The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
WESLEYAN WISDOM: Arminianism—essential for Methodist recovery Donald W. Haynes, Oct 12, 2011
By Donald W. Haynes UMR Columnist
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions. . . . This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”—I Timothy 2:1-4 (NRSV)
We live today in a new age of religious pluralism. The prognosticators of modernity who expected religion to move to the perimeter of cultural influence in the 21st century were clearly wrong.
As Thomas Paine wrote concerning political debate, “These are the times that try [our] souls.” Not since the 16th century has there been such a battle for the religious mind as we have today. If we as United Methodists identify with the world and have nothing to say, we have no future. Recovering Arminianism is an imperative.
Everyone has a “place at the table” but some are very articulate and engaging and convincing about their understanding of God and humankind, while others hesitate to speak. In United Methodism, those who have deep convictions about social justice issues are more bold and courageous in speaking their mind than those who are devoted Arminians. For many generations we were taught a distorted version of Wesley’s “catholic spirit,” so that our beloved denominational ranks have become “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Thus it is that we are very uncomfortable in stating that we are Arminians.
Why is it important to revive an old theological debate between Arminians and Calvinists? The jurist John Calvin! In Chapter 21 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he asks why some of God’s children believe and others do not. His answer lies not in us but in God’s eternal election. In Chapter 23, Calvin’s legal mind leads him to the inescapable conclusion that God wills not only the salvation of the elect but also the damnation of the reprobate. This is why the theologically sophisticated, precocious Susanna Wesley wrote to her son, John, at Oxford, “The doctrine of predestination, as maintained by the rigid Calvinists, is very shocking, and ought to be abhorred, because it directly charges the most high God with being the author of sin. I think you reason well and justly against it. . . .” Do we still hear such sound advice when parents write to college students today?
Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch Calvinist who became a dissenter to the Calvinist notion of predestination. Wesley adopted the doctrine of Arminianism and wove it into the theological fabric of Methodism.
According to Wesley scholar Richard Heitzenrater of Duke Divinity School, Wesley decided to meet the Calvinist challenge head-on in November 1777 by producing a monthly magazine himself. Wesley’s distribution of The Arminian Magazine popularized the work of Jacob Arminius for over a century. John Fletcher and Richard Watson made Arminianism the cornerstone in their systemization of Wesley’s theology. Until 1840, The Methodist Quarterly Review reflected the clearly Arminian evangelical pragmatism of the Second Great Awakening.
Arminianism is the linchpin of Methodist grace theology. Grace “for all and in all” is indigenous to the Wesleyan revival and early American Methodist growth; yet few United Methodist seminaries taught it in the 20th century and almost none of our laity know even the word “Arminian”!
Until the 20th century, every Methodist was pretty clear on what it means to be an Arminian. First of all, Arminianism, like Calvinism, insists that we are saved by God’s initiating grace. The difference is three-fold:
1) We believe that salvation begins with God’s love, not humankind’s sin. Every person sins, but our sins do not define us. Being made in God’s own image defines our identity.
2) We believe that God’s grace, like human love, can be resisted, resented and refused. To this degree we have a role in our being saved. The Calvinist insists that God’s love is irresistible; we insist it is resistible.
3) We believe that while we are not saved by good works, “the saved will do good works.” Moral responsibility and missional service are the “proof in the pudding” that we are being disciples. This we need to recover.
To rebrand Methodism with its historic message, we must renew our understanding of God’s sovereign nature as love, and our understanding that being made in God’s image means having what Wesley called “natural liberty.”
Glenn Hinson, a moderate Baptist who was once on the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes, “Fundamentalism of a more sophisticated sort traces its roots to Dort Calvinism.” Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, has been called by Time magazine, “the reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.” Christianity Today describes Dr. Mohler as a “cerebral, churchly . . . five-point Calvinist,” a reference to the five points of the Dort Calvinist TULIP: Total depravity (to the extreme that we cannot hear what Wesley called God’s “still small voice” or “whispers of love”), Unconditional election, Jesus’ Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints (“once saved, always saved”). We Arminians disagree with each letter in TULIP!
Whereas John Wesley used the language, “God’s way of salvation” (via salutis), the typical parlance in sharing groups and evangelistic tracts is “God’s plan of salvation.” To me, the word “plan” suggests a “business plan” for a newly formed organization, company or corporation, or a “strategic plan” that helps an institution foresee its future. However, God is not in the corporate or institutional sphere so much as God is in the relational sphere. To me, Jesus’ best portrait of God is found in Luke 15—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. In each case the finder has a “love that will not let go.” The woman whose betrothal necklace had a missing coin and the shepherd who had a missing sheep went looking for the lost with a proactive, seeking love that had no limits. The father whose prodigal son was gone waited with a patient perseverance that had no ultimatum.
Another important Arminian accent in the parable of the Prodigal Son is that the Prodigal Son’s salvation depended upon his volitional response: “But when he came to himself he said, . . . ‘I will get up and go to my father. . . .’” The father had been waiting by the gate for years, but respected his son’s human liberty enough to allow the boy to “come to himself.” The son did not save himself, but he did belatedly realize his father’s love.
To the Calvinist, God expresses God’s sovereignty in his omnipotence, his power. To the Calvinist, God’s sovereignty is expressed by “elective grace.” As Arminians, we believe that God is all-powerful in sovereignty, but we differ from the Calvinists in how God expresses God’s sovereignty.
We believe God chooses to express total sovereignty with total love for every one of God’s children. That is grace “for and in all.” The question boils down to this: “Is the nature of God inherently justice or inherently love?” The question must not be seen as an 18th-century issue. The Methodist fundamental doctrine is that God is inherently love.
Wesley’s sermon, “Free Grace,” preached in 1739 at Bristol, was published to refute Calvinism. It begins: “How freely does God love the world! While we were yet sinners, ‘Christ died for the ungodly.’ . . . And how freely with him does he ‘give us all things’!”
Wesley then asks the tough question, “[But is this grace] free for ALL, as well as IN ALL?” He first reiterates the essence of Calvinism: “By virtue of an eternal, unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, one part of mankind are infallibly saved, and the rest infallibly damned; it being impossible that any of the former should be damned or that any of the latter should be saved.” He says if that were true, all references to God’s weeping would be “crocodiles’ tears, weeping over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction.”
He calls predestination a “flat contradiction, not only to the whole scope and tenor of Scripture, but also to those particular texts which expressly declare, ‘God is love.’” Bottom line: United Methodists are Arminians—and we need to understand this fundamental!
Dr. Haynes is a retired clergyman of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On The Threshold of Grace. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.