Sunday, March 25, 2012

Calvinist, Arminian, Biblicist?

I don't know what to call myself.

I'm clearly neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian. I'm not the former because I entirely and utterly reject Limited Atonement and I am unconvinced of the absolute irresistibility of grace. I am not the latter because I affirm eternal security. It is difficult to state one's disagreement with Arminianism about, for example, election, because there is no one Arminian view of election (so far as I can tell). I believe that there is such a thing as individual election, and I believe that the relationship between individual election and foreknowledge (and there undoubtedly IS a relationship between these two concepts) is beyond my understanding.

Many of my friends would call themselves and someone like me a "Biblicist."

I can see the difficulty with the term. To call myself a biblicist on this particular question is easy to take as an insult. If my position is the biblical one, then where does that leave Calvinism and Arminianism? There is a ring of arrogance about it. It sounds like, "I'm biblical and you're not." It can feel like it needs a requisite "nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah" following close upon its heels.

But maybe that's not the only way for me to view myself as a biblicist. Perhaps, instead of claiming that I am a biblicist because NEITHER of you (my Calvinistic and Arminian friends) have the Bible on your side, I can be claiming that I am a biblicist because BOTH of you do, at least in substantial part. BOTH Calvin AND Arminius were trying to be good biblical theologians (as were Beza and Wesley and many of the whoever else among their myriad respective followers and embellishers). Neither of them were ENTIRELY unsuccessful. They cannot have been perfectly right, the both of them, but then neither is it necessary that they both were perfectly wrong.

And so, here I am, having been persuaded by your sermons and lectures, and books. Here I am, having nodded in agreement with 95% of what you have concluded about the operations of the gospel. Preach from Romans 9 or Hebrews 6, and do it just right, and you can make me squirm uncomfortably in either case. In neither case have I conceded entirely (I hold neither a Calvinistic view of Romans 9 nor an Arminian view of Hebrews 6), but one has to be blind not to see that either passage (as well as quite a few others) poses serious problems for the strictest adherents of one viewpoint or the other. Neither of you have done a good enough job of answering the biblical objections of the other. And that's after four solid centuries of effort. After so many people for so many years in so many books, sermons, lectures, and debates have poured so much effort into this endeavor, am I wrong to conclude that the failure hasn't been for a lack of intelligence, eloquence, time, money, daring, or opportunity? Am I wrong to suspect that the case hasn't been made fully on either side because neither side's case can be made? That the fault lies with the facts and not with the advocates?

I cannot help but do so.

And so, I think there's a GREAT DEAL of Calvinism that ought to be embraced as perfectly biblical, as well as some of Arminianism. The logical side of me—the Mr. Spock in my head—echoes E. Earle Ellis and tells me that, if I would be philosophically consistent, I must be one or the other. I see the philosophical need for that. I really do. Indeed, I don't just see it; I FEEL it.

And yet, I have seen the price of that logical consistency. Portions of the Bible I must bid farewell if I go in either direction. I must bid those portions farewell either by standing on my head hermeneutically to make them say something other than what they clearly seem to say or by relegating them to the category of those passages that I have sworn to my theological system not to preach or otherwise to acknowledge in public. I have seen the price, and I am unwilling to pay it.

Some Calvinists will call me an Arminian. Some Arminians will call me a Calvinist. They're both wrong. And they're both right, if I must abide by their nomenclature. I'm an inconsistent Arminian. I'm an inconsistent Calvinist. I admit it. I am inconsistent in both of those ways because my commitment to being consistently biblical has prevented me from consistency in these areas. That's why I call myself a biblicist.

And in doing so, I confess that I'm probably messing that up. Some Calvinists would say, "If you were really a biblicist, you would become a Calvinist." Some Arminians would say likewise about their position. You know, maybe you're right. Really, maybe you are. When I call myself a biblicist, I'm not attempting to describe some achievement of mine; I'm trying to describe an endeavor of mine. I'm speaking not of my accomplishment, but of my motivation. Perhaps I am not a Calvinist because I am interpreting the Bible wrongly, but what is preventing me from being a Calvinist is truly my attempt to interpret the Bible rightly (even if you think it is the imperfections of that attempt that are "at fault").

"Biblicist" need not be a term that divides us. Maybe, instead, it could become a term that unites us. Yes, there are people on both sides who are so committed to a human theological system that they would consider it betrayal even to consider that the Bible might, in some places, teach things that undermine the absolute certainty of their tenets. But I believe that there are people of good will from various points along this particular theological spectrum whose commitment is to the Bible above any theological system. I believe that there are people who would, when pressed to do so, generally describe themselves as a Calvinist or a Classical Arminian or an Amyraldian, or something else along the continuum, but who would nevertheless humbly concede, "…but there are a few passages in the New Testament that make me really uncomfortable with my position sometimes, and I wish I understood the Bible more clearly about these matters." I believe that many of these are people who can recognize the attempted biblicism of many of their sisters and brothers whose struggles have led them to a different place than their own. Such people deserve to be called biblicists. Certainly this seems to be true of the many people—the enormous number—who have found both the strict Calvinistic and the strict Arminian answers to be insufficient in respecting the whole of the biblical witness and have attempted some sort of a hybrid or a tertium quid in order to make their favored theory more compatible with their understandings of the Bible.


Bill said...

I'll confess that most of the time, when I see the word "biblicist", I interpret it as an insult, just as you suggested might happen. As in "I'm not a Calvinist or an Arminian, I'm a biblicist" which, when stated that way cannot help but suggest that neither Calvinists nor Arminians can be biblicists.

The term alone really conveys little meaning, other than that a person derives their theology from the bible. Who among most orthodox Christians would reject the label "biblicist"? Certainly I cannot think of any evangelical Christians who would not self identify as biblicists.

Bart Barber said...


Thanks for the comment. Indeed, it is a major part of the point of the post to suggest not only, as you have, that almost every party in evangelical Christianity would self-identify as a biblicist, but also to suggest that, for a large number of those people, the label would be appropriate.

And yet, there are excesses in either camp that one might highlight as clearly not arising out of biblical study. Here's one that will be non-controversial among Southern Baptists: The idea that a person can successively rotate through being saved, lost, saved, lost, saved, lost, and saved again is an unbiblical conceit. Even the Arminian passages give no comfort to that point of view. And yet, that idea resonates well with a certain idea of human freedom. People who may have derived a view of human freedom from honest Bible study (whether they were accurate or inaccurate to do so), then extend that concept to say something that the Bible does not say.

I'm willing to say that the defenders of a concept like that have gone beyond biblicism to something other.

Likewise, I would say of Calvinism that the denial of the free offer of grace to all men (Hyper-Calvinism) is a concept that runs contrary to the Bible. Biblicism cannot get you there. Faithfulness to a certain idea of the scope of the atonement, extended along certain philosophical lines, can indeed take you there, and has done so for some people.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Discussing "biblicists" was a hot item on the old Baptist Board several years ago. In the end I think more heat was generated than light. Some people are determinately focused on one being either a Calvinist or an Arminian, and will abide not other terminology.

The problem with "biblicist" may be that it communicates both too much and too little. Too much if one claims to be a biblicist in distinction from a Calvinist or an Arminian (or a premillennialist or an amillennialist, e.g.). Too little as far as describing exactly one does believe. Other labels (Baptist, fundamentalist, Calvinist, Arminian, premillennialist) may not be precise, but they do have a history behind them that puts us in the ballpark of what one believes.

On the other hand, it's really frustrating to be a "biblicist" -- one who tries to go where the Bible takes him -- in a systematic theological world that tries to divide everyone into a neat theological corrals. Very interesting subject to think about.

Bill said...

It seems that what many people mean when they identify as a biblicist is that they derive their doctrines from the immediate context of scripture above the greater context. By that I mean those who fall into the traditional groups (like Calvinists or Arminians) do have what they consider to be biblical interpretations to the passages that seem to work against their theological system, when considering the greater context. Scripture cannot contradict itself, therefore when the Calvinist (or non-Arminian or anyone holding to eternal security) comes to Hebrews 6, then the greater context of scripture takes precedence over the immediate context. I'm not saying it's always the right thing to do, but it isn't a violation of biblicism.

fishformen said...

Excellent post.

Bart Barber said...

The "too much…too little" critique is a good one. Perhaps a better word would be "susyemaphobic

Bart Barber said...


The "greater context of scripture" ought to be the product of the mediate context of scripture. I think you've summarized the dispute well. The subjugation of the immediate context of scripture is a warning flag and a danger.

That's not to say I never do it. That's not even to say that it mustn't be done. That's just to say it is an extremely risky affair.

Steve Weaver said...


I appreciate the spirit of this post. Once again you have demonstrated your fairness toward the position of others.

My two cents:
I think calling oneself a "biblicist" among people who all claim to believe the Bible can come across as arrogant. As if "If only you would read the Bible you would come to my exact views." The reality is that both (or, all three?) sides of this issue (at least in SBC life) view themselves as deriving their view from Scriptures. At least I hope this is the case and I choose to believe this about my brothers and sisters in Christ.

As you know, a basic rule of hermeneutics is to interpret unclear passages in light of more clear passages. Since all of Scripture is true, there can be no real contradiction between the classic "Arminian texts" and the classic "Calvinist texts." I believe that every serious Bible student interprets some texts in light of other texts. I agree that this is risky business, but I also think it is necessary.

For me, the issue comes down to which interpretation gives the most glory to God. Others may make their interpretation decision based on which interpretation preserves human freedom. I think recognizing this presupposition allows one to see their core value. I.e., those who value human freedom most tend to interpret Scripture accordingly, and those who value God's glory or sovereignty most tend to interpret Scripture in light of this value. (I recognize that those who value human freedom may do so precisely because they think this reality gives most glory to God. This is a place where Calvinists are guilty of a similar arrogance as the "biblicist" claim.)

In the end, I think we must all wrestle with the difficult texts for our own views. Those who aren't wrestling with these texts and how they should be interpreted in both the immediate and canonical contexts have no claim to the title "biblicist" whether leaning toward either side of the debate in question.

As an expository preacher, (although I have certain theological presuppositions) I try to allow the tension stand in the difficult passages. Too often some spend all their time preaching what a text doesn't mean and very little time declaring what the text actually says.

I appreciate the fact that you seek to faithfully preach the text. I would like to think that we could preach the same texts in similar fashion as faithful expositors of Scripture. If more people sought to faithfully preach the whole counsel of God, I think we would have more respect for each others' positions, even if we did not come to uniformity.

Your friend,

Jerry Corbaley said...

One of the best statements of your whole post (in my opinion), is the following:

" When I call myself a biblicist, I'm not attempting to describe some achievement of mine; I'm trying to describe an endeavor of mine. I'm speaking not of my accomplishment, but of my motivation".

I cannot help but wholeheartedly agree.

Our Lord Theologian Himself will make the details clear when He calls us all to account for our lives.

A. Chadwick Mauldin said...

"When I call myself a biblicist, I'm not attempting to describe some achievement of mine; I'm trying to describe an endeavor of mine."

This is a very thoughtful and honest post. Much appreciated...

R. L. Vaughn said...

"Perhaps a better word would be 'susyemaphobic'".

No speaking in tongues now, I thought you were a cessationist!

Maybe if you are successful in making your case (it is different from those on the Baptist Board) for the word "biblicist" we'll eventually have enough agreement to use it.

I intended to comment previously but forgot -- I think there is a lot of common ground for those of us whose sincere study of Scripture finds verses, sentences and paragraphs that pose serious problems for the strict "logic" of our viewpoints. It's the ones who have everything all figured out that seem to know one label fits them and another label fits everyone else who doesn't agree with them.

Bart Barber said...

Sorry for my absence from the stream. Pastoral responsibilities have to come first. Good discussion, all!

Anonymous said...

From what I've seen, there are many Arminians who don't buy the "able to lose your salvation" part of their theology. So I'm not entirely sure how important that particular belief is to Arminianism.

Personally, I've started to be called a heretic from both sides. Calvinists call me a Pelagianist (of course many of them would call anyone who believed in free-will heretics). Arminians say I'm either semi-Pelagian or open-theism.

Pelagius was an early Church heretic who believed mankind was basically good and able to fufill God's expectations on his own. Later some tried to reform his teachings by saying mankind did have a sinful nature but he is still able to cooperate with God to fulfill salvation. The problem with their view was that again mankind could do something that required God to give salvation.

Personally I think they could've taken semi-Pelagianism one step further. Mankind has a sinful nature, capable of doing good or evil, and (this is the part I believe they should have accepted) unable to save itself but able to choose God's gracious offer of salvation. This to me appears to align with Scripture the most.

volfan007 said...


Great post that conveys much of what I also believe and where I stand. I'm not sold out to any system, either. And, I would add that I call myself a Biblicist, because I just try to believe what the Bible says...not to put down anyone, who is into a system like Calvinism, or Arminianism, or any other "ism."

I'm thinking about changing what I call myself to a Christian Baptist...a Christian by the grace of God, and a Baptist by conviction. But, I think even calling myself that would stir up certain people to anger and extreme irritation. You know, "You think we're not Baptists then?" folks.
Anyway, I appreciate your attempt to explain how some of us, out here, are in between the Arminians and the Calvinists, due to our Biblical convictions.


David R. Brumbelow said...

Perhaps we should call this view:


David R. Brumbelow

Jerry Corbaley said...

David, I cannot help but consider your suggestion "barberic".

Anonymous said...


Systematic Calvinists and Arminians have taken liberty to fill in areas which appear to me to be mystery. Thats why Calvinists debate the order of decrees, the the nature of regeneration and why arminians debate the nature and extent of prevenient grace etc none of which are addressed in Scripture. I tend to take the term "biblicist" as an unwillingness to say more than the text says and allow the secrets continue to belong to the Lord. If the Lord wanted these things to be clear He could have made it so.

Tim B

revrogers said...

I would encourage you to take the survey at the Society of Evangelical Arminians site.

It is a helpful tool for determining between those who are Calvinists and those who are Arminian and helping those uncomfortable with either label discover that they may actually be one or the other.

You can fully believe in eternal security and be an Arminian.

KWS said...

Bart, one of your better posts. I appreciate your fair treatment of other theological positions. Some on both sides seem to be terrific at creating theological straw men and ripping them to shreds. For many of my fellow Calvinists, an
Arminian is anyone less calvinistic than they, and for others a Hyper-Calvinist is anyone who believes in individual election. Thanks for helping us think more clearly on the issue.

Bart Barber said...

To everyone:

It has been Spring Trustee Meeting week at SWBTS. I've just arrived back into my office a few minutes before time for me to teach tonight's Bible Study. I've got another engagement this weekend. It's going to be several days before I can respond to any of these excellent comments.

In Christ,

Richmond Goolsby said...

As always a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I too have been incorrectly classified by both camps as "not enough" and "too much". I wonder if finding unified peace in the discussion of soteriology rests in realizing that many great theologians have been standing on different sides of the mountain of God's sovereign grace. Each side describing things that are too wonderful for us to fully understand without appreciating the other's view of the mountain. I don't mean to deny the law of non-contradiction but to say that infinite concepts exhaust our efforts to explain them. Remonstrance and Dort seem to be contradictory in some ways but also appear to be honest efforts to describe the actions of the God whose "ways are not our ways". Maybe we can appreciate the view of grace from our side of the mountain without castigating the views of others.

Anonymous said...

calvin was just another pope who supported murder in the name of christ. no where in the new testament does it say to murder anyone who disagrees with you. how anyone can follow the teachings of a murder is beyond me.

Mighty said...

T- Total Depravity (Romans 3:10,11)
U- Unmerited Election (Eph 1:4-6, Rom 8:28-30, 1 Pet 3:9)
L- Limitless atonement (Jn 3:16, 4:14, 1 Tim 2:3-6, Heb 2:9)
I- Instrumental Grace (Jn 1:11-14, Eph 2:8-10, Tit 2:11)
P- Preservation of the saints (Rom 8:31-39, Heb 7:25, 12:1-11)

5 Bible Truths. John 17:17

Bart Barber said...

Well, Mighty, since nobody who isn't a Calvinist has ever had any verses of scripture to quote from their side, you obviously win.

If only you'd been around 400 years ago!