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On the heresy of Classical Arminianism

Classical Arminianism and Evangelical Arminianism — two systems which are often misunderstood and confused with each other. A recent book by professed Arminian Roger E. Olsen, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities[1], not only confuses them but assumes a historical continuity between the two. Popular opinion also confuse the two, with the entry in Wikipedia (certainly with no academic credibility) even stating that Classical Arminianism believes in Total Depravity[2]!

Reading the historical sources and reputable scholarly works however would give us a different picture altogether, and expose the historical revisionism done by Wesleyan Arminians (and others) since the time of Wesley. Two quotes that would point in this direction are given below:

They [the Methodists] call themselves Arminians; but it is perfectly obvious that their theology differs widely from that of Limborch, and Whitby, and Warburton, and all the recognized Arminian divines of Holland and England ... They differ widely and radically in principles and in results; whereas when we hear the gospel preached by a Methodist, we feel that it is the very same to which we love to listen, and are accustomed to hear as Presbyterians. ... Man's ruin by the fall, his native depravity and alienation from God, his absolute need of a Saviour, and utter inability to save himself, the necessity of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, justification, not by works, but by faith alone in the blood and righteousness of Jesus, the free offer of the gospel to every human being without money and without price, the necessity of holiness, not to merit heaven, but to become meet for it — these articles constituted the very burden of their preaching.[3]

The Remonstrant controversy was a battle of giants. In its earnest grapple, the movement tentatively begun by Arminius tended rapidly toward its level in a distinctively Pelagian anthropology and Socinian soteriology. But in the great evangelical revival of the last century, the Wesleyan leaders offered to the world an Evangelicalized Arminianism. The rationalism of the Remonstrants, they affirmed, was not due to their Arminianism but to their Humanism. The essential elements of Arminianism, they asserted, were in no wise inconsistent with the great Evangelical doctrines of sin and atonement. On the contrary, they declared, the Arminian construction alone gave their full rights to the catholic doctrines of the condemnation of all men in Adam and the vicarious satisfaction for sin in Christ. An Arminianism zealous for these doctrines might well claim to stand on a higher plane than that occupied by the Remonstrants. [4]

Olsen's revisionism, and the revisionism done by Arminians and others postulating a historical continuity between Classical and Evangelical Arminianism, hits a snag by an inconvenient truth "conveniently" omitted by them: the case of Conrad Vorstius (1569-1622), who belonged to the first generation of the Remonstrants, and who had just before his death in 1622 worked out his Arminianism into full blown Socinianism. Vorstius was the premium Arminian theologian of his day who was appointed to be professor at the University of Leiden in 1609 upon the death of James Arminius, before being kicked out for political reasons in 1612. Besides Johannes Uytenbogaert and Simon Episcopius, Conrad Vorstius was one of the leading figures of the Remonstrant party, being contemporaneous with James Arminius himself.[5]

The case of Conrad Vorstius thus constitutes a blow to Olsen's thesis of the difference between the "early Remonstrants" and the "later Remonstrants". Vorstius being contemporaneous with Episcopius and Uytenbogaert and Arminius himself means that no such distinction can take place. No doubt Arminius, Episcopius and Uytenbogaert did not embrace Socinianism, but the fact remains that Classical Arminianism has nothing evangelical (both capital and small 'e') about it. Just because later Evangelical Arminians starting with John Wesley can extract excerpts of orthodoxy from the works of Arminius etc does not make Arminius or the early Remonstrants evangelicals. Heretics are seldom 100% in error. As the Church matures, no heresy that wants to pass itself off as the truth will appear as truly errant, or even slightly errant if possible. Errors creep in best when mingled with lots of truth, and it should not surprise us that the writings of Arminius etc contain much truth in them.

In the next section, we would look more closely into the heresy of Classical Arminianism, and contrast it with the teachings of Evangelical Arminianism.

The heresy of Classical Arminianism

... Wherefore, this Synod of Dordt, in the name of the Lord, conjures as many as piously call upon the name of our Savior Jesus Christ to judge of the faith of the Reformed churches, not from the calumnies which on every side are heaped upon it, nor from the private expressions of a few among ancient and modern teachers, often dishonestly quoted, or corrupted and wrestled to a meaning quite foreign to their intentions; but from the public confessions of the Churches themselves, and from this declaration of the orthodox doctrine, confirmed by the unanimous consent of all and each of the members of the whole Synod. Moreover, the Synod warns calumniators themselves to consider the terrible judgment of God which awaits them, for bearing false witness against the confessions of so many Churches; for distressing the consciences of the weak; and for laboring to render suspected the society of the truly faithful.[6]

Classical Arminianism refers to the belief system of the Remonstrants, especially as codified in the Remonstrant Articles and Opinions. Her founder, James Arminius, did not always share the same view as what Classical Arminianism in the Remonstrants taught — as seen most notably in Arminius' uncertainty regarding the doctrine of Eternal Security[7], while the Remonstrants rejected it outright[8]. This must be seen as the slow [d]evolution of Classical Arminian theology, from Arminius who started off rejecting parts of Reformational theology, followed by the Classical Arminianism of the Remonstrants, and then on to later Remonstrants like Limborch with a steady drift leftwards.

Among the declension of ArminianismS, there would most definitely be a variety of views of what exactly each Arminian believes. For Classical Arminianism however, such a system must be defined especially by the Arminianism formed around the time of the Synod of Dordt, and expressed most notably in the Remonstrant Articles and Opinions, the confessional statements that were "squeezed" out of the Remonstrants (who through being ambivalent were not forthcoming with their views and tried as much as possible to forestall a synod being convened to examine their views, even though they were creating havoc in the Dutch Reformed churches)[9].

In the Remonstrant Opinions, a Remonstrant creedal statement was obtained from the Remonstrants "only with difficulty"[10]. In this creedal statement, the doctrines of Classical Arminianism were properly delineated, and their distinctive parts shown as follows[11]:

(1) Partial depravity
(Therefore God has not with this plan created in the one Adam all men in a state of rectitude, has not ordained the fall and the permission of it, has not withdrawn from Adam the grace which was necessary and sufficient, ... –The Remonstrant Opinions A3. Bold added.)

(2) Conditional election
(The election of particular persons is decisive, out of consideration of faith in Jesus Christ and of perseverance; not, however, apart from a consideration of faith and perseverance in the true faith, as a condition prerequisite for electing. –The Remonstrant Opinions A7. Bold added.)

(3) Universal Atonement
(The price of redemption which Christ offered to God the Father is not only in itself and by itself sufficient for the redemption of the whole human race but has also been paid for all men and for every man, according to the decree, will, and the grace of God the Father; therefore no one is absolutely excluded from participation in the fruits of Christ’s death by an absolute and antecedent decree of God. –The Remonstrant Opinions B1. Bold added.)

(4) Resistible Grace
(The efficacious grace by which anyone is converted is not irresistible; and though God so influences the will by the word and the internal operation of His Spirit that he both confers the strength to believe or supernatural powers, and actually causes man to believe – yet man is able of himself to despise that grace and not to believe, and therefore to perish through his own fault. –The Remonstrant Opinions C5. Bold added.)

(5) Conditional perseverance in the faith
(True believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish. –The Remonstrant Opinions D4. Bold added.)

The errors of Classical Arminianism are many. Besides the errors stated above, its humanistic slant is seen especially in the work of Grotius for example[12]. Classical Arminianism also has a problem with the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone in the doctrine of imputation (by making faith credited as righteousness instead of Christ's righteousness imputed as our righteousness)[13].

The concepts of Justification and Imputation is linked to the doctrine of sin and depravity, and ultimately to the Gospel. This is one of the the reasons why Classical Arminianism is serious heresy, because they explicitly undermine a key tenet of the Gospel: that of the sinfulness of Man.

The Remonstrant Opinions revealed that Classical Arminianism taught the error of Partial Depravity. In his polemic against Arminianism as it reared its ugly head in England, the Puritan scholar John Owen produced a booklet entitled A Display of Arminianism[14] to combat this heresy. Quoting from the Classical Arminians of his day and refuting their arguments, Owen has incidentally given us a window into what these Classical Arminians taught.

In his book, Owen devoted a chapter Of Original Sin[15] to examining the doctrine of sin and imputation held to by the Classical Arminians, where Classical Arminianism's doctrine of the non-imputation of sin is shown.

Quoting the Arminian Venator, it was said that "Infants are simply in that estate in which Adam was before his fall, ..."[16]. Boraeus states that "Adam sinned in his own proper person, and there is no reason why God should impute that sin of his unto infants"[17]. Corvinus affirmed that "That it is absurd, that by one man's disobedience many should be made actually disobedient"[18]. In the Remonstrant Apology, they have even said that "We confess that the sin of Adam may be thus far said to be imputed to his posterity, inasmuch as God would have them all born obnoxious to that punishment which Adam incurred by his sin, or permitted that evil which was inflicted on him to descend on them"[19], and "We account not original sin for a sin properly so called, that should make the posterity of Adam to deserve of Adam to deserve the wrath of God, nor for an evil that may properly be called a punishment, but only for an infirmity of nature"[20].

All of these evidences Owen collected and deduce their view of original sin. Original sin as historically defined is the imputation of Adam's sin unto the whole human race without respect to the actual sinning of anyone - this the Classical Arminians deny. Rather, especially as seen in the case of infants, infants are born without the stain of original sin (guilt). Through the use of the concept of "prevenient grace", all infants are stated to be born without the guilt of sin. As Owen states, the Classical Arminians redefine Original Sin to mean "a defect of nature, and not of this or that particular person"[21].

Therefore, in Classical Arminianism, all men are born with an "original sin nature" (thus an "infirmity of nature"), but without "original guilt". Sin is genetic rather than federal, transmitted but not imputed. Infants therefore are said to be actually sinless but possessing a sinful nature, and it is from this errant notion that the entire Arminian notion of "an age of accountability" is derived, not to mention the teaching that infants by default go to heaven.

On the topic of sin, justification and imputation then lies a most pernicious error in Classical Arminianism, which makes it heresy. It is not simply a denial of Predestination that makes Classical Arminianism heresy, but its denial of Original Guilt, the doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin etc which stands behind their teaching of Partial Depravity, which makes it heresy indeed.

Evangelical Arminianism versus Classical Arminianism

The question, however, was a pressing one, whether the Evangelical elements thus taken up could consist with the Arminian principle. Calvinists earnestly urged that the union was an unnatural one, and could not be stable: that either the Evangelical elements ought to rule to the exclusion of the unharmonizable Arminian principle, in which case we should have consistent Calvinism; or else the Arminian principle would inevitably rule to the exclusion of the Evangelical doctrines forced into artificial conjunction with it, and we should have consistent Arminianism.[22]

They [the Methodists] call themselves Arminians; but it is perfectly obvious that their theology differs widely from that of Limborch, and Whitby, and Warburton, and all the recognized Arminian divines of Holland and England ... They differ widely and radically in principles and in results; whereas when we hear the gospel preached by a Methodist, we feel that it is the very same to which we love to listen, and are accustomed to hear as Presbyterians. ... Man's ruin by the fall, his native depravity and alienation from God, his absolute need of a Saviour, and utter inability to save himself, the necessity of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, justification, not by works, but by faith alone in the blood and righteousness of Jesus, the free offer of the gospel to every human being without money and without price, the necessity of holiness, not to merit heaven, but to become meet for it — these articles constituted the very burden of their preaching.[23]

Evangelical Arminianism, Olsen's so-called "Arminianism of the heart", is the "Arminianism" founded mainly by Methodist founder John Wesley. A revivalist following up on the First Great Awakening (the so-called Methodist Awakening), John Wesley was an Anglican who focused much on preaching the Gospel to all. While his forerunner George Whitefield was a Calvinist, Wesley due to certain burdens was unable to accept Calvinism even though many of his compatriots did (ie Richard Hutchins and James Hervey, former members of his Holy Club, a few of his own itinerants like John Bennet, John Whitford and John Edwards, and of course the famous John Newton, author of the hymn "Amazing Grace")[24].

While Wesley was convinced of Arminianism, and his opposition to it stiffened rather than weakened in light of Calvinistic influence[25], several points can be made to show the differences between Wesley and his Evangelical Arminianism, and the Classical Arminianism of former times.

The first point can be found in the fact that Wesley was not a proper theologian. His bifurcation on the topic of full sanctification (embracing then modifying it) shows us that "his beliefs in their totality made up a loose synthesis, an amalgam, rather than a coherent system. Taken as a whole there was an absence of consistency"[26]. The Modern Arminian Roger Olsen similar states that "Wesley was not a systematic thinker"[27], citing his horrible contradictions in his sermons preaching on the topic of justification as an example that Wesley's "theology often was ad-hoc — determined by perceived errors and imbalances that needed correcting"[28].

Pursuant to this point is Wesley's historical context, whereby Wesley stubbornly refuse to separate the doctrine of Calvinism from the dying Dissenter congregations they were found. Over time, a form of Hyper-Calvinism and Antinomianism had crept into the Dissenting (formerly Puritan) congregations, and Wesley stubbornly refuse to delink them, thinking for instance that Antinomianism "was a direct consequence of Calvinistic belief" [29]. Such strawman beliefs held by Wesley held him unable to see much good in Calvinism, which together with his inconsistency, caused him to embrace the national "religion" on this subject - Synergism.

The second point we must note was that Wesley was a revivalist, and revivalists focus on the Gospel. As noted by the British and Foreign Evangelical Review, the Gospel proclaimed by Wesley and the Methodist movement was essentially orthodox and no different from that found in for example Presbyterianism, unlike the "gospel" of the Classical Arminians. Keeping the Gospel at the center yielded a benefit for the Evangelical Arminian movement which distinguished it sharply from Classical Arminianism: the presence of the Gospel, with its doctrine of the sinfulness of Man as opposed to the partial sinfulness of Man in Classical Arminianism.

Putting both points together, we can see that Evangelical Arminianism with its focus on the Gospel is thus orthodox. Wesley's inconsistency would ironically save Evangelical Arminianism from heresy. Right from the start however, the forced fusion of Evangelicalism and Arminianism in Wesleyan thought created logical, philosophical and theological contradictions of all kinds.

As B.B. Warfied has said, the Evangelical and Arminian elements in Evangelical Arminianism war against each other. To the extent that Evangelical Arminians are irrational and Gospel-centered, to the same extent they would remain evangelical. To the extent however that they are logically consistent, they ironically lose their faith, or be Calvinists.

The logical irrationality inherent in Evangelical Arminianism also extends to their doctrine of sin. Being Evangelical, a form of Total Depravity was required to be embraced. At least in their Gospel presentation, men must be presented as being totally depraved and unable to save themselves. The Classical Arminian teaching of Partial Depravity with their denial of Original Guilt can have no place in the Evangelical Arminian Gospel. Similarly, the orthodox doctrine of Justification by Faith alone with the teaching of double imputation is believed and taught in Evangelical Arminianism, while such is impossible in the context of Classical Arminianism. Thus, while Classical Arminians reject all five points of the Calvinist TULIP, Evangelical Arminianism embrace the first point however inconsistently— as long as they remain Evangelical that is.

Being an Evangelical Arminian and living with its logical inconsistencies is indeed unstable, as what Warfield himself has said with regards to the situation. Wesley himself was led into two errors — viz weakening the finality of justification and embracing some form of Christian perfection.[30] The Modern Arminian Roger Olsen evidently has little problems with the heresy of Open Theism[31], a sober reminder to us of the tenacious nature of the "Evangelical" in Evangelical Arminianism indeed.

In conclusion therefore, Evangelical Arminianism is indeed orthodox, though at a very steep cost in terms of logical and theological inconsistencies. Due to its instability, Evangelical Arminianism tend to settle into either of two trajectories: towards Calvinism or some form of Liberalism (or it could remain irrationally evangelical). While we would gladly call Evangelical Arminians our brothers and sisters in Christ, we know that they are constantly on a precipice near error, and we should strive to bring them closer to the truth of Scripture, instead of toying with teachings that come, as the Canons of Dordt put it, from the "pits of hell".


References:

[1] Roger E. Olsen, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL, USA: IVP Academic, 2006). Pastor Gary L. Johnson has reviewed Olsen's books in the following [guest] blog posts on the Pyromaniacs blog — Part 1: Calvinists in the Hands of an Angry Arminian (http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2006/11/calvinists-in-hands-of-angry-arminian.html), Part 2: More Calvinists in the Hands of an Angry Arminian (http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2006/11/more-calvinists-in-hands-of-angry.html), Part 3: Arminianism: Semi-Pelagianism? (http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2006/11/arminianism-semi-pelagianism.html)

[2] "Arminianism", in Wikipedia (Accessed on Jan 15 2010 — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arminianism)

[3] Review of Annals of the American Pulpit (Methodist), in the British and Foreign Evangelical Review, vol. xi (London, UK: Nisbet, 1862), pp. 301-2. As cited in Iain H. Murray, The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening (Carlisle, PA, USA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), p. 156

[4] B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield II, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, N.J., USA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), p. 314

[5] Simon Kistemaker, Leading Figures at the Synod of Dordt, in Peter Y. De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dordt 1618-1619 (Grandville, MI, USA: Reformed Fellowship, 1968, 2008), pp. 69-7

[6] Conclusions, in The Canons of Dordt, as quoted in Appendix I - The Canons of Dordt. In De Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches, p. 304

[7] James Arminius (1560 - 1609), The Works of James Arminius, vol. 1, 2.5.6 A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius on: The Assurance of Salvation. Accessed on CCEL

[8] Appendix H — The Remonstrant Opinions D4, as cited in Peter Y. De Jong (ed.), p. 267

[9] De Jong (ed.),pp. 50- 51, 148-149

[10] Introduction in Appendix H — The Opinions of the Remonstrants, in De Jong (ed.), p. 261

[11] Appendix H — The Opinions of the Remonstrants, in De Jong (ed.), pp. 261-268

[12] Marten H. Woudstra, The Synod and Bible Translation, in De Jong (ed.), pp. 132-134

[13] Louis Praamsa, The Background of the Arminian Controversy (1586 - 1618), in De Jong (ed.), p. 48, states:

Arminius interpreted the doctrine [of justification] as teaching that man is justified before God not on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ but by the human act of believing which constituted his righteousness before God.

In his book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, pp. 200-220, Roger E. Olsen tried to spin Arminius' teaching by saying that Arminius cannot mean this because he contradicted himself by stating an orthodox formulation elsewhere. This of course begs the question why one must read it in a Olsen's manner instead of the other way round, especially since some of the later Arminians interpret Arminius' phrase "faith imputed for righteousness" as precisely the error that human faith is considered as righteousness in God's sight, as Olsen himself admits (ie. Philip Limborch, Richard Watson, William Burton Pope, H. Orton Wiley). Despite Olsen's spin, the historical facts are unequivocal that Classical Arminianism is in error at this point.

[14] John Owen, A Display of Arminianism — A Discovery of the Old Pelagian Idol Free-Will, with the New Goddess Contingency, Advancing Themselves into the Throne of the God of Heaven, to the Prejudice of His Grace, Providence, and Supreme Dominion over the Children of Men (Originally published in 1644; Dahlonega, Georgia, USA: Crown Rights Book Company, Reprinted 1999)

[15] Chapter VII Of Original Sin and the Corruption of nature. In Owen, pp. 68 - 82

[16] Owen, p. 70

[17] Ibid., p. 72

[18] Ibid., p. 73

[19] As quoted in Owen, p. 74

"Fatemur peccatum Adami, a Deo posse dici imputatum posteris ejus, quatenus Deus posteros Adami eidem malo, cui Adamus per peccatum obnoxium se reddidit, obnoxios nasci voluit; sive quatenus Deus, malum, quod Adamo inflictum erat in poenam, in posteros ejus dimanare et transire permisit." — Rem. Apol. p. 84

[20] As quoted in Owen, p. 75

"Peccatum itaque originale nec habent pro peccato proprie dicto, quod posteros Adami odio Dei dignos faciat, nec prop malo, quod per modum proprie dictae poenae ab Adamo in posteros dimanet sed pro infirmitate," etc. — Rem. Apol. fol. 84

[21] Op. Cit., p. 73

[22] Warfield, p. 315

[23] Review of Annals of the American Pulpit (Methodist), as cited in Murray, The Old Evangelicalism, p. 156

[24] Iain H. Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed (Carlisle, PA, ISA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), p. 69

[25] Ibid., p. 68

[26] Ibid., p. 76

[27] Olsen, p. 213

[28] Ibid.

[29] Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 65

[30] Ibid., p. 66

[31] Olsen, pp. 198-199