The Influence of Arminius on American Theology

, posted by

The following is part of Gerald O. McCulloh’s address presented at the Arminius Symposium in Holland, August 1960. He stated that it was his honor to chronicle the influence of the theology of the great Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius, noting how the “discussions and disputations which exerted great influence in shaping Protestant Christianity in Holland, England, and America [can] be heard again to warn against doctrinal neglect or errors and to lead to new understandings of Christian truth.”1 McCulloh writes the following.

In the theological education and personal development of a person preparing for the ministry of the church, Arminius’ emphases upon God’s will in Christ to redeem all men, and that portion of responsibility which rests upon the Christian in the life under grace unto sanctification, are essential in the intellectual and spiritual equipment of the man. . . .

Among the first settlers in the new world were the Puritans from the village of Scrooby who, after a period of residence in Holland, established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. They had come from a section of England which was deeply dyed with the Puritan reaction against the High-Church Anglicanism of James VI, Charles I, and Archbishop Laud. William Warren Sweet in The Story of Religion in America characterizes the section of England from which the early colonists came as,

    The stronghold of Puritanism. . . . The wool-growing district, in close touch with the continent, and especially with the United Netherlands, which had become one of the chief centers of Calvinism. The University of Cambridge was the intellectual center of this region, and many a congregation became completely Puritan under the influence of clergymen educated at Cambridge. . . . The New England leaders were Cambridge men.

Twenty to thirty thousand persons emigrated from this region in the brief period from 1628 to 1642 to settle in New England.

The development of religious ideas and institutions in New England was not, however, a clear and unchallenged establishment of high Calvinism even in that section of the colonial settlement. During the first years of life amid the rigors and deprivations of the New World, the sternness of the Puritans’ doctrine stood them in firm stead. Frank Hugh Foster in A Genetic History of New England Theology makes the following observation:

    The first Puritans, sure in their own hearts that they were the elect of God, found the doctrine [of election] necessary to sustain them in the tremendous struggles through which they passed. . . . Hence the doctrine nerved to greater activity; and it produced a similar effect, during the first period of the promulgation of Calvinism.

In the survey of the absolute sovereignty of God and of their being guided by his hand they survived and kept the faith pure within their own households. They set up a Bible commonwealth with the laws of the Scripture to be administered as the laws of civil relations.

But in the frontier life which was theirs, with the admixture of new immigrants and the touch of trade, they found themselves confronted with a new necessity. These men of faith, who held such high purpose and imposed such high demands upon their households and their ministry, were confronted with a missionary task.

The Calvinist correlative of God’s absolute sovereignty is man’s inability. The faithful discovered that for men who did not hold themselves to be the elect of God, who preferred their frontier roistering to the stiff-necked Puritan morality, the doctrine of man’s inability simply confirmed them in their comfortable acceptance of their waywardness. For some who grew weary under the Puritan demands, the low estimate of their ability was in accord with their evaluation of themselves.

When the inability was preached to men who were not conscious that they were the elect, when passive waiting for the gracious deliverance of God was inculcated upon men whom the tide of events no longer forced to activity in spite of themselves and of their theories, it produced sluggishness, apathy, self-distrust, despair. It has never been a good way to induce men to repent to tell them that they cannot.

“The doctrine of inability, so preached as to deplete the churches, by discouraging repentance and faith,” caused a serious decline in the close-knit community wholeness of the churches.

By 1648 there was the appearance of doctrinal divergence within the seemingly homogeneous body of New England Calvinism. At the Synod of Cambridge, Puritanism was deliberately rejected in favor of a freer approach to faith and the Scriptures. “The Westminster Confession of Faith was not made binding on the individual churches.” The primitive Christian trust in the Scriptures as a guide to faith and order, within the context of the freedom which was in the air of the New World, prevailed.

There was a toleration to dissent ~ to emphasize morality more than purity of doctrine ~ and a basic, almost individualistic, trust in the guidance of the Scriptures which made it virtually impossible to maintain for long an “ecclesiocracy” of either the Roman Catholic or the European Protestant sort. . . .

On the American scene there was also a strong sense of individualism which found the Arminian emphases upon freedom and moral responsibility paralleled by the frontier demand upon the individual to move out and take firm hold of life and the land if he would possess it. This quality of Arminianism has been noted by Parrington as one of the reasons for its importance in American Christianity: “Arminianism carried a social significance greater than its theological import: it was an expression of the ideal of individual responsibility that emerged from the decay of the feudal system. . . .”

With the turn of the political tide in favor of Puritan dominance in England, it was the Anglicans who left their homelands in great numbers to settle in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. These colonists, as might be expected, brought with them the Arminian views and influences which had already been accepted by the High-Church party in the Church of England. . . .

The influence of Arminius’ doctrine of sanctification upon the American revival movement is clear and vital. This was true in various denominational communions, as seen for example in Congregationalism through Nathaniel W. Taylor at Yale and Charles G. Finney at Oberlin College, and the holiness emphasis in Methodism. . . .

During the second quarter of the twentieth century American theology took a different turn. The theological revival turned the Christian scholars’ interest again to Luther and Calvin. Under the influence of neo-orthodoxy optimistic humanism began to surrender to a widely proclaimed view of man as sin. Though man is not necessarily a sinner, yet inevitably he is a sinner because he is a victim of the human predicament. Man can escape his plight only through justification by faith. Faith is not a response in which man takes an active and determinative part. It is a state into which he is transformed by a gracious act of God. . . . Man came to be viewed as a creature in absolute disjunction from his Creator.

The doctrinal views of Calvin are often quoted and proclaimed. But Arminius’ pleas for reason and tolerance; his insistence upon the dignity and freedom of man as born under a prevenient grace; . . . his view of man’s responsibility to persevere in faith and obedience, albeit able to fall through is own fault and perish upon his own failure rather than Adam’s guilt; his recognition of the rightful place of the assurance of present salvation; and his vocation to grow an individual and social righteousness in the experience of sanctification ~ all these are stilled.

The voice of the inspiration to remonstrance [i.e. protest] against an absolute and unconditional divine sovereignty, limited atonement, the irresistiblity of grace ~ this voice is not heard in the land. Arminius’ name is almost completely absent from the tables of contents or the indexes of the most recent widely read works in theology. In American theology the time is ripe for a new remonstrance.2

1 Man’s Faith and Freedom: The Theological Influence of Jacobus Arminius, ed. Gerald O. McCulloh (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1962), 64-65.

2 Ibid., 65-79.