The Assemblies of God denomination is one of the largest, if not the largest, evangelical Christian denomination that is historically-theologically primarily, if not exclusively, Arminian in theology. I grew up Pentecostal but not “AG.” However, the Pentecostal group I belonged to as a child, youth and young adult was very similar to the AG in doctrine and practice. In fact, there was an attempt in the 1960s to merge the two denominations. My father was on our denomination’s national board when that failed. My uncle was our denomination’s president. When I was in college I attended at AG church and I once actually enrolled in an AG college, but then I returned to my denomination’s school. Over the years I have had a keen interest in the AG. A few years ago an AG denominational leader interviewed about my bookArminian Theology: Myths and Realities for his podcast aimed primarily at AG ministers. At his invitation I wrote an article on limited atonement for the AG ministers’ magazine. Then, a couple years ago, I was invited to speak at Central Assembly of God both Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Central AG is the church next to the denomination’s headquarters building in Springfield, Missouri. During that visit to Springfield I also spoke in the AG seminary’s chapel and did a Q&A afterwards with seminary students and faculty. I should say that I also have friends who are “AG insiders,” people who know the inner workings of the denomination. But they do not tell me anything the denomination’s General Superintendent wouldn’t tell me. (I have met him, but we are not in close contact with each other.)
A few weeks ago one of my frequent blog readers asked me (by private e-mail) to respond to a relatively new official AG “position paper” about “Reformed theology.” When I visited Springfield and talked with AG denominational leaders I learned that they were concerned about the growth of Calvinism “in the ranks.” This is happening, of course, in most American Protestant denominations and independent evangelical churches and that because of the popularity of John Piper’s books, podcasts and sermons. The AG, like the vast majority of Pentecostal denominations, however, has historically been Arminian in theological orientation.
The AG denominational leaders, called the General Presbytery, occasionally writes and publishes “position papers” on controversial subjects. I do not know how binding these are on the rank and file. At the very least, however, they express the denomination’s general opinion. In August of this year (2015) the General Presbytery finally published its response to Reformed theology especially in the denomination. The position paper can be found among all AG position papers at https://ag.org/Beliefs/Position-Papers.
This position paper, entitled “An Assemblies of God Response to Reformed Theology,” is six pages long—single spaced! It is both irenic and ironic.
The position paper fairly explains both Calvinism (if not “Reformed theology” which is, historically-theologically a bit different from non-Reformed Calvinism as I have explained here several times!) and Arminianism. Then it describes “Points of Agreement” between Calvinists and Arminians. The longer section, however, is devoted to “Points of Disagreement.”
Overall and in general, this is a very well-crafted and irenic description and discussion of evangelical Calvinism and Arminianism. As an Arminian theologian, however, I have a few qualms about its description of Arminianism. The main one is about the description of “Pelagianism” as “one extreme form of Arminianism. I do not consider Pelagianism any form of Arminianism!
The general tone of the statement is irenic toward Reformed theology and moderate Calvinism, but any discerning reader can easily tell that the presbyters who promulgated it view the AG denomination as historically and theologically Arminian rather than Calvinist/Reformed. (See for example the first sentence and its parenthetical statement under the section “More Recent Developments [or Branches of the Tree].) One looks in vain, however, for any sentence in the statement that would specifically exclude Calvinists from the AG. The “Conclusion” says:
While there are clear distinctions between those who self-identify as Arminian and asReformed, there is indeed more that unites than divides us in theology. The extremes ofboth positions are to be rejected. While individual teaching and preaching of pastors inboth camps may be controversial at times, we agree on the imperative of presenting thegospel to the lost. It is when Reformed thinking is extended and taken to the extreme ofremoving all human response that we must reject it and remain true to the call andexample of Christ and His disciples, calling all to Him and genuinely offering salvation toall.
I applaud the AG leaders for being irenic and emphasizing points of commonality between “Reformed Theology” (really evangelical Calvinism) and evangelical Arminianism and I understand their desire not to exclude Calvinist brothers and sisters from their fellowship. On the other hand, it seems ironic that Calvinism can be allowed in the AG (and I am referring especially to ordained ministers) in light of the denomination’s 1978 position paper on “The Security of the Believer” (which can be read at the same web site I mentioned above). That position paper says: “The General Council of the Assemblies of God disapproves of the unconditional security position which holds that it is impossible for a person once saved to be lost.” This is still official AG doctrine and, so I have been told by many AG pastors, they have to reaffirm this belief (or denial of belief in “eternal security”) annually.
So where’s the “irony?” It lies in the fact that Calvinism, even as described in the August 2015 position paper, necessarily, logically entails belief in “eternal security” (the perseverance of the saints). I do not know any Reformed person or Calvinist who does not believe in that doctrine. It is part of the system.
So, in effect, these two AG position papers are saying you can be in the AG, as an ordained minister, if you are a Calvinist, even if you affirm the first four points of “TULIP,” so long as you do not affirm the fifth point! But the fifth point follows necessarily from the first four! If election to salvation is unconditional and if saving grace is irresistible (whatever words one prefers), then perseverance is logically necessary.
(Sidebar: Yes, I know there are monergists—people who deny that salvation is in any way dependent on a free will response to God’s saving grace—who also affirm that it is possible to commit apostasy and fall from saving grace into a state of reprobation. Most of them are Lutherans; some may be Catholics. Augustine and Luther both separated monergism and perseverance of the saints. However, Luther, at least, and Lutherans in general, do not affirm TULIP—especially “unconditional election” of individuals by some eternal divine decree. I do not want to get into a wrangle here about Lutheran theology! I consider it very inconsistent when it affirms monergism.)
I looked in vain in the position paper for any wording that would necessarily exclude Calvinists—even from among the ministers. And yet, it seems to me, the 1978 position paper does exclude Calvinists from the AG. Show me a true Calvinist who does not believe in the unconditional eternal security of true believers—saved person—and I will show you a non-Calvinist or a hopelessly confused person. Put another way, show me an AG Calvinist (minister) and I will show you someone who is crossing his or her fingers behind their back when signing the annual card reaffirming belief that a person can fall from saving grace.
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