Calvinism vs Arminianism and the need for context

It’s been a number of years since I got into heated (read: nasty) debates about Calvinism vs Arminianism, and indeed, I’m not proud of some of things I typed in those days, and for the prideful, hurtful things that I said. Thankfully, Vicky Beeching’s recent foray into the issue has been calm and considerate, and so I have, for the first time in a while ventured a comment there. It did, however, remind me of what I realised in the aftermath of predestination flame-wars, and why I generally don’t venture into debates on the issue any more. Indeed, to my mind, it is the thing that is detrimentally missing from most the debates: namely, context.

The problem with the election debate is that it is generally extracted from it’s context in the biblical meta-narrative to become theological issue to be figured out. It seems to me that the biblical writers only ever speak of election and predestination in the context of encouraging believers to persevere, often through persecution and trial.

Take Romans 8:28-30, for example, one of the oft-cited passages about predestination:

 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Be sure to see where this comes in Paul’s train of thought – read the whole chapter and you’ll see that he talking about perseverance – the hope of future glory for which the present sufferings are not worth comparing to. The issue of predestination is not then about who is in and who is out, it’s about encouragement that God is in control, and even if it looks grim to us, that we can trust him, and we can hope for future glory because it rests in God’s promises and purposes, and not ourselves.

To my mind, this pastoral context is vital to understanding the point of scriptural teaching on predestination, and I think that keeping it in this context helps avoid the pitfalls that most of the debates (and I would say, objections) tend to fall into.

I suppose it’s just human nature to take scriptural teaching and first ask how it applies to someone else, instead of what it means for me.


What do you think?