What is an Arminian? This is perhaps one of the most difficult and confusing questions in the history of Protestant theology. In 1770 John Wesley himself asked this question in his work, “The Question ‘What Is an Arminian?’ Answered by a Lover of Free Grace.” In his introduction Wesley gives three possible answers. First, an Arminian is “a Mad Dog.” Second, an Arminian is “something very bad.” Or third, an Arminian is “all that is bad.” There is no doubt that many within the evangelical community today would agree with Wesley’s suggested answers, especially among those who identify as “New Calvinists” or the “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” But although I am a Wesleyan-Arminian myself, I would not fault them for doing so. Often I would actually agree with them. Because honestly there is much within what is called “Arminianism” today that is “very bad” and frankly not Arminian at all. This problem is not new. It is the same problem John Wesley faced in his lifetime. In fact, Wesley did not even publicly identify as an Arminian until 1778. And when he finally did, his intention of doing so was only to distinguish his arm of the English revival movement from that of the “Calvinian Methodists.”
At first glance it might be strange to think that Wesley was hesitant to adopt the Arminian label. After all he was the most faithful theologian to the thought of Arminius since the death of the Dutch Reformer in 1609. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall write that Wesley was “closer than the later Remonstrants to the evangelical thought of Arminius himself, who rejected all Pelagianism, insisted on salvation by grace alone through faith alone and the total inability of humanity to be saved.”
So why was Wesley hesitant to adopt the Arminian label? He was hesitant because of what went as “Arminianism” in England at the time. W. Stephen Gunter writes, “Wesley’s reticence to appropriate the label may be understood when we remember that in the eighteenth century, English Arminianism was comprehensively rationalistic and had become a vague enough designation to refer to any anti-Calvinistic theological position from a mild Latitudinarianism to full-blown Socinianism.” This was not unique to England because this mischaracterization had spread into New England as well. George Marsden writes that in New England Arminianism “had become a catch-all term for most challenges to strict Calvinist teaching” or a term for “almost any anti-Calvinist teaching.” Simply stated, “Arminianism” in England and in New England was not Arminian at all. It was a catch-all term for any anti-Calvinist theological position. Over time the term had degenerated into a designation for full-blown theological liberalism, and John Wesley wanted nothing to do with that after his conversion in 1738.
The strange irony to all of this is that almost every polemic attack on “Arminianism” in the 17th and 18th centuries in both England and New England were not attacks on Arminianism at all. In fact, most people that were opposed to “Arminianism” had no idea what the actual contents of the Dutch theologian’s writings were. So while the presses were ablaze with “Anti-Arminian” writings, all of them missed the mark; and practically no one actually wrote anything against the actual theology of Arminius.
The English had a long history with “Arminianism” before the time of Wesley. King James I actually sent English delegates to the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and Hugo Grotius visited England back in 1613. But W. Stephen Gunter points out that in England “it was the Latitudinarian concept of a tolerant, non-judging God that carried the day, not Arminius’s theology itself.” Gunter goes on, “England apparently imbibed the optimistic anthropology of Episcopius’s Arminianism more than the Augustinian/Calvinist anthropology of Arminius.” Over time “Arminianism” in England became nothing more than a cesspool of any theologically liberal idea that was “not Calvinist.” In the English theological sense, when an idea was deemed “not Calvinist” it was labeled “Arminian,” even if it had nothing in common with the evangelical theology of Arminius. Gunter concludes that by the time of Wesley’s birth “it is clear that neither Arminius as an important persona, nor his distinctive theological emphases, played a significant role in English Arminianism.” So what did Wesley think of this English version of “Arminianism” and these English “Arminians”? According to George Croft Cell the Wesleyan Revival was in fact “a powerful reaction against Arminian Anglicanism” and “a return to the faith of the first Reformers.” Wesley makes very clear his opinions regarding English “Arminians” in his 1741 sermon “True Christianity Defended.” In the sermon he calls them “betrayers of the Church, sappers of the foundations of the faith and miserable corrupters of the Gospel of Christ” and that he saw their teaching as apostasy from “the fundamental doctrine of all Reformed Churches; viz., justification by faith alone.”
Another telling quote by Wesley comes from the Minutes from August 2nd of 1745. Here he writes that the truth of the gospel lies very close to Calvinism, “within a hair’s breadth,” and goes on to write “that it is altogether foolish and sinful, because we do not quite agree, to run from them as far as ever we can.” Wesley saw the English “Arminians” running as far from Calvinism as ever they could but in the process they were running right into liberal and dangerous theology. Wesley said doing this was foolish and sinful. Cell concludes that Wesley had a “closer doctrinal affiliation with the Calvinists than with the Anglican Arminians.” And while Wesley was only “within a hair’s breadth” from Calvinism, a great gulf was fixed between him and the liberal English “Arminians” of his time.
I would argue that Wesley’s time is very similar to our own. Wesley lived during a defining moment for evangelicalism when there was a significant resurgence of Calvinist theology in reaction to the theological liberalism that had made its way into the church. On one side of Wesley stood this Calvinist resurgence, and on the other side stood a theologically anemic and liberal “Arminianism” that was not really Arminian. “Arminianism” in England during Wesley’s time was anything that was “not Calvinist”; and therefore Latitudinarianism, Socinianism, and even Arianism were all considered “Arminian.” I fear this same danger exits in Arminianism today. Perhaps the clearest modern example of this is when people claim that Open Theism is Arminian. John Mark Hicks masterfully and definitively overthrows this claim, yet myths such as these still persist in the American theological landscape. Even if it has been proven that both Arminius and Wesley held to meticulous providence, many “Arminians” today would rather be open theists because meticulous providence is “too Calvinist” for them.
One problem is that many Arminians are too focused on telling everyone what they are not instead of what they are. If you were to ask the average American Evangelical today “what is an Arminian?” most would simply answer, “not Calvinist.” But this is not even a definition. Arminians need to be clearer about what Arminianism actually is rather than what Arminianism is not. If steps are not taken in this direction then Arminian theology will never move out of the shadow of Calvinism to take its place as a respected theological position in its own right. Also, every theological idea that is “not Calvinist” cannot be labeled “Arminian.” If this were the case then every doctrine that Calvinists hold to would have to be rejected, including the Trinity. Arminians should listen to Wesley’s advice and not run away as far from Calvinism as ever they can. Yet many already are. Those who claim to be “Arminian” are denying critically important doctrines of the Christian faith in an attempt to distance themselves from Calvinists. Doctrines such as justification by faith alone, inerrancy of Scripture, meticulous providence, and penal substitution are considered anathema by many so called “Arminians” because these doctrines are “too Calvinist” even if they were not “too Calvinist” for Arminius, Wesley, or early Methodists such as Richard Watson or William Burt Pope.
So what is an Arminian? An Arminian is one who is faithful to the theology of Arminius. John Wesley was an Arminian and was faithful to the theology of Arminius in a way that neither the Dutch Remonstrants nor English Arminians were. Early Methodists such as Richard Watson, Thomas Ralston, Luther Lee, Samuel Wakefield, and William Burt Pope were Arminian as well. It is the task of this generation of Arminians to define Arminian theology for what it is rather than what it is not. Arminians need to start reading Arminians just as Calvinists read Calvinists. Arminians need to stop focusing so much on polemics against Calvinists and begin to articulate a winsome and constructive Arminian theology to share with others. I fear that if we do not do so then Arminianism will degenerate into a cesspool of any theologically liberal idea that is “not Calvinist.” And if we allow this to happen it will cease being Arminian altogether.
From: Artese, Vincent. “What Is an Arminian?” The Arminian: A Publication of the Fundamental Wesleyan Society, vol. 36, no. 2, 2020. pp. 1-3.