Changes Since Swedenborg: The Rise of Arminianism

Has Christianity substantially changed since the Writings were published in the 18th century?  Are Swedenborg’s condemnation of Christian doctrine still accurate?  It’s a question that I’ve wondered about at least since college, when I wrote my senior paper on the topic.  My conclusion in that paper was that by and large, the official doctrines of the Christian churches have remained pretty similar, especially in regard to the Trinity of Persons.  To what extent people believe those doctrines is a much more difficult question to answer, and there’s indications in the Writings that plenty of people even at Swedenborg’s day didn’t understand or embrace the official doctrines of their churches.  So, I find it safer to focus on the doctrinal changes, with the caveat that it’s hard to know how many people actually believe or know the doctrines of their churches.

There have been a few major changes in Christian doctrine since the Writings were published in the 18th century.  Perhaps the most notable of these is the rise of Arminianism, which claims that God’s grace extends to everyone, not just the elect, and that everyone has the option to choose or reject salvation.

Arminianism existed at Swedenborg’s time, but it was considered a heresy.  The introduction to Apocalypse Revealed lays out the doctrines of the “Reformed Church” (a note on that usage – Swedenborg used “Reformed Church” to refer to Protestantism, but today “Reformed churches” refers specifically to a group of Calvinist churches, including Presbyterianism).  At the end of the summary, he writes,

These are the Doctrinal Tenets of the Church and Religion of the Reformed in a short summary. Those, however, which the Schwengfeldians, Pelagians, Manichaeans, Donatists, Anabaptists, Arminians, Zwinglians, Anti-trinitarians, Socinians, Arians, and at this day the Quakers and Herrnhuters, teach are passed over, because they are disapproved and rejected as heretical by the Church of the Reformed.

I don’t know the history all that well (this Wikipedia article can tell you as much as I could), but to oversimplify things, John Wesley, a contemporary of Swedenborg and the founder of Methodism, endorsed Arminianism, and as Methodists grew in influence, so did Arminianism.  Today (according to the Wikipedia entry on Arminianism), “the doctrine’s acceptance stretches through much of mainstream Christianity, including evangelical Protestantism.”  The blog posts that I linked to from Anthony Sacramone were arguing from an Arminian point of view.  Arminianism and Calvinism are now the two primary “camps” in the Protestant outlook on free will and predestination.

For a neat summary of the differences between Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Arminianism, check out this chart taken from the Wikipedia page:

Topic Lutheranism Calvinism Arminianism
Human will Total Depravity without free will Total Depravity without free will Depravity does not preclude free will
Election Unconditional election to salvation only Unconditional election to salvation and damnation Conditional election in view of foreseen faith or unbelief
Justification Justification of all peoplecompleted at Christ’s death. Justification is limited to those elected to salvation, completed at Christ’s death. Justification possible for all, but only completed when one chooses faith.
Conversion Through the means of grace,resistible Without means, irresistible Involves free will and is resistible
Preservation and apostasy Falling away is possible, but God gives assurance of preservation. Perseverance of the saints, once saved, always saved Preservation upon the condition of persevering faith with the possibility of a total and final apostasy.

So, is the New Church Arminian?  I don’t think so, but we’re certainly closer to Arminianism than we are to Calvinism.  First, the areas where we disagree: Arminians maintain a trinity of persons and generally view Jesus’ crucifixion as a substitutionary atonement; they believe in original sin; and they believe in salvation by faith alone.

But in one key area, the New Church is very close to Arminianism: with Arminianism, the New Church teaches that people do have free will in spiritual matters.

“Arminians believe that through God’s grace, He restores free will concerning salvation to all humanity, and each individual, therefore, is able either to accept the Gospel call through faith or resist it through unbelief.” (Wikipedia)

This is very close to what the New Church teaches.  Where the two might differ is in the way that a person “chooses” to have faith.  The Writings teach that to have faith, a person must shun evils as sins and come to the Lord; to many Arminians this would seem too much like “works-righteousness” – many of them might say instead that to have faith you just have to believe. The New Church person might respond that “to believe in the Lord is to have confidence that He saves; and as only those who live rightly can have this confidence, this, too, is meant by believing in Him” (True Christian Religion n. 2).

Arminians believe in a universal atonement:  by His death, Christ made it possible for all to accept faith.  While rejecting the doctrine of atonement, New Church doctrine teaches something similar: that by conquering the forces of hell, the Lord restored freedom to people so that they could freely accept Him.

Arminians believe in “prevenient grace.”

“Prevenient grace is divine grace which precedes human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done. As humans are corrupted by the effects of sin, prevenient grace allows persons to engage their God-given free will to choose the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ or to reject that salvific offer.” (Wikipedia)

If you search the Writings for prevenient grace, you’ll find True Christian Religion n. 631.  It’s criticizing the Calvinist idea of prevenient grace, which is that it is only given to the elect:

“If that which is called prevenient grace were universal, man’s application of it from some power of his own would come in, and this is of course rejected [by the Protestant churches] as leprous.”

In other words, if grace came to everyone, then a person’s salvation would depend on some response from himself – an idea totally repugnant to Calvinists.  But Arminians do believe in universal prevenient grace.  And they do say that salvation rests on a person’s response to grace – the response of “having faith.”  They would argue that this is somehow different from a “work” on man’s part, whereas the New Church person would say that responding and “having faith” means putting effort into following the Lord – and acknowledging that that effort itself comes from the Lord and not from oneself.

I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me that the New Church’s idea of God’s presence with people is much broader than most Arminians’.  We do agree with them that “of himself, a person is nothing but evil” – but we see the Lord’s presence in a person in many, many ways, all the way up from childhood.  We see even conscious efforts on our part as really being God’s grace.  I don’t know if that’s true for most Arminians – but again, I can’t be sure about what people actually believe.

The other key area of agreement between the New Church and Arminianism is in the possibility of losing one’s salvation:

“Arminians believe that future salvation and eternal life is secured in Christ and protected from all external forces but is conditional on remaining in Christ and can be lost through apostasy.” (Wikipedia)

Again, to some Arminians “remaining in Christ” means remaining in faith alone to Him and does not rely on right action – but others would acknowledge (as Paul clearly states several times) that part of remaining in Christ means “walking according to the spirit,” or putting faith into life.

As mentioned before, there are plenty of differences between New Church teachings and Arminian beliefs.  But the fact that a large part of the Christian world now has a doctrine that denies predestination and affirms free will is a huge positive change from Swedenborg’s day.  It at least begins to restore the truth that God loves everyone, not just a select few.  This is certainly in the Lord’s Divine Providence:

Throughout the whole Christian church it is taught that justification and salvation thereby are effected by God the Father through the imputation of the merit of Christ His Son; that imputation takes place by grace when and where God wills, thus arbitrarily; and that those to whom Christ’s merit is imputed are adopted into the number of children of God. And because the leaders of the church have not advanced a foot beyond that imputation or raised their minds above it, because of the established dogmas of God’s arbitrary election, they have fallen into enormous and fanatical errors, and at length into that detestable error respecting predestination, and still further into the abominable error, that God pays no attention to the deeds of a man’s life but only to the faith inscribed upon the interiors of his mind. Unless, therefore, the error respecting imputation is abolished, atheism will invade all Christendom; and then will reign over them. (True Christian Religion n. 628).

Thank the Lord that in some parts of Christianity, the new light of truth from the Second Coming has allowed people to see how monstrous it is to think that God would create anyone who could not help but go to hell.

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  • Erika

    Hi Coleman,
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic. Have you done any research specifically on the Mennonite faith?