Arminianism FAQ 1 (Everything You Always Wanted to Know…)
Today begins a summer series on Arminianism and Arminian theology. Over the past twenty plus years of promoting a correct understanding of classical Arminianism I have been asked numerous questions about the subject. There seems to be much misunderstanding about it. Here, in this series of blog posts, I will try to answer every “frequently asked question” about classical Arminianism. My aim is to keep the questions and answers clear, concise and crisp.
For those of you who are not sure about my credentials for answering questions about classical Arminianism with any authority, I can only say I have been an Arminian all my life and have dedicated the past twenty years (at least) to studying and explaining it—including in my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press).
FAQ: What is “classical Arminianism?” A: “Classical Arminianism” has nothing to do with “Armenia.” It is a type of Christian theology especially associated with 17th century Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (d. 1609). However, I also refer to it as “evangelical synergism” (“synergism” here referring to “cooperation” between God and creature) because Arminius’ beliefs did not begin with him. For example, Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier promoted much the same view almost a century before Arminius. In brief, classical Arminianism is the belief that God genuinely wants everyone to be saved and sent Christ to live, die and rise for everyone equally. It is the belief that God does not save people without their free assent but gives them “prevenient grace” (grace that goes before and prepares) to liberate their wills from bondage to sin and make them free to hear, understand and respond to the gospel call. It is the belief that God’s grace is always resistible and election to salvation, “predestination,” is conditional: God decrees that all who believe will be saved and foreknows who will believe. Classical Arminianism is a form of Protestant theology, so it assumes (in all of the above) that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace that cannot be merited; it can only be accepted. According to Arminius and all classical Arminians, God’s justification of sinners is “by grace through faith alone” and solely on account of the work of Christ. God’s grace in and through Jesus is the effectual cause of salvation/justification, but faith is the instrumental cause.
FAQ: Is Arminianism a sect or denomination? A: It is not, but there are denominations that either assume classical Arminianism as their theology of salvation and/or have written it into their doctrinal confessions. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was an Arminian as were most of his followers. Methodism, in all its forms (including ones that do not bear that name), tends to be Arminian. (Calvinist Methodist churches once existed. They were followers of Wesley’s co-evangelist George Whitefield. But, so far as I am able to tell, they have all died out or merged with traditionally Reformed-Calvinist denominations.) “Officially” Arminian denominations include ones in the so-called “Holiness” tradition (e.g., Church of the Nazarene) and Pentecostal one (e.g., Assemblies of God). Arminianism is also the common belief of Free Will Baptists (also known as General Baptists). Many “Brethren” churches are Arminian as well. But one can find Arminians in many denominations that are not historically, “officially” Arminian such as many Baptist conventions/conferences.
FAQ: Why identify a theology with a man’s name? Why not just be “Christians?” A: This would be ideal, but it is too late for that. Arminians do not venerate Arminius; he was nothing more than an especially clear expounder and defender of a biblical perspective on salvation. Arminians only use that label to distinguish themselves from Calvinists and Lutherans—two Protestant traditions that, historically-theologically, hold to what is known as “monergism” and reject all forms of “synergism” in salvation. (“Monergism” is the belief that salvation does not involve a cooperation between God and the sinner; God saves without the sinner’s free consent.) Arminians put not stock in the label “Arminianism.” Many do not even use it. However, it is a theological category and label often misrepresented by its critics (especially conservative Calvinists), so those who know they are Arminian feel the need to defend it against false accusations and misrepresentations. Some who do that prefer to call themselves simply “non-Calvinist,” but that is no better than “Arminian” and is less clear (because Lutherans, for example, are also “non-Calvinist” but agree are often just as opposed to Arminian belief in evangelical synergism as are Calvinists). Arminians are not a movement, party or tribe of Christians. They are simply Protestant Christians who, unlike many others, believe in grace-restored freedom of the will to resist or accept saving grace.
FAQ: Why is there now a rising interest in Arminianism? Why have blogs and books about a “man-made theology?” A: Beginning around 1990, Arminianism and Arminian theology came under new pressure from outspoken proponents of Calvinism—belief that God elects people to salvation unconditionally and that Christ died only for the elect and saving grace is irresistible. These new, aggressive Calvinists were not willing to take a “live and let live” approach to evangelical differences of theology but have attempted to marginalize, even sometimes exclude, Arminians from evangelicalism—portraying Arminianism as more “Catholic” than truly “Protestant.” One leading Calvinist theologian, editor of an evangelical monthly magazine, said in print that one can no more be an “evangelical Arminian” than one can be an “evangelical Catholic.” Over the past twenty-to-thirty years Calvinism has been on the rise in especially American evangelical Christianity and along with that rise has come an increasingly negative portrayal of Arminians as defective Christians and not truly, authentically evangelical. American evangelicalism had long been ecumenical—including Protestant Christians of many theological perspectives. Now, suddenly, many Reformed/Calvinist evangelicals were calling Arminianism “humanistic,” “man-centered,” “heterodox,” “on the precipice of heresy,” “not honoring the Bible,” etc., etc. Gradually, evangelical Arminians felt the need to defend their theology against misconceptions, misrepresentations and distortions. Every theology is “man-made,” including Calvinism. But that is not to say theologies are solely human inventions. They are people’s best attempts to interpret the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Christian tradition and reason. Many Calvinists claim that Calvinism is a “transcript of the gospel,” but Arminians reject that claim for any theology including Calvinism and Arminianism. We (theologians, interpreters of the Bible) are but “broken vessels” (as the Apostle Paul called himself) seeking to follow the light of God’s Word wherever it leads.
FAQ: Isn’t there a “middle ground” between Calvinism and Arminianism? A: No, there isn’t, not that is logically coherent. In fact, Arminianism is the middle ground between Calvinism and “semi-Pelagianism” which is the heresy (so declared by the Second Synod of Orange in 529 and all the Reformers agreed) that sinners are capable of exercising a good will toward God unassisted by God’s grace. With semi-Pelagianism (still an extremely popular view in American Christianity) Arminians believe sinners have free will, but with Calvinists Arminians believe free will in matters of salvation must be given by God through prevenient, assisting grace. Left to themselves, without the liberating power of grace, sinners will not exercise a good will toward God, but under the pressure of liberating, enabling grace many do reach out to God who has already reached down and into them, calling them to repent and believe. Against semi-Pelagianism and with Calvinism Arminianism believes and teaches that the initiative in salvation is God’s and that all the ability in salvation is God’s. But against Calvinism and with semi-Pelagianism Arminians believe sinners can resist God’s grace and, in order to be saved, must accept it freely.