Reformed Arminianism: Oxymoron or Historically Orthodox?

I recently decided to refer to classical Arminianism as Reformed Arminianism (some prefer Reformation Arminianism). Arminian Southern Baptist James Leonard commented to me personally that his hope is that people will not think that we are trying to "reform" classical Arminianism by use of the term Reformed Arminianism. I do not think people will assume this notion, given that some Baptist Calvinists name their movement Reformed Baptist (à la James White and D.A. Carson), and no one imagines that anyone is trying to "reform" Baptists in all their Baptistic varieties. By "Reformed Baptist" they simply mean Calvinistic Baptist. Also, there exists the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church in America, among others. Attaching the moniker "Reformed" in one's title merely contextualizes a movement to the Reformation.

Martin Luther is Reformed; his successor Philip Melanchthon is Reformed; John Calvin is Reformed; Martin Bucer is Reformed; and yet all four of these first-generation men of the Reformation differed in their Reformed theology on soteriological and theological issues. Jacob Arminius is close theologically to Melanchthon; Melanchthon and Luther disagreed on significant soteriological issues; Luther disagreed sharply with Ulrich Zwingli and Bucer over the nature of the Eucharist; Arminius' mentor Theodore Beza expounds further than that of Calvin; and yet all of these men were considered Reformed. What makes a person Reformed? Can a person be a Protestant and not be considered Reformed?

The very term Reformed has direct and immediate reference to a state of being reformed from what was to become the Roman Catholic Church. Should one remain in the Roman Catholic tradition then that one is not Reformed. The Reformers refer particularly to those men who exposed false teachings within the pre-Reformed Church, what we now refer to as the Roman Catholic Church, men such as Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, Johannes Bugenhagen, Ulrich Zwingli and his successor Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Luther and his successor Philip Melanchthon, Luther and Zwingli's companion Martin Bucer, William Tyndale and John Knox. Men such as Theodore Beza, William Perkins, Jacob Arminius and Francis Junius are considered second-generation Reformed theologians.

But then we are forced to consider those who belong to what became known as the Radical Reformation, men such as Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt, or "Brother Andreas," who awarded Martin Luther his doctorate, and proceeded to advance Luther's Reformed views to an extreme, rejecting his academic achievements, infant baptism, and adopting iconoclasm and a congregational model for church governance. Both men were responsible for the German Peasant's War, in which at least 100,000 peasants were slaughtered by the aristocracy, though Karlstadt remained an advocate of anti-violence.

Groups such as the Anabaptists and Mennonites, as well as the Hutterites, founder Jakob Hutter, and the Amish, founder Jakob Ammann, belong to the Radical Reformation. (The radical nature of these movements would later include the likes of Unitarians Faustus Socinius and Michael Servetus.) Those belonging to such ideologies are not considered Reformed -- that would include modern-day Baptists: see "Baptists and the Reformed Tradition." The Reformed communities rejected Baptist-minded individuals and refused to consider them Reformed. "Reformed Baptist," then, is a contradiction in terms.

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Some Calvinists balk at the idea of naming Jacob Arminius as Reformed -- this includes the naming of Arminianism as being Reformed or within the broadly Reformed tradition. We must insist that the so-called Reformed tradition is broad given its inclusion of non-Calvinistic traditions inherent within the theology and ideology of men like Luther, Melanchthon, and even Bullinger. In other words, "the Reformed tradition" can in no way be restricted to mean Calvinistic. If so, then even Luther himself cannot be considered Reformed, the very man who is identified with the Reformation itself!

The above meme, "Welp, I'm Reformed now . . ." leaves some scratching their heads and asking, "Now?" Is the creator of the meme so uninformed as to neglect the fact of Arminius' Reformed context? Calvinist scholar Richard A. Muller, in his 1991 work, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, states that the Reformers "objected to only a small part of the body of doctrine taught by the medieval scholastics,"1 which is telling in the theology of Arminius, whose scholastic method of theology can be traced to the medieval tradition,2 as well as to the early Church fathers.3 As to the disagreement of Arminius with the received Reformed tradition of election, evidenced even in Luther, Muller writes:
Arminius did [as did Melanchthon], to be sure, protest against the Reformed view of predestination [unconditional election] and of the order of salvation, but his protest arose out of a larger theological vision -- specifically, out of a different view of the purpose and method of theological system as a whole, a different set of emphases in the exposition of the so-called essential foundation of theology, the doctrine of God, and a very different perception of the place and importance of the created order both in theological system and in the ultimate purpose of God.4
In Arminius we are granted a viable alternative or a fuller or broader form of Reformed theology. Muller, again, argues that, had Arminius been "a biblicistic pietist promulgating a message that was stylistically and doctrinally widely divergent from and foreign to the Reformed mind of his time [like Müntzer, Karlstadt, the Anabaptists and the Mennonites], he could have been ignored or at least easily dismissed." (emphasis added) However, the medieval scholastic style of Arminius "was precisely the style characteristic of Reformed thought in his day."5 Dr. Alvin Plantinga suggests that Arminius and the Remonstrants "should be thought of as Calvinists. They thought of themselves as Calvinists. The [Synod of Dordt] declared that they weren't, but this was probably a mistake on the part of the Reformed or Calvinist community."6 At the very best one can only infer Arminius and the Remonstrants as being heavily modified Calvinists rather than classical or strict Calvinists.

Whether they considered themselves Calvinists is certainly up for debate. What is not up for debate, however, is their consideration of themselves as Reformed -- more to the point, not merely the consideration of themselves as Reformed, but that their Reformed colleagues treated them as Reformed because they, too, considered them Reformed. In other words, their sanctioned positions as pastors and professors of theology at Leiden, and the surrounding areas, were appointed by the Reformed community who considered these men Reformed. The political proceedings of the Synod of Dordt changed that narrative, though, and the matter is rather complex. However, the only people puzzled by the Reformed moniker as related to Arminius and Arminians seems to stem from modern Calvinists, who imagine themselves and only themselves as being Reformed.

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1 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 279.

2 Ibid., 277.

3 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

4 Muller, 280-81.

5 Ibid., 275.

6 Quoted in Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford,2012), 197-98.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.