Reformed Assessments of Arminianism: Praise from Unexpected Quarters

In a recent article in the Christian Century, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson and Thomas Albert Howard discussed the appropriate ways for Protestants to celebrate the forthcoming quincentennial of Luther’s issuing of the 95 Theses. They proposed that this commemoration should include some Protestant repentance for sins we have committed in our break with Rome. The same recommendation should apply, I want to insist, to the celebrations some of us will engage in of the adoption of the Canons of the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619.

That Calvinists have some repenting to do about their past treatment of people with other theological perspectives should be obvious in taking an honest look at our Calvinist history. My son received a rather crude reminder of our Calvinist past when he was teaching an introductory American history class at the University of Iowa. In the last class session of the term he asked the students to assess the assigned readings in the course. One book they had read was about African American slavery, and my son noted that it was written by a white historian. Would it have been better, he asked, to read about the slave experience from a text written by an African American? They all agreed that it would have been a good thing. And the chapter, in another text, about 19th century women’s movements, also written by a white male – would it have been more profitable to read a woman’s account of that history? Again, the students agreed. Well, my son continued, what about the writings about Puritanism? The Puritans were Calvinists, but none of the authors they had read themselves had Calvinist convictions. Was that too a defect?’

There is much evidence for the reality of scary Calvinism.

At this point the students were silent. After a few moments my son pointed to a young man in the front row: “What do you think about this?” The young man paused, and then responded: “Dude, Calvinists are scary!”

That young man may have been a bit too unnuanced in his declaration. But he was not totally wrong from a historical perspective. There is much evidence for the reality of scary Calvinism.

In Prince Charles’s Puritan Chaplain (George Allen and Unwin, 1957), the historian Ironwy Morgan tells us about a series of conferences that the Church of England sponsored in 1626 to consider a proposal by the Puritan party that the Canons of Dort be adopted as an official Anglican confessional standard. At one point, Morgan reports, Francis White, a leader of the Arminian party, leaped to his feet and addressed the presiding officials with this passionate plea: “I beseech our Lordships that we of the Church of England be not put to borrow a new faith from any village in the Netherlands.”

My own loyalties to the theology produced in Dutch villages go deep. But I am also aware of the ways that those theological insights have often been delivered and packaged in the form of a genuinely scary Calvinism. Whatever disagreements my Dutch ancestors had, for example, with those who taught that adult baptism by immersion is the only legitimate baptismal practice, it was beyond cruelty for those Calvinists to express their disagreements with Anabaptists by drowning them. And while I do subscribe to the basic theology of the Synod of Dordrecht, I experience considerable discomfort in reading the rhetorical expressions employed in those sections Canons that condemn the teachings of Arminius and his followers.

What I want to do here, then, is not only issue a Calvinist confession of sin against my Arminian sisters and brothers in Christ but flesh out that confession by pointing to some resources that my fellow Reformed Christians should take seriously in cultivating a kinder and gentler engagement with those in the Arminian tradition. I will begin in that effort by drawing upon two testimonies from 19th century leaders, each of them a person of unimpeachable Calvinist credentials, expressing deep appreciation for the spiritual gifts of Arminians.

SPURGEON AND KUYPER ON ARMINIANS

My first testimony comes from Charles Spurgeon, known for his strong commitment to the kind of Calvinist theology set forth in the Canons of Dort. Indeed, the testimony I will recount here comes from his pamphlet “Defence of Calvinism,” in which he offers a firm rationale for the basic Calvinist doctrines and even labels Arminianism a heresy in the course of doing so. At a certain point, though, Spurgeon refers to the harsh condemnations of John Wesley by many of his Calvinist contemporaries. “Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians,” he says. Spurgeon begins his response assuring the nastier Calvinists that he opposes much of Wesley’s theology. Like these other Calvinists, he writes, “I detest many of the doctrines that he [Wesley] preached.” But then Spurgeon focuses on the person of John Wesley: “yet for the man himself,” he says, “I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan.” And at this point his tone becomes positively glowing:

[I]f there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one “of whom the world was not worthy.” I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these [Calvinist] truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of Heaven.

To be sure, we can regret – as I certainly do – Spurgeon’s use of a word such as detest in referring to Wesleyan theology. But, still, we can celebrate that he saw Wesley as worthy of being counted in the company of the original apostles.

It was beyond cruelty for Calvinists to express their disagreements with Anabaptists by drowning them.

My second testimony comes from, Abraham Kuyper, also a champion of Calvinist orthodoxy. Kuyper was a major public figure who frequently suffered from periods of mental and physical exhaustion. One of these bouts occurred in 1875, while he was serving as a newly elected member of the Dutch Parliament while also editing a daily newspaper that he had established. For a rest leave he chose to go to England, where he attended the Brighton meetings of Robert Pearsall Smith and his wife, Hannah Whitehall Smith. Their Wesleyan Holiness teachings had a deep impact on Kuyper, and when he returned to his public leadership roles in the Netherlands, he did so with a renewed sense of the importance of a personal godliness that drew more deeply on the power of the Holy Spirit.

For a while, Kuyper wrote very positive things about the Wesleyan Holiness movement, although he eventually became disillusioned with the Brighton leadership, primarily because of some highly publicized sexual scandals. This disillusionment in turn occasioned some retrospective theological objections to the Holiness movement in general, especially because of what he saw as the movement’s failure to acknowledge properly the integrity of created reality and political concerns. For all of that, though, he never retracted his praise for the personal renewal he had experienced at Brighton, and he continued to emphasize, much more than he had before his British sojourn, the importance of the development of personal spirituality, calling, for example, for an increased emphasis on the cultivation of piety in theological education.

Needless to say, neither of those two testimonials to the positive aspects of Arminian-Wesleyan thought and practice is pure in their praise. But each of them is, in its context, a departure from what both Spurgeon and Kuyper experienced within their own 19th century Calvinist communities. And given the reality that such typically harsh rhetoric about Arminianism is still evident in segments of contemporary Calvinism, the positive elements in the assessments of both Spurgeon and Kuyper deserve repeated airing these days.

NEARLY PERFECT? REALLY?

It is not enough, however, for Calvinists simply to start saying nicer things about Arminians, as good as that change of tone might be. A more important need is for Calvinists to take a critical look at the rhetoric we have often employed in describing the virtues of our own theology. What I have in mind particularly is the sort of claim made in a book written by R.B. Kuiper, a Dutch-American Reformed leader in the 1920s. In setting forth his basic case for the virtues of Calvinist thought, he issued a number of bold claims. Here is one of them, from his As to Being Reformed (Eerdmans, 1926), that strikes me as especially unfortunate: “Calvinism,” he wrote, “is the most nearly perfect interpretation of Christianity. In the final analysis Calvinism and Christianity are practically synonymous.” And to reinforce his point he quoted a similar sentiment from the great 19th century Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield: “Calvinism is just religion in its purity. We have only, therefore, to conceive of religion in its purity, and that is Calvinism” (Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970).

I find those remarks embarrassing – and not just because they are offensive to my non-Calvinist friends. These remarks ought to be offensive to Calvinists ourselves, since they claim far too much for Calvinism. In what sense did R.B. Kuiper believe that Calvinism is the “nearly perfect” interpretation of Christianity? Well, to his credit he makes it clear that is he not meaning to imply that only Calvinists are true Christians. He saw himself as making a much more charitable point, namely, that all true Christians are, whether they know it or not, Calvinists at heart. A person, he says, “may not call himself a Calvinist; he may even resent being called by this name” – but that’s what he is “in the final analysis” if he “lives in utter dependence upon God.”

Spurgeon made the case in a similar way in defending the Calvinist system. If anyone were to ask him, he said, what he means when he identifies himself as a Calvinist, he would respond by saying that Calvinist thought comes down to this affirmation: “Salvation is of the Lord.” Any Christian who sincerely makes this declaration – that salvation can only come by sovereign grace – is essentially endorsing the heart of Calvinism, says Spurgeon, whatever else the person explicitly subscribes to in his or her theological system.

One of my objections to this way of making the case for Calvinism is similar to my discomfort with the Jesuit Karl Rahner’s use of the label “anonymous Christians” to refer to, say, Muslims or Hindus who might actually be motivated by a genuine Christ-like spirit even though they would never claim to adhere to uniquely Christian teachings. Scholars representing those other faith traditions have complained – and I think rightly so – that the “anonymous Christian” label is an expression of Christian arrogance. Hindus and Muslims want to be taken seriously by Christians precisely for what they believe as Hindus or Muslims. I have the same sense about proclaiming my Wesleyan or Catholic friends to be “anonymous Calvinists.”

But my discomfort with the claim that Calvinism is simply Christianity as properly understood goes even deeper, and it has to do with R.B. Kuiper’s comment that Calvinism is “the most nearly perfect interpretation of Christianity.” My clear sense in reading that kind of statement is that the person expressing it is really thinking in almost exclusively soteriological terms. And it is in that area of theology that I tend to agree with the kinds of doctrines Kuiper had in mind. The Canons of Dort, for example, set forth an elaborate understanding of how it is that a person can get right with God: We are totally incapable, as fallen rebels, of initiating or contributing to the salvation that we desperately need; if that salvation is to happen, God must take the electing initiative; the sovereign grace that makes it possible is a focused and preserving grace, and so on.

I am fine with all of that. But there are many other topics that must be included in a “nearly perfect interpretation of Christianity,” and I have strong disagreements with many of my fellow Calvinists about those matters. I know that R.B. Kuiper would have problems with many elements my ecclesiology, once we got beyond our shared soteriological convictions. And Spurgeon’s Baptist thought included a sacramentology that I find highly problematic at key points. Furthermore, many of my own theological preoccupations these days put me at odds with fellow Calvinists who have very different perspectives from mine on such matters as common grace, general revelation, theological anthropology, eschatology and the relationship between faith and science. My own experience as a Calvinist certainly does not give me confidence that I have been given entrée into a community that has been gifted with a “nearly perfect interpretation of Christianity”!

LEARNING FROM THE ARMINIANS

When I read Elizabeth Rapley’s fine historical study of Catholic religious orders (The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World) a few years ago, I was struck by the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church has historically embraced the reality of spiritual, and even theological, differences in its midst. Ecumenically minded Protestants often bemoan the way in which the Reformation generated a scandalous denominational fracturing, and that complaint is a legitimate one. But in its own way, Catholicism has generated its own pluralism, in the form of a wide variety of religious orders.

In one of my many public dialogues during the 1970s with the late John Howard Yoder about Reformed versus Anabaptist perspectives, I elicited an especially irritated response from Yoder when I confessed that, while I was not a pacifist, I was glad that there are pacifists to argue with, because those of us in the just-war tradition have to be called to account for our tendency to approve of too much military violence.

Yoder took my commendation of the pacifist commitments of Mennonites as a deeply offensive expression of condescension: Mennonites might be wrong in rejecting all forms of military violence, I was saying, but it is useful to have people like that around. And I get the point of Yoder’s offense. Anabaptist Christians genuinely believe that the commitment to consistent nonviolence is something that should be required of all Christians. They see pacifism as essential to following the Way of the Cross.

It is not so, though, for many in the Catholic community who are committed to consistent nonviolence. A Franciscan friar once described to me his commitment to nonviolence – a vow taken by all Franciscans – in the same light as his commitment to a celibate lifestyle. It is obvious, he noted, that celibacy is not required of every follower of Jesus. Refraining from any genital-sexual relations is associated with a special vow that one takes in committing to participation in a community that has made that a part of its overall way of life. And, he added, the same holds for nonviolence. He was not opposed to military violence as such, but he was convinced that maintaining communities who have pledged to work at living out a consistently nonviolent lifestyle is a positive thing – not only in nurturing specific virtues in the members of the communities requiring the vow but also as a witness to the larger human community. “We hope we can inspire a more creative consideration of nonviolent strategies by people who have not taken our vows,” he said.

I find this “special vows” approach to forming subgroups within the larger Christian community to be an attractive one. To be sure, there can be legitimate arguments about whether a specific area of belief or practice should be relegated to that status. For example, I am committed to truth-telling and a respect for other persons’ property, and these are not grounded in special vows – I believe they are requirements for human living. But I do think that many of our longstanding theological disagreements can be seen in a more positive light if we view them as “special vow” commitments.

Here is how I see that as applying to our Calvinist-versus-Arminian differences. At the heart of Calvinism is a deep conviction about the sovereignty of God. I consider it crucial to my Calvinist calling to do as much as I can to draw attention to divine sovereignty and to work at drawing out its implications for understanding a broad range of topics important to Christian life and thought. When I think that someone else’s views on some theological matter runs the risk of detracting from a strong emphasis on divine sovereignty, I will want to challenge them with a question about God’s sovereign rule over all of created life.

I do recognize the dangers in making this a special sort of theological vow. In A Gathered Church: the Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700-1930 (Oxford, 1978), his discussion of early English Puritan theology, Donald Davie rightly observed that “few of us would like to live with the Calvinist tenets of election and reprobation in their primitive seventeenth-century ferocity.” I must confess that I find more than hints of that ferocity in the Canons of Dort, not so much in the document’s positive theological affirmations but in the often detailed condemnations of the teachings of Jacobus Arminius and his sympathizers. That the Arminians were not treated with fairness at Dordrecht is made abundantly clear in the fine study of the theology of Arminius published recently by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall – Jacobus Arminius: Theologian of Grace.

Unfortunately, the ferocity that often characterized 17th-century Calvinism lives on in some circles. As some of us repent of those past sins, while looking for theological and spiritual factors that can replace the doctrinal ferocity with respectful engagement about important theological disagreements, I am convinced that we can actually find some softening elements in the Canons themselves. For example, when at one point the discussion in the Canons seems to be relying on a dangerously mechanical notion of the dispensing of sovereign grace, the authors suddenly introduce a refreshing tone of gentleness as they affirm that “this divine grace of regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and – in a manner at once pleasing and powerful – bends it back” (Canons of Dort, Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine, Article 16).

That, I suggest, is a helpful tone. But it is not enough to ward off all of the dangers associated with the Calvinist vow to guard the idea of divine sovereignty at all costs. I am convinced that we Calvinists need folks who have made different vows – in this case the Arminian vow to protect our created human dignity against any suggestion that we are mere “blocks and stones,” opposing any hint that God simply chooses to “coerce a reluctant will by force.”

Calvinists need to learn corrective lessons from our Arminian sisters and brothers. Abraham Kuyper was certainly aware of that need when he visited the Wesleyan meetings at Brighton, and I think he understood that the solution was not simply to couple Calvinist soteriology with Wesleyan piety. Out of appreciation of the Wesleyan example, the Reformed need to cultivate their own version of a devotion to holiness, one that breathes new spiritual vitality into Calvinist doctrine itself. Here too, there is help to be gotten from the Canons. One of my favorite passages in that confessional document deals with an oft-debated topic among Calvinists: the assurance of our election. Here is what the Canons say on the topic:

Assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation is given to the chosen in due time, though by various stages and in differing measure. Such assurance comes not by inquisitive searching into the hidden and deep things of God, but by noticing within themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word – such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. (Canons of Dort, First Main Points of Doctrine, Article 12)

I am especially pleased with that final phrase: “and so on.” It bespeaks an implicit acknowledgement that there is more yet to cultivate in our spiritual journeys. Calvinists have a lot to learn regarding how to practice “spiritual joy and holy delight” about what God is doing in our lives. And a good place to begin is with the kind of lesson taught by Charles Wesley’s wonderful affirmation that our sovereign God is to be worshiped as the “Joy of heaven, to earth come down,” a gracious redeemer who, in “pure unbounded love” has chosen to “enter every trembling heart.”

Richard J. Mouw teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, where he was president for 20 years.

Photo: A.L. Boon via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0 license.