Who Is (or Might Be) An Arminian?
One of my favorite visitors and frequent commenters here has challenged me to say what I think is necessary to believe in order to qualify as an Arminian. I hesitate to do that because I want as many people as possible to qualify! I fear excluding anyone who genuinely believes he or she is an Arminian and even comes close to qualifying.
So, the approach I’ll take is threefold. First, characteristics I think are minimally necessary to qualify as an Arminian. This is my “generous Arminianism” definition. Second, additional characteristics I think are very valuable for an Arminian to possess. Third, characteristics that I think disqualify a person from being considered an Arminian.
Before launching into it, however, I should reveal how I go about making these decisions. First, I study the history of Arminianism beginning with Arminius himself and his immediate followers, the first generation Remonstrants (up through the 1620s when all the Remonstrants seemed to be faithful to Arminius’ own teachings). Second, I consider what scholars, theologians, leading ministers who regard themselves as Arminians believe. Third, I look at what scholars who are not Arminians say about it. My “anchor” tends to be Arminius himself.
I completely omit “Arminians of the head,” those Remonstrants and their heirs who veered off into rationalism, deism and liberalism. For the most part they stopped identifying as Arminians anyway.
Also before continuing with this rather dubious project, I must say that being an “Arminian” does not mean agreeing with Arminius about everything. Arminianism has always been understood, and the label treated , as a soteriological category. In other words, it is a belief system about salvation and not everything else in theology. The practical consequence of that caveat is that just because Arminius happened to believe something extraneous to soteriology does not make it necessary for Arminianism.
So, once again going where angels fear to tread…what are the minimally necessary characteristics of an Arminian? What MUST a person believe for ME to consider him or her authentically Arminian? (Notice that “necessary” and “sufficient” are not the same. This first list is of what’s necessary for me even to begin to consider whether someone might be Arminian. These are litmus tests.)
- Commitment to a basically Protestant theology: sola scriptura, sola Christi, sola gratia et fides, justification as a declaration of righteousness by God’s grace alone because of Christ alone, through faith alone.
- Commitment to corporate election, conditional predestination, universal atonement, resistible prevenient grace, and the necessity of freely accepting God’s saving grace for salvation.
- Belief in the universal love of God and God’s desire that all be saved.
If someone passes those criteria, I am willing to at least consider that he or she may be an Arminian.
Those three minimal criteria, however, may not be sufficient for me to go on to consider the person a true, classical Arminian. I will harbor doubts about the genuineness of the person’s Arminianism (at least as I understand that category) as long as the following characteristics are in doubt. These are not exactly litmus tests but norms.
- Belief in total depravity such that the natural person, apart from supernatural prevenient grace, cannot respond to the outer or inner call of the gospel.
- Belief in non-compatibilist free will as power of contrary choice restored by means of prevenient grace in matters of salvation.
- Belief that God is not the designer of evil or innocent suffering in the world, but that these exist only because of the fall which God permitted but did not desire or plan.
Finally, there are a few characteristics that would cause me to exclude someone from being considered an Arminian.
- Denial of the supernatural and miracles (as in liberal theology, not cessationism).
- Denial of the deity or humanity of Jesus Christ.
- Denial of the unique inspiration of the Bible.
- Denial of God’s omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence.
- Denial of God’s eternal, unchangeable character as loving and just (nominalism).
Why the third list? Because Arminianism has always been a belief system among biblical, orthodox Protestants. (Here by “orthodox” I mean basic, generous orthodoxy, not some system of theology.)
Could someone be Arminian and not call himself or herself that? Yes. But I won’t call them Arminian if they don’t want to be called Arminian. But I reserve the right to say that their theology is consistent with Arminianism. (For example, most Anabaptists and Lutherans would not call themselves Arminians, but they might pass all my criteria, in which case I would say their theology is consistent with Arminianism.)
Might someone call himself or herself an Arminian and not truly be one? That’s the whole point of listing these criteria. Yes. Many people who think they are Arminian are really Pelagian or semi-Pelagian or simply liberal theologically.
What are some theological views held by people who are authentically Arminian that not all Arminians hold? They are too numerous to list! Cessationism. Open theism. Christian perfectionism. Subsequence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Dispensationalism, different views of the atonement. Etc., etc., etc. I think the Arminian tent is big and has room for lots of different secondary theological views under it. And I think it’s detrimental to the Arminian cause in the present context where Arminianism is so under attack for Arminians to divide or argue about secondary matters not essential to basic Protestant orthodoxy or Arminian soteriology.