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

Pinsonby Tim Campbell

For many years, Arminianism has struggled to assume an accepted place at the theological table. The primary reason is not that Arminianism has simply been trumped by the popularity of Calvinism, but that many scholars hold a very limited and biased view of Jacobus Arminius and his theological progenies. In addition, only a few Arminians have attempted to articulate a full-orbed examination of Arminianism, particularly of Classical or Reformed Arminianism, and most particularly Arminianism in the Baptist tradition. J. Matthew Pinson has done this.

Author

Early in his theological training, Pinson did extensive research about Arminius and his doctrinal descendants, particularly in relation to the English General Baptists. With his exceptional scholarship, passion for history, and tenacious devotion to the truths of his theological tradition (Free Will Baptists), he has proven to be a key scholar in this moment in history in which many are experiencing renewed interests in the Arminian system of thought. While this collection of essays is a testimony to his scholarship, it is still only a microcosm of his work. The collection is also an articulate statement that addresses the recent broader acceptance of the validity of Arminian (particularly Arminian Baptist) tenets among evangelical scholars.

Summary

Arminian and Baptist is largely a collection of Pinson’s essays presented in various venues, including ones published in several theological journals and presentations at theological seminaries. Only one essay is previously unpublished. The appendix offers three additional excerpts from book reviews by Pinson that speak to the book’s subject of the book. [1]

The chapters are:

Jacobus Arminius: Reformed and Always Reforming (ch. 1)

The Nature of Atonement in the Theology of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys (ch. 2)

Sin and Redemption in the Theology of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys (ch. 3)

The First Baptist Treatise on Predestination: Thomas Helwy’s Short and Plaine Proofe (ch. 4)

Thomas Grantham and the Diversity of Arminian Soteriology (ch. 5)

Atonement, Justification, and Apostasy in the Theology of John Wesley (ch. 6)

Confessional, Baptist, and Arminian: The General Free Will Baptist Tradition and Nicene Faith (ch. 7)

The appendices are:

Introduction to Classical Arminianism

Whosoever Will: A Review Essay

A Review of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities

The order of these essays, as well as the flow of the writing, make them conducive to a logical stream of thought that engages the reader. Pinson is adept in delineating the historical, doctrinal, and polemical elements in his essays. He does so by examining key figures in Arminianism and chronicling the people and theological circumstances that influenced their thinking, both positively and negatively. This is especially helpful in understanding the formation of their individual viewpoints, as well as mapping the broader evolution of Arminianism.

Whether Arminius, John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Grantham or John Wesley, the life experiences of these men provide a helpful backdrop for the reader. I know of no other work where this could be found in one book.

Undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of the book is seen in the author’s cited defenses of Arminius himself. Pinson gives well-founded theological evidence that Jacobus Arminius was not simply “broadly Reformed,”[2] but was indeed “loyal to Reformed categories.”[3] He was not completely antithetical to Calvinism, but held Calvin in the highest esteem. He was not a semi-Pelagian. In fact, the author goes to great lengths to quell the theological presumptions hoisted upon Arminius and his doctrinal descendants, especially in regards to the doctrines of original sin and prevenient grace.

Pinson takes great pains to state accurately and correctly Arminianism’s tenets. At the same time, he equally traces various people and doctrinal offshoots that emanated from the broader Arminian movement. I found chapter six very illuminating as Pinson outlines Wesley’s somewhat distinctive views of atonement, justification, and sanctification.

Several unexpected discussions will no doubt appeal to a pastor’s doctrinal pallet. The author’s writings on Arminius’ view of divine justice and mercy were fascinating in chapter 2. Also, Free Will Baptists will find particular kinship with the position of Thomas Grantham and his views about soteriology.

But perhaps the most important chapter for Arminian Baptists in the entire work is chapter seven where Pinson makes the case from Scripture, positional tradition, and practice, for confessionalism. Dr. Pinson writes in the conclusion to the chapter: “The greatest temptation of modern-day Arminian Baptists, as it is of all evangelicals, is to make Christianity acceptable to its ‘cultured despisers.’” He continues:

Our greatest threat is not to reject our orthodoxy in favor of heterodoxy, but to water it down in our craving after the spirit of this present evil age, which is passing away with its desires. Instead we need to tap into the powers of the age to come, which are enduring, which transcend our passing moment with its consumerism and narcissism and amusement. Engaging in the ressourcement of our tradition will aid us in this task.[4]

Analysis

While space will not permit even a complete summary of the essays, I will simply say that this is Arminian scholarship at its best. It offers a superb resource for the advocates and the scholarly critics of Arminian thought.

Pros

  • Dispels long held myths and popular misunderstandings about Arminianism
  • Gives significant attention to the doctrinal stances of key Arminians, not only in areas relating to original sin and predestination, but also various salvific tenets
  • Contains historically rich essays
  • Traces Arminian Baptist line—theological, historical, and otherwise—without bias
  • Includes an excellent subject and name index

Challenges

  • May cause some difficulty to novices in theology, who may find navigating through some of the concepts to be difficult

In my opinion, this book is not only an excellent volume, but is representative of a breakthrough for Arminian thought. For years Arminian theologians have vied for acceptance as a valid theological system. This book validates that struggle and accurately speaks to the issues that have hindered acceptance of Reformed or Classical Arminianism. This book should occupy a place in the library of every serious evangelical.

Arminian and Baptist is a must read of every Arminian pastor. True, it is a hard read. The theological terms and concepts used may not be familiar to the novice and even are apt to challenge the cognitive skills of pastors. Many of the doctrinal discussions are profoundly detailed and deep. Yet the book is not obscure. This work, in fact, should stand as a challenge to each and every pastor to take up the mantle of true theological scholarship.

Conclusion

Historically, Arminians have had only a few people to defend competently their beliefs. Many have faithfully labored not only to delineate Arminian doctrines, but also to place them alongside other traditions in Evangelicalism. Pinson and his work stand on the shoulders of such men and their labors.[5] Arminian and Baptist is a work of passion by a man who has devoted his life to his God, his heritage, and his theological tradition. J. Matthew Pinson is arguably one of the most qualified and informed Arminian scholars currently living. We would all do well, to whatever degree we can, to emulate his dedication, and most certainly to read his book.

____________________

[1] Matthew J. Pinson, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House, 2015), x.

[2] Pinson, Arminian and Baptist, 27.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid. ,173.

[5] Ibid., ix.

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  1. Society of Evangelical Arminians | Two Book Reviews of Matt Pinson’s Arminian and Baptist at the Helwys Society Forum - […] (2) Arminian and Baptist: Explorations of a Theological Tradition: A Book Review by Tim Campbell (original review here) […]

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