A Review of 40 Questions About Arminianism by J. Matthew Pinson, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 395 pages, paperback.
Kregel’s “40 Questions About…” series has produced a number of notable books. I myself have reviewed 40 Questions About Biblical Theology and 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. This book on Arminianism, or more accurately, Classical Arminianism, is written by the President of Welch College, a Freewill Baptist college in Tennessee. J. Matthew Pinson has degrees from Yale and Vanderbilt and is thoroughly evangelical. His book is a very welcome addition to the set and has been well reviewed.
The present reviewer is not Arminian. Neither is he a thorough Calvinist (much to the chagrin of writers like Roger Olsen who believe one must be either/or). If I may take a moment to explain; my studies of hermeneutics and theological method have left me dissatisfied with Calvinist formulations and defenses. They are simply too deductive for my taste. On the other hand, I do believe that some process of selection, conviction, and saving grace is supplied to meet the needs of some sinners and not others, yet never is the sinner’s responsibility undercut by the philosophical casuistry that is compatibilism, nor are passages like John 3:16-17, 36; 1 Timothy 2:4, 6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9; and 1 John 2:2 to be given unnatural readings to make them say what they plainly do not say. I see no reason to pick sides on the issue since I believe neither of them fully represents the data satisfactorily.
That said, I have known for many years that classic Arminianism is often terribly misrepresented by Calvinists, many of whom it is clear have never read it. Moreover, certain Arminian depictions of Calvinism are very unnuanced. To the one I recommend actually reading Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments or his Reply to Perkins. Both will persuade the reader of his strong positions on original sin and the impossibility of any sinner choosing Christ without Divine aid. To the latter I might recommend bypassing the doctrinaire work of A. W. Pink (or even John Piper) and instead reading someone like Elijah Coles or Charles Hodge. When all is said and done, Pinson is correct to say that the real issue between Calvinism and Arminianism is how one defines the sovereignty of God (175-177). One’s conception of “freewill” and the rest will have to fall in-line with that formal definition of sovereignty.
So what about this book? Is it worth the money? The answer is a resounding yes! Pinson has provided us with a theologically astute, irenic, and engaging work. As I have said, the book is about “Classical” Arminianism – a view that broadly encompasses both Arminius himself, but also John Wesley, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Oden, Roger Olsen, and Leroy Forlines, among many others. It is a view that feels at ease with the early Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (13, 77-79), but becomes uncomfortable once the net is tightened in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Hence, Arminianism in Pinson’s presentation has much overlap with the theology of many Calvinists.
When it comes to the atonement Pinson admits that many Arminians have preferred the “governmental theory” of Grotius and John Goodwin, wherein God acts as a Governor who accepts Christ’s sacrifice and pardons the sinner sovereignly without the need for a satisfaction to be made (90-92). Pinson, as Arminius, Wesley and I. Howard Marshall, rejected this view in favor of substitutionary atonement. This shows that the substitutionary view is not foreign to many Arminians as is sometimes thought.
When it comes to the question of whether Christ died for everyone (Q. 12 & 13) the author brings up the distinction between God’s antecedent will and His consequent will; a position first set out by John of Damascus in the 7th Century (111, 179). God’s antecedent will is that which comes from God’s character, whereas His consequent will is what God allows that flows from us. All Arminians agree that God sent Christ to die for the sins of everyone, and that He wants all sinners to be saved.
Having answered that Pinson turns to Calvinism and asks whether Calvinists are inconsistent by offering the Gospel to everyone even though they (five-pointers at least) hold that Christ did not die for everyone. His answer is in the affirmative. Arminians believe that the consistent Calvinists position with its necessary doctrine of two wills in God is unscriptural (129-136). I say “consistent Calvinism” because the author agrees with five-point Calvinists that four-pointers are inconsistent Calvinists because in that view God provides satisfaction for the sins of all but He is sparing on the dispensation of his grace (120-121).
Then we finally arrive at the question of freewill (Part 3). For most people this is where the rubber hits the road. Has God made man with a will to decide for something other than his “strongest impulse,” or is our will fixed by our strongest desire? In the first their is a power of contrary choice (libertarian freewill), while in the second there can be no contrary choice (compatibilist freedom). It is not too difficult to show that until the later Augustine every church father held to a form of libertarian freewill (see my review of Ken Wilson’s The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism). This does not necessarily make it biblical, but it needs to be on the record. A libertarianism which takes seriously man’s concupiscence is set out and defended.
But isn’t Arminianism synergistic? Arminius himself, and many who follow him, Pinson included, would answer “No.” Since Classical Arminians have a robust doctrine of human depravity (Q. 15) they are insistent that it is impossible for a sinner to come to Christ without divine grace. The author cites Leroy Forlines: “regeneration is solely the work of God.” (146). He also commends Richard Cross’s “ambulatory model” wherein “the sinner is like an unconscious person who is rescued by EMT’s and wakes up in an ambulance and does not resist the EMT’s medical actions to save his life.” (147). This is a form of monergism, as even Calvinists like Oliver Crisp admit, although it differs from the Calvinist position wherein the sinner is like a corpse that must first be regenerated.
Question 16 (151-158) is a careful elaboration of the Arminian view of freewill. It is followed by a well-written critique of compatibilism (Q. 17, 155-166). Among the problems Arminians see in Calvinistic determinism are its redefining of “freewill,” that it is unfalsifiable, and that it is self-contradictory. Pinson believes that libertarian freedom does not detract from the glory of God, so long as one does not include evil in ones idea of divine glory (168-169). If evil is included in the definition and compatibilism is held on to then it becomes impossible to conclude anything other than that God is the ultimate cause of evil (170-173).
There are other matters which are well addressed in the book, such as passages like Ephesians 1:4-11; Romans 8:28-30, and 9:6-23. Pinson also has a section on perseverance and apostasy that includes some very impressive chapters. But before closing I want to visit the matter of “prevenient grace” which is addressed in Questions 21 to 26. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of this doctrine from all sides, so I wondered how the author defined it. The term itself is not a problem. Pinson is correct to assert that all orthodox Christians hold to a form of it. It is simply the grace that God gives to draw sinner’s to Himself (191). However, Arminians believe that grace is universal and resistible (192, Q. 24), not particular and irresistible. I confess that I especially struggle with the universal aspect of prevenient grace, and I don’t think Pinson allayed my concerns here.
At the end of the day, although I did not agree with everything in the book, I did find it an edifying and educational read. Before reading this work I would have recommended Olsen’s Arminian Theology: Myths & Realities, but now 40 Questions About Arminiansm will be the one I point people to first. It is essential reading for any serious student of Systematic Theology.