by: Terry Ryan
Are you known for your “…ism?”
Do you understand Arminianism? What about Calvinism?
These are only two of the “isms” that you may have been asked about or heard of.
What about Molinism, Thomism, Lutheranism, Wesleyanism or Pelagianism? Or maybe you know quietism, congruism, determinism, or traditionalism?
In the Christian and philosophical arena today there are debates, issues and so many theological /philosophical leanings that it can be numbing? Theologians debate Theology, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology, soteriology, ecclesiology and a lot of other big words that could be simplified by speaking in less complicated terms. More on that later. So, what is the average Christian to do? It is the aim of this blog to give you some reasons why one should consider avoiding the “ism” mindset that many believers and non-believers alike get trapped by. This is a timely topic since many churches and even some denominations are having real issues managing the “isms” that threaten to divide them.
To begin, let us establish a core definition. Are you a Christian? Meaning that you are a devoted follower of Jesus and believe that He is the Christ of Christianity and the Messiah spoken of in both the Old Testament and New Testament. The term “Christian” as used in this article is defined to mean “disciple of Christ” and with the understanding that according to Acts 11:26, followers of Jesus were first called “Christian” in Antioch. This definition will then be what is meant when “Christian” is written, while it is understood that there may be others who define it differently, for these purposes the terms Christ follower, His disciple and Christian are synonymous. The early Disciples (Christians) were Christ followers and as followers had a set of core beliefs, many of which seem remarkably different than those of the modern church, especially the western church. Therefore, the Christian in our time and this place, must have this same set of core beliefs, to be called “Christian.” As one discusses historical Christianity and the impact that these “isms’ have had on our modern understanding the foundation must be a common one. Therefore, this is written for the Christian. Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth,
“According to the grace of God, which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, NKJV).
Paul was not telling Christians that they cannot have an opinion and certainly we can teach using modern techniques and examples. But the fundamental and foundational message must not be altered to fit our social needs or our desires and never should one use God’s Word to prove any point other than the point God is making.
Therefore, we not only need to know what the term “Christian” means, we need to define some of the other terms used in these debates. These definitions are needed to ensure we are all working from the same understanding. We do not have time and it is not the purpose here to define every possible term, so the three main or three of the main “isms” are as follows:
Arminianism: is a form of Protestantism based on the theological ideas of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Harmenszoon (Latin form: Jacobus Arminius) and his historic supporters known as Remonstrant and asserts that God’s sovereignty and man’s free will are compatible teaching that man chooses to be saved. Some well-known Arminianist are C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, and G.K. Chesterton.
Calvinism: is a Protestant belief that follows the theological tradition set down by John Calvin marked by strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the depravity of humankind, and the doctrine of predestination, teaching that only the elect are saved and that they are the only ones who could be saved. We often tie the acrostic “TULIP” to Calvinism. Some modern Calvinist are John Piper, Mark Dever and Dr. Wayne Grudem.
Molinism: named after 16th-century Spanish Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina and is a doctrine that it is man's free cooperation which makes it possible for him to perform a good act with and through God's grace. Modern supporters of Molinism are Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Eric Hankins
Many of these “isms” are based on the teachings and explanations of individuals and there are many more, some that follow the teachings of an individual and some that do not. Please understand, this writing is not to disparage or promote these men and their teaching. So, whether you are a “Calvinist” or an “Arminian” this is not to tell you that you are wrong or right to believe what Jacobus Arminius or John Calvin wrote, it is to (possibly) let you know some of the pitfalls in tying yourself to an “ism.” There are many resources that allow you to research the stands (5-Point Arminianism, 5-point Calvinism, Molinism) of each. However, please be warned many of these sites are very slanted toward which ever view the authors support and often use language designed to sway the reader.
It is the proposal of this blog to present an argument not against nor for any particular “ism” but to simply state why it may be wise to avoid these extra-biblical monikers as an identity for your belief. Where the Bible clearly agrees with one of these “isms” all should agree, where the Bible clearly disagrees with the “ism” all should disagree. Therefore, no time will be spent going into detail of the teachings of any of the founders of any of the “isms” nor will expressions of agreement be given. While the followers or proponents of any particular “ism” may believe that this blog agrees with them while others may not, it is not the goal to express in this limited space what is wrong or right with each system of thought.
So, let’s get to it. Reasons for not identifying as an “ism:”
1. The “ism” mindset or identity leaves you defending things you may not believe. One could read much of what John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jacobus Arminius wrote and many other church writers / theologians, but still not for certain they have read everything written. Therefore, one cannot say they agree with everything those individuals believed. And in fact, it is dangerous for any of us to say we believe everything someone else uses a “ism” to describe. When one declares, “I am an …ism.” the interpretation of the “ism” then becomes an interpretation of information, not based on understanding of the one identifying with it, but on the knowledge of the one it is being declared to. For example Luther wrote, speaking of the Jewish people, and encouraging Christians to, “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.” Certainly, the modern Lutheran Church attender or other modern followers of Christ don’t agree with burning synagogues, or at least shouldn’t. Yet, many espouse the teachings of Luther as correct. Is there a conflict here? Should we throw out everything Luther wrote? What about Calvin? In November 1552 the Geneva Council declared Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion to be a "holy doctrine which no man might speak against." Disagreeing with Calvin’s view of God was a violation warranting the death penalty. The Geneva city council records describe one verdict where a man who publicly protested against John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was flogged at all the city’s main intersections and then expelled (“The Minutes Book of the Geneva City Council, 1541-59,” translated by Stefan Zweig, Erasmus: The Right to Heresy). Certainly, no modern Christian could, in good conscience be this kind of Calvinist, or at least they shouldn’t be. The Calvinist would say that only the “elect” are saved, having had no real freedom to choose Christ, but that God in His Sovereignty choose those who He would to be saved and others He didn’t choose and therefore doomed some to an eternity in hell. This doesn’t sound like love to me. The Arminianism would say that man freely chooses God and because it is an act of the free will, He could un-choose and therefore we can never know the absolute security of an individual’s salvation, including our own. This doesn’t give us confidents in Christ ability to keep me for eternity. You see to tie yourself to an “ism” is to declare that you believe everything the founder believed and by proxy those who developed the theology under that name. Moreover, if a reasonable person would study any man’s writings in depth, they would ultimately find an error, a flaw, a sin. These are after all just men, flawed and troubled just as we all are. Therefore, to tie oneself to their teaching is to tie yourself to their flaws and yes to their sin.
2. The “ism” mindset or identity causes you to focus on the wrong person. To be a true follower of an “ism” requires one to read and agree with all the theological stands for which the “ism” espouses. Some would argue this, saying, “I can agree with some and not agree with all.” That is the point of this article, if you do not agree with all a particular “ism” is than you are not that “ism!” As stated in point one, to be a follower of an “ism” to the be a follower of the founder of that “ism.” Some may not have a problem with that, but some do. When one states, “I am a Calvinist, or Arminian, or any other school of thought, you are declaring that as the focus of your thought. This declaration then tells everyone that this system, school, philosophy will and does inform your actions and teaching. Again, some may not have a problem with this, but to say “I am an Arminianist” is to say that you believe you can lose your salvation. To say, “I am a Calvinist” is to say that you believe people who do not agree with John Calvin must be put to death. Now those are extremes and ridiculous thoughts, but an “ism” brings our focus onto such extremes and takes our focus off Christ. Certainly, every Christian should be encouraged to read and to read widely. Read even those you do not agree with. But for every word you read from Martin Luther, John Calvin, R. A. Torrey, Gordon Fee or Oswald Chambers read at least 100 words from the Bible. The best commentary for the Bible is the Bible. The Bible is God’s written revelation of Himself to mankind and the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. An “ism” can cause you to interpret the Bible through the lens of that “ism.” When the “ism’ becomes the lens, philosophy, criterion, our focus is misguided at best and dangerous at worst.
3. The “ism” mindset is divisive. The Bible calls for unity and “isms’ always cause division. An “ism” by nature will separate people into groups. There will be the Calvinist on one side and the Arminianist on the other, the Neo…ism, verses the Pre…ism, post…ism etc. on the other. The reason for these divisions is the nature of human thought. At the core men know, and the Bible teaches, that we are sinners by nature, and that the wages of the sin is death. Often an “ism” will explain or set up one group as a morally superior to another by declaring that they have the "truth." During the Sermon on the Mound Jesus said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 5:20). These are tough words if you are leaning on some teaching or system to ensure your worthiness. Oswald Chambers wrote of this passage,
“The practical outcome of these words is astonishing; it means that my standard of moral conduct must exceed the standard of the most moral, upright man or woman I know who lives apart from the grace of God. Think of the most upright man or woman, the most worthy person you know who has had no experience whatsoever of receiving the Spirit of God. Jesus Christ says, in effect, that we have to exceed his or her rectitude. Instead of our Lord lowering the standard of moral conduct, He pushes it to a tremendous extreme. We have not only to do right things, but our motives have to be right, the springs of our thinking have to be right, we have to be so unblameable that God Himself can see nothing to censure in us. That is the standard of moral conduct when we are born again of the Spirit of God and are obeying Him. What is my standard of moral conduct? It is God’s standard, or the modern one? The modern standard is summed up in one phrase, self-realization. The two are diametrically opposed to one another, there is no point of reconciliation between them.” (Oswald Chambers, Biblical Psychology, Discovery House Publishers, 1995, pg. 157)
There are none of us who have a morally upper hand. Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NO, NOT ONE” (Romans 3:9-10). The principle of all men as sinners is a core belief of Christianity, there is no groups, all are guilty and in need of the Savior.
4. When we begin to cling to an “ism” we are saying the Holy Spirit is not enough. Some would say, “if you only studied under a (Calvin, Arminius, Molina) “…ist” you would then know.” Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”(John 14:26, NKJV) An “ism” divides us from the Holy Spirit as our teacher. Certainly, many have the Holy Spirit as well, men mentioned above and others have and will continue to provide us insight and knowledge through the gifting of the Holy Spirit, but this insight, if from the Holy Spirit will unite and edify the true Christian and the true church, not divide it. And true teaching will always focus on God's Revelation to mankind, who is Jesus the Christ. In Romans, 1st Corinthians, 1st Thessalonians we are told to sacrificially edify one another. A Christian should not ignore the sensitivities of others just because they have the right. But, should be sensitive to the compassion of the Holy Spirit. Romans 14 verses 16-19 inform us,
“Therefore, do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” Romans 14:16-19 (NKJV)
Paul affirmed the sacrificial nature of edification in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” We must willingly edify regardless of our desires. Also, in 1st Thessalonians 5:11, we read, “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.” Our every action should edify the body of Christ. Some on one side of this may say, for example, “if you do not believe in Calvinism it is simply because you are not one of the elect.” This sort of holy trump card is a straw man. A leader in a mainstream denomination once said during a disagreement over a non-biblical issue, “Well, I prayed about it, so I am right” as if the other party had not prayed about it. The “passion bully” will often resort to this type of option, seeing it as the “nuclear” or “holy trump” option, this affirms the division and places them in a position (they feel) of spiritual superiority. Often this feeling of superiority will be displayed in the use of overly complicated terms. It is true, that the modern Pastor, or Theology student will take classes in Theology, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, all these terms are really just words used to identify simply concepts but can be used to make the church attender feel less than or to show how much the speaker knows. Thus, affirming that their “take” is the right one, and you just need to learn more. This form of intellectual bullying is a clear sign that someone is not mature enough to be a Pastor. A Christian is never to lord over another, we may lead, guide, teach, correct and even rebuke, but do so with humility and love. The sad part of this is that far too many have been made to feel like second class church members and some are even voted out of the church they attend.
5. The “ism” mindset forces one to defend writings that are not Scripture and therefore, contain error. Most mainstream denominations believe that the Word of God is without error, some adding the phrase, “in its original form” to avoid the translation arguments. To fully commit to an “ism” it would be logical to study the founder of that school and study their writings in depth. This means you must study the writings of a man to be prepared to give a defense for the belief that is in you. It should be logical to most that study and education are important, especially when dealing with such a life-giving subject. And scripture tells us in 2nd Timothy (2:15), “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” We should study the Scriptures to be ready to give a defense for the hope that is in you! Peter taught, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.” (1st Peter 3:15 -16). We are to sanctify the Lord in our hearts, that is to give Him special place, a Holy Place. By identifying as an “ism” one runs the risk of placing the teaching of a man on par with the teaching of God and allowing a man to have a special place. This is not saying we can’t have a favorite writer, theologian or preacher, but their every word is at best second to God’s. It is easy to believe that a student can agree with some of the teachings and not agree with all the teaching of an individual while still being devoted and in line with the Truth of Scripture. But to declare one’s adherence to an “ism” stands in juxtaposition to impartiality.
6. The “ism” mindset becomes the filter through which you pass everything you hear, learn or see. This can be a dangerous place for a Christian to find themselves and an exceptionally dangerous place for a Pastor, Evangelist, or Teacher. Once again it should be encouraged by all to study the writings of others, but these must always be seen through the lens of scripture with the Holy Spirit as the guide. Every Pastor, Preacher, Evangelist, and Teacher should understand Hermeneutics as a process, taking seriously the task of biblical exegesis. And doing so not to prove a presupposition formed from the writings of another, but to simply let Scripture say what it says. The honest study of scripture is the method for which God has determined to both establish and grow our faith, for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. (Romans 10:17) By following an “ism” one may be tempted or simply begin to seek scripture to affirm an already formed belief instead of allowing scripture to transform our beliefs. This temptation is especially powerful in a prideful person or someone who struggles with self-worth. There are many popular teachers who have leanings one way or the other and if they have carefully navigated the dangers of stating an “ism”, they need not fear someone will let us all know what “ism” they fall under. We all want to be wanted and in the know, but Christians need to be careful about joining the latest greatest fad, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2) It is God’s will that we be in our right mind, and that is a mind focused on Him.
Four times in scripture we are directly told the clear will of God. In his book, The 4 Wills of God, Dr. Emerson Eggerichs outline what he calls the “four wills of God.” These four universal wills are taken from John 6:40, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, 1 Peter 2:13-15, and 1 Thessalonians 4:3. In John 6:39-40 Jesus tells us what God’s will is, “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." In 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 we read, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.” (1st Th. 4:3-8) 1st Thessalonians 5 verse 18 tells us to give thanks in everything, that this thankfulness is the will of God. And Peter writes that we should do good and this silences the fool! We could see these as; belief in Jesus is God’s will, maintaining sexual purity is God’s will, being thankful is God’s will and doing right is God’s will. We must remember that the will of God does exist and can be known (Eph. 5:17) Moreover, He has expressed His will for us in and through His Word. Reading to understand the word of God is the key to the successful Christian life. Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (NKJV) Therefore, read much and wide, but don’t be an “ism” be a Christian. Learn from others but trust the Words of Jesus as truth. Be compassionate to all but do not be afraid to reproof, correct, encourage, teach but do it all in love.