Must One Agree with Arminius to be Arminian?

Must One Agree with Arminius to be Arminian? November 14, 2013

Must One Agree with Arminius to be Arminian?

I will be responding to two new books about Arminius at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The session is A24-274 Evangelical Studies Group and Open and Relational Theologies Group (joint meeting of two program units). The Theme is “Arminius and Open Theology” and the time is Sunday, November 24 at 3:00. The location is announced in the program book and only persons registered for the AAR meeting are able to attend.

The two new books are Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace by Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall (OUP, 2012) and Arminius and His “Declaration of Sentiments” by W. Stephen Gunter (BUP, 2012).

I can’t give away my responses here, before the meeting, so let me approach the books from a different angle.

Reading them, like reading Arminius and other books about him, raises the question whether one must agree with Arminius entirely in order to be Arminian. My answer is “No.”

I recently spoke about Calvinism and Arminianism at a large church in Springfield, Missouri (Central Assembly of God) and at the AG Seminary there. One questioner (after my talk) asked why a person would promote Arminianism since we don’t really know what Arminius himself said. He was under the false impression that Arminius’ main treatises were written by his students after his death—based on notes from his lectures. I corrected that for him. But his question indicated a belief that being Arminian is somehow tied to agreeing with what the man Jacob Arminius actually believed and said.

“Arminianism” is a theological construct not tied wholly to Arminius. “Calvinism” is the same—a theological construct (with variations) not wholly tied to John Calvin. Charles Hodge, for example, in his Systematic Theology, makes the point that one can be a Calvinist, as he was, without agreeing with Calvin about everything.

In fact, I would argue that Arminianism was already believed and taught long before Arminius. Arminianism is simply a Reformed Protestant version of the soteriology of the ancient Greek church fathers (Thomas Oden makes this point in The Transforming Power of Grace). Years ago when reading the Anabaptist theologians Balthasar Hubmaier and Menno Simons (who lived before Arminius) I found their accounts of soteriology basically the same as Arminius’—at least in terms of ethos and general impulses.

Arminius had many opinions that are not crucial to Arminianism, just as Calvin had many opinions not crucial to Calvinism.

For example, Arminius believed Romans 7 was Paul’s testimony about his pre-conversion existence in Judaism. That led him to believe that a kind of “Christian perfection” (not necessarily sinlessness) was at least theoretically possible for the believer. (About this he anticipated Wesley who would come to the same conclusion over a century later.) One does not have to agree with Arminius or Wesley about that to be Arminian. I don’t know anyone who thinks so.

When I promote Arminianism I am not promoting the whole thought of Jacob Arminius. I am using “Arminianism” as a handy (because well known even if often misunderstood) synonym for “evangelical synergism” (a term I borrow from Donald Bloesch). It revolves around certain theological beliefs about God’s character, grace, election, free will (“freed will!”), conversion, regeneration, etc. It’s simply a Protestant perspective on salvation, God’s role and ours, that is similar to, if not identical with, what was assumed by the Greek church fathers and taught by Hubmaier, Menno Simons, and even Philipp Melanchthon (after Luther died). It was also taught by Danish Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen (d. 1600)—independently of Arminius. (Arminius mentions Hemmingsen as holding the basic view of soteriology he held and he may have been influenced by Hemmingsen.)

So why does all this matter? Well, for one thing, it may be (I reluctantly admit) that, at least some of the time, Arminius believed in Molinism. That doesn’t commit me to being a Molinist if I’m Arminian. In fact, I think Molinism conflicts with the basic impulses of Arminianism—even if Arminius himself did not see that. The debate over Molinism is one among Arminians; it is not an issue that divides “real Arminians” from “false Arminians.”

Like “evangelicalism” I regard Arminianism as a large tent. People who have never considered themselves “Arminians” because, for example, they believe in evangelical synergism from the Anabaptist founders before Arminius, can be under the tent. Because “Arminianism” is not “agreement with Arminius.” It’s a theological term for evangelical synergism.

When I lived in Europe and traveled in Switzerland I found people who believed in what I would call Calvinism who bristled when I called it “Calvinism.” They let me know in no uncertain terms that Calvin was just one of the great Reformed theologians and they had no interest in being labeled by his name. Zwingli lived before Calvin and was the real “father” (perhaps along with Martin Bucer) of the Reformed tradition. That we call it “Calvinism” is mainly because of the Puritans, many of who studied in Geneva under Calvin or his successors there. But there were strong centers of Reformed theology that owed nothing to Calvin and some of their leaders had harsh words for Calvin about some of his opinions and actions.

I consider anyone a fellow Arminian who is an orthodox Protestant Christian (justification by grace alone through faith alone) who believes in human inability to initiate a saving relationship with God apart from prevenient grace (whatever they might call that), corporate election, prevenient grace (again, whatever they might call it), universal atonement, and resistible grace and does not believe God “designed, ordained, or rendered certain” the fall of humanity and all of its consequences. Yes, that’s a large tent and I invite anyone who fits that profile into/under it—whether they agree with Arminius about other matters or not and whether they call themselves Arminian or not.

I find Arminius studies interesting and relevant but not crucial to being Arminian. The “historical Arminius” does not matter to my being Arminian. It’s a theological category not tied to a man (except historically). In other words, if it should somehow be found that Jacob Arminius secretly believed in TULIP (not likely) it wouldn’t affect “Arminianism” which has become independent of the man Jacob Arminius and what he believed. It has taken on a life of its own that cannot be changed by whatever is discovered in “Arminius studies.” I frequently refer to Hubmaier and Menno Simons, for example, as “Arminians before Arminius.” I fully realize that’s anachronistic and might offend some Anabaptists. In their presence I will gladly admit that it really goes back to their founding theologians if not before. It’s truth rests not on Arminius or Hubmaier or any other theologian; it rests on Scripture alone.

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