Arminian Philosophy and Theology

I recently read this IVP book: Why I Am Not A Calvinist by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell. I’ve read the early 17th century five Remonstrance points before, but I wanted a current explanation of Arminian theology.  The book is basically structured like this: 1) Approaching and engaging the Bible, 2) Calvinism, human freedom, and divine sovereignty, and 3) the [in]consistency of Calvinism and the [un]pastoral aspect of Calvinism in everyday life.  There are six chapters (and around 200 pages) that talk about those themes.

The main point of the book, in the authors’ own terms, is to show how Arminian theology gives a more biblical picture of God’s loving character than does Calvinism (p.8).  Up front, I do not think the book succeeded in this.  The authors show how Arminian theology holds that God loves all people and graciously enables everyone to believe, but he doesn’t actually determine who believes.  I’m not sure how this squares with Paul’s teaching that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ or that he predestined his people in love.  The Arminian definition of God’s love is that it is enabling, universal love, but not saving and preserving love.  They say, “God loves all sinners…and actively works to promote their eternal well-being” (p. 221).  However, in Arminian terms, he does not actually secure their eternal well-being.  Seems to me like this is a weak love, not a strong one.

I was frustrated with this book because at times the authors were writing against hypercalvinism – something like strict determinism or fatalism.  Rather than extensive citations, the authors only engaged a small handful of Calvinists, some who are not even Reformed.  While they did cite the Westminster Confession a few times, they did not even mention the Canons of Dort.  Over and over the authors said that Calvinists teach ‘such and such,’ but no citations were provided.  A few times I even wondered, “What Calvinist teaches that?”  The scholarship level of this book was disappointing.  I was hoping for an in-depth refutation of Calvinism but this book was more superficial.

Another disappointing aspect of this book was the overall content.  While the authors argued for almost 50 pages on the need to be biblical in this debate, the amount of real exegesis was minimal.  They did walk through a few texts, but overall the exegesis was weak and lacking.  The Scripture index is only two pages long.  After reading this book, I still don’t know many exegetical arguments for Arminian theology (aside from a horrendous reading of Romans 9!). 

From a philosophical point of view, the authors spent several chapters talking about determinism, libertarianism, and compatibilism and other such themes.  They also used some arguments from Molinism (including middle knowledge, the topic of another post!) as well as Open Theism.  In fact, though the authors say they aren’t straight-up Open Theists, they do not condemn this movement as heretical. Walls and Dongell do say that though God knows all the possible choices we might make, he does not know the actual choices we make: “He does not know beforehand how we will decide” (p. 146).  They even note that God tested Abraham because he did not know if Abraham truly feared him (p.144).  In other words, their philosophical view of Arminianism teaches that God does not know the heart.  This is unbiblical; God does know the heart (1 Chr. 28:9, Ps. 139, etc.).  I do not believe that these philosophical arguments are based on solid biblical principles; as Reformed theology has shown in the past 350+ years, things like Molinism, Middle Knoweledge, and Open Theism are unbiblical and even dangerous (not to mention the Synod of Dort’s refutation of Arminianism). 

Another thing worth noting is the authors’ insistence that they believe firmly in the sovereignty of God.  However, their definition of sovereignty is not the historic definition of God’s sovereignty.  The reader should note this at the outset.  They also insist that they believe the sinfulness of mankind, but obviously their view of sin is not at all what we call total depravity.  In fact, they don’t really talk about the nature of sin very much in this book.  To be honest, I finished the book thinking their philosophical view of man’s freedom was the point on which they based their entire argument.

I’m not giving this book a critical review because it is a book on Arminianism.  If the authors had done more exegesis, been less philosophical, and if they had represented Calvinism in a more scholarly and accurate manner, I wouldn’t be nearly as critical.  You won’t want this book if you’re looking for a level-headed, exegetical refutation of Calvinism and defense of Arminianism.  You may want it if you are looking for a philosophical defense of Arminianism from the realm of middle knowledge and Open Theism.

I still believe Calvinism (or better – the doctrines of grace) is much closer to what the Bible teaches about sin, salvation, and the saving love of God.

Here’s the full info for the book: Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

shane lems

sunnyside wa