Classical Arminianism by F. Leroy Forlines (Book Review)

Classical Arminianism is one of the best resources available for those who are interested in Arminian theology.  F. Leroy Forlines is a senior theologian from the Free Will Baptist camp and this volume represents Arminian theology from a tradition that follows closely to the writings of Arminius himself.  This book is an edited version of Forlines’ systematic theology, The Quest For Truth, minus the material that is not directly related to soteriology from the Classical Arminian perspective.

Forlines’ writing style is conversational and easy to read and understand even while exploring difficult exegetical, theological and philosophical concepts.  Forlines masterfully argues from an “influence and response” model of God’s relationship and interactions with man as opposed to the Calvinist “cause and effect” model.  Forlines frames the debate on the nature of free will in the context of what it means to be a person.  For Forlines, the Arminian accounting of free will is essential to personhood.

Forlines extensively quotes and interacts with numerous Calvinist writers on philosophical and exegetical grounds.  The book is primarily concerned with exegesis of the primary texts addressing justification, atonement, foreknowledge, election and predestination.  Forlines goes head to head with John Piper on Rom. 9 and demonstrates that the Calvinist interpretation of Rom. 9 is not in harmony with the overall context and misses the point of Paul’s main concern in Rom. 9-11.  He navigates numerous passages that Calvinists appeal to in trying to establish unconditional election and shows that these passages do not provide the evidence Calvinists need to support their assumptions.  Worse yet for the Calvinist, Forlines shows that many of these passages work against any concept of unconditional election and actually establish conditional election instead.

Forlines argues for the penal-satisfaction model of atonement and does a great job showing that the satisfaction model is compatible with Arminian theology and universal atonement.  Indeed, Arminius was a strong proponent of penal-satisfaction atonement.  Forlines sees justification as being grounded solely on the imputation of both Christ’s active and passive obedience and righteousness.

Forlines also has a great section arguing for conditional perseverance and the real possibility of apostasy from saving faith.  He sees apostasy as irrevocable and sees a strong connection between the act of apostasy and the presumptuous sin of the Old Testament.  Sadly, while Forlines’ detailed appendix on this important connection can be found in The Quest for Truth, it is missing from this edited volume.

While I do not agree with Forlines on everything (e.g. in my opinion he rejects the corporate view of election too hastily, largely based on a misunderstanding of all that the view entails), his work has had a tremendous influence on my thinking and can easily be classified as one of the most important works on Arminian theology in the modern era.  Arminians will be encouraged and enriched by it, and Calvinists will be challenged by it.  It is one of the first books I would recommend to anyone looking to gain a firm grasp on what Classical Arminian theology entails.  Forlines’ irenic style also stands as a tremendous example for all of us in how to engage a heated debate with the utmost respect and Christian charity.  I highly recommend this work.

Some Excellent and Concise Comments on Free Will, the Bondage of Sin, and Prevenient Grace

Overall, the following comments by F. Leroy Forlines are an excellent representation of the Arminian viewpoint:

“Freedom of will is a freedom within a framework of possibilities.  It is not absolute freedom.  Man cannot be God.  He cannot be an angel.  The freedom of a human being is in the framework of the possibilities provided by human nature.  Also, influences brought to bear on the will have a bearing on the framework of possibilities.

Before Adam and Eve sinned, it was in the framework of possibilities within which they operated to remain in the practice of complete righteousness, or to commit sin.  After they sinned, it no longer remained within the framework of possibilities for them to practice uninterrupted righteousness.  The same is true of fallen man now (Rom. 8:7, 8).  If anyone [takes] freedom of the will to mean that an unconverted person could practice righteousness and not sin, he misunderstands the meaning of freedom of will for fallen human beings.  Romans 8:7, 8 makes it clear that Scripture does not teach this.

Jesus makes it clear that it does not fall within the framework of possibilities for a sinner to respond to the gospel unless he is drawn by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 6:44).  The influence of the Holy Spirit working in the heart of the person who hears the gospel brings about a framework of possibilities in which a person can say yes or no to the gospel.  If he says yes, it is his choice.  If he says no, it is his choice.  To say less than that is to raise serious questions about the existence of real personhood after the fall.  If a human being is not in some sense a self-directed being, he or she is not a person.  The self-direction may have a degree of dependence at times, but it is still self-direction.  As has already been made clear, I am not suggesting that fallen man can choose Christ without the aid of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, I strongly reject such an idea.  I am saying, however, that no matter how much or how strong the aid of the Holy Spirit may be, the ‘yes’ decision is still a decision that can rightly be called the person’s decision.  After all, one can say no….”

“Faith can be called a gift in the sense that it would not have been possible without divine aid.  It is not a gift in the sense that it exists outside the person and is given to him, nor is it a gift in the sense that God believes for the person.  The person himself does the believing by divine aid.

I think Calvinism errs in its understanding of ‘dead in trespasses.’  Cornelius Van Til explains the Calvinist interpretation:

It was only as a creature of God, made in his image, that man could sin.  So, when a sinner, and as such ‘dead in trespasses,’ unable of himself even to stretch forth his hand to receive salvation, Scripture continues to deal with him as a responsible being.  He is called to faith and repentance.  Yet faith is the gift of God.  Lazarus lay in the tomb.  He was dead.  Yet Jesus told him to come forth.  And he did come forth.

The above interpretation interprets ‘dead’ in ‘dead in trespasses’ (Eph. 2:1) as meaning lifeless.  The dead body of Lazarus had no life in it.  It was capable of no action until it was made alive by Jesus.  If ‘dead in trespasses’ means dead in the same way, the logic of Calvinism follows.  The sinner would be both deaf and speechless.  He would know nothing about God, sin, and salvation until God made him alive through the new birth.  Then and only then would he be able to hear and to speak.

I think that ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ or spiritual death means that man is separated from God, dead in relationship to God.  There is no communion and no fellowship with God.  The principle is similar to that spoken of by Paul when he said, ‘By whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world’ (Gal. 6:14).  Both Paul and the world were alive in the sense that they were not lifeless.  They were not alive so far as a functioning relationship between them was concerned.

Spiritual death, if this be the correct interpretation, refers to the fact that the sinner is cut off from communion and fellowship with God.  This is true both because a holy God demands that it be so until sin is taken care of, and also because the bias of the sinner’s heart is against God.  The fact the sinner is not in communion with God does not mean he is totally deaf to God’s communication.  If that were the case, the sinner could not even distort the message of God. You cannot distort that to which you are totally deaf.  That a person is a sinner does mean he does not hear well.  He tends to resist and oppose the Truth and distort the Truth.  The gospel has to go forth against great opposition.  The Holy Spirit must work before there can be a successful communication of the gospel to the sinner and before there will be conviction and response from the sinner.  This approach recognizes the seriousness of sin, the necessity of the enlightening and drawing power of the Holy Spirit, and the personhood of the sinner.

I believe that saving faith is a gift of God in the sense that the Holy Spirit gives divine enablement without which faith in Christ would be impossible (Jn. 6:44).  The difference between the Calvinistic concept of faith and my concept of faith cannot be that theirs is monergistic and mine is synergistic.  In both cases it is synergistic.  Active participation in faith by the believer means it must be synergistic.  Human response cannot be ruled out of faith.  Justification and regeneration are monergistic.  Each is an act of God, not man.  Faith is a human act by divine enablement and therefore cannot be monergistic.”

F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest For Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions, pp. 158-160 (emphasis his)

Related posts: 

What Can the Dead in Sin do?

The Arminian and Calvinist Ordo Salutis: A Brief Comparative Study