A Message for My Fellow Evangelical Arminians (Others Welcome to Listen In)
Not many non-Wesleyan evangelical theologians have been so bold as to publicly proclaim themselves “Arminian” in the last thirty to fifty years as Reformed theology has become dominant and even normative among evangelical leaders. In 1992 I picked up the first issue of Modern Reformation, a magazine dedicated to promoting monergism (if not Reformed theology) especially among evangelicals and saw numerous misrepresentations of Arminian theology in its articles. (The entire issue was devoted to blasting Arminianism.) Right then I decided to speak up on behalf of classical Arminian theology. Over the intervening years I’ve written several articles and one book about Arminian theology. That book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press) has been well reviewed and has received a mostly sympathetic audience. I believe it has helped turn around erroneous impressions about Arminianism especially among evangelicals.
About two years ago, however, I began to receive negative feedback from certain fellow evangelical Arminians. I was a founding member of a group called The Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA) and participated in its discussion list. Certain (what I would call) neo-fundamentalist Arminians (they probably call themselves conservative evangelicals) began to heckle and pester me and officials of the SEA because of my presence there. The flashpoints of controversy seemed to be threefold. First, I am an inclusivist and they believed no inclusivist can be authentically evangelical. (My own impression was that they did not truly understand the spectrum of beliefs that can be included under the umbrella concept “inclusivism.” They jumped to wrong conclusions such as that I believe salvation can come through non-Christian world religions and that Jesus is not the only savior of the world.) Second, they thought, sometimes accused, that I am a closet open theist and they were determined to separate open theists from Arminianism. (I am not an open theist closeted or uncloseted.) Third, they accused me of misinterpreting Arminius’ view of God’s sovereignty and especially providence. Recently a few have come here, to my blog, to beat that dead horse some more.
My message to evangelical Arminians is this: Especially in this climate where there are aggressive Calvinists attempting to expel Arminians from true, authentic evangelicalism, that is, to convince evangelicals that Arminians are not biblically serious, committed Protestant Christians who believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, we only do our own cause harm when we attack each other. Gentle disagreement is one thing; harsh criticism, misrepresentations, and attempts to undermine each other are something else.
Here is an observation I have made based on my life in American evangelical Christianity. There are some evangelicals, I consider them really neo-fundamentalists, who find it fun or fulfilling to turn against, attack, undermine and “expose” fellow evangelicals. Often they do it by accusing a reputable fellow evangelical of being somehow subversive of the true evangelical faith. They pick up on one or two alleged errors in someone’s writings and go after them with a vengeance—attempting to undermine their reputation either as a scholar or as an evangelical or both. This happens repeatedly among evangelicals and there are some evangelical spokesmen who are noted for it. Others are not noted but follow the lead of their favorite evangelical pit bulls (heresy hunters).
This practice has contributed to the demise of evangelicalism as a movement. It’s serious, nothing to be dismissed as unworthy of attention and even condemnation. When and where it happens we need to speak up and identify it as what it is (divisive spirit) and put a stop to it. Unfortunately, of course, that’s easier said than done. There are many conservative evangelicals who thrive on this sort of thing and love to join in the attack. Too many moderate, “centrist” evangelical leaders are timid of the aggressive neo-fundamentalists and hesitate to confront them.
I observed this when my friend Stanley Grenz was alive. Certain evangelical theologians and their followers loved to accuse him of all kinds of silly things. “Cultural relativism” was a favorite and anyone who knew Stan well knew he was not even in the least inclined toward that. Of course, from his accusers’ high and mighty absolutist chairs of pontifical power and expertise he appeared relativistic because he wasn’t a fundamentalist dogmatist—which many of them were and are (under the guise of being “conservative evangelicals”).
I thought that taking up the cause of classical Arminianism would be applauded by my fellow evangelical Arminians, but, as I should have expected, some, a few, see my reputation as a scholarly defender of classical Arminianism as an opportunity to attack me.
One form this takes is to attempt to drive a wedge between me and Arminius himself. The accusation has been, and continues to be, that Arminius believed in meticulous providence and I don’t. I have said many times that I believe “God is in charge but not in control.” Critical fellow evangelical Arminians have accused me of being completely out of sync with Arminius who, they claim, believed in meticulous providence, and with the broader classical Arminian tradition.
I included a chapter on Arminius’ and Arminianism’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. There I quoted extensively from Arminius and later Arminian theologians to show exactly what Arminius’ and their beliefs were about God’s providence. I have never substantially deviated from that classical Arminian view in my own writings. The accusations revolve around semantics such as what exactly is meant by “plan of God” and divine “control” and so forth and so on.
I think what is going on is an attempt to portray me as an open theist—something I’ve dealt with ever since I first defended open theism as a legitimate evangelical option (not a heresy) in the mid-1990s.
So what do I mean when I say God is “in charge but not in control?” And what do I mean when I reject “meticulous providence?” First, as I mean it, “meticulous providence” is divine determinism. Perhaps others don’t mean that by it, but that’s what I mean whenever I use it. When I reject meticulous providence I am rejecting divine determinism—the view that everything that happens, including sin, is part of a divine blueprint, designed by God, and rendered certain by God in every detail. In that doctrine “divine permission” always means “efficacious permission”—that God did not merely allow but planned the fall (for example) and rendered it certain.
What did Arminius believe? Well, read my chapter in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Here’s one quote. Now notice how it can be distorted if only the first phrase is read or quoted. The entire passage MUST be read and understood to get Arminius’ point:
“’Nothing is done without God’s ordination’: If by the word ‘ordination’ is signified ‘that God appoints things of any kind to be done,’ this mode of enunciation is erroneous, and it follows as a consequence from it, that God is the author of sin. But if it signify, that ‘whatever it be that is done, God ordains it to a good end,’ the terms in which it is conceived are in that case correct.” (Declaration of Sentiments, Works I:705)
“Nothing is done without God’s ordination” is a declaration of Arminius’ own sentiments, but here he explains what he means by it and what he does not mean by it. Not everything that happens is appointed by God to be done, but when something is done God can fit it into his overall plan and purpose. An analogy of that kind of “ordaining” is a librarian shelving a book. He or she may not like the book and perhaps did not even want it in the library. But once it is given to him or her (by a head librarian who ordered it), he or she puts it in its right place on the library shelves.
I am firmly convinced that Arminius did not believe in meticulous providence in the sense of divine determinism. But here’s how things can go awry. Someone reads or hears that I do not believe in “meticulous providence” and interprets “meticulous providence” to include that God appoints whatever is done toward a good end and accuses me of being in conflict with Arminius’ own teachings.
When I say God is “in charge but not in control” I mean (and have explained it every time I have written or said it) that history, including every life, is under the sovereign oversight of God such that nothing can happen without God’s permission and even aid (concurrence), but that God does not control everything such that whatever happens is his antecedent will or that he renders everything certain according to a divine blueprint.
To those who distort what I mean I ask: Why not practice a hermeneutic of charity and understand what I mean not by how you understand the words but by how I clearly explain them? Why are you distorting my clearly intended meaning?
I believe some conservative evangelical Arminians have targeted me because of my inclusivism and openness to open theism (and perhaps my denial of biblical inerrancy) and are attempting to drive a wedge between me and classical Arminianism. I won’t let them do it without push back. Oh, I have no doubt they will gather some like-minded fellow travelers to join them in this, but I won’t be quiet. You can count on me to correct their distortions and misrepresentations—of me and of Arminius. It’s one reason I started this blog.
But a cautionary footnote is necessary. Having expressed my substantial agreement with Arminius, I must also say that being Arminian does not require absolute and total agreement with Arminius about everything—anymore than being Calvinist requires absolute and total agreement with Calvin about everything (something Charles Hodge denied). I’m sure there are nuances of doctrinal interpretation and expression in Arminius with which I will demur. For one thing, Arminius expressed himself so extremely cautiously at times that he made it somewhat difficult to know what his position was without very careful attention to details. He bent over backwards, as far as he could without going against Scripture or his own conscience, to please the moderately Reformed Dutch church and civic leaders who wanted peace in the church and the land. I try to do the same without breaking my back. There are times and places in Arminius’ works where I think he bent too far—in the language he used if not in what he clearly meant (when careful attention is paid to the whole of what he wrote).
So, to certain of my Arminian critics I say—please stop your efforts to pit me against Arminius and/or against fellow Arminian theologians. Why are you doing this? Nothing good can come of it—for our Arminian cause. You are troubling the House of Israel. Cease and desist.