Why Did Arminianism “Win”?

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.

Notes

  1. 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).
  2. 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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  • 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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12 comments

  1. This historical process of peoples’ ideologies working to sequester/remove the benefit of the Confessional Reformed Church in America clarifies the current condition of the ‘church’.

    What is Orthodox Calvinism?
    Is it also referred to as ‘flat’ Calvinism?
    What relationship to Calvin/Calvinism does the historical confessional reformed church have?

    • Catherine,

      Calvinism is a nickname given to the Reformed by the Lutherans. It’s come to be used more widely to refer to all the Reformed but originally Reformed was a broader term.

      Strictly speaking, Calvinism refers to that segment of the Reformed world indebted to or influenced by Calvin and the Genevan theology, piety, and practice.

      I’ve never read about “flat Calvinism.”

  2. Thank you for identifying the Lutherans as the source of ‘Reformed being Calvinism’. I read three short references to Lutherans in your book, RtRC. It seems the reason for calling the ‘Reformed’ Calvinist involved the Lutherans rejection of the ‘Regulative Principle of Worship’. Lutherans did not accept Calvin’s hedge around worship. Is this the Lutherans’ cause.

    I recall the term ‘flat Calvinism’ applied to narrowing Reformed Theology to Calvin and making the five points (T.U.L.I.P.) a static collection of “do’s” and “don’t’s” or identifiers.
    Which speaks more to an outer theology, piety, and practice rather than being in the substance of Christ.

    I am searching for the ‘reliable source’ of the term ‘flat Calvinism’.

  3. Certainly helpful. I’ve seen it over the years but wasn’t sure what it was. I began going to church when converted at 28. I thought Church was where Christians loving Christ and one another were. Wow ! What a rude awakening I’ve had over my 42 year of walking in the faith.
    I knew Arminianism had issues because I never believed I chose Christ because by my will I couldn’t, all I could do by my will is sin.
    But rationalism and subjectivism as becoming dominant in American Christianity clarifies what I’ve seen, experienced and have heard over the years. Fortunately about 10 years ago I discovered a reformed historical Church for which I’m most thankful.
    Q. Did the circuit riders from Wesley- Methodist help secure Arminianism in America. ?

    • I think Dr. Clark would agree that the issue underlying not only the success of the Wesleyan circuit riders but also the success of the Baptists in the South was the complete inability of the major denominations, as they existed in the mid-to-late 1700s, to provide enough ministers for the expanding western frontier.

      In my own county (Pulaski County, Missouri), the county’s largest Methodist church, located in the county seat of Waynesville, was originally founded by a Presbyterian elder who was an early settler, organized a church that included many of the key business and government leaders, arranged to hold worship services in the county courthouse (which at that time was the only public building large enough for that purpose) and rode hundreds of miles on horseback trying to convince a Presbyterian pastor to come to the church he had begun.

      He failed, and the church finally called a Methodist since the Methodists could provide a pastor and the Presbyterians couldn’t.

      That story, and variations on it, could be repeated hundreds and probably thousands of times all over the western frontier as it expanded into what is now the Midwest and the parts of the South that are west of the Appalachians.

      That’s not an argument for untrained ministers. It is an argument for working much harder to train men for ministry, and also to use the ruling elders, not just the ministers, to do church planting.

      • Darrell,

        The circuit riders and the Baptist preachers that flooded the South hadn’t spent 3-4 years reading Reformed theology (in Latin) or learning Greek & Hebrew, church history, and practice of the P&R churches. They did put us behind the eight ball practically. We couldn’t keep up with Western expansion but the underlying cultural revolution signaled by/pressed home by the election of Jackson in the early 19th century also meant that Reformed theology was on increasingly hostile ground. Even had we produced a wave of ministers in time, the radically democratic culture shift, the turn to Pentecostalism, Arminianism, Revivalism etc meant that were were, from a human perspective, in serious trouble.

  4. Thank you for your blog. This is certainly eye-opening. I find it very helpful to know what sets Arminians apart from those who are Reformed because there are dozens of ministries, church communities and online pastors and preachers who come from the Arminian tradition and I sometimes mistakenly follow those who are Arminian. It is hard sometimes to distinguish between the two groups.
    In fact, I am part of a Christian community where the members are a blend of two groups Reformed and Dispensationalist. When I say Dispensationalist I think Arminian, certainly rationalist. I have noted that the Dispensationalist group seems to separate their faith from their daily practice of life: they have the fastest cars, wear the latest clothes and interact with science freely. I have also noticed one key marker of this Dispensationalist group is that they seem to love apologetics. What has affected me is that they don’t seem to bring Biblical theology into all of life, but seem to separate daily life from their faith. This is unlike Kuyper who said “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Are these fair markers of the Dispensationalists? From a bigger perspective, what have you noticed sets Arminians apart from those who are Reformed in their daily lives? What markers can we look for that can help us detect Arminian theology?

  5. Wish I would have known this stuff earlier. I’ve been through the ringer of the American Christianity you’ve described. I couldn’t figure out why the Scriptures and Churches seemed so different.

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