[All footnotes link to the original post]
What is Arminianism? This sounds like it should be a simple matter. Simply look it up a dictionary and read what’s there. But there is a problem. Different people seem to define Arminianism differently. You will certainly get a different definition at SEA than you will at Monergism.com. Then there is the question of whether Molinists or Open Theists are Arminians. And who gets to determine this? I’m going to dive into these questions here.
Language, Calvinists, and History
First of all, there is the question of what determines the definition of any word. You can’t say the dictionary since A) words existed before there were dictionaries and B) dictionaries are always changing. So what gives a word its definition.
Well, the simple answer is use. A word develops its meaning over time through how it is used by others. Dictionaries are simply places for us to look up how a word is being used. This isn’t to say though that language is simply a subjective matter. A meaning of a term is agreed upon by us for the purposes of communication. I can’t simply use a word any way I want and say, “well that’s what it means because that’s how I use it.” Rather it means what it means because that is how we, as a people, use the word in general conversation. The goal is communication, not merely self-expression.
But this is a bit different when we are talking about the labels of ideas. Labels that we use for ideas, like any label/word, is simply a shorthand that we use to talk about something complex. It is easier for me to say, “capitalism” then for me to say “the belief that markets by nature are influenced by the routine decisions of people driven by their own self-interest”. Imagine using that long definition every time you wanted to refer to the concept! So instead, we assign the idea a label. This can make the idea more ambiguous if people misunderstand what the concept is (indeed, it is difficult to detach misconceptions from labels often due to emotional attachment to the label), but it is also necessary or else conversation would be way too cumbersome.
But unlike words such as ‘phone’ or ‘car’ or ‘fridge’, ideas are usually named very intentionally. And because they are controversial, they are constantly being managed by both those that ascribe to those ideas, and by the opponents of those ideas. Nobody generally gets into a fight about what the word ‘car’ means. Therefore, unlike ‘car’, names for ideas need to have some kind of objective referent to protect it from the white-washing of their allies and the mud-slinging of their opponents. This is why founders are so important to these conversations, and why so many beliefs are named after particular people. Calvinism isn’t defined by what John Piper said or what John Wesley said, but by what John Calvin said. Likewise, Arminianism is defined by James Arminius.
Indeed, the biggest problem that Arminianism has is that for the past 100 years or so, the term has been primarily maintained by Calvinists, and they’ve done a lousy job. If you go to the average Calvinist website which defines the word ‘Arminianism’, you would be hard-pressed to find a self-ascribed Arminian who actually agrees with what they describe. Indeed, the small handful of times I’ve met such people, its often taken about a 15 minute conversation to get them to either change their beliefs to match Arminius, or for them to stop calling themselves Arminian.1 This has happened because, in general, Arminians care more about the work of the church then they do about theological dispute than Calvinists typically do. This is not a criticism, merely an observation.
This is why I always go back to the Articles of Remonstrance. I am aware that Arminianism has had a history beyond simply the Remonstrance. But the Articles are where I start because an idea needs an objective standard that defines it, or else the term becomes useless.
Borders, Centers, Open Theism and Molinism
Now this leads to a second question. If we should define Arminianism off of Arminius and his comrades, does that mean any deviation from their precise beliefs fall out of bounds. Well here the answer seems to be no. It would seem ridiculous to suggest, for instance, that John Wesley was not an Arminian, though he disagreed with Arminius on quite a bit. So, I think the first clarification here is that we should focus in on how they summarized their position, rather than looking at Arminius as a whole. Again this brings us back again to the Articles, rather than all of Arminius’s works.2
Second though, I don’t think we should restrict ourselves to the letter of the articles, but to the heart of the articles. Roger Olson makes an interesting point in terms of naming things. We can think of two different kinds of sets: bordered sets and centered sets.
A bordered set is one where the set is defined by what falls into a particular number of boundaries. If we think about this in terms of sheep, it would be if one defined the flock by a fence. Those sheep in the fence are part of the flock, those outside the fence are not. This is the way that Statements of Faith work. If you affirm the precise wording of the Statement of faith, then you are within the boundaries, and are therefore part of the group. Bordered sets work pretty well for organizations.
A centered set is defined by a particular reference point. And the idea here is whether or not you feel as if you are in agreement with that reference point. If we think about this in terms of sheep, it would be defined by the shepherd. Those sheep that follow a particular shepherd are part of that flock. Those that do not know that shepherd are not. This is the way most movements actually work. There is usually some kind of person or event which defines a movement, and someone uses a label if they support that person or event. For instance, Pentecostalism is defined by the Azuza Street Revival. There is a lot of variety in terms of exactly what Pentecostals believe, but all of them look to that event as inspiration.
Now the argument here is that Arminianism should be treated as a centered set, one where the Articles are used as a rallying point. It isn’t as if you have to agree with the Articles perfectly to be an Arminian, but the closer you are to the Articles the “stronger” your Arminianism is.
So with this in mind, let’s consider two cases that people often ask if they are Arminian, and I’ll give you my thoughts. It is worth pointing out that what follows is simply my opinion on the matter, since neither of these two positions represent Arminius or the Articles. Rather, people have noted that there are some similarities there, and the question is, are they close enough to the Articles to be a kind of Arminianism?
Open Theism is the belief that the future doesn’t exist. Therefore any statement about the future has no truth content. So if someone says, “I will go to the store tomorrow”, that statement is neither true or false. It is undetermined, like Schrodinger’s cat. So if God is omniscient, that means He holds no false beliefs. So if God thinks that “I will not go to the store tomorrow”, He would be wrong, even if I don’t go to the store, He would still be wrong if He believed it today, since today the statement isn’t true, but undetermined. He would know what will probably happen, and much more accurately than we would, but we couldn’t actually know, because that would be Him knowing something false.
Now if you find this hard to swallow, don’t worry, you are not alone. I’m not an Open Theist either. In fact my biggest issue with it is that it rejects foreknowledge, while the Bible teaches foreknowledge. However, the question here is not whether or not it’s true. Rather, we are considering that there are many who argue that Open Theism is a kind of Arminianism (such as Roger Olson, who I mentioned earlier, though he isn’t an Open Theist either). So is it?
Well, the first thing we should notice is that there is something wrong with the question. Open Theism is not a soteriological position, but a theory of omniscience. Arminianism, however, is a soteriological position, and none of the 5 points take a stand on a theory of God’s knowledge. So the question isn’t whether or not Open Theism is a kind of Arminianism, but if Open Theism is compatible with Arminianism.
The compatibility question has to do with the strong implications both beliefs have on providence, and also the doctrine of election. In terms of providence, both beliefs strongly hold to libertarian free will. In classic Arminianism though, God knows what our free will decisions are going to be, even though He doesn’t cause them. While that is a difference, it doesn’t seem to be a sufficient difference since free will itself is intact (though perhaps understood differently).
However, when we come to the doctrine of election, there comes a bigger problem. Classically, we understand certain passages referring to God’s elect people has Him knowing who they are. Where there is a difference between individual election Arminians and corporate election Arminians, we both agree that God does know who the elect are going to be. There are numerous Biblical verses that describe God’s relationship with the elect that seem to make little sense if He doesn’t know who they are. In my opinion, that creates a fundamental difference of what it means to be part of the people of God, and therefore an Open Theist is too far away from Arminius to really be thought of as an Arminian. God’s relationship with His people takes on a radically different character, and thus the theology takes on a different character as well.
Molinism is the belief that starts with describing a kind of truth statement called a counter-factual, which is a statement of what would have happened if things were different. For instance, “If I went to the store, I would have bought milk.” What the Molinist claims is that such statements have truth values, and therefore God knows what these truth values are. This would include the decisions made by libertarian free will creatures. Therefore when God created the world, He would therefore use this knowledge to create the world in such a way to get precisely what He wanted out of it.
Now again, this is not a soteriological doctrine, but rather a doctrine of omniscience, but also of providence. So again, the question isn’t really whether or not it is a form of Arminianism, but whether or not it is compatible with it. Here, I see absolutely nothing in terms of the question of the process of salvation. The only real question is if it is compatible with libertarian free will.
Now his depends a little bit on your definition of LFW. I use two different definitions for it, yet one makes Molinism seem inconsistent while the other one makes it seem consistent. Yet in my mind there isn’t really a difference between the two definitions. If you are confused, that’s OK, it’ll make sense as we go on.
The first definition of LFW I use is the standard one: it is possible that one could have done other than what one actually does. Here there does seem to be a discrepancy. After all, one could say that I do what I do because of the way that God created the world. He predicted how I would act, and created the world where i would be guaranteed to do what I do.
However, things change when you consider my second definition: that (certain) events and ends are contingent on human decisions. So for instance, whether or not I end up going to the store is determined by whether or not I choose to go. And this understanding seems perfectly compatible with Molinism. This is because in Molinism certain worlds are not feasible for creation because there doesn’t exist a scenario where someone will make a certain choice, even though they are logically possible. So for instance, there is no world in which I would go to the store and buy hummus. It ain’t happening. So if God wanted to create the world so that I would purchase hummus, He wouldn’t be able to do so while leaving it contingent on my will. Therefore it seems that LFW is intact.
Now I personally take the first definition to be the subjective description of the objective second definition, so for me Molinism is compatible with Arminianism. However, not everyone sees it that way. However, whether you agree with me that Molinism is a form of Arminianism or not, it is still relatively clear that it is both similar but not the standard model. (For the record, I am not a Molinist)
So who speaks for Arminianism? Well, no one really. Human life is messy, and we need to deal with that. However, there is a standard for Arminianism to which any contenders should be judged, and that is the Articles of Remonstrance. To say that something is Arminianism, it must be at least similar to what is taught in that document and the beliefs of its authors (and Arminius). Likewise, any definition of Arminianism which would exclude them is clearly defunct. So even though it isn’t clear where the line is, it is clear what the center is.
1 And every single one of them got their definition from being a former Calvinist.
2 Though his works are well worth a read. He was a brilliant theologian, and more importantly an ardent believer in Christ.