Calvinists Interpreting Church History

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In a previous post I suggested that when it comes to interpreting non-Calvinistic Church history or representing Arminian or non-Calvinistic theology, many Calvinists cannot be trusted. We find very few academic exceptions (and this can also be admitted of some Arminians or non-Calvinists regarding Calvinism). One such exception, however, is Calvinist Richard A. Muller, who notes that “the theology of Jacob Arminius has been neglected both by his admirers and by his detractors.”1 Though Muller disagrees with Arminius’s theology, he generally understands and mostly accurately represents Arminius (with a few exceptions).

Arminius’s theological focus lay not in opposing all things Calvin or Calvinistic. Muller continues: “The restrictive conception of Aminius’ theology as a counter to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, indeed, as an exegetical theology posed against a predestinarian metaphysic, has led to an interpretation of Arminius as a theologian of one doctrine somehow abstracted from his proper context in intellectual history.”2 This sole error has led to a grave misunderstanding of Arminius and Arminian theology proper.

For example, some erroneously believe that Arminius’s teaching is synonymous with the doctrine of Conditional Perseverance (or the notion that a person can forfeit or lose his or her salvation). There are many Arminians who hold to the doctrine of Perseverance in the same manner as does classical Calvinism (though for Calvinism, perseverance is rooted in God’s unconditional election of some persons). Arminianism does not stand or fall on this doctrine. Arminius writes that, “at no period have I asserted that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation.”3 The charge against him, he writes, is “another offense against historical veracity.”4 What Arminius at one time admitted was the possibility of a believer defecting from the Christian faith by the individual’s casting off of his or her faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 11:22). One may argue whether or not the individual’s faith was genuine initially, but what cannot be argued is that many once-professing believers have cast aside their initial faith (cf. Matt. 13:20-21).

As for a final verdict on the doctrine of Perseverance, Arminius confessed, a few years prior to his death, that further study needed to be accomplished before making a final judgment. However, he admits, “that which affirms it possible for believers to fall away from the faith has always had more supporters in the church of Christ than that which denies its possibility or its actually occurring.”5 One will be hard-pressed to find a Calvinist or typical Baptist who will concede this point.

For example, Dr. Peter A. Lillback, President and Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, quoting William Cunningham, notes:

All this, however [from his perspective: the ignorance, confusion and at times contradiction of early Church writings], — which is clearly the true state of the case as a matter of fact — does really, when viewed in connection with the fact that, with the progress of time, the Calvinistic testimonies became less full and clear, and the anti-Calvinistic ones more so — i.e., till we come down to the era of the Pelagian controversy — furnish presumption in favour of Calvinism. . . .6

Dr. Lillback concludes, “If the Scriptures teach eternal security, then we as believers should do so as well, even if the earliest Christian writers were unclear or inconsistent on this important doctrine.”7 If Wesleyans and Arminians believed that the Scriptures taught eternal security, does he not imagine that they would do so as well? Both Lillback and Cunningham eagerly want to believe that the early Church fathers held to their Calvinistic doctrine of Perseverance (which even St. Augustine rejected8), so they conclude that the fathers were merely inconsistent.

James Akin takes quite a different approach to this issue. He insists that John Calvin was actually the first in Church history to invent a doctrine of Eternal Security — even Luther denied the doctrine:

You can check that out for yourself. I did. I searched multiple books and called half a dozen Calvinist seminaries, talking to their systematic theology and church history professors, and no one could name a person before Calvin who taught this thesis. They all said Calvin was the first. I even called John Jefferson Davis, who published an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society on the history of this doctrine, a man who is himself a Calvinist, but who has researched the history of this doctrine thoroughly, and he said Calvin was the first to teach it. (link)This poses a problem even for those who claim that they take their teachings exclusively from Scripture, namely, “How could a doctrine this important — if true — remain completely undiscovered for the first 1500 years of Church history and, if Jesus comes back any time soon, for three quarters of all of Church history?” (link)

In spite of explicit statements and the witness of the actual writings themselves, misrepresentations abound regarding Arminius and Arminian theology in relation to Church history. Calvinist Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), for example, taught that Arminius followed heretic Socinus, who denied the deity and pre-existence of Christ Jesus.9 Gratefully, Richard Muller dispelled that myth.10 Another example is taken from Lawrence M. Vance, who records Calvinist Loraine Boettner’s (1901-1990) embarrassing historical-revisionist blunder:

The great majority of the creeds of historic Christendom have set forth the doctrines of Election, Predestination, and final Perseverance, as will readily be seen by any one who will make even a cursory study of the subject. On the other hand Arminianism existed for centuries only as a heresy on the outskirts of true religion, and in fact it was not championed by an organized Christian church until the year 1784, at which time it was incorporated into the system of doctrine of the Methodist Church in England.”11

Dr. Kenneth D. Keathley, Senior Vice President of Academic Administration and Dean of the Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, rightly states, “What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy.”12 Arminianism did not exist for centuries only as a heresy, as Boettner indicates; it was, anachronistically taken, the sola theologica of the Church prior to Augustine in the fifth century, and flourishes even to this day. Yet Arminians, according to Calvinist John Owen (1616-1683), are considered “tares” in Christ’s field, and “emissaries” of Satan: and, confesses Owen, “never did any of [Satan’s] emissaries employ his received talents with more skill and diligence than our Arminians.”13 Such epithets and dispositions are expected from the likes of Calvinists who insist, such as did Charles Spurgeon, that Arminianism is heresy, and that “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”

What is unfortunate is that posts such as this one are still needed. Such will continue to be the case as long as many Calvinists continue to misread, misinterpret and misrepresent Church history — both theologically and practically — to say nothing of Arminius and Arminian theology. That a person disagrees with Arminianism is one thing; to misrepresent it is quite another; to demonize it is something else entirely — something utterly foreign in the history of the Church, and repugnant in the nostrils of our Savior, who died and redeemed believers who are Arminian.

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1 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991) 269.

2 Ibid.

3 James Arminius, “Apology Against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles: Articles I & II.,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, London edition, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:741.

4 Ibid. However, Arminius admits: “On the other hand, if believers fall away from the faith and become unbelievers, it is impossible for them to do otherwise than decline from salvation, that is, provided they still continue unbelievers” (742). This he admits because an individual is only justified by faith in Christ Jesus (Rom. 5:1). If a believer becomes an unbeliever, then he or she cannot be saved.

5 Works, 2:725.

6 Peter A. Lillback, “5 — Eternal Security and the Early Saints: Are the First, Second and Third Century Christian Beliefs a Reliable Basis for Determining Soteriological Truth?” in Testamentum Imperium: An International Theological Journal, Vol. 1, 2005-2007, p. 14. (link)

7 Ibid.,15. (link)

8 Arminius quotes Augustine: “It is [to be wondered at], and indeed most [bewildering], that God does not bestow perseverance on certain of His sons, whom He has regenerated in Christ, and to whom He has given faith, hope and love . . . (De Corrept. et Gratia, cap. 8)” (Works, 1:740). Is this any semblance of the doctrines of Assurance or Perseverance of final salvation? Calvin, following Augustine, made a similar statement:

And this is the only reason why some persevere to the end, and others, after beginning their course, fall away. Perseverance is the gift of God, which he does not lavish promiscuously on all, but imparts to whom he pleases. If it is asked how the difference arises — why some steadily persevere, and others prove deficient in steadfastness — we can give no other reason than that the Lord, by his mighty power, strengthens and sustains the former, so that they perish not, while he does not furnish the same assistance to the latter, but leaves them to be monuments of instability (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 2:5.3.).

9 Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (New York: Cosimo Publications, 2007), 228.

10 Muller writes: “The reference to Socinus may reflect a suspicion that Arminius’ doctrines of Christ and the Trinity were not quite in accord with the views of his Reformed [i.e., Calvinistic] colleagues — although this one element of the accusation has no real basis in Arminius’ teaching. His doctrines of Christ and the Trinity did differ with Reformed theology [regarding the Calvinist’s strict monergistic error that regeneration precedes faith], but they were not at all in sympathy with Socinian doctrine” (29-30).

11 Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 2002), 2.

12 Kenneth D. Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

13 John Owen, A Display of Arminianism: Being a Discovery of the Old Pelagian Idol Free Will, With the New Goddess Contingency, Advancing Themselves into the Throne of the God of Heaven, to the Prejudice of His Grace, Providence, and Supreme Dominion Over the Children of Men; Wherein the Main Errors by Which They Are Fallen Off From the Received Doctrine of All the Reformed Churches, With Their Opposition in Divers Particulars to the Doctrine Established in the Church of England, are Discovered and Laid Open Out of Their Own Writings and Confessions, and Confuted by the Word of God (Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1989), 8.