Are Arminians better off when it comes to assurance? Why I’m not so sure.

Posted on 01/10/12 33 Comments

Andy Derksen offered an interesting comment on my blog post “Compassion Reformed?” in which he sought to extend the argument from compassion for others to assurance of one’s own salvation. He wrote:

Ironically, not only must the Calvinist–*IF* he’s logically consistent with his theology–hold merely “provisional” compassion toward the suffering, he must also hold only provisional /self-acceptance/ as a Christian. This is because it is logically impossible to know whether or not you are “elect” yourself in the Calvinist understanding. Sure, they claim to incorporate assurance of salvation into their system, but Calvin himself taught an “inferior operation of the Spirit” whereby false believers are literally fooled by a minimal working of the Holy Spirit that mimics His work in the elect. Calvin wrote that

“…the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence . . . a temporary faith, is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instils into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption. Should it be objected, that believers have no stronger testimony to assure them of their adoption, I answer, that though there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith, yet the elect alone have that full assurance which is extolled by Paul, and by which they are enabled to cry, Abba, Father.” (_Institutes_ III.2.11-12)

So we see that although Calvin /asserted/ the elect’s assurance of salvation, our ground-level experience is that there is really nothing distinguishing the elect’s own sense of salvation from the false security of reprobates who believe themselves saved.

Of course this conundrum applies not only to Calvinism but any system that teaches “once saved, always saved.” Many non-Calvinists subscribe to “OSAS,” but only a consistent Arminianism, which allows for real apostasy by real Christians, resolves this dilemma.

Is it true as Andy claims that Arminians are better off when it comes to assurance of salvation?

Calvinist Defeaters

The way you undermine knowledge is by identifying a defeater. A defeater is some evidence which serves to rebut a proposition (showing it to be false) or to undermine a proposition (remove your ground to think it true). In the present case the Calvinist seems to face an undercutting defeater:

Calvinist defeater: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are elect but are in fact reprobate is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are elect and are in fact elect.

So the argument goes like this: once you recognize that (i) is indiscernable from (ii) you have no reason to believe that you are elect (ii) rather than reprobate (i). And once you can’t know that (ii) is true then you can’t have assurance that you are elect.

Arminian Defeaters

What about Arminians? Do they escape this dilemma? I don’t think so. Andy refers to the possibility of “real apostasy” from within an Arminian framework. But wait. Isn’t the possibility for real apostasy fatal to Arminian assurance?

To be sure, while the earliest Arminians were undecided about the matter of so-called real apostasy most subsequent Arminians have been strongly onside with Andy and, more importantly, with John Wesley who wrote: “a man that believes now may be an unbeliever some time hence; yea, very possibly tomorrow; but if so, he who is a child of God today, may be a child of the devil tomorrow.”

If Wesley is to be believed then being a “child of God” is not the same as “being elect”, for one can be a child of God today and yet may die a child of the devil tomorrow. And if one dies a child of the devil then one was not elect. Thus, a child of God may simultaneously be reprobate (that is, not elect)! And this leads us to an Arminian defeater:

Arminian defeater: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are elect but are in fact reprobate is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are elect and are in fact elect.

Once you recognize that (i) is indiscernable from (ii) you have no reason to believe that you are elect (ii) rather than reprobate (i). And so the Arminian is in the same boat as the Calvinist.

Defeaters for everyone else

This isn’t just a Calvinist and Arminian problem however. Did you ever have a vivid dream in which you were convinced that you were awake?

Dreamy defeater for everyone else: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are awake but are in fact asleep is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are awake and are in fact awake.

Were you ever convinced that you were remembering something but in fact your memory was false?

Memory defeater for everyone else: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are remembering correctly but are in fact subject to a false memory is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are remembering correctly and are in fact remembering correctly.

Were you ever convinced that there was a sparkling pool uphead on the desert highway?

Sense perception defeater for everyone else: The interior psychological state of (i) those who believe they are perceiving correctly but are in fact perceiving falsely is indiscernable from the interior psychological state of (ii) those who believe they are perceiving correctly and are in fact perceiving correctly.

Conclusion

The Calvinist’s problem of assurance is the Arminian’s problem of assurance is the general problem of human fallibility. In each case the question is this: I believe p but I could conceivably be wrong about p so how can I know p? Can I know p?

So what to do? On the one hand you could accept the skeptic’s position: we can’t know p.  But this seems too extreme. Surely the mere possibility of error is not enough to undermine a person’s knowledge that they are seeing a green apple, or that they visited this restaurant before, or that they are awake. The mere possibility of error is not sufficient to create an undercutting defeater that can undermine our knowledge of p.

If we can handle these general defeaters, it is also possible to handle defeaters in the case of the knowledge of assurance, be it Arminian  or Reformed.

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    On the one hand you could accept the skeptic’s position: we can’t know p. But this seems too extreme.

    Is that “the” only possible “skeptic’s position”?

    For example, what if we treat belief as a continuum? Say, zero is “absolutely certain to be false” and one is “absolutely certain to be true”. Propositions could range in value between those two extremes.

    Human fallibility would mean no actual proposition would actually reach zero or one, but some propositions could get awfully close to an extreme. E.g. “two plus two equals four” would be .9999… and so many nines that for all practical purposes there’d be no point in entertaining the idea it was false.

    • randal

      Of course belief comes in degrees (i.e. degrees of psychological conviction or certitude). The problem arises when the likelihood of a belief’s being false due to a defeater is inscrutable. If we have no idea how likely a belief is to be false we have no idea the degree of conviction which is properly ascribed to the belief.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        Wait, are you saying that we have no idea how likely “a person’s knowledge that they are seeing a green apple” is to be false?

  • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Tom Larsen

    Randal, are you familiar with Molinism? If so, what are your thoughts on it (and the idea of middle knowledge) as it pertains to election, assurance, and so on?

    • randal

      Sure, I’m a Molinist. But I’m not sure what Molinism adds, because my question is still this: how do I know that the actual world is one of the subset of possible worlds in which I am elect?

      What are your thoughts?

  • Crude

    Hey Randal.

    Pardon my being off-topic, but given your collaboration with Loftus, I was wondering if you intended to respond to this recent quip from him:

    It’s not just the utter buffoons I’m talking about, which are many, but all of them. Christians are illogical and delusional. This I know, after spending years in my own delusion and after years of dealing with them since my deconversion. How can they be so deluded, I ask myself? How can they be so dumb?

    That’s from his recent entry, “The Mind of the Believer” over on his FT blog if you want to source it. I’ll note that he makes no qualifications: ‘all of them’. Christians are illogical and delusion as a whole – yourself included, it would seem. Indeed, you’re deluded and dumb.

    I’d just like to hear your thoughts on that, considering you co-wrote a book with him recently. Especially since said co-writing was met with a lot of criticism by Christians, largely due to reservations about the intellectual integrity and capability of Loftus in particular as opposed to atheists in general.

    • randal

      Crude, you express yourself more temperately than Morrison, Jouras and Grady. That’s a definite improvement.

      Ann Coulter says “If democrats had any brains they’d be republicans”. All democrats? Really? Even nobel prize winning economists?

      Welcome to the world of bloated rhetoric and indefensible dichotomies.

      • Crude

        I’m not sure who the last two are, and Morrison I only see in a now-and-then comment at Reppert’s.

        Welcome to the world of bloated rhetoric and indefensible dichotomies.

        Well, here’s the problem. That ‘bloated rhetoric and indefensible dichotomy’ is something he puts out intentionally. And guess what he says when people call him on it? His latest tack is to point at his book with you to demonstrate how open-minded and civil he is.

        Would you co-write a book with Ann Coulter – let’s pretend it would be a step down rather than a step up for you in terms of audience, as it seems to be with Loftus – if you knew doing so would allow her to advance her agenda?

        Anyway, I don’t intend to make this some kind of lecture. Just providing some reason why the cooperation on this front has been regarded poorly.

        • randal

          Sure I’d consider writing a book with Ann Coulter if politics were my game, which it isn’t.

  • pete

    Calvinists often get asked (and rightfully so), how they know that they are part of “the elect”

    With this blog having challenged me, I can now scripturally respond:

    “..being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil. 1:6

    Knowing what I was before conversion, I can say that the progress I have made is indicitive of the timeless truth of this passage.

    Is it possible for me, once receiving the Spirit of The Son of God, to go back to what I was?

    I think that constant comparison to the “before”, “after”, and “still to come” pictures are our guages of assurance.

    And as such, I think that the general Calvinist framework is a better explanation of true assurance/revelation of true assurance that the others.

    On the Calvin quote that Randal cited, I think that part of the truth is collected (I have seen “Christians” who fit the bill Calvin described).

    However the “defeater” is defeated if one, or the Christian community, can guage the measure to which a person grows in sanctification/conformity to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Hence the need to commune with believers (cf. Hebrews 10:25)

  • The Atheist Missionary

    I’m just dreaming all of this. If I am wrong, you are all just figments of my imagination.

    • randal

      I don’t understand. If you’re not dreaming than I don’t exist but if you are dreaming then I do exist? Those are not very good options.

      Alvin Plantinga reported meeting a solipsist when he taught at Wayne State University. One of the solipsist’s colleagues commented to Plantinga: “We treat Dr. X very well because when he goes, we all go.”

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    I think this is right so long as the object of faith is one’s own faith. But I think things might go differently if the object of faith is God and his intentions towards humanity. I am not sure how the Calvinist can trust the verses that use universal quantifiers to claim that God loves everyone and died for everyone (John 3:16, 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 John 2:2). Not being able to look to those for comfort is a great loss for the troubled Calvinist, in my opinion.

    • randal

      Can you clarify what you mean by “the object of faith is one’s own faith” vs. “the object of faith is God”?

      The doctrine of assurance concerns how we can know the following: “I am one of the elect”. Whether God loves everyone or not is not of much comfort if one fears that they still might end up lost eternally.

      • Adam Omelianchuk

        When I say “the object of faith” I am talking about the object of our belief such that it is able to provide us with assurance. To believe (on Arminianism) “I am one of the elect” would mean that I have faith in Christ, that he loves me and that he died for me. His mission was to come and seek and save the lost and bring in as many who would believe. If one fears that, despite this universal love towards humanity, s/he may end up being eternally lost, then one is fretting over the quality of one’s faith. If that is where our uneasiness lies, then yes, we have little to comfort us. But if one looks away from one’s faith to God who has the intention to make us part of the elect, then we can find our way back to assurance. I am not sure how a Calvinist can do that, because God’s intentions towards the individual are hidden. That is, he can’t know “I am one of the elect” because he isn’t in a position to know whether God has intended to elect him. The unconditional nature of election is what makes the assurance question harder to answer, in my opinion.

        • pete

          I believe I am one of the elect, based upon the fruits of my life since coming to faith (more work to go).

          However, Philippians 1:6 is my classical reminder that it is the Spirit of God within a person that produces tangible change, in conformity with the sovereign will of God.

          Secondly, a person who fears their eternal standing, probably fears God, and thus is doing okay in His books.

        • randal

          Adam, if you don’t mind I’m going to blog about this. (Even if you do mind, it’s too late. I’ve already started. But I know you wouldn’t mind. You’re just that kind of guy.)

          • Adam Omelianchuk

            I get the feeling I am going to get skewered :P

    • http://analytictheologye4c5.wordpress.com/ PM

      Adam, surely you’re familiar universes of discourse. The quantifiers aren’t the issue, it’s the universe of discourse the quantifiers range over. To find the proper universe of discourse will involve a hermeneutical and exegetical debate.

      • Adam Omelianchuk

        Sure am! Isn’t clearly the discourse of persons?

        • PM

          ‘Persons’ is vague, though. But if you mean “all persons without exception,” then this can’t be right, for it would include God, angels, demons, etc. If you mean “all human persons without exception,” that’s not clear to me, nor many Calvinists and non-Calvinist exegetes. I realize there’s debate at this point, but it’s certainly not going to be solved by merely noting biblical authors use universal quantifiers!

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  • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Tom Larsen

    (1) A Christian should not marry an unbeliever.

    (2) If Calvinism is true, a believer will persist in faith; but a person can never be known with certainty to be a believer (she might fail to persist in faith, and “fall away,” demonstrating that she never had real faith in the first place).

    (3) Therefore, a Christian who holds to Calvinism should not marry.

    (Just to clarify, I don’t have any major beef against Calvinism; it’s not my view, but a kind of humble Calvinism is acceptable in my understanding.)

    • randal

      There are problems with each of your two premises.

      First, I don’t think (1) is correctly stated. The real premise would be something like this:

      (1′) A Christian should not marry an individual who they know to be an unbeliever or have reasonable grounds to believe is an unbeliever.

      Or perhaps you might go with this:

      (1”) A Christian should not marry an unbeliever (where believer is understood to mean “gives external signs of election” rather than “is elect” and unbeliever is understood to mean “fails to give external signs of election” rather than “is not elect”).

      With either one of these premises your argument is undermined.

      As for (2) the problem is with your claim that “a person can never be known with certainty to be a believer”. If this applies to Calvinists then it applies to Arminians too in which case they should not marry either. But really we surely do not require the strictest sense of certainty (e.g. incorrigiblity, indubitablity) before we marry someone else. We just need reasonable grounds to accept that the other person is a Christian and would make a good spouse. (Love is good to have as well!)

      • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Tom Larsen

        Which, of course, leads us back to the question: if Calvinism is true, how can one tell whether a person is likely a believer? There certainly have been people who have (apparently) believed for a long while and then, towards the end of their lives, have “fallen away.” The Calvinist would attribute this to such a person never having received saving faith from God in the first place. So perhaps Calvinists should just refrain from making judgements about whether a particular person is a believer, given the apparent unreliability of such judgements.

        (Most Arminians would claim that it is possible for a person to have genuine saving faith and then to fall away: so that one might marry a genuine believer who tragically rejects God later in life.)

        • randal

          Tom, if I understand your final point correctly, there is no problem with Arminians marrying people who are not truly elect but seem to provide evidence that they are truly elect. What then is the problem with Calvinists marrying people who are not truly elect but seem to provide evidence that they are truly elect?

          • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Tom Larsen

            There are a number of different understandings of “election” from an Arminian perspective. While I’m a Molinist, it seems that both Arminians and Molinists would agree that some of the main passages used to support the doctrine of election are referring to the corporate election of the Gentiles or the Church (the whole Body of Christ, that is). (And a Molinist, at least, can affirm election along with an understanding that people can have genuine faith and still possibly fall away.)

            But the main issue isn’t election, anyway. It’s whether a person truly believes in Jesus as Lord and delights in God. The Arminian and the Molinist would generally claim that a person can genuinely believe in Jesus as Lord and delight in God and then fall away at a later date; the Calvinist, it seems to me, is committed to saying that, if a person falls away from God, they never had genuine faith in the first place.

            So, as a Molinist, I could marry a person in the knowledge that she (almost certainly) truly believes in Jesus as Lord and delights in God. What matters is that she genuinely believes now; I don’t have to know the future to know whether or not she will persist in faith. But, if Calvinism is true, I should withhold judgement: given that I don’t know the future, I can’t tell whether or not she will persist in faith; and if she does not persist in faith, that means she never was truly a believer. Or so my argument goes. I’m pretty sure it’s flawed… and I don’t really have a vested interest in its truth.

            • randal

              Tom, you’ve missed the main point so let me restate it. A Christian is, at most, committed to an obligation like this:

              (1′) A Christian should not marry an individual who they know to be an unbeliever or have reasonable grounds to believe is an unbeliever.

              If an individual is providing discernable fruit of the Spirit and says they are a believer that is reasonable grounds to accept that they are a believer. Both Calvinists and Arminians can meet the obligation described in (1′) and thus in principle both Calvinists and Arminians can get married.

              • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Tom Larsen

                Now, your revised premise (1′),

                (1′) A Christian should not marry an individual who they know to be an unbeliever or have reasonable grounds to believe is an unbeliever,

                won’t do, I think; what about cases where a Christian is just uncertain whether her prospective spouse is a believer or not? (You’d really hope that matters of such significance would have been sorted out long before marriage was a “live option,” but never mind.) I think we need something like

                (1”) A Christian should not marry a person P if that Christian cannot truthfully claim, “I have reasonable grounds to think that P is a believer.”

                Now, what would such reasonable grounds look like? If we take such reasonable grounds to be, “P professes faith in Jesus as Lord, appears to delight in God, and exhibits the fruit of the Spirit,” then we need to ask how it is that people can exhibit the fruit of the Spirit and then apparently fall away from faith in God. The Arminian and the Molinist have no problem here; the issue is one that the Calvinist will have to deal with.

                My (very weakly-held) contention is that the Calvinist is not warranted in making judgements like Sue is (probably) a believer or Joe is (probably) an unbeliever: to reliably arrive at any sort of (even reasonably probable) conclusion about a person’s being a believer or not, he or she would have to know the future infallibly—for, on Calvinism, that a person appears to have been given the gift of saving faith is not necessarily evidence that they have been given the gift.

                (Edited for clarity.)

                • randal

                  Tom, you ask: “what about cases where a Christian is just uncertain whether her prospective spouse is a believer or not?”

                  Tom, (1′) specifies reasonable ground. If a person meets the criterion of (1′) and still has doubts about the other person then it is because they are being irrational.

  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

    Just one thought….

    Even as I read the first part of this post, your “dream” defeater example was coming to the forefront of my mind. So I grinned when I saw that you followed that train of thought.

    But I’m not sure whether I agree with where the train went. I’ve had a few experiences with lucid dreaming; some where I went from a state of wakefulness to sleep without an interruption in consciousness, and some where I realized I was dreaming and kept myself from waking up.

    There are a few reliable ways to tell whether you’re dreaming. In a dream, I can put my finger all the way through the palm of my hand. Even though I never wear a digital watch, my watch is always digital in dreams, and it always has letters or gibberish instead of the actual time. If I try to fly, I can. Lots of stuff that definitely doesn’t happen IRL.

    One time I noticed I was dreaming and so I woke up. Instead of getting out of bed, I decided to check and make sure I was awake. Sure enough, my watch said TEGHR. I woke up again. This process repeated at least four or five times before I finally woke up for real.

    The only way that I can be dreaming and not notice is if I don’t bother to check and see. And so I can be perfectly certain that I am truly awake now, simply because I can identify all the things that would signify a dream.

    I’ll leave the reader to link this analogy back in the other direction.

    • randal

      “The only way that I can be dreaming and not notice is if I don’t bother to check and see. And so I can be perfectly certain that I am truly awake now, simply because I can identify all the things that would signify a dream.”

      Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly. When he woke up he puzzled: Am I a man that dreamed he was a butterfly? Or am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man? Is Leonardo DiCaprio awake at the end of “Inception” or not? Are you now in a meta-dream which includes multiple instances of nested dreams that had the signs you have identified, while the meta-dream lacks those signs?

      • davidstarlingm

        Although you can hypothesize a sort of meta-dream by extension and analogy, there is no more evidence to support the notion of a metadream than there is to support the notion that we’re all in the Matrix.

        But the point is that examination of reality reveals whether you are dreaming or not. Examination of sanctification reveals whether your salvation is actual or not. The only way to think you’re awake when you’re dreaming is if you never question; the only way to think you’re saved when you’re not is if you refuse to examine yourself.