Why Arminianism Doesn’t Sell

I made an observation recently that may be completely off base, or it may just betray the reality of the tight Evangelical circles in which I travel most of the time. Either way, here it is:

Calvinists have  a corner on theologically-themed conferences. Arminians have apologetically-themed conferences. Leadership conferences don’t do theology.

Is this true? It seems true from my standpoint. Think about the major conferences out there that are theological in nature: Desiring God, Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, and Ligonier Ministries. All of them fill churches and arenas with thousands of people. Passion fills the air as speakers talk about theological issues in the church. John Piper, Don Carson, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Tim Keller, and the like are invited to speak. Diversity runs deep in these theology conferences. Dispensationalist and Covenant Theologians, paedobaptists and credo baptists, charismatics and non-charismatics, and premillenialists and amillenialists are all represented. However, it is hard to find an Arminian invited to (much less putting together) such engagements. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect that it is because Arminianism, as a theological distinctive, just does not preach. Don’t get me wrong. I did not say that Arminians can’t preach. They most certainly can. And I did not say that Arminianism is not true (This is not the question on the table). It is simply that the distinctives of Arminianism do not sell in such settings. Evangelicals love to hear about the sovereignty of God, the glory of God in suffering, the security of God’s grace, the providence of God over missions, and yes, even the utter depravity of man. This stuff preaches. This stuff sells tickets.

For the Arminian to put together a distinctive conference, things would be a bit less provocative. Things like “The Responsibility of Man in Suffering,” “Man’s Role in Salvation,” or “The Insecurity of Salvation” won’t preach too well. Think about how hard it is for a Calvinist to try to plug in a token Arminian at a general theology conference. On what subject do you let them speak? “Roger Olson, I would like you to come to our conference and speak on . . . (papers ruffling) . . . ummm  . . . (papers ruffling more) . . . Do you do anything in apologetics (except suffering)?”

Of course, there was the John 3:16 conference, which was Arminian. But that was not a general theology conference. It was a specific conference which amounted to a polemic against Calvinism. During the conference, the speakers simply countered all five points of Calvinism. This is symptomatic of so much of the Arminian distinctives with regard to their message. Much of the time Arminianism is simply seen as “Against Calvinism,” whereas Calvinism is more affirmatively focused on the sovereignty of God. Even the latest books published on the subject betray such a reality: For Calvinism by Michael Horton and Against Calvinism by Roger Olson.  I think one can find this same general approach in the theological blogosphere. Calvinists have something they are for, while Arminians are always on the defensive, fighting what they are against. Finally, as far as I know, the John 3:16 conference only happened once (in 2008). That it, or anything like it, has not been renewed or rebooted may serve to prove my observation.

Now, apologetics seems to be a different story. Not only to do you have Arminians filling the pulpit when it comes to defending the faith, they seem to dominate. William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Paul Copan, Norman Geisler, and Gary Habermas are all on the roster. It is “Team Biola.” This is not to say that Calvinists don’t do apologetics.  However, they normally do so in a less “evidentialist” style that just won’t teach. Have you ever tried to teach people to defend the faith using presuppositional and transcendental arguments? Enough said. The simple observation I am making is that apologetics is heavily dominated by Arminians today. However, I don’t think there is anything distinctive about Arminianism which would make them more equipped to hold apologetics conferences. Perhaps, the focus on the free will of man makes the whole apologetics enterprise more necessary and effective in Arminianism.  Theoretically, Calvinists, because of their compatibleness (holding the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man in tension), could teach evidentiary apologetics just as truly as an Arminian. “Did Christ Rise from the Grave?”, “Who is Jesus?”, “Is God a Moral Monster?”, or “Responding to the New Atheists” are all topics on which Calvinists and Arminians could teach together without sacrificing their theological integrity. There may be some distinction with a topic such as “If God is Real, Why is There Evil?” But that is the only apologetic issue which I think could be an exception in this group of topics.

Leadership conferences, on the other hand, are normally very diverse. Why? In all probability, they are not very theological in nature. Stirring passion about finishing strong, leading by serving, and preparing a sermon does not require any theological commitment one way or another. However, if the leadership conference turns on men’s issues or women’s issues, the complementarian/egalitarian elephant enters the room. And, generally speaking, most complementarians are Calvinist and most egalitarians are Arminian.

That said, these observations are not timeless. They are what I see today. I think they represent the chicken or the egg question (I don’t know which comes first) to the resurgence of Calvinism in the pews today. My hypothesis is that Calvinism preaches better than Arminianism. In a confused world of suffering and pain, we want to know that God has it under control, not man. Calvinism instigates more of a dramatic change in theology than does Arminianism. We are more naturally inclined toward the Arminian idea of free will and God’s sovereignty. People normally don’t “become” Arminians. But nearly all Calvinists can tell of a passionate “conversion” experience as to how Calvinism dramatically changed their way of thinking about God. This creates incredible passion. Therefore, we invite Calvinists only to these theology conferences (even when the organization, itself, claims to be more broadly Evangelical). And people leave with a full heart. On the other hand, when we want to fight against the New Atheists, we do not need to discriminate against the finer points of theology too much. Therefore, we invite either Arminian or Calvinist apologists.


140 Responses to “Why Arminianism Doesn’t Sell”

  1. It seems a bit ironic to run off a list like “John Piper, Don Carson, R.C. Spoul, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Tim Keller” followed by the statement, “Diversity runs deep in these theology conferences.”

  2. So Calvinism sells because it assures people that God is in control regardless of the world falling in around their heads.

    Yes, your dog died, but it was part of God’s perfect plan for your life.

    Oh yes, you’ll never walk again, but praise Jesus, this is how he ordained it from the foundation of the Earth.

    Yes, that series of tornadoes caused massive damage and loss of life, but that is part of God’s good and perfect will for you, glory to God, amen. (ht John Piper)

    Arminians don’t really have to do anything to counter Calvinism. Calvinists do all the hard work for us.

    There is nothing that prevents Calvinists doing evidential apologetics, except for the rather obvious fact that if that person is not one of the elect then all the apologetic arguments in the world won’t make them consider Christ, and if they are elect then they’ll be converted anyway. I’d say Calvinism encourages fedeism more than anything else. After all salvation is just a mystery, right?

  3. Myself, I like Roger Nicole’s so-called “acrostic”, which really emphasizes that all the so-called five-points are an articulation of the doctrine of grace:

    GRACE is:

    1. O-bligatory (that is, indispensable)
    2. S-overeign (in choice)
    3. P-articular (in redemption)
    4. E-ffectual (in operation)
    5. L-asting (that is, secure)

    He also suggested these:

    1. Radical and Pervasive Depravity
    2. Sovereign, Divine Election
    3. Definite Atonement (or Particular Redemption)
    4. Effectual, Saving Grace
    5. Perseverance of God with the Saints

    Indeed, this and these “sell” and make the doctrine of God in salvation, just that simple! And how many of us honestly can say, Amen here!

    Note, no mention of the name Calvin! Though of course I don’t mind that name or theology myself! ;)

  4. Where would you put some of the huge conferences like Passion, Catalyst, and others?

  5. @Brian LePort: I wonder if you have ever read a line of the Irish Articles 1615, for the most part by the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher? Just a friendly challenge! :)

  6. From the end of that spiel.

    “If any Minister, of what degree of quality soever he be, shall publicly teach any doctrine contrary to these Articles agreed upon, if, after due admonition he does not conform himself, and cease to disturb the peace of the Church, let him be silenced and deprived of all spiritual promotions he doth enjoy.”

    Sounds like Michael’s Calvinist conferences. God forbid there should be any disagreement in the holy huddle.

  7. I’m wondering if an Armenian could have wrote this blog? :)

  8. I suspect that the entry by Olson was not written by the Dr Olson of Baylor University. He uses proper grammar and knows how to spell Arminian correctly

  9. Btw, John & Charles Wesley and the Methodists had a few conferences of their own along the way. And Calvinism was “anathema” there, certainly!

  10. “Anathema?” Or did the Calvinists just feel that God had not ordained them to be there.

  11. Jason said: “Yes, your dog died, but it was part of God’s perfect plan for your life.”

    So, you’re saying that God doesn’t use suffering in our lives to sanctify us? Or is it that sanctification is a painless process? Or is it that God must reveal his purpose in each incident we perceive as negative in our lives or he is not justified in working all things to his will and glory? I’m not sure what you believe, but it doesn’t sound like the bible I endeavor to know. This is a strawman anyway – nowhere does the bible or “Calvinism” teach you that God’s promise in Romans 8:28-29 means that you’re going to get “your best life now.” That hooey is what I expect from Arminians. Working all things for the good of those who love him may just mean that you get humbled a few times as he conforms you to the image of his son.

  12. Incidentally, I have a great deal of respect for the Wesleyans after I saw how they comported themselves in a debate on Calvinism against Bruce Ware and another fellow. They may have been wrongs about some non-essentials, but their love for Jesus and the gospel was as deep and passionate as any Calvinist I’ve ever met. I would submit that an evangelical Calvinist has more in common with Wesley than with most of what passes for Christianity in American churches today. Just something to bear in mind – not all non-Calvinists are equally out of the bounds of scriptural teaching.

  13. Amen to Brian in #1. Surely you were joking about “diversity” at these conferences. All of these guys are peas in the same pod.

    As for the rest, I could comment at length about quibbles with half of what you said, and I surely have a different interpretation of the data than you. However, I won’t bore you and don’t have the time now. But I will say that I lean closer toward Arminianism, and I could care less about theological tribes and labels. Perhaps most people you would call “Arminians” are like me, and we don’t have to go to our annual conferences to rally the troops & evangelize for secondary and tertiary matters and call them the “gospel.” Perhaps guys & gals like me are grinding it out every week at their local churches and serving the community, trying to make small differences in the lives of others and trying to be a consistent witness to the gospel, without having to get our annual fix from our celebrity idols at myopic & borderline fundamentalist conferences…

  14. I guess you did not read this correctly? The Wesleyan Methodists had their conferences that “anathematized” the doctrine of the Calvinist’s! So this swings both ways, sadly! Though GOD is a “Calvinist” if you will! ;)

  15. Thank God for Divine Middle Knowledge!

  16. I’ve noticed the same thing, Michael.

    I also noticed that most people in Bible college who set out as “crusaders against Calvinism” ended up being its strongest supporters very soon after. If their passion for that theological distictive could be directed toward reaching the community our world would be a much different place (not that all Calvinists are ineffective, but it is easy to focus on our studies rather than ministering to both the saved and lost)

  17. The Jesuit-Counter Reformation teaching of, Luis de Molina, is just a libertarian free-will teaching.

    “Molina’s doctrine is called scientia media, or middle knowledge, because it stands in the middle of the two traditional categories of divine epistemology as handed down by Aquinas, natural and free knowledge. It shares characteristics of each and, in the logical order of the divine deliberative process regarding creation, it follows natural knowledge but precedes free knowledge.”

    Note, John Frame’s book: No Other God, A Response To Open Theism. As Roger Nicole wrote (before he died), “A devastating critique of the concept of human freedom as articulated in the ‘open theistic’ view.’

  18. And btw, even Aquinas was an Augustinian!

  19. At the end (eschatological if you will), we will all cry: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” (Rev. 4:8)

    No middle or free knowledge here! Our only freedom is God’s power, purpose and grace!

  20. Great article! I was just at t4g representing the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Trust, and THAT was the absolute best place for our ministry to have a booth at! Every Calvinist likes MLJ…I wonder if arminians do too??

  21. Roger E. Olson April 16, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    DrWayman, no one said it was Dr. Olson. But I am Roger E. Olson and I do believe I was Roger E.Olson before Dr Olson was (he’s 3 years younger I think).
    And I do suspect you could do better in life than correct other people’s blog comments. Sheesh!

  22. Comment #1. I said that these conferences were very diverse *except* for the fact that no Arminians are invited. I think you may have misread the point of that paragraph.

  23. Amen there Nick on real old school Wesleyans! Of course the Wesley brothers were Evangelical Anglicans, also. As I have said many times, John Wesley had more in common with Calvin, on the doctrine of Justification by Faith (Note his Journal, Tues. May 14, 1765).

  24. Things like “The Responsibility of Man in Suffering,” “Man’s Role in Salvation,” or “The Insecurity of Salvation” won’t preach too well.

    Considering that none of these titles reflect Arminian theology, I consider this line to be a bit of a cheap shot. Whether or not your general thesis is true, Arminians don’t belive that salvation is insecure, or that man has a proactive role in salvation, and I know you know better.

  25. What I mean is that a belief that one can lose their salvation does not preach. And the view that people could go to hell because we have not evangelized or lived a life of exemplary influence (mans role in salvation) doesn’t sell, especially today with so much insecurity. The more you take man out and replace it with grace, the more people will give the “amen”. Does not make it true. Numbers make nothing true and don’t evidence the truth much. After all, the pews are filled at the Democratic National Convention! ;-)

  26. That’s fine. My point is that if you are going to criticize Arminianism, it is better to actually criticize Arminianism and not a straw man. No matter how well you articulate a straw man, it is still a straw man.

  27. This post is profoundly ignorant. Apologetical conferences just ARE theological! Apologetics is the defence of the faith, which must necessarily be defined as a prerequisite. Anyone who studies apologetics knows this.

    But as a matter of fact, there ARE Arminian theological conferences. Take for example, the Arminius Symposium of 2010. Or, take earlier this year on Feb 24-25, the ‘Rethinking Arminius’ forum at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California.

    Maybe the issue is that Arminian theological conferences are more serious scholarly movements composed of professional theologians, rather than a group of charismatic preachers (a la Piper) stirring up a young, restless and reformed crowd of, frankly, often very ignorant and uncritical young men and women with large empty words.

    The fact is, popularity does not equal truth. I notice the New Atheism was a popular movement. But it how it lacked substance! Academia shows this. `Tis the same of the Calvinist…

  28. I recall reading an article some time back recounting the death bed statements of the prominent Calvinist divine, Asahel Nettleton, whose last words were reflective of his doubt as to whether he was one of the truly predestined. For all the shouting about the alleged theological superiority of Calvinism, the system still has to wrestle with issues of double predestination and whether using “preterition” absolves the God of love from damning people to hell without recourse (and that with the usual arguments about sovereignty and inscrutable actions). Arminianism is caricatured as having salvation easy to lose, when the reality is the loss of salvation is in apostasy, not in “saved today, lost tomorrow, saved the next day.” If grace is irresistible, then how is it a freely given, freely received gift? Olson’s “Arminian Theology” is a must read to understand the logical nature of the Arminian ordo salutes.

  29. Uh, spell checker got me on the last word in my long post — that should be “ordo salutis”. Apologies for the mistake.

  30. Nick, it was Michael who proposed that Calvinism had appeal in time of insecurity because it allowed people to see purpose in their discomforts.

    To be honest I don’t see much market for Calvinism outside the profoundly undiscomforted West.

    Seeing purpose behind every bad thing that happens to you, or every good thing, comes across as quite banal when dealing with the life and death of real people. That God can work all things to good for those who love him, does not require him to directly cause those things. After all the same chance happens to all.

    Before you list a whole lot of verses demonstrating that Jews believed God caused good and ill, remember, Jews saw God’s causation in everything, even when he did nothing. Basing an absolute doctrine on a Semitic perceptual trait appears somewhat foolish.

  31. Some pretty emotional overstatements going on here. Please keep things civil.

  32. Not emotional overstatements, Mr Patton. I’m just amazed at how absurd this post really is.

  33. On a more personal note… My belief in God’s purpose is the only thing that got me through my sister’s suicide and my mother’s paralysis. I don’t think finding meaning in suffering is a western thing. Thoughts that it is is probably why the Arminian solutions find less appeal in my opinion.

    No need to find a few verses, but don’t underestimate the power of verses. :-)

  34. B.R. Just keep things respectful. If you disagree filter your disagreements a few times. Try to go out of your way to be gentle, respectful, and understanding. Your rhetoric does not encourage good conversation. I will try to do the same. Deal?

  35. And I am talking about conferences that are public conferences, not just scholars. ETS does not make the cut either.

  36. Neither does the pre-trib society or SBL.

  37. JC. Well taken critique. What would you suggest for some plenary sessions from someone that is distinctly Arminian?

    As well, I don’t think that “Election and Reprobation” would go over too well in an evangelistic setting either. So I am not trying to build straw men. Just trying to understand this phenomenon (if it is legit).

  38. Interestingly, my fascination with apologetics is what led me to embrace the doctrines of grace! When I discovered that the apologists whom I felt were the most consistent, thorough and accurate were all in the Reformed camp, I had to investigate their claims for myself. I’m speaking of guys like R.C. Sproul, Greg Koukl and so on. Of course, now that I have embraced Reformed thinking, I gravitate toward presuppositional approaches to apologetics from guys like James White, Van Til and Bahnsen. I think evidential apologists are more likely to be Arminians since presuppositionalism is a distinctly reformed idea.

  39. Arminians would do a conference on the necessity of the grace of God for instance. If we assume 5-point Arminianism, they would talk about the assurance of salvation and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. The love of God would certainly be an excellent topic. I would love to attend an Arminian conference on God’s governance.

    I think the Young Restless and Reformed movement is more what you are looking at though. There is currently a Calvinist Resurrgance and there are personalities and and structures which are supporting and promoting that movement. It isn’t an aspect of theology of Calvinism, but more there being the right personalities and packaging to do it. I think Classic Arminianism is beginning to be on the upswing as well, which makes me happy, and we may see more Arminian conferences in the future.

  40. “It isn’t an aspect of  theology of Calvinism, but more there being the right personalities and packaging to do it.”

    Could be right. There are some very attractive (and unfairly criticized) personalities.

    But look at it this way: most of my Calvinist comrades are going the charismatic route, but I am not hoping on that bus!

  41. I think that I would love to attend an Arminian leaning conference (so long as it does not boil down to “Against Calcinism.” But I would not go to a Calvinist conference which boiled down to “Against Arminianism” either.

    It would truly be intriguing if we were able to truly pull off some Together for The Gospel conference, I just don’t know what that would look like as passions would have to be toned down in the name of ecumenicalism. Do you?

  42. Here is another thought, and I have expressed this on my own site a couple of years ago. I think a major reason for the Calvinist resurgance is the epistemological breakdown of our society. Irregardless of its validity, it is true that the TULIP packaging makes learning the complete system of Calvinism seemingly easy. I say seemingly because I think it is arguable that many of these new Calvinists aren’t very good Calvinists, but that’s a different topic. In either case, when there is no trust in theological structures and/or tradition history, each person must master theology on their own, yet most don’t want to. Therefore, theological or philosophical systems where are contained or easily presented become very attractive. This is the basic reason why our society loves sound bites and prooftexts instead of careful reasoning and exegesis. TULIP-style Calvinism fits this description, and Arminianism doesn’t have any similar widespread packaging.

  43. Roger E. Olson – Thanks for the correction, I have heard of your existence. Strange coincidence. Maybe Dr. Olson’s parents copied your parents.

    I’m not in the habit of being an internet grammarian. I make tons of online mistakes.

    Nevertheless, this post references Dr. Olson and then seemingly the very author responds in a way that is not characteristic for him. I wanted to ensure the reader that he was not the author of the reply to the post, which I was unsure that the average visitor to this site would catch.

    My apologies for any embarrassment that I may have caused you.

  44. Roger E. Olson April 17, 2012 at 6:21 am

    No embarrassment, sadness perhaps. I have conversed with DR. Olson on his own blog. Being a “non-Arminian” makes it difficult sometimes to being taken seriously in my own camp.
    No harm, no offense.
    I suppose if my name was John MacArthur I would probably have the same problem. I would probably change my name to Roger Olson if that was the case. :)

  45. Obviously CAlvinism “sells.” What else would account for its popularity? (especially among the young raised in the evangelical sub-culture) It’s certainly not the logic nor its flawed understanding of the Biblical God.

  46. Or is it simply that conferences are popular with the YRR crowd, who are looking for someone to follow? I grew up going to Bill Gothard conferences, so frankly, I am all conferenced-out. I don’t see an emphasis on conferences as healthy. Getting excited and returning home, usually without significant life change but perhaps more critical of the local church, really helps no one. I am Pentecostal Arminian, though formerly in the YRR movement, and passionate about theology. I am preparing a sermon right now that will deal with the glory and sovereignty of God (biblical Arminians DO believe in such things!), and as for grace – too often I’ve seen greater emphasis on that in Arminian circles than in Calvinistic. Perhaps we are simply more grounded in our churches rather than being a movement so don’t feel the need for theological conferences.

  47. Its really crazy how much divison and hard feelings rise around this subject.

    I dont nessiarily think if something DOES sell, it means that it has a corner of truth…..especially here in the west.

    Plus, there are alot of ministry conferences that are not Calvinisticly based, that are more prayer and outreach based.

    But I would agree that the reformed/Calvinist hold more of the corner in a “theological” conference. And this is why I have respect for that side…….its something that the charismatic church needs.

    Defintly there is a calvinist lean and perspective in this article, but there is some truth to it.

    Will there be a solution and bridge between the cal/ armin camps? I hope so.

    But not being a calvinist, I am on this site alot Michael, and always listening to theo. unplugged, and introducing others to this ministry…….point is we need eachother :)

  48. @CMP: Funny, how little biblical discussion I see here with the Arminian people? Your point Michael appears to be brought forward even here! The Arminian hill, is a tough climb, biblically and theologically. And I don’t see anyone taking on Roger Nicole!

    @Nick, we are close.. I like John Frame also!

  49. Interesting post, Michael. As an Arminian, I could quibble with a nuance here and there, but your main observation is intriguing. I’m sure there are occasional exceptions (isn’t Greg Koukl a Calvinist?). And there are definitely excellent Arminian theologians and excellent Calvinist apologists. But, as far as popular conferences go, it’s hard to deny this phenomenon.

    It does seem to correspond with the “YRR” resurgence. This is completely subjective, but from my experience in both camps, Arminians seem to be more open to benefiting from Calvinists’ thoughts and scholarship than vice versa. Many Calvinistic groups seem more motivated to exclude anything that doesn’t line up with their distinctive, soteriological views. I don’t know any Arminians who would want a competing Arminian T4G; but I know a great many who would love a T4G that wasn’t exclusively Calvinistic. (Or a TGC that intentionally included Arminian pastors and leaders.)

  50. “However, they normally do so in a less “evidentialist” style that just won’t teach. Have you ever tried to teach people to defend the faith using presuppositional and transcendental arguments? Enough said.”

    Yes, actually. For several years now. Van Til taught the subject for forty three years at Westminster. How about you, CMP? I don’t see you actually being a presupper (since you don’t hold to any of the necessary ingredients for being one – like, for instance, revelational epistemology) I can’t see you teaching it effectively if you either don’t understand it or hold to it.

    As it happens, I believe it does teach. Because I teach it in most of my free time, and have for quite some time. The folks I see saying that it “doesn’t teach” aren’t even presuppers. If it didn’t teach – I wouldn’t do what I do. Further, if presup don’t teach, then Reformed theology don’t teach. After all, presup is just Sola Scriptura in an apologetics context. I can teach…


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