Don't Hate Me Because I'm Arminian
My Reformed friends sometimes treat me like the enemy, but actually we need each other.
September 6, 1999
During the great awakenings of the eighteenth century, John Wesley and George Whitefield stopped cooperating with one another due to differing beliefs about predestination. And though they eventually made up, their disagreement has lived on in American evangelicals' waxing and waning debates about God's sovereignty and the doctrines of election and free will.
Despite this history, the postWorld War II evangelical coalition in North America has held Calvinist and Arminian believers together within one great movement. At least as many member churches of the National Association of Evangelicals are Arminian in theological orientation as Reformed.
But now signs of great stress within the coalition are appearing, including a new stridency and aggressiveness on the part of theologians in some more conservative Reformed circles. As a lifelong Arminian as well as an evangelical, and as one who cares deeply about the unity of the evangelical community, I find this very distressing.
Some of these theologians think that evangelicalism faces a crisis that centers on the issue of predestination. "Can Christians who deny unconditional election and irresistible grace be authentically evangelical?" they ask. Michael Horton, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, argues in Modern Reformation magazine that "evangelical Arminian" is not an option but an oxymoron. "An evangelical," he writes, "cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic." Even the great Arminian revivalist John Wesley is suspected of defective evangelical faith by Horton and some of his colleagues in two organizations, Christians United for Reformation (CURE) and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE). These and other contemporary evangelical movements seek to revive and enthrone monergism—belief in God's sole and sovereign activity in salvation—as crucial to authentic evangelicalism.
In recent years, a spate of books and articles edited and authored by leading Reformed evangelical scholars (like R.C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries) has raised questions about the validity of the evangelical credentials of any and all Arminians—Protestants who deny unconditional election and affirm resistible grace. ACE composed the "Cambridge Declaration," which criticized, among other alleged aberrations among evangelicals, the belief that human beings can cooperate with the regenerating grace of God.
I hope for a new detente between those of us who believe in the soul's ability to cooperate with regenerating grace (Arminians) and those evangelicals who believe that regenerating grace must precede even repentance and faith (Calvinists).
When I started seminary I was a Pentecostal preacher's boy bent on becoming a theologically educated pulpit-pounder. I graduated a post-Pentecostal, broadly evangelical theological scholar "wanna be." While in seminary I discovered that one could be Spirit-filled and also intellectually serious, open to diverse viewpoints within the broader evangelical heritage, and even theologically Re formed! That revelation came to me through the lives and teaching of professors such as Ralph Powell, Al Glenn, Sam Mikolaski, and James Montgomery Boice. Magazines such as Eternity and Christianity Today helped to transform my previously more narrow idea of authentic "full gospel" evangelical Christianity. But through it all, and in spite of serious wrestling with its problems, I held onto the Arminianism of my Holiness-Pentecostal heritage.
Two pieces of advice I learned from my seminary theological mentor, a moderately Reformed Baptist, have especially stuck in my mind. During the reception, immediately after the graduation ceremony, Ralph Powell pulled me aside, and in the most touching, grandfatherly way, said: "Roger, don't ever lose your evangelical cutting edge." Knowing I planned to continue my theological education at a secular university, he could think of no better parting advice for his young protege. Nor could I. I have always remembered his charge fondly and tried my best to meet its challenge.
The other piece of advice came earlier. Powell was concerned about my rather firm Arminian beliefs. One day he took me aside and said, "Roger, you should know that Arminianism has usually led to liberal theology." Like many Reformed theologians, he believed that an Arminian emphasis on free will grants too much power to humanity and therefore contains a humanistic impulse. While I appreciated his implicit admonition, I knew from my own experience that this was not entirely true. Ever since, I have strived to prove that Arminian theology and an evangelical cutting edge can be combined comfortably.
Tulip theology—made in Holland
Arminian theology did not begin in Armenia. In fact, it has nothing specifically to do with that part of Asia. Arminianism is a label derived from the name of a Dutch theologian who died in 1609 at the height of a controversy surrounding the doctrine of predestination. Jacob Arminius rejected some of the doctrines of Calvinism while accepting others. He studied under Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, but had come to repudiate some of Beza's beliefs, such as unconditional election and irresistible grace, in favor of conditional election, free will, and prevenient, resistible grace.
Arminius's staunchly Reformed counterpart in theology at the University of Leiden was Franciscus Gomarus—another pupil of Beza's—who insisted that the doctrines Arminius rejected were part and parcel of Reformed theological orthodoxy.
The evangelical community needs both George Whitefield and John Wesley to achieve the beauty of balance.
Arminius's followers in Holland were known after his death as the Remonstrants, and some of them formulated a document known as the Remonstrance, in which they detailed their rejection of Gomarus's Calvinist theology. Gomarus's summary of Reformed faith had five points (the famous "TULIP" formula): total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance.
Arminius himself had never denied the first and last of the five points, and his followers debated those among themselves for centuries. Briefly stated, the "five points" rejected by the Remonstrants mean (in order) that humans are all (with the exception of Jesus Christ) born utterly spiritually dead and unable to do anything pleasing to God because of the inheritance of Adam's fallen nature; God has predestined certain people to receive forgiveness and eternal life, and God's selection is in no way conditioned by the elects' lives or decisions; Christ died on the cross to provide atoning sacrifice for the sins only of the elect; God imparts regenerating grace to the elect in such a way that they cannot or will not resist; and the elect of God will persevere in a state of grace unto final salvation.
The leading Re formed ministers and political leaders of the United Provinces of the Netherlands—of which Holland was the most prominent state—met at the Synod of Dort from November 1618 to January 1619 and condemned the Remonstrants as heretics. Dort affirmed the so-called five points of Calvinism as orthodox and forced Arminius's followers either to recant their beliefs in free will, conditional election, resistible grace, and unlimited atonement or be banished from the Reformed Church and from the Nether lands. Some Arminian leaders, such as the Dutch statesman Hugo Grotius, were imprisoned. One was beheaded. In those days it was not as easy to separate theology and politics as we do today.
As a result of the Synod of Dort, the Arminians spread out to other countries and found refuge in other branches of Protestant Christianity. The Mennonites and other Anabaptists already believed much the same about divine election and salvation as many of the Arminians: Election refers to God's foreknowledge of those who will freely respond to the gospel as they are enabled by prevenient grace. Arminian theology found acceptance within the Church of England, al though many in that church staunchly opposed it in favor of Reformed theology.
Gradually the Arminians divided into two parties that Alan P. F. Sell—a modern interpreter of the history of Re formed- Arminian controversy—label "Arminianism of the head" and "Arminianism of the heart." The former leaned toward Deism and liberal theology. Many eventually became Unitarians. The latter were strongly influenced by German Pietism and emphasized personal conversion and sanctification.
John Wesley was the leading "Arminian of the heart" in the eighteenth century, and his Methodist movement was deeply stamped by Arminian "free will" theology. To those evangelicals of his own day, who accused him of having humanistic and Catholic tendencies because of his rejection of unconditional election and belief in free will, Wesley affirmed the absolute necessity of God's prevenient (enabling but resistible) grace to overcome the deadly wound of sin and have sufficient free will to accept or reject saving grace responsibly.
The early Baptists were divided by this Reformed-Arminian controversy. Those Baptist preachers and congregations who embraced Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace came to be known as "Particular Baptists," while those who followed Arminian teachings were called "General Baptists."
Revivalists and their converts during the Great Awakenings of the 1740s and early nineteenth century in America often split along such theological lines. Jonathan Edwards of New England was a genius at defending a strong Reformed view of God's sovereignty and human depravity. Charles Finney a century later promoted an extreme version of Arminianism. The entire Restorationist movement that gave rise to the Churches of Christ and In dependent Christian Churches was Arminian, as was the Holiness movement and its offspring, the Pentecostal movement. Dwight L. Moody and Charles Spurgeon, on the other hand, were both Calvinists.
All in the family
I was spiritually nurtured in the thick of Arminian evangelical Christianity. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of sweltering summer nights under the open-sided tabernacle of the Iowa Nazarene Campgrounds in West Des Moines. "Holiness Unto the Lord!" declared the banner over the platform; hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Holiness and Pentecostal worshipers all around me shouted and sang and praised the Lord late into the night. Our own little Pentecostal denomination, like the larger Holiness-Pentecostal movement, was thoroughly Arminian in its theological orientation. The universal will of God for everyone's salvation and everyone's freedom to believe and receive the gospel message was fundamental to our vision of evangelical Christianity.
There was no question of liberal theology creeping into our theology. No group of Christians in history has ever believed more passionately in the Bible as God's supernaturally inspired and infallible written Word. God's holiness and majesty were also central to our preaching and teaching, even if God's sovereignty was interpreted as general rather than meticulous. To us, Satan was a real devil—a mad dog on a long leash—and in no sense "God's Satan." And yet, we believed and taught that God would eventually win the cosmic spiritual war and that Satan could only wreak as much havoc now as God al lowed him to.
Family reunions were fascinating events. My large, extended family on both sides included Christians of various theological shades and stripes, and many of them were passionate and vocal about their beliefs. On my father's side, most relatives were either Holiness or Pentecostal, and family reunions often devolved into heated discussions about entire sanctification and speaking in tongues. My stepmother's family included Pentecostals and Reformed Christians. Although they never wrangled openly over theological issues, I remember well that both sides of the family looked slightly askance at the other side's theology. My Christian Reformed Church relatives of northern Iowa were not too sure about the emotionalism and emphasis on free will among those of us who espoused and practiced Pentecostal ism. My Pentecostal parents and aunts and uncles—many of them pastors and missionaries—clearly wondered how dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists could be evangelical Christians. And yet everyone loved and accepted one another in spite of their theological differences.
In Bible college, I was indoctrinated against Reformed theology. Most of my Pentecostal professors and many of the guest speakers in chapels and convocations fervently opposed not only unconditional election and irresistible grace (limited atonement wasn't even worth debating!) but also eternal security. When Pentecostal evangelist Jimmy Swaggart openly declared Calvinism "heresy" he was only making public what many Holiness-Pentecostals had thought and taught more quietly for years.
A new outbreak of conflict cannot serve any purpose but to divide, exclude, and weaken evangelical unity.
But something kept nagging at my mind, causing me to doubt the extremely negative image of Reformed theology I was being spoonfed in Bible college. Some of our textbooks were written by evangelical Calvinist scholars. One of our textbooks was a collection of sermons by Charles Spurgeon. While in Bible college, I began to read Eternity magazine and fell in love with the great evangelical Presbyterian teacher Donald Grey Barn house—an irenic Calvinist whose writings were also required reading. Eternity opened up to me the big tent evangelicalism that included both Arminians and Calvinists. And then there were my Christian Reformed relatives, whose lives and testimonies were as passionately evangelical as any full gospeler's.
A turning point in my spiritual and theological pilgrimage occurred at a funeral. Aunt Margaret's Christian Reformed pastor in Kanawha, Iowa, preached one of the most evangelical sermons I had ever heard. He challenged all present to give their lives to Jesus Christ just as Margaret had. Cognitive dissonance finally broke out into complete rebellion against the anti-Calvinist polemics I had heard from Pentecostal leaders and teachers. While I could not agree with all five points of the Calvinist TULIP—especially unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace—I knew that the tent of authentic evangelical Christianity was bigger and broader than I had been led to believe. That conviction strengthened as I drank deeply at the wells of evangelical Reformed theology throughout my seminary and university studies.
Even as I retained my Arminian beliefs, my evangelical mind expanded and deepened as I read Reformed theologians such as G. C. Berkouwer, Bernard Ramm, Donald Bloesch, J. I. Packer, and Francis Schaeffer. They showed me new dimensions of the doctrines of God and of salvation that had been missing or obscured in the Arminianism of my youth and early theological education: the mysterious, holy otherness of God; God's majestic sovereignty over nature and history; humanity's utter helplessness to achieve any goodness or even decide to accept the benefits of Christ's suffering and death apart from grace.
I have since learned that these themes are not absent from classical Arminian theology, but I had to learn them from Reformed evangelicals. I emerged from my theological studies convinced that my Arminian theology, though basically correct, lacked depth and that it could be enriched by the heritage of Reformed Christianity. I also emerged convinced that Reformed theology—especially in its most consistent forms—lacked the marvelous note of God's universal love for his human creatures so evident in the best of my own Arminian tradition. I was convinced that the evangelical community needs both George Whitefield and John Wesley, and that their heirs need one another to achieve the beauty of balance.
For some time at the beginning of my career as an evangelical theologian, I tried to exist as an irenic Arminian quietly and unobtrusively working in the largely Reformed world of mainstream evangelical theology. I met many fellow Arminians along the way who often preferred to call themselves "moderately Reformed" or "Calminians," and gradually the realization dawned on me that to many—perhaps most—evangelical theologians outside of strictly Wesleyan or Pentecostal circles, Arminian is a code word for semi-Pelagian (the heresy of belief in human initiative in salvation) if not "latent humanism."
One day a friend and colleague pulled me aside and asked me with great concern if my Arminianism might be evidence of latent humanism in my thinking. It was for me the first salvo in a new battle for the evangelical mind in which I would find myself caught in the middle. I have seen a declaration of principles of evangelical orthodoxy by self-professed "confessing evangelicals"—one of my seminary professors among them—that draws boundaries that would exclude me and other Arminians from the evangelical community. (I am reminded by these incidents of my own youthful tradition of Holiness-Pentecostalism that tended to do the same with Calvinist theology.) A new outbreak of conflict and exclusion over this issue cannot serve any useful purpose but to divide, exclude, and weaken the fragile evangelical unity so carefully constructed and preserved over the past five decades.
I am firmly convinced that Arminian and Reformed evangelicals need one another even though I have no hope of a hybrid or consistent middle ground emerging between them. If that were possible, it would have happened long ago. Brilliant, biblically committed minds have worked on these issues of interpretation for hundreds of years without arriving at such a consistent combination. It is all right with me if some evangelicals wish to affirm something called "Calminianism"—which I can only recognize as a paradoxical and therefore unstable theological compound. And I realize that many evangelical Christians do not specifically identify with either Arminianism or Calvinism.
But one either believes that grace is resistible or believes it is not. It cannot be both in the same way at the same time. One either believes that election—a completely biblical concept—is unconditional or one does not. It cannot be both in the same way at the same time. One either believes that divine providence over nature and history is meticulous and absolute or one does not. On some of these crucial theological matters, about which the Bible speaks often, one must go one way or the other, and unfortunately, either Scripture is not entirely clear or our minds are too clouded by finitude and fallenness to arrive at a definite answer that can be imposed as the one and only possible interpretation for all who believe the Bible.
We have no choice
Some of us cannot help being Arminians because when we read the Bible we see as its overriding theme God's universal love and desire for all people to be saved and included in his kingdom. Not "latent humanism," but passages such as 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, and Ezekiel 33:11 (not to mention John 3:16 17!) persuade us that God does not exclude anyone from his love and eternal fellowship by some secret foreordination and mysterious control. Not modern philosophy, but passages such as Luke 6:47 and 9:24, Acts 7:51, and Revelation 22:7 convince us that humans are given the awful gift of freedom to accept or resist God's saving grace and gift of the Holy Spirit. None of this, however, implies limitation of God's sovereignty or a meritorious earning of salvation by human effort.
We classical Arminians—everyone labeled an Arminian is not a classical Arminian—believe that God could control everything and everyone but chooses to be in charge rather than to control everything all of the time. Divine self-limitation does not impugn God's majesty and sovereignty.
We also believe with Jacob Arminius and John Wesley that prevenient grace is the only basis for free acceptance of God's saving grace. Without prior awakening, calling, and enabling, all humans are too sinful to choose freely to accept God's offer of saving grace. That salvation is accepted freely does not in our view impugn its nature as a sheer gift. For grasping and faithfully communicating the revelational theme of God's universal love and grace, Arminians should be commended and appreciated.
Some evangelicals cannot help being Reformed and Calvinist because, when they read the Bible, they see its overriding theme as God's transcendent majesty, power, and sovereign control. The locus classicus of Romans 9 11 is proof enough for them that providence is absolute and meticulous and that election is unconditional and grace always irresistible. They find the same themes and doctrines echoing throughout the whole of Scripture, including Isaiah 6, Amos 3:6 and 4:13, John 17, and Ephesians 1.
Furthermore, if salvation is truly a free gift as Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:810 so that no one who is saved can possibly boast, then, Calvinists argue, it must be given apart from any activity or cooperation on the side of the sinner receiving it. Otherwise, the redeemed person could boast. The pattern of the biblical witness to God and his providential plan as perceived by Reformed Christians forces them to acknowledge and confess unconditional foreordination of all things without limitation or exception. For grasping and faithfully communicating the revelational theme of God's greatness and human dependency, Calvinists are to be commended and appreciated.
Even if these two wings of the evangelical community cannot agree—and it appears unlikely that either one will ever persuade all the others to "convert" to its point of view—they can and should accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and acknowledge their common evangelical bonds. This has been one of the strengths of the postWorld War II evangelical coalition. For the greater good of God's kingdom, biblically committed, Christ-centered Christians have worked together in a spirit of mutual respect and acceptance for the propagation of the gospel and for relief of human suffering in spite of differences of interpretation of the doctrines of election and providence. Their common enemies of accommodation to secularism and blatant heresy within mainstream denominations have strengthened their focus on their common ground of belief in the authority of Scripture, deity of Jesus Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and other great truths of the Bible and historic Christian faith. The Christlike spirit of love and irenic acceptance of differences of opinion over secondary matters have greatly enhanced the influence of this evangelical coalition in society.
Increasingly shrill accusations of near-heresy within the evangelical coalition over matters that we have agreed to disagree peacefully about can only undermine and weaken its testimony. Instead of saying, "See how they love one another!" nonevangelicals will say, "See how they bicker and fight among themselves!" Who can blame them?
Truth matters, but not all truth matters equally. Some things we will never know for sure until the darkened glasses are removed and we all see "face to face." In the meantime, we need to learn how to respect and appreciate one another in humility while holding to our own favored interpretations of the debatable biblical materials about divine sovereignty, election, free will, and the resistibility of grace.
To that end I challenge my fellow Arminian evangelicals to do as I have done: Drink deeply at the wells of Reformed evangelical thought and applaud Calvinist Christians for their grasp of God's glory and the sheer graciousness of salvation. Admire and seek to emulate their love for integrative Christian thinking and their passion for transforming culture. Avoid stereotypes and caricatures of Calvinism, for they do not do justice to its richness and depth. All evangelicals are indebted to the heritage of Calvin, John Knox, Ed wards, White field, Spurgeon, and Schaeffer.
To my Calvinist evangelical colleagues, I deliver the call to give us Arminians the benefit of the doubt: Even if you cannot see how we can understand God as "in charge" but not "in control" (sovereign but not all-determining), understand and accept that we do worship God as majestic, all-powerful, and mysterious in beauty and power. Realize, even if you cannot fully understand, that we Arminians do affirm salvation as a sheer gift of grace unearned and unmerited, even though it must be freely accepted. Read Arminius, Wesley, Miley, Wiley, Dale Moody, Grider, Dunning, and Oden. All affirm on biblical grounds that election is conditional and grace resistible, and yet that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, free, full, and unmerited.
Since that day at Aunt Margaret's funeral, I have rubbed shoulders with numerous Reformed evangelicals and learned to appreciate both them and their theology even while remaining convinced of my own perspective both biblically and logically. All I ask is that they return the favor and learn to accept those of us who are their evangelical brothers and sisters in the faith in spite of their own conviction of the superiority of their theology.
Surely we can learn to work and witness and worship together again as we have done in the past. Even John Wesley and his Calvinist colleague George White field patched up their friendship before they died. Wesley preached at Whitefield's funeral. It was all to the glory of God and his eternal kingdom that he did.
Roger E. Olson, a Christianity Today consulting editor, is the author of The Story of Christian Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1999).
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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