I recently obtained a review copy of Gordon Fee’s new commentary on Galatians (Deo, 2007). If the introduction is any indication, it looks to be an interesting read. Fee writes that a major concern of the commentary is, “to help people read Galatians as if the Reformation had never happened” (1). Wow! Whatever he is going to say, it is bound to be not only interesting but controversial. He substantiates this major concern by further saying Luther and Calvin, “tended to read the letter as having primarily to do with justification by works or by faith. But that is decidedly not the matter that called forth this letter, which is stated most clearly in one of the opening sentences of the argument proper: ‘Having begun by the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?’ (1:3), where ‘flesh’ is a play on words, referring to literal circumcision of the flesh as the primary issue regarding their keeping the law” (1). Fee indicates that he sees the primary issue of Galatians being not how one comes into relationship with God (justification) but whether or not the justified must practice certain elements of the Jewish law in order to be completed in faith in Christ. Can’t wait to read this one!
The ongoing debate between Calvinists and Arminians is often complicated by misunderstandings of the other side. This is particularly the case when it comes to the central convictions which form the foundation and inform the remainder of both Calvinistic and Arminian thinking. One reason for such misunderstandings is that we all too often read only those who agree with us rather than those who actually hold positions different from our own. All parties will benefit from engagement with primary sources on the other side of the theological issue.
One of the central issues over which Calvinists and Arminians disagree, and of which there seems to be great misunderstanding, is that of where one should begin doing theology or the central proposition from which the rest of our respective theologies stem. Arminians often think Calvinists are committed primarily to a certain understanding of predestination. This, however, is not the fundamental commitment of Calvinists. Instead, Calvinists are first and foremost committed to the ultimate sovereignty of God in salvation. They are attempting to guard against the possibility of the glorious work of God in salvation being attributed to some form of human effort which, they think, is a consequence of Arminian theology. Their understanding of unconditional election, predestination, etc. flows out of this basic commitment to the meticulous sovereignty of God in salvation.
In contrast, it is often thought that Arminians are primarily committed to the freedom of the human will. This, though, is not the case. Classical and faithful Arminians do not actually affirm that humans have any natural freedom of the will. Instead, with the Calvinists, we affirm that the will is in bondage to sin. The fundamental issue and the starting point for our theology is the character of God. We believe that the concept of unconditional election necessarily implies the coordinate doctrine of unconditional reprobation. Such an implication, we claim, impugns the character of God by making him the author of evil. Thus, our fundamental commitment is to upholding and defending the character of God which only then leads to our understanding of the will as having been freed and enabled by grace to respond to the offer of salvation freely by faith.
These commitment are at the heart of the debate. The Calvinist/Arminian dialogue will be more fruitful if we understand these central convictions rather than arguing against inaccurate perceptions of the other side.