HOW ARMINIAN WAS ARMINIUS?
Jeff Paton
Date Posted Dec. 4, 2009

This may sound like a strange question to many, but what constitutes someone being an Arminian can be a matter of debate. Are the proponents of eternal security Arminians or Calvinists in their proper distinction? Is one classified by the theological connections of where their doctrine starts or where it ends? As a Wesleyan, I also claim the proud heritage of the label of Arminian. But, are there Arminians that are not essentially Wesleyan in belief?

If I were to judge Arminius on the basis of how many people define Arminianism today, would we be able to call him an Arminian? There is no Arminian movement today which actually adheres strictly to every thought and position of Arminius.

Calvinists, on the other hand, gauge each other by comparing the purity of their position to their founder. Calvinists tend to speak of each other in sub-categories, measuring their idea of levels of impurity to the original doctrine of John Calvin; Hyper-Calvinism, Mild-Calvinism, Neo-Calvinism, Sublapsarianism, and more. These distinctions appear to be used to define how far someone has deviated from the original doctrine of John Calvin himself. Basically, the approach seems to be how much of a red-headed stepchild you really are.

Arminians on the other hand, seem to approach the matter much differently. Instead of holding Arminius up as a guru or the ultimate or final word on Christian doctrine, he seems to be merely emulated for his view of Free Grace and its concomitants. When there are differences of opinion over doctrine, we do not tend to judge the differences as deviations from purity to one man's definitive word, but speak to each other as part of a brotherhood in which each individual has his own distinctive traits, but having the same father.

Sooner or later we are faced with the nagging question, what should we do with the hybrids who claim two fathers? How do we classify those who start with Arminianism and end with Calvinism? Do we allow them to claim which ever father they wish? Most Fundamentalist Baptists are Four-Point Arminians and One-Point Calvinists. They claim to hold the middle ground. Calvinists declare them to be Arminians, and most Arminians say that they are Calvinists at heart. If we use Arminius' own doctrine, we could say that the paternity test was inconclusive. In 1708 he wrote,

Though I here openly and ingenuously affirm, I never taught that a true believer can, either totally or finally fall away from the faith, and perish; yet I will not conceal, that there are passages of scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect; and those answers to them which I have been permitted to see, are not of such a kind as to approve themselves on all points to my understanding. On the other hand, certain passages are produced for the contrary doctrine [of unconditional perseverance] which are worthy of much consideration [Works, 1:667].

The following year, however, Arminius declared in his own defense that he never had asserted that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation. Arminius pointed out that while it is impossible for a believer to fall from grace, it may however be possible for a believer to cease believing. And if believers fall away from the faith and become unbelievers, it is impossible for them to do otherwise than decline from salvation [Works, 1:741-742].

But is anything beyond free grace, conditional election, and universal atonement essential to the definition of what constitutes an Arminian? How do we define the line of inclusiveness? Were the Remonstrants correct in their logical questioning that free grace may imply that one is free enough to apostatize from the faith? Article V of the Remonstrance declared,

That those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ's hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: "Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our mind.

In 1960 Carl Bangs concluded that those who call themselves Calvinists will discover that it is too simple to dismiss Arminius as a Pelagian who did not see clearly the issue of salvation by grace alone. "They may find themselves closer to him than they had supposed." The most important issue is not to contend for a theological label, but to discover scriptural truth. One of the slogans of the Reformation was "always reforming" (Semper Reformanda). We honor the memory of Arminius as a reformer who challenged the nonbiblical dogmatism of Reformed theology and thus reformed Reformed theology.