For Elders Thinking Of Inviting Arminius Into Their Pulpit

Wilson!From the time he entered the pastoral ministry, James Arminius (c. 1559–1609) was a controversial figure but he was also a minister in good standing in the Reformed Churches. Despite the intense controversy that his views and teaching generated, views that fractured the church, that nearly ignited a civil war in the Netherlands, that split a university, and that ultimately led to the convocation of the greatest international synod in the history of the Reformed churches, the Synod of Dort (1618–19), Arminius remained and died a minister in good standing in the Reformed churches. Partly this was a fluke. Arminius died in 1609 and the Synod did not conclude for a decade later. At the time of his death there was great controversy but there was not unanimity as to what Arminius was actually teaching. This was intentional. Arminius was intentionally vague, even to the point of being deceptive. Despite the fact that he rejected significant aspects of established Reformed teaching, despite the fact the seemed bent on leading the Reformed churches away from the gospel and back to a form of medieval moralism and synergism, despite the fact the he called into question the teaching of the Reformed confessions, despite the fact that it was he, and not his opponents, who was elevated to Rector of the University of Leiden, and despite the fact that it was Gormarus (and not Arminius) who left the University, Arminius whined incessantly about the hardships he allegedly suffered at the hands of the evil orthodox.

Remarkably, despite these facts, the theme, that like their founder, the Remonstrants (Arminians) are beleaguered and oppressed, remains the narrative of the Arminians. If you doubt me then you clearly have never read anything that Roger Olson has written—often in the glossy pages of Christianity Today and from the his perch in an endowed chair in a major, private research university.

The Reformed churches did not see Arminius as a victim nor did they naively accept his protestations that he believed the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. There was too much evidence to the contrary. They did not accept his assertions because they paid attention to what he had actually said about Romans chapter 7, about Romans chapter 9, about nature, regeneration, grace, faith, and perseverance. It was not as if they gave him no hearing. There were at conferences with Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641) and the conferences with the Remonstrants after Arminius’ death.

Finally, having heard Arminius and his followers for two decades, the churches met at Dort and issued a judgment. In the preface to their rulings (canons) on the Remonstrant crisis, Synod declared:

This Church has been attacked, first secretly and then publicly, by Jacobus Arminius and his followers (bearing the name of Remonstrants). They did this by means of various old and new errors. These flourishing churches, being persistently disturbed by offensive disputes and schisms, have been brought into such grave peril that they were in danger of being consumed by a dreadful fire of discord.

As the preface notes, even though the churches

laboured most diligently and with great patience to persuade the main advocates of these teachings (who had been summoned to appear) that they would fully explain their sentiments regarding the well-known Five Heads of Doctrine along with the arguments for them. However, they rejected the judgments of the Synod and refused to answer the points in question in an equitable fashion. No admonitions of the Synod, nor resolutions of the honorable deputies of the States General, nor even the illustrious members of the States General themselves could make progress with them. At that point, the Synod was compelled to follow another course.

Having examined “the writings, confessions, and declarations regarding the aforesaid Five Heads of Doctrine” synod issued the rules or canons. They rejected the errors of the Remonstrants categorically and declared that the Remonstrants had brought “again out of hell the Pelagian error” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3).

All this is context and preface in order to ask NAPARC ruling elders to consider this question: In light of the judgment of the Synod of Dort, had you the opportunity, would you allow James Arminius into your pulpit? After all, he died in good standing with the Reformed churches. After all, he professed adherence to the Reformed confessions. Of course not! Why not? Because you know, despite Arminius’ protestations, that he was not actually a minister of the Word as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches. You know that he was disingenuous, that it’s not possible to reconcile what Arminius actually believed and taught with what the Word of God says.

If that is the case, then, what if you had the opportunity to allow a modern-day Arminius into your pulpit, would you do it? What if he was well-regarded by many as a social conservative and as a witty and articulate defender of the faith against a rising tide of neo-atheism? it does seem as if the foundations of the culture and civil society are collapsing and that the faith is under intense public assault.

As you seek to answer this question consider another. The heart of the Roman Empire was sacked in 410. Their world was literally crumbling before their eyes. The British monk Pelagius was known for his strong adherence to Christian morality. He was also well-known for his denial of the doctrine of original sin, depravity, and what we today call the doctrines of grace. Should the churches of North Africa have overlooked his doctrinal errors and should they have invited him to speak to their congregations? As a matter of history, they did not. They prosecuted his errors in the courts of the church most vigorously and condemned his teaching repeatedly. Indeed, the entire catholic church (Ephesus, 431 etc) condemned his doctrine.

Arminius lived during a time a great social and cultural upheaval. The Reformed churches might well have said to themselves that the cultural and social issues they faced were too great to worry about doctrinal fine points. Indeed, there were powerful voices, some of whom protected Arminius from his critics in Amsterdam and in Leiden, who favored doctrinal latitudinarianism, who thought that Arminius had some good and useful things to say. We may be thankful, however, that the churches did not take this view.

If these examples are instructive, then we may wonder about the wisdom of NAPARC congregations inviting to their pulpit a modern-day Arminius, a minister who leads a movement, which has many points of contact with the theology of Arminius—that is a form of “covenantal Arminianism“—that has been considered and rejected by the Reformed churches. Yes, our modern-day Arminius affirms the Westminster Confession, but he also signed the Joint Federal Vision Statement, published in 2007. Despite the fact that the URCs, the, RCUS, the PCA, the RPCNA have all officially adopted statements condemning the Federal Vision theology, our latter day Arminius is impenitent.

About this particular leading Federal Visionist, the study committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has written:

“Underlying all the preceding theological positions of FV that we have herein examined is a doctrine of the church in which ecclesiology threatens to swallow soteriology and a vibrant sacramentalism threatens to turn into sacerdotalism. Foundational to FV ecclesiology is a tendency in FV to deny the inner/outer aspects of the covenant along with the visible/invisible aspects of the church. These tendencies will need to be addressed elsewhere (and are more fully treated, e.g., in the forthcoming analysis of the FV by Guy Waters), especially since ecclesiology has assumed the all-consuming role that it has for many in FV. To be sure, much FV ecclesiological and sacramental theorizing goes beyond what we are able to consider: the impact of FV ecclesiology on its doctrine of justification. While the Committee may differ with various strands of FV ecclesiology on this or that point, what is relevant in this critique is how FV ecclesiology affects the FV doctrine of justification. Given that focus, we now turn to examine some FV teaching on the sacraments and their efficacy, seeking to gauge its impact on the doctrine of justification.
Wilson on the sacraments writes, for instance:

Raise your hand if you knew that the Westminster Confession of Faith taught baptismal regeneration…. Baptism means that the one baptized has a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, the one baptized has been grafted into Christ, he has the sign and seal of regeneration, forgiveness of sins and the obligation to walk in newness of life.

Wilson’s language of “baptismal regeneration” is, at best, confusing, since the Reformed have not historically used this language to refer to baptism.313 One may have a high view of baptism and its efficacy without believing that the outward act of baptism itself is to be described as regenerative.314 No small part of Wilson’s problem here, we observe, lies perhaps in what he fails to say. In Wilson’s writing about sacramental efficacy one does not find a reference to WCF 14.1 on saving faith. WCF 14.1 teaches that “the grace of faith” that enables the elect to believe “is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word”; and that this grace of faith “is increased and strengthened” by the Word, sacraments and prayer (emphasis). The Word brings about faith and faith is then increased by the Word, sacraments, and prayer. This is the order set forth in our Standards. WLC 155 and WSC 89 support this contention, asserting that the Spirit of God makes the reading and especially the preaching of the Word “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.” Nowhere does the Confession or Catechisms ascribe this work of convincing and converting sinners to the sacraments. It is “especially the preaching” of the Word that produces, by the Spirit’s ministration, saving faith. Anytime saving faith is in view, or at stake, so is the doctrine of justification, inasmuch as faith is a gift of God whereby He enables us to apprehend Him. Thus we would maintain that there is a distinction between the ministry of the Word and the administration of the sacraments that many of the FV promoters seem to be missing. (pp. 78-79)

To these judgments and assessments could be added the Nine Points adopted by the United Reformed Churches at Synod in 2007 (explained here and here).

The social crisis we face is real. The empirical evidence is too strong to deny that Christianity is being intentionally marginalized in the culture. The moral law of God revealed in nature and in Scripture is being publicly flouted in a way never seen before in the life of this republic. We live in a time when, despite the abundant and prima facie evidence preserved in high-def video recordings, our leaders look straight into the camera and tell us that they didn’t say what we know they said (apparently “period” now means “comma”). That isn’t the question. The question is how confessional Reformed churches should respond and whether it is healthful for elders to permit into their pulpits the proponents of gross doctrinal error. It is hard to see how allowing a wolf into the pulpit will be for the safety and well-being of the sheep.

Let’s take a lesson from Petrus Plancius (1562–1622), who first opposed Arminius in Amsterdam when few others wanted to hear about it but who was vindicated by the Synod of Dort. Let’s learn from our fathers at Dort. Despite the social crisis they faced, they stood their posts and upheld the gospel because they knew that it was of no benefit to society generally for the church to send an uncertain sound on the article of the standing and falling of the church.

We should also take a lesson from the Old Princeton church historian, Samuel Miller (1769–1850). He noted in 1841 that, having re-admitted the Remonstrants to pulpits after Maurtitz’ death in 1625, it was not long before rationalism spread throughout the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. If, having rejected the Federal Vision doctrine, the NAPARC churches admit impenitent Federal Visionists to their pulpits, how can they expect things to go differently? By the early 19th century the Reformed in the Netherlands were vitiated with rationalism such that there had to be a separation (Afscheiding) in 1834. Let us not engage in magical thinking. It can happen to us too.

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  1. Scott,

    Great post. Thanks for the history lesson and application. That the old saying comes to mind… that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes.

    Also as I understand, WCF 28.6 seems to be either ignored or misconstrued by the FVs.

    The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.

    The actual benefits of salvation promised in baptism are conferred, not to all who are baptized (ref. 28.5), but to those that the grace belongeth unto according to God’s election (ref. WLC 154)… in his appointed time, i.e. not necessarily at the time of baptism.

    It seems to me that FV conflates the visible church with the invisible church (ref. WCF 61-68) in seeing baptism effectually conferring the benefits of salvation unto all who are baptized, thus undermining both God’s secret election and justification through faith alone…

  2. Calvary Chapel and those of such ilk would put a red carpet down for Arminius to grace their pulpits. Hyper-Arminianism poster boy Roger Olsen would carry him on his back to get him to the carpet. A truly Reformed church would lock the door on him.

    • Encouraging to those of us awash in the waves of blurry, post-modern “unityspeak,” the cost of which is merely the next 100 generations of the gospel in our land.

  3. As I thought to take some time to solidify what I believe around the time “For Calvinism”/”Against Calvinism” (Horton, Olson respectively) had been out, I added Olson’s blog to my feed to get an Arminian view of things. I pretty much saw the same thing from him, complaints about being excluded, the death of Eternity magazine and the rise of Modern Reformation, and more. At least I did also see an expressed reluctance to sign off on confessional statements, as apparently he’s had some past baggage over that. I came to the point of realization that he seems to espouse a “big tent” frame of mind. While I’m not for excluding anyone for the mere sake of exclusion, I was aware that seeking more doctrinal clarity necessarily pulled me in a confessional direction, as the confessors have the fortitude to at least put in writing what they believe. A broadened view of truth can only lead to confusion, just as staring at Romans 9 and insisting that it must mean something other than what Paul actually wrote does not heighten one’s credibility as an expositor. When the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” becomes one’s grid for interpreting Scripture, as far as I understand it, I do not know how one avoids trumping biblical evidence with human subjectivity.

  4. L. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk for the General Assembly of the PCA and Board Chairperson of the NAE, states the PCA “is part of the NAE because it is consistent with our doctrine of the Church. Fellowship and cooperation with other evangelical Christians is consistent with our theology. The NAE enables us to have a wider ministry, and it enables us to have a broader, more effective influence. Our fellowship, interaction and cooperative ministry with our fellow evangelical Christians such as those in the NAE help us to serve Christ and the Church in our challenging times.” One would like to believe that Dr. Taylor would agree that “evangelical” relates closely to “gospel.” But if that is the case, how is it that the PCA has joined with an assortment of Arminians, Charismatics and Anabaptists (who condemn the gospel as we confess it to be found in Scripture) and all for the purpose of having a “more effective influence” and a “cooperative ministry?” And what “ministry” might that be? And just who is influencing whom?

    So can we even be a little surprised when we see the PCA SJC fail to properly deal with an FV heresy that strikes right at the heart of the gospel (i.e., justification by faith alone)?

    In this context it is no surprise that a few years ago the PCA Strategic Plan sought to disassociate the PCA from NAPARC.

  5. For four years I sat under a pastor in a PCA church for whom Doug Wilson and James Jordan were just a little shy of being the Gospel itself. We also heard a fair amount of Federal Visionism–until the guy ended up defrocked (but not after a lot of damage was done to a congregation and many individual believers).

    As for the “persecuted Arminian” meme, it arose in the aftermath of the Synod of Dort, when Oudenbarnevelt got beheaded, Grotius landed in prison, and other bad things happened to Remonstrants. Also, the unholy alliance of theological liberals and Arminians are united in their hatred of the Reformed, and hence conveniently forget Franciscus Gomarus being driven from his post at Leyden, and the way Remonstrant magistrates often forced their people on unwilling congregations across the Netherlands.

  6. Ouch! As PCA Ruling Elder, methinks thou hast struck close to home. (Not in my own congregation, though, thank the Lord.)

    Dr. Clark sounds like a 1970’s Southern Pres. TR here. Sounds good to me.

  7. Dr Clark, it seems to be a rather curious thing that you are (supposedly) unwilling to meet and speak with and/or debate with Doug Wilson, despite his numerous invitations. You have written that because this controversy has been going on for such a long while that you don’t see how meeting with Wilson would be helpful, given the online dialogue that has occurred. Which is somewhat understandable.

    Would you be willing to answer why you did not take him up on his invitations before so much time and online interaction occurred? Is Wilson misrepresenting that he offered to meet with you in person? If Wilson is not misrepresenting that he did, in fact, offer to meet with you pretty early on in this theological controversy, it seems appropriate for you to give an answer as to why you declined.

    If you have explained why and I have simply overlooked it (which is highly possible), I would appreciate it if you would show that to me.

    I’m not sure where I stand on this controversy, to be perfectly honest. I am just concerned because the way you have handled this might seem suspicious in some regards. The way this entire controversy has been handled is confusing.

    • Brad,

      Why is it curious that I should refuse to meet personally with the leading proponent of the corruption of the gospel? This is not a personal matter. This is a matter of truth. His views are well known. I can read English. Further, as I’ve explained many times, the churches (most particularly mine) have spoken. Did the Synod negotiate with Episcopius? No. They issued canons. So now, the churches have categorically rejected the FV. It’s a gross doctrinal error.

      I only want to hear these words: I repent of the federal vision errors (i.e., the entire program) and then I want to see evidence of repentance, dismantling of the empire, and submission to a real church and discipline for all the damage done (e.g., demission from the ministry) and reparation to all the victims.

      You should take the time to figure it out. In by baptismal grace, stay by cooperation with grace is the very error from which the Reformation delivered us. Why on earth would any sane person want to go back to that mess of pottage?

      One last time: Not ever.

  8. Thank you for your firm stand, Dr. Clark. “This is not a personal matter. This is a matter of truth.” Amen, and Amen. I bear no ill will toward Wilson or any other FV advocate, and I trust you don’t either. I have profited from some of their writings, such as social commentary. Yet we’re long past the “discovery” stage in regard to FV and its teachings with regard to salvation. The FV system, such as it is, has an undeniable core, notwithstanding some fine distinctions around the edges. What more could be gained at this point by “constructive dialogue” in some tweed-jacket-and-pipe setting? If we are truly convinced that the Reformed confessions and catechisms teach the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures, let us plant our flags there and not move an inch. We need to send a message to the Reformed mushy middle (I’m thinking of the PCA here) that certain things are non-negotiable, any place, any time.

  9. Dr. Clark, I have to echo Brad’s comments above.

    While I do understand and sympathize with your response (my church has already spoken, there are many furious scribblings out there for anyone to read, etc), there is also no substitute for personal, live interaction. I read Wilson’s book “Reformed is Not Enough” and I’ve read many responses to FV teaching from URC and OPC folk, but I still do not have a good handle on the debate or the issues at stake.

    I suppose you could say that a 2-hour live debate is open to just as much obfuscation and hand-waving, and therefore is just as likely to cause confusion as all the written debates that have come before. But speaking for myself, I have found live debates far more illuminating and instructive than any books/papers written on the same subjects. For one thing, if you ask a question that the other guy cannot or simply refuses to answer, it’s far more obvious live than from behind a keyboard.

    • David,

      Unlike the president, when I use a period it’s a “full stop” as the Brits say. It’s not a comma. This is not open to discussion. If I have to close the comments on this post I will.

  10. Since Game and Fish has identified Wolves as primary predators of sheep that means we shouldn’t go out and shoot them? That is the logic I understand from you Dr. Clark.

  11. As a Wesleyan Arminian, I think that the views of Mr. Olson et al. would gain considerably in force and clarity if they adopted an out-and-out Arminian position; they are rather obscure and wishy-washy now. (And I think that you need a strong dose of John Wesley, but that’s a different matter….)
    Best wishes.
    Bob Emery

  12. Fine points, all, but I’m wondering what sparked this post. Are there actually NAPARC churches inviting Wilson to preach at their churches?

  13. Ok Dr. Clark perhaps I was too hasty in how I read you. Would John’s reasoning for not having debate at the Strange Fire conference (given here be similiar to your reasoning for the refusals to Wilson? If that is the case then to look back at my earlier post you aren’t saying don’t shoot the wolves you just desire to use different ammo.

  14. How is this constructive?

    I could see the frustration in discussing definitions and doctrines with a Mormon, but the ‘wolf’ in this case is affirming the doctrinal formulations summarized in Dort, Belgic, Athanasian, Nicene, Apostle’s, Heidelberg, Westminster. Shouldn’t that at least buy him some charity? Do any two Christians agree on every jot, tittle, and emphasis?

    You said: “Wilson’s language of “baptismal regeneration” is, at best, confusing, since the Reformed have not historically used this language to refer to baptism.”

    Calvin: “Baptism also brings another benefit, for it shows us our mortification in Christ, and new life in him…[T]hrough baptism Christ makes us sharers in his death, that we may be engrafted in it.”

    Luther: “This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves. For no one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, ‘to be saved.’ To be saved, as everyone knows, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death and the devil, to enter into Christ’s kingdom, and to live with him forever.”

    Hodge: “Christ purifies his church by baptism. That is the initiatory rite; which signifies, seals, and applies to believers all the benefits of the Redeemer’s death.”

    Who are ‘the Reformed’? Am I missing something?

    If this is going to stay ringside (Heidelblog v. Dougwils), then at least write in larger font on some poster boards so we in the nosebleeds have a better chance of seeing the messages. Top 5 or 10 points made by the ‘FV’ that contradict Scripture or Confession (or a blog post titled “What Doug Wilson Should Repent of as a Preacher of the Gospel”) — it doesn’t have to be fresh; others’ arguments and refutations will do. If the claim on the table is that ‘an uncertain sound on the article of the standing and falling of the church’ is confusing Christians, then help us discern the sound and tell us plainly how to get the needle back on the vinyl.

    If you’ve already done this, I apologize in advance and look forward to reading. Otherwise, we may have to get used to this echo chamber for a long time.

  15. Thanks, Scott.

    So, what’s the point? Why the daily posts if the ‘FV’ and its proponents have already been fenced out by the denominations you care about, and the NAPARC as a whole? You’ve made your case as to what you think Leithart et al is saying about justification. They deny that they are saying what you say they’re saying. You affirm the GA reports and SJC trials when their conclusions satisfy you, but question their processes when they don’t. It’s an impasse, and I’m not sure who this unending squabble is helping.

    • Patrick,

      What’s the point of asking what’s the point? Actually, I’ve written very little about the FV in recent years but it’s an issue again. I hit the pitches that come across the plate.

      You’re saying that disagreeing with procedural questions is equivalent to denying the doctrine of justification? Really?

      The “squabble” is about the article of the standing or falling of the church. Helping people to understand the dangers of corrupting the gospel is one of the things I was ordained and called to do.

  16. Dr Clark as a lay person that tries as best I can to study the issues and having sat under preaching and teaching that warned of FV I can’t express enough joy at reading this as I know many that are not FV but still associate with Wilson, this is heresy…. I recall being at a VERY small conference wherein I approached RC Jr about Doug Wilson and FV, well you would have thought I called his mother a name..

    Thanks for writing this and may many be convicted and reject FV and may as you stated below mr Wilson repent of this heresy ( I don’t like using error as it is not a strong enough term) no need to meet him for a debate the scriptures and thus the truth are on your side…

  17. Dr. Clark, I understand your warning about not allowing “Arminius” into our pulpits.

    What is your opinion of allowing “Arminius” to sit in a position of authority over our children’s education, or to take this a bit farther our, to eat a restaurant in which “Arminius” is the head chef?

    I’m trying to figure out how far to take this…

    • Ben,

      I do with folk would reckon more closely with the Federal Vision theology before they send their children to “classical” schools that are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Federal Vision theology—there are lots of classical schools that are NOT affiliated with Moscow, Logos, NSA etc but there are many that are. People should understand that it’s not possible to buy just some of the Moscow message.

      I don’t care if Arminius is cooking my food but there’s a material difference between having him in the pulpit, corrupting God’s Word, having him in the classroom, corrupting the minds of children, and having him in the kitchen. I do believe in the ordinary providence of God (called, in modern times, common grace). Pagans make my lunch on a regular basis—and it costs a lot more than it did! Street paving and preaching aren’t the same thing.

  18. I hadn’t heard of these Federalists at all until it was mentioned on a forum (Free Republic) that quoted your blog! A Catholic had posted an article from some Federalist calling himself a “Reformed Catholic.”It’s incredible to me that these non-Roman Romanists are even taken seriously!

    • Humbly,

      1. Note the combox rules. No anonymous/pseudonymous comments unless approved by the management.

      2. I don’t know this cat but judging by the statement of faith on the website, no, he would not be permitted in the pulpit of a properly ordered Reformed church. See the latest post on this.

  19. It is not debatable that Luther taught (rightly, and in keeping with the entire church from antiquity) baptismal regeneration. Or is there a Lutheran theologian anywhere in the 500 year history of Lutheranism that would dispute it? Should his catechisms be rewritten?

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