“Reformed Arminianism?” Another Book about Arminian Theology

“Reformed Arminianism?” Another Book about Arminian Theology June 23, 2015

“Reformed Arminianism?” Another Book about Arminian Theology Reviewed: J. Matthew Pinson’s Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Randall House, 2015)

At the very end of his excellent book Arminian and Baptist Free Will Baptist theologian J. Matthew Pinson reviews by book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press) and, while praising it, criticizes me for glossing over what he considers very real and deep differences among evangelical Arminians. He supposes I did that due to a concern to counter Calvinist misrepresentations of Arminian theology in general and to draw evangelical Arminians together to present a relatively united “front” against the “new Calvinism.” He’s right on both counts. Those were among my driving motives. He also criticizes me for glossing over Wesley’s and Wesleyan theologies defections from robust Reformed theology. My only response is that I don’t see those as significant enough to divide Arminians; what evangelical Arminians agree about is more important than what we disagree about. Also, my own study of Wesley and Wesleyan theologians who remained in the evangelical tradition convinces me that they were and are diverse (even Wesley disagreed with himself!) and where they agree contribute much to the evangelical stream of thought. Although, with Pinson, I consider myself in some sense a “Reformed Arminian” (as opposed to a Wesleyan Arminian) I am not nearly as negative toward Wesleyanism as he seems to be.

But I have explained that sort of “middle ground” I inhabit—between Reformed Arminianism and Wesleyan Arminianism–here many times. I do want to draw them together rather than emphasize their differences. Pinson seems to want to emphasize their differences. I have to wonder to what extent that motive lies, perhaps unconsciously, in a felt need to differentiate Free Will Baptist theology from Wesleyan-Methodist theology. In the South these differences were very important especially in the 19th century. There was a great deal of tension between competing evangelical traditions: Southern Baptist, Wesleyan-Methodist (including Holiness), Restorationist (Churches of Christ), Free Will Baptist, etc. I have always thought Free Will Baptists were sort of underdogs in this whole picture of competing camps among Southern evangelicals. (In the North many Free Will or General Baptists—virtually identical labels—merged with the Northern Baptist Convention in the early 20th century.)

Pinson’s book is a defense of “Reformed Arminianism” which he treats as the historical theological tradition of Free Will Baptists—as opposed to other Baptists and Wesleyans/Methodists. He appeals to Arminius himself to show that the Dutch theologian was firmly rooted in traditional Reformed thought even as he broke from the then (early 17th century) growing Calvinism of Beza and his followers over unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace. And he appeals to Thomas Helwys and Thomas Grantham—early General Baptists—as precursors of contemporary Reformed/Free Will Baptist Arminianism. He drives a wedge between Helwys and John Smyth, for example, portraying the latter as a defector from the classical Protestantism of the Reformers.

According to Pinson, who is president of Welch College, a Free Will Baptist institution in Nashville, Tennessee and who holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, generally speaking, the Free Will Baptist tradition stuck with Augustinian-Reformed doctrines of original sin and satisfaction-substitutionary atonement and justification as imputation of Christ’s righteousness. According to him, Wesley, following certain Anglican Arminians, so amended these doctrines that his view and the majority of his followers, while still Arminian, left behind the Reformed tradition entirely.

So the upshot of Pinson’s argument is that there always has been a stream of Arminianism, going back to Arminius himself, that includes many Baptists, that is thoroughly Reformed with regard the original sin, human depravity, atonement and justification. This he calls “Reformed Arminianism” and he seeks to disassociate it from Wesleyan Arminianism.

I found much of Pinson’s historical material illuminating and his argument mostly convincing. And I found myself largely agreeing with his portrait of Reformed Arminianism. I must say, however, that I thought I detected a certain fundamentalist or at least hyper-orthodox tone in Pinson’s treatment of the doctrines that he believes divide Reformed Arminianism from Wesleyan Arminianism. I can agree that these differences exist, but I consider the “governmental theory” more acceptable within an orthodox and evangelical Christian framework than Pinson seems to. And, on another note, I am more open to open theism than Pinson—something he notes in his review of Arminian Theology.

One point on which Pinson and I most heartily agree, something I want to underscore here, is that “Molinism” is inconsistent with the most basic impulses of Arminian theology—even if Arminius himself occasionally toyed with it and even if some contemporary Arminians see it as the good luck piece of reconciling divine foreknowledge with libertarian free will. I was encouraged to find Pinson agreeing with me on that point!

I think the Free Will Baptist tradition has been largely ignored by evangelicals and especially by Southern Baptists and exiles from the SBC. Although much smaller than the SBC the Free Will Baptist and General Baptist conventions and conferences have contributed much to evangelicalism in North America. But they have struggled in the shadow of the SBC and overwhelming perception among evangelical generally that one must be either Calvinist or Wesleyan. Free Will or General Baptists (there are several relatively small denominations that share that tradition going back to Helwys and Grantham) do not believe one can “lose salvation” but they do believe one can consciously and willfully commit apostasy—falling from grace by rejecting the grace that once saved them. This is, indeed, a middle ground between the “once saved, always saved” view of many Baptists and the popular belief (worry) among many Wesleyans and Pentecostals that one can simply “lose salvation” by neglect.

The one cause for concern that I have about Free Will and General Baptists in North America is that most I have met and interacted with (and read) seem to me to be hyper-orthodox if not fundamentalist in their approach to culture (e.g., modern science and philosophy), the Bible (strong inerrancy belief) and new ideas among evangelicals such as open theism (a kind of kneejerk rejection because it’s new). Pinson criticizes me for promoting a “false dichotomy” of two evangelical approaches to theology—conservative and postconservative. But he doesn’t really engage with what I mean by that divergence (even though he has clearly read Reformed and Always Reforming). For example, there are two and only two approaches among evangelicals to the constructive task of theology—either openness to it or rejection of it. Every evangelical theologian I know either is open to fresh and faithful reconsideration of traditional doctrines (e.g., justification) in light of Scripture or closed to that. The latter approach I call “traditionalism” and the former I have called “postconservative.” It’s easier to accuse me of holding and promoting a “false dichotomy” than to demonstrate that there is a third alternative to these two approaches to the constructive task of theology.

I’d like to make one last point about Pinson’s and many other’s approaches to historical theology. I have come to deal with the various camps or approaches to theology that we label (for example) “Reformed,” “Wesleyan,” “Arminian,” “Baptist,” “Charismatic,” “Restorationist” and even “Evangelical” as ideal types. The truth of the matter is, I’m convinced, that when you really bore down into the theologians who represent these ideal types you find significant differences among all of them! That is, no two Reformed theologians think exactly alike. No two Wesleyan theologians think exactly alike. No two Arminian theologians think exactly alike. That means we have to be a little wary of our own categories. I agree with Pinson’s overall approach of defining Reformed Arminianism by prototypes such as Arminius, Helwys and Grantham. But I very much doubt those three or any other three theologians agreed about everything. It’s all well and good to group them together as “Reformed Arminians,” but we need to be careful not to reify “Reformed Arminianism” as a monolithic tribe and set it over against, say, “Wesleyan Arminianism” as another monolithic tribe. Obviously, “Arminianism” itself is not a monolithic tribe, a closed category within which everyone thinks alike. I’m not saying Pinson has done this, but I do detect a tendency in that direction that needs to be avoided. For example, it seems he would exclude open theists from being considered truly Arminian. Why? They whole heartedly agree with basic Arminian soteriology. Oh, unless one packs too much into “Arminian soteriology” so that it becomes narrowed down to a few. I consider most evangelical open theists, insofar as they embrace the basic impulses of Arminian soteriology, “Arminians with a difference.” But, to be perfectly honest, I am less worried about them than I am about Arminians who use Molinism in a deterministic way or even open that door.

All that is to say that I think my vision of Arminianism is “bigger tent” than Pinson’s. He might disagree. The main value I see in his book lies not in its polemics against the Wesleyan Arminians but its exposition of Reformed Arminianism and especially the Free Will Baptist tradition.

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