Monday, January 09, 2006

Observations on Arminianism

By Dave Armstrong (1997)

As a former consciously Arminian evangelical, I (as well as any like-minded friends with whom I discussed this) had no wish whatsoever to "compromise God's power and sovereignty," as Calvinists often charge. I (and they) held those truths and the ostensibly self-evident (and biblically evident) reality of human freedom together in paradox, precisely as I do now as a Catholic.

I think the proper analytical dynamic vis-a-vis so-called "Arminian heterodoxy" is to tie it in with liberal Protestant uses of it. In other words, I think theological liberalism (or pentecostal heresy - e.g., Kenneth Copeland et al) is the ultimate culprit where God's sovereignty is brought into question, not the system of Arminianism as historically and theologically understood (i.e., Jacob Arminius, Remonstrance, etc.)

I vehemently reject the claim that Arminians are Semi-Pelagians (or Pelagians), and I have argued the contrary in debate with Calvinists. As always, the terms must be carefully defined. In my opinion, the Five Points of the Remonstrance of 1610 are virtually identical (prima facie) with Catholic Molinism (of which I am one):

1) Election is conditioned upon man's response (conditional election)

2) Universal Atonement

3) "Unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God's will" (thus eliminating the categorization of either "Pelagian" or "Semi-Pelagian." The latter holds that the first steps are originated by the human will rather than by the Holy Spirit)

4) Grace is not irresistible

5) Possibility of falling away from grace

This summary is from Encyclopedia Britannica, 1985 ed., v. 1, p.569 ("Arminianism"), and is backed up by the Protestant New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (ed. J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1978 ed., p. 70: "Arminianism").

I believe the above is the teaching of orthodox, evangelical, conservative, traditional Methodists, Anglicans, and many non-denominationalists and pentecostals (I was among the last two groups). I was informed by a Lutheran correspondent that Lutherans take a Calvinist view of election to salvation but not to damnation, but agree with the other four points. That would make the Lutheran position in these matters virtually identical to Catholic Thomism.

It is as unjust and unfair for Catholics to place such evangelical Protestants in a heretical category of "Semi-Pelagian" as it is for Calvinists to put us in the same category. I understand there are many Protestant liberals (e.g., Clark Pinnock, who used to be evangelical), but I say go after them, then, as liberals, not as Arminians per se. I myself was never a liberal Protestant, but an evangelical Arminian, and insofar as I imperfectly understand this complex topic, my views on these matters have not changed much at all, as I continue to learn about the Catholic options on Predestination (basically Thomism or Molinism). An (orthodox) Arminian is no more Semi-Pelagian than a Molinist is. Since the Church condemns the former and allows the latter, they are obviously not compatible, and since Molinism and Arminianism are not far apart at all theologically and philosophically, then classifying Arminians as Semi-Pelagian is incorrect.

Furthermore, if I am right about this assessment, it is counter-productive in terms of evangelism and Catholic apologetics to make such an equation, since it is a big plus in our favor to point out that many of our views concerning Predestination, salvation, election, free will, etc., are the same as that held by Arminians. Calvinists (however much they dislike Arminians) are quite reluctant (well, many, anyway!) to class them as "non-Protestant" since they accept sola fide, sola Scriptura, private judgment, and reject all the Catholic so-called "additions," etc.

Thus, we force them on the horns of a dilemma by making them "ditch" Arminians as good Protestants (e.g., Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer) while they are ditching us on the same basis of alleged Semi-Pelagianism. I maintain this is because they see the inconsistency of their own alleged "agreement on the basics" and a simultaneous dismissal of Arminians as Semi-Pelagians along with us lowly Catholics. After all, even Philip Melanchthon, Luther's right-hand man, was already adopting free will in the middle of the 16th century, and Luther thought very highly of his systematic theology Loci Communes.

There are certainly many "Arminian liberals." But my point is that we can only go by the "books," creedal statements, systematic theologies, confessions, catechisms, etc. on both sides, in order to have a constructive and fair discussion. We cannot honestly and fairly compare Arminian practice (thus including liberals who dishonestly deny the Arminian formularies) with sophisticated (orthodox) Catholic Tridentine or Augustinian or Thomist dogma and doctrine.This is improper and unfair, just as it is unfair for Calvinists to compare their books with Catholic practice (citing the many Pelagian ignoramuses in the pews, Marian devotional excess, dissidents, Ted Kennedy, etc.). Just as I have often argued that "Catholic liberals" are irrelevant with regard to what my Church teaches and believes, likewise we should not lump Protestant liberals in with evangelicals, such as many of us previously were (and I remember full well how I would have felt about such a correlation! :-) This is all the more important, I think, in matters of theological definition, such as "Semi-Pelagian," "Calvinist," "Total Depravity," "Arminian," etc.

If Arminians are not "good Protestants," then C.S. Lewis was not a bona fide Protestant. The following statements of his illustrate his attitude towards Calvinism:

The real inter-relation between God's omnipotence and Man's freedom is something
we can't find out . . . We all do feel sure that all the good in us comes from Grace. I find the best plan is to take the Calvinist view of my own virtues and other people's vices; and the other view of my own vices and other people's virtues . . . It is plain from Scripture that, in whatever sense the Pauline doctrine is true, it is not true in any sense which excludes its (apparent) opposite.

(Letters of C.S. Lewis, 3 Aug 1953, 252)

[About Calvin's Institutes]:

We may suspect that those who read it with most approval were troubled by the fate of predestined vessels of wrath just about as much as young Marxists in our own age are troubled by the approaching liquidation of the bourgeoisie. Had the word "sentimentality" been known to them, Elizabethan Calvinists would certainly have used it of any who attacked the Institutio as morally repulsive.

(English Literature in the 16th Century, Introduction, 43)

God has made it a rule for Himself that He won't alter people's character by force. He can and will alter them - but only if people will let Him.

(God in the Dock, "The Trouble With 'X' . . ." [1948], 152-153)
So much for irresistible grace......

The Protestant has no real, binding "authority" save for the "Word of God" (i.e., as interpreted by Calvin, Luther, Watchman Nee et al). Yet evangelicals do agree on certain things, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the bodily Resurrection, the absolute necessity of grace (over against Pelagianism), etc. Though it is somewhat nebulous, there is an identifiable entity known as "evangelical Protestantism." There is an evangelical "dogma," roughly synonymous with Lewis's "Mere Christianity." More so if it is narrowed down to a denomination, such as Reformed, in particular (since they self-consciously do care about dogma and history).

Most adherents of Christianity do not know very well the ostensible theology of their own denomination, so that we must compare "books with books," not "books with practice." Given ubiquitous ignorance, the books will always win when that double standard is applied. And its just as wrong when Catholics do this as when Calvinists do. If evangelicals customarily and habitually refer to themselves as an entity (even though with some inconsistency), I don't think it's stretching it for Catholics to (at least sociologically) acknowledge this, so that some meaningful discussion concerning a Christian group of more than one individual is possible. :-) Who cares about a discussion over what "evangelical Joe Blow" believes? We have to hold Protestants to the statements they themselves sign (or are required to adhere to) when they join a church, just as we would hold our liberals accountable. It is a matter of intellectual honesty and consistency. But in any event, a meaningful discussion on Protestantism is pretty difficult without making some generalizations.

Again, it is crucial to distinguish between evangelical and liberal Arminians (the former are not Semi-Pelagian if they know anything at all about their own theology and denominational affinities). Like Lewis, I think the useful distinction here is between liberal and conservative. We can only define categories based on some "authoritative" definition somewhere, or else we can't have meaningful discussions on these matters of religious sociology or "demography."

One can indeed easily distinguish a Protestant (or Armininian) liberal from a Protestant (or Arminian) "orthodox" evangelical. Just because Protestants are inconsistent on authority issues and lack a Magisterium doesn't mean there are not obvious distinctions to be made (and they regularly make it themselves in all their doctrinal and denominational battles). Liberalism is an anti-authoritarian, relativist mindset which is identical and readily identifiable in both Protestant and Catholic circles.

Catholics should rejoice that groups like the Christian Research Institute, founded by cult-fighter Walter Martin retain the notion of heresy and vigilantly fight it (they are also not anti-Catholic). All the Protestant creeds are trinitarian. Even the National Council of Churches requires an adherence to the Trinity, and that's a liberal group. Hence, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are not allowed in.

As long as Protestants maintain creedal statements, that is the only way we can sensibly deal with their theology, because - practically speaking - I can't, when I write one of my apologetics articles, have 1205 variations for each shade of Protestant belief. I must generalize, or else stick to a denomination. Individual Protestants may be - and are - inconsistent and ignorant of their own background, but I still have to argue according to the "books" and historical theological background. In this sense, the average Protestant is the same as the average "theologically imbecilic" Catholic, even though the principle of authority is radically different.

Protestants can legitimately appeal to the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, and the Council of Chalcedon, upon which all Christians agree, and have always agreed. This is not "nothing." It certainly is a form of authority, and it is not annihilated simply because the Protestant system qua system (sola Scriptura et al) is inconsistent and incoherent. There is considerable force and validity to that approach insofar as it takes the history of doctrine and some sort of "Church" seriously. It is adequate as far as it goes, and "catholic," if not "Catholic." And when Protestants argue as we do, and are similar in outlook, as in dealings with heresies such as Christian Science or Mormonism, we ought to appreciate that and ecumenically rejoice in the common ground.

I would say that applying "Arminian" to a belief in Pelagianism or Process Theology is nonsensical, just as much as applying "Calvinism" to an Arminian (in my definition) is. And of course we have all sorts of buffoons calling themselves "Catholic," so that we are sadly familiar with this dynamic ourselves. Likewise, evangelicals have their wolves in sheep's clothing as well. J. Gresham Machen (in the 30s) and Francis Schaeffer (in the 70s and 80s) fought for Presbyterian orthodoxy. Norman Geisler has recently been fighting for adherence to the traditions of the Evangelical Free Church, etc.

It is not necessary to have an infallible authority for the mere purpose of distinguishing theologies. The creed that the Arminian can appeal to is the Remonstrance, which is the historical root, and also the Methodist and later Lutheran formularies and creeds. That is something that can be "grabbed onto." Thus, there is authority at least on a denominational level. Weak? Sure. Non-binding? Yes, usually. Do people use labels falsely? All the time. But I can't define my terms based on ignorance and abuse. There has to be some objective measure of the defining of terms.This isn't substantially different from Calvinist appeals to the Institutes or the Westminster Confession, or the Synod of Dort.

If Calvinism can be analyzed from the perspective of TULIP, the Arminianism can be spoken of with reference to the Remonstrance, which - if I am correct - is what actually led to the clarification of TULIP. Why should any conservative Christian operate by liberal definitions? There are historical backgrounds to theological words. If the heterodox (whether in a Catholic or a Protestant context) get us to use terms the way they use them, they are winning half the battle.


Greg said...

You said that the five points of Remonstrance are virtually identical (prima facie) with Catholic Molinism. Along those lines, what would be the difference between a conservative (faithful to the Remonstrants) Arminian who accepts Molinism (like William Lane Craig) and a Catholic Molinist regarding soteriology?

Dave Armstrong said...

There are still the debates about faith alone, and the relationship of sanctification and justification. The Catholic sees justification as ongoing and salvation as more of a lifelong process (Paul's "pressing on toward the higher calling").

Greg said...

Okay, so only the differences commonly between all Protestants and Catholics. I just wasn't sure if there was more, not that that isn't enough.
Btw, thanks for all of the quick, thorough responses.

Dave Armstrong said...

You're welcome! I try to check the comments through the day and offer some sort of reply.