THE BATTLE WE MUST RE-FIGHT
Date Posted dec. 4, 2009
This year we commemorate the five hundredth birthday of John Calvin on July 10, as well as memorialize the loss of James Arminius four hundred years ago on October 19, 1609. Arminius was a student of Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor, at Geneva. As a Reformed pastor in Amsterdam for fifteen years, Arminius was commissioned to refute the anti-Calvinism of Dirck Coornheert, who had attacked the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. While Arminius did not agree with Coornheert who taught that the doctrine of original sin is not in the Bible, Arminius was led to question the position of Beza whose supralapsarian doctrine made God the author of sin.
Arminius accepted Scripture as his sole authority, declaring that "we now have the infallible word of God in no other place than in the Scriptures." Thus he placed scriptural authority above the Roman Catholic emphasis on tradition and above Reformed creeds and catechisms.
In his analysis of Romans 9, written in 1593, Arminius denied that Paul taught irresistible grace. Four years after his death, the children of Arminius published his dissertation on Romans 7, which denied that the subject of this chapter was regenerate. Thus, the Arminian controversy with Calvinism went public. Yet Arminius always regarded himself as a Reformed thinker.
However, the result of his disputes with rigid Calvinism was that Arminius was made a scapegoat [see "Arminius: The Scapegoat of Calvinism" in The Arminian, Spring-Fall 2001; Spring 2002]. The label of "Arminian" has been applied to the politics of William Laud, a full range of seventeenth century Anglican theology, the communal experiment at Little Gidding which was termed a "little Arminian Nunnery," the empiricism of John Locke, Latitudinarianism, the rationalism of Hugo Grotius and the early Remonstrants, early Unitarianism, Wesleyan Methodists, and the revivalism of the American frontier.
Carl Bangs has pointed out that "Arminianism" can refer to the theological position of Arminius himself, it can mean some kind of protest against Calvinism, or it can mean a rallying point for dissent under the banner of toleration. This magazine upholds the Arminian tradition in the first and second categories and understands that the implications of Arminian thought are best advanced by the early Methodists.
The centennial edition of The Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, January 1877, recalled that it was begun by John Wesley a hundred years earlier as The Arminian Magazine. Wesley intended it to be an alternative to current Calvinistic magazines. His design was for it to deal with theological controversy ("principally as an engine of polemical theology"). The original Arminian magazine was described as more of a sword than a trowel and Wesley's preface in the premiere 1778 issue was described as a declaration of war.
Across the next hundred years, the Wesleyan-Arminian message was so successfully propagated that by the turn of the twentieth century it was assumed by many that Calvinism had expired. In 1902 Milton S. Terry complained that undue attention was devoted "to the issues of old Calvinist and Arminian controversies, which ought to be now considered obsolete."
After winning the battle, Methodism then proceeded to embrace evolutionary theory and a social gospel which would save the world without delivering the individual from sin. Terry himself eventually adopted higher critical theories which eroded confidence in the authority of Scripture. The one great heresy for modernism was a belief in the existence of absolute truth found in the authoritative and inerrant Word of God.
Now at the beginning of the twenty-first century we have awakened to the fact that the reports concerning the death of Calvinism were greatly exaggerated. While select Calvinistic doctrines, such as eternal security, were preserved throughout the twentieth century by a hybrid Calvinistic-dispensationalism, today there is a renewed zeal for full-blown, five-point Calvinism. An Arminian magazine is still needed so long as modern Calvinists such as Michael Horton, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, deny that Arminians are even evangelical [Modern Reformation 1:3 (May-June 1992)].
We should not have to re-fight this battle. James Arminius, John Wesley, Richard Watson, John Fletcher, and Adam Clarke buried Calvinism through careful biblical exegesis. But those who bear the name Wesleyan or Methodist today have, all too often, abandoned their faith in scriptural authority. Modern Wesleyan theology is presented in terms of a philosophy or an experience. Modern Wesleyan churches have replaced the expositional preaching of the Word with a shallow, pragmatic, feel-good emphasis.
Thus, the Calvinist message today is appealing to a younger generation who are looking for absolute truth. While the Wesleyan-Arminian interpretation of Scripture provides a better option than the Calvinistic interpretation, we cannot even re-enter the debate until we return to a position of full scriptural authority.