Inclusivism, Arminianism and Liberalism

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by Roger Olson

When someone drags out the tired, old canard that Arminianism leads to liberalism in theology I know he (or she) knows little about theology. The same is true when someone classifies inclusivism as “liberal.”

Let’s define “liberal theology.” Far too many people use it to mean any theology with which they disagree. For example, open theism has been called “liberal.” What’s “liberal” about it? (Except perhaps in one meaning of “liberal” as open-minded, but that’s not what the critics mean.) It’s not rooted in liberal thinking; it’s rooted in biblical interpretation. Call it heretical, if you insist (that’s another argument), but calling it “liberal” is simply ignorant. All the leading open theists believe strongly in the supernatural and base their claims on the Bible.

Let’s get back to some serious defining and using of terms so that they are more than just snarl words meant to evoke negative emotions.

According to Claude Welch, well-known and highly regarded authority on nineteenth century theology, liberal theology is “maximal accommodation to the claims of modernity.” Contemporary expert on liberal theology, Gary Dorrien (author of a three volume history of American liberal religion) defines it as refusal to recognize any authority outside the self.

Neither evangelical Arminianism nor evangelical inclusivism fits these definitions. Classical, historical Arminianism has always insisted, with Arminius and Wesley, on prima scriptura–Scripture above tradition, culture or experience. (Reason is simply a tool of interpretation and has never been treated by Arminians as a source of theology.)

What about inclusivism? Is it “liberal” theologically? Well, if so, lots of Reformed thinkers have been and are liberal. Inclusivism is not unique to Arminians and many Arminians are not inclusivists. These are separable issues. Only weak, untrained minds can’t tell the difference.

Was C. S. Lewis, a notorious inclusivist (said tongue-in-cheek), a liberal theologically? Such a claim would be nonsense and should be laughed out of the room. I remember one journalist some years ago labeling him an “Anglican fundamentalist!” Both claims are idiotic.

Now, does classical, historical Arminianism necessarily lead to inclusivism? No. There is no necessary connection–any more than classical, historical Calvinism leads to hyper-Calvinism or fatalism….Schleiermacher’s liberal reconstruction of Christianity. (Schleiermacher was a Reformed theologian who held on tightly to his belief in God as the all-determining reality.)

How does Arminianism lead to theological liberalism? One answer I’ve heard is based on history–that allegedly most liberals were Arminians first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Calvinists claim that early Unitarians and liberals were Arminians first. For example, many Unitarian churches in New England were General Baptist churches that switched. (But the majority were Congregational churches rooted in Puritan Calvinism.)

What these people (who make this historical argument) overlook (conveniently!) is that most 18th and 19th century theological liberals were first Calvinists! They were Puritans who couldn’t stomach it any more and switched directly to Unitarianism or liberal theology–skipping right over any alternative option. An example is 19th century father of American liberal theology Horace Bushnell who went through a skeptical phase in reaction to the strict Calvinism of his Congregational upbringing and then became liberal. He never even toyed with Arminianism.

My own opinion is that, historically speaking, strict Calvinism is more likely to lead to liberalism in theology than is Arminianism. It did that historically in as many, if not more, cases than Arminianism.

So, then, what’s “liberal” about classical, historical Arminianism? The common calumny from Calvinists is that it is “man-centered.” I’ve already debunked that here in an earlier post.

To those who claim Arminianism leads to liberal theology I point to the numerous strongly conservative Arminian denominations and ask “What about them?” Are they “going liberal?” The Church of the Nazarene, Pentecostal denominations, other holiness denominations (Wesleyan, Free Methodist, etc.), the General Baptists and Free Will Baptists, on and on and on. These are far from “liberal” theologically unless you are simply going to play the game of equating Arminianism with liberalism which exposes you as either ignorant or a fraud right away. That tactic is simply ignorant or fraudulent and people who practice it need to be called out. (I wish our leading evangelical publications would do that more!)

So let’s stop using “liberal” and “conservative” and “fundamentalist” in these informal ways that really communicate little more than dislike. If you are going to claim somebody or something is “liberal” theologically, explain why and how that is the case using objective criteria such as Welch’s or Dorrien’s.

Original post on Roger Olson‘s site.