Was Arminius an inclusivist? Continuing a conversation

Was Arminius an inclusivist?

Some time ago, on a different discussion list, I was criticized for claiming that Arminius was an inclusivist. That criticism has come up again at the following blog: www.thearminian.org/2011/10/demarcating-wesleyan-arminianism.html. This person has also commented here recently and I posted his comment together with this link adding my own response that I don’t see the advantage of Arminians arguing heatedly among ourselves over something so secondary to our main cause. The blogger in question says (in a footnote to this article at his blog) that I am “sorely wrong” to claim that Arminius was an inclusivist. He claims that the proof I cited before is no proof at all and, in fact, he claims, the passage in Arminius that I cite for support actually contradicts it.

So, since the glove has been thrown down, so to speak, I’ll respond. However, I don’t intend to reproduce here the entire passage in Arminius; I’ll cite it and summarize it and allow those interested to go there (it’s readily available at several sites on the internet including www.ccel.org) and decide the matter for themselves.

In “The Apology or Defence of James Arminius against Thirty-One Articles” (Works, Vol. 2, pp. 20-22) Article XVIII Arminius responds to the accusation by saying that he never uttered “such a sentiment as this:” “God undoubtedly converts, without the external preaching of the Gospel, great numbers of persons to the saving knowledge of Christ, among those [ubi est] who have no outward preaching; and He effects such conversions either by the inward revelation of the Holy Spirit, or by the ministry of angels.” He admits that something like this was preached by his friend Borrius (see the footnote on page 20).

Now, apparently my critic thinks that I say Arminius did affirm this sentiment whereas Arminius clearly goes on throughout Article XVIII to deny parts of it without proper qualifications. Note: Arminius only denies parts of it and ends up affirming it with qualifications. What Arminius actually says is that he never said (nor probably did Borrius) the words “undoubtedly” or “great numbers of persons.” He says these are “the additions of calumny….” In other words, his critics, charging him with heresy, added these words to what Borrius did say and he (Arminius) affirms. So what did Arminius affirm?

Arminius says (para. 3 of Article XVIII, page 21) “The following is a saying in very common and frequent use: ‘The ordinary means and organ of conversion is the preaching of the Divine word by mortal men, to which therefore all persons are bound; but the Holy Spirit has not so bound himself to this method, as to be unable to operate in an extraordinary way, without the intervention of human aid, when it seemeth good to Himself.’ Now if our brethren [viz., his accusers] had reflected, that this very common sentence obtains our high approval, they would not have thought of charging this article upon us, at least they would not have accounted it erroneous.” Arminius then goes on to point out the difference between this sentence, which he says “obtains our high approval” and the statement he (and Borius) was accused of affirming (with the additional words).

Now, before going on, let me ask: Who can really disagree with that sentence? Addressing my critic and anyone else who agrees with him: “Do you really think that the Holy Spirit has bound himself so as to be unable to operate in an extraordinary way, without the intervention of human aid, when it seems good to Him?” Really? If your answer is “yes,” then I can only say you are limiting the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. Nothing in scripture even hints that the Holy Spirit is so bound to human agency that he cannot speak directly to people without the written Word or human witness. A good example is Saul/Paul on the Road to Damascus.

Now, back to what Arminius actually said. A careful reading of the entirety of Article XVIII will show that Arminius affirmed the sentence above without the addition by his critics of “undoubtedly” and “great numbers of persons” and with proper qualifications. In paragraph 4 (p. 22) Arminius asks his critics “What peril or error can there be in any man saying?, ‘God converts great numbers of persons (that is very many,) by the internal revelation of the Holy Spirit or by the ministry of angels; ‘ provided it be at the same time stated, that no one is converted except by this very word, and by the meaning of this word, which God sends by men to those communities or nations whom He hath purposed to unite to himself.” Now, lest anyone be confused by an improper and poor interpretation of that sentence…what Arminius clearly means is that the gospel by which people are converted through the “internal revelation of the Holy Spirit or by the ministry of angels” is the same gospel as that God sends by men. Otherwise the sentence makes no sense. The second part would contradict the first part.

Overall, a careful exegesis of Article XVIII will reveal that Arminius did believe it very possible that people are reached by the Holy Spirit unto their salvation without the intervention of human agency. He just didn’t think there is any known, undoubtable example of it. For him, as for later inclusivists such as Wesley, it remains a hope and a possibility, not a promise.

This may not be the strongest version of inclusivism (and that category is a very broad one), but I consider it a form of inclusivism. Quibble all you wish about the meaning of “inclusivism.” I define it as including any view that God may save persons without the intervention of human agency (i.e., without a missionary reaching them).

But the argument here, at this very moment, isn’t about inclusivism. It is about my critic’s claim that I misinterpret Arminius. (He apparently thinks he is a better interpreter of Arminius than I am.) At his blog he says so—even to the point of implying that I either didn’t read Article XVIII well or intentionally distorted its meaning by taking Arminius’ sentence out of context (the context allegedly contradicting it).

Again, if you’re interested and doubtful, by all means look it up for yourself, read the whole of Article XVIII and decide for yourself what you think Arminius is saying. As for myself, I’m settled about it. Arminius did believe that God the Holy Spirit is not bound by human agency in reaching people with the grace of salvation.

Now, a final word about this controversy. Does it really help the Arminian cause for Arminians to accuse each other of being “sorely wrong” (not just “wrong” but “sorely wrong!”) about a relatively minor point of Arminius interpretation? We (Arminians) are beset all around by evangelical critics such as R. C. Sproul and many, many others who say we are semi-Pelagians, have a “man-centered theology,” and are “saved, just barely.” Arminianism is routinely marginalized and excluded by evangelical leaders. What good is accomplished by attacking each other over minor points of disagreement about what Arminius believed or didn’t believe about secondary matters? Unless, of course, you don’t think they are secondary. Then, I would have to say you are a fundamentalist and I don’t really have time or interest or energy to quarrel with you (i.e., if you really think inclusivism is a heresy such that if Arminius were one he would have been halfway to hell). It’s one thing to disagree about this in a gentlemanly and scholarly fashion, as brothers in Christ and fellow Arminians; it’s another thing entirely to attack and criticize and harp and harass.

I’ve said all I’m going to say about this; decide what you think by reading Article XVIII for yourself. Whether Arminius was or wasn’t an inclusivist isn’t crucial to anything. I will be one whether he was or not. I interpret that article as indicating he was an inclusivist as I define the concept. But if I am wrong, well…it doesn’t really matter.

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