Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition: A Book Review

Pinsonby Dustin Walters

Many view Jacobus Arminius with an inaccurate perspective, interpreting his theology as some form of semi- or outright Pelagianism. This common error among Calvinists and others stems from a refusal to interact with Arminius’ actual writings. Dr. J. Matthew Pinson provides readers with a healthy corrective to the mainstream understanding of Arminius’ theology in Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition.

Dr. Pinson serves Welch College’s fifth president (2002-present). After attending Welch College in the 1980s, he graduated from the University of West Florida (B.A. in humanities, M.A. in history), Yale (M.A.R.), and Vanderbilt (Ed.D.). He has authored and edited numerous books including Perspectives on Christian Worship (B&H), Four Views on Eternal Security (Zondervan),, and A Free Will Baptist Handbook (Randall House).[1]

Summary

Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition is a healthy blend of history and theology within the Arminian Baptist tradition. Readers will be surprised to find that one can be Arminian, Baptist, and confessional at the same time. Some Arminians are afraid to speak of their theological persuasions because of what others associate with the term Arminian. Error exists when people view Arminians as Pelagians or at least semi-Pelagians. This book serves as a healthy corrective by encouraging readers to engage with the writings of Arminius himself. Within the pages of this book readers will revisit Reformational affirmations, such as sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia. Such doctrinal imperatives must be preached for the church to defend heresy properly and foster spiritual vitality in the contemporary church.

Chapter 1: “Jacobus Arminius: Reformed and Always Reforming”: Many might be surprised to find that Jacobus Arminius had a Reformed understanding of original sin and total depravity. His main divergence concerned predestination, something for which Arminius’ followers are known. Pinson labors to show his reader than Arminius viewed himself as a development of Reformed theology and not a radical departure from it.[2] Arminius adhered to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. One does not treat Arminius justly if they only view his theology through his followers. Pinson urges readers to revisit Arminius himself rather than some Wesleyan or Pelagian interpretation of Arminius.

Chapter 2: “The Nature of the Atonement in the Theology of Jacobus Arminius”: Various elements of Arminius’ theology receive frequent attention, but his views on the atonement are discussed less frequently. Arminius adhered closely to the views of the Reformation in the 17th century. Arminius’ views on the atonement of Christ were based largely on his understanding of Christ’s three-fold office of Prophet, Priest, and King.[3] Arminius adhered to a Reformational penal substitutionary atonement for the believer based on Christ’s active and passive obedience. Pinson’s summary is helpful: “God satisfies His love for the creature by forgiving sins, while at the same time satisfying His love for justice by inflicting the punishment for sin (‘inflicting stripes’) on His son.”[4] For Arminius, the atonement is necessary because God’s demand for holiness must be met, and it is met solely in the person and work of Christ.

Chapter 3: “Sin and Redemption in the Theology of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys”: John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were both forebears of the modern Baptist movement, but eventually they would diverge in their soteriology and ecclesiology. Helwys strikingly adhered to similar views of Arminius. Pinson provides an historical sketch of Smyth and Helwys, with careful attention given to the theological distinctives later held by each. Some of the key doctrines held in tension by Smyth and Helwys were original sin, depravity, human ability, free will, and justification.

Pinson concludes that Arminius had a direct influence on Helwys, who came to have anti-Calvinistic persuasions similar to Smyth, but diverged theologically. Helwys was far closer to Arminius’ thinking than was Smyth. This chapter is helpful because of Helwys’ contribution to present-day Reformed Arminians. A careful reading of this chapter better informs the reader about sin and redemption in Arminius as mediated through Thomas Helwys.

Chapter 4: “The First Baptist Treatise on Predestination: Thomas Helwys’ Short and Plaine Proofe”: To a fault Thomas Helwys is often overshadowed by his mentor, John Smyth. Helwys is responsible for establishing the first Baptist church on English soil. Helwys authored A Short and Plaine Proofe to explain why he separated from Smyth. Smyth’s doctrines on original sin, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and his acceptance of Hoffmanite Christology stand in opposition to Helwys, who accepted the positions of the Magisterial Reformers. Along with these issues, the chapter discusses determinism, the free will of Adam, divine reprobation, and infant salvation. Helwys’ Arminianism stands in stark contrast with Pelagians’ and Waterlander Mennonites’. It’s more grace-oriented, emphasizing salvation by grace through faith. Helwys is a “vital resource for understanding Arminian and Baptist approaches to soteriology.”[5] Readers will be compelled to appreciate the Arminianism advocated by Thomas Helwys.

Chapter 5: “Thomas Grantham and the Diversity of Arminian Soteriology”: Reformed Arminian soteriology is further developed by Thomas Grantham. Grantham is the foremost English General Baptist of the latter half of the 17th century and is the quintessential representative of Arminian soteriology.[6] Pinson diligently labors to demonstrate this, albeit with some qualifications. Grantham provides us with a unique middle ground between orthodox Calvinism and what has become known as Arminianism. He is considered an Arminian because his views on election, atonement, the resistibility of grace, and the perseverance of the saints is much closer to Arminius’ views than Calvin’s.

Another prominent theologian of the late 17th century was John Goodwin, who was known as an Arminian, but departed much further from Calvinistic thinking than did Grantham.[7] In short, Goodwin and Grantham were distinct in their understandings of sin and the nature of divine justice. Goodwin had been influenced by Hugo Grotius’ governmental view of atonement, whereas Grantham adhered to the penal satisfaction view promoted through the Reformers before him. Grantham believed he was advocating a via media position between Calvinism and some form of Pelagianism. He believed this was the “way of the Bible and of the primitive churches.”[8]

Chapter 6: “Atonement, Justification, and Apostasy in the Theology of John Wesley”: Pinson’s purpose in writing this chapter is to show that Wesley’s views cannot be nicely lumped into any theological category. Although he was influenced by Anglican Arminianism, Calvinistic Arminianism, and Catholic Arminianism, none of these positions can safely claim Wesley as one of their own. Wesley viewed Christ’s atonement as sufficient for past sins, but not future sins. This led to his understanding of justification and apostasy. Wesley believed in two types of apostasy, which I found interesting. He believed in final apostasy and what came to be known as backsliding. Pinson distinguishes Reformed Arminianism from Wesleyan Arminianism, and urges readers to view Reformed Arminianism in a more positive light, given its connection to Arminius thought.

Chapter 7: “Confessional, Baptist, and Arminian: The General-Free Will Baptist Tradition and the Nicene Faith”: This chapter is worth the purchase cost. Pinson moves Arminian Baptist readers to consider the importance of their confessional history. Some have contended that the only creed to follow is Scripture itself, but readers will be surprised to find that one of the early General Baptist leaders, Thomas Grantham, was confessional. One can be confessional, Baptist, and Arminian at the same time (for more, see articles by Jesse Owens and Jeremy Craft). If we continue the tradition of defending the church against heresy, we must revisit the church’s creeds and confession. There is no greater breath of fresh air for Free Will Baptists than Pinson’s words at this chapter’s close:

The task at hand for contemporary Arminian Baptists is to re-connect with their past: their own scripturally permeated tradition, the tradition of the Reformation, and the Reformation’s rooting of itself in and appropriation of the consensual orthodoxy of the creeds, councils, and fathers of the early church.[9]

Strengths and Challenges

Arminian and Baptist can read from cover to cover, or in parts. The book is a collection of previously written and/or published essays, making it more user-friendly. Readers will appreciate Pinson’s careful approach to understanding Reformed Arminianism for what it is: a development of the Reformation, not a departure from it. This book highlights Arminius’ views and traces how the early English Baptists upheld those views. Arminian and Baptist balances the history and theology behind the movement known as Reformed Arminianism. Each chapter is followed by a brief conclusion, enabling readers to grasp more fully what is being said.

Readers are encouraged to be aware of theological jargon, most notably in chapter three. Thomas Helwys and John Smyth discussed sin and redemption and used terms such as creationist, traducionist, visible church, natural headship, and so on. Also, I would have liked a chapter on what Free Will Baptists can do in their ministries to carry on this great tradition of faith that has been handed down to us.

Recommendation

I recommend this book to future pastors, lay leaders, and students. College students can appreciate this work as a treasure trove of Arminian Baptist thought because so little has been published previously. If we are to engage seriously in defending the church against modern day heresies, we must revisit our past, or as Pinson puts it: renewal through retrieval.

About the Writer: Dustin is an Alabama native who recently completed a degree in Pastoral Ministry at Welch College in Nashville, Tennessee. He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He enjoys riding motorcycles and discussing theology with friends over a great cup of coffee.

____________________

[1] http://www.welch.edu/blog-bio

[2] J. Matthew Pinson, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House,

2015), 3.

[3] Ibid, 38.

[4] Ibid, 43

[5] Ibid, 99.

[6] Ibid, 101.

[7] Ibid, 105.

[8] Ibid, 123.

[9] Ibid, 173.

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  1. Society of Evangelical Arminians | Two Book Reviews of Matt Pinson’s Arminian and Baptist at the Helwys Society Forum - […] Dr. Pinson serves Welch College’s fifth president (2002-present). After attending Welch College in the 1980s, he graduated from the…

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