ARMINIANS: OPTION OR OXYMORON?
by Michael S. Horton
©1992, 1999 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
"A theological shift is underway among evangelicals as well as other Christians...This trend began, I believe, because of a fresh and faithful reading of the Bible in dialogue with modern culture, which places emphasis on autonomy, temporality, and historical change." This announcement from Dr. Clark Pinnock, a respected evangelical theologian, is neither a criticism, nor a warning, but a promising development in the view of its author.
A number of evangelical leaders met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago two years ago for the purpose of defining the term "evangelical," but many left as confused concerning what that label comprehends as they were when they arrived. It is becoming increasingly difficult to say what an evangelical is and is not. Basically, American evangelicalism divides, from the mid-eighteenth century on, into two traditions: revivalistic and Reformational (as in the 16th century Reformation). While the Great Awakening in America and the Evangelical Revival in Britain were examples of the harmony between reformation and revival, these eventually became rivals as the latter developed an Arminian theology. As the Arminian branch of revivalism gained the popular advantage, evangelicalism became increasingly shaped by human-centered theology on a popular level even while its principal works of systematic theology were reformed.
However, today we see a shift even within the evangelical theological leadership. Pinnock writes, "It is my strong impression, confirmed to me even by those not pleased by it, that Augustinian thinking is losing its hold on present-day Christians." Evangelists are not the only ones preaching an Arminian gospel: "It is hard to find a Calvinist theologian willing to defend Reformed theology, including the views of both Calvin and Luther, in all its rigorous particulars now that Gordon Clark is no longer with us and John Gerstner is retired...So I do not think I stand alone." The drift is on. Pinnock insists that Augustine was shaped by Greek thinking more than scripture and the reformers simply followed his mistakes, but that was acceptable for their time: "Just as Augustine came to terms with ancient Greek thinking, so we are making peace with the culture of modernity."
The purpose of these quotes is not to focus attention on one evangelical theologian's departure from Reformation theology, but to raise the question in very practical terms, "Is it possible to be an 'evangelical Arminian'?" In this article I attempt to defend a negative answer to that important question.
What is an Evangelical?
One might think that the term "protestant" has been around a lot longer than "evangelical," the latter often associated with the crusade and television evangelism of recent years. However, the term "evangelical" is the older of the two. It appears in medieval manuscripts, describing a qualification of a good preacher: He must be evangelical. Until the Reformation, however, that adjective could mean anything from having a sincere love for Christ to possessing missionary zeal. When Luther arrived on the scene he was eager to employ the time-honored term in the service of gospel recovery. After all, what could be more appropriate as a designation for a man or woman of the Reformation? It was all about a recovery of the evangel itself.
Thus, the term took on a new significance, moving from an adjective to a noun. One was not only "evangelical" in the ambiguous medieval sense of being pious, zealous, and faithful, but an evangelical in the sense that one adhered to the Reformation's tenets. After 1520 an evangelical was a person who was committed to the sufficiency of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the total lostness of humans, the sole mediation of Christ, the gracious efficacy and finality of God's redemptive work in Christ through election, propitiation, calling and keeping. The linchpin for all of this was the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Thus, the believer, declared righteous by virtue of God's satisfaction with Christ's holiness imputed (credited) to us through faith alone, is simul iustus et peccator--"simultaneously justified and sinful."
The evangelicals, therefore, whether Lutheran or Reformed, insisted that this was the gospel. It was not a peripheral area of abstract doctrinal debate on which Christians could "agree to disagree agreeably." It was not merely an implication of the gospel or a part of the gospel: It was the gospel! It was this message and no other, be it ever so similar, that everyone had to get right. On other matters Christians of goodwill might differ, but without the distinction between a gospel of works and a gospel of grace alone, Luther wrote, one cannot distinguish a Christian from a Muslim or Jew. Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, wrote, "Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity."
Theologians and historians to the present have referred to the formal and material principle of the Reformation, the former being the sufficiency of scripture, and the latter being the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. As the formal principle of the Reformation is "scripture alone!," we today must define "evangelical" according to scriptural teaching. If the reformers misinterpreted the Bible on any one of these key teachings, they must be corrected by those same scriptures. However, historically, the term "evangelical" has referred to those who embraced either the Lutheran or the Reformed confessions of faith. Only in the gradual Americanization of the evangelical faith has this inheritance been jettisoned, as though "scripture alone" meant that to merely adhere to the formal principle of the Reformation was enough. As long as one believed the Bible, one could stand wherever he or she liked on the material principle of God's method in saving sinners. If this were true, one would have to concede to the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses membership in the National Association of Evangelicals.
There are two ways of dealing with this question of defining "evangelical": scriptural and historical, but in this brief space allow me to focus on the argument that this term ought to be defined and used in its historical, time-honored sense. While the Reformation may, theoretically, have erred on its chief doctrines (since only scripture is infallible), it is nevertheless unavoidably true that those who called themselves evangelicals have historically affirmed and defended those teachings as being biblical. Thus, historically speaking, those who do not affirm those doctrines are, by virtue of the law of non-contradiction, not evangelicals.
What is an 'Arminian'?
James Arminius, one of Beza's students, first raised the eyebrows of the Dutch Reformed Church by teaching that the person Paul describes in Romans chapter seven was unregenerate, whereas the Reformed had always interpreted it as a sad, but appropriate, picture of the Christian life (simultaneously justified and sinful). But there was more controversy beneath this: Arminius denied unconditional election, arguing that God made his eternal decision based on his foreknowledge of faith and obedience. With this the entire Reformed system was denied.
Upon his death, however, Arminius's followers began to press the theologian's claims even further. The "Remonstrants," as they were called, presented their claims in five points: election was conditional (i.e., determined by foreseen faith and obedience), the atonement was universal not only in sufficiency but in intention, depravity is only partial, grace can be resisted, and the regenerate can lose their salvation. Further, the Arminians denied the Reformation belief that faith was a gift and that justification was a purely forensic (legal) declaration. For them, it included a moral change in the believer's life and faith itself, a work of humans, was the basis for God's declaration. In 1618-19, the Synod of Dort, an international conference of Reformed churches, the Remonstrants ("Arminians") were judged heretical and the churches of the Reformation concurred, even those of non-Reformed persuasion (as, for instance, the Lutherans).
Arminianism came to the English-speaking world chiefly through the efforts of seventeenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, and the great preacher, Lancelot Andrewes. The leading Puritans such as John Owen, Richard Sibbes and Thomas Goodwin opposed Arminianism as a Protestant form of "Romanism" in which the Christian faith degenerated into a moralism that confused the Law and the Gospel and with-held from God his rightful praise for the whole work of salvation. Eventually, the English "Arminian" element evolved into the High Church wing of the English Church, emphasizing the importance of ritual and the church hierarchy as well as the moralistic Deism which characterized the preaching of the eighteenth century.
Wherever Arminianism was adopted, Unitarianism followed, leading on to the bland liberalism of present mainline denominations. This can be discerned in the Netherlands, in Eastern Europe, in England, and in New England. In fact, in a very short period of time, the General (Arminian) Baptists of New England had become amalgamated into the Unitarian Church in the eighteenth century.
This is not simply an argument from the so-called "slippery slope": in other words, if we allow for x, soon we will be embracing y. History actually bears out the relationship between Arminianism and naturalism. One can readily see how a shift from a God-centered message of human sinfulness and divine grace to a human-centered message of human potential and relative divine impotence could create a more secularized outlook. If human beings are not so badly off, perhaps they do not need such a radical plan of salvation. Perhaps all they need is a pep talk, some inspiration at halftime, so they can get back into the game. Or perhaps they need an injection of grace, as a spiritual antibiotic, to counteract the sinful affections. But in Reformation theology, human beings do not need help. They need redemption. They do not merely need someone to show them the way out; they need someone to be their way out of spiritual death and darkness.
Thus, the evangelicals who faced this challenge of Arminianism universally regarded it as a heretical departure from the Christian faith. One simply could not deny total depravity, unconditional election, justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, and continue to call himself or herself an evangelical. There were many Christians who were not evangelicals, but to be an evangelical meant that one adhered to these biblical convictions. While Calvinists and Lutherans would disagree over the scope of the atonement and the irresistability of grace and perseverance, they were both strict monergists (from mono, meaning "one" and ergo, meaning "working"). That is, they believed that one person saved us (namely, God), while the Arminians were synergists, meaning that they believed that God and the believer cooperated in this matter of attaining salvation. It was this monergism which distinguished an evangelical from a non-evangelical since the Reformation.
Are Arminians Evangelicals?
The heart of the Reformation debate was, Who saves whom? Does God save sinners? Or do we save ourselves with God's help? The Roman Catholic Church was confused on that question throughout the Middle Ages, sharply divided at the time of the Reformation, but finally determined by the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century that the second answer was better. God's grace is the source, but human cooperation with that grace is what makes God's saving will effective. Thus, God justifies us by making us better and that involves our own participation.
The orthodox Protestants were not over-reacting, therefore, when they regarded the Arminian denials as no different from the positions of Trent, which had declared the evangelicals "anathema." It would have been bigoted for them, therefore, to regard Trent's position as unorthodox if they were unwilling to say the same of a similar "Protestant" deviation.
So what does all of this mean for us nearly four centuries after Arminianism was condemned by the Churches of England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, the French Protestants, and the evangelicals of Eastern Europe?
In the British revival of the eighteenth century, Whitefield (a Calvinist) and Wesley (an Arminian) were willing to work together as close friends and allies in the evangelistic effort. However, as Wesley began to teach that justification was not purely forensic (that is, a legal declaration), but that it depended on "moment by moment" obedience, the Calvinists who had enthusiastically supported the revival and led the evangelistic cause side by side grew increasingly worried. Late in life, Wesley recorded some very unfortunate statements in his Minutes of the Methodist Conference, including the conclusion that his own position was but "a hair's breadth" from "salvation by works." Fearing an implicit antinomianism (license) in the Reformation doctrines, Wesley urged his supporters to warn the Calvinists "against making void that solemn decree of God, 'without holiness no man shall see the Lord,' by a vain imagination of being holy in Christ. O warn them that if they remain unrighteous, the righteousness of Christ will profit them nothing!" John Wesley's favorite writer, William Law, wrote, "We are to consider that God only knows what shortcomings in holiness He will accept; therefore we can have not security of our salvation but by doing our utmost to deserve it." "We have," said he, "nothing to rely on but the sincerity of our endeavors and God's mercy." Was Law an evangelical? If so, someone owes Pope Leo an apology.
The doctrine of justification--"simultaneously justified and sinful"--is scandalous to human reason and Wesley is famous for his "Quadrilateral" of authority: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. So much for "scripture alone"! Both the material and the formal principle of the Reformation are at least undermined, if not denied. So much of tradition, experience, and reason opposes this doctrine. One modern evangelical theologian writes, "We can love God perfectly and we can be righteous in this world even as Christ is righteous..." and adds that the Bible "leaves no place for voluntary and known sin in the life of the believer." Another adds, "But can it really be true-saint and sinner simultaneously? I wish it were so...Simul iustus et peccator? I hope it's true! I simply fear it's not." These views were presented in a volume that offered five views of sanctification from evangelical writers.
In the Evangelical Revival, therefore, Wesley was allowed to embrace Arminianism while retaining the use of the evangelical label, in spite of the fact that to that time evangelicalism had repudiated the position as the very error of the medieval church that precipitated the Reformation in the first place. In one of his best sermons Wesley nevertheless defined justification not as a purely forensic (legal) declaration distinct from sanctification, but as both deliverance from the guilt of sin and "the whole body of sin, through Christ gradually 'formed in his heart.'" To be justified means that one does not sin "by any habitual sin," "nor by any willful sin," "nor by any sinful desire," nor "by infirmities, whether in act, word or thought...And though he cannot say he 'has not sinned,' yet now 'he sins not.'" Further, the Minutes for the First Annual Methodist Conference affirm that repentance and works must precede faith, if by works one means "obeying God as far as we can." "If a believer willfully sins, he thereby forfeits his pardon." "Are works necessary to continuance of faith? Without doubt, for a man may forfeit the gift of God either by sins of omission or commission."
Justification may be lost every time one willfully disobeys and Wesley adds, "We do not find it affirmed expressly in Scripture that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to any, although we do find that faith is imputed unto us for righteousness." This imputation or crediting of faith as our righteousness, rather than Christ's active and passive obedience, is precisely the doctrine articulated by Arminius, rendering faith a work which achieves righteousness before God. Knowing who will most likely balk against the teaching within the evangelical Church of England, Wesley asks, "Have we not then unawares leaned too much towards Calvinism" in the past? "It seems we have," he answers, equating Calvinism with antinomianism. Contemporary Wesleyan theologian, John Lawson, writes, "This judicious and moderating 'Arminian Evangelicalism,' which is now so largely characteristic of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, is perhaps the most enduring and important contribution of the Methodist movement to theological understanding in the Church." While Wesleyans insist they affirm justification by faith alone, they define it in the same moral terms rejected by evangelicals ever since the Reformation debate. Lawson himself defines justification as "the first and all-important stage in a renewed manner of life, actually changed for the better in mind and heart, in will and action." Thomas Aquinas could hardly have improved on this definition.
Today, theologians such as Dr. Clark Pinnock insist on wearing the "evangelical" label while they move beyond Arminianism to an all-out denial of classical theism. Such spokespersons may insist that they are merely contributing to the ongoing evolution and upward development of doctrine, but in fact they are merely reinventing old heresies. As Arminius revived Semi-Pelagianism, Dr. Pinnock is merely advancing a revival of outright Pelagianism and Socinianism, enhanced by the latest academic craze-process theism.
Once he became an Arminian, Dr. Pinnock notes, "I soon realized something would have to be done about the received doctrine of God." God is no longer timeless, changeless, or even all-knowing. After all, "decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God." Dr. Pinnock also denies original sin, admitting that on this point, as on others, he is moving beyond Arminianism. And the next domino? "Obviously it required me to reduce the precision in which I understood the substitution [of Christ on the cross] to take place." It must be said that if such writers can continue to be regarded as evangelical leaders (Dr. Pinnock is still a respected member of the Evangelical Theological Society), it is up to us as heirs of the Protestant Reformers to issue an apology to the Roman Catholic Church for dividing over issues no more essential than these. Original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, eternal judgment, and classical theism (the doctrine of God) all must go, according to Dr. Pinnock and his team of writers in A Case for Arminianism (Zondervan, 1989). "I do not think we should feel we have lost something of absolute value when we find ourselves at variance with some of the old so-called orthodox interpretations," Dr. Pinnock concludes.
From where I sit, the main problem is this: we have gone back to using "evangelical" as an adjective. As its medieval use was ambiguous, referring more to a general attitude of humility, zeal, and simple Christ-likeness, so too the contemporary use falls most often into that category. An evangelical is someone who "loves Jesus," who "wins souls," and who has a "sweet spirit." Ken Myers notes that evangelicals no longer believe in orthodoxy, but in orthopathos-a concern for right feelings rather than right thinking and worship. One Christian publisher released a book by a Franciscan "evangelical" titled, Evangelical Catholics. Karl Barth, the great neo-orthodox theologian, is now widely regarded in conservative Protestant circles as evangelical and reformed, even though he reinterpreted the evangelical message beyond recognition. Again, Barth may be, theoretically, correct from the biblical point of view. I do not believe that he is and that is my primary objection to neo-orthodoxy, but for those of us who hold scripture as the final test of truth, I cannot ultimately reject Barthianism because he is at variance with the creeds and confessions. Nevertheless, one can say that Barth is not an evangelical in the historic, classical sense. The same is true of "evangelical Roman Catholics" who still deny the sufficiency of scripture, justification by grace alone through faith alone, and so on. If "evangelical" means anything at all any more, it is essential that we make such distinctions.
Having said that, it is equally important to realize that this is not a matter of bigotry or denominational pride. We will see non-evangelicals in heaven. As I reflect on views that I used to hold, it is sobering to say the least and it reminds me that the chances are pretty good that I have a good distance to go yet. While we must believe certain essential truths in order to be saved, we are not saved by the amount of doctrine that we know. There will doubtless be Roman Catholics, Arminians, and others in Paradise who were saved by God's grace even if they, like me, did not understand or appreciate that grace as much as they should have. Nevertheless, if we are going to still use "evangelical" as a noun to define a body of Christians holding to a certain set of convictions, it is high time we got clear on these matters. An evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic. The distinctives of evangelicalism were denied by Rome at the Council of Trent, by the Remonstrants in 1610, were confused and challenged by John Wesley in the eighteenth century, and have become either ignored or denied in contemporary "evangelicalism."
In conclusion, the evangelical movement is faced with a difficult decision: either to reclaim the meaning of "evangelical," or to shed its confinement. Let those maverick "evangelicals" who deny the great truths of the evangelical (and indeed, even the catholic) faith stand up with the courage of their convictions and lead an exodus from evangelicalism, but it is to my mind the height of arrogance and dishonesty to seek to represent oneself as something which one clearly is not.
My purpose has not been to pontificate about what ought to be done with certain individuals, but to point out the serious crisis evangelicals face as a movement. It is as if the evangelical leadership declared the movement a "consistency-free zone," an island on which the law of non-contradiction does not apply. A recent (April 27, 1992) issue of Christianity Today featured an article offering a "third way," an alternative to both Calvinism and Arminianism as "seeds for a biblical via media," as though the Bible taught something in between the view that God alone saves and that we cooperate with God in our salvation. But the main benefit of such a position is not that it explains the biblical record, but that it "stakes off common ground-to the surprise, at times, of participants all around-marking a safe and neutral area large enough for both groups to stand while growing together in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. After 450 years of constant controversy, perhaps this is no small step." After all, "The hallmark of a Christian is not logic, but love" (pp. 32-33). The gospel is the church's most precious possession, "for it is the power of God unto salvation" (Rom.1:20), and the debates over its content are not likely to disappear by a generous dosage of muddleheadedness of which we evangelicals seem to be in rather large supply these days.
Today one can be an evangelical-which has historically meant holding to total depravity, unconditional election, justification by grace through faith alone, the sufficiency of scripture-and at the same time be an Arminian, denying or distorting this very evangelical message. Contemporary Christians, generally speaking, have chosen to be agnostic on some of the most basic evangelical convictions. A few generations ago, a defense of justification would be considered a defense of evangelicalism itself, but today when I describe this doctrine I often hear, "That's awfully Calvinistic." (Obviously, those who say this have not run into many Lutherans!) What used to be considered broadly evangelical is now regarded by many as narrowly Reformed. Such shifts have been amply documented in Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. This, I submit, is just the sort of irresponsible thinking that is sweeping evangelicalism out to sea in confusion, division and irrelevance.
Let us lovingly confront our brothers and sisters in a spirit of boldness, but humility, as we undertake to bring ourselves and our fellow Christians into greater conformity to "the faith once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 24).
1. Dr. Clark Pinnock, A Case for Arminianism: The Grace of God and the Will of Man (Zondervan, 1989), p. 15.
2. ibid., p. 27.
3. Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. by James Clark (E. Sussex: Focus Press, 1992), p. 41.
4. Outler, ed., Wesley's Works, vol. 2, p. 127.
5. William Law, Christian Perfection, (Creation House, 1975), pp. 137-138.
6. Donald Alexander, ed., Christian Sanctification: Five Views (IVP, 1981), p. 84.
8. "Salvation by Faith," by John Wesley, Timothy Smith, ed., Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth (Zondervan, 1986).
9. "Minutes of the First Annual Methodist Conference," in Timothy Smith, ed., op. cit., pp. 155-158.
10. John Lawson, Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan, 1986), p. 217.
11. ibid., p. 226.
12. Pinnock, op. cit..
13. Ken Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989), p. 186.
Pinnock, cited above; Richard Rice, God's Foreknowledge and Man's Will (Bethany); Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans); James Arminius's Collected Works (Baker); Carl Bangs, Arminius (Zondervan); Allan Sell, The Great Debate (Baker); Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (Nelson).
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.