Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity Gets it Wrong: Examining the So Called “15 Major Tenets of Arminianism”

About a year ago I engaged in a conversation with someone who kept misrepresenting Arminian and Wesleyan teaching while insisting that his claims were “historical facts”.  This person kept making reference to the “15 Major Tenets of Arminianism” to back up his claims.  I had no idea what this could be a reference to since I was not familiar with any document written by Arminius or the Remonstrants that went by such a name.  As it turns out, the so called “15 Major Tenets of Arminianism” is a sub-title given under the heading “Arminianism” in Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity.  Below is a critique proving that these 15 tenets are far from representative of Arminian theology.  

The 15 Major Tenets of Arminianism are:

1. Human beings are free agents and human events are mediated by the foreknowledge of God.

I suppose this might be considered a feature of Arminianism, but the wording is hard to follow.  What does it mean that “human events are mediated by the foreknowledge of God?”  Arminians certainly affirm that some human actions are truly free.  Arminians also affirm that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of all things, including truly free human choices and actions.  If that is what is meant, then the point is accurate; but it is worded very poorly and could be easily misconstrued.

2. God’s decrees are conditional, not absolute.

I don’t think this accurately reflects Arminianism at all.  One would first need to define “God’s decrees”.  Are we speaking of eternal decrees?  If not, then there are certainly decrees in Scripture that prove to be conditional (e.g., the decree that the priesthood would continue forever through Eli’s line, which was revoked due to Eli’s disobedience and failure to deal with his rebellious sons, 1 Samuel 2:30-33).  If the decrees in view have reference to eternal decrees, then the Arminian could say that God’s decrees are absolute while also affirming that they encompass conditions.

For example, the Arminian could say that God decreed from all eternity to endow His creatures with the power of free will and to hold them accountable for their choices and actions [1].  That would still be an “absolute” decree.  If an “absolute” decree has reference to an unchangeable and irresistible eternal decree that determines everything that will ever happen (including every human choice, sinful or otherwise), then Arminians do indeed reject such an “absolute” view of God’s decrees.  Still, the “conditional” aspect of #2 is imprecise and does not necessarily comport with any standard Arminian view of God’s decrees.  I can’t imagine that any Arminian would consider #2, as worded, to be anything even close to a “major tenet of Arminianism.”

3. God created Adam as innocent.

True.  Is this supposed to be in contrast to Calvinism?  Did God create Adam guilty in Calvinism?  I would say this is a major tenet of theology in general and not just Arminianism.

4. Sin consists in acts of the will.

Correct.  James 1:13-15 establish that well enough.  However, if this is meant to say that Arminians do not believe that we have a corrupt (sinful) nature, then this is entirely false.  All Arminians fully affirm man’s depravity and some (though not all) even affirm racial guilt (which is not the same as affirming total depravity).

5. Only the pollution, not the sin of Adam, is imputed to his
descendants.

As above, this is true of some Arminians, but not all.  Personally, I do not believe that God holds Adam’s descendents responsible for Adam’s sin.  However, I agree with all Arminians that Adam’s sinful nature is passed on to all of his descendents (though I am not sure “imputed” is the best way to express this).

6. Man’s depravity is not total, and his will is inclined toward God and good.

This is entirely false.  Such a claim has never been a feature of Arminianism.  Man’s depravity is total in Arminianism so that the will is not inclined towards God and good.  Point #6 is the opposite of what Arminianism teaches. [2]

7. The Atonement was not necessary but once offered is available to all.

This is worded so awkwardly it is difficult to grasp what is being asserted (just as many of these so called “tenets” so far).  However, the Arminian would certainly object to the idea that the atonement “was not necessary.” I suppose this might be a description of the governmental view of atonement which some Arminians have held.  But even then, I doubt that many (if any) of those who hold the governmental view would say that the atonement was “not necessary”.  At any rate, Arminius held to penal-satisfaction (and for that reason saw the atonement as wholly necessary) as did Wesley and numerous other Arminians throughout history.  Therefore, if this is a reference to the governmental view of atonement (accurate or not), it cannot be rightly called a “major tenet of Arminianism”.   As far as the atonement being a provision available for all, this would indeed be a “major tenet” of Arminianism.

8. The Atonement does not actually effect the salvation of human beings but merely makes it possible.

False again.  The atonement makes salvation possible for all and “effects the salvation” of those who repent and believe the gospel.

9. Salvation becomes effectual only when accepted voluntarily by penitent sinners.

Here #8 is contradicted by #9.  If the atonement “does not actually effect salvation” (as #8 claims), then it cannot even “effect” salvation on the condition of voluntary acceptance.  Again, I do not care for the wording of #9.  I would prefer to say that the free gift of salvation is received by the God enabled exercise of faith in the person.  Still, there is nothing in #9 that the Arminian need object to.

10. Regeneration is determined by the human will, not divine decree.

Arminians believe that regeneration is received by faith, but caused by God.  Faith precedes regeneration in Arminianism as it receives the free gift of new life from God and enjoys this life as the result of being joined to Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit through faith.  If “determined by the human will” is meant to say that man regenerates himself, then the statement is false and misrepresents Arminianism. Only God can regenerate just as God alone can justify.  To say that justification and regeneration are by faith does not mean that the one who trusts God is doing these things to himself, any more than it can be said that the one who receives a gift also gives the gift to himself or provided the gift in the first place. 

Does this mean that regeneration is not determined by “divine decree?”  Not at all.  The Arminian affirms that God decreed from all eternity to justify and regenerate sinners on the condition of faith in His Son.  Therefore, regeneration is determined by “divine decree.”

11. Faith itself is a good work.

It is ridiculous to claim that this is a feature of Arminianism, let alone a “major tenet” of Arminianism.  The Arminian agrees with Paul that faith is not a work and in no way merits salvation.  Rather, faith receives the free and undeserved gift of salvation (Romans 4:4-8).  For this reason salvation by faith is salvation by grace (Rom. 4:16).  The Arminian also acknowledges that faith is impossible if not for the gracious enabling work of God in the sinner.  For this reason, even faith can be considered a gift from God.

12. There is no distinction between common grace and special grace.

This is hardly a major tenet of Arminianism.  Many Arminians do make such distinctions, but understand “special grace” differently than Calvinists and, apparently, the misinformed architect of these so-called “15 Major Tenets of Arminianism.”  The Arminian would likely understand “special grace” as that special working of God that makes faith possible while the Calvinist would see this same working as irresistible.  The typical Arminian understanding of “common grace” is roughly the same as the Calvinist view (i.e. as that grace which restrains evil in this world, etc.).

 13. Grace may be resisted.

Yes, this could be rightly classified as a “major tenet” or Arminianism.

14. The righteousness of Christ is never imputed to the believer.

This is false.  Arminius affirmed the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on the condition of faith as have many (if not most) Arminians since.  Some Arminians deny that Christ’s so called “active” obedience is imputed to the believer, while still maintaining that Christ’s “passive” obedience is imputed for righteousness.  Other Arminians affirm that both Christ’s active and passive obedience is imputed to the believer (e.g. Free Will Baptists). 

There are some from the Wesleyan tradition who would add “imparted righteousness” while still holding to a form of “imputed righteousness” as well.  It seems to me that there are some from the Wesleyan tradition who might deny that the imputation of righteousness can rightly be called “the righteousness of Christ”, though from my readings of Wesley, I am confident that while Wesley denied the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the “active” sense, he affirmed it in the “passive” sense.  Regardless, it can hardly be accurate to say the rejection of Christ’s imputed righteousness is a “major tenet” of Arminianism when its founder and so many of his theological heirs fully affirm that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer.  It would be far more accurate to say that Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer is a “major tenet” of Arminianism.

15. A believer may attain full conformity to divine will in this life, but may also fall from grace and be lost eternally.

Again, this is worded very strangely.  If this is meant to say that true believers can yet abandon faith and be eternally lost, then this might be considered to be a major tenet of Arminianism.  Unfortunately, Arminius never took a stand on the issue (though Arminius seemed to believe that apostasy was both theoretically and scripturally possible and argued against the contrary view [of inevitable perseverance] in his response to Calvinist William Perkins- see pp. 272-289 in Arminius Speaks). [4]  Likewise, Arminius’ first followers (the Remonstrants) initially left the question of apostasy open to debate, though they eventually took a stand on the issue against the Calvinist doctrine of inevitable perseverance. 

If “full conformity to divine will in this life” has reference to entire sanctification, then this could only be rightly called a feature of Arminianism rooted in the teachings of Wesley.  Many Arminians hold to progressive sanctification and Arminius did not take a stand on the issue (though he did not deny the possibility of entire sanctification for the regenerated believer so long as it was emphasized that such could only be possible through total dependence on the empowering grace of God). [5]

Therefore, it doesn’t seem quite accurate to say that either claim in #15 is a “major tenet” of Arminianism.  For this reason The Society of Evangelical Arminians does not prevent Arminians who hold to inevitable perseverance from holding membership in the society, nor does it take a stand on the possibility of entire sanctification.

[This unfortunate and inaccurate listing of “major tenets” is found under “Arminianism” in Nelson’s Dictionary of Christianity (Nashville,TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 47]

________________________________________________________

[1] A. W. Tozer expressed this view of divine decree very well in the following quote:

God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.” (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God)

In Arminius’ descriptions of the divine decrees he twice uses the word “absolute” to define these decrees:

“The first absolute decree of God concerning the salvation of sinful man, is that by which he decreed to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, as Mediator, Redeemer, Savior, Priest and King, who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue.”

“The second precise and absolute decree of God, is that in which he decreed to receive into favor those who repent and believe, and, in Christ, for His sake and through Him, to effect the salvation of such penitents and believers as persevered to the end; but to leave in sin, and under wrath, all impenitent persons and unbelievers, and to damn them as aliens from Christ.” (From “A Declaration of the Sentiments of James Arminius Part 2” in Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, pg. 63).

[2] James Arminius wrote:

“In this [depraved] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.  And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they are excited by Divine grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.  For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing”…..The mind of man, in  this [depraved] state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14),…” (From “Public Disputation” in Arminius Speaks, pp. 3, 4, brackets mine).

[3] James Arminius wrote:

“I believe that sinners are accounted righteous solely by the obedience of Christ; and that the righteousness of Christ is the only meritorious cause on account of which God pardons the sins of believers and reckons them as righteous as if they had perfectly fulfilled the law…” (From “A Declaration…Part 2” in Arminius Speaks, pg. 78)

[4] James Arminius wrote:

“But I think it is useful and will be quite necessary in our first convention, [or Synod] to institute a diligent inquiry from the Scriptures, whether it is not possible for some individuals through negligence to desert the commencement of their existence in Christ, to cleave again to the present evil world, to decline from the sound doctrine which was once delivered to them, to lose a good conscience, and to cause Divine grace to be ineffectual.”

“Though I here openly and ingenuously affirm, I never taught that a true believer can, either totally or finally fall away from the faith, and perish.  Yet I will not conceal, that there are passages of Scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect; and those answers to them [the passages that seem to teach the possibility of apostasy] which I have been permitted to see, are not of such a kind as to approve themselves on all points to my understanding.  On the other hand, certain passages are produced [of unconditional perseverance] which are worthy of much consideration.” (From “A Declaration…Part 2” in Arminius Speaks, pp. 69, 70, first brackets in second paragraph mine.  Unfortunately, Arminius did not live to participate in such a “convention”, and the “Synod of Dort” that his followers participated in proved to be nothing less than a kangaroo court.)

[5] James Arminius wrote:

“But while I never asserted that a believer could perfectly keep the precepts of Christ in this life, I never denied it, but always left it as a matter which has still to be decided.” (From “A Declaration…Part 2” in Arminius Speaks, pg. 71)

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5 Responses

  1. I really don’t understand how Calvinists can only “slip up” on misrepresenting Arminian theology so badly for over four hundred years. To put it bluntly: Could it be the case that their teachers and so-called scholars are willfully ignorant liars?

  2. Didn’t Episcopius write a document of similar length after Dort? I agree that this list is absolutely rediculous, but do you recall the number of articles in Episcopius’ work?

  3. B.P. Burnett,

    I don’t know that this article was written by a Calvinist, though it was certainly written by someone unfamiliar with Arminianism. That is not good for a source book that people unfamiliar with such subjects might look to in order to get quick accurate information. No telling how many people have been led astray by this unfortunate article.

  4. jc_freak,

    Are you referring to the “Opinions of the Remonstrants”? If not, then I do not know. Dan Chapa probably would.

  5. Excellent article! I have the book, yet never read the article before.

    This is just one more example of how Calvinists use the statements of other Calvinistic “experts” as proof of the errors of Arminianism. They don’t use Arminians or Arminuis except where they can contort it to their “stawman” the call “Arminianism.”

    Centuries of error have been perpetuated in the name of “honest scholarship” in Calvinistic circles. I have seen multitudes of articles against Arminians by Calvinists. Their “resources” are largely composed of other Calvinists on the subject, a few out of context statements from Arminians, and throw in some “kook” that is not a Calvinist, claim they are Arminian for good measure, and you have instant credibility as a Calvinistic “scholar”!

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