theological shift is underway among evangelicals as well as other
Christians...This trend began, I believe, because of a fresh and
faithful reading of the Bible in dialogue with modern culture,
which places emphasis on autonomy, temporality, and historical
This announcement from Dr. Clark Pinnock, a respected evangelical
theologian, is neither a criticism, nor a warning, but a promising
development in the view of its author.
A number of evangelical leaders met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity
School near Chicago two years ago for the purpose of defining
the term "evangelical," but many left as confused concerning
what that label comprehends as they were when they arrived. It
is becoming increasingly difficult to say what an evangelical
is and is not. Basically, American evangelicalism divides, from
the mid-eighteenth century on, into two traditions: revivalistic
and Reformational (as in the 16th century Reformation). While
the Great Awakening in America and the Evangelical Revival in
Britain were examples of the harmony between reformation and revival,
these eventually became rivals as the latter developed an Arminian
theology. As the Arminian branch of revivalism gained the popular
advantage, evangelicalism became increasingly shaped by human-centered
theology on a popular level even while its principal works of
systematic theology were reformed.
However, today we see a shift even within the evangelical theological
leadership. Pinnock writes, "It is my strong impression,
confirmed to me even by those not pleased by it, that Augustinian
thinking is losing its hold on present-day Christians." Evangelists
are not the only ones preaching an Arminian gospel: "It is
hard to find a Calvinist theologian willing to defend Reformed
theology, including the views of both Calvin and Luther, in all
its rigorous particulars now that Gordon Clark is no longer with
us and John Gerstner is retired...So I do not think I stand alone."
The drift is on. Pinnock insists that Augustine was shaped by
Greek thinking more than scripture and the reformers simply followed
his mistakes, but that was acceptable for their time: "Just
as Augustine came to terms with ancient Greek thinking, so we
are making peace with the culture of modernity."2
The purpose of these quotes is not to focus attention on one evangelical
theologian's departure from Reformation theology, but to raise
the question in very practical terms, "Is it possible to
be an 'evangelical Arminian'?" In this article I attempt
to defend a negative answer to that important question.
is an Evangelical?
One might think that the term "protestant" has been
around a lot longer than "evangelical," the latter often
associated with the crusade and television evangelism of recent
years. However, the term "evangelical" is the older
of the two. It appears in medieval manuscripts, describing a qualification
of a good preacher: He must be evangelical. Until the Reformation,
however, that adjective could mean anything from having a sincere
love for Christ to possessing missionary zeal. When Luther arrived
on the scene he was eager to employ the time-honored term in the
service of gospel recovery. After all, what could be more appropriate
as a designation for a man or woman of the Reformation? It was
all about a recovery of the evangel itself.
Thus, the term took on a new significance, moving from an adjective
to a noun. One was not only "evangelical" in the ambiguous
medieval sense of being pious, zealous, and faithful, but an evangelical
in the sense that one adhered to the Reformation's tenets. After
1520 an evangelical was a person who was committed to the sufficiency
of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the total lostness
of humans, the sole mediation of Christ, the gracious efficacy
and finality of God's redemptive work in Christ through election,
propitiation, calling and keeping. The linchpin for all of this
was the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith
alone, because of Christ alone. Thus, the believer, declared righteous
by virtue of God's satisfaction with Christ's holiness imputed
(credited) to us through faith alone, is simul iustus et peccator--"simultaneously
justified and sinful."
The evangelicals, therefore, whether Lutheran or Reformed, insisted
that this was the gospel. It was not a peripheral area of abstract
doctrinal debate on which Christians could "agree to disagree
agreeably." It was not merely an implication of the gospel
or a part of the gospel: It was the gospel! It was this message
and no other, be it ever so similar, that everyone had to get
right. On other matters Christians of goodwill might differ, but
without the distinction between a gospel of works and a gospel
of grace alone, Luther wrote, one cannot distinguish a Christian
from a Muslim or Jew. Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza,
wrote, "Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel
is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted
and still corrupt Christianity."3
Theologians and historians to the present have referred to the
formal and material principle of the Reformation, the former being
the sufficiency of scripture, and the latter being the doctrine
of justification by grace alone through faith alone. As the formal
principle of the Reformation is "scripture alone!,"
we today must define "evangelical" according to scriptural
teaching. If the reformers misinterpreted the Bible on any one
of these key teachings, they must be corrected by those same scriptures.
However, historically, the term "evangelical" has referred
to those who embraced either the Lutheran or the Reformed confessions
of faith. Only in the gradual Americanization of the evangelical
faith has this inheritance been jettisoned, as though "scripture
alone" meant that to merely adhere to the formal principle
of the Reformation was enough. As long as one believed the Bible,
one could stand wherever he or she liked on the material principle
of God's method in saving sinners. If this were true, one would
have to concede to the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses membership
in the National Association of Evangelicals.
There are two ways of dealing with this question of defining "evangelical":
scriptural and historical, but in this brief space allow me to
focus on the argument that this term ought to be defined and used
in its historical, time-honored sense. While the Reformation may,
theoretically, have erred on its chief doctrines (since only scripture
is infallible), it is nevertheless unavoidably true that those
who called themselves evangelicals have historically affirmed
and defended those teachings as being biblical. Thus, historically
speaking, those who do not affirm those doctrines are, by virtue
of the law of non-contradiction, not evangelicals.
is an 'Arminian'?
James Arminius, one of Beza's students, first raised the eyebrows
of the Dutch Reformed Church by teaching that the person Paul
describes in Romans chapter seven was unregenerate, whereas the
Reformed had always interpreted it as a sad, but appropriate,
picture of the Christian life (simultaneously justified and sinful).
But there was more controversy beneath this: Arminius denied unconditional
election, arguing that God made his eternal decision based on
his foreknowledge of faith and obedience. With this the entire
Reformed system was denied.
Upon his death, however, Arminius's followers began to press the
theologian's claims even further. The "Remonstrants,"
as they were called, presented their claims in five points: election
was conditional (i.e., determined by foreseen faith and obedience),
the atonement was universal not only in sufficiency but in intention,
depravity is only partial, grace can be resisted, and the regenerate
can lose their salvation. Further, the Arminians denied the Reformation
belief that faith was a gift and that justification was a purely
forensic (legal) declaration. For them, it included a moral change
in the believer's life and faith itself, a work of humans, was
the basis for God's declaration. In 1618-19, the Synod of Dort,
an international conference of Reformed churches, the Remonstrants
("Arminians") were judged heretical and the churches
of the Reformation concurred, even those of non-Reformed persuasion
(as, for instance, the Lutherans).
Arminianism came to the English-speaking world chiefly through
the efforts of seventeenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury William
Laud, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, and the great preacher, Lancelot Andrewes.
The leading Puritans such as John Owen, Richard Sibbes and Thomas
Goodwin opposed Arminianism as a Protestant form of "Romanism"
in which the Christian faith degenerated into a moralism that
confused the Law and the Gospel and with-held from God his rightful
praise for the whole work of salvation. Eventually, the English
"Arminian" element evolved into the High Church wing
of the English Church, emphasizing the importance of ritual and
the church hierarchy as well as the moralistic Deism which characterized
the preaching of the eighteenth century.
Wherever Arminianism was adopted, Unitarianism followed, leading
on to the bland liberalism of present mainline denominations.
This can be discerned in the Netherlands, in Eastern Europe, in
England, and in New England. In fact, in a very short period of
time, the General (Arminian) Baptists of New England had become
amalgamated into the Unitarian Church in the eighteenth century.
This is not simply an argument from the so-called "slippery
slope": in other words, if we allow for x, soon we will be
embracing y. History actually bears out the relationship between
Arminianism and naturalism. One can readily see how a shift from
a God-centered message of human sinfulness and divine grace to
a human-centered message of human potential and relative divine
impotence could create a more secularized outlook. If human beings
are not so badly off, perhaps they do not need such a radical
plan of salvation. Perhaps all they need is a pep talk, some inspiration
at halftime, so they can get back into the game. Or perhaps they
need an injection of grace, as a spiritual antibiotic, to counteract
the sinful affections. But in Reformation theology, human beings
do not need help. They need redemption. They do not merely need
someone to show them the way out; they need someone to be their
way out of spiritual death and darkness.
Thus, the evangelicals who faced this challenge of Arminianism
universally regarded it as a heretical departure from the Christian
faith. One simply could not deny total depravity, unconditional
election, justification by grace alone through faith alone because
of Christ alone, and continue to call himself or herself an evangelical.
There were many Christians who were not evangelicals, but to be
an evangelical meant that one adhered to these biblical convictions.
While Calvinists and Lutherans would disagree over the scope of
the atonement and the irresistability of grace and perseverance,
they were both strict monergists (from mono, meaning "one"
and ergo, meaning "working"). That is, they believed
that one person saved us (namely, God), while the Arminians were
synergists, meaning that they believed that God and the believer
cooperated in this matter of attaining salvation. It was this
monergism which distinguished an evangelical from a non-evangelical
since the Reformation.
The heart of the Reformation debate was, Who saves whom? Does
God save sinners? Or do we save ourselves with God's help? The
Roman Catholic Church was confused on that question throughout
the Middle Ages, sharply divided at the time of the Reformation,
but finally determined by the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth
century that the second answer was better. God's grace is the
source, but human cooperation with that grace is what makes God's
saving will effective. Thus, God justifies us by making us better
and that involves our own participation.
The orthodox Protestants were not over-reacting, therefore, when
they regarded the Arminian denials as no different from the positions
of Trent, which had declared the evangelicals "anathema."
It would have been bigoted for them, therefore, to regard Trent's
position as unorthodox if they were unwilling to say the same
of a similar "Protestant" deviation.
So what does all of this mean for us nearly four centuries after
Arminianism was condemned by the Churches of England, Scotland,
Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, the French Protestants, and the
evangelicals of Eastern Europe?
In the British revival of the eighteenth century, Whitefield (a
Calvinist) and Wesley (an Arminian) were willing to work together
as close friends and allies in the evangelistic effort. However,
as Wesley began to teach that justification was not purely forensic
(that is, a legal declaration), but that it depended on "moment
by moment" obedience, the Calvinists who had enthusiastically
supported the revival and led the evangelistic cause side by side
grew increasingly worried. Late in life, Wesley recorded some
very unfortunate statements in his Minutes of the Methodist Conference,
including the conclusion that his own position was but "a
hair's breadth" from "salvation by works." Fearing
an implicit antinomianism (license) in the Reformation doctrines,
Wesley urged his supporters to warn the Calvinists "against
making void that solemn decree of God, 'without holiness no man
shall see the Lord,' by a vain imagination of being holy in Christ.
O warn them that if they remain unrighteous, the righteousness
of Christ will profit them nothing!"4
John Wesley's favorite writer, William Law, wrote, "We are
to consider that God only knows what shortcomings in holiness
He will accept; therefore we can have not security of our salvation
but by doing our utmost to deserve it." "We have,"
said he, "nothing to rely on but the sincerity of our endeavors
and God's mercy."5
Was Law an evangelical? If so, someone owes Pope Leo an apology.
The doctrine of justification--"simultaneously justified
and sinful"--is scandalous to human reason and Wesley is
famous for his "Quadrilateral" of authority: scripture,
tradition, experience, and reason. So much for "scripture
alone"! Both the material and the formal principle of the
Reformation are at least undermined, if not denied. So much of
tradition, experience, and reason opposes this doctrine. One modern
evangelical theologian writes, "We can love God perfectly
and we can be righteous in this world even as Christ is righteous..."
and adds that the Bible "leaves no place for voluntary and
known sin in the life of the believer."6
Another adds, "But can it really be true-saint and sinner
simultaneously? I wish it were so...Simul iustus et peccator?
I hope it's true! I simply fear it's not."7
These views were presented in a volume that offered five views
of sanctification from evangelical writers.
In the Evangelical Revival, therefore, Wesley was allowed to embrace
Arminianism while retaining the use of the evangelical label,
in spite of the fact that to that time evangelicalism had repudiated
the position as the very error of the medieval church that precipitated
the Reformation in the first place. In one of his best sermons
Wesley nevertheless defined justification not as a purely forensic
(legal) declaration distinct from sanctification, but as both
deliverance from the guilt of sin and "the whole body of
sin, through Christ gradually 'formed in his heart.'" To
be justified means that one does not sin "by any habitual
sin," "nor by any willful sin," "nor by any
sinful desire," nor "by infirmities, whether in act,
word or thought...And though he cannot say he 'has not sinned,'
yet now 'he sins not.'"8
Further, the Minutes for the First Annual Methodist Conference
affirm that repentance and works must precede faith, if by works
one means "obeying God as far as we can." "If a
believer willfully sins, he thereby forfeits his pardon."
"Are works necessary to continuance of faith? Without doubt,
for a man may forfeit the gift of God either by sins of omission
Justification may be lost every time one willfully disobeys and
Wesley adds, "We do not find it affirmed expressly in Scripture
that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to any, although
we do find that faith is imputed unto us for righteousness."
This imputation or crediting of faith as our righteousness, rather
than Christ's active and passive obedience, is precisely the doctrine
articulated by Arminius, rendering faith a work which achieves
righteousness before God. Knowing who will most likely balk against
the teaching within the evangelical Church of England, Wesley
asks, "Have we not then unawares leaned too much towards
Calvinism" in the past? "It seems we have," he
answers, equating Calvinism with antinomianism.9
Contemporary Wesleyan theologian, John Lawson, writes, "This
judicious and moderating 'Arminian Evangelicalism,' which is now
so largely characteristic of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, is perhaps
the most enduring and important contribution of the Methodist
movement to theological understanding in the Church."10
While Wesleyans insist they affirm justification by faith alone,
they define it in the same moral terms rejected by evangelicals
ever since the Reformation debate. Lawson himself defines justification
as "the first and all-important stage in a renewed manner
of life, actually changed for the better in mind and heart, in
will and action."11
Thomas Aquinas could hardly have improved on this definition.
Today, theologians such as Dr. Clark Pinnock insist on wearing
the "evangelical" label while they move beyond Arminianism
to an all-out denial of classical theism. Such spokespersons may
insist that they are merely contributing to the ongoing evolution
and upward development of doctrine, but in fact they are merely
reinventing old heresies. As Arminius revived Semi-Pelagianism,
Dr. Pinnock is merely advancing a revival of outright Pelagianism
and Socinianism, enhanced by the latest academic craze-process
Once he became an Arminian, Dr. Pinnock notes, "I soon realized
something would have to be done about the received doctrine of
God." God is no longer timeless, changeless, or even all-knowing.
After all, "decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere
to be known even by God." Dr. Pinnock also denies original
sin, admitting that on this point, as on others, he is moving
beyond Arminianism. And the next domino? "Obviously it required
me to reduce the precision in which I understood the substitution
[of Christ on the cross] to take place."12
It must be said that if such writers can continue to be regarded
as evangelical leaders (Dr. Pinnock is still a respected member
of the Evangelical Theological Society), it is up to us as heirs
of the Protestant Reformers to issue an apology to the Roman Catholic
Church for dividing over issues no more essential than these.
Original sin, the substitutionary atonement, justification, eternal
judgment, and classical theism (the doctrine of God) all must
go, according to Dr. Pinnock and his team of writers in A Case
for Arminianism (Zondervan, 1989). "I do not think we
should feel we have lost something of absolute value when we find
ourselves at variance with some of the old so-called orthodox
interpretations," Dr. Pinnock concludes.
From where I sit, the main problem is this: we have gone back
to using "evangelical" as an adjective. As its medieval
use was ambiguous, referring more to a general attitude of humility,
zeal, and simple Christ-likeness, so too the contemporary use
falls most often into that category. An evangelical is someone
who "loves Jesus," who "wins souls," and who
has a "sweet spirit." Ken Myers notes that evangelicals
no longer believe in orthodoxy, but in orthopathos-a concern for
right feelings rather than right thinking and worship.13 One Christian
publisher released a book by a Franciscan "evangelical"
titled, Evangelical Catholics. Karl Barth, the great neo-orthodox
theologian, is now widely regarded in conservative Protestant
circles as evangelical and reformed, even though he reinterpreted
the evangelical message beyond recognition. Again, Barth may be,
theoretically, correct from the biblical point of view. I do not
believe that he is and that is my primary objection to neo-orthodoxy,
but for those of us who hold scripture as the final test of truth,
I cannot ultimately reject Barthianism because he is at variance
with the creeds and confessions. Nevertheless, one can say that
Barth is not an evangelical in the historic, classical sense.
The same is true of "evangelical Roman Catholics" who
still deny the sufficiency of scripture, justification by grace
alone through faith alone, and so on. If "evangelical"
means anything at all any more, it is essential that we make such
Having said that, it is equally important to realize that this
is not a matter of bigotry or denominational pride. We will see
non-evangelicals in heaven. As I reflect on views that I used
to hold, it is sobering to say the least and it reminds me that
the chances are pretty good that I have a good distance to go
yet. While we must believe certain essential truths in order to
be saved, we are not saved by the amount of doctrine that we know.
There will doubtless be Roman Catholics, Arminians, and others
in Paradise who were saved by God's grace even if they, like me,
did not understand or appreciate that grace as much as they should
have. Nevertheless, if we are going to still use "evangelical"
as a noun to define a body of Christians holding to a certain
set of convictions, it is high time we got clear on these matters.
An evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical
can be a Roman Catholic. The distinctives of evangelicalism were
denied by Rome at the Council of Trent, by the Remonstrants in
1610, were confused and challenged by John Wesley in the eighteenth
century, and have become either ignored or denied in contemporary
In conclusion, the evangelical movement is faced with a difficult
decision: either to reclaim the meaning of "evangelical,"
or to shed its confinement. Let those maverick "evangelicals"
who deny the great truths of the evangelical (and indeed, even
the catholic) faith stand up with the courage of their convictions
and lead an exodus from evangelicalism, but it is to my mind the
height of arrogance and dishonesty to seek to represent oneself
as something which one clearly is not.
My purpose has not been to pontificate about what ought to be
done with certain individuals, but to point out the serious crisis
evangelicals face as a movement. It is as if the evangelical leadership
declared the movement a "consistency-free zone," an
island on which the law of non-contradiction does not apply. A
recent (April 27, 1992) issue of Christianity Today featured
an article offering a "third way," an alternative to
both Calvinism and Arminianism as "seeds for a biblical via
media," as though the Bible taught something in between the
view that God alone saves and that we cooperate with God in our
salvation. But the main benefit of such a position is not that
it explains the biblical record, but that it "stakes off
common ground-to the surprise, at times, of participants all around-marking
a safe and neutral area large enough for both groups to stand
while growing together in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
After 450 years of constant controversy, perhaps this is no small
step." After all, "The hallmark of a Christian is not
logic, but love" (pp. 32-33). The gospel is the church's
most precious possession, "for it is the power of God unto
salvation" (Rom.1:20), and the debates over its content are
not likely to disappear by a generous dosage of muddleheadedness
of which we evangelicals seem to be in rather large supply these
Today one can be an evangelical-which has historically meant holding
to total depravity, unconditional election, justification by grace
through faith alone, the sufficiency of scripture-and at the same
time be an Arminian, denying or distorting this very evangelical
message. Contemporary Christians, generally speaking, have chosen
to be agnostic on some of the most basic evangelical convictions.
A few generations ago, a defense of justification would be considered
a defense of evangelicalism itself, but today when I describe
this doctrine I often hear, "That's awfully Calvinistic."
(Obviously, those who say this have not run into many Lutherans!)
What used to be considered broadly evangelical is now regarded
by many as narrowly Reformed. Such shifts have been amply documented
in Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, by University
of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. This, I submit,
is just the sort of irresponsible thinking that is sweeping evangelicalism
out to sea in confusion, division and irrelevance.
Let us lovingly confront our brothers and sisters in a spirit
of boldness, but humility, as we undertake to bring ourselves
and our fellow Christians into greater conformity to "the
faith once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 24).
1. Dr. Clark Pinnock, A Case for Arminianism: The Grace of
God and the Will of Man (Zondervan, 1989), p. 15.
2. ibid., p. 27.
3. Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. by James
Clark (E. Sussex: Focus Press, 1992), p. 41.
4. Outler, ed., Wesley's Works, vol. 2, p. 127.
5. William Law, Christian Perfection, (Creation House,
1975), pp. 137-138.
6. Donald Alexander, ed., Christian Sanctification: Five Views
(IVP, 1981), p. 84.
8. "Salvation by Faith," by John Wesley, Timothy Smith,
ed., Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth (Zondervan,
9. "Minutes of the First Annual Methodist Conference,"
in Timothy Smith, ed., op. cit., pp. 155-158.
9. John Lawson, Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan,
1986), p. 217.
10. ibid., p. 226.
11. Pinnock, op. cit..
12. Ken Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes
(Crossway, 1989), p. 186.
Pinnock, cited above; Richard Rice, God's Foreknowledge and
Man's Will (Bethany); Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology
(Eerdmans); James Arminius's Collected Works (Baker); Carl
Bangs, Arminius (Zondervan); Allan Sell, The Great Debate
(Baker); Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace