologist as you can find. On the flip side, there's a less than admirable Bob who was also inspired by Martin: Bob Morey.

So, Bob Passantino imitated all the best things Martin had to offer, and surpassed him in so many ways. Bob Morey, on the other hand, imitated all of the worst things in Martin and, ultimately, has failed at imitation altogether.”

The upshot: I am merely making a plea in support of responsible, Christocentric apologetics.”

I believe that the effective apologist is the one who lives out a transformed life and practices the things mentioned in the 2 Timothy 2 passage. He not only talks about the Christian faith, you can see it in the way they live and you can see 2 Timothy 2 in their actions.

“To give some "proof" or indication of what I'm saying, I invite anyone to read Cal Beisner's essay "The Character of the Good Apologist: Appreciation of the Life and Labors of Bob Passantino" . . . . Bob was the kind of person whose character, alone, was able to dispel doubts. And that is what being a true apologist is really about."

I have the book and I have read that chapter. Passantino from the description in that chapter was one who lived out a transformed life. He not only talked about the faith but lived it out. The chapter describes characteristics of Passantino all clearly indicative of a transformed life (he clearly also was living out 2 Timothy 2). I never met the man here, but from the description he sounds like a great model of what the Christian apologist ought to be like. I knew Walter and he was a role model for me of what a Christian apologist should be like. And some of the inmates that I work with, though they don’t have the knowledge of Martin or Passantino, they do exhibit the same characteristics as described in that chapter. They are transformed persons and they are being used by the Lord to bring others to a saving knowledge of Christ. And someday, they and Walter and Bob and the rest of us will all be together eternally praising God in a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Until we get there though, we have got to be living out transformed lives and we need to be exhibiting the characteristics described in 2 Timothy 2.

Robert