Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Out of the Theological Closet: I am an Arminian (Ed.3)

Firstly, I'd like to say that this post is not to be a thorough defence of Arminianism. I strongly suggest that for a thorough defence of the system that you look at the Society of Evangelical Arminians (Widget on the right hand side tool bar), and look at the fantastic Classical Arminianism blog. I also suggest you read the short tractate by John Wesley entitle, "The Question, "What Is an Arminian?" Answered by a Lover of Free Grace" and of course the works of Arminius himself, many of which can be read here. I will however be explaining what Arminianism really is, and dispel what some people claim it is, but is not. I will look briefly at some of the major objection. The manner at which I will be doing this on the whole is in comparison to the 5 points of Calvinism, often known as TULIP. It is not that these are complete opposites as some assert, quite the contrary in fact, but that it gives us a good base line.

As always here is a little of my background: I was brought up in a church which, from what I could tell at the time, was simply based on the Gospel and had no real affinity to any soteriological system (in this sense). I was however taken under the wing of one of the Deacons (or Elders: They were one post in this church) who was a Calvinist. I was obviously effected by this and came to call myself one also. I had done no real study into the subject at the time but simply took him, and his interpretation, at his word. Eventually I moved to Wales for University and began to realise that there the Calvinist/Arminian debate was huge so I decided to do more research on the subject. What I came to at first was that Calvinism was inconsistent with the core Gospel, and with who God had revealed himself to be. It was only gradually that I came to realise that Arminianism was the system which best explains how the Gospel works. If you are now screaming at the monitor the likelihood is that you are Welsh, or heavily involved in a Welsh reformed church. If however you can't fathom what the issue is then I suspect that you are not. Either way I invite you all to read on and decide for yourselves, with prayer, what is right.

So let's start with the negative. Arminianism is not Pelagianism, or Semi-Pelagianism. Pelagianism is a system propagated by an English monk, later deemed a heretic, who claimed that we are not effected by original sin and are therefore able to choose God on our own. Jesus was more of a good example, rather then a way of freeing us from Sin. Semi-Pelagianism claimed that we were in some way effected but there was a joint venture between us and God. This is often what Arminianism is falsely accused of. Obviously it is not Calvinism either which claims that God does everything, including pre-destining some to belief and other to reject. In other words we have no free will, no choice, in relation to our salvation.

A disclaimer before we go any further. Arminianism, as it is with Calvinism, is a varied system. Mine resembles that of Mr. Wesley more then that of Arminius. Also, the Calvinism I will be dealing with is a caricature used for literary purposes and doesn't necessarily express the views of those who hold it. So, with that said, what is Arminianism: Arminianism is a belief in God's grace first and foremost, with an acceptance of our God given free will and responsibility. Arminianism is the belief that we are all spiritually blind and are in need to God's grace. The difference comes in the concept of Prevenient (that which comes before) Grace. Arminians hold that through grace alone, and not of humanity at all, that God call each of us and enables us all to make a choice as to follow him or not. We are created in the image of God and have free will, however due to sin we are spiritually blind and therefore our free will is marred. Prevenient Grace is a form of common grace where in God allows us to see him and therefore choose with our restored free-wills. As Mr. Wesley says, "I only assert, that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored to every man, together with that supernatural light which "enlightens every man that cometh into the world [Jn 1:9].""(Wesley's Works, 8:52). Isn't our choosing taking away from Gods grace? Arminius explains, "A rich man bestows, on a poor and famishing beggar, alms by which he may be able to maintain himself and his family. Does it cease to be a pure gift, because the beggar extends his hand to receive it? Can it be said with propriety, that “the alms depended partly on the liberality of the Donor, and partly on the liberty of the Receiver,” though the latter would not have possessed the alms unless he had received it by stretching out his hand? Can it be correctly said, because the beggar is always prepared to receive, that “he can have the alms, or not have it, just as he pleases?” If these assertions cannot be truly made about a beggar who receives alms, how much less can they be made about the gift of faith, for the receiving of which far more acts of Divine grace are required!"(Works of James Arminius Vol. 1, Article 27) Arminians also hold, as do some Calvinists, that Jesus died to redeem all people, and not a limited, predestined number. Let us continue then with a comparison with the 5 points of Calvinism:

T - Total Depravity. This teaches that there is nothing in man that can save himself. He is spiritually blind and helpless due to the effects of sin. Obviously the reason given for this varies. I would argue that we are depraved by sin and therefore have a sinful nature, rather then the R.Catholic concept of original sin. (See Eph 2:1-10)

U - Unconditional Election. That we have nothing of ourselves that deserves election but rather all of Gods grace, and nothing besides. Arminians would disagree as to the meaning of this election. The key to understanding what Arminians mean by election is choice. I argue that God has elected and in will save those who he as foreseen will choose to respond to the Gospel (Molinism). The issue here then is not of the concept but of the how. i.e. not arbitrary (See Eph 2:8-9; 1 Pet 1:2)

L - Limited Atonement. This is where they differ. Arminianism believes that Jesus came to redeem all mankind and not just a few who he will later force to believe. Of course, to borrow a phrase, it is "sufficient for all and efficient for" those who believe. (See 2 Cor 5:14-15; 1 John 2:2; 2 Peter 3:9)

I - Irresistible Grave. They also differ here. Arminianism argues that due to Gods prevenient Grace mankind is able to either accept or reject the Gospel by being enlightened to the truth of the gospel. God will not force anyone to believe. God enables salvation by grace. (See Acts 7:51-52)

P - Perseverance of the Saints. This is a point of which even Arminians disagree. I believe that a believer once saved is able to reject God and loose their salvation. (See 1 Cor 10:12; Heb 4:1)

Till next time!


  1. Yo Pedro,

    The concept of prevenient grace seems somewhat odd. The way you phrase it seems to indicate that freedom of the will is not apart of man's nature but needs to be bestowed by God. Well its coherent but semantically its slightly odd if we take a standard definition of grace, receiveing that which we don't deserve, since we even in principle merit free will since to merit it presupposes it, otherwise we don't have a consistent philosophy of responsibility, which is opposed to the normal usage in which in principle you could merit it.

    Another problem is that you indicate that prevenient grace has been in existence from creation; so I fail to see how you can distinguish it from the nature of man himself: all his other aspects of nature are hold together by God so why make a distinction with his will. Further it seems clear freedom of the will is one aspect of being created in the image of God.

    Now if you were to say it was to be introduced post-fall then you'd have God being an active partner in sin since he'd actively aiding choice of sin rather than just enforcing his general rules of creation which allows the choice of sin.

    All you need to do is to open your view and see freedom of the will as part of the nature of man.

    The Rambler

  2. Rambler,

    You know what! I think you're right, to an extent.(Don't fall off your chair.) I think the Bible is clear that we have been given free will (and are therefore responsible for our actions). I think it is also clear that we are effected by the sin of Adam, and by our sin in general in that we are spiritually blind. Therefore our free will is marred. We no longer have the inate ability to choose God. Perhaps the term 'prevenient grace' is wholly pointless, beyond that of common grace. God reveals himself to all people, and we can use our God given free will to choose whether to accept/reject. However to do this God needs to open our eyes to him and restore our free will. I don't think I will stop using the term as I think it specifies a certain type of common grace, however I do think that I need to be clearer. Also I agree that the Arminius is, for want of another word, incorrect, so I'll scrap it.

    I shall change the above so that I am clearer.


  3. Hi Pete,

    I don't think Calvinism necessarily denies that we have freewill. Some Calvinists would deny the concept of freewill, but I'm not one of them, and I don't think Calvin was either. Rather, Calvinism says that our freewill does not contribute anything at any point to our being saved.

    I think we get confused about this in a modern context since we tend to think about freewill in the context of freewill versus determinism, because of the issues raised by modern science. But the Reformation context was that of freewill versus grace. That we have real and meaningful decisions and choices is not in dispute; the question is whether they play any part in our salvation.

    Total depravity does not mean that we lose our freewill in general, but that being right before God is completely beyond the reach of our freewill. Calvin said in his Institutes:
    Now in the schools, three kinds of freedom are distinguished: first from necessity, second from sin, third from misery. The first of these so inheres in man by nature that it cannot possibly be taken away, but the two others have been lost through sin.

    So Calvin said that freedom from "necessity", i.e. from determinism "so inheres in man by nature it cannot possibly be taken away"! We didn't lose the ability to will, just the ability to "will well".

    As far as individual vs corporate election goes, I don't see how you can really separate the two if you believe that God knows the future. If he elects the group, and knows exactly which individuals are going to be in that group, then he also elects the individuals by extension. Swithun, in denying God has definite complete knowledge of the future, is at least consistent on this point!

    "Limited atonement" is a phrase I'm not entirely sold on - it depends how exactly you define the phrase; it tends to be a rather tedious semantic debate. All Christians who aren't universalists would agree that atonement is limited in the sense that not everyone is saved. I'd happily agree that Christ's death and resurrection was "sufficient for all and efficient for the elect"; I'd also be happy to preach to anyone and everyone that "Christ died for you", whether or not I believed them to be elect.

    When it comes to the concept of irresistible grace, it isn't that God forces us to believe in a way that overrides our wills, but that he doesn't just restore our wills so that we can choose whether or not to love and trust him, but he also restores our desires and affections so we want to love and trust him. (He also enlightens our minds - the whole person needs to be restored, not just the will but also our thoughts and desires).

    Perseverance of the Saints is one I haven't thought through so much, so I don't really have any comment, except that I find it of tremendous encouragement and comfort.

    I'm not clear why you think Calvinism is incompatible with the Gospel. Can you explain where you think the contradiction lies? That comment just seems like petrol on the fire rather than a substantiated argument!

  4. Hi Caleb, thanks again for posting.
    I suppose it's me being unclear again. My apologies. Oddly enough I would argue that Calvin himself wasn't, what we call today, a Calvinist, or at least he would today be shunned by many who bare his name. What I am comparing against is, I suppose, a caricature. With that said, when I say that Calvinism teaches that man has no free will, I intended it in the sense that he has no free-will to respond to the calling of God.

    I totally agree with what you quote from Calvin which I why I said, and I quote, "We are created in the image of God and have free will, however due to sin we are spiritually blind and therefore our free will is marred. Prevenient Grace is a form of common grace where in God allows us to see him and therefore choose with our restored free-wills". To use Calvin’s words, When God calls us he enables us to 'will well', whether that be to the positive of the negative.

    In relation to election I think once again I have been unclear. Obviously wasn't a good day when I wrote it! Election, I believe has been given a false meaning. In the Bible the Elect are believers and the election is the process of choosing those believers. In Calvinism however it has been make to be a pseudonym for predestination. My point was that Arminianism argues that God elects those whom he foresaw would believe. In other words election is conditional (key word) on the person’s believing. My point about the 'group' was no that these are elect necessarily but rather (and I admit I jumped the gun here) that all people had the chance to believe. In other words, those who are not elect are only in so much as they choose to be, compared to Calvinism where the election is arbitrary.

    For limited atonement I think you've hit the nail on the head with, "sufficient for all and efficient for the elect", as long as we understand the 'elect' correctly. I'm not such much at odds with the phrase in itself but rather the connotation that it means that Jesus only died for those he predestined. If that were the case the, as you rightly infer, we couldn't preach that 'Christ die for you' to non-believers as it would likely be false.

    For irresistible grace I think that your definition of it is more tenable then most. I would also say that if it is the case then you would have to believe in Perseverance of the Saints as surely if restores our desires and affections so we want to love and trust him that would always be the case. I think you are right in that 'the whole person needs to be restored, not just the will but also our thoughts and desires', however I still think that we are torn between God and 'the world', and thus able to reject him.

    I posted of Perseverance of the Saints a while ago: Who has a better understanding of their eternal security? In it I argued that it is a false comfort in the sense of Calvinistic election. It’s short, so have a quick look.

    Again when I say Calvinism is incompatible with the Gospel I mean the Caricature. I don't want to worship a good who is arbitrary. To me that screams of injustice. Nor do I want to worship a good who (and I accept that this isn't everyone’s view) creates people for the sole purpose of being damned. Nor do I want to worship a God who (in some peoples view) planned sin and the fall so that he may be glorified in the cross. (I.e. I push you in a pond, watch you drown and then help you expecting praise at the end.) To me all this screams of a God of injustice, falsity, pomposity and void of love. A God who is completely opposite of that revealed in the Gospel: The truthful, just, loving, self-emptying God of grace. Now I'm not saying that this is the God that Calvinists knowingly propagate, nor (as I said above) what Calvin taught, but rather what strict 5(-7) point Calvinists imply of God.

  5. Pedron,

    The amended passage reads a lot better however I think language such as restoring free will is problematic: now I think you're only referring to the choice to choose God but you either free will or you don't: you can choose A or non-A or you can't, therefore we need to change the focus of the effect of this common grace. I would but it more in the terms of gospel proclamation: preaching of the gospel has inherent authority and power and alerts us to our condition which otherwise, in most cases, we wouldn't know of and we discover the need for a choice we previously didn't. I say most case because if we take Romans 1 seriously we can reach God via natural theology, in theory, and also we have an innate knowledge of God which we supress so the Gospel merely reawakens it; this is interesting as it indicates that desires can be changed through habituation as Aristotle argues.

    On Calvin he may have said we had free will but saying God has chosen, without time, those who will be saved contradicts himself.

    The Rambler

  6. Hi Rambler,

    Glad to hear it reads better. I agree that you can "you can choose A or non-A or you can't" but what I was getting at is compartmentalising free will. We do it all the time e.g. Do we have the Free-will to fly unaided. What we mean by free-will tends to be the freedom to behave within set perameters. I would simply argue that in the fall our free-will was affected so that our ability to choose God was places outside those perameters.

    I agree with you that proclaimation is important to enlightening someone so that they may choose but I disagree that it has 'inherent authority and power'. Perhaps proclaimation is one of the means of which Gods prevenient grace is active. You make a good case about Romans 1 but I would still argue that it is still an example of prevenient Grace, in that God revealed himself in nature. With that said I like what you said about Aristotle:this is interesting as it indicates that desires can be changed through habituation as Aristotle argues. Perhaps it is akin to how we see. It is possible to look at a picture and miss glaring details if our brain deems them irrelevant, however when they are pointed out to us they are obvious. Perhaps it is the same with the Gospel. It is obvious and glares us in the face but due to our sinful nature we ignore it, and fob it off as irrelevant. Only when it is pointed out to us that it becomes obvious......maybe.