Was Arminius an inclusivist? Continuing a conversation

Was Arminius an inclusivist? Continuing a conversation January 2, 2012

Was Arminius an inclusivist?

Some time ago, on a different discussion list, I was criticized for claiming that Arminius was an inclusivist. That criticism has come up again at the following blog: www.thearminian.org/2011/10/demarcating-wesleyan-arminianism.html. This person has also commented here recently and I posted his comment together with this link adding my own response that I don’t see the advantage of Arminians arguing heatedly among ourselves over something so secondary to our main cause. The blogger in question says (in a footnote to this article at his blog) that I am “sorely wrong” to claim that Arminius was an inclusivist. He claims that the proof I cited before is no proof at all and, in fact, he claims, the passage in Arminius that I cite for support actually contradicts it.

So, since the glove has been thrown down, so to speak, I’ll respond. However, I don’t intend to reproduce here the entire passage in Arminius; I’ll cite it and summarize it and allow those interested to go there (it’s readily available at several sites on the internet including www.ccel.org) and decide the matter for themselves.

In “The Apology or Defence of James Arminius against Thirty-One Articles” (Works, Vol. 2, pp. 20-22) Article XVIII Arminius responds to the accusation by saying that he never uttered “such a sentiment as this:” “God undoubtedly converts, without the external preaching of the Gospel, great numbers of persons to the saving knowledge of Christ, among those [ubi est] who have no outward preaching; and He effects such conversions either by the inward revelation of the Holy Spirit, or by the ministry of angels.” He admits that something like this was preached by his friend Borrius (see the footnote on page 20).

Now, apparently my critic thinks that I say Arminius did affirm this sentiment whereas Arminius clearly goes on throughout Article XVIII to deny parts of it without proper qualifications. Note: Arminius only denies parts of it and ends up affirming it with qualifications. What Arminius actually says is that he never said (nor probably did Borrius) the words “undoubtedly” or “great numbers of persons.” He says these are “the additions of calumny….” In other words, his critics, charging him with heresy, added these words to what Borrius did say and he (Arminius) affirms. So what did Arminius affirm?

Arminius says (para. 3 of Article XVIII, page 21) “The following is a saying in very common and frequent use: ‘The ordinary means and organ of conversion is the preaching of the Divine word by mortal men, to which therefore all persons are bound; but the Holy Spirit has not so bound himself to this method, as to be unable to operate in an extraordinary way, without the intervention of human aid, when it seemeth good to Himself.’ Now if our brethren [viz., his accusers] had reflected, that this very common sentence obtains our high approval, they would not have thought of charging this article upon us, at least they would not have accounted it erroneous.” Arminius then goes on to point out the difference between this sentence, which he says “obtains our high approval” and the statement he (and Borius) was accused of affirming (with the additional words).

Now, before going on, let me ask: Who can really disagree with that sentence? Addressing my critic and anyone else who agrees with him: “Do you really think that the Holy Spirit has bound himself so as to be unable to operate in an extraordinary way, without the intervention of human aid, when it seems good to Him?” Really? If your answer is “yes,” then I can only say you are limiting the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. Nothing in scripture even hints that the Holy Spirit is so bound to human agency that he cannot speak directly to people without the written Word or human witness. A good example is Saul/Paul on the Road to Damascus.

Now, back to what Arminius actually said. A careful reading of the entirety of Article XVIII will show that Arminius affirmed the sentence above without the addition by his critics of “undoubtedly” and “great numbers of persons” and with proper qualifications. In paragraph 4 (p. 22) Arminius asks his critics “What peril or error can there be in any man saying?, ‘God converts great numbers of persons (that is very many,) by the internal revelation of the Holy Spirit or by the ministry of angels; ‘ provided it be at the same time stated, that no one is converted except by this very word, and by the meaning of this word, which God sends by men to those communities or nations whom He hath purposed to unite to himself.” Now, lest anyone be confused by an improper and poor interpretation of that sentence…what Arminius clearly means is that the gospel by which people are converted through the “internal revelation of the Holy Spirit or by the ministry of angels” is the same gospel as that God sends by men. Otherwise the sentence makes no sense. The second part would contradict the first part.

Overall, a careful exegesis of Article XVIII will reveal that Arminius did believe it very possible that people are reached by the Holy Spirit unto their salvation without the intervention of human agency. He just didn’t think there is any known, undoubtable example of it. For him, as for later inclusivists such as Wesley, it remains a hope and a possibility, not a promise.

This may not be the strongest version of inclusivism (and that category is a very broad one), but I consider it a form of inclusivism. Quibble all you wish about the meaning of “inclusivism.” I define it as including any view that God may save persons without the intervention of human agency (i.e., without a missionary reaching them).

But the argument here, at this very moment, isn’t about inclusivism. It is about my critic’s claim that I misinterpret Arminius. (He apparently thinks he is a better interpreter of Arminius than I am.) At his blog he says so—even to the point of implying that I either didn’t read Article XVIII well or intentionally distorted its meaning by taking Arminius’ sentence out of context (the context allegedly contradicting it).

Again, if you’re interested and doubtful, by all means look it up for yourself, read the whole of Article XVIII and decide for yourself what you think Arminius is saying. As for myself, I’m settled about it. Arminius did believe that God the Holy Spirit is not bound by human agency in reaching people with the grace of salvation.

Now, a final word about this controversy. Does it really help the Arminian cause for Arminians to accuse each other of being “sorely wrong” (not just “wrong” but “sorely wrong!”) about a relatively minor point of Arminius interpretation? We (Arminians) are beset all around by evangelical critics such as R. C. Sproul and many, many others who say we are semi-Pelagians, have a “man-centered theology,” and are “saved, just barely.” Arminianism is routinely marginalized and excluded by evangelical leaders. What good is accomplished by attacking each other over minor points of disagreement about what Arminius believed or didn’t believe about secondary matters? Unless, of course, you don’t think they are secondary. Then, I would have to say you are a fundamentalist and I don’t really have time or interest or energy to quarrel with you (i.e., if you really think inclusivism is a heresy such that if Arminius were one he would have been halfway to hell). It’s one thing to disagree about this in a gentlemanly and scholarly fashion, as brothers in Christ and fellow Arminians; it’s another thing entirely to attack and criticize and harp and harass.

I’ve said all I’m going to say about this; decide what you think by reading Article XVIII for yourself. Whether Arminius was or wasn’t an inclusivist isn’t crucial to anything. I will be one whether he was or not. I interpret that article as indicating he was an inclusivist as I define the concept. But if I am wrong, well…it doesn’t really matter.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Roger Olson,

    It’s no big deal that we disagree. But for you to claim to be attacked and criticized and harped and harassed is a bit much, don’t you think? To say I think you’re “sorely wrong” is not tantamount to an attack or a harassment. Are you beyond being criticized?

    God bless.

    • rogereolson

      I’m referring back to some earlier exchanges on the SEA discussion list which, in my opinion, became overly heated and unnecessarily drawn out. No, I’m not beyond criticism. See the many critical comments (of my views expressed in my posts) I post here. It’s the tone to which I object. You seem obsessed with this issue and keep ratcheting up the rhetoric. So, tell me, if you will, what does “sorely” add to “wrong?”

  • Seth Miller

    Good article Dr. Olson,

    I have recently joined the Arminian ranks and would say that your works were significant in correcting my understanding of Arminianism. I just want to make sure that I understand you on one point. Do you believe that Arminius taught that Jesus was both epistemologically and ontologically necessary for one to be saved? I was under the impression that inclusivism denied the former and the latter.

    Enjoy your books and blog.

    • Seth Miller

      I meant to say that they (inclusivists) denied the former and affirmed the latter. Sorry.

      • rogereolson


    • rogereolson

      No, inclusivism is different from pluralism. Inclusivism comes in many varieties but all agree that God is not bound to human agency in reaching “the lost” for their salvation. I distinguish between “hard” inclusivism (that says God’s grace for salvation is present in many religions) and “soft” inclusivism (that says God may reveal himself to people anywhere, anytime resulting in their salvation–but not through non-Christian religions). All inclusivists agree that if someone is saved it is always because of Jesus and his death and resurrection, even if they never hear his name. Pluralism is the view that Jesus is not the only savior.

      • Jon

        Dang… I just learned that I’m actually an inclusivist, albeit a ‘soft’ one. Thanks for clarifying the difference between the hard and soft versions!

  • drwayman

    Dr. Olson – You wrote as your definition of inclusivism, “I define it as including any view that God may save persons without the intervention of human agency.” Would this definition also include the Calvinist teaching of election? My understanding is that Calvinists teach that before God created mankind, there were certain individuals who God saved without human agency as there were no humans born yet. Am I stretching this or is that an exception to your definition?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know any Calvinist who would say that. Supralapsarians say that God, before and apart from creation, predestines some people to salvation. But the vast majority of them would also say those elect persons are not actually saved until Christ dies on the cross for them AND (Calvin himself makes a big point of this) the Holy Spirit imparts faith to them which brings the benefit of Christ’s saving death to their lives. Most Calvinists say this impartation of faith to elect individuals is always through the mediation of the gospel message including the name Jesus by a missionary or some kind of messenger (e.g., Bible translator).

  • aaron

    Well said, Roger. Appreciate your clarity and the the manner in which you take your stances.

  • John C. Gardner

    I can’t believe that anyone would make the comments that were contained in the e-mail you cite and which I have read. I reviewed article 18, the e-mail, and two books which evaluated arminius on this matter. You are, of course, correct. I myself hold to a view similar to arminius and aquinas. Thank you for such a cogent summary of these issues.

  • gingoro

    As a moderate calvinist I say that you should be proud to be rejected by an extremist like R. C. Sproul. While I would not argue that R. C. was not a Christian or that he is barely a Christian I do reject his position especially meticulous providence. It appears that, to those like R.C., if one is not a five point calvinist plus meticulous providence then one is called an Arminian as I have been.

    I have read two of your books but I still have questions about Arminian belief.
    Do Arminians hold to the doctrine of common Grace which prevents sin and evil from becoming as bad as they otherwise might be?

    • rogereolson

      Most definitely. Arminians distinguish between common grace (where we agree completely with Calvinists), prevenient grace (only disagreeing with Calvinists about whether or not it is resistible) and saving grace (the only ground and basis of salvation). As for R. C.–He doesn’t bother me EXCEPT that many evangelical leaders are influenced by him (e.g., Chuck Colson to name just one).

      • TerryJames

        Curious. As I recall, in “Born Again” Colson wrote that he spoke in tongues. Wouldn’t R.C. Sproul reject that experience? Has Colson made any comment about that?

        • rogereolson

          I don’t know Colson’s or Sproul’s views on that. It doesn’t seem crucial to Sproul’s theology to reject it.

      • gingoro

        Thanks Roger. I always feel glad when I stumble upon doctrines that Arminians and Calvinists hold in common.
        Dave W

  • Bob Brown

    I agree with you, Roger. And I take it a step further. If I’m wrong I need someone to correct me. The Scripture teaches “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Did not Jesus’ death deal with all sin for all time? Legally, God can save anyone He wants, however He wants. Faith in Christ may only blossom for some when they awaken in Heaven. In any case, the only way ANYONE receives the gift of eternal life will be through the death of Christ, whether everyone realizes it in this life or not. The one truth we will all agree on in Heaven is that we are there because of the death of the Lamb of God!

    I believe there will be many in Heaven who have never heard the Name of Jesus. Many who never heard a missionary or evangelist or preaching of the gospel, like infants, or those aborted or those born in countries before missionaries arrived.

    I believe God so loved the world that He died for the sins of the whole world so that He could save whoever He chooses to save. Even hearing missionaries doesn’t save all who ‘hear’. God must choose even among those who profess to believe as the parable of the Sower teaches.

    It is true that “whoever calls upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” But God will be the judge. Many are called but few are chosen. Because of Jesus, God can save whoever He wants thru any means He chooses.

    • rogereolson

      I like much of what you say, but I only ask on what basis God chooses some to save? Surely it’s not an arbitrary choice, right? Then what?

      • Bob Brown

        Surely God choice is primarily based on how a person responds to truth, love and the light he/she is given. But are all the aborted saved? If not, what determines God’s choice to save some and to damn others? Will God save all the American Indians or just some? It may seem arbitrary to us now, but in Heaven we will all declare, “just and true are Thy judgments”.

        I have to conduct a funeral for a suicide this Saturday. I like believing that God can save that person…if He wants…since Christ died for his sins. It’s not arbitrary if all those saved are based on Christ’s death. I like thinking that God saved sinners the way He did in order that He can save whoever He wants since legally the debt was paid for all.

        • rogereolson

          When I was growing up in a fundamentalist home and church the answer was always “God will judge them by what they did with the light they had.” Too bad that has become heresy in many conservative quarters. You couldn’t have been more conservative than the church I grew up in (in terms of strict adherence to the Bible and traditional doctrine).

          • Dr. Olson,

            I have read with interest your article here and the responses. I realize I am chiming in several days after the last post. While I understand the ramifications of your comment relative to God “judging men according to the light they had” I cannot with good conscious agree with that statement or else the argument could well be made that men would be better off having not heard the name of Christ than to have heard it and have it condemn them. The Great Commission makes “going and telling the story, which is a vital part of discipling” essential because it is imperative for us as Christians to tell that story.

            Now let me ask a question with regard to the issue of “inclusiveness.” Since this is the FIRST time I have even considered this concept so forgive me if I fail to see the forest for the trees here, It would seem to me the concept of prevenient grace as well as efficacious grace would be by definition inclusive in and of themselves as defined by Arminians and Calvinists. Here is why I make this statement.

            The Word, spoken, written or even revealed supernaturally… cannot be responded to apart from this special grace so by default, conversion must be inclusive at the point of regeneration because that is necessary element for conversion to take place at all.

            In fact, it can be argued that efficacious grace that is irresistible is absolutely inclusive because that individual WILL be saved because it is God’s decree and what God decrees is accomplished and that is it; period; end of discussion. The preaching of the gospel is at best secondary becasue apart from regeneration, it has no effect on the lost man.

            Am I missing something here?

            Grateful to be in His Grip!


          • rogereolson

            I think we are just using the word “inclusive” in different senses. In contemporary theology (especially among evangelicals) “Inclusivism” is a technical term for a variety of beliefs about who may be saved. The only thing all self-identified inclusivists agree about is that there is a possibility of salvation through Jesus Christ without ever hearing his name. There are many posts and comments about this in the archives of this blog. I hope you can find them as they explain the ins and outs of the debate over this among evangelicals and reveal where I stand and why.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    I follow your reading of Arminius and agree with your definition of “inclusivist”. Yet is not a common ingredient of inclusivism the idea that the majority of humankind will be saved? Kindly, I would be interested in your view of that. It is thorny issue but perhaps the underlying reason why “inclusivist” and “inclusivism” are so sensitive.

    • rogereolson

      Some inclusivists believe the majority of humankind will be saved; others do not claim to know. Interestingly, high Calvinist Lorraine Boettner (in The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination) says that he believes only a few will be eternally lost (meaning the vast majority are elect). He doesn’t give support for it. I suspect it was just his way of softening the blow of his supralapsarian double predestinarianism.

  • J.E.

    I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but to say Saul/Paul was not influenced directly by the preaching of the Word seems amiss. He was standing there during that wonderful sermon by Stephen. I wonder how much of that might have been going through his thoughts later? Just a thought.

  • Scott Gay

    In the fall of 1987 I was reading Wesley’s “The Cure of Evil Speaking” in our bedroom before sleeping, and applying it in life during the day. Long story short, I was born again in that bedroom. Sort of a hybrid experience by the definitions given and challenged here. Nevertheless, it has propelled me to strongly feel that justification by faith has become a rule of faith imposed as a law in many a pulpit and tract. This has the effect of listening to words that seem to bounce right off the chest…like I’ve heard it all before. It is an embarrassment because (1) a spiritual law( or four ) is not grace and (2) assumes God’s way (3) excludes the experiences of many.
    I shortened my experience. The nuances, many acts of providence, the nothing but miracle, sheer joy from the bottom of my toes to the hairs on my head, the absolute freeing experiential aspect, the way it could have only been accomplished for me… makes me want to type it and pin it in my coat, as did Pascal.
    It’s 25 years later that I’ve known the definition of inclusivism. To others it implies how many will or will not be saved. To me it is the way God saves.