Monday, May 14, 2012

When You Are Polarized, Is the Answer to Always Run to the Middle?

This mostly helpful article by guest blogger Ken Hamrick discusses a debate within the Southern Baptist Church and points out that Our Enemy is Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism, but Polarization. In it he uses an argument that I find troubling:

What many proponents of the polar extremes fail to realize is that the truth is in the middle. It is the nature of men to err and misunderstand, and every important truth seems to have a large group erring on either side. This no different. As Baptists and Biblicists, the extremes are easily recognized as foreign ideas.

 My short dialog with Ken explains the problem I have with this kind of argumentation:


I generally balk at language that posits the ends of a particular spectrum with the truth being “somewhere in the middle”. The problem is that people who argue this way tend to place their position as the middle and construct false extremes.

The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism generally centers on the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s culpability or responsibility. The Bible is clear about those two things and our task is to hold both as true theologically. This can be done in a number of ways which fleshes out in more of a multidimensional array of spectra. So we end up defining people with how many points of Calvinism they hold. (Although I’ve never read anyone quantify how much of an Arminian someone is.)

So it’s generally good to focus on what we hold as true from scripture and enjoy the particulars as though we were children marveling at the indiscernible clouds, as though they looked like a rabbit or a snowman, that bring good rain instead of getting worked up over the debate. We are biblicists and should be grateful that we agree on that. There are people who aren’t biblicists and it’s far better to make the case for that to them than it is to fuss over whether someone lost their salvation or wasn’t truly a Christian to begin with. The result is the same; they are outside of Christ now and need the ministry of the gospel truth.

I generally balk when two extremes ignore the substantial middle and insist that we must choose between one or the other. My point was not to create a middle position from the two ends, but rather, to point out that the middle position exists on its own, overlapping some of Calvinism and some of Arminianism, and most Southern Baptists are found there. While I have not consulted any polls, it has been my experience that most Southern Baptist do hold to unconditional election, while also holding that men are free to choose or reject God. They hold that the gospel is a universal offer — implorative and not merely informative — imploring all men to believe and not merely informing that God will save the elect. They hold that all men have a genuine warrant to believe, since if even a nonelect man were to hypothetically believe, then he would be saved and would not find any lack of atonement. They hold that men who come to faith in Christ are THEN regenerated by the indwelling Holy Holy Spirit. They hold that what keeps men from Christ is first and foremost sin and not some corpse-like inability to understand, so that if a man is not saved he has only himself to blame.

We don’t need to give equal validity to the more extreme teachings as if these things were indiscernible. Exactly how God’s agency interacts with man’s agency in salvation might not be discernible, but the fact that both play a part is discernible.

I agree that we should be grateful that we are Biblicists. It is not the centrality of the main position, but the authority of Scripture that gives it its validity and strength.


It boils down to a relative position that says essentially, “Extreme people should stop saying that they are right and everyone else is wrong since the most peaceful solution is to say that everyone is a little bit right. Since my position is the balanced one, you are wrong and I am right.” It’s one of the most effective tactics used by political pundits to reframe a debate irrationally and make it sound rational. That’s why I balk at it.

The problem with this, especially in this case, is that it’s use typically results in the discussion to fail to accurately assess the beliefs that people have and subsequently address them on an ineffective level resulting in intensified frustration. For example, many people misconstrue Calvinism as denying moral responsibility and also misconstrue Arminianism as denying the sovereignty of God. There are biblical varieties of each that affirm both and I’m okay with the differences otherwise. I, for example, am a 5-point soteriological Calvinist and a Compatibilist. I’ve worked happily on the mission field with brothers in Christ who are Molinists. The only balance I can claim is what the Bible is particularly clear on.

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