What is an Arminian?

“Arminian” is a term often misunderstood and misrepresented, in many cases simply equated with Pelagianism or as denying “the doctrines of grace” (many don’t understand that it strongly affirms grace, but emphasizes ‘prevenient’ rather than ‘irresistible’ grace). Another common misconception is that the motivating idea in Arminianism is human freedom (it’s not; God’s love, grace, good character, and reputation are the key motivating affirmations). This is apparent when one reads good primary sources, i.e., robust Arminian theologians such as Arminius, Wesley, Tom Oden, Stan Grenz, etc.

Here is a basic characterization of Arminian theology from Roger Olson:

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. (From his blog post here)

Fleshing out his characterization of Arminianism elsewhere, Olson offers the following points:

First, Jesus Christ is the perfect revelation of the character of God; there is [no] “hidden God” with different dispositions and intentions behind him. Second, the character of God is unconditional love. (Sing “The Love of God” and similar songs.) Third, Christ died for everyone and wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4-6). Fourth, God is sovereign, but he is sovereign over his own sovereignty. Fifth, God is in no sense the author of sin and evil and does not “design, ordain and govern” evil. Sixth, election is corporate and predestination is conditional (foreknowledge). Seventh, we do not earn our salvation, but we do cooperate with God’s prevenient grace, accept the gift of his Son and salvation, and that is our choice. Eighth, God does derives no pleasure or glory from hell.

So, what do you think? Are you an Arminian? Why or why not?

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10 Responses to What is an Arminian?

  1. lotharson says:

    Hello Patrick, I just read one very interesting comment you made on the blog of Roger Olson.

    I am writing a series of posts on Calvinism: http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/category/calvinism/ and would be very glad to learn your take on what I’m writing.

    I am sure you could bring up terrific perspectives. Otherwise I also deal a lot with faith, philosophy and science and I think this could also be of interest to you.

    I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

  2. Garry Koop says:

    Greetings Patrick. Thanks for the blog post. I have been following, and involved in these sorts of discussions for many years now. I have appreciated and benefited from many discussions which are conducted with grace and love. I really appreciated Olson’s book Arminian Theology. I found it extremely helpful to put Calvin and Arminian tenets side-by-side as it were. Points like unconditional love, God’s character, grace, and human inability to initiate salvation, are among the many truths which really resonate with me.

    My struggle (or perhaps frustration at times) over the years has been this sense there are these two “schools of thought” which are essentially patrolling a line. Each seems to be a ‘system,’ albeit in my experience Calvinism is much more ‘systematized’ than Arminianism, and both schools have different Scripture references, but also common Scripture references which they simply interpret differently.

    I wonder, is there an alternative to taking a ‘school-of-thought’ or systematized approach to doctrine or theology? Do not get me wrong, I really like systems. I like mathematics, and I have many designations in the field of Information Technology and Project Management. Systems are appealing (to me) and at least useful. But, I wonder…

    Then I read a book by Christian Smith entitled, The Bible Made Impossible, and discovered Smith shared similar concerns. I am not here advocating everything the author has to say, but I found the book to be very helpful. I contacted Smith who directed me to Karl Barth as his ‘go to,’ so I have subsequently been reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics (mostly as a reference library).

    All of this is to say, I wonder if another approach is a “Christocentric” approach. Starting with Jesus Christ, and using Christ as our lens by which to interpret Scripture, understand God, and even develop our core tenets of belief. Certainly this is challenging, as I have discovered in my attempts to apply this in the last few years. But the benefit I see, is that it continually brings us back to the person rather than the system.

    Well, I better end this writing here. Thanks again for your contributions and leadership in the area of theological discussion. Blessings….

    • Thanks for your comment, Gary . . . fantastic thoughts. And that’s so awesome that you’re reading Barth!

      I wholeheartedly agree. In my own thinking about things like election, I tend to fall somewhere between Barth and Wesley (not sure there really is a between per se, but perhaps I hold them in tension). I think what you articulate is, essentially, an Arminian perspective (e.g., my sense is that following Barth’s basic moves without embracing universalism leads one toward Arminianism), because Arminianism’s main concern is to uphold the love, goodness, and character of God precisely as revealed to us most clearly in Jesus . . . and then for this to guide and limit our attempts to ‘systematize’. My own understanding of election is close to Barth’s: it is corporate rather than individualistic. Properly speaking, Jesus alone is God’s Elect One; we are ‘elect’ by being found “in Christ.” I don’t believe that our being in Christ is predetermined on an individual basis; what is predetermined is Christ’s election into which we are called to participate by God’s enabling prevenient grace (the life boat is predetermined as is the collective group on board – “the church,” Christ’s body; who boards it, individually, and thus becomes part of the church is not predetermined).

      I think that systems are unavoidable, and in fact are useful, but must remain open rather than closed. Even Barth operated with a kind of system (Pannenberg, for example, criticizes Barth for allowing a concept of revelation to drive his theological thinking, rather than allowing the various ways and levels in which we actually find revelation disclosed and at work in Scripture to better nuance what ‘revelation’ is). ‘Systematic’ is helpful as long as we understand ‘system’ as a way of striving for coherence, making sense of what we believe in an ordered way that is both faithful to Scripture and informed by human knowledge and learning. In my theology classes, I like to emphasize that theology is not the same thing as doctrine (I think many conceive of theology as learning and regurgitating doctrine). Theology is much more about cultivating wisdom so that we can faithfully “improvise” in our own contexts what it means to follow Jesus holistically.

      I think you raise a very important point: that we need to get the emphasis right here: Jesus! God’s love for all people! The need of all human beings for reconciliation with God and one another! I think that often the Calvinist-Arminian debate goes astray from the beginning because the advocates of both do not start in the right place. Without necessarily being conscious of it, they are caught up in questions driven by either fourth century concerns (Augustine vs. Pelagius) or 16th-17th century concerns (Calvinists-Remonstrants). They get involved in abstract discussions over the freedom of the will, the nature and/or possibility of foreknowledge, a “bounded set” conception of salvation (in or out, nothing in between), etc. I prefer to begin with a missional starting point: the calling of Abraham and then Israel for the sake of the world (that all nations would be blessed through them). This culminates in Jesus Christ and is enabled (for us) at Pentecost, when God’s vision for all of humanity and our call to participate in that vision as Christians became clear and a constitutive reality for the church. Only then, within that framework of God choosing Abraham/Israel for the sake of the world (the particular for the whole), can we begin to talk about the meaning of election. Barth is very helpful here, as is someone like N. T. Wright. I think both Arminian and Reformed Christians can find common ground here (and their own particular distinctions become less divisive and even, potentially, mutually enriching).

      Enough for now! Thanks again for the comment. I appreciate the discussion.

      • Garry Koop says:

        Greetings. Wow, a lot of good stuff here, and quick turn around too. I agree election and predestination is at least corporate, and I am thankful for your reminder systems can be open or closed (bound / centred). I also really like the “improvisation” comment which dials in the artistic aspect of being a follower of Jesus. I believe God is an artist (The Artist; really defining the concept to begin with, but that is another conversation altogether). I think it is more than coincidence you used the life boat example. A few years ago, and again this coming Sunday I am reflecting on 1 Peter 3:13-22 in preparation for our baptisms, and particularly how Jesus is our ark of salvation. I am nearly finished reading N.T. Wright’s book, “Simply Jesus.” I highly recommend it. Hey, thanks again for the interaction. I look forward to other conversations on other subjects as the Holy Spirit prompts. Blessings…

    • lotharson says:

      Karl Barth’s theology is a kind of divine determinism I could live with.

  3. jwheels says:

    Definitely an Arminian; this list seems to cover most of the things that I would see as essential to Christianity, not just Arminian Christianity. Love it!

    The kicker is to avoid suggesting that someone who doesn’t hold to these things is automatically a Calvinist. The two are not polar opposites; many of the things that are used here to define Arminianism are either also followed by good Calvinists, or their opposite reflects a distorted or problematic formulation of Calvinism.

    For that matter, I think all of this would be affirmed by Open Theists too. An inclusive definition in a typically divisive debate is most welcome :)

    • Great thoughts, Jeff, thanks!

      Yes, not being an Arminian does not necessarily make one a Calvinist, nor for that matter does being a ‘Reformed Theologian’ in the broader sense make one a Calvinist per se (I would add, though, that I do not believe that a Calvinist-Arminian hybrid is possible). Reformed theology and Arminian Theology share more in common than they differ (Arminius was a Reformed theologian after all and, as Oden points out (cited by Olson), robust Arminian theology is basically a Protestant version of early Greek patristic theology) . . . but with respect to their particular distinctives (and only those) they are incommensurable.

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