Friday, January 11, 2008

An Interview with Thomas McCall

I recently interviewed Tom McCall, assistant professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, about Calvinism and Arminianism.

JT: Tell us a little bit about yourself--how you came to Christ, education, current teaching position, family, etc.

TM: I was born and reared in a very devout Christian home; indeed, my father has been a faithful pastor every day of my life. My own conversion came soon after my 12th birthday. My seminary training was at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and I studied for a PhD at Calvin Theological Seminary. I've had the privilege of serving as pastor of two congregations: one in southwest Michigan and one in southcentral Alaska. Since 2004 I've been teaching systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; I'm honored to have such wonderful colleagues and excellent students. I'm just coming off of a sabbatical (working on writing a book on the doctrine of the Trinity while co-editing another), and I'm excited to start teaching again.

I've been married to Jenny for the best 10 years of my life, and we've been blessed with 4 children: Cole is 7, Josiah is 5, Madelyn is 3, and Isaac is 1. They remind me each day why theology really matters, and they are a means of sanctifying grace to me.

JT: When and why did you first become interested in the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism?

TM: I guess that I've been interested in this issue for about as long as I've been interested in theology. As I see things, however, this is nowhere close to being the most important issue in theology!

JT: If someone wanted a primer on Arminianism-or the best defense of it-where would you point him? Would your answer be different based on whether or not the inquirer was a Calvinist or an Arminian?

TM: My recommendation would not differ based on whether or not the inquirer was a Calvinist or an Arminian. It would vary based upon the specific issues in question and the theological savvy of the inquirer.

For systematic theology, older theologians such as Richard Watson, Thomas Sumners, RS Foster, Thomas Ralston, John Miley (notwithstanding his view of the atonement), and William Burt Pope are all worth reading (Pope is excellent!). And, of course, Arminius and Wesley :-) For a sampling of Wesley, read his 52 standard sermons; for Arminius, read his "Declaration of Sentiments." For a reliable overviews of the theological orientation of Wesley, check out the work of Ken Collins and Tom Oden.

Regarding specific issues, there are some good (some very good) recent treatments of various topics (for some random examples: Osborne, Cockerill, or McKnight on the warning passages of Hebrews, Walls on hell, or William Lane Craig on freedom and foreknowledge).

JT: In your experience, what's the most significant misunderstanding that Calvinists have about Arminianism?

TM: That Arminianism is "man-centered," that "it is all about human freedom rather than God's grace." At least that is what gripes me most. And while I'm at it, here is my top candidate for poor theological slogan: "Let God be God!" (I think I know what is meant by this, but used as a conversation stopper it comes off heavy-handed. . . . and taken seriously is somewhere between silly and blasphemous: as if any of us could be a threat to divine sovereignty and aseity!).

JT: Roger Olson has observed that much of American Christianity is not Arminian per se, but rather semi-Pelagian. Would you agree?

TM: Yes, with one caveat: some of American Christianity is just straight-on Pelagianism. Up until recently, I had a standard answer when asked if I was an Arminian: "Yep." But now I first want to know what the interlocutor means by "Arminian." If someone wants to know if I'm closer to Arminius than to his opponents, then the answer is "Yes." But beyond that, I'm increasingly leery of what is commonly associated with the term (by both its defenders and detractors). And at any rate, I don't care all that much about the label anyway.

JT: I know you disagree strongly with Calvinism, but I'm curious what you think is the most compelling argument for it--the one that might give you pause or is hardest to overcome?

TM: Wow, there is so much to appreciate and respect about the Reformed tradition (and about the contemporary "resurgence" among younger evangelicals as well). Thinking of exegetical and biblical arguments, for me the Reformed argument from Rom 9 is likely the most challenging (at another level would be the so-called "omni-causality (proof-)texts" from the OT). When it comes to systematic theology, there is an admirable simplicity to the "5 points," and Calvinists (at least those willing to go all the way and accept the implications) have ready answers for even the most horrific evil events.

Of course Calvinists make arguments from a variety of angles (from exegetical and biblical as well as systematic and philosophical theology). Some of these are good arguments; they rest upon plausible premises and are (or can be) well-structured. Even though I don't find them compelling, I feel their force, and I understand why many thinking Christians are attracted to Calvinism. Encountering such arguments, especially when they are presented by Christians who are bright and godly people, is persuasive to many people (particularly when they are not presented with a credible alternative, or when the evangelicalism they know is a weak and vapid form of Semi-Pelagianism!).

JT: Calvinism vs Arminianism is a perennially "hot topic," and it's easy for emotions (and spittle) to fly high. Any words of wisdom on how we can do a better job conversing about issues we care so deeply about?

TM: I've spent much of the last decade surrounded by Calvinists. I am very grateful for their presence in, and influence upon, my life. I love the fact that they are committed to knowing God as he has revealed himself, that they care about theology, and that they pursue holiness with such passion (while being exercised to avoid works-righteousness).

On the other hand, sometimes we treat each other as if "all who disagree with me and my enlightened friends are either knaves or fools -- they either won't accept the sober truth or just cannot get it." This is lamentable (and there is plenty of arrogance on all sides to go around -- I'm not immune from this temptation either), and lament and repent we should.

I think that these issues are important enough that we should discuss them. But we should (i) keep them in perspective, (ii) work hard to understand and assist each other, and (iii) realize that we belong to one another in the communion of the Triune God of Holy Love.