Response to another misrepresentation of Arminianism

Response to another misrepresentation of Arminianism January 14, 2012

And here we go again…another case of Calvinist misrepresentation of Arminianism

Twenty years ago I picked up and read the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine. It was a special issue on Arminianism. On the cover was a reproduction of a popular tract that showed a ballot with a sinner’s eternal destiny at stake in the election. God voted for the sinner; Satan voted against him and he got to cast the deciding vote. Every article in the issue blasted Arminianism and Arminian theology as semi-Pelagianism. I answered those accusations and corrected those misrepresentations in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

Over the years I have had many conversations with Modern Reformation’s editor Mike Horton and we have become friends in spite of our disagreement over “the doctrines of grace.” I THINK I have convinced him that real, classical Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism. He even invited me to write an article for MR on the prosperity gospel and its roots in New Thought—the 19th century positive thinking movement.

The current issue of MR (21:1, January 2012) celebrates twenty years of MR. I congratulate them. I have seen a lot of progress in MR’s fairness toward other theologies over the years. It has matured a great deal. Much of the time I actually enjoy reading it and I agree with much in it.

The current issue contains a few lines from me about Arminianism and for that I’m grateful. Also, it contains a lead article entitled “Grace, Sin, and Will: The Structure of the Debate by “The Modern Reformation Staff.” It is a fair representation of the various viewpoints in Christian history: Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism and Augustinian-Calvinism (monergism). This is the kind of nuanced description I have been arguing for among Calvinists (and Arminians) for years.

However, the issue also contains an article entitled “Dead Men Can’t Dance” by Scott E. Churnock, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. This one goes backwards—to misrepresenting Arminianism. I wish the editors of MR would forbid this sort of thing or at least publish the usual line that “views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the editor’s). For example Churnock writes that “When tested against the biblical standard, Arminianism displays a faulty anthropology. It frequently attributes to unbelievers spiritual abilities they do not possess.”

The author also describes the “run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism” as “a philosophical position.” It, he says, “affirms that all people have ‘free will.’ To be truly ‘free,’ a person’s will cannot be constrained in any way. ‘Free will’ is the freedom to choose apart from any influence other than a person’s will.” (p. 32) And on and on.

Has Rev. Churnock not read my book? Or any book of Arminian theology? No real Arminian believes that about free will. In fact, I don’t know anyone who believes that about free will. Especially classical Arminianism doesn’t believe that. What about prevenient grace? Doesn’t Rev. Churnock know about that crucial Arminian doctrine? Even if he doesn’t agree with it, it’s wrong not to at least mention it as part of Arminian doctrine. He clearly doesn’t understand classical Arminianism’s affirmation of total depravity.

Probably Rev. Churnock would defend himself by saying that he is talking about “popular, run-of-the-mill Arminianism” and not “classical Arminianism.” How many of his readers will understand that? Not many. Most will read the article and think that is what Arminianism teaches. At one point in the article the author tips his hat to “classical Wesleyan Arminianism” which, he says, “still [has] a place for grace.” But, he goes on, “the popular Arminianism of contemporary evangelicalism is in fact semi- or even full-blown Pelagianism. I’ll call this ‘pop Arminianism’.” But then, later in the article, he drops the “pop” and just calls it “Arminianism.” Sorry, that’s not good enough.

To Rev. Churnock  I pose this question: What if I published an article describing Calvinism as belief that God is the author of sin and evil admitting that certain types of Calvinists “have a place” for God’s love but go on to write about “Calvinism” as if it teaches that God is hate and not love? Wouldn’t they howl in protest? I would expect them to. So why do they continue to do that (or allow it in their publications) to Arminians? Isn’t this bearing false witness?

I appreciate MR’s progress in fairness and in its normal description of Arminianism as different from semi-Pelagianism. It’s a huge leap from 1992’s Arminianism issue. But this article is a setback.

I have one other complaint about Rev. Churnock’s article. At least I assume he wrote it. It’s a side bar in his article called “Difficult Passages.” It attempts to show that 2 Peter 3:9 does not really teach that God desires all to be saved. (In my opinion it engages in some pretty tortuous exegesis.) But why doesn’t it even mention 1 Timothy 2:4 which clearly states that God desires everyone to be saved? Sure, some Calvinists also try to get around that with tortuous exegesis, but to ignore it altogether as if 2 Peter 3:9 is the only verse Arminians can mention to support belief in God’s universal will for salvation seems strange at best.

Again, I applaud MR for its commitment to serious, if not sound, theology and its desire to be fair in describing other theological views. But I urge the editors to refuse to publish articles that fail the test of fairness.

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