Arminianism: Reaction-Oriented or Theological System?

Is Arminianism merely a reaction toward Calvinistic ideology? The answer should be fairly obvious: no. Why? Because for one to react negatively to an ideology infers that the person presently maintains another view already solidified. I can understand why many may think that Arminianism is merely a reaction toward Calvinism because Arminians have been refuting and rebutting Calvinism for the last two decades. So, for one camp to argue against a position, the one arguing is deemed as merely a negative reaction. But for what positions(s) is said camp arguing positively?

What has not helped the matter of Arminianism being deemed as merely reactionary in nature is books like For Calvinism, by Michael Horton, and the unfortunately-titled Against Calvinism by Roger Olson -- the title Against Calvinism in lieu of the better title For Arminianism being the decision of the publisher, Zondervan, at the complaint of Dr. Olson. But Arminianism cannot be blamed as being merely reactionary in nature on this count when the publisher conveniently controls the narrative.

Dr. Kenneth D. Keathley, Senior Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has, in no uncertain terms, published the historical truth that the theology of the early Church fathers is explicitly Arminian in nature. So, C. Michael Patton suggests that Arminian theology "doesn't sell" (link), but that appears an inferential indictment on nearly two millennia of Christian theology. I suppose, then, that converts to the historically novel and heterodox doctrines of Calvinism are themselves bored with early Church orthodoxy. But there is more to consider.

That Calvinists run from conference to conference does not suggest that Calvinism is ipso facto more theological than Arminianism. Some Calvinist thinkers grant their audience the impression that only Calvinists are theologically oriented -- Calvinist Dr. Al Mohler for example. Such an assessment leads one to imagine that Arminian theology -- the theology of the early Church fathers -- is not a theology at all, that Arminianism is atheological, or highly philosophical. Sadly, this brand of hubris is rife in Calvinist camps, and Arminians will do well not to imitate such a sentiment in any semblance of retaliation against their Calvinist brothers and sisters.

I understand clearly that C. Michael Patton is not attacking Arminianism but merely highlighting the fact that Calvinists are obsessed with hosting conference after conference (my words, not his), that thousands of Calvinists attend these money-making conferences (my words, not his), and this is supposed to be an indication that Calvinists and Calvinism comprise that which is theologically-oriented by nature. Where are the Arminians? Why do they not hold conference after conference on theological issues? Let me offer three primary suggestions as to why this is so.

ARMINIANISM AS AN ASSUMED THEOLOGY

Even Patton himself confesses that people are generally "more naturally inclined toward the Arminian idea of free will and God's sovereignty." (link) The notion that God has, from eternity past, already decreed what each person will think, say, and do, as in Calvinism, is a much more difficult "sell" than is Arminianism -- again, Arminianism being the theology of the early Church fathers, that which was handed down to them from the apostles. Though not every non-Calvinist is an Arminian, since Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Unitarians, Open Theists, Process Theists and others exist and are not explicitly Arminian, an Arminian-esque approach to the character of God devoid of determinism is naturally assumed by the majority of Christians: e.g., Anglicans, Orthodox, Methodists, most Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals/Charismatics/Third Wave proponents et al.


WHERE ARE THE ARMINIANS?

By "Arminians" here we assume a very broad non-Calvinistic tradition since that notion is what many are referring to when they ask such a question. The answer is: everywhere! For example, consider the following brief list of Arminian theological resources, all of which and much, much more are found listed on this site:


The Arminians, theologically, are very present. But when the Calvinist only reads Calvinistic literature, existing in a Calvinist echo chamber, the Calvinist maintains difficulty in discovering Arminian theology published by reputable Christian publishers. The fact is unfortunate that too often Calvinists neglect reading from theologians outside their own tradition: e.g., Lutheran theologian Douglas Moo, or Episcopalian author Samuel Wells, or Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, the late Greek Orthodox thinker Michael Pomazansky, the late Southern Baptist pastor Herschel Hobbs, the late Nazarene theologian Richard S. Taylor. But thinking that Calvinism tends toward the theologically-inclined to the neglect of all other Christian traditions merely because Calvinists host numerous conferences is utterly tragic.

WHY ALL THESE CALVINIST CONFERENCES?

There is, of course, one simple answer to this question: Calvinists host so many conferences not because they are more theologically-inclined than Arminians and other non-Calvinists but because their intent is to continue the propagation of Calvinism. Being relatively small in number, when compared to the whole of Christianity worldwide, they work all the harder to maintain their presence. This is why they often appear to dominate bookstores and on-line social media like Twitter and Facebook and Christian forums and YouTube -- their manifest presence renders them a viable concern to the majority of the rest of Protestant and non-Calvinistic Christianity. But an influx of Arminian conferences would be superfluous.

The Calvinists work harder because of their relatively small numbers. Hosting Arminian conference after Arminian conference would appear little more than typical evangelical conferences intent on winning the lost to Christ by the proactive grace of God in and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Sure, Arminians may host conferences on Jacob Arminius as an historical Protestant Reformed theologian, but hosting Arminian theological conferences, whereby we promote Total Depravity and Total Inability, Conditional Election, Unlimited Atonement, Resistible Grace and Conditional Perseverance -- the theology of the early Church fathers -- would appear quite gratuitous, unnecessary, unless promoting the Gospel of Christ.

In closing, allow me one more observation, and one not intended to offend. The people attending Calvinist conference after Calvinist conference, who are they, really? They are Calvinists. These Calvinist conferences are not attracting the lost in droves; these conferences feed Calvinist attendees Calvinistic dogmas. The actual impact of these conferences is less than many assume. These are not evangelistic meetings as witnessed by Billy Graham or Greg Laurie. These are Calvinist conferences tailored mainly to white, Calvinist middle class men, all events of which are conducted within a Calvinist echo chamber: Calvinist teachers and Calvinist preachers promoting Calvinism to Calvinist attendees. Let us not pretend that the Calvinist resurgence of the last decade is positively impacting the culture at large.

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

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.