Conflating Arminianism and Secularism

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Calvinist Southern Baptist pastor Mark E. Dever, having reviewed Richard A. Muller’s 1991 book, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, notes, in his concluding remarks:

    Personally, as a pastor with Reformed [he means Calvinist] convictions, I found this book to be a telling intellectual journey, suggestive of the unwitting capitulations [surrendering] made by our Arminian brothers and sisters to secularism itself. At the end of the day, in a consistent Arminianism, the understanding of God and of humanity must be seen to be “rational” by the world around. Therefore I fear that their notions of God and of humanity can rise no further than the surrounding unbelieving culture. As an evangelical pastor in postmodern America, this is my fear. I pray that I am wrong.

We are elated to announce that Dever was wrong. Who were these “Arminian brothers and sisters” who surrendered “to secularism itself”? Was Dever intimating the bland theological liberalism which masquerades in the cloak of Arminianism? Was he alluding to the Pelagian or semi-Pelagianism in Joel Osteen-like congregations? We were not told. But to whomever he was referring, clearly, those “Arminians” had abandoned the Gospel for the Social Gospel. The notions of those “rational” Arminians (basing their beliefs in accordance with reason or logic) are no better than the “surrounding unbelieving culture,” and Classical Arminians stand with Dever against such.

One would almost conclude that Dever was talking about nineteenth-century Universalist-Unitarians or Deists. Certainly he is aware that Calvinists in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries are, statistically speaking, in the minority. It is clear that he is not willing to relegate God’s elect to that small of a company (i.e. mainly Calvinists): he is not someone who advocates the same antic that Spurgeon stated: Calvinism is the Gospel. We have no doubt that he would disagree with Spurgeon on that statement. For example, we have been informed that in light of his interaction with Classical Arminians, Dever would not espouse wholesale today his former conclusion. His brief article concerning Arminians and Together for the Gospel attests to such. This post, therefore, will serve those who may still read his review on-line and be better informed.

Arminius believed that theology and one’s knowledge of God should be practical.1 He found no comfort in holding to speculative theology, whether in adhering too much to mystery or outright antinomy. But Arminius’s (and the Arminian’s) understanding of God and of humanity rises far above the surrounding unbelieving culture. And to suggest otherwise is entirely offensive. When a Classical Arminian in the Reformed tradition encounters such conclusions, as the one given by Dever, he or she wonders greatly to what degree such persons have read from Classical Arminian scholars. Roger Olson, in his Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, notes:

      One thing should be absolutely clear from . . . examples of Arminian accounts of divine sovereignty and providence ~ the common accusation that Arminianism lacks a strong or high view of God’s sovereignty is false. Every classical Arminian shares with every classical Calvinist the belief that God is in charge of and governs the entire creation, and will powerfully and perhaps unilaterally bring about the consummation of his plan. Arminians demur from Calvinism’s divine determinism because it cannot avoid making God the author of sin and evil. When the Calvinist responds that Calvinism avoids that, the Arminian asks about the origin of the very first impulse to evil in creation.

2

The troublesome notion of that latter question is confirmed by R. C. Sproul Sr., who simply but respectfully answers, “I don’t know.” However, his son, R. C. Sproul Jr., as noted by Paul Copan, is confident that the origin of the very first impulse to evil is God. Perhaps Sproul Jr. is merely following logically where his Calvinist theology inevitably leads. Using Mark Dever’s conclusive statement, let me suggest, concerning Calvinists’ theology, that I, therefore, “fear that their notions of God and of humanity can rise no further than the surrounding fatalistic culture of first-century philosophers.” Is that not as fair to Calvinism as was Dever to Arminianism?

The spiritual journey which Dever witnessed in Muller’s book about the theology of Arminius was “suggestive of the unwitting capitulations made by our Arminian brothers and sisters to secularism itself.” In layman’s terms, Dever means that Arminianism tends toward a surrender to secular culture, even if unknowingly. What is secularism? It denotes non-religious, materialistic ideology. How is Arminianism a surrender to secularism? It certainly does not accomplish such by focusing on God’s love for humanity, for then Scripture itself could be charged as being secularistic.

Without being too speculative of the intent of Dever’s initial remarks, I do not want to evade a possible observation that has been made by the Calvinist camp concerning decisional regeneration ~ a concept historically held by some in the Arminian camp. Decisional Regeneration is the view that all a person need do in order to be saved is to “make a decision for Christ.” In this scenario, the Holy Spirit is merely nudging a person to make the decision to believe in Christ Jesus; and if done, then that individual will be regenerated.

This conception has direct ties to semi-Pelagianism, which states that a person’s will has the inherent ability to seek God. Hence, if a person takes one step toward God, then God will take the necessary steps to ensure his or her salvation. A famous sentiment in this tradition states the following: If there were a hundred steps to God, He will take the ninety-nine steps toward you if you will take the one step toward Him. There is another prevalent idea in this judgment: God has cast a vote for your salvation, the devil has cast his vote for your damnation, and you must cast the deciding vote.

This, however, is not Arminianism proper. And the conflation of the two baffles the Classical Arminian. Because all people are “dead in sins” (Eph. 2:1), i.e. separated from the life of God and things of a spiritual nature (1 Cor. 2:6-14), the operative grace of God through the activity of the Holy Spirit is absolutely imperative if a person is going to trust in Jesus Christ (cf. John 3:3-8; 6:44-45, 65; 12:32; 16:8-11; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). This is what Classical Arminianism teaches. Arminius writes: “Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace.”3 Arminius and Classical Arminians insist that due to total, radical depravity and inability, God must grace an individual to even begin the first mark of seeking God. What we deny is exhaustive determinism and the irresistibility of God’s grace. Arminius writes:

      I confess that the mind of [

animalis

      ] a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this, That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so plead the cause of Grace, as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God, and not to take away

the free will to that which is evil

      .

4

Arminius’s main concern was to avoid making God the author (the cause and originator) of evil. Either God permits humanity a measure of freedom when committing evil, not by divine necessity and decree but by one’s own inclinations, or God is behind all evil. William den Boer comments:

      Arminius appears to stand in the tradition of those who in the sixteenth century protested against the results of a causally deterministic system where the zeal for God’s sovereignty, the

sola gratia

      and the assurance of faith resulted, as they saw it, in God’s authorship of sin. He distinguishes himself by his own approach, and joins himself with certain theological developments in his time. As his orthodox contemporaries, he shows great interest in the mutual relationship of Christology and predestination, but consistently with his own emphasis on the absolute primacy of God’s justice as foundation of theology.

5

Reading various commentaries and remarks concerning Arminius, the Remonstrants, and subsequent Classical Arminian followers from many Calvinists has opened our eyes to the absolute necessity that all honest students of Church history and even of Scripture itself must employ the hard work of reading primary sources for oneself. By doing this with increasing practice, both Calvinists and Arminians will better keep one another accountable when presenting their opponent’s views.

1 James Arminius, “On the Manner in Which Theology Must Be Taught,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:319-320. See also here.

2 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 135.

3 Arminius, 2:700.

4 Ibid., 2:700-01.

5 William den Boer, “Jacobus Arminius: Theologian of God’s Two-Fold Love,” in Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe, eds. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin and Marijke Tolsma (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2009), 49.