I know the title of the post (“Is Arminianism Within the Reformed Tradition?”) is a little scary to people. It assumes something that most people today would scoff at—that Arminianism could actually be Reformed!
Roger Olson tackles this question in his book, “Arminian Theology,” under Myth 1: Arminian Theology is the Opposite of Calvinist/Reformed Theology.
To find out whether or not Arminianism is Reformed, Olson turned to the Methodist Carl Bangs, who wrote a biography of Arminius titled “Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (1985). In the biography, Bangs says that Arminius was not opposed to everything within the Calvinist belief, but rather tried to show the common beliefs between the two theologies. Olson tells of a myth regarding Arminius:
“One popular story about Arminius is that he was a COMMITTED HIGH CALVINIST until he was asked to examine and refute the teachings of a radical Reformer who rejected Calvinist teachings about predestination. According to this account Arminius became persuaded of the truth of Dirk Coornhert’s synergistic theology and shook the Calvinist dust off his feet” (Olson, “Arminian Theology,” page 47).
Carl Bangs doesn’t believe this story has any proof for it, but he does believe that Arminius believed that he was Reformed:
“According to Bangs, Arminius ALWAYS CONSIDERED himself Reformed and in the line of the great Swiss and French Reformers Zwingli, Calvin and Bucer. He studied under Calvin’s successor Beza in Geneva and was given a letter of recommendation by him to the Reformed church of Amsterdam. It seems HIGHLY UNLIKELY that the chief pastor of Geneva and principle of its Reformed academy would not know the theological inclinations of one of his star pupils” (Olson, 48).
While Arminius believed he was Reformed, he differed from his Calvinist counterparts; his theology, therefore, while Reformed, was also a correction of Calvinist theology:
“Arminianism is a CORRECTION of Reformed theology rather than a DEPARTURE from it. ‘Arminius stands firmly in the tradition of Reformed theology in insisting that salvation is by grace alone and that human ability or merit must be excluded as a cause of salvation. It is faith in Christ alone that places a sinner in the company of the elect.’ The correction lies in Arminius’s rejection of STRICT MONERGISM, which many have come to EQUATE WITH REFORMED THEOLOGY ITSELF” (49).
There are many scholars who agree with such a conclusion: Dutch theologian Gerrit Jan Hoenderdal; James Luther Adams; Donald Lake; and Howard Slaatte.
To conclude, I’ll leave you with an analysis of Arminius from Howard Slaatte:
“Hence, the responsive factor [in the human person according to Arminius] may be described as a GRACE-QUALIFIED, GRACE-INSPIRED, and GRACE-GUIDED FREEDOM…he can respond to grace freely ONLY as grace touches him through the Spirit-illuminated Word” (quoted by Roger Olson, 51).
The Slaatte quote above throws away any attempts to label Arminianism as “man-based” and “work-based.” Faith is something we must demonstrate in order to receive salvation, but we can only do it with the grace that God has given to every man. Ephesians 2:8 says,
“For by grace you are saved THROUGH FAITH, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, SO THAT NO ONE CAN BOAST” (Eph. 2:8-9, HCSB).
“Grace” means “free gift,” or, as is commonly believed, “unmerited favor.” The favor of the Lord towards us in salvation is not something we could ever earn. However, we must also demonstrate faith in the work of Christ on the cross—but this faith is also a gift, according to Romans 12, given to EVERY MAN. From Scripture, then, it has been shown that both grace and faith are GIFTS from God, not WORKS from man.
Well then, someone may say, doesn’t that make the work of salvation and subsequent acceptance from God? Well, yes—if you address faith and grace as gifts. But when it comes to APPROPRIATING the atoning work of Christ to our lives, WE are held responsible for utilizing the faith that the Lord has given us (but we can only do this by His grace). His grace is there to demonstrate that we can’t even come to Him unless He first allows us to (that allowance being His Holy Spirit).
So Arminius was reformed…right? Yes he was. So if Arminius was Reformed, then on what basis was he characterized as such?
“According to Bands and some other historians, the Reformed churches of the United Provinces in Arminius’s time were generically Protestant rather than rigidly Calvinistic. While they accepted the Heidelberg Catechism as their primary statement of faith, THEY DID NOT REQUIRE MINISTERS OR THEOLOGIANS TO ADHERE TO THE TENETS OF THE HIGH CALVINISM BEING DEVELOPED IN GENEVA UNDER BEZA” (48).
It seems then, that the commitment to Calvinism as Reformed today did not exist back in Arminius’s time. With the passing of time, however, Arminianism was shunned as Reformed or anything close to it. Although not seen as Reformed, Arminianism is within the Reformed tradition. Olson levels the playing field with this myth-buster and makes the point that IF someone is gonna attack Arminianism, they can’t claim it to be outside of the Reformed tradition.