Arminianism is God-centered theology

Arminianism is God-centered theology November 28, 2010

Below is a rather lengthy essay I have written.  I welcome you to pass it around.  It is not copyrighted, but please keep my name and blog address attached to it when you send or post it.

Arminianism is God-centered Theology

Roger E. Olson

            One of the most common criticisms aimed at Arminianism by its opponents is that it is “man-centered theology.”  (I will occasionally use the gender-exclusive phrase because it is used so often by Arminianism’s critics.  It means, of course, “humanity-centered.”)  One Reformed critic of Arminianism who frequently levels this charge is Michael Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Escondido campus) and editor of Modern Reformation magazine.  I have engaged Horton in protracted conversations about classical Arminianism and his and other Reformed critics’ stereotypes of it, but to date he still says it is “man-centered.”  Almost every article in the infamous May/June, 1992 special issue of Modern Reformation on Arminianism repeats this caricature of it.  Horton’s is no exception.  In his article “Evangelical Arminians,” where he says “an evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic” (p. 18) the Westminster theologian and magazine editor also calls Arminianism “a human-centered message of human potential and relative divine impotence.” (p. 16)

            Horton is hardly the only critic who has made this accusation against Arminianism.  Several authors of articles in the “Arminianism” issue of Modern Reformation do the same thing.  For example, Kim Riddlebarger, following B. B. Warfield, claims that human freedom is the central premise of Arminianism, its “first principle” that governs everything else. (p. 23) That is simply another way of saying it is “man-centered.”  Lutheran theologian Rick Ritchie lays the same charge against Arminianism in the same issue of Modern Reformation. (p. 12) In the same issue theologian Alan Maben quotes Charles Spurgeon as saying that “Arminianism [is] a natural, God-rejecting, self-exalting religion and heresy” and man is the principle figure in its landscape. (p. 21) 

            Another evangelical theologian who accuses Arminianism of being man-centered is the late James Montgomery Boice, one of my own seminary professors.  In his book Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Crossway, 2001) the late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia wrote that under the influence of Arminianism, contemporary evangelical Christianity is “focused on ourselves and…in love with their own supposed spiritual abilities.” (p. 168)  According to him, Arminians cannot give glory to God alone and must reserve some glory for themselves because they believe the human will plays a role in salvation.  He concludes “A person who thinks along these lines does not understand the utterly pervasive and thoroughly enslaving nature of human sin.” (p. 167)

            Reformed theologian Sung Wook Chung of Korea, trained in theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes that Arminianism “exalts the autonomous power and sovereign will of human beings by denying God’s absolute sovereignty and his free will.  Arminianism also regards man as the center of the universe and the purpose of all things.” (“The Arminian Captivity of the Modern Evangelical Church,” Life Under the Big Top, Jan/Feb 1995, pp. 2-3)  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler writes in The Coming Evangelical Crisis about the “human-centered focus of the Arminian tradition.” (p. 34)  In the same volume Gary Johnson calls Arminianism a “man-centered faith” and says that “When theology becomes anthropology, it becomes simply a form of worldliness.” (p. 63)

            Perhaps the most sophisticated way of saying the same thing is provided by scholar of Protestant orthodoxy Richard Mueller in his volume on Arminius entitled God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Baker, 1991).  Mueller writes that “Arminius’ thought evinces…a greater trust in nature and in the natural powers of man…than the theology of his Reformed contemporaries.” (p. 233)  He goes on to accuse Arminius of confusing nature and grace and of placing creation at the center of theology to the neglect of redemption.  He writes that Arminius tended “to understand creation as manifesting the ultimate purpose of God.” (p. 233)  A close reading of Mueller’s interpretation of Arminius’ theology will reveal that he is charging it with being anthropocentric or man-centered rather than God-centered and focused on grace.  A close reading of Arminius, on the other hand, will reveal how wrong this assessment is.

            What do these and other critics mean when they accuse Arminianism of being “man-centered” or “human-centered?”  And what would it mean for a theology to be God-centered as they claim theirs is?  Especially in today’s Calvinist resurgence of “young, restless, Reformed” Christians it’s important to clarify these terms as one often hears it said, as a mantra, that non-Calvinist theologies are man-centered whereas Reformed theology is God-centered.  Their main guru John Piper frequently talks about the “God-centeredness of God” and refers everything in creation and redemption to God’s glory as the chief end.  His implication, occasionally stated, is that Armnianism falls short of this high view of God.  Too often without any consideration of what these appellations mean, today’s new Calvinists toss them around as clichés and shibboleths.

            It seems that when critics of Arminianism accuse it of being man-centered they mean primarily three things.  First, it focuses too much on human goodness and ability especially in the realm of redemption.  That is, it does not take seriously enough the depravity of humanity and it prizes the human contribution to salvation too much.  Another way of putting that is that Arminian theology does not give God all the glory for salvation.  Second, they mean that Arminianism limits God by suggesting that God’s will can be thwarted by human decisions and actions.  In other words, God’s sovereignty and power are not taken sufficiently seriously.  Third, they mean that Arminianism places too much emphasis on human fulfillment and happiness to the neglect of God’s purpose which is to glorify himself in all things.  Another way of expressing this is that Arminianism allegedly has a sentimental notion of God and humanity in which God’s chief end is to make people happy and fulfilled.

            Certainly there is some truth in these criticisms, but their target is wrong when aimed at classical Arminian theology.  Unfortunately, all too seldom do the critics name any Arminian theologians or quote from Arminius himself to support these accusations.  When they say “Arminianism” they seem to mean popular folk religion which is, admittedly, by-and-large semi-Pelagian.  Some, most notably Horton, name 19th century revivalist Charles Finney as the culprit in dragging American Christianity down into human-centered spirituality.  Whether Finney is a good example of an Arminian is highly debatable.  I agree with Horton and others that too much popular Christianity in America, including much that goes under the label “evangelical,” is human-centered.  I disagree with them, however, about classical Arminianism about which I suspect most of them know very little.

            What would count as truly God-centered theology to these Reformed critics of Arminianism?  First, human depravity must be emphasized as much as possible so that humans are not capable, even with supernatural, divine assistance, of cooperating with God’s grace in salvation.  In other words, grace must be irresistible.  Another way of saying that is that God must overwhelm elect sinners and compel them to accept his mercy without any cooperation, even non-resistance, on their parts.  This is part and parcel of high Calvinism, otherwise known as five-point Calvinism.  According to Boice and others theology is only God-centered if human decision plays no role whatsoever in salvation.  The downside of this, of course, is that God’s selection of some to salvation must be purely arbitrary and God must be depicted as actually willing the damnation of some significant portion of humanity that he could save because salvation in this scheme is absolutely unconditional.  In other words, Calvinism may be God-centered, but the God at the center is morally ambiguous and unworthy of worship.

            Second, apparently, for the Reformed critics of Arminianism, God-centered theology must view God as the all-determining reality including the one who ordains, designs, governs and controls sin and evil which are then imported into God’s plan, purpose and will.  God’s perfect will is always being done, even when it paradoxically grieves him to see it (as John Piper likes to affirm).  The only view of God’s sovereignty that will satisfy these Reformed critics of Arminianism is meticulous providence in which God plans everything and renders it all certain down to the minutest decisions of creatures but most notably including the fall of humanity and all its consequences including the eternal suffering of sinners in hell.  The downside of this, of course, is that the God at the center is, once again, morally ambiguous at best and a monster at worst.  Theologian David Bentley Hart expresses it thus: One should consider the price of this God-centeredness:

            It requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in  spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a   young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines (and so on).  It is a strange thing indeed to seek [God-centered theology]…at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. (The Doors of the Sea [Eerdmans, 2005], p. 99)

            Third, to satisfy Arminianism’s Reformed critics, God-centeredness requires that human beings are mere pawns in God’s great scheme to glorify himself; their happiness and fulfillment cannot be mentioned as having any value for God.  But this means, then, that one can hardly mention God’s love for all people.  One must first say with John Piper and others that God loves people because he loves himself and that Christ died for God more than for sinners.  The down side of this is that the Bible talks much about God’s love for people—John 3:16 and numerous similar verses—and explicitly says that Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:8).  While not canonical, early church father Ireneaus’s saying that “The glory of God is man fully alive” ought to be considered to have some validity.  Surely it is possible to have a God-centered theology without implying that people created in the image and likeness of God and loved by God so much that he sent his Son to die for them are of no value to God.  In fact, some Reformed theologians such as John Piper ironically do violate the third principle of God-centeredness as it is required by some critics of Arminianism.  His so-called “Christian hedonism” says that human happiness and fulfillment are important to theology even if not to God.  His mantra is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  In spite of this saying and his Christian hedonism, overall and in general Piper follows the typical Calvinist line of thinking that human happiness and fulfillment should be of little or no value compared with God’s glory.  Another down side of this, besides the Bible’s emphasis on God’s love and care for people, is the picture of God it delivers.  In this theology, the God at the center is the ultimate narcissist, the greatest egoist who finds glory in displaying his naked power even to the point of consigning millions to hell just to manifest his attribute of justice.

            The point of all this is simply this: It accomplishes very little to construct a God-centered theology if the God at its center is sheer, naked power of ambiguous moral character.  “Glory” is an ambiguous term.  When divorced from virtue it is unworthy of devotion.  Many of the monarchs of history have been “glorious” while at the same time being blood-thirsty and cruel.  True glory, the best glory, the right glory worthy of worship and honor and devotion necessarily includes goodness.  Power without goodness is not truly glorious even if it is called that.  What makes someone or something worthy of veneration is not sheer might but goodness.  Who is more worthy of imitation and even veneration, Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler?  The latter conquered most of Europe.  The former had little power outside of her example.  And yet, most people would say that Mother Teresa was more “glorious” than Adolf Hitler.  God is glorious because he is both great and good and his goodness, like his greatness, must have some resonance with our best and highest notions of goodness or else it is meaningless.

            All that is to say that Arminianism’s critics are the proverbial people casting stones while living in glass houses.  They talk endlessly about God’s glory and about God-centeredness while sucking the goodness out of God and thus divesting him of real glory.  Their theology may be God-centered but the God at its center is unworthy of being the center.  Better a man-centered theology than one that revolves around a being hardly distinguishable from the devil.

            In spite of objections to the contrary, I will argue that classical Arminian theology is just as God-centered as Calvinism if not more so.  The God at its center, whose glory, to the contrary of critics’ claims, is the chief end or purpose of everything is not morally ambiguous which is the main point of Arminianism.  Somehow Arminian theology has been stuck with the bad reputation of believing most strongly in human freedom.  That has never been true.  Real Arminianism has always believed in human freedom for one main reason—to protect the goodness of God and thus God’s reputation in a world filled with evil.  There is only one reason classical Arminian theology emphasizes free will, but it has two sides.  First, to protect and defend God’s goodness; second to make clear human responsibility for sin and evil.  It has nothing whatever to do with any humanistic desire for creaturely autonomy or credit for salvation.  It has never been about boasting except in the goodness of the God who creates, rules and saves.

            Why did Arminius reject and why do classical Arminians reject Calvinism?  Certainly not because it is God-centered.  As I will demonstrate, Arminius’ own theology was fully God-centered in every sense.  Arminius and his followers rejected Calvinism because, as Arminius himself put it, it is “repugnant to the nature of God.” (“Declaration of Sentiments,” Works I, p. 623)  How so?  According to Arminius (and all classical Arminians agree) Calvinism implies that “God really sins.  Because, (according to this doctrine,) he moves to sin by an act that is unavoidable, and according to his own purpose and primary intention, without having received any previous inducement to such an act from any preceding sin or demerit in man.”  Also, “From the same position we might also infer, that God is the only sinner.  For man, who is impelled by an irresistible force to commit sin, (that is, to perpetrate some deed that has been prohibited,) cannot be said to sin himself.”  Finally, “As a legitimate consequence it also follows, that sin is not sin, since whatever that be which God does, it neither can be sin, nor ought any of his acts to receive that appellation.” (“Sentiments,” p. 630)

            Anyone who has read John Wesley’s sermons “On Free Grace” and “Predestination Calmly Considered” knows very well that he rejects Calvinism for the same reason given by Arminius before him.  In the former sermon he described double predestination (which he rightly argued is necessarily implied by classical Calvinist unconditional election) as “Such a blasphemy…as one would think might make the ears of a Christian tingle.” (The Works of John Wesley 3:III, p. 555)  According to him, that doctrine “destroys all [God’s] attributes as once” and “represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust.” (Ibid., p. 555)  In “Predestination Calmly Considered” Wesley rejected Calvinism for one reason only: not because it denied the free will of man but because it “overthrows the justice of God.”  He preached as if to a listening Calvinist “you suppose him [viz., God] to send them [viz., the reprobate] into eternal fire, for not escaping from sin! That is, in plain terms, for not having that grace which God had decreed they should never have!  O strange justice!  What a picture do you draw of the Judge of all the earth!” (The Works of John Wesley, Vol. X: Letters, Essays, Dialogs and Addresses [Zondervan, n.d.], p. 221)  Anyone who has read later classical Arminians knows that their main reason for rejecting Calvinism is the same: it impugns the goodness of God and sullies God’s reputation.  It has nothing at all to do with valuing human free will in and for itself and I challenge critics to demonstrate otherwise.

            To explain and defend Arminianism’s God-centeredness let’s begin with the first issue mentioned above as a reason critics give for claiming that Arminian theology is man-centered: the human condition and participation in salvation.  Classical Arminian theology, defined by Arminius’s own thought and by the thoughts of his faithful followers, has always emphasized human depravity just as strongly as Calvinism and it has always given all the credit for salvation to God alone.  Anyone who has read Arminius for himself or herself cannot dispute this.  The editor of The Works of James Arminius (Baker, 1996 [originally published in England 1828]) says rightly that “Were any modern Arminian to avow the sentiments which Arminius himself has here maintained , he would be instantly called a Calvinist!” (Editor’s notes to “Twenty-five Public Disputations,” Works II, p. 189)  In that context Arminius wrote about the human condition “under the dominion of sin”: “In this state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and…weakened; but it is also…imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.” (Ibid., p. 192)  Lest anyone misunderstand, he drives home his point saying of man that in the state of nature, due to the fall, he is “altogether dead in sin.” (Ibid., p. 194)  This is not the only place in his voluminous writings where Arminius describes the human condition apart from supernatural grace this way.  In virtually every essay, oration and declaration he says the same and abundantly!  There can be no doubt that Arminius believed in total depravity every bit as much as do Calvinists.

            What about free will?  What about the human contribution to salvation?  Did not Arminius attribute some good to the human person that causes God to save him or her?  I’ll allow Arminius to speak for himself on this matter also.  Immediately after describing the divine cure for human depravity, which is what is commonly known as “prevenient grace” which awakens the person dead in sin to awareness of God’s mercy, Arminius says that even “the very first commencement of every good thing, so likewise the progress, continuance and confirmation, nay even the perseverance in good, are not from ourselves, but from God through the Holy Spirit.” (Ibid., p. 195)  This is not an isolated quote taken out of context.  Everywhere Arminius constantly refers all good in man to God as its source and attributes every impulse and capacity for good to grace.  I cannot resist offering one more example.  In his “A Letter Addressed to Hippolytus A Collibus” Arminius speaks of grace and free will:

            I confess that the mind of … a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his            affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that   the man himself is dead in sins.  And I add to this, That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so pleads the cause of Grace as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God, and not to take away the free will to do that which is evil. (Works II, pp. 700-701)

The context of this statement makes clear that Arminius’ concern for free will is to avoid doing injury to God’s goodness by making him the author of sin and evil.  For him, human free will is always the cause of sin and evil and God is never their cause even indirectly.  (Although, it should be noted that in his doctrine of providence Arminius affirms that a creature cannot do anything without God’s permission and even concurrence.)  This is the only reason he affirms free will.

            What about later Arminians such as the Remonstrants?  Sometimes critics of Arminianism allege that the true meaning of Arminianism is to be found in the theology of the Remonstrants who were Arminius’ followers after his death.  Of course, that is like saying the true meaning of Calvinism is to be found in the theology of the Reformed scholastics after Calvin.  The truth is that both “Arminianism” and “Calvinism” must be defined by both their namesakes and their most faithful followers.  I argue that true, classical Arminian theology was always faithful to and consistent with Arminius’ thought and vice versa.  I have demonstrated that in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press, 1996). 

            The normative expression of Remonstrant theology may be found in The Arminian Confession of 1621 written by Simon Episcopius, founder of the Remonstrant Seminary in Holland.  In complete harmony with Arminius, the Confession affirms that the fallen human person is completely incapable of saving faith and that he or she is totally dependent on grace for any and every good.  In the article on the creation of the world, angels and men it says “whatever good [man] has, he owes all solidly to God and…he is obligated…to render and consecrate the same wholly to him.” (Confession 5.6 as translated by Mark A. Ellis in The Arminian Confession of 1621 [Wipf & Stock, 2005], p. 56)  As for the human condition, the Confession says of grace that “without it we could neither shake off the miserable yoke of sin, nor do anything truly good in all religion, nor finally ever escape eternal death or any true punishment of sin.  Much less could we at any time obtain eternal salvation without it or through ourselves.” (Ibid., pp. 68-69)  There is nothing “man-centered” about this Confession.  Later Remonstrants such as Philip Limborch, who fits Alan Sell’s category of “Arminian of the head” as opposed to “Arminian of the heart,” veered off toward a man-centered semi-Pelagianism.  But most Arminians followed the path of Arminius and Episcopius and Wesley and the 19th century Methodist theologians such as Richard Watson who averred that even repentance is a gift of God. (Theological Institutes [Lane & Scott, 1851], p. 99)

            Anyone who reads these classical Arminians with a hermeneutic of charity rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion and hostility cannot help but see their God-centeredness in emphasizing the absolute dependence of human persons on God’s grace for everything good.  All of them repeat this maxim frequently and attribute all of salvation from its beginning to end to God’s supernatural grace.  Of course, most Reformed critics will not be satisfied with this.  They will still say, as does Boice, that if the sinner, however enabled by prevenient grace, makes a free choice to accept God’s mercy unto salvation that is man-centered rather than God-centered.  All I can say to that is that it is ludicrous.  The point Boice and other critics continually make is that in the Arminian system the saved person can boast because he or she did not resist God’s grace and others did.  All Arminian theologians from Arminius to Wesley to Wiley have pointed out that a person who receives a life-saving gift cannot boast if all he or she did was accept it.  All the glory for such a gift goes to the giver and none to the receiver.

            The second issue raised by critics of Arminianism has to do with God’s alleged limitations and lack of sovereignty and power.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler writes in The Coming Evangelical Crisis that “The Arminian God ultimately lacks omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendent sovereignty.” (p. 34)  I argue that this objection carries no weight at all.  Anyone who reads Arminius or his faithful followers, classical Arminians, cannot come away with this impression.  All emphasize the sovereignty of God over his creation including specific providence and all underscore God’s power limited only by his goodness.  What throws off Reformed (and perhaps other) critics is the underlying Arminian assumption of God’s voluntary self-limitation in relation to humanity.  However, that God limits himself by no means implies that he is essentially limited.  According to Arminian theology God is sovereign over his sovereignty and his goodness conditions his power.  Otherwise, he would be sheer, naked power without character.  As I argued earlier, that would make him unworthy of worship.

            I will begin as before with Arminius himself.  What did he believe about God’s sovereignty and power?  First, he rightly pointed out that, although he did affirm God’s absolute dominion over creation, “The declaration of dominion has no glory by itself, unless it has been justly used.” (“Examination of the Theses of Dr. Franciscus Gomarus Respecting Predestination,” Works III, p. 632)  In his “Private Disputations” and “Public Disputations,” Arminius went to great lengths to affirm and endorse what is called classical Christian theism with all the traditional attributes attached to it including omnipotence and sovereignty.  A stronger statement of God’s incommunicable attributes could not be found anywhere.  As for sovereignty, Arminius confessed that “Satan and wicked men not only cannot accomplish, but, indeed, cannot even commence anything except by God’s permission.” (“Examination of Dr. Perkins’s Pamphlet on Predestination,” Works III, p. 369) 

            Even some Arminians might find some of Arminius’s statements about God’s sovereignty perplexing if not troubling.  He attributed every power to God and denied that any creature has the ability to accomplish anything, including evil, independently of God.  To critics who accused him of limiting God and exalting human autonomy Arminians wrote:

I openly allow that God is the cause of all actions which are perpetrated by the creatures.  But I merely require this, that that efficiency of God be so explained as that nothing whatever be derogated from the liberty of the creature, and that the guilt of sin itself be not transferred to God: that is, that it may be shown that God is indeed the effector of the act, but only the permitter of the sin itself; nay, that God is at the same time the effecter and permitter of one and the same act. (Ibid., p. 415)

This is an expression of Arminius’s doctrine of divine concurrence in which the creature cannot act without God’s permission and aid.  God wills creaturely free will and therefore must reluctantly concur with creatures in their sinful acts because they cannot act independently of him.  He does not, however, plan or propose or render certain any sin or evil.

            To drive the point home further: In his “A Letter Addressed to Hippolytus A Collibus” Arminius went to great lengths to affirm divine sovereignty, power and providential control over creation.  He speculates that he was accused of holding “corrupt opinions respecting the Providence of God” because he denied that “with respect to the decree of God, Adam necessarily sinned.” (Works II, p. 698)  In other words, he rejected the typical Calvinist view that God foreordained and rendered certain Adam’s sin.  However, he averred that, in spite of his rejection of the necessity of Adam’s fall, he did teach a strong and high view of God’s providence:

I most solicitously avoid two causes of offence, — that God be not proposed as the author of sin, — and that its liberty be not taken away from the human will: These are two points which if anyone knows how to avoid, he will think upon no act which I will not in that case most gladly allow to be ascribed to the Providence of God, provided a just regard be had to the divine pre-eminence. (Ibid., pp. 697-698)

What is absolutely clear from the context is that his insistence that liberty be not taken away from the human will has only one motive—that God not be proposed as the author of sin.  He had no vested interest in human autonomy or free will for its own sake.  His God-centeredness revolved around two foci: God’s untarnished goodness and absolute creaturely dependence on God for everything good.  These cannot be missed as they appear on almost every page of his writings.

What about the Arminian Confession of 1621, the normative statement of Remonstrant belief after Arminius?  Did it fall into human-centeredness as critics claim?  In its chapter “On the providence of God, or his preservation and government of things,” the Confession avers that “nothing happens anywhere in the entire world rashly or by chance, that is, God either not knowing, or ignoring, or idly observing it, much less looking on, still less altogether reluctantly even unwillingly and not even willing to permit it.” (p. 63)  The practical conclusion of the doctrine of providence, the Confession affirms, is that the true believer “will always give thanks to God in prosperity, and in addition, in the future…freely and continuously place their greatest hope in God, their most faithful Father.” (Ibid.)

As for God’s omnipotence, the Confession says that God “is omnipotent, or of invincible and insuperable power, because he can do whatever he wills, even though all creatures be unwilling.  Indeed he can always do more than he really wills, and therefore he can simply do whatever does not involve contradiction, that is, which are not necessarily and of themselves repugnant to the truth of certain things, nor to his own divine nature.” (Ibid., p. 48)  What more can anyone ask of a doctrine of omnipotence?  Oh, yes…certain Reformed critics can and so seem to ask for divine omnicausality.   The problem with that, of course, is that it entangles God in evil.  Again, the God at the center of that system is not worthy of being central to a belief system that values virtue and goodness.  The fact is, that Arminius’s and the Remonstrants’ doctrines of God’s sovereignty and power are as high and strong as possible short of making God the author of sin and evil.

What about later Arminians?  Did they remain true to this high doctrine of God’s supremacy in and over all things?  While affirming everything Arminius and the early Remonstrants taught about this doctrine, including God’s control over all things in creation, Richard Watson rightly cautioned that “the sovereignty of God is a Scriptural doctrine no one can deny; but it does not follow that the notions which men please to form of it should be received as scriptural.” (Watson, p. 442)  For example, he avers that God could have prevented the fall of Adam and all its evil consequences but regarded it as better to allow it.  (p. 435)  That God merely allowed it and did not foreordain or cause it is where Watson’s doctrine of providence parts ways with the typical Reformed view.  However, he rejects any notion that God is in any way the author of sin as incompatible with God’s goodness. (p. 429)  The very fact that he affirms that God could have prevented the fall points to his strong view of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.  Again, in Watson, we see a subtle but definite assumption of God’s voluntary self-limitation in order to keep the God who stands at the center of theology good and worthy of worship.

The upshot of all this so far is that classical Arminian theology does not have a man-centered emphasis.  Arminius’s main concern was not to elevate humanity alongside or over God; no one can read him fairly and get that impression.  His main concern was to elevate God’s goodness alongside or even over God’s power without in any way diminishing God’s power.  The way he accomplished that was by means of the idea of voluntary divine self-limitation—something he everywhere assumes and hints at without explicitly expounding.  Reformed theologian Richard Mueller has rightly discovered and brought this element of Arminius’s thought to light.  He acknowledges the two equally important impulses in Arminius’s thought: God’s absolute right to exercise power and control and God’s free limitation of his power for the sake of the integrity of creation:

Both in the act of creation and in the establishment of covenant, God freely commits himself to the creature.  God is not, in the first instance, in any way constrained to create, but does so only because of his own free inclination to communicate his goodness; nor is God in the second instance, constrained to offer man anything in return for obedience inasmuch as the act of creation implies a right and a power over the creature.  Nonetheless, in both cases, the unconstrained performance of the act results in the establishment of limits to the exercise of divine power: granting the act of creation, God cannot reprobate absolutely and without a cause in the creature; granting the initiation of covenant, God cannot remove or obviate his promises. (Mueller, p. 243)

The point is that any and all limitations of God’s power and sovereign control to dispose of his creatures as he wills is self-imposed either by his nature or by his covenant promises.  This hardly amounts to a man-centered theology!  In fact, one could rightly argue that certain Reformed doctrines of the necessity of creation, including redemption and damnation, for the full manifestation of God’s attributes and the full display of God’s glory amount to a creation-centered theology that robs God of his freedom and makes the world necessary for God.

            The third charge laid against Arminianism that allegedly demonstrates its man-centeredness is its focus on human happiness and fulfillment to the detriment of God’s glory.  Some Reformed theologians claim that Arminianism’s God is a weak, sentimental God who exists to serve human needs and wants and that in Arminian theology man is made glorious at the expense of God’s glory.  This is nothing more than vicious calumny that needs to be exposed as such.  It may be true of a great deal of American folk religion, but it has nothing whatever to do with classical Arminian theology in which the chief end of all things is God’s glory.

            As always I will begin with Arminius himself.  Anyone who reads his “Private Disputations,” his “Public Disputations” or his “Orations” cannot deny that he makes God’s glory the ultimate purpose of everything including creation, providence, salvation, the church and the consummation.  In his “Private Disputations” Arminius stated clearly that God is the cause of all blessedness and that the “end” of this blessedness is twofold: “(1.) a demonstration of the glorious wisdom, goodness, justice, power, and likewise the universal perfection of God; and (2.) his glorification by the beatified.” (Works II, p. 321)  Lest anyone think that he makes God dependent on creation or creation necessary to God Arminius declares in his “Apology or Defence” that everything God does ad extra is absolutely free—even his self-glorification through creation and redemption: “God freely decreed to form the world, and did freely form it: And, in this sense, all things are done contingently in respect to the Divine decree; because no necessity exists why the decree of God should be appointed, since it proceeds from his own pure and free…Will.” (Works I, p. 758)   In other words, only Arminius’ belief in libertarian freedom both in God and creatures, protects the absolute contingency and therefore gratuitousness of creation.  Which is more glorious?  A God who creates to glorify himself absolutely freely or one who, like Jonathan Edwards’ God, cannot do otherwise than he does?

            It’s difficult to know from which context to quote Arminius’ numerous affirmations of the glory of God as the chief end of all his works.  Here, however, is a typical example from his “Private Disputations” where he covers all the loci of theology and almost always concludes that everything in heaven and earth is for the glory of God.  This one has to do with sanctification although his words are nearly identical with regard to justification and everything else God does.  Sanctification, Arminius declares, “is a gracious act of God…[that] man may live the life of God, to the praise of the righteousness and of the glorious grace of God….” (Works II, p. 408)  Then, also, “The End [purpose] is, that a believing man, being consecrated to God as a Priest and King, should serve Him in newness of life, to the glory of his divine name….” (Ibid., p. 409)  Similarly, the “end” of the church is “the glory of God” (Ibid., p. 412) and the “end” of the sacraments is “the glory of God” (Ibid., p. 436) and “The principle End [of worship] is, the glory of God and Christ….” (Ibid., p. 447)  In his “Public Disputations” Arminius repeats the pattern of describing everything blessed and good as God’s work and its end or purpose as the glory of God.

            Earlier I said that Arminius almost always concludes that everything in heaven and earth is for the glory of God.  There is one and only one exception.  In his discussion of sin he concludes, specifically here with respect to the first sin, that “There was no End for this sin.” (Ibid., p. 373)  Man who sinned and the devil both proposed an end or purpose for it, but ultimately it could not have a purpose which would be to import it into God’s will which would make it not sin.  Rather, the first sin, like all sin, was a surd, something inexplicable—except by appeal to man’s misuse of free will.  However, God had an end in allowing it: “acts glorious to God, which might arise from it.” (Ibid.,)  In other words, while sin does not glorify God, God’s redemption of sinners does.

            Time and space prohibit a lengthier and more detailed account of Arminius’ emphasis on the glory of God as the chief end or purpose of every good in creation.  All I can do is urge skeptics to read his “Orations” in Works I where he constantly repeats the refrain for “the glory of God and the salvation of men.”  Lest anyone think he puts these two ends on the same level of importance he says in Oration II that all salvation has the single purpose that “we might sing God’s praises to him forever.” (Works I, p. 372)

            One finds no hint anywhere in Arminius of any concern for human autonomy for its own sake.  Arminius’s only reason for affirming libertarian free will is to disconnect sin from God and make the sinner solely responsible for it.  His one overriding concern is for God’s glory in all things.  There can be no doubt that he would agree whole heartedly with the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism “What is the chief end of man?”  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

            Time prohibits me from rehearsing a litany of Arminian affirmations of the glory of God after Arminius.  Suffice it to say that all classical Arminians have always agreed with Arminius about this matter.  I challenge critics of Armininism to display one example of a classical Arminian theologian who has elevated humanity to an end in itself or in any way made God’s chief end the glory of man.  It doesn’t exist.

            I conclude with this observation.  The difference between Arminian and Calvinist theologies does not lie in man-centeredness versus God-centeredness.  True Arminianism is as thoroughly God-centered as Calvinism.  A fair reading of classical Arminian theologians from Arminius to Thomas Oden cannot avoid finding in them a ringing endorsement of the God-centeredness of all creation and redemption.  The difference, rather, lies in the nature and character of the God who stands at the centers of these two systems.  The God who stands at the center of classical, high Calvinism of the TULIP variety is a morally ambiguous being of power and control who is hardly distinguishable from the devil.  The devil wants all people to go to hell whereas the God of Calvinism wants some, perhaps most, people to go to hell.  The devil is God’s instrument in wreaking havoc and horror in the world—for God’s glory.  The God who stands at the center of classical Arminianism is the God of Jesus Christ, full of love and compassion as well as justice and wrath who voluntarily limits his power to allow creaturely rebellion but is nevertheless the source of all good for whose glory and honor everything except sin exists.

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  • Aaron


  • John


    It would be great if you could give us access to this via a pdf document. This would be a good article to have on file, print out, give to others, use for classes, etc. You can just include the url & your name in the document so the proper recognition can be given.

    • That may be done at the web site of the Society of Evangelical Arminians at I’ve asked the moderator to post it there and I suspect it will be in PDF format. If not, please get back to me.

  • Perhaps it’s a pesky comment, but Sung Wook Chung studied at Harvard and Oxford but, to my knowledge, never Princeton. See his bio here:


  • John I.

    Excellent points about goodness and glory; I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

    On another note, the folly of the Calvinists’ claim that a human’s decision to fall on God’s mercy is somehow taking responsibility for salvation is shown, I think, by comparing God to stone idols. If a pagan prays to his idol pleading for mercy and forgiveness and believes that the idol will save him, neither his so-called efforts nor the assumed action of idol will avail him. Nothing will happen; there is no salvation. How is the action of a human any different when he calls upon the true God for salvation? It isn’t: in both cases it avails the human nothing, it is only in the latter scenario that he is saved because the true God is a living God. Moreover, it is not like his plea for salvation and dependence on God changes God’s mind, influences or convinces God, or makes any other difference, because God was already willing and desirous of saving the lost human and making great efforts to do so (dying, resurrecting, etc.). When the prodigal runs home, he not only finds a loving father there to receive him, but the father is running down the path to meet him and bring him into the house for the celebration.

    John I.

  • Thank you so much. This essay is really helpful to me!

  • I`m a brazilian arminian.
    I’ll post soon on my blog. So I translate it.

  • Nice.

    Of course there’s always Evangelical Calvinism which collapses ‘God-centredness’ and ‘man-centredness’ into ‘Christ-centredness’ through emphasizing the conjunction of God and man in the anhypostatic person of Jesus from Nazareth; grounded in ‘His’ vicarious humanity for us. This way we don’t have to deal with the dualism that usually takes place, whether that be from the Classical ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Arminian’ side of things 🙂 , through talking about man and God as if the hypostatic union has not occurred in the Incarnation.

  • Roger,

    Excellent article!

    With regard to the first reason why some say Arminianism isn’t God-centered while Calvinism is, I often teach my students the contrary. Some forms of Calvinism so emphasizes total depravity that they undermines the God-centered hope that salvation from sin is possible in this life.

    The Arminian logic of salvation as possible despite human sinfulness makes it more God-centered than those forms of Calvinist theology so focused on human sinfulness as to neglect a realistic hope for God’s overcoming sin here and now!


  • Robert

    Hello Roger,

    Thank you for this very fine essay.

    You clearly show that the Calvinist “critics” who claim that Arminius or Classical Arminians espouse a man centered theology to be an intentional and false caricature and misrepresentation. These men know better and yet continue to propagate these lies. If they were ignorant people who had no knowledge of church history or theology, they might have an excuse. But instead they know both the history and theology of Arminius so for them to perpetrate these false representations makes them liars.

    What your essay reminds me of once again is that what we are dealing with is what a friend of mine calls a semantic shell game. Like a magician who diverts your attention in order to actualize his trick, the determinist diverts attention from the fact this is a DEFINITIONAL DISAGREEMENT being perpetrated by the determinist.

    The determinist defines DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY as being EXHAUSTIVE DETERMINISM (i.e. that God is not sovereign unless he has predetermined whatsoever/everything that comes to pass).

    Therefore to the determinist, the only acceptable definition of God’s sovereignty ****is**** EXHAUSTIVE DETERMINISM.

    This means that in the mind of the determinist one can affirm DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY only if one defines it as EXHAUSTIVE DETERMINISM.

    If one denies EXHAUSTIVE DETERMINISM as Arminians and others do, then one also denies DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY according to the determinist (or in the minds of the determinists).

    But WHO came up with the DEFINITION that DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY can only mean EXHAUSTIVE DETERMINISM????

    The determinists did.

    So they define the term the way they WANT IT TO BE (making it a subjective truth not an objective truth), and then attempt to force all other Christians to accept THEIR DEFINITION. This is completely subjective and arbitrary.

    Bible believing Christians of all theological traditions when examining scripture find that scripture does not provide this definition of sovereignty. Instead, in the bible sovereignty is presented as God’s right and ability to do whatever He pleases in any and all circumstances (this conception of sovereignty as God doing as He pleases is found in multiple places and throughout scripture). Now this BIBLICAL DEFINITION of sovereignty is accepted by Christians who are Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and also Independents. I have seen people from all of these traditions who strongly believed and lived and prayed believing that God as God has the right and ability to do as He pleases in any and all circumstances. When a person prays for an unhealthy or even dying person believing that God could heal this person if he chose and he could also choose not to heal this person, and that this is completely up to God: they are operating from the biblical definition and meaning of DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY. He does as He pleases in this situation as in all situations.

    And yet the determinist comes along and this BIBLICAL DEFINITION is found to be unacceptable and not sufficient for the determinist.

    Again for the determinist in their minds NOTHING LESS THAN exhaustive determinism could be acceptable as DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY. And that is precisely where the problem is at. We have a semantic war going on between the determinists and everybody else.

    Everybody else has no problem with DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY as defined biblically and as experienced by believers throughout church history. But for the determinist, since he or she wants to believe in EXHAUSTIVE DETERMINISM (their subjective definition of DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY), this is just not good enough.

    And what does this result in?

    The determinists attack everybody else who holds the biblical definition of DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY as if the rest of us are deficient, mistaken or even heretical and not believers.

    The determinists become this divisive force within the church which causes completely unnecessary confusion and division. And these determinists are quite zealous in their propagation of THEIR DEFINITION of DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY. And this again produces more problems and division and confusion. For example judging by their actions they seem more desirous of converting other believers to their definition of sovereignty than evangelizing the lost. They spend little time leading others to Christ and are instead engaged in attempting to persuade other believers to convert to Calvinism (i.e. adopt exhaustive determinism and argue against other Christians concerning God’s sovereignty).

    It seems to me that if these determinists were as “God-centered” as they claim to be (a truly God centered person would love the church as Christ loves the church regardless of denominational affiliation) and if they truly loved other believers (which they show by their actions they do not), they would operate from the biblical definition of DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY. If they did so, much of the completely unnecessary division and confusion would be eliminated.

    But I doubt that will happen as they have a mentality that is very cult like: “We alone have the truth on DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY and everyone else is false and against us!” This results in very defensive and hostile people with a gigantic chip on their shoulders and an “us against the world” mentality. And sadly that “world” they find themselves against, hating and opposing, is not the world of nonbelievers but the BODY OF CHRIST.


    • So true! And the problem then becomes political because these people have somehow managed to garner attention and respect among evangelical administrators of organizations. The result is that Arminianism is wrongly equated with “man-centered theology” so that historical, classical Arminians are often shunned without a hearing. That’s why I wrote the essay. I hope people who won’t read my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities will at least read this essay. But the problem has become so deep and broad among evangelical leaders that I almost dispair of making a dent in it (viz., the impression that Arminianism is “man-centered”). Everywhere I turn in mainline evangelical circles I hear it being repeated like a mantra. Or, if not “Arminianism is man-centered” “every theology but Calvinism is man-centered.”

  • James Petticrew

    Roger thank you so much for this essay. I am Scot and studied theology in Scotland as a Wesleyan which set me up for continual attack on this very issue. I can remember pointing out how Wesley’s hymns show that Arminianism attributes the ability to and glory for turning to God to God’s actions only to be told that Charles Wesley was a Calvinist when he wrote hymns! As you point out all of the evidence marshalled against Arminianism which was quoted was from Calvinistic critic never from the actual works of Arminus himself or of the later Methodist theologians which refined and defined classic Wesleyanism. Thank you once again for the stand you are taking on this issue

  • Aaron

    There is only one reason classical Arminian theology emphasizes free will, but it has two sides. First, to protect and defend God’s goodness; second to make clear human responsibility for sin and evil. It has nothing whatever to do with any humanistic desire for creaturely autonomy or credit for salvation. It has never been about boasting except in the goodness of the God who creates, rules and saves.

    Right on!

  • J W

    So God is a monster because He chooses some fallen men and rejects others. Very well, He is also a monster for rejecting all of the fallen angels that have rebelled against him. It will be amusing to watch sinners tell him this face to face. Of course MR. Olson has a smirk on his face when he challenges Calvinists to explain where the first impulse to sin came from. Well,what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Adam had good impulses before he sinned. Who was the author of these impulses? If God,then determinism is true,for the good and the bad,and man is a helpless robot. If Adam,then human determinism is true for the good and the bad and God is the helpless robot. How sinners love to hear that. The Apostles answer to all the carpers is: Who art thou sinful man who contends against God?

    • Such either-or thinking! And, yes, I’d rather have God be a helpless robot than the author of sin and evil barely distinguishable from the devil. But, fortunately, neither is necessary!

      • J W

        Yes Roger I believe you would prefer God to be a helpless robot. So would the vast majority of the human race. After all,the supreme claim of sinful men is to be the master of their destiny. Small wonder it makes you angry that Calvinism denies this. Let’s talk about the great boogie man-God is the Author of sin. Assuming God foresaw Adam and Eve sin,rebel,or whatever,the question is whether He planned for this to happen. If so ,then that makes Him the Author of sin. Of course your saying it doesn’t make it true. It just makes you feel better. So does God plan or will for Adam and Eve not to sin? If so,then your God is less than a joke. The only option left is that He has no plan or will in the matter. He simply looks into His crystal ball of the future and stares at this event like a dumb ox. And that is precisely where sinners want Him. As EGBERT WATSON SMITH has said:”Every heresy in doctrine or morals works itself first or last into a frenzy against Calvinism.”The sinful little pots cannot bear to be mere clay in the hands of the Potter,to be formed into vessels of mercy or wrath. Spurgeon has said that men would bite their lips in rage when He preached the Unconditional Sovereignty of God over man’s salvation. You and your followers still have a lot of enmity and rebellion toward the Almighty.It shows that His ways or not your ways and that throws you into a frenzy.

        • Thank you for illustrating so well the mentality I’ve been decrying that is so prevalent out there among Calvinists these days. It is a tendency to use ad hominem attacks when all else fails. Fortunately, not all Calvinists are like this.

    • Jim G.

      Hi J W,

      God didn’t choose any fallen men. “When” (I use the word “when” very loosely here, because God’s act of choosing is in eternity past.) God chose, no one had fallen. Sin is a temporal happening–not an eternal one–at least in the past direction. There was a time when sin and fall were not. Adam was not created fallen. Adam was created very good. So when God chose, the fall had not yet occurred.

      Jim G.

      • This comment raises the inevitable question of supralapsarianism. Is it meant that way? If so, then most contemporary Calvinists including R. C. Sproul stand against it. If it is meant simply as an expression of God’s eternality as timelessness (“eternal now”) then one could just as well say God chose fallen people because “when” God chooses the people are (to him) both not yet fallen and already fallen.

        • Jim G.

          I agree Roger. It raises both the order of the decrees and God’s experience of time. I was just trying to show there are assumptions brought to the table in the decretal system that we can’t know the answers for sure. Thanks for the clarification.

          Jim G.

    • John I.

      Misuse of the quote, “Who art thou sinful man who contends against God?”. Arminians can just as easily throw that quote back at decretal theologians.

      However, throwing that verse around misses the point: neither side is contending against God himself, but against a particular theory about, or theology of, God. Talking about God will not change who he is, but it will help use to clarify our thoughts about God. The issue Arminians have with the monster god is not that the Bible reveals God as a moral monster and they can’t believe it, but rather they are convinced that God’s revelation of himself leads to a very different conclusion and that the decretal theologians have distorted God’s revelation. That distorted understanding of God’s revelation of himself is what we characterize as “monster”.

      John I.

  • Steven Baker

    This is one of the most helpful essays to explain how a Calvinist views Arminianism, and how an Arminianist need not be bullied by Calvinism’s pseudo logic. Thank you, Roger.

  • Jeremy

    Dr. Olson,

    Thanks for all the work you do!

    After reading your article I think it is quite clear that Arminius and most of his followers hold to an orthodox view of omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc. But with his implicit affirmations of God’s self-limitations upon creating how did Arminius and how do others like you handle the traditional attributes of simplicity and immutability? Thanks again.

    • Arminius believed in both of those traditional attributes, but not all Arminians after him have. I, for one, don’t find them in the biblical narrative. They seem more philosophical than biblical to me. Unless, of course, by “simplicity” one simply means that God is one substance indivisible and by “immutable” that God’s character is unchangeable.

  • I do think, Prof. Olson, that much of truth is a paradox and you show this in your excellent essay. Now 10 years ago I married into a Calvinistic tradition. Before that I must have been in an Arminian church, but heard very little about these two camps. Phil. 2:12, 13 seems to imply the PARADOX OF THE TRUTH OF THE TWO CAMPS: we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Arminian part of paradox) AND it is God who works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Calvinistic part of paradox). On my journey reflecting on both of these camps, my real appreciation is for God’s SOVEREIGNTY that you also emphasize. Thanks for showing that.

    • But Arminians claim both of those verses as ours. Verse 13 describes prevenient grace, not unconditional election and/or irresistible grace. Verse 12 expresses the necessary human response. As an Arminian I don’t see these verses as paradoxical.

      • This makes me smile quizzically, Professor Olson. I guess the Bible might be divided into Arminian and Calvinistic verses, but I hadn’t thought it was. I didn’t find Scripture support in your excellent article, although I wondered what biblical support you might offer. I will do more study and again blog about the topic as I did in an early November post.

      • Thanks for your excellent response to Carol. The Bible is not to be bifurcated into Calvinism verses and Arminian verses (or other paradigms for that matter). The Bible is plenary and supercedes all these ways of thinking. The Bible is the lens to which we are to evaluate our thinking, not the other way around.

  • Jeff Kimble

    With all due respect to my Calvinist brothers and sisters, I have found this particular characterization of Arminianism (i.e., a man-centered theology) quite a frustrating and divisive straw man. While I don’t expect them to agree with the Arminian view, I do expect them to represent it correctly and not merely parrot the common denunciations circulating about. So thank you, Roger, for clarifying the historical record.

    In all fairness, however, I also know a number of irenic Calvinist brothers and sisters of a more informed persuasion, who graciously disagree with aspects of Arminian theology. They are careful not to distort it, attempt to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and offer engagingly thoughtful critiques of it. I appreciate them deeply for their breadth of mind and charitable spirit. From them I have learned much. My prayer is that your essay will contribute to the increase of their tribe. This, it seems to me, is the way forward. Thanks for pointing out the high road.

  • Kyle Phillips


    Thanks for the work. I’ve always expressed that Arminian/Calvinist divide as the former reading Scripture and seeing God limiting his power for the sake of his love and the latter reading Scripture and seeing God limiting his love for the sake of his power. What troubles me deeply is the insistence that God’s “sovereignty” (so called) must over rule God’s grace. It has always appeared to me to be more descriptive of Allah than Yahweh. I ponder this “will to power” that has made such a resurgence in the evangelical community of late.

  • Thanks for this article. As a Calvinist allow me to share my initial reactions.

  • The idea that Arminianism is man-centered is not a straw man. This “caricature” of it goes all the way back to the Synod of Dordt and the condemnation of the Remonstrandts. It is hardly a straw man fallacy to point out the factual positions taken by Arminians. Fact 1: Arminians deny that God is in control of all that happens and that God sustains the universe and all the creatures in it from one moment to the next. Fact 2: Arminians believe that God foreknows what He does not determine. But to put it in Luther’s words, how can God foreknow what is uncertain and undetermined?

    You might be interested in reading my latest article on the sovereignty of God at:

    Prying into the Mystery of Reprobation

    I was a Pentecostal and an Arminian for at least 10 years. I graduated from two Arminian schools and I have studied the Arminian arguments firsthand. You can hardly accuse me of “creating a strawman” since I know your position from your side of the fence. Sorry but I don’t buy it. Arminianism is not only man-centered but it is in fact another form of semi-pelagianism and has more in common with Roman Catholic theology then with Scripture or the Protestant Reformation. This might be why Arminians have little trouble connecting with and fellowshipping with Roman Catholics and theological liberals.

    Sincerely yours,


    • Oh, you mean that kangaroo court in 1618/1619 that used the power of the state (Prince Maurice of Naussau) to persecute Arminians? (His successor allowed them back into the United Provinces.) As for straw men– Yes, you are creating a straw man when you say that Arminians do not believe that God sustains the universe and all the creatures in it from one moment to the next. What Arminians don’t believe is Jonathan Edwards’ near pantheistic idea that God creates the entire universe ex nihilo at every moment.

  • You betray a lack of knowledge of basic church history when you say:

    “What would count as truly God-centered theology to these Reformed critics of Arminianism? First, human depravity must be emphasized as much as possible so that humans are not capable, even with supernatural, divine assistance, of cooperating with God’s grace in salvation. In other words, grace must be irresistible. Another way of saying that is that God must overwhelm elect sinners and compel them to accept his mercy without any cooperation, even non-resistance, on their parts. This is part and parcel of high Calvinism, otherwise known as five-point Calvinism. According to Boice and others theology is only God-centered if human decision plays no role whatsoever in salvation. The downside of this, of course, is that God’s selection of some to salvation must be purely arbitrary and God must be depicted as actually willing the damnation of some significant portion of humanity that he could save because salvation in this scheme is absolutely unconditional. In other words, Calvinism may be God-centered, but the God at the center is morally ambiguous and unworthy of worship.”

    First of all, the Calvinist position does not say there is no human will. But that is a great non sequitur and a misrepresentation of the Calvinist position. Secondly, the idea that God “arbitrarily” elects some to salvation is just not true. To say that an omniscient God who is also holy and just is “arbitrary” in anything He chooses to do is not only blasphemy but irrational. Scripture tells us that we are not to accuse God of injustice since we all deserve hell. Shall the pot complain to the potter, “Why did you make me this way?”

    The fact is the Bible says that all of humankind fell in Adam. So if God gave us what we deserve the entire human race should be damned to hell for all of eternity. That’s justice. Mercy is that God decided to elect some out of sheer grace and mercy. He does not give us what we justly deserve: hell.

    You complain that Horton is caricaturing the Arminian position but the fact is Horton’s critique is accurate. Have you bothered reading the Three Forms of Unity, the doctrinal statement of Horton’s denomination? The Canons of Dordt just happen to be part of that doctrinal statement. And the Canons of Dordt are a direct response to “classical” Arminianism as you call it.

    You can read it with proof texts here: Three Forms of Unity


    • I have read the Three Forms of Unity. Have you read Arminius or the Remonstrant Confession of 1621? By the way, I don’t tolerate charges of heresy or blasphemy or idolatry against fellow Christians here–be they Calvinists or Arminians. Goodbye.

  • Steve Dal

    Recently had a major church issue resulting from a faction deciding they were now Calvinists and that the rest of us were really not saved unless of course we came across to their way of seeing things. Very nasty business. Having been through it all and surviving, and also having learnt much about the Calvinist-Arminian debate I remain astonished at the lack of scholarship amongst Calvinists regarding their intractable positions on some of the portions of scripture they see as support for their case. I have 2 words for them all to sum up their error: contingency and context. I was struck by lack of depth regarding the context of for instance Romans 9-11, Ephesians 1 etc etc. At the end of the day it is for each individual to decide but the mature and Godly approach is to remain gracious and respectful regarding peoples positions. Something that has been lacking in my experiences with Calvinists thus far. Beware eisegesis and prooftexting in order to arrive at a presupposition. Once heard this: “when you have the truth, hammer it. When you don’t have the truth, hammer the table”.
    Recently read some work by RL Hamilton. Excellent, calm and rational propositions. His work is in fact how I heard about you. Have to admit that I am now much more Arminian. The Synod of Dort was enough for me to investigate Arminius. Keep up the good work and I look forward to more thoughtful discussion.

  • Steve

    The major problem with every discussion regarding this topic, is that it always revolves around what Arminius or Calvin believed. Quote after quote, citation after citation from proponents of both camps. The fact is; it doesn’t matter whether Arminius or Calvin ever even lived. It doesn’t matter what Calvinist scholars or Arminian scholars teach. All that matters is what SCRIPTURE teaches. I do understand the nature of your blog being an illumination of a “misunderstood” position. But since you also go to lengths to “defend” your position, you have tried to do so without a biblical framework. Mostly what I read was logical, rational, and emotional arguments to coincide with what Arminius wrote. God’s Word is the basis for determining the truth, and nothing else. The essay itself may have been enlightening on some historical things but it did little to establish any biblical ground that would shed any light on this topic.

    • I think you misunderstood the purpose of the essay. Not every essay is meant to do everything. My single purpose was to dispel the notion that Arminian theology is “man-centered.” Why would references to Scripture help with that? We all agree Scripture is God-centered rather than man-centered.

  • \So God is a monster because He chooses some fallen men and rejects others.\

    No… I don’t actually recall anyone saying that.

    \He is also a monster for rejecting all of the fallen angels that have rebelled against him.\

    No… the Angels have a different purpose than we do. Angels are ministering servants, they were created solely to worship God. With us… it was a little different, we were created to know God and be loved by Him… and to experience Relationship with Him. We were created in His image and likeness… quite different from the Angels. In fact, it makes the angels a bit curious… \what is man that Thou art mindful of Him?\ You see, it’s not just you who can’t understand why God would treat us better than the Angels…. the Angels wonder this too! Just because we were created for a better purpose than Angels, does NOT mean we can take credit for it! We receive no Glory. If God is love as the Bible says, than He needs an object of affection… and that is what we were created for. Look at the Garden of Eden… was Adam ever bowing down and worshiping God? I’m not saying he didn’t, but he WALKED with God, and knew Him in a personal way. He already had the Angels to surround Him for eternity and worship Him, so there must have been something more to our creation. I hope that explains how God can not be a Monster for rejecting ALL of the fallen Angels(who no sacrifice was made for) and yet extending the offer of forgiveness to all fallen men.

    \It will be amusing to watch sinners tell him this face to face.\

    Really? I’m sad to see that your Character is not like that of Gods… for God says in Ezekiel 33:11, \I take no pleasure in the destruction of the Wicked.\ And yet you seem to find the idea amusing… how sad. I know many Calvinists, and I myself am sort of leaning that way on most points… but I know many who are nothing like you.

    \Adam had good impulses before he sinned.\
    Yeah… duh. It was kind of BEFORE the fall of man. Now we are all born dead in Sin… Adam was not born dead in Sin… it’s a bit of a different story for him.

    \Who was the author of these impulses?\
    Um… I would say him? Since he was not in the fallen state we are, not totally depraved or even slightly depraved it was his choice to do good, and he found pleasure in it!

    \If God,then determinism is true,for the good and the bad,and man is a helpless robot.\
    Ha ha… well I can agree with half of his quote… if determinism is true, man is a helpless robot. But, I said it wasn’t God… it was only God AFTER the fall. All responsibility goes to man for Evil, and all to God for Good.

    \If Adam,then human determinism is true for the good and the bad and God is the helpless robot.\
    Um… why? What does the pre-fallen Adam have to do with God being a helpless robot?

    \The Apostles answer to all the carpers is: Who art thou sinful man who contends against God?\
    Well, that’s a great answer. But it’s not their only one… and by the way, if you’re a determinist… then that is a stupid answer. Because they shouldn’t be asking the men that question, they should be asking God that question! The men are just helpless robots, they can’t help it. So they should say \Who art Thou God who contends against God(using those manbots)?\

    I’m tired now… I’m going to go to sleep.

  • John I.

    Re: Post by Charlie J. Ray on December 3, 2010 at 6:58 pm : (1) “First of all, the Calvinist position does not say there is no human will. But that is a great non sequitur and a misrepresentation of the Calvinist position”, and (2) ” Secondly, the idea that God “arbitrarily” elects some to salvation is just not true.”

    Response to (1): It is not that traditional Arminians, as well as other non-decretal theologians*, argue that decretal theologians (Calvinists) deny that humans have free will. Rather, they observe that their definition and understanding of “will” differs greatly from that of decretal theologians. Hence, decretal theologians do deny the non-decretal undestanding of human will, and substitute instead their own, very different, understanding.

    Response to (2): To do something arbitrarily, is to do something without an adequate justifying reason. Decretal theologians do state that no one knows the reasons why God decreed that all would sin and that he would only save a fee (I’m ignoring the issue of order of decrees). Often it is stated that if he has any reasons for only choosing some he has hidden them. Consequently, non-decretal theologians correctly point out that God’s election is arbitrary to us. Non-decretal theologians also correctly note that the reason for the differential election cannot be found in us, and that therefore any electing of persons without regard for the nature / characteristics of those people is at least in some sense arbitrary (because its done for reasons that do not relate to the electees themselves).

    Sometimes decretal theologians argue that some are not elected for the purpose that God would have some beings upon or through which God could display his andger and justice. I find that view out of sync with the Word of God, and loathsome to boot, but the morality of that view is another issue.

    *The issue is not with all that Calvin stood for, but only with his semi-Augustinian understanding that God knows all because he decrees all. Moreover, most of those within evangelicaldom that call themselves “Calvinists” do so only in regard to the matter of God’s decrees (usually in the manner of Jonathan Edwards), and do not adopt other Calvinist positions such as his understanding of communion or infant baptism, etc. In addition, “non-decretal” is more inclusive of other positions and focusses less on the names (using names smacks too much of Paul’s criticism of people saying “I am of Apollos”–at least to me).

    John I.

  • RL

    I really got a lot out of your essay but like another reader I found myself wishing that you had been able to bring some scripture to bear on the arguments. I understand your comment that you are putting forth Arminius’ position not scripture’s, but is there someplace you could point me to where I could find arguments from scripture that clearly teaches what Arminius held to be true. For as you’ll no doubt know yourself, calvinists love to say that there position is built purely on scripture and all scripture supports their position!

  • Steve Dal

    People use the name of John Calvin to describe all sorts of positions. They also use the name Arminian for all sorts of reasons. It is very difficult to find definite boundaries that stick.
    In the end I am not intersted in defending either position. Remember the Bible wasn’t written to prove Arminius or Calvin right. Scripture needs to be taken on its own merits.
    Where I come from so-called Calvinists very definitely do say that man has no free will in any matter and that God is the author of sin. When I pressed them on this with the question “then is God a rapist?” they had to answer yes. They also say that He was flying the planes that flew into the towers on 9/11″ etc etc. Once you start down this road you end up in some very sticky places like: ‘no reason for evangelism’ and so on.
    Whilst I have always found hypotheses around Biblical issues interesting there comes a time where you simply have to leave people to their world.

  • Rachel

    Thanks for this essay Roger, I’ve found your blog so helpful in my “wrestlings” with theology. I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of God being in control (which I notice here is stated as an Arminian belief) On another post I seem to remember you having written that you prefer to say that God is in charge rather than in control? That’s certainly how I feel on the matter. I believe that God is sovereign and all powerful, but I choose not to use the term “in control” because to me that sounds more like the God of Calvinism.

    To me it seems that to say that God is in control is to call him a dictator and to deny free will. In allowing us (or orignally creating us) to make our own decisions, inevitably the world is not how he oringinally created it to be. We no longer live in Eden. We live in a fallen, imperfect world where we have to face suffering that we were not created to be able to cope with.

    I like the distinction between God being in control and being in charge. I’ve been thinking about that. If someone is in charge then they don’t have dictatorship powers but rather they have to deal with whatever comes up, whatever happens. In taking on the role of leader, they’ve accepted that responsibility. I see God as working like that with us. As a result of living in a fallen world, bad things happen and God has to deal with them. The most important example of that is obviously Jesus’ death on the cross, to deal once and for all with the consequences of our sin and to prevent us from having to go through the worst suffering we could possibly go through (eternal seperation from God) It’s because God “deals” with is that we can grasp hold of Romans 8:28 (which has been so often misused) God is always good; what happens to us in life often isn’t.

    It’s interesting to me to note that in the NIV the only person described as being in control in the world is Satan (1 John 5:19) Also we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” which to me thankfully means that God’s will is not being done on earth, though I do pray for it to be done!

    I would be really interested to know your (or anyone elses) thoughts on this. I’ve been wrestling a lot with this recently. Thank you and God bless.

    • If I said somewhere that God is “in control” (of creatures’ decisions) I should repent! I usually say God is in charge but not in control. I need to go back and re-read what I wrote! Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      • Rachel

        Roger, you didn’t say that God is “in control” don’t worry 🙂
        I’m just trying to understand exactly what the Arminian position is on God’s control. For example you said “Arminius went to great lengths to affirm divine sovereignty, power and providential control over creation.” So do you see “providential control” as being different to being “in control?” Or is God in control over creation but not of creatures? Perhaps I’m too sensitive to my own aversion of the word control because of the way that I’ve experienced it being used.
        I also wonder about the idea that God specifically “allows” every act that happens. “God wills creaturely free will and therefore must reluctantly concur with creatures in their sinful acts because they cannot act independently of him.” I guess I tend to think that God allowed us to have free will (and in doing so allowed the potential for that free will to be abused) but not that He gives permission for every evil act that takes place (as in His conversations with Satan in Job)

  • Excellent essay. While I am far less conversant in the classical Armenian writings (though somewhat moreso in those of Wesley due to having attended a Methodist college for religious studies), you have addressed what I consider to be the major weaknesses in Reformed polemics against Armenian theology.

    I grew up in a Church of Christ, which tends toward a Wesleyan-derived theological sensibility, though it’s mutated quite a bit and prone to certain excesses. My own sensibilities are more in line with the Anabaptists, who have a more Catholic notion of grace and nature as analogically-related in contrast to the stronger sense of opposition present in other Reformation traditions. But if you work within the parameters of thought that were most prominent in the period, I think Arminius worked through the problems of divine sovereignty and human agency in a way more consistent with Biblical and ethical concerns than the Calvinists.

    Thanks again for this excellent essay, I will definitely use it as a reference.

  • Roger, I am pleased that you called attention to the Arminian Confession of 1621. Their statement of providence entails an affirmation of meticulous providence (that is, no pointless evil) without determinism. I think this is one of the clear differences–a substantial difference–between Open Theism and Classic Arminianism.

    • And yet, Arminius himself argues that sin has no purpose (i.e., no “end”). I believe his main point is that it does not glorify God or contribute anything positive to the cosmos. That God allows it is purposeful; it’s presence in the universe is a result of God’s over-arching purpose of having free creatures who love him freely. But in and of itself it does not have a point or purpose. Thanks for weighing in here, John Mark. (To the rest of you who may be listening in on this exchange, John Mark Hicks wrote an excellent dissertation on Remonstrant theology.)