Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Friday, October 21, 2011

Christian Smith - Introduction: The Bible Made Impossible

Deliver Us from a Wilderness of
Our Own Making
by R.E. Slater

I am including an excerpt of Christian Smith's book on biblicism as a way of beginning a review on this very important subject. Later articles will more fully review Smith's proposals but the reader may begin reviewing this subject with me now through this posting here below.

As an introductory note, the term biblicism seems clearly associated with the idea of "popular folk religion"... meaning that, "popular folk ideas, religious statements, pious cliches, and idealized sentiments" are used by Christians when speaking of their faith to break it down into meaningful statements to their life experiences. This is done by quoting to each other cherished abbreviated proverbs, murky haikus, quaint ideologies, judgmental temperaments, over-simplified characterizations, and generally, a form of religious-speak that is usually found within a sociological grouping of Christians when they get together to talk over their life experiences and the confusing, sinful world of people around them. Examples of these statements are given at the end of this post where Christian Smith cites dozens of popular expressions that we have all heard at one-time-or-another spoken at church or with one another in daily conversation. Popular sentiments casually expressed from the pulpit, radio, TV, family and well-meaning friends, each sentiment holding a facsimile of truth to it but ringing hollow as pious platitudes and cliches in the specific instances of our daily Christian lives in need of hard answers and clearer truths.

For myself, this type of mindset is most appropriately named folk religion, and became the reason that motivated me to re-analyze my Christian faith beginning over a decade ago in the late 1990s. One that is still evangelical but more critical of it, less in-favor with its religiosity, one which I now term an emergent Christian faith found at the further end of the spectrum of evangelicalism.  And so, I have begun synthesizing my journey within the stories and subjectlines of this blog in an attempt to convey what I have learned about what my faith is and is not; what it means and what it shouldn't mean; and how I presently understand it in comparison with popular religious expressions and opinions. It became especially clearer to me when more carefully listening to what Evangelicals were saying (or not saying) around me; or witnessing how my Evangelical faith was responding to specific issues around it before re-framing those perceived realities and events accumulating around it into unsatisfying arguments and reimaged conceptions. And much like how a sudoku puzzle is solved by looking for what is not there - as versus what is plainly seen - my judgments began to amass and grow in correspondence to Evangelicalism's overly harsh criticisms, fallacious evaluations, blithe assertions, and self-sustaining parochialisms. Consequently, this then caused me to judge my own accumulated Evangelical traditions as too shallow and on-worthy of my continued support in its current self-laudatory forms.

Having then become disenchanted with living my faith through fashionized Christian rhetoric, stylized metaphors and politically-correct expressions, what I hungered for now is to hear God's Word afresh in a more-objective, less-defensive, non-evangelically religious terms and popular cliches. Especially when presented by well-meaning Christians who coerce, threaten, bully and judge my faith when straying out of the safe boundary lands of their Evangelicalism. I yearn more than ever to hear God in a clearer light, one more realistic, more edgy, more confrontational to the popular notions of today's religious folkisms. Something that would strip away my religion and get back to its very core - the very person and fellowship of the Triune-God speaking through open Scriptures, through the atonement, through life's experiences, and the world about me.

Nor has this journey been especially easy to travel, and yet, hopefully, it will become more satisfying to share with faith-seekers following similar journeys as tortuous as mine own; who are attempting to discern truth-from-error on both sides of the Evangelical/Emergent fence! Never had I expected such an intense personal disruption, one without sufficient guides or signposts, without historical precedents, bereft of mentors, teachers, or fellowship. One finding no encouragement and no advantage to it; a singular path dimly lit, if at all, filled with judgments, condemnation, and intense personal aloneness. I felt as if in the days of the prophet Jeremiah who was thrown into the bottom of a miry pit of clay by religious zealots doubtful of his faith. Who looked up out of his cold, wet prison yearning for answers and direction from God but received little hope and cheer in return. All the while being personally vilified, doubted and made miserable by the religious community around him. Eventually all this changed for Jeremiah but it took a very long time during which he experienced the daily provocation in his spirit of new truths about God and his place in the world; along with a personal rejection of all the accumulated, ingrained, religious platitudes he had acquired in his life; and a daily fresh determination to re-assess not only his own past but to re-envision his new present and the future that beckoned him. And like my own experience, I felt my own proponents had as little charm as the predecessors of my newly-reforming faith. Each side swinging at the other side with no cause, and with even less reason, at one another. When instead a fellowship should have been arising that would create a stronger, more unified, and more honest discussion and interaction between Evangelicals and Emergents. It was enough to cause one to despair and give up hope. Neither side was guiltless, and both sides were inclined towards disagreements and hostilities towards one another.

And yet it all makes sense now after the many desperate years (including as many recent desperate months!) of religious intrication. Through it all, a new freedom has been found that does not wish to leave me. A spiritual land discovered that breathes more pure, more alive, more wondrous with every breath. One that I like and intend to keep and not give back. Come walk with me, and the many other brothers and sisters I am discovering, as Christianity's outer markers are reset and we regain what was nobly lost in our modernized religious culture of the past hundred years. It is all new territory requiring many explorers and all are welcomed to journey to God's new lands of global outreach and assimilation. Once begun none will wish to turn back... praise God through His Spirit for delivering us from a wilderness of our own making!

R.E. Slater
October 22, 2011

Christian Smith - The Bible Made Impossible
by Christian Smith

This Introduction is part of a seven part series on Christian Smith's book.

Go to this link here to see the remaining 6 Reveiws (Parts 1- 6):

The entirety of this article's contents may be found here -

© 2011 by Christian Smith
Published by Brazos Press
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
E-book edition created 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
ISBN 978-1-4412-3205-2
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

by Christian Smith

This book addresses Christians, especially evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is a divine word of truth that should function as an authority for Christian faith and practice, and who want to espouse a coherent position that justifies and defends that belief. My contention here is that the American evangelical commitment to “biblicism,” which I will define and describe in detail below, is an untenable position that ought to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority.

What follows is not an attack on Christian authority or the Bible. It is rather a critical interrogation of certain aspects of one specific account. The goal of this book is not to detract from the plausibility, reliability, or authority of the Christian faith or from scripture. The goal is to persuade readers that one particular theory of Christian plausibility, reliability, and authority—what I call biblicism—is inadequate to the task.

I am aware that the term “biblicism” is often used pejoratively, as a disrespectful slight suggesting ignorance and lack of sophistication. I intend the use of the term here in a rather more neutral, descriptive sense, denoting a particular tradition of approach to scripture, as described in greater detail below. I contend that the biblicism that characterizes the thinking and practice of much of American evangelicalism is not so much “wrong” as it is impossible, even taken on its own terms. It simply does not work as proposed and cannot function in a coherent way.

In order for evangelical biblicism to appear to work, therefore, those who believe in it have to engage in various forms of textual selectivity, denial, and contortion—which actually end up violating biblicist intentions. Most of these are practiced covertly, not in any sneaky way, but simply as the learned, taken-for-granted, and therefore largely unintentional habits of a particular subcultural style of thinking and behaving. Contemporary Christians who want to be theologically orthodox, biblical, and evangelical (in the best sense of the word) can and must do better. But before anyone is motivated to do better, we must confront the real problems with the current, inadequate biblicist account.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that all American evangelicals are biblicists. Some are not. And some others mix biblicism with other forms of authority, such as personal “leadings of the Spirit.” Many simply assume a kind of background biblicism without giving it much systematic thought. Many academic and more thoughtful evangelicals also tend to be more selective and careful in the way they articulate their biblicism. Furthermore, while I am focused here on evangelicals in particular, nearly all American Protestant fundamentalists are also biblicists, as are many if not most charismatic and pentecostal Christians.[1] I am suggesting, therefore, that biblicism of the kind I describe below represents the epistemological center of gravity of much of American evangelicalism (and conservative Protestantism more generally) and so warrants the kinds of questions raised in this book.

By “biblicism” I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Different communities within American evangelicalism emphasize various combinations of these points differently. But all together they form a constellation of assumptions and beliefs that define a particular theory and practice. My argument as follows does not question the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible.[2] Nor am I here discounting the crucially important role that the Bible must play in the life of the church and the lives of individual Christians. I am not suggesting that the Bible is just a set of historical writings set in particular cultures, or the record of human subjective experiences of the divine that has little to say to contemporary people without being translated into terms that modern people can accept. Instead, what I say here is simply that the biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.

I must also insist that my motives, goals, and arguments have nothing to do with promoting or representing theological liberalism. I am no theological liberal. While I believe that orthodox Christians need to engage intellectually and socially with theological liberals, I am and always have been a skeptic of theological liberalism as a project. I view the program of liberalism as an unworthy corrosion of historically orthodox, evangelical (again, in the best sense of that word) Christianity. I view theological liberalism—despite its good intentions—as naive intellectually, problematic in its typical ecclesial expression, and susceptible to unfortunate and sometimes reprehensible social and political expressions. It was no accident, for example, as Karl Barth explained at the time, that the prominent leaders of theological liberalism in the German church together publicly endorsed the causes of both Kaiser Wilhelm in World War I in 1914 and Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. When the church lacks a sovereign word of God that is not defined in terms of human subjectivity, experience, and culture, such ill-fated political moves become hard to resist. The theological liberal program lacks internal resources to help expose idolatry and so recurrently falls prey to the latest cultural movements and political fashions. I would go so far as to agree with J. Gresham Machen that theological liberalism is not one particular branch of Christianity; it is rather actually a very different religion from Christianity.[3]

However, opposing theological liberalism does not necessitate biblicism as the only viable alternative, as some seem to believe. This notion is an unfortunate legacy of the American modernist-fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century. Slapping the “liberal!” label on others is still a knee-jerk reaction of many evangelicals against any argument that on first glance does not seem identical to or more conservative than their own position. This tendency has much more to do with the sociological process of maintaining safe identity boundaries and avoiding truly challenging intellectual engagements than it does with sustaining Christian faith with appropriate confidence, integrity, and trust in God.[4] In any case, to be clear, I deny any attempts to label the argument of this book “liberal.”

My argument in what follows focuses not merely on theories about what the Bible is believed to be and how it ought to function as an authority. It also focuses on how in practice the Bible is often actually read and used as an authority and on the results that this produces. I will suggest that the problematic results are not mere accidents or worst practices within an otherwise sound approach, but they are rather the inevitable outcomes of bad biblicist theory. In this I do not assume that empirical facts about what actually happens are all that are ever worth knowing. A great deal of Christianity is of course about conforming problematic empirical experience to what is ultimately true in and about reality. However, actual empirical human practices and experiences of Bible reading, interpretation, and application—especially when they are widespread and endemic—tell us a great deal about the adequacy of our theories about the Bible.

In what follows I will not engage a number of issues that have long occupied certain kinds of critics and defenders of the Bible. One of those concerns higher criticism of the text, such as whether the purported author of a certain text really was that author or whether the events described in a text “really” happened in that way. Those may or may not be interesting and important issues, but they do not concern me here. Neither will I engage the exercise of finding long lists of scriptural texts that appear to contradict each other, to which some sophomoric skeptics devote themselves in order to try to undermine the Bible’s coherence and authority.[5] That merely mirrors the worst kind of fundamentalist literalism, to which few thoughtful evangelicals subscribe, and betrays pitiable misunderstandings of how human language works.

My line of reasoning in this book will run as follows. First, I will argue that most biblicist claims are rendered moot by a more fundamental problem (which few biblicists ever acknowledge) that undermines all the supposed achievements of biblicism: the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists—the Bible, after their very best efforts to understand it, says and teaches very different things about most significant topics. My suggestion is that it becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant, for instance, when, lo and behold, it gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters. Authority implies and requires definitive instruction, direction, or guidance. As the nineteenth-century Princeton Seminary theologian Charles Hodge stated, “If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the functions of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible.”[6] But definitive instruction, direction, or guidance is precisely what pervasive interpretive pluralism precludes.

So, theorists about the Bible can assert theoretical claims of scriptural authority and infallibility as much as they want. But those ring hollow because of the ubiquitous variety and combinations of “biblical” teachings that sincere readers of the Bible think it teaches on nearly every subject. To be clear, the problem is not that theoretical claims to biblical sufficiency or authority are proved to be wrong or erroneous per se; rather, they are defeated in relevance by the undeniable lack of interpretive agreement and consistency among those who share the same biblicist background. That defeat in relevance then gives rise to questions about the truth of those theoretical claims. Biblicists might offer a variety of responses to this problem, to be sure, but none of them, I will suggest, are adequate to address the difficulty. So, pervasive interpretive pluralism remains a debilitating problem for the relevance of biblicist theory.

Having made that primary case, I will then turn more briefly to a subsidiary examination of the larger question of the defensibility of biblicism generally. My argument focuses on the fact that the Bible contains a variety of texts that are problematic in different ways and that biblicist (among other) readers rarely know how to handle. Some are texts that frankly almost no reader is going to live by, however committed in theory they may be to biblicism. Others are texts that need explaining away by appeals to cultural relativity (although no principled guidelines exist about when that explanation should and should not be applied). Some are passages that are simply strange. And some are texts that seem to be incompatible with other texts.

In order not to let these problematic texts endanger their formal theory of the Bible, biblicists tend to respond in three ways. The first is simply to ignore the problematic texts, essentially pretending that they do not exist. The second is to “interpret” the problematic texts as if they say things that they do not in fact say. The third is to develop elaborate contortions of highly unlikely scenarios and explanations—of the sort to which nobody would ever resort in any other part of life—which seem to rescue the texts from the problems.[7] But, from the viewpoint of the biblicist perspective itself, these strategies should be illegitimate. Reliance on them to sustain a biblicist position is self-defeating. In addition, I will show, first, that biblicism itself is not a self-evident, much less necessary, teaching of the Bible about itself, and, second, that biblicism has some problematic, pernicious pastoral consequences for many thoughtful youth raised in biblicist traditions.

I conclude with three chapters advancing a number of proposals for overcoming American evangelical biblicism. My proposals assume that biblicism can be escaped not by turning away from an evangelical approach to the Bible but rather by becoming even more truly evangelical in the reading of scripture. Contrary to the fears of some biblicists, leaving biblicism behind need not mean losing the best of evangelicalism but, instead, can mean strengthening an evangelical hermeneutic of scripture.

How I came to write a book about biblical authority and scriptural interpretation is sometimes beyond me. (I have no doubt that some readers, by the time they get well into the book, will wish I had never written it.) I did not start off with that intention in mind, but it began simply with me (someone who tends to think better when writing) merely drafting out some thoughts and questions for myself and perhaps to bounce off a few friends for their reactions. Needless to say, it grew from there. I am not a biblical scholar or a theologian professionally—although I have studied at three Boston Theological Institute schools (Gordon Conwell, where I took a course on Christology from David Wells; Harvard Divinity School, where I studied historical theology with Margaret Miles and Ian Siggins, among others; and Andover Newton, where I took an excellent course on scripture with Gabriel Fackre) and have spent much of my life reading in theology.

Professionally, I am a sociologist. For purposes of writing this book, that is both an asset and a liability. It is an asset, I believe, because it gives me a perspective that is different from many who deal with these topics for a living and so enables me to perhaps see things that some others may not. Being a sociologist—particularly one not employed at an evangelical institution with doctrinal standards statements determining the viability of my employment—also frees me to say things in print that I think are true without the accompanying worry that I will lose my job as a result. I know that there are at least some employees at evangelical institutions who share the concerns I lay out in this book but who cannot give voice to them because of the internal political problem this would create.[8] I am fortunate not to have to worry about such matters.

But being a sociologist is also in some ways a liability in writing this book, since I do not have the expertise in certain complex areas of scholarship upon which this book touches. I do not claim to bring such expertise to my argument; rather, the force of my case, such as it is, grows merely from the asking of some very simple questions and the refusal to settle for what I think are inadequate standard answers. Sometimes what needs to be asked or said—especially in contexts of well-established and taken-for-granted routines that at least some powerful people have a stake in maintaining—is not all that sophisticated but is instead quite elementary. Pervasive interpretive pluralism is the proverbial massive elephant in the room of evangelical biblicism that nobody talks about. I want to talk about it.

I should also say up front, for purposes of full disclosure, that, since completing the writing of this book, I have joined the Catholic Church. My reasons for becoming Catholic—an evangelical Catholic, I might add—were many, and only partly related to the issues raised here.[9] This fact of my autobiography, however, takes nothing away from the importance and legitimacy of this book’s argument for American evangelicalism—a movement about which I still care, in certain ways admire, and want to see realizing its best potential. Toward that end, for evangelical Protestants who intend to remain evangelical, the argument of this book stands strong and deserves to be engaged and answered. The constructive suggestions with which I conclude this book hold true for evangelical Protestants, and, to be clear, no reader needs to become Catholic in order to embrace any or all of them.

Finally, it should go without saying that just because I cite a certain author or publication, that does not mean that I accept and endorse everything he, she, or it says. Oftentimes one wants to connect with certain specific ideas or perspectives of another without implying a full-scale endorsement of the other’s entire intellectual program. Most scholars know this. But, since among American evangelicals issues surrounding the nature of the Bible are so sensitive and politically charged, it is probably necessary for me to avoid guilt-by-association by saying it explicitly: merely because I cite a certain author or publication, that itself does not mean that I accept and endorse everything he, she, or it says.

I owe a debt of thanks to Mark Regnerus, Brian Brock, Mark Noll, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Flory, Stan Gaede, Rich Mouw, Katie Spencer, Trish Snell, Peter Mundey, Scot McKnight, Charles Cosgrove, Bill Webb, Roger Olson, Jeff McSwain, Douglas Campbell, Meredith Whitnah, Kevin Vanhoozer, Peter Enns, Craig Allert, Roger Lundin, Robert K. Johnson, Bob Brenneman, Kent Sparks, and David Sikkink for critical feedback on early versions of this manuscript. As is customary to say, and is true here also, this book was strengthened considerably by these people’s helpful feedback; yet, none of them is to be held responsible—even by association—for any of its mistakes, inaccuracies, confusions, oversights, or oversimplifications, of which I am aware there may be more than a few.

Finally, I owe a large debt of gratitude to my fellow B4B partners: Jeff McSwain, Douglas Campbell, Allan Keoneke, and (for one very enjoyable year) Brian Brock (as well as sometimes Jeremy Begbie, Allan Poole, and Peter Hausman)—to whom I dedicate this book, whether they like that or not. Nobody could hope to enjoy a more fun, stimulating, and edifying group of theological companions while meeting at Whole Foods to hash out life-changing theology. May they and their work prosper, especially Jeff’s at the Reality Ministries Center in downtown Durham, North Carolina.

Biblicism and the Problem of
Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
by Christian Smith

The “biblicism” that pervades much of American evangelicalism is untenable and needs to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority. By untenable I do not simply mean that it is wrong, but rather that it is literally impossible, at least when attempted consistently on its own terms. It cannot actually be sustained, practiced, and defended. Biblicism is one kind of an attempt to explain and act on the authority of the Bible, but it is a misguided one. In the end it cannot and in fact does not work.

A better alternative to biblicism is needed that takes seriously scriptural authority but in a way that does so beyond the framework of biblicism. Before any biblicist or semibiblicist is going to be motivated to seek a postbiblicist alternative to biblicism, however, they must first become convinced of biblicism’s untenability. Seeing that biblicism really is a dead end may motivate a constructive search for something better. This chapter and the next three seek to persuade readers that biblicism is a dead end, best to be abandoned.

What Is Biblicism?

Many functional biblicists in America have not heard of the term “biblicism” or do not know that it describes them. That does not matter. What does matter are the real belief system and the practices it animates. Whether called by that name or not, biblicism is prevalent and powerful in American Protestantism, particularly among conservative Protestants. As John Frame, professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, Florida) concludes in a thoughtful paper titled, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism,” “although Protestant theology under the sola Scriptura principle is not biblicist, it is not always easy to distinguish it from biblicism.”[10] The word “biblicism” turns out to mean different things to different people. It is therefore important to be clear about the meaning I intend here.

All that I write below is intended to reference the following definition. By “biblicism” I mean a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function. That constellation is represented by ten assumptions or beliefs:
  1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.[11]
  3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.[12]
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.[13]
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
  6. Sola Scriptura:[14] The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
  7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
  8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
The prior nine assumptions and beliefs generate a tenth viewpoint that—although often not stated in explications of biblicist principles and beliefs by its advocates—also commonly characterizes the general biblicist outlook, particularly as it is received and practiced in popular circles:
10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.[15]
Biblicism is not a comprehensively formalized position always explicated in exactly these ten points and subscribed to identically by all adherents. Different people and groups emphasize and express a variety of these points somewhat differently. Some may even downplay or deny particular points here and there—there are, for example, highly biblicist denominations and seminaries that are unapologetically confessional. The point is not that biblicism is a unified doctrine that all of its adherents overtly and uniformly profess. The point, rather, is that this constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.

Evangelical biblicism has a long history in America—one revealing how much popular biblicism was driven not by fellowship with the historic church but by the particular sensibilities of life in a postrevolutionary, nineteenth-century, individualistic, republican democracy.[16] However intensely and with whatever variations it may be expressed by different groups, biblicism is the foundational belief and practice of many tens of millions of American Christians—perhaps as many as a hundred million (according to General Social Survey data, about one-third of all adult Americans say that they believe that “the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word”).[17] Biblicism can readily be found in the belief statements of scores of denominations, seminaries, and parachurch ministries; seen in the words of myriad Christian authors and speakers; heard in the messages of innumerable pulpits and Bible studies; and observed in the practices of countless personal devotions.

Popular, Institutional, and Scholarly Examples of Biblicism

To put a finer point of particularity on the “ism” about which I have generalized above, I next cite some examples of specific expressions of biblicism. I draw here from an almost limitless supply of possible examples, both academic and popular, using numbers in brackets (e.g., [5]) throughout—at the risk of oversimplifying and overlabeling—to indicate when any of the ten biblicist themes noted above are expressed or implied. I begin with popular or “folk” expressions of biblicism[18] and then move on to more scholarly and institutional examples.

Biblicism is everywhere in evangelical popular culture, including, for instance, on the Internet. One Bible website dedicated to helping readers in “selecting the best Bible translations,” for example, is entitled “God’s Handbook to Life” [10].[19] Another Christian music and lyrics website devotes a page to “The Bible, God’s Word—Our Manual for Life” [10], which says that the Bible “contains the solution for every problem you are facing today [3]. The Bible is an encyclopedia on all subjects you can think of under the sun” [10].[20] Likewise, Faith and Fitness Magazine on its website calls the Bible “His Instruction Manual—Our Guidebook for a Healthy Life” [10], explaining that
the Bible is designed by God to provide us a blueprint for living life. It’s like an owner’s manual for a piece of exercise equipment [9 implied]. We can make the best use of the equipment if we read the owner’s manual so we are aware of how to use all the special capabilities and how all the “buttons and whistles” work. When it breaks down, we can look in the manual to know how to repair it [10].[21]
Similarly, the author of the “Bible Authors” webpage says that
the Bible was written through more than 40 men, but it fits together perfectly as if written by one man [7] because the author of all 66 books is the Holy Spirit [1]. The Bible was written over a time span of about 2,000 years, and it is totally accurate in matters of History, Prophecy, and every issue of life. There are no contradictions in the Bible [7]. . . . The Bible contains the mind of God [1]. . . . It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword [4, 5 implied], and the Christian’s charter . . . [that] condemns all who trifle with its holy contents. The Word of God is your absolute, infallible guide for life. Just like every major purchase is accompanied by an owner’s manual which tells you how to operate it, if you do not go by the book, it won’t work. The Bible is God’s owner’s manual for your life [10]. God would not save you and call you to service without clear, exact directions. You must go by the book.[22]
As another example, popular evangelical pastor and author John F. MacArthur Jr. writes that the Bible is “the only reliable and sufficient worship manual.”[23] Folk biblicism is also expressed in products such as automobile bumper stickers and T-shirts, as with the following actual instances, all currently for sale:
  • God said it, I believe it, that settles it!
  • BIBLE—Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth
  • Vote Responsibly—Vote the Bible!
  • Confused? Read the Directions! [picture of Bible]
  • Have You Read My #1 Best Seller [picture of Bible]? There Is Going to Be a Test. —God
  • Have Truth Decay? Brush Up on Your Bible
  • Hey Bible Hater! You’d Fit Right in with Communist-Atheist Regimes, Dictatorships, and Islamic States!
  • Got Scripture?
  • Certified Bible Thumper! [themes 1, 4–8, and 10 implied]

Biblicism also pervades the evangelical book-publishing market, which entails both popular evangelical markets and formal evangelical institutions (Thomas Nelson, Harvest House, NavPress, InterVarsity Press, etc.). The following are examples, drawn from among a longer list of similar books, almost all of which are currently still in print, all of whose titles listed here are, for present purposes, well worth reading word for word:
  • Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions
  • Biblical Principles for Starting and Operating a Business
  • 100 Biblical Tips to Help You Live a More Peaceful and Prosperous Life
  • Cooking with the Bible: Recipes for Biblical Meals
  • The Bible Cure for Cancer
  • The World According to God: A Biblical View of Culture, Work, Science, Sex, and Everything Else
  • The Biblical Guide to Alternative Medicine
  • Bible Answers for Every Need
  • Bible Prophecy 101: A Guide to End Times in Plain Language
  • What Does the Bible Say about . . . The Ultimate A to Z Resource to Contemporary Topics One Would Not Expect to Find in the Bible, Fully Illustrated—Discover What the Bible Says about 500 Real-Life Topics [pictures on the cover include golfing, pets, flower arrangements, and a whistle]
  • How to Make Choices You Won’t Regret—40 Minute Bible Studies
  • Queen Esther’s Secrets of Womanhood: A Biblical Rite of Passage for Your Daughter
  • Handbook for Christian Living: Biblical Answers to Life’s Tough Questions
  • Scientific Facts in the Bible: 100 Reasons to Believe the Bible Is Supernatural in Origin
  • Friendship Counseling: Biblical Foundations for Helping Others
  • Principles for Life: Using Biblical Principles to Bring Dynamic Psychological Healing
  • Business by the Book: Complete Guide of Biblical Principles for the Workplace
  • Bible Solutions to Problems of Daily Living
  • The Biblical Connection to the Stars and Stripes: A Nation’s Godly Principles Embodied in Its Flag
  • God’s Blueprint for Building Marital Intimacy
  • Crime and Community in Biblical Perspective
  • A Crown of Glory: A Biblical View of Aging
  • Gardening with Biblical Plants
  • Biblical Psychology
  • One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism
  • Leadership Communication: A Scriptural Perspective
  • Diagrams for Living: The Bible Unveiled
  • What the Bible Says about Parenting: Biblical Principles for Raising Godly Children
  • God Honoring Finances: What the Bible Tells You about Managing Money
  • Success in School: Building on Biblical Principles
  • Christian Dress and Adornment—Biblical Perspectives
  • Feeling Good about Your Feelings: How to Express Your Emotions in Harmony with Biblical Principles
  • Getting the Skinny on Prosperity: Biblical Principles That Work for Everyone
  • Off to Work We Go: Teaching Careers with Biblical Principles
  • Incoming: Listening for God’s Messages—A Handbook for Life
  • Biblical Strategies to Financial Freedom
  • Revelations That Will Set You Free: The Biblical Roadmap for Spiritual and Psychological Growth
  • Scripture Based Solutions for Handling Stress
  • Bad Girls of the Bible and What We Can Learn from Them
  • Success by Design: Ten Biblical Secrets to Help You Achieve Your God-Given Potential
  • The Awesome Book of Bible Facts
  • Learn the Bible in 24 Hours
  • Body by God: The Owner’s Manual for Maximized Living
  • Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood
  • Beyond Positive Thinking: Success and Motivation in the Scriptures
  • Biblical Economics: A Commonsense Guide to Our Daily Bread
  • Holding Hands, Holding Hearts: Recovering a Biblical View of Christian Dating
  • Politics and the Christian: A Scriptural Treatise
  • Seven Secrets to Bible-Made Millionaires
  • Prophecy 20/20: Profiling the Future through the Lens of Scripture
  • Weather and the Bible: 100 Questions and Answers[24]
    [Implied in these titles are biblicist themes 1–10.

- Christian Smith

Roger Olson: Arminianism as a God Centered Theology

A select portion of a teaching delivered by Dr. Roger Olson, titled:
"Arminianism as God-centered Theology."

Listen to YouTube:
"Roger Olson: What is God Centered Theology?"


Arminianism is God-centered theology
by Roger Olson
November 28, 2010
Below is a rather lengthy essay I have written. I welcome you to pass it around. It is not copyrighted, but please keep my name and blog address attached to it when you send or post it.
- Roger E. Olson, www.rogereolson.com
* * * * * * * * * * * * *

One of the most common criticisms aimed at Arminianism by its opponents is that it is “man-centered theology.” (I will occasionally use the gender-exclusive phrase because it is used so often by Arminianism’s critics. It means, of course, “humanity-centered.”) One Reformed critic of Arminianism who frequently levels this charge is Michael Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Escondido campus) and editor of Modern Reformation magazine. I have engaged Horton in protracted conversations about classical Arminianism and his and other Reformed critics’ stereotypes of it, but to date he still says it is “man-centered.” Almost every article in the infamous May/June, 1992 special issue of Modern Reformation on Arminianism repeats this caricature of it. Horton’s is no exception. In his article “Evangelical Arminians,” where he says “an evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic” (p. 18) the Westminster theologian and magazine editor also calls Arminianism “a human-centered message of human potential and relative divine impotence.” (p. 16)

Horton is hardly the only critic who has made this accusation against Arminianism. Several authors of articles in the “Arminianism” issue of Modern Reformation do the same thing. For example, Kim Riddlebarger, following B. B. Warfield, claims that human freedom is the central premise of Arminianism, its “first principle” that governs everything else. (p. 23) That is simply another way of saying it is “man-centered.” Lutheran theologian Rick Ritchie lays the same charge against Arminianism in the same issue of Modern Reformation. (p. 12) In the same issue theologian Alan Maben quotes Charles Spurgeon as saying that “Arminianism [is] a natural, God-rejecting, self-exalting religion and heresy” and man is the principle figure in its landscape. (p. 21)

Another evangelical theologian who accuses Arminianism of being man-centered is the late James Montgomery Boice, one of my own seminary professors. In his book Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Crossway, 2001) the late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia wrote that under the influence of Arminianism, contemporary evangelical Christianity is “focused on ourselves and…in love with their own supposed spiritual abilities.” (p. 168) According to him, Arminians cannot give glory to God alone and must reserve some glory for themselves because they believe the human will plays a role in salvation. He concludes “A person who thinks along these lines does not understand the utterly pervasive and thoroughly enslaving nature of human sin.” (p. 167)

Reformed theologian Sung Wook Chung of Korea, trained in theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes that Arminianism “exalts the autonomous power and sovereign will of human beings by denying God’s absolute sovereignty and his free will. Arminianism also regards man as the center of the universe and the purpose of all things.” (“The Arminian Captivity of the Modern Evangelical Church,” Life Under the Big Top, Jan/Feb 1995, pp. 2-3) Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler writes in The Coming Evangelical Crisis about the “human-centered focus of the Arminian tradition.” (p. 34) In the same volume Gary Johnson calls Arminianism a “man-centered faith” and says that “When theology becomes anthropology, it becomes simply a form of worldliness.” (p. 63)

Perhaps the most sophisticated way of saying the same thing is provided by scholar of Protestant orthodoxy Richard Mueller in his volume on Arminius entitled God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Baker, 1991). Mueller writes that “Arminius’ thought evinces…a greater trust in nature and in the natural powers of man…than the theology of his Reformed contemporaries.” (p. 233) He goes on to accuse Arminius of confusing nature and grace and of placing creation at the center of theology to the neglect of redemption. He writes that Arminius tended “to understand creation as manifesting the ultimate purpose of God.” (p. 233) A close reading of Mueller’s interpretation of Arminius’ theology will reveal that he is charging it with being anthropocentric or man-centered rather than God-centered and focused on grace. A close reading of Arminius, on the other hand, will reveal how wrong this assessment is.

What do these and other critics mean when they accuse Arminianism of being “man-centered” or “human-centered?” And what would it mean for a theology to be God-centered as they claim theirs is? Especially in today’s Calvinist resurgence of “young, restless, Reformed” Christians it’s important to clarify these terms as one often hears it said, as a mantra, that non-Calvinist theologies are man-centered whereas Reformed theology is God-centered. Their main guru John Piper frequently talks about the “God-centeredness of God” and refers everything in creation and redemption to God’s glory as the chief end. His implication, occasionally stated, is that Armnianism falls short of this high view of God. Too often without any consideration of what these appellations mean, today’s new Calvinists toss them around as clichés and shibboleths.

It seems that when critics of Arminianism accuse it of being man-centered they mean primarily three things. First, it focuses too much on human goodness and ability especially in the realm of redemption. That is, it does not take seriously enough the depravity of humanity and it prizes the human contribution to salvation too much. Another way of putting that is that Arminian theology does not give God all the glory for salvation. Second, they mean that Arminianism limits God by suggesting that God’s will can be thwarted by human decisions and actions. In other words, God’s sovereignty and power are not taken sufficiently seriously. Third, they mean that Arminianism places too much emphasis on human fulfillment and happiness to the neglect of God’s purpose which is to glorify himself in all things. Another way of expressing this is that Arminianism allegedly has a sentimental notion of God and humanity in which God’s chief end is to make people happy and fulfilled.

Certainly there is some truth in these criticisms, but their target is wrong when aimed at classical Arminian theology. Unfortunately, all too seldom do the critics name any Arminian theologians or quote from Arminius himself to support these accusations. When they say “Arminianism” they seem to mean popular folk religion which is, admittedly, by-and-large semi-Pelagian. Some, most notably Horton, name 19th century revivalist Charles Finney as the culprit in dragging American Christianity down into human-centered spirituality. Whether Finney is a good example of an Arminian is highly debatable. I agree with Horton and others that too much popular Christianity in America, including much that goes under the label “evangelical,” is human-centered. I disagree with them, however, about classical Arminianism about which I suspect most of them know very little.

What would count as truly God-centered theology to these Reformed critics of Arminianism? First, human depravity must be emphasized as much as possible so that humans are not capable, even with supernatural, divine assistance, of cooperating with God’s grace in salvation. In other words, grace must be irresistible. Another way of saying that is that God must overwhelm elect sinners and compel them to accept his mercy without any cooperation, even non-resistance, on their parts. This is part and parcel of high Calvinism, otherwise known as five-point Calvinism. According to Boice and others theology is only God-centered if human decision plays no role whatsoever in salvation. The downside of this, of course, is that God’s selection of some to salvation must be purely arbitrary and God must be depicted as actually willing the damnation of some significant portion of humanity that he could save because salvation in this scheme is absolutely unconditional. In other words, Calvinism may be God-centered, but the God at the center is morally ambiguous and unworthy of worship.

Second, apparently, for the Reformed critics of Arminianism, God-centered theology must view God as the all-determining reality including the one who ordains, designs, governs and controls sin and evil which are then imported into God’s plan, purpose and will. God’s perfect will is always being done, even when it paradoxically grieves him to see it (as John Piper likes to affirm). The only view of God’s sovereignty that will satisfy these Reformed critics of Arminianism is meticulous providence in which God plans everything and renders it all certain down to the minutest decisions of creatures but most notably including the fall of humanity and all its consequences including the eternal suffering of sinners in hell. The downside of this, of course, is that the God at the center is, once again, morally ambiguous at best and a monster at worst. Theologian David Bentley Hart expresses it thus: One should consider the price of this God-centeredness:

It requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines (and so on). It is a strange thing indeed to seek [God-centered theology]…at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. (The Doors of the Sea [Eerdmans, 2005], p. 99)

Third, to satisfy Arminianism’s Reformed critics, God-centeredness requires that human beings are mere pawns in God’s great scheme to glorify himself; their happiness and fulfillment cannot be mentioned as having any value for God. But this means, then, that one can hardly mention God’s love for all people. One must first say with John Piper and others that God loves people because he loves himself and that Christ died for God more than for sinners. The down side of this is that the Bible talks much about God’s love for people—John 3:16 and numerous similar verses—and explicitly says that Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:8). While not canonical, early church father Ireneaus’s saying that “The glory of God is man fully alive” ought to be considered to have some validity. Surely it is possible to have a God-centered theology without implying that people created in the image and likeness of God and loved by God so much that he sent his Son to die for them are of no value to God. In fact, some Reformed theologians such as John Piper ironically do violate the third principle of God-centeredness as it is required by some critics of Arminianism. His so-called “Christian hedonism” says that human happiness and fulfillment are important to theology even if not to God. His mantra is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” In spite of this saying and his Christian hedonism, overall and in general Piper follows the typical Calvinist line of thinking that human happiness and fulfillment should be of little or no value compared with God’s glory. Another down side of this, besides the Bible’s emphasis on God’s love and care for people, is the picture of God it delivers. In this theology, the God at the center is the ultimate narcissist, the greatest egoist who finds glory in displaying his naked power even to the point of consigning millions to hell just to manifest his attribute of justice.

The point of all this is simply this: It accomplishes very little to construct a God-centered theology if the God at its center is sheer, naked power of ambiguous moral character. “Glory” is an ambiguous term. When divorced from virtue it is unworthy of devotion. Many of the monarchs of history have been “glorious” while at the same time being blood-thirsty and cruel. True glory, the best glory, the right glory worthy of worship and honor and devotion necessarily includes goodness. Power without goodness is not truly glorious even if it is called that. What makes someone or something worthy of veneration is not sheer might but goodness. Who is more worthy of imitation and even veneration, Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler? The latter conquered most of Europe. The former had little power outside of her example. And yet, most people would say that Mother Teresa was more “glorious” than Adolf Hitler. God is glorious because he is both great and good and his goodness, like his greatness, must have some resonance with our best and highest notions of goodness or else it is meaningless.

All that is to say that Arminianism’s critics are the proverbial people casting stones while living in glass houses. They talk endlessly about God’s glory and about God-centeredness while sucking the goodness out of God and thus divesting him of real glory. Their theology may be God-centered but the God at its center is unworthy of being the center. Better a man-centered theology than one that revolves around a being hardly distinguishable from the devil.

In spite of objections to the contrary, I will argue that classical Arminian theology is just as God-centered as Calvinism if not more so. The God at its center, whose glory, to the contrary of critics’ claims, is the chief end or purpose of everything is not morally ambiguous which is the main point of Arminianism. Somehow Arminian theology has been stuck with the bad reputation of believing most strongly in human freedom. That has never been true. Real Arminianism has always believed in human freedom for one main reason—to protect the goodness of God and thus God’s reputation in a world filled with evil. There is only one reason classical Arminian theology emphasizes free will, but it has two sides. First, to protect and defend God’s goodness; second to make clear human responsibility for sin and evil. It has nothing whatever to do with any humanistic desire for creaturely autonomy or credit for salvation. It has never been about boasting except in the goodness of the God who creates, rules and saves.

Why did Arminius reject and why do classical Arminians reject Calvinism? Certainly not because it is God-centered. As I will demonstrate, Arminius’ own theology was fully God-centered in every sense. Arminius and his followers rejected Calvinism because, as Arminius himself put it, it is “repugnant to the nature of God.” (“Declaration of Sentiments,” Works I, p. 623) How so? According to Arminius (and all classical Arminians agree) Calvinism implies that “God really sins. Because, (according to this doctrine,) he moves to sin by an act that is unavoidable, and according to his own purpose and primary intention, without having received any previous inducement to such an act from any preceding sin or demerit in man.” Also, “From the same position we might also infer, that God is the only sinner. For man, who is impelled by an irresistible force to commit sin, (that is, to perpetrate some deed that has been prohibited,) cannot be said to sin himself.” Finally, “As a legitimate consequence it also follows, that sin is not sin, since whatever that be which God does, it neither can be sin, nor ought any of his acts to receive that appellation.” (“Sentiments,” p. 630)

Anyone who has read John Wesley’s sermons “On Free Grace” and “Predestination Calmly Considered” knows very well that he rejects Calvinism for the same reason given by Arminius before him. In the former sermon he described double predestination (which he rightly argued is necessarily implied by classical Calvinist unconditional election) as “Such a blasphemy…as one would think might make the ears of a Christian tingle.” (The Works of John Wesley 3:III, p. 555) According to him, that doctrine “destroys all [God’s] attributes as once” and “represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust.” (Ibid., p. 555) In “Predestination Calmly Considered” Wesley rejected Calvinism for one reason only: not because it denied the free will of man but because it “overthrows the justice of God.” He preached as if to a listening Calvinist “you suppose him [viz., God] to send them [viz., the reprobate] into eternal fire, for not escaping from sin! That is, in plain terms, for not having that grace which God had decreed they should never have! O strange justice! What a picture do you draw of the Judge of all the earth!” (The Works of John Wesley, Vol. X: Letters, Essays, Dialogs and Addresses [Zondervan, n.d.], p. 221) Anyone who has read later classical Arminians knows that their main reason for rejecting Calvinism is the same: it impugns the goodness of God and sullies God’s reputation. It has nothing at all to do with valuing human free will in and for itself and I challenge critics to demonstrate otherwise.

To explain and defend Arminianism’s God-centeredness let’s begin with the first issue mentioned above as a reason critics give for claiming that Arminian theology is man-centered: the human condition and participation in salvation. Classical Arminian theology, defined by Arminius’s own thought and by the thoughts of his faithful followers, has always emphasized human depravity just as strongly as Calvinism and it has always given all the credit for salvation to God alone. Anyone who has read Arminius for himself or herself cannot dispute this. The editor of The Works of James Arminius (Baker, 1996 [originally published in England 1828]) says rightly that “Were any modern Arminian to avow the sentiments which Arminius himself has here maintained , he would be instantly called a Calvinist!” (Editor’s notes to “Twenty-five Public Disputations,” Works II, p. 189) In that context Arminius wrote about the human condition “under the dominion of sin”: “In this state, the Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and…weakened; but it is also…imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.” (Ibid., p. 192) Lest anyone misunderstand, he drives home his point saying of man that in the state of nature, due to the fall, he is “altogether dead in sin.” (Ibid., p. 194) This is not the only place in his voluminous writings where Arminius describes the human condition apart from supernatural grace this way. In virtually every essay, oration and declaration he says the same and abundantly! There can be no doubt that Arminius believed in total depravity every bit as much as do Calvinists.

What about free will? What about the human contribution to salvation? Did not Arminius attribute some good to the human person that causes God to save him or her? I’ll allow Arminius to speak for himself on this matter also. Immediately after describing the divine cure for human depravity, which is what is commonly known as “prevenient grace” which awakens the person dead in sin to awareness of God’s mercy, Arminius says that even “the very first commencement of every good thing, so likewise the progress, continuance and confirmation, nay even the perseverance in good, are not from ourselves, but from God through the Holy Spirit.” (Ibid., p. 195) This is not an isolated quote taken out of context. Everywhere Arminius constantly refers all good in man to God as its source and attributes every impulse and capacity for good to grace. I cannot resist offering one more example. In his “A Letter Addressed to Hippolytus A Collibus” Arminius speaks of grace and free will:

I confess that the mind of … a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this, That teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to Divine Grace; provided he so pleads the cause of Grace as not to inflict an injury on the Justice of God, and not to take away the free will to do that which is evil. (Works II, pp. 700-701)

The context of this statement makes clear that Arminius’ concern for free will is to avoid doing injury to God’s goodness by making him the author of sin and evil. For him, human free will is always the cause of sin and evil and God is never their cause even indirectly. (Although, it should be noted that in his doctrine of providence Arminius affirms that a creature cannot do anything without God’s permission and even concurrence.) This is the only reason he affirms free will.

What about later Arminians such as the Remonstrants? Sometimes critics of Arminianism allege that the true meaning of Arminianism is to be found in the theology of the Remonstrants who were Arminius’ followers after his death. Of course, that is like saying the true meaning of Calvinism is to be found in the theology of the Reformed scholastics after Calvin. The truth is that both “Arminianism” and “Calvinism” must be defined by both their namesakes and their most faithful followers. I argue that true, classical Arminian theology was always faithful to and consistent with Arminius’ thought and vice versa. I have demonstrated that in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (InterVarsity Press, 1996).

The normative expression of Remonstrant theology may be found in The Arminian Confession of 1621 written by Simon Episcopius, founder of the Remonstrant Seminary in Holland. In complete harmony with Arminius, the Confession affirms that the fallen human person is completely incapable of saving faith and that he or she is totally dependent on grace for any and every good. In the article on the creation of the world, angels and men it says “whatever good [man] has, he owes all solidly to God and…he is obligated…to render and consecrate the same wholly to him.” (Confession 5.6 as translated by Mark A. Ellis in The Arminian Confession of 1621 [Wipf & Stock, 2005], p. 56) As for the human condition, the Confession says of grace that “without it we could neither shake off the miserable yoke of sin, nor do anything truly good in all religion, nor finally ever escape eternal death or any true punishment of sin. Much less could we at any time obtain eternal salvation without it or through ourselves.” (Ibid., pp. 68-69) There is nothing “man-centered” about this Confession. Later Remonstrants such as Philip Limborch, who fits Alan Sell’s category of “Arminian of the head” as opposed to “Arminian of the heart,” veered off toward a man-centered semi-Pelagianism. But most Arminians followed the path of Arminius and Episcopius and Wesley and the 19th century Methodist theologians such as Richard Watson who averred that even repentance is a gift of God. (Theological Institutes [Lane & Scott, 1851], p. 99)

Anyone who reads these classical Arminians with a hermeneutic of charity rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion and hostility cannot help but see their God-centeredness in emphasizing the absolute dependence of human persons on God’s grace for everything good. All of them repeat this maxim frequently and attribute all of salvation from its beginning to end to God’s supernatural grace. Of course, most Reformed critics will not be satisfied with this. They will still say, as does Boice, that if the sinner, however enabled by prevenient grace, makes a free choice to accept God’s mercy unto salvation that is man-centered rather than God-centered. All I can say to that is that it is ludicrous. The point Boice and other critics continually make is that in the Arminian system the saved person can boast because he or she did not resist God’s grace and others did. All Arminian theologians from Arminius to Wesley to Wiley have pointed out that a person who receives a life-saving gift cannot boast if all he or she did was accept it. All the glory for such a gift goes to the giver and none to the receiver.

The second issue raised by critics of Arminianism has to do with God’s alleged limitations and lack of sovereignty and power. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler writes in The Coming Evangelical Crisis that “The Arminian God ultimately lacks omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendent sovereignty.” (p. 34) I argue that this objection carries no weight at all. Anyone who reads Arminius or his faithful followers, classical Arminians, cannot come away with this impression. All emphasize the sovereignty of God over his creation including specific providence and all underscore God’s power limited only by his goodness. What throws off Reformed (and perhaps other) critics is the underlying Arminian assumption of God’s voluntary self-limitation in relation to humanity. However, that God limits himself by no means implies that he is essentially limited. According to Arminian theology God is sovereign over his sovereignty and his goodness conditions his power. Otherwise, he would be sheer, naked power without character. As I argued earlier, that would make him unworthy of worship.

I will begin as before with Arminius himself. What did he believe about God’s sovereignty and power? First, he rightly pointed out that, although he did affirm God’s absolute dominion over creation, “The declaration of dominion has no glory by itself, unless it has been justly used.” (“Examination of the Theses of Dr. Franciscus Gomarus Respecting Predestination,” Works III, p. 632) In his “Private Disputations” and “Public Disputations,” Arminius went to great lengths to affirm and endorse what is called classical Christian theism with all the traditional attributes attached to it including omnipotence and sovereignty. A stronger statement of God’s incommunicable attributes could not be found anywhere. As for sovereignty, Arminius confessed that “Satan and wicked men not only cannot accomplish, but, indeed, cannot even commence anything except by God’s permission.” (“Examination of Dr. Perkins’s Pamphlet on Predestination,” Works III, p. 369)

Even some Arminians might find some of Arminius’s statements about God’s sovereignty perplexing if not troubling. He attributed every power to God and denied that any creature has the ability to accomplish anything, including evil, independently of God. To critics who accused him of limiting God and exalting human autonomy Arminians wrote:

I openly allow that God is the cause of all actions which are perpetrated by the creatures. But I merely require this, that that efficiency of God be so explained as that nothing whatever be derogated from the liberty of the creature, and that the guilt of sin itself be not transferred to God: that is, that it may be shown that God is indeed the effector of the act, but only the permitter of the sin itself; nay, that God is at the same time the effecter and permitter of one and the same act. (Ibid., p. 415)

This is an expression of Arminius’s doctrine of divine concurrence in which the creature cannot act without God’s permission and aid. God wills creaturely free will and therefore must reluctantly concur with creatures in their sinful acts because they cannot act independently of him. He does not, however, plan or propose or render certain any sin or evil.

To drive the point home further: In his “A Letter Addressed to Hippolytus A Collibus” Arminius went to great lengths to affirm divine sovereignty, power and providential control over creation. He speculates that he was accused of holding “corrupt opinions respecting the Providence of God” because he denied that “with respect to the decree of God, Adam necessarily sinned.” (Works II, p. 698) In other words, he rejected the typical Calvinist view that God foreordained and rendered certain Adam’s sin. However, he averred that, in spite of his rejection of the necessity of Adam’s fall, he did teach a strong and high view of God’s providence:

I most solicitously avoid two causes of offence, — that God be not proposed as the author of sin, — and that its liberty be not taken away from the human will: These are two points which if anyone knows how to avoid, he will think upon no act which I will not in that case most gladly allow to be ascribed to the Providence of God, provided a just regard be had to the divine pre-eminence. (Ibid., pp. 697-698)

What is absolutely clear from the context is that his insistence that liberty be not taken away from the human will has only one motive—that God not be proposed as the author of sin. He had no vested interest in human autonomy or free will for its own sake. His God-centeredness revolved around two foci: God’s untarnished goodness and absolute creaturely dependence on God for everything good. These cannot be missed as they appear on almost every page of his writings.

What about the Arminian Confession of 1621, the normative statement of Remonstrant belief after Arminius? Did it fall into human-centeredness as critics claim? In its chapter “On the providence of God, or his preservation and government of things,” the Confession avers that “nothing happens anywhere in the entire world rashly or by chance, that is, God either not knowing, or ignoring, or idly observing it, much less looking on, still less altogether reluctantly even unwillingly and not even willing to permit it.” (p. 63) The practical conclusion of the doctrine of providence, the Confession affirms, is that the true believer “will always give thanks to God in prosperity, and in addition, in the future…freely and continuously place their greatest hope in God, their most faithful Father.” (Ibid.)

As for God’s omnipotence, the Confession says that God “is omnipotent, or of invincible and insuperable power, because he can do whatever he wills, even though all creatures be unwilling. Indeed he can always do more than he really wills, and therefore he can simply do whatever does not involve contradiction, that is, which are not necessarily and of themselves repugnant to the truth of certain things, nor to his own divine nature.” (Ibid., p. 48) What more can anyone ask of a doctrine of omnipotence? Oh, yes…certain Reformed critics can and so seem to ask for divine omnicausality. The problem with that, of course, is that it entangles God in evil. Again, the God at the center of that system is not worthy of being central to a belief system that values virtue and goodness. The fact is, that Arminius’s and the Remonstrants’ doctrines of God’s sovereignty and power are as high and strong as possible short of making God the author of sin and evil.

What about later Arminians? Did they remain true to this high doctrine of God’s supremacy in and over all things? While affirming everything Arminius and the early Remonstrants taught about this doctrine, including God’s control over all things in creation, Richard Watson rightly cautioned that “the sovereignty of God is a Scriptural doctrine no one can deny; but it does not follow that the notions which men please to form of it should be received as scriptural.” (Watson, p. 442) For example, he avers that God could have prevented the fall of Adam and all its evil consequences but regarded it as better to allow it. (p. 435) That God merely allowed it and did not foreordain or cause it is where Watson’s doctrine of providence parts ways with the typical Reformed view. However, he rejects any notion that God is in any way the author of sin as incompatible with God’s goodness. (p. 429) The very fact that he affirms that God could have prevented the fall points to his strong view of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty. Again, in Watson, we see a subtle but definite assumption of God’s voluntary self-limitation in order to keep the God who stands at the center of theology good and worthy of worship.

The upshot of all this so far is that classical Arminian theology does not have a man-centered emphasis. Arminius’s main concern was not to elevate humanity alongside or over God; no one can read him fairly and get that impression. His main concern was to elevate God’s goodness alongside or even over God’s power without in any way diminishing God’s power. The way he accomplished that was by means of the idea of voluntary divine self-limitation—something he everywhere assumes and hints at without explicitly expounding. Reformed theologian Richard Mueller has rightly discovered and brought this element of Arminius’s thought to light. He acknowledges the two equally important impulses in Arminius’s thought: God’s absolute right to exercise power and control and God’s free limitation of his power for the sake of the integrity of creation:

Both in the act of creation and in the establishment of covenant, God freely commits himself to the creature. God is not, in the first instance, in any way constrained to create, but does so only because of his own free inclination to communicate his goodness; nor is God in the second instance, constrained to offer man anything in return for obedience inasmuch as the act of creation implies a right and a power over the creature. Nonetheless, in both cases, the unconstrained performance of the act results in the establishment of limits to the exercise of divine power: granting the act of creation, God cannot reprobate absolutely and without a cause in the creature; granting the initiation of covenant, God cannot remove or obviate his promises. (Mueller, p. 243)

The point is that any and all limitations of God’s power and sovereign control to dispose of his creatures as he wills is self-imposed either by his nature or by his covenant promises. This hardly amounts to a man-centered theology! In fact, one could rightly argue that certain Reformed doctrines of the necessity of creation, including redemption and damnation, for the full manifestation of God’s attributes and the full display of God’s glory amount to a creation-centered theology that robs God of his freedom and makes the world necessary for God.

The third charge laid against Arminianism that allegedly demonstrates its man-centeredness is its focus on human happiness and fulfillment to the detriment of God’s glory. Some Reformed theologians claim that Arminianism’s God is a weak, sentimental God who exists to serve human needs and wants and that in Arminian theology man is made glorious at the expense of God’s glory. This is nothing more than vicious calumny that needs to be exposed as such. It may be true of a great deal of American folk religion, but it has nothing whatever to do with classical Arminian theology in which the chief end of all things is God’s glory.

As always I will begin with Arminius himself. Anyone who reads his “Private Disputations,” his “Public Disputations” or his “Orations” cannot deny that he makes God’s glory the ultimate purpose of everything including creation, providence, salvation, the church and the consummation. In his “Private Disputations” Arminius stated clearly that God is the cause of all blessedness and that the “end” of this blessedness is twofold: “(1.) a demonstration of the glorious wisdom, goodness, justice, power, and likewise the universal perfection of God; and (2.) his glorification by the beatified.” (Works II, p. 321) Lest anyone think that he makes God dependent on creation or creation necessary to God Arminius declares in his “Apology or Defence” that everything God does ad extra is absolutely free—even his self-glorification through creation and redemption: “God freely decreed to form the world, and did freely form it: And, in this sense, all things are done contingently in respect to the Divine decree; because no necessity exists why the decree of God should be appointed, since it proceeds from his own pure and free…Will.” (Works I, p. 758) In other words, only Arminius’ belief in libertarian freedom both in God and creatures, protects the absolute contingency and therefore gratuitousness of creation. Which is more glorious? A God who creates to glorify himself absolutely freely or one who, like Jonathan Edwards’ God, cannot do otherwise than he does?

It’s difficult to know from which context to quote Arminius’ numerous affirmations of the glory of God as the chief end of all his works. Here, however, is a typical example from his “Private Disputations” where he covers all the loci of theology and almost always concludes that everything in heaven and earth is for the glory of God. This one has to do with sanctification although his words are nearly identical with regard to justification and everything else God does. Sanctification, Arminius declares, “is a gracious act of God…[that] man may live the life of God, to the praise of the righteousness and of the glorious grace of God….” (Works II, p. 408) Then, also, “The End [purpose] is, that a believing man, being consecrated to God as a Priest and King, should serve Him in newness of life, to the glory of his divine name….” (Ibid., p. 409) Similarly, the “end” of the church is “the glory of God” (Ibid., p. 412) and the “end” of the sacraments is “the glory of God” (Ibid., p. 436) and “The principle End [of worship] is, the glory of God and Christ….” (Ibid., p. 447) In his “Public Disputations” Arminius repeats the pattern of describing everything blessed and good as God’s work and its end or purpose as the glory of God.

Earlier I said that Arminius almost always concludes that everything in heaven and earth is for the glory of God. There is one and only one exception. In his discussion of sin he concludes, specifically here with respect to the first sin, that “There was no End for this sin.” (Ibid., p. 373) Man who sinned and the devil both proposed an end or purpose for it, but ultimately it could not have a purpose which would be to import it into God’s will which would make it not sin. Rather, the first sin, like all sin, was a surd, something inexplicable—except by appeal to man’s misuse of free will. However, God had an end in allowing it: “acts glorious to God, which might arise from it.” (Ibid.,) In other words, while sin does not glorify God, God’s redemption of sinners does.

Time and space prohibit a lengthier and more detailed account of Arminius’ emphasis on the glory of God as the chief end or purpose of every good in creation. All I can do is urge skeptics to read his “Orations” in Works I where he constantly repeats the refrain for “the glory of God and the salvation of men.” Lest anyone think he puts these two ends on the same level of importance he says in Oration II that all salvation has the single purpose that “we might sing God’s praises to him forever.” (Works I, p. 372)

One finds no hint anywhere in Arminius of any concern for human autonomy for its own sake. Arminius’s only reason for affirming libertarian free will is to disconnect sin from God and make the sinner solely responsible for it. His one overriding concern is for God’s glory in all things. There can be no doubt that he would agree whole heartedly with the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism “What is the chief end of man?” “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Time prohibits me from rehearsing a litany of Arminian affirmations of the glory of God after Arminius. Suffice it to say that all classical Arminians have always agreed with Arminius about this matter. I challenge critics of Armininism to display one example of a classical Arminian theologian who has elevated humanity to an end in itself or in any way made God’s chief end the glory of man. It doesn’t exist.

I conclude with this observation. The difference between Arminian and Calvinist theologies does not lie in man-centeredness versus God-centeredness. True Arminianism is as thoroughly God-centered as Calvinism. A fair reading of classical Arminian theologians from Arminius to Thomas Oden cannot avoid finding in them a ringing endorsement of the God-centeredness of all creation and redemption. The difference, rather, lies in the nature and character of the God who stands at the centers of these two systems. The God who stands at the center of classical, high Calvinism of the TULIP variety is a morally ambiguous being of power and control who is hardly distinguishable from the devil. The devil wants all people to go to hell whereas the God of Calvinism wants some, perhaps most, people to go to hell. The devil is God’s instrument in wreaking havoc and horror in the world—for God’s glory. The God who stands at the center of classical Arminianism is the God of Jesus Christ, full of love and compassion as well as justice and wrath who voluntarily limits his power to allow creaturely rebellion but is nevertheless the source of all good for whose glory and honor everything except sin exists.
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