Meet a Reformed Arminian

The first time I heard Matt Pinson speak, he repeatedly dropped a term that rolled around in my mind for several days: “Reformed Arminian.” Such a phrase seems an oxymoron along the lines of jumbo shrimp, heated ice, or left-wing conservative.

As a trained church historian, I was fairly certain that by “Reformed Arminian” he meant one who affirms the teaching of Jacob Arminius, a figure who arose out of the Protestant Reformation, a figure whose theology departs at numerous key points from much popular Arminian theology today. Was I correct? I had to know more, and the interview below is a product of my query. 

Pinson, president of Welch College in Nashville (a Free Will Baptist school), is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and holds a PhD from Vanderbilt University. He is the author or editor of numerous books including Perspectives on Christian Worship (B&H Academic), Four Views on Eternal Security (Zondervan), and, most recently, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Randall House).

We discussed how one could claim to be Reformed and Arminian, contrasted contemporary Arminian doctrine with that of Arminius, and more.  


What does “Reformed Arminian” mean?

A growing number of Arminians are embracing a non-Wesleyan variety of Arminianism that’s coming to be known as “Reformed Arminianism.” The mainstream of this movement in the United States is found in the Free Will Baptist denomination, the origins of which date back to the English General Baptist movement of the 17th century. Early proponents of this approach include 17th-century English figures such as Thomas Helwys and Thomas Grantham. Twentieth-century proponents include Free Will Baptist scholars Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli, who see themselves as representing a type of Arminianism more like the theology of Arminius than most modern Arminianism. Forlines and Picirilli have also found much in common with scholars from outside the General/Free Will Baptist tradition like Thomas Oden.

A growing number of evangelicals fit a unique profile in the Calvinist-Arminian conversation: They see Scripture as not supporting a traditional Calvinistic view of predestination, grace, and human freedom. Yet they disagree with most Arminians’ rejection of the Reformed doctrines of total depravity, penal substitutionary atonement, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness of Christ in justification, and progressive (as opposed to entire) sanctification. For these individuals, and for the entire Calvinist-Arminian conversation, this Reformed Arminian stream of thought offers fruitful possibilities.

Do you find a majority of Reformed evangelicals unacquainted with the writings of Arminius? How might it change our view of Arminianism were we better acquainted with his works?

I find most Calvinistic evangelicals are not at all acquainted with the writings of Arminius, just as most Arminian evangelicals aren’t acquainted with Calvin’s writings. This is a shame, and it wasn’t always this way. It seems there’s a lot more insularity these days in the evangelical community—a lot less getting beyond your soteriological tribe to really understand others. It’s odd that I can have so much in common with some Calvinists with regard to the person and work and gospel of Christ, justification, sanctification, Christian worldview, apologetics and epistemology, cultural engagement, eschatology, and so on (and even views on baptism and charismatic gifts). But all those commonalities are often disregarded because of one fact: I’m not a Calvinist; I don’t believe in unconditional election.

But it’s not only Calvinists who can be this way. Arminians can be just as insular. It’s funny that Arminians (or Calvinists) can work together with fellow Arminians (or Calvinists) who differ with them on whether infants should be baptized, the timing of Christ’s return, and charismatic gifts, and yet Calvinism and Arminianism has become a litmus test for evangelical fellowship in those same circles. This situation is precisely what keeps people from understanding and reading authors from the other side, which is unhealthy.

I think if Calvinists read Arminius himself, they would see someone whose heartbeat for the gospel was much like the older Calvinists they read and quote. They’d encounter someone whose spirituality and doctrinal beliefs—on what it means to be a totally depraved sinner with no help outside of divine grace, what it means to be justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ through faith alone, what Christ’s penal substitutionary atoning work is all about, how a believer grows in grace and is sanctified, legalism vs. antinomianism, and so on—are more like theirs than they had imagined. As Timothy George said of my recent book, Arminian and Baptist, in Reformed Arminianism Calvinists find “a set of first cousins they never knew they had.” This is what I think most Calvinists will discover about Arminius if they read him, even though they’ll wish he were more Calvinistic on predestination and related issues.

Your college is associated with the Free Will Baptists. What are their distinguishing marks?

Historically, in addition to the above emphases, the Free Will Baptists have had slight differences with most other Baptists on the doctrine of the church. These include, for instance, stronger interdependence among local churches in conferences or associations, sharing the Lord’s Supper with gospel believers who have not been immersed (though we do require immersion for membership), and more liturgical rites such as anointing the sick with oil, washing the saints’ feet, and (more historically than now) laying hands on newly baptized believers. But to my Calvinist friends, I always explain that these rites aren’t as weird as they might at first seem to those unfamiliar with them. In fact, they’re found in the books of worship of most denominations, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox.

What are the major differences between Wesleyan Arminian theology and Reformed Arminian theology?

Reformed Arminian soteriology diverges from Wesleyan and Holiness models of Arminianism by embracing the more Reformed categories of Arminius. Unlike Wesleyan-Arminian theology as it developed in the Holiness movement, Reformed Arminianism holds the traditional Reformed notion of original sin and radical depravity that only the grace of God via the convicting and drawing power of the Holy Spirit can counteract. It puts forward a thoroughgoing Reformed, penal-satisfaction view of atonement. This entails that Christ’s active and passive obedience are imputed to the believer in justification.

Reformed Arminians differ strongly from the perfectionism, entire-sanctification, and crisis-experience orientation of much Arminianism. They also believe Christians persevere in salvation through faith alone. While believers can apostatize from salvation wrought once for all in Christ and be irremediably lost, this apostasy comes about only through defection from faith. This has practical ramifications for assurance of salvation: Reformed Arminianism’s understanding of apostasy veers from the Wesleyan notion that individuals may repeatedly fall from grace by committing individual sins and may be repeatedly restored to a state of grace through penitence.

I believe Reformed Arminianism can reinvigorate the current Arminian-Calvinist dialogue (or lack of dialogue). It’s a more grace-oriented appropriation of Reformed teaching on the nature of atonement, justification, sanctification, and spirituality, combined with its Arminian stance on predestination and freedom (before and after conversion) to resist divine salvific grace. It provides a unique Arminian via media rooted in the theology of Arminius himself.

Do you think much popular-level evangelical Arminianism more closely reflects the beliefs of Wesley or the Holiness movement than of Arminius?

Yes. Unfortunately, most popular Arminianism is semi-Pelagian, closer to Finney than Wesley. Even though Wesley is further from Reformed theology than we would be, he wasn’t as far as Finney and much of the Holiness movement as it developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Wesley rejected a full-orbed penal substitutionary atonement and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. He taught believers could lose their salvation over and over again through impenitence. His view of sanctification and spirituality was much more about crisis experiences and perfection; in my opinion, he veered toward legalism in his reaction to antinomianism. Yet he still was more like the Reformers than the later Finney and reacted against Pelagianism in important ways, especially in his view of original sin. The fact so many Calvinists love to sing the gospel-rich hymns of Charles Wesley, which John loved and printed and commended and sang, shows what Wesley meant when he said he was within a “hair’s breadth” of Calvinism.

Sometimes I distinguish the more Reformed elements of my Arminianism so sharply from that of Wesley that some get the idea I don’t like Wesley. But I love Wesley just as I love Calvin! I’m thinking about getting two large framed prints of the two of them and hanging them side by side in my office. Charles Spurgeon once said that, despite Wesley’s theological errors,

it will be time for us to find fault with John and Charles Wesley, not when we discover their mistakes, but when we have cured our own. When we shall have more piety than they, more fire, more grace, more burning love, more intense unselfishness, then, and not till then, may we begin to find fault and criticize. . . . For my part, I am as one who can see the spots in the sun, but know it to be the sun still, and only weep for my farthing candle by the side of such a luminary.

You read many contemporary and historical writers and theologians in the Calvinistic Reformed tradition. Why do you enjoy them so much?

I do love to read historical Calvinists like Calvin, Owen, Bunyan, Edwards, Hodge, Spurgeon, and Kuyper just as I love to read modern Calvinists like J. I. Packer, Carl F. H. Henry, Timothy George, Russell Moore, Michael Haykin, Mark Dever, Harry Reeder, David Dockery, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, Ronald Nash, Carl Trueman, Nathan Finn, Vern Poythress (I’m currently loving his book The Lordship of Christ), Phillip Jensen . . . where do I stop? It’s because they value the rich heritage of historic Protestant orthodoxy, have a Reformed view of what it means to be justified and sanctified, extol a rich evangelical spirituality, believe the ordinary means of grace are still sufficient in the ministry of the church, practice and teach a Reformed epistemology/apologetic, believe in the importance of a well-articulated Christian worldview and engaging culture with that worldview, and are committed to the Great Commission.

Who are some Arminian pastors and theologians that Reformed pastors ought to be reading? How can Reformed Christians avoid building unfair caricatures of Arminian theology and of our brothers and sisters in Christ who espouse it?  

I could name lots of solid Arminian pastors and theologians whom Reformed pastors ought to be reading, but let me mention my favorites: Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, and Stephen Ashby (Reformed Arminians). But I don’t want to fail to mention my favorite living Wesleyan authors: Ajith Fernando, Thomas Oden, Robert Coleman, and Timothy Tennent. These men would all have in common with the Calvinist authors listed above the characteristics mentioned. I think reading authors like these, as well as historical Arminian authors all the way back to Arminius himself, is the best way for Calvinists to avoid unfair caricatures of Arminianism.

LOAD MORE
Loading