by Terry M. Smith
James Arminius (ca. 1559-1609), a Reformed pastor, was given a task: to refute the teachings of Anabaptists who were then seeking refuge in Holland.
“This was an assignment which he never finished,” says Donald M. Lake, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, most likely “because he may have found some of their views more scriptural than their opponents” (Grace Unlimited, Clark H. Pinnock, ed., Bethany Fellowship, 227).
This did not mean that Arminius, a Reformed pastor and then professor of theology, agreed with all of the views held by Anabaptists: “…while he advocated toleration for the Anabaptists, he had no sympathy for their views of political isolationism” (229).
There was, though, one view which Arminius held that he, Anabaptists, and the wider early Church had in common: a rejection of double predestination.
God does not arbitrarily choose some people to eternal life and some to eternal death quite apart from how they would freely respond to him in the future, he said. He taught that Christ died for all of humankind and actively seeks our salvation.
Arminius wrote, “There is . . . no point of doctrine which the Papists, Anabaptists and Lutherans oppose with greater vehemence than this” (double predestination). He considered it a view that brought the Church into disrepute (Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, John D. Wagner, ed., Wipf & Stock, 2011, 56).
He held to the total depravity of humankind; we are lost in our sins and dependent upon God’s grace through his Spirit to enable us to respond to Him. He was undecided on whether a true believer could fall from grace to the point of being eternally lost. (His death from tuberculosis at about age 50 prevented further earthly study.)
The Dutch scholar rejected unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. He taught that despite Christ’s universal call and atonement, we, having a freed will restored by the Holy Spirit, can resist God’s desire to our ultimate harm (Acts 7:51; 2 Cor. 6:1).
He wasn’t alone in seeing this in Scripture. “Anabaptists would argue with good cause that it was a [viewpoint that] Balthasar Hubmaier and other Anabaptist thinkers had begun developing almost a century earlier” (Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 471-72). Olson calls Hubmaier an “Arminian before Arminius.”
Dr. Harold Bender, an Anabaptist historian and theologian, says, “Mennonites have been historically Arminian in their theology whether they distinctly espoused the Arminian viewpoint or not.” The same, I suggest, describes many evangelicals today.
While too few EMCers and other evangelicals realize how the term Arminian relates to their beliefs, many reject double predestination and hold to an unlimited atonement and resistible grace. This places us within the Arminian stream of theology. There is much common ground between Arminian and Reformed Christians, but not on these particular points.
Does it matter what we call ourselves? Maybe not, but it matters what we believe and teach. “Christ Jesus…gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). “For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Resources: “Arminians Attempt to Reform Reformed Theology,” in Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (IVP, 1999, 454-472); Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP, 2006); Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011); Robert Shank, Elect in the Son (Bethany, 1970); Robert Shank, Life in the Son (Bethany, 1960); Arminius Speaks (details above). Note: Against Calvinism is poorly titled. Olson is not against Reformed theology generally or Calvinists, but opposes the ULI (in the TULIP).