I, a Methodist, made a surprise discovery of theologically likeminded folk while ministering recently at Welch College (a college of the Freewill Baptists). I was especially enriched by conversations with its President Matthew Pinson who edited the Zondervan book Four Views on Eternal Security. Like me they have a sense of kinship with those active in the revival of Reformed theology that has taken place recently. I find myself agreeing with many of their concerns. However, the folks at Welch, like me, remain within the Arminian fold, though we seek to guard against the typical Arminian dangers of placing too much emphasis on human effort in salvation and not enough emphasis on the work of grace in enabling us to respond in faith to the call of God and in keeping us from falling away. I didn’t know that there were many others like this! It was a time of personal encouragement and rich fellowship for me.
Early in my ministry life, my first boss, Youth for Christ Central Asia Director Victor Manogarom, told me that the Australian Anglican Archbishop Marcus Loane had told him, “When you come across the ‘Arminian’ texts preach them with the full force of application; and when you come across the ‘Calvinistic’ texts preach them also with the full force of application.” This is what I have sought to do over the years.
When the great Anglican preacher Charles Simeon met with John Wesley, Simeon said,
Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions, not for impertinent curiosity but for real instruction.
Simeon asked Wesley whether he agreed with several affirmations which Simeon considered basic to the Reformed faith. Wesley found himself in agreement with all those affirmations. Simeon concluded:
Then, Sir, with your leave, I will put up my dagger again for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance, all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to the ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.
Systematic theology is helpful and needed in the church, but sometimes, with the paradoxes of scripture, it can foster unnecessary divisions among devout biblical Christians. Systematic theology looks at the whole teaching of scripture on a topic and communicates it in a way that is appropriate to the context in which we live. This is important for every age. However, when we approach some of the difficult areas—on which the church has been divided over the centuries—we must do so with caution and humility. The infallible authority we claim is for the affirmations of scripture not for our theological formulations.
Actually, I prefer not to use the label Arminian for myself as I try to take both bodies of scripture seriously. But my Calvinist friends would say that this last statement confirms me as an Arminian! My western friends would accuse me of copping out because I am holding two bodies of scripture in unresolved tension. I think I can live with that. God’s wisdom is so great that we could never fully understand the depths of his truth. So sometimes we will humbly bow in resignation and accept that humble, devout students of the Word will look at some issues differently. Usually each view has its merits for it derives from a biblical emphasis. But each view can also be taken to an unhealthy extreme.
Note: The story about Charles Simeon is from a delightful booklet Charles Simeon of Cambridge: Silhouettes and Skeletons edited by Julia Cameron and published by Didasko Publishing and the Simeon Trust. It is available through http://www.amazon.co.uk/ (not amazon.com which is the US entity).