*First read my first six posts in this series. They set forth my fundamental “principles” for living and thinking.
*Now continues a second part of this series; this series is about my reasons for being a Christian and for embracing a particular “brand” of Christianity called (as in the name of this blog) “evangelical Arminianism.” In order to understand this post you need to read the immediately preceding ones about my reasons for being an “evangelical” Christian.
9) My Third Reason for Embracing “Evangelical, Arminian Christianity”: “Arminian”
My immediately preceding post/essay explained why I am an evangelical Christian—both descriptively and prescriptively. Now, here, I turn to explanation of why I identify as an “Arminian evangelical Christian.” I have written about the meaning—to me—of “Arminian” here before, but perhaps I will now say something new that will enhance my explanation. So even if you have read me before on this topic, please consider reading this.
Again, as with “Christian” and “evangelical Christian,” Arminian is a label I (but not only I) use to describe what type of evangelical Christian I am. However, for me, anyway, it stands subordinate to “evangelical Christian.” So far as I know, and there may be exceptions I am not aware of, all true Arminians, all Arminians in the true historical-theological sense of the word, have been and are evangelical Christians in the broad sense I explained it in the two immediately preceding posts. For me, being “evangelical Christian” is much more important than being “Arminian.” However, in recent years especially, “Arminianism” has been so misrepresented and maligned by especially Calvinists—another type of evangelical Christians—that I have found it important to identify myself as such and use whatever influence I have—especially among evangelical Christians—to clarify its meaning. To explain it another way: Some years ago I realized that, at least among North American evangelical Christianity, especially among North American evangelical scholars and theologians, “evangelical Christianity” was being explained in a way that made so-called “Reformed theology,” including Calvinism, normative for authentic evangelical Christianity. Some evangelical theologians and historians were even going so far as to claim that Arminians could not be authentically, fully evangelical. That brought me “out of the closet,” so to speak, to defend my Arminian theology as fully, authentically evangelical and Christian.
A few examples of the phenomenon I am talking about that compelled me to defend my Arminian evangelical Christian heritage and theology may help readers understand my somewhat admittedly Quixotic campaign to defend Arminianism as equally evangelical and Christian (with Reformed/Calvinist theology). During my studies in a Baptist seminary I was informed by a professor that “Arminianism has historically led to liberal theology.” I knew that was not the case. I grew up among Arminian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. As I read and studied the history and theology of evangelical Christianity I found Jonathan Edwards being touted as the prototype—often to the complete exclusion of John Wesley. In 2003 a major news magazine published an article about the anniversary of Edwards’s birth without so much as a mention of Wesley who was born the same year (1703). I wrote a letter to the editor of that magazine mentioning the importance of Wesley to evangelical Christianity; it was published in the next issue. I noticed that the major trans-denominational evangelical organizations, seminaries, publishing houses, magazines, tended to favor Reformed/Calvinist evangelicalism. I definitely felt marginalized within late twentieth century and early twenty-first century North American evangelicalism’s centers of influence because I proudly wore my Arminian heritage “on my sleeve.” I was a contributing editor to Christianity Today, a major “voice” for evangelical Christians, when, in 2009 it celebrated the birth of John Calvin with an article about him in every issue. There was little to no mention of Arminius who died in 1609—in spite of the fact that I strongly suggested that CT publish at least some “nod” to Arminius and his influence that year.
I could go on and I have in earlier posts to this blog. I will finish by saying that my friend, church historian and theologian Donald W. Dayton, also an Arminian, raised this issue of the Reformed/Calvinist normativity in evangelical historiography and theology very perceptively and eloquently in Christian Scholar’s Review—a generically evangelical scholarly journal I edited from 1994 to 1999. Dayton argued for recognition of two paradigms of evangelicalism. He called them (as I now recall) the “Puritan Paradigm” and the “Pentecostal Paradigm,” but I came to call them the “Reformed Paradigm” and the “Arminian Paradigm.” The Reformed (Puritan-Presbyterian) paradigm was gradually pushing aside and ignoring the contributions of Arminian (Pietist-Pentecostal-Holiness) evangelical Christianity to the larger evangelical Christian ethos and movement.
There were several “straws” that broke this “camel’s back” and propelled me into a years-long campaign to rehabilitate Arminianism as a valid and important type of evangelical Christianity. One was when a very influential Reformed/Calvinist evangelical theologian publicly declared that Arminians can be “Christian, just barely.” Another was when an equally influential Reformed/Calvinist evangelical theologian publicly stated that one possible explanation for Arminianism among Christians is “demonic deception.” Both of those evangelical theologians, like many others, tended to equate Arminianism with Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism; they assumed that Arminians deny the priority of grace in salvation and subordinate it to the sinner’s free will. They and many others labeled Arminianism essentially “humanistic” or “man-centered.”
I have said here, in this series of posts and before, that I was born in the “thick” of North American evangelical Christianity. I well remember my father, an evangelical pastor, “marching” together with the whole city “Evangelical Ministerial Alliance” in a city-wide parade. Like all such city evangelical ministerial groups it included both Arminians and Calvinists. Our denomination was a charter member of the National Association of Evangelicals. A major transdenominational evangelical organization called Youth for Christ (Billy Graham was one of its evangelists in the 1940s and early 1950s) was an important part of my spiritual nurture. My family and church were deeply imbedded in it and it included both Arminians and Calvinists.
So, for newcomers to this blog, and for those who need a bit of review about these categories: What is Arminianism? (Here I will only talk about what Reformed church historian-theologian Alan P. F. Sell labeled “Arminianism of the heart.”) In a nutshell, Arminianism is Protestant Christian belief in total depravity (all are sinners and incapable by themselves, apart from God’s supernatural grace, of doing anything to be saved), conditional election (the “elect” are all who, enabled by God’s grace, freely choose God’s offer of salvation), universal atonement (Christ’s atoning death on the cross was for all people), and resistible grace (God’s generous offer of salvation, reconciliation with himself, through Jesus Christ can be resisted even by those God wants to save). In other words, Arminianism is belief in a generous, loving God who genuinely wants to save everyone, and has suffered and died in Jesus Christ for all people, and who, through the gospel, makes it possible for depraved, helpless sinners to say “yes” to his offer of reconciliation with himself. In other words, it is denial of the “U,” the “L,” and the “I” of the famous T.U.L.I.P. scheme of Calvinism. It is notPelagianism, belief that sinners can save themselves by simply deciding to obey God’s law, and it is not semi-Pelagianism, belief that sinners are capable of initiating their own salvation by means of unaided free will.
For more information and understanding of classical Arminianism consult my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press). (I do not want to spend time describing in more detail here Arminianism. I have done that on my blog several times before and, if you do not want to read my book, at least use a search engine to find my previous blog posts expounding Arminianism and Arminian theology.)
So why am I an “Arminian evangelical Christian?” Why am I not Reformed-Calvinist?
First let me say that I consider most Reformed-Calvinist Christians as evangelical. There may be exceptions, but I have known many of them throughout my lifetime and find no reason to consider them “less evangelical” or “less Christian” than Arminians (or Lutherans—another subject I do not want to pursue here as I have done before). When I was growing up one wing of my large, extended family belong to the Christian Reformed Church; my cousins belonged to its youth group called “Young Calvinists.” We all got along just fine in spite of our disagreements about some matters of theology. I have had wonderful colleagues who were and are Calvinists; I have never insulted or demeaned their evangelical faith.
I was born into an Arminian form of evangelical Christianity and I have never found reason to “jump ship,” so to speak, into Reformed-Calvinist Christianity. I do not claim Arminianism is superior, even in terms of being “more evangelical” or “more Christian” than Arminianism. I simply think classical Calvinist theology is mistaken, even profoundly mistaken. Within it I find many problems of coherence (inconsistency) and it does not fit with my experience of God or myself. I find it to be a more problematic interpretation of the Bible than Arminianism. But I have explained all these reasons in Against Calvinism (Zondervan).
My most basic, fundamental reason for being Arminian rather than Calvinist (and those are the two main theological options among evangelical Christians—even where they do not call them by those names) is the character of God. I am not a humanist lover of free will; the only reason I believe in free will (or “freed will”—made free by God’s “prevenient grace”) is because I see it everywhere assumed in the Bible and without it God would be monstrous rather than loving (unless he saves everyone).
I often tell my students that both Calvinism and Arminianism have problems; there are mysteries deeply embedded within both views. I tell them that I can live with the problems and mysteries of Arminianism whereas I cannot live with the mysteries and problems of Calvinism. And, so far as I can see, and I have studied the matter in great depth and detail (I have shelves full of books about Reformed theology/Calvinism by noted Reformed/Calvinist theologians), whenever Calvinists attempt to “solve” the problems I see in their theology their Calvinism either becomes Arminianism (without that label) or they deepen the problems—at least for me.
I have no desire to create an Arminian hegemony of evangelical Christianity; I have said here, on my blog, and in my books that I “thank God for Reformed Christianity.” It has contributed much to my spiritual and theological life and work. My only concern has been to clear up misconceptions about Arminianism and point out the problems in Calvinism so that Calvinists or those inclined toward it can examine it carefully and critically.
[Link to original post and comments on Roger Olson’s blog]