Why Did Arminianism “Win”?

James_ArminiusSometime back Howard wrote to ask, “How and when did Arminianism become the predominate view?” That’s a good question. First, we should distinguish between Jacob Arminius (James Hermanzoon) and the Arminians (or the Remonstrants). Relative to the conclusions Arminian/Remonstrant theology later reached, Arminius was relatively conservative of Reformed theology. He was investigated by thoroughly orthodox Reformed theologians, who were justly suspicious of his theology and pedagogy, but they were not able to prove conclusively that he was teaching error.

Nevertheless, there was certainly an organic relation between Arminius and the Remonstrants who complained (hence their name) against the Reformed theology of the Belgic Confession. Many of the views that Arminius was alleged to have taught, which he denied teaching, were articulated in the Five Articles of the Remonstrance (to which the Synod of Dort replied several years later in their Five Canons) almost immediately after Arminius’ death. It seems reasonably sure that Arminius taught essentially what became the Five Points of the Remonstrants and one is almost forced to think that he dissembled during the interviews with Gomarus and others.

patternsoundcvrAs Remonstrant theology developed, however, its basic nature became clearer and that basic nature was rationalism. Arminius was a rationalist in at least one sense of the word inasmuch as he denied the fundamental Reformed distinction between the intellect of the Creator and the intellect of the creature. For Arminius (as for some rebellious and rationalist Reformed theologians in the 20th century) if we could not know what God knows, the way he knows it, we cannot ultimately know anything. For more on this see “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology,” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine. See also Richard Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy.

What was at least implicit in Arminius’ theology became explicit in his followers, especially in the work of Simon Episcopius (Bisschop). The Remonstrant movement became increasingly unorthodox as it not only built on Arminius’ rationalism but as it adopted another form of rationalism from certain Renaissance scholars, as evident in the Socinian movement, that became predominant in the modern period, i.e. the notion that human rationality is the measure of all things. The authority of Scripture became displaced by the authority of human reason. As in the case of the Socinians, the doctrine of Trinity was abandoned and the Remonstrants became a seminary for the Enlightenment and for the Unitarian Universalism. For more on the nature of the Remonstrant movement after Arminius see John E. Platt, Reformed Thought and Scholasticism. The Arguments for the Existence of God in Dutch Theology, 1575-1650 vol. 29, Studies in the History of Christian Thought (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1982).

How does this answer the question? There have two great modern schools of thought: rationalism and subjectivism. Presently subjectivism seems to be winning but for a long time the West was rationalist and Arminianism was a child of rationalism. Popularized Arminianism was more adaptable to the rugged individualist, frontier religion of the American westward expansion.

Versions of Arminianism became the predominant religion in American evangelicalism during the so-called Second Great Awakening in the 19th century and that movement became a tsunami that swamped orthodox Calvinism. To switch metaphors: between the right cross of the higher critical movement emerging from the Enlightenment and the uppercut from “evangelical” Arminian moralism and rationalism (they always go hand-in-hand) Reformed orthodoxy was on the canvas  by the end of the 19th century and by the early century (warning: tortured metaphor approaching) Reformed Orthodoxy was KO’d.

Because they shared common presuppositions, “evangelical” rationalism was no threat to the Enlightenment but Reformed orthodoxy was a threat so the liberals spent their fury in the early part of the 20th century suing, ridiculing, attacking, and dismantling orthodox Reformed dissent. The “evangelical” rationalists became “fundamentalists” and alternately withdrew from the culture (further reducing their threat to the liberal, mainline establishment) in the first half of the 2oth century.

The other wing of the Enlightenment was subjectivism, i.e. the notion that what matters is internal, psychological or emotional, experience. By the early 18th century, a good bit of evangelicalism in the colonies became subjectivist, in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. In Europe, this subjectivism became known as “pieitism.” The pietists believed the bible but they marginalized theology in favor of religious experience. The children and grandchildren of the pietists, however, when exposed to the withering critique of orthodoxy by the Enlightenment simply caved and made Christianity a matter of private experience of “the divine” rather than a historical faith grounded in objective reality.

The subjectivist wing of evangelicalism from the 18th century did not fair well either. One wing of Edwards’ followers adopted forms of liberalism and the other, generally orthodox Calvinists, gradually shed the Edwardsean subjectivism and became marginalized by the growing liberal mainstream establishment. The who remained generally orthodox and subjectivist became the backbone of the “evangelical” movement of the 20th century.

By 1950 the confessional Reformed remnant was either sequestered in relatively small ethnic denominations (e.g. RCUS, CRC) or in small Presbyterian denominations (e.g. the OPC) with no institutions, no buildings, no bodies, and no budgets.

There were branches of Arminianism, however, that remained “evangelical” in some (modern) sense. The Wesleys identified formally with the Reformation (even though their theology was in considerable tension with it!) and versions of Wesleyan methodism and of Charles Finney’s “new method” revivalism became the theology, piety, and practice of the westward expansion. In the 20th century, Arminianism became the theology of fundamentalism and revivalism and those two movements dwarfed the remnant of Reformed orthodoxy.

In short, by the mid-20th century, some version of Arminianism became the default theology of evangelicalism and fundamentalism because, in my view, they posed relatively little threat to the fundamental assumptions of human autonomy and rationalism (or subjectivism) that shaped the modern mind. Early Arminianism anticipated modernity and over the centuries forms of Arminianism adapted successfully to modernity and modernism. In contrast, orthodox Calvinism was antithetical to modernity and modernism from the beginning and remained so in the succeeding centuries. Reformed orthodoxy was neither rationalist nor subjectivist and was therefore unwilling and unable to compromise with it.  For more on this see “On Being Truly Postmodern.”

This post first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2009

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. On a practical level there is a much simpler explanation. Democracy (especially in a cultural sense) is based on the idea that each person should be free to “decide for himself (or herself)” what he or she wishes to be. Calvinism strikes many people, even those in the Church, as “unfair” because it states that we are too depraved to make the right choice. The decisional model of conversion (YOU must decide) fits this idea perfectly. When I’ve tried to point out the passages in scripture that deal with our depravity – for example, that dead men do not decide on their own to come back to life – I am met with (a) blank stares and (b) repetition of what has already been stated, to the effect that God is “fair” and must give every person the chance to be saved.

    Calvinism has a very dreary view of human nature – even too dreary for most American Evangelicals. Ironically, the same people who are constantly moaning the state or direction of the culture – that its going straight downhill – are very reluctant to attribute that direction to anything intrinsic in human nature. It’s always due to the liberals or the Democrats or the media…not to our own depravity.

  2. Is modern evangelical theology strictly Arminian? Or, is it more semi-pelagian? Is there a difference?

    • Historic Arminianism seems to affirm the Calvinist understanding of total depravity, but then sees a doctrine of prevenient grace, which overcomes man’s depravity in order to be able to choose Christ. Where semi-pelagianism sees in man himself, the ability to choose Christ. There doesn’t seem to be a practical difference, but Arminianism seems to rely on scripture, where modern evangelicalism seems to just assert the basic goodness of man, apart from scripture, on the basis of their own subjective experience. Am I correct in my understanding?

  3. I like the “win”, as it seems that Arminianism IS the dominant theology of today. But it’s the wrong theology regardless of what the rather inconsistent Roger Olson says. Apparently God doesn’t have the freedom to love in the many ways that humans have the freedom to love (different kinds of love for different people). They limit God.

    Will is right: ” I am met with (a) blank stares and (b) repetition of what has already been stated, to the effect that God is “fair” and must give every person the chance to be saved. ” I get the same thing all the time. They limit God.

  4. Several questions can be answered.

    How did Evangelicals become democratized?

    Blame the Presbyterian and Congregationalist polities, in which the lay members have a say over who is to shepherd, teach, and govern the congregation.

    Further, the Reformed churches generally did not get along with the idea of royal absolutism that the decay of feudalism brought to the fore in the 16th and 17th centuries. At the beginning of _Lex Rex_(1644), Samuel Rutherford, political and theological spokesman for Covenanting Scotland, observed that government is divine _in radice_, but popular _in modo_. Calvin, while waffling over the right of rebellion in Book Iv of the _Institutes_, nonetheless states that the best form of government is a mix of aristocracy and –hold your breath–democracy. Between Calvin and Rutherford we also have a host of monarchomach thinkers (“strikers of monarchs”–a term coined by William Barclay, the RC apologist for Mary Queen of Scots) among the Reformed, including John Knox, Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, Francois Hotman, Theodore de Beze, Junius Brutus, and Philippus Marnix van Sint Aldegonde. All these put forth the idea of government as an agreement between people and rulers (and God) long before Locke was even thought of (and Locke was from a Puritan home anyway).

    I also think there’s a sociological element at work. The Methodists and Campbellites (to take two strongly Arminian movements) surged ahead on the American frontier because they were willing to use preachers with very little formal training. They thus had the Presbyterians and Congregationalists outnumbered when it came to workers. As for the German and Dutch Reformed, perhaps their belonging to a linguistic ghetto may have preserved them a little longer.

    Further, a society educated on the Bible “gets” its textbook no better than our modern school kids “get” what they learn in their modern textbooks. Given that the Reformed faith refuses to flatter human nature, it’s at a disadvantage in a society in which the David Aikenheads aren’t hanged or the Roger Williams and Goody Hutchinsons not expelled.

    And, perhaps, maybe we Reformed folk haven’t been as faithful to what we’ve been given. The struggle with idolatry and other sins is one that is with us in all generations.

    How did Arminians win?

    The half-baked always comes out of the oven before the better bread. See my ideas about the Methodists and Campbellites.

    • It would appear to me that the change in the American evangelical scene occurred primarily in the days of Andrew Jackson, the famous populist. He was ‘the people’s President.’ Before Jackson, people still viewed government as fundamentally aristocratic. They looked to leaders who were wiser than they. Beginning with Jackson, however, they voted for drunks like themselves. Jackson was ‘one of them.’

      During this same time, the ‘pioneer spirit’ was really big in the United States. ‘Do it yourself.’ Unfortunately, much of the wealth garnered by the pioneers was at the expense of the American Indians. Lawlessness and drunkenness were rampant. But it was in this climate that Finneyism flourished.

      Al Hembd

  5. The re-posting of this blog subject is timely, indeed, considering both the fine lectures at the recent WSC symposium on sanctification and Dr. Clark’s excellent supporting segments on nominism and antinomianism. It just so happens that I also received the copy of Venema’s condensed version of his response to Wright’s NPP, “Getting the Gospel Right,” in the mail today and immediately dove into the text.

    Taken collectively, all of these items remind me of a remark I heard at a conference a number of years ago by the venerable Todd Wilken (Issues, Etc. host) that God works in “small ways.” He used a cowardly man with a speech problems raised under false pretenses to lead Israel out of slavery followed by many miraculous events. He used a small boy armed with only a sling and some stones to instigate the defeat of the Philistine army. He used a small, humble birthplace to bring his Son into the world to fulfill the covenant. And he used a despised and wicked form of suffering to bring about his Son’s death for the atonement of our corruption and sinfulness.

    Yet, what we seem to find all around us are those all too anxious to jump on the high, wide, and handsome highway of the “next big thing,” be it a megachurch, an ecumenical movement, or some new perspective on some portion of Scripture. Instead, why aren’t we looking for the way God works among his people along the small, narrow, and intimate pathways – those seemingly insignificant, struggling communions that have been faithful to his Word all along?

  6. Kepha, than you for your sociological comments

    You are right “we Reformed folk haven’t been as faithful to what we’ve been given”.

    We’ve been given a big picture of God’s sovereignty, that God gives life to dead men. We then maintain that such life is the same as men having free will restored to them. And from there it is a small step for Arminians to say we had that free will in the first place (subject perhaps to a helping hand of prevenient grace)

    Does regeneration mean we now have free will?

  7. These sociological insights are very interesting but if we take the Reformed faith as the true faith and an indicator of the regenerate, then – without being naive – how would these sociological pressures eat away at those already regenerate (assuming we believe in the perseverance of the saints)?

    Such pressures might block fresh conversions but for those truly regenerate, they will act as psychological persecution. The diminution of the Church will come through deaths and no ‘births’.

    Presumably the Reformed denominations are and have been decreasing in number for 50+ years. Can we say anything, theological rather than sociological, about the Reformed faith itself from this? Are we teaching something awry?

  8. There are issues in interpreting a movement with what that movement later on “became.” The things laid against Arminius are often of this kind. In my later years (I am now 64), I have come to believe that what Roger Olson calls “Arminianism of the heart” best represents biblical soteriology. It is fair to call attention to the rationalistic “Arminianism of the head,” which Olson also does and rejects. Robert Godfrey also charges the Arminians with rationalism. One of the issues that perhaps you could explain for me is why Calvinism in England and in North America so quickly morphed into Unitarianism. By the third generation in New England there was a significant impulse for this stream of thought, a surprising development. But by my understanding the Calvinism of England also followed a similar pattern. One would think that if Calvinism had mined gold that enriched the church so deeply that it would not have so quickly turned, not into another kind of Christianity, but into a religion that was not Christianity at all. I have my own perceptions of perhaps why this might have been the case, one of which is that the human psyche was not able to stand up under the kind of introspection that Calvinism engendered from which their doctrine of predestination could give no relief. Ultimately the Calvinistic formula that God predestined the means as well as the end was not enough balm to soothe the troubled souls. I think a turn away from Calvinism was in part due to the peculiar kinds of strains it put on the soul, under which it could not bear up. In other words, the turn toward a more deistic view was a search for soul relief. I am sure you would have some insight on this. Please share if you can find the time.

    • I too am in my later years (62) and now describe myself as ‘confused but at a deeper level’. I too hope RSC will pitch in

      I recall exchanges with Olson and he did not mention this intriguing distinction. Does ‘Arminianism of the heart’ mean a choice that is real and self-determining but it is done by the heart not the head; or does it mean something that appears like a real choice of the head but in fact is an externally moved choice of the heart? These are key anthropological issues relating to a doctrine of man

      Here in the UK, the terms Calvinist, Reformed, and even ‘evangelical’ are used pretty interchangeably (since we have no Lutherans and the URC and Methodists are dead on their knees). This group would be horrified to hear themselves described as Unitarian but, you are right, something is missing – arguably an Augustinian /Sibbesian trinitarianism in favor of essentially a wrathful Creator God against whom a rather junior salvific Son interposes himself (however much we try to balance out the good cop, bad cop between Them).

      So like you, I ask whether the flight from the Reformed faith is because some doctrinal gold has been replaced by (i) holiness and a wrathful Father as the ultimate picture of the meaning of the universe, to which mercy and love are secondary; (ii) against the terror of such a picture, predestination was, as you say, unable to stand (iii) at least without some other basis for assurance which, faute de mieux, had to be a subjective introspection – though this is what plagued Luther in the first place (iv) and which is not only subjective but transient since current and future forgiveness is based on current and future confession and repentance (v) which is itself our way of adding in a human element to stand against what seems like the horrors of antinomianism. In fact arguably all this is done to keep antinomianism at bay, and yet I don’t know anyone except some 16th century crazies, some loony cults, and modern day ‘contextualising’ Liberals who want to do this!!

      So, yes and I like the way you put it, a theism that is, emotionally at any rate, strongly against you the sinner is far less like gospel good news than (i) a strong ‘roll your sleeves up’ deism (eg Islam); or (ii) a weak deism where morality and mercy are mingled and what’s more, in unclear rational and emotional proportions (eg Anglicanism). Of course from a weak deism it is only a short, logical hop to atheism where the savagery of a wrathful god is replaced by the savagery of self-interested mutants.

      Until love is seen as God’s supreme characteristic – not just towards mankind but truly within the trinity – people will be leaving the theatre. There must be three Persons on the stage, not One

  9. Arminianism did not “win” in the sense that we still have Calvinists. If you think about the Church universal — Charismatics, Evangelicals, Reformed, Catholics, Orthodox, non-Chalcedonians, Anabaptist — there is more than one understanding of divine sovereignty and soteriology. Yet some of the people in each tradition are saved. The fruits of Christ are evident in their lives.

    I think the message from that fact is that our puny head knowledge about God’s sovereignty, be it correct or imperfect, is irrelevant to the actual exercise thereof. Is it not a principal tenet of Reformed thought that God does not need our help to choose us?

    My own view is that while Calvinism may give answers that seem closer to the Scripture on some issues, it often asks the wrong questions. While Evangelical and Charismatic theologies may be superficially similar to Arminianism, I think they ask different questions than both Arminius and Calvin, and get some good answers, and therefore have had some success.

    I reject the thought implicit in this article and in some of the responses that their success was not at least in part due to the grace of God working mightily in them. What, is everyone before and after the Reformation wrong? Unsaved? I had a friend who was a Tridentine Catholic, and I joked with him about the grandma who exclaimed, “Oh, look! Little Johnny is the only one in the parade marching in step!” That’s how I feel reading this article.

    As an example of the wrong questions, take the idea of the penal atonement. We assume that the reason Christ died was to pay the death penalty for each and every one of our sins. “No sin is greater or lesser than any other,” you hear often, in many kinds of churches, despite Scripture to the contrary.

    But isn’t it true that our works cannot please God? Then why would he judge us by a standard of works-righteousness in the first place? Is God a Pharisee? We protest that “If you think of God as an angry judge, you have the wrong view, and it will cripple your life. (this from a Calvinist pastor)” But isn’t that exactly the view we must have, if it is true that Jesus’ atonement was based on a life of perfect works-righteousness, and if it merely substitutes for our failure to do good works? I think our view of sin, righteousness, faith, grace, and the Atonement is warped. We’re asking the wrong questions. And if we judge others because they aren’t coming up with the same answers, how helpful is that?

    • I am intrigued by your comments!

      Can you please state your definitive position (without eg so many rhetorical questions)

    • Coby,

      1. The context is the history of evangelicalism in America. There are 60 million of them, most of whom are Arminian, and about 500,000 confessional Reformed folk. Numerically, they won.

      2. You’re drawing a number of inferences not implied. See the Belgic Confession (http://rscottclark.org/2012/09/belgic-confession-1561/) for a summary of Reformed theology.

      3. We believe in the catholicity of the church. We also believe that there is a true visible church outside of which, ordinarily, no one is saved. We don’t think that we are the only true church in the world, however. We also don’ think that everyone entity that calls itself a church is one. See Belgic Art 28-29.

      4. Our soteriology is indebted to the church in all ages and particularly to Augustine (contra Pelagius) and the Reformation. It’s not peculiar. It has been held throughout the church since the 2nd century. Certain things, however (e,g., imputation) were made clearer in the Reformation, as happens in history.

      5. We believe that all the elect have been saved, are saved, and shall be saved. We wouldn’t presume to say what God can do. We do think, however, we know what he has said in Scripture about where he intends to administer his salvation and how we should respond to his Word. See the Belgic Confession.

      6. Our works do not please God for justification. That’s the major point. They are filthy rags. That’s why Paul contrasted works righteousness with grace in Romans 10 and in virtually everything else he wrote.

      Our works are graciously accepted by God for Christ’s sake as evidence and fruit of our free justification. See the Heidelberg Catechism (http://rscottclark.org/2012/09/heidelberg-catechism-1563/) and the Belgic (art 24) on this.

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