One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

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