Why I am Not a Calvinist

15 September 2008

In Why I am Not a Calvinist, Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell offer a critique of Calvinist theology and a defense of Arminian theology. Their book is written in a friendly tone- thankfully avoiding the vitriolic language and irresponsible exaggeration that often feature prominently in these types of work. While recognizing that reasonable people can disagree on this important topic, Dongell and Walls provide a strong Biblical and philosophical defense of Arminian doctrine.

In the first part of the book the authors try to engage the most critical Scriptures that have relevance for this topic. They focus only on absolutely critical concepts; thus, for example, they have no discussion about eternal security because some Arminians actually agree with Calvinists that true believers never fall away from grace. Instead, they deal with the three strongest scriptural arguments in favor of Calvinism. These are;

1. The sovereignty of God.
2. The gracious nature of salvation.
3. The reality of divine election.

On the sovereignty of God, Walls and Dongell point out that the Calvinist understanding of this doctrine leads to severe tensions in much of Scripture. It implies restricted love, which cuts against the grain of many passages that not only affirm God’s universal love for all but also His desire for all to be saved. Moreover, it implies irresistible grace, which is actually a major tenet of Calvinist theology. However, the Scriptural testimony actually documents people rejecting God’s stated wills and commands. One particularly poignant example is found in Jeremiah 13, where God declares that He will weep if Israel does not turn. These types of passages don’t mesh well with Calvinist teachings.

On the gracious nature of salvation, the authors show that, even though contemporary Arminian thought often diminishes the effects of the fall and grants a great deal of power to unaided human will, historic Arminianism does not do so. The authors demonstrate that Arminianism is perfectly consistent with a strong view of human sin and fallenness.

On the reality of divine election, the authors look at the major proof texts cited by Calvinists to support their theology and try to demonstrate that these texts all have plausible Arminian interpretations.

In addition to an analysis of the relevant Biblical materials, Walls and Dongell offer an important discussion on the topic of free will. They define and distinguish libertarian, determinist, and compatibilist accounts of freedom, and argue persuasively that the libertarian account is intuitively superior, necessary for moral responsibility, and implicitly supported by Biblical passages. This is an important discussion for the debate and I am glad that the authors chose to engage in it.

Near the end of the book, the authors offer some important critiques of Calvinist theology. First, they question Calvinism’s ability to coherently understand the existence of evil. Second, they question Calvinism’s ability to explain why some persons are lost, given the Biblical affirmation that God desires the salvation of all. Calvinist theology has difficulty explaining this issue because, since it affirms that the decision of salvation is entirely up to God, it seems that His desire for the salvation of all would entail that all men were saved. Finally, the authors argue that Calvinism is difficult to live out in the Christian life.

Overall, Why I am Not a Calvinist is an excellent work. Unfortunately, the authors failed to engage adequately with all of the relevant Biblical texts. Nevertheless, they make a strong case for Arminianism and against Calvinism. For those who are interested in the issues of salvation, predestination, and free will, I strongly recommend this book, as well as the companion volume- Why I am Not an Arminian- for a solid overview of the issues, written in a friendly and irenic spirit.


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