Anglican Arminianism and Kudzu
By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins
Jacobus Arminius, Dutch pastor and theologian, died October 19, 1609. But Arminianism in its various forms is like kudzu (a noxious weed similar to Japanese knot-weed imported to America to combat topsoil erosion) that has taken over the church a mile-a-minute since then. This is especially true of American evangelicalism where we demand the freedom to pick and choose the elements of our personal creeds and where we teach our children that they have unlimited potential if they will have faith in faith. But Anglicans are not Arminian: not if we are the least bit honest about the anchors of the Edwardian and Elizabethan formularies (the Homilies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer), and not if we are faithful to how we have described this church since the 16th century. And yet, the Arminian message of free will and I-have-decided-to-follow-Jesus Christianity fills the pulpits and pews of our churches. It sometimes seems that the kudzu takeover of altar call evangelicalism is nearly complete, and the collateral damage is a diminished view of the sovereignty of God in salvation.
I’d really like to know how it is that the Church of England started with a firm commitment to moderate Calvinism (Calvin before Calvinism: the message of the Anglican formularies), but after Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and James I the colours of the church changed to Arminianism (in their day sometimes called “Pelagian”: see Article IX)? By 1630s-40s the church turned anti-Calvinist and has remained largely that ever since, and I wonder why and how we have become so disconnected with our Calvinistic formularies (the Thirty-nine Articles, the Homilies, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). And, further, what explains the shift from the high christology of salvation by grace through faith alone, to the high anthropology (moralism) of Laud, Hammond, and Taylor 100 years after the English Reformation – that manifested itself in high churchmanship – morphed into the holiness movement of John Wesley – and then on to modern expressions of Arminianism that are found in forms of pietism, mysticism, the spiritual disciplines movement, and the invention of such things as “three-streams”? The bedrock theological question that underlies all is this: Is Jesus the Savior of all who choose to choose him, or is our eternal destiny predestined, individual, and absolute from “before the foundations of the world were laid” (Article XVII)?
The psychology of Arminianism (decisionism, revivalism, moralism, progressivism, and a generally sunnier outlook on human capacity) appeals to the most base elements of human nature – on some level we all love the idea that performance and self-righteous advancements contribute to our salvation. This love affair has its earlier expression in fifth-century Pelagianism and the semi-pelagianism of the Medieval Catholic Church. But as a brand, Arminianism was born in Holland at the turn of the 17th century in reaction against Calvinism. It was repudiated by the reformed world, including the Church of England at the Council of Dort (1618), but it lives on.
Arminians and Calvinists both believe in predestination; they have to because the Bible teaches it! Arminians teach that predestination is corporate and not individual (Israel and the new Israel, the church). Calvinists, on the other hand, believe that “predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour” (Article XVII). J. I. Packer said that “Arminians praise God for providing a Savior to whom all may come for life; Calvinists do that too, and then go on to praise God for actually bringing them to the Saviour’s feet.” Reformation Anglicans don’t believe that God’s love stops at the point of politely inviting, but that God takes the additional gracious action to ensure that the elect respond in faith, repentance, and then obedience. Jesus said, “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44). Arminians say that personal faith is the ground of justification; evangelical Anglicans say that justification is the ground of our faith.
Both Arminians and Calvinists believe in God’s righteousness for salvation – they have to because it’s in the Bible! Arminians believe that Christ’s death and atonement made salvation possible “for all who will receive him,” and that God’s righteousness (his grace) is distributed incrementally over time so that we will become acceptable to the groom as his bride. High Church Arminians came to believe, as Roman Catholics do, that this infused righteousness is automatically delivered in the sacraments. Reformation Anglicans also share the belief that it is God’s righteousness that saves, but they see it as God’s very own righteousness that is imputed to undeserving sinners – the robe of God’s righteousness, his garment of salvation so completely covers our unrighteousness that God sees us forever as the righteousness of God (Isa 61). Each Sunday we pray: “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies…”
This hymn is a far better expression of the theology of our Anglican Formularies.
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true,
No, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea,—
‘Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but, O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
Always thou lovedst me.