Sometime back, Howard wrote to ask, “How and when did Arminianism become the predominate view?” That is a good question. First, we should distinguish between Jacob Arminius (James Harmenszoon, 1560–1609) and the Arminians (or the Remonstrants). Relative to the conclusions Arminian/Remonstrant theology later reached, Arminius was relatively conservative. He was investigated by thoroughly orthodox Reformed theologians, who were justly suspicious of his theology and pedagogy. They were not, however, 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 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 certain that Arminius taught essentially what became the Five Points of the Remonstrants—one is almost forced to think he dissembled during the interviews with Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641) and others.
As 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 with some rebellious and rationalist Reformed theologians in the twentieth century), if we cannot know what God knows, the way he knows it, we cannot ultimately know anything.1
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 also adopted another form of rationalism from certain Renaissance scholars who considered human rationality to be the measure of all things. We see this evidenced in the Socinian movement that became predominant in the modern period. The authority of Scripture became displaced by the authority of human reason. Like the Socinians, the Remonstrants abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity and became an incubator for the Enlightenment and for Unitarian Universalism.2
How does this answer the question? There have been two great modern schools of thought: rationalism and subjectivism. Presently, subjectivism seems to be winning. But for a long time, rationalism prevailed in the West, and Arminianism was a child of that rationalism. Popularized Arminianism was adaptable to the ruggedly individualistic frontier religion of the American westward expansion. Thus, versions of Arminianism became the predominant religion in American evangelicalism during the so-called Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century. 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 nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century (warning: tortured metaphor approaching), Reformed Orthodoxy was KO’d.
Because they shared common presuppositions, “evangelical” rationalism was no threat to the Enlightenment. Reformed orthodoxy, however, was a threat. Thus, the liberals spent their fury in the early twentieth century suing, ridiculing, attacking, and dismantling orthodox Reformed dissent. In contrast, the “evangelical” rationalists became fundamentalists and withdrew from the culture in the first half of the twentieth century (further reducing their threat to the liberal, mainline establishment).
The other wing of the Enlightenment was subjectivism—that is, the notion that what matters is one’s internal (psychological or emotional) experience. By the early eighteenth 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 Pietism. The Pietists believed the Bible, but they marginalized theology in favor of religious experience. The children and grandchildren of the Pietists, however, simply caved when exposed to the Enlightenment’s withering critique of orthodoxy and made Christianity a matter of a private experience of “the divine” rather than a historical faith grounded in objective reality.
The subjectivist wing of evangelicalism from the eighteenth century did not fare well either. One wing of Jonathan Edwards’ followers adopted forms of liberalism; the other, generally orthodox Calvinists, gradually shed Edwardsean subjectivism and became marginalized by the growing liberal mainstream establishment. Those who remained generally orthodox and subjectivist became the backbone of the evangelical movement of the twentieth 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!). Versions of Wesleyan methodism and of Charles Finney’s “new method” revivalism became the theology, piety, and practice of the westward expansion. In the twentieth century, Arminianism became the theology of fundamentalism and revivalism. Those two movements dwarfed the remnant of Reformed orthodoxy.
In short, by the mid-twentieth century, some version of Arminianism became the default theology of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. In my view, this was because 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 forms of Arminianism adapted successfully to modernity and modernism over the centuries. 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 Arminius and rationalism, see R. Scott Clark, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology,” in The Pattern Of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology At The Westminster Seminaries: Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple, ed. David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80. 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 (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1991).
- 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, Studies in the History of Christian Thought, vol. 29. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1982).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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