Tag Archives: Arminianism

Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently listening to some online sermons that were given at the Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference. All of the speakers were household names, and none more familiar than John Piper. Piper is now retired from active pastoral ministry after decades at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. However, he has continued what has been a prolific writing ministry, and he also speaks regularly at conferences.

I have benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry from afar. I was first exposed to his work when in 2004 I took the course Biblical Discipleship. His bestselling book Desiring God was one of the assigned texts. I did not agree with all that he said in the book then (and I’m sure I didn’t understand it all either!), but I remember thinking, “He is saying something really profound here for Christian spirituality.” Since that time I’ve read more of his work and heard probably two dozen of his sermons.

While I came of age theologically before the full burgeoning of the podcast/online sermon era, I was shaped by it. No doubt I have been influenced by giants like the MacArthurs, Kellers, Carsons, Devers, and Pipers. As best as I can tell, these men exude an authentic commitment to Christ, His church, and His Word. For that I am grateful.

Some Broader Concerns

Where my concerns have persisted is that the preponderance of those who are influencing younger evangelicals is almost always five-point Calvinists. Let me define here what I mean and don’t mean by “concerns.”

First, I do not mean that we should be surprised that so many popular conference speakers are of this theological persuasion. When we consider the books published annually and the authors’ theological commitments, Arminians need to be honest: our theological tradition, in its best version, is in the minority (by a lot!). We have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about the God-centered, Scripturally-based Arminianism that we espouse. We should not then be surprised that publishing trends correlate to how well known some are in evangelicalism.

Second, I do not mean that our principal goal in Christian ministry is to see how well known we can personally be because of our theological stances and speaking circuit credentials. How easy it is to be known first as Arminians or Calvinists, and not as sincere, Spirit-filled men and women of God. How easy it is for us to relish (by whom we admire) or reinforce (by whom we invite to speak) the speaking circuit idolatry that promotes the same handful of people over and over. We should repent of where the spirit of this present age has shaped us in this way.

I do, however, have two interrelated concerns: (1) Seeing that it is part of our goal to spread biblical Christianity as far as the curse is found, it is unfortunate that many theologically serious Christians have come to believe that Calvinism is the only live option in town; and (2) What has partly, but significantly fostered this belief is the massive platform that influential speakers have to promote this error. While Calvinism and its entailments is not a heresy in the historic sense of that word, the way it is taught often leads to confusion and can foster the belief that those who are believers but not Reformed—in the narrow way most Calvinists mean that word—have a deficient theology for life and ministry.

A Specific Concern

The broader concerns I have articulated here are exemplified in many places, but especially in some remarks Dr. Piper shared in his otherwise very good sermon at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He preached Mark 8:31-38, a quite familiar passage in which Jesus reveals his coming sufferings. Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes him for contradicting the plan of God. Piper spends several minutes (around the 19:00-24:00 minute mark) reflecting on the word “must” in verse 31. This deals with the necessity, in the plan of God, for the Son to die. Piper then observes how the sovereignty of God—defined as God controlling and determining everything in history and human existence—is integral to the Gospel itself.

Piper asserts that some people try to disconnect “the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering, the sinful rejection, [and] the wicked murder of Jesus.” Millions, he says, make a concerted effort to disconnect those two. Yet he is encouraged. He explains,

            “I’m saying that in the last 50 years millions of people around the world are seeing that that effort is futile, unbiblical, [and] undesirable. It is a rending of the precious fabric of the Gospel, because they see, over and over again, in Scripture the sovereignty of God  is the stitching that holds the Gospel together.”

Characteristically, Piper says a lot here. However, I’ll focus on two key points. First, Piper describes a changing evangelical landscape in which Calvinism has blossomed over the last half century. More believers have become convinced that God is sovereign in the sense that He controls (read decides) everything in human life, including who will or will not be saved. The second point is an extension of the first: this vision of God’s sovereignty is said to be not only an element of the Gospel, not just “how one comes to be in a state of grace,” but it is a theological essential that “holds the Gospel together.”

This assertion is not startling for those familiar with Piper’s work and like-minded Calvinists. Where it is somewhat attention-grabbing is that he is implicitly acknowledging the success of preachers, authors, and institutions in spreading the good news of Calvinism. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon, but has been happening for decades. Such Christians see God’s sovereignty, defined by the construct of determinism, as just as essential to the Gospel as grace or faith itself.

A Response

I offer two replies to Piper, first to his demographic claim, and second to the theological one.

First, I wonder which millions of believers around the world Piper has in mind. Thank God that the Gospel is reaching the nations! But much of the data reflects that this growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and South America, to name a few places. I wonder if Piper’s remark lands the same way there as it does to his conference listeners. Much of the growth is within Pentecostalism. No doubt some Pentecostal Christians are Calvinistic in their soteriology, but the vast majority of them are not. In fact, when we consider the expansion of many other traditions abroad such as Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, and Lutheranism, just to name a few, suddenly five-point Calvinism looks rather small. The all-too-familiar, North American, evangelical narrative about Calvinism’s massive expansion must be significantly revised, at least if we’re being honest with the data.

Moreover, many Christians abroad belong to communities where having a Bible in their own language is a rare and cherished fact. To hear the Gospel itself is an all-too-rare privilege. How plausible is it that a theological system as sophisticated as five-point Calvinism is on the radar of those millions in quite the same way that it is for young Americans who have the disposable income to buy books, download sermons on their Macs, and attend conferences? This is mainly a sociological query on my part, not a moral judgment.

Second, I wonder how many listeners to Piper’s sermon, whether in person or online, have taken the time to study the concept of sovereignty in Scripture or in Ancient Near Eastern thought. More specifically, how much thought have they given to the philosophical concept of determinism? Somehow I imagine that Dr. Picirilli’s excellent, thoughtful, and brief Free Will Revisited isn’t selling as well as Dr. Piper’s books. Now let’s ask ourselves: Why might it be the case that some questions aren’t asked, some topics aren’t pursued, or some books aren’t read, while others are? I fear that one evangelical sub-culture, partly embodied by the conference circuit context, is reinforcing people in existing perspectives without challenging them to take a hard look at their theological assumptions, or the theology of the church’s history.

As I have attended multiple seminaries, meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (national and regional), and interacted with assorted local church pastors in my community, the reactions are always interesting to the name “Free Will Baptist” or “Reformed/Classical Arminian.” I find that the most close-minded or hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot. They’ve rarely interacted with Christians in other regions or denominations. Crossway is the only publisher they’re familiar with. They tend not to know much about church history before 1517 (perhaps it began in 1517?).

On the other hand, people who are open to and even accepting of a vision of sovereignty in which God doesn’t meticulously determine everything (although He did purpose to send His Son! Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “I must do these things.”) didn’t go to a conference. They either simply (1) read the Bible as a believer in a straightforward way, or (2) when confronted with sovereignty, free will, and soteriology, they got interested in the topic and really sought to understand both sides of the discussion. Most Arminians I know who do not have a Free Will Baptist background like I do came to their beliefs through one of these two paths.

Some Concluding Reflections

I cannot or will not pretend to speak for all Arminians. However, having swam in these waters a while, I’ll offer a few concluding reflections on the vision of sovereignty that I believe Scripture presents us with, or is consistent with, and what it might look like to place that vision in dialogue with the one Piper has presented:

  • I do not think it is theologically careful or spiritually responsible to communicate: “You don’t get the Gospel if you don’t understand sovereignty this way.”[1] It’s no overstatement to say that Piper believes it is not only unbiblical to not see deterministic sovereignty as “the stitching that holds the Gospel together,” but people who do so are theologically reckless and spiritually impoverished.
  • For less charitable interprets who would take this criticism of Piper further, let me be clear: Piper is not saying that non-Calvinists don’t believe the Gospel, and are therefore not saved. He does not go that far. He specifically says that many Christians try to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the Gospel. So in making this observation/criticism, he is at least acknowledging the empirical existence of such believers. However, Piper leaves himself totally open to this other charge when he says, “There is no Gospel apart from the sovereignty of God, the all- controlling sovereignty of God.” If he means that the way he states it, then it would imply either (a) non-Calvinist Christians who believe the Gospel are ignorant of some of its central content, namely all-controlling sovereignty (At best they’re inconsistent); or (b) Non-Calvinists are in fact not saved since they, by definition, do not accept the precious stitching of the fabric of the Gospel. I believe Piper would claim option a.
  • Meticulously determining every aspect of human existence is but one construal of divine sovereignty. In other words, it is not the only way for God could exercise sovereign control over His creation. Here I think of people who, when they hear the word “authority,” only think of a hierarchy, even though hierarchy is but one way for authority to operate.
  • It is very difficult to adopt theological determinism without coming to terms with its philosophical entailments, and that would involve facing up to issues of free will and moral responsibility, and the problem of evil. Determinists do have some options on how to answer those, but I don’t believe many Calvinists have fully wrestled with those.
  • Some Calvinists would reply to the last assertion by saying “Biblical claims trump philosophical tensions or inconsistencies.” Of course, this reply ignores the 2,000-year relationship between philosophy and theology. It is a complicated, but important one. The best of the Christian tradition, in my view, has seen philosophy as not a Master of theology, but a handmaiden or servant to it. If philosophical terms and concepts have been widely used in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, why not learn from it when it comes to how foreknowledge, free will, and the future might relate?[2]
  • God could have designed the world in any way He desired, but we don’t expect that  world and the way humans act in it and respond to God to contradict the way He reveals His character and will in His Word. So Arminians like me agree with Terence Freithem: “The divine sovereignty in creation is understood, not in terms of absolute divine control [determining every detail], but as a sovereignty that gives [permits] power over to the created for the sake of a relationship of integrity.”[3] Our inability to even imagine such a kind of sovereignty reflects our impoverished theological imagination being shaped in modern evangelicalism. Our unwillingness to do so reflects a lack of attentiveness to the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Much remains to be said about this discussion, and I pray it will be an honest, fruitful, Christ-like dialogue. I remain thankful for the ministry of John Piper and many Calvinists like him. It speaks to the sovereign grace of God that He would allow ministries like these to flourish, and for Arminians like me to freely choose to learn from them. But in the end, a sovereign God can exercise comprehensive control over a realm without also meticulously forcing every state of affairs. God is aware, He permits, restricts, and can certainly carry out his purposes for his church in a world that must choose Him.

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[1] This is not a direct quote, but rather my way of stating what I think Piper has at the very least implied, and all but stated explicitly.

[2] Some Calvinists espouse a theological (and philosophical) construct known as Compatibilism in which Divine sovereignty (understood deterministically) and free will are somehow compatible. D.A. Carson would be example of one such theologian. However, this view was not the view of Calvin or Edwards, nor is it the view of Piper.

[3] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), 346.

Arminian and Baptist: A Review

by Theological Commission

Occasionally members of the Commission for Theological Integrity publish articles, essays, book reviews, and full-length books. As this occurs we hope to keep readers abreast of these developments, especially if they will be useful and informative. We see this as an extension of our work of being an effective Commission.

Recently we learned of a new review of one of Dr. Matt Pinson’s most recent books, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Randall House, 2015), written by Kevin Jackson. This review appeared at the website for the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA).

Readers can find out more about this interesting and eclectic fellowship of self-identified Arminians here and here. The Commission (nor the National Association of Free Will Baptists) have a formal relationship with SEA. However, there are some who have been associated with both the NAFWB and SEA. They occasionally reference Free Will Baptists and Free Will Baptist authors.

Even for those who have not yet read Arminian and Baptist, this review will provide a brief overview of the chapter content. Also, the reader’s self-idenfiying as a Wesleyan Arminian (and reviewing the book from that perspective) gives something of a window into some of the distinctions between Reformed or Classical Arminianism and Wesleyan Arminianism that aren’t merely perceived, but actual.

We leave it to readers to make their own judgments about the accuracy of the Mr. Jackson’s assertions and perspective. Readers can also find other material on Pinson’s book here, here, and here.

 

Who’s Afraid of the Word “Synergist”?

by Matthew Pinson

A Theological Dirty Word

Recently I’ve noticed that, over the past century, Arminians have increasingly used the word “synergist” to describe themselves, rather than seeing it as a negative epithet, as most Christian theologians have. I have blogged before here about how Arminians are “not necessarily synergists,” and reprinted here some kind dissent from my friend Brian Abasciano of the Society of Evangelical Arminians. As I’ve said before, I believe Carl Bangs was absolutely right when he said that Arminius would never have described himself as a synergist [1]! Synergism has always been a theological “dirty word” associated with semi-Pelagianism.

“Synergistic” Lutherans?

I’ve been reading a lot of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lutheran dogmaticians lately, and the fear of being labeled synergists is especially true of them. Despite the fact that we moderns neatly divvy Lutherans into “monergistic” and “synergistic” Lutherans, no good Lutheran ever wanted to be known as a synergist. This includes famous scholastic Lutherans such as Aegidius Hunnius, Johann Gerhard, and Johannes Andreas Quendstedt.

It might surprise us evangelicals who rub shoulders with Missouri Synod Lutherans that most Lutherans throughout history have believed that election is intuitu Christi meriti fide apprehendi (in view of the merit of Christ apprehended by faith). In other words, election and predestination, as described for example in Ephesians 1, are always in view of Christ and his mediatorial work, which is of course apprehended by the individual’s faith.

Most of the Lutheran scholastic theologians of the seventeenth century believed in the personal election of individuals in eternity past intuitu Christi meriti fide apprehendi. This is precisely what Arminius believed. Scholars such as the Danish Henrik Frandsen are helping us see the fluidity between Lutheran Scholasticism and the less-Calvinistic wing of Reformed Scholasticism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century [2].

It’s no surprise that the Lutherans who opposed unconditional election in the Lutheran Predestinarian Controversy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t fond of the label “synergist.” Their opponents called them that because of their belief that God elected individuals in eternity past in view of the merit of Christ apprehended by faith. They also believed that divine grace could be resisted even after conversion, and that one could fall completely from grace. Yet they strenuously contended that they were not synergists [3].

Second-Guessing

At any rate, I have picked up on an increasing tendency of self-described Arminians who view the term “synergism,” not as a term of opprobrium to be avoided at all cost, but as a word by which they wish to describe themselves positively.

So often, when a large chorus of Arminians begin to repeat the same thing, we Reformed Arminians start to wonder, “What’s wrong with us?” just because we’re hearing so many people echo the same thing—e.g., “Arminians are synergists,” “Election is corporate,” and so forth.

But Reformed Arminians shouldn’t really be surprised to see that our good Arminian friends are aghast and open-mouthed when we don’t want to be called names like synergist, or when we want to say that election is individual. It’s not always fun being in the minority of a movement. But, quite simply, it’s where Reformed Arminians are. So we shouldn’t be surprised when our good Arminian brothers and sisters find our views on these matters odd.

Wesley and Synergism

However, Reformed Arminians aren’t the only Arminians who have been averse to being labeled synergists. Wesleyans like John Wesley himself as well as John Fletcher of Madeley would have been concerned about such a label. I recently came across a little comment from the eminent Wesleyan theologian Kenneth Collins that confirmed my suspicions that Wesley himself wouldn’t feel comfortable being called a synergist. Collins avers:

“Wesley, as with Luther and Calvin, understood quite well that God is remarkably gracious and at times acts alone in the face of human impotence, for not only is justification not a human work but also the gift of grace is not given on the basis of a prior working. . . . The conjunctive style of Wesley’s theology is not, after all, fully or aptly expressed in the divine and human roles found in an overarching synergistic paradigm even if the stress is on divine initiative (as in the model of responsible grace). . . . On the contrary, more accurate readings suggest that a synergistic paradigm, which contains both divine and human acting, must itself be caught up in an even larger conjunction in which the Protestant emphasis on the sole activity of God, apart from all human working, is equally factored in—not simply co-operant or responsible grace. . .” [4].

W. F. Warren on Synergism and Wesleyan Theology

This was strongly confirmed in a Methodist Review article I recently came across by the famous Methodist theologian and founding president of Boston University, W. F. Warren. He argued that synergism contradicts the Wesleyan view that “no man can come unto Christ without a divine drawing; none can even call Jesus the Lord but by the Holy Spirit.” Further, he said, synergism “conflict[s] with all those representations of Scripture which trace our awakening, regeneration, and sanctification to a divine inworking.” It also militates against “the standing testimony of the Christian consciousness, which in all lands and ages bears witness to the truth of Christ’s declaration: ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’”

Warren says that, even though man is not “a passive material to be transformed and recast by simple omnipotence” and we can resist God’s grace, we “must not regard this great work as the product of a joint action of divine and human agency viewed as independent factors. God does not stand over against the natural man, and merely co-operate with him in precisely that degree in which the individual himself operates to secure salvation.”

“This is the error of synergism,” Warren warns. “It springs out of a false deistic conception of the relation of God to the creature, and of man as a moral agent. It predicates of man a natural and ethical independence which he does not possess; it ignores the fact that in God we live, and move, and have our being.” Warren describes various stripes of synergism, noting unequivocally that “All these varieties Methodism rejects as inconsistent with what the Bible teaches.”

Citing the Methodist Articles of Religion and the great Wesleyan theologian John Fletcher of Madeley for support, Warren emphasizes that “any undue stress upon the human element in the appropriation of salvation logically leads to a Pelagian anthropology, and a doctrine of salvation by the merit of good works,” and he says there are “fatal consequences” that result from the teachings of  “Calvinistic monergists on the one hand, and by Pharisaic moralists and synergists on the other” [5].

Thinking Out Loud

These musings are offered for just what they are—thinking out loud about whether we Reformed Arminians should continue feeling insulted when our Calvinist friends call us synergists. These ramblings aren’t intended as definitive. They’re just a scratching of the surface. But the more I cast about, the more it seems we Reformed Arminians who are afraid of the word “synergist” are in good company. We learned this sensibility from Jacobus Arminius and Thomas Helwys and Thomas Grantham and Carl Bangs and Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli—but also, it seems, from some of Lutheranism’s and Wesleyanism’s leading lights.

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[1] Bangs boldly states, “Arminius was a monergist.” (Carl Bangs, “Arminius and Reformed Theology,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1958, 166).

[2] Henrik Frandsen, Hemmingius in the Same World as Pekinsius and Arminius (Praestoe, Denmark: Grafik Werk, 2013). See also Frederick Calder, ed., Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1835).

[3] For a fun read on the Lutheran Predestination Controversy from the vantage point of the non-unconditional election side of the debate, see George H Schodde, ed., The Error of Modern Missouri: Its Inception, Development and Refutation (Columbus, Oh.: Lutheran Book Concern, 1897). Much of this book was translated from the German by the Lutheran biblical scholar R. C. H. Lenski. It contains a helpful compilation of anti-Calvinist material from the vantage point of Lutheran Scholasticism.

[4] Kenneth Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007). 163-64.

[5] W. F. Warren, “The Methodist Doctrine of the Appropriation of Salvation,” The Methodist Review 68 (July 1886), 594-97.

Individual Election, Corporate Election, and Arminianism

by Matthew Pinson

There is a flurry of activity at present from quarters in the Arminian theological community on the doctrine of corporate election. The exponents of this view are able and must be reckoned with, both by Calvinists and Arminians who emphasize the individual, personal nature of election to salvation.

However, to hear some Arminians talk, it is almost as though corporate election is the Arminian view. So I am offering this post not so much to make an argument for the individual, personal nature of election from an Arminian vantage point, but to remind my readers that there is another view among Arminians in opposition to the corporate election view. It may be a minority view, but there is a perspective with a long and distinguished history among Arminians and other non-Calvinists: that election to salvation is personal and individual. And this is not just a Reformed Arminian view. Many biblical interpreters outside Calvinism have interpreted the election passages in a more personal-individual manner.

As food for thought, I have cut and pasted some brief statements from a few modern-day Arminian authors who espouse this perspective. First is a short summary statement by Robert Picirilli, followed by a more direct statement of the doctrine by Jack Cottrell. Lastly, I have presented some brief comments Leroy Forlines makes about individual, personal election in the context of his interpretation of Romans 9.

Continue reading Individual Election, Corporate Election, and Arminianism

Arminianism & the Rise of Secularism?

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I’ve been lumbering through Charles Taylor’s widely discussed book, A Secular Age. Published in 2007 by Harvard’s Belknap Press, this dense, 800+ pager (with endnotes) is an expanded presentation of the material Taylor originally gave for the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1999.

A Secular Age is a difficult book to read for many reasons, its length being one of many. I don’t think it is so much the professional or cultural divide of him being a bilingual, Catholic philosopher from Canada. I think it is largely because he is making his argument by telling a story, and that story brings together history, theology, philosophy, sociology, cultural analysis, and more. In that sense, it’s a very interdisciplinary story—one that must be read slowly and carefully. (Thankfully, the Gospel Coalition has called attention in several posts to James K.A. Smith’s helpful engagement with Taylor, see here, here, and here.)

One of Taylor’s remarks that caught my eye comes at the end of a lengthy episode when he is describing how the Reformation contributed to the disenchantment of the world that we commonly associate with  secularism, or modernity more specifically. Most sociologists explain disenchantment as a feature of modernity in which the former, dominant outlook of the world as being charged with spirits, demons, and moral forces (including the activity of God), eventually recedes from dominance, and ultimately disappears.

Taylor says a lot of interesting things about this transition, and how the Reformation contributed (intentionally or not) to this process of disenchantment. Yet then he provides the one reference to Arminianism that can be found in the entire book:

Of course, we could go on holding to the express belief that only God’s power makes this possible; but in fact the confidence has grown that we, people like us, successful, well-behaved people, in our well-ordered society/stratum, are beneficiaries of God’s grace—as against those depraved, disordered classes, marginal groups, Papists, or whatever…As a general proposition, of course, it remains true that the majority of humankind is destined for damnation, and that the minority of the saved are very lucky; but in practice, we are confident that we belong in this minority, and that the universe is unfolding as it should….I have described a change as it might happen among the less reflective and devout members of the community. But the sense of greater control also effected the more reflective and devout. Thus Arminianism arises after a time in all Calvinist societies, provoking as it does revivals of predestinarian orthodoxy, but then returning in force again. This development was inevitable, in view of the very success of Calvinism in changing people’s lives [1].

It’s important to note that this quotation appears in the larger context of a fairly sophisticated argument about how Protestant doctrine’s rejection or revision of sacramentalism contributed to the rise of secularism. This argument exceeds the space I have here, but I want to simple pull on the specific thread here about Arminianism and control.

It’s difficult to tell if Taylor is arguing whether this is simply a tug-of-war between two religious groups contending for market share (more of a social development), or if the issue is actually the way these two traditions address the quest for human control and autonomy. I think it’s possible that he means it in both ways, but I think the latter way is most relevant to those trying to advance an accurate understanding of Arminianism today.

Our Challenge

It has been argued that one of the reasons Calvinism receded in influence for a significant period in early American history was because of how its assertion of God’s sovereignty wasn’t congenial to the broader movements of freedom, economic opportunity, and expressive individualism in mainstream culture. This isn’t really a philosophical argument, though obviously ideas have consequences (and antecedents). This is more of a part of the story that a lot of American religious historians tell.

Conversely, it would seem that Arminianism is a much more plausible outlook to modern Christians because its assertions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom are formulated differently. Arminianism doesn’t have to compete with the same vigor for the same religious market-share because it has the cultural sensibilities of freedom-loving, but also God-loving people on its side.

I think this argument, as reasonable as it may sound to some, doesn’t really have the kind of explanatory power or scope than some people think. Let me offer one reason why I think this is the case.

It seems to reduce negative cultural change (like the slide toward secularism) more of the type of subtraction story that Taylor himself rejects.

By “subtraction story,” Taylor means the way apologists for secularism act like the move toward secularism was just a journey of being able to discard certain elements from the past, like beliefs in myth, magic, or spirits, in order to arrive at a moment of unveiling what was really there all along: nothing! Apologists for secularism think that because we’ve shed or subtracted our religious dogmas and myths, we’ve now gotten to the truth. They fail to acknowledge where they have actively substituted exclusive humanism in the place of the religious dogmas.

Similar to the argument about Arminianism, if one claims that people by default are Arminians (as sometimes I’ve heard Michael Horton and others in the Reformed crowd imply), they would have to show where some act of substitution has actually taken place. Yet they cannot; If the doctrines of grace require unpacking and explicating for those in churches from the Calvinist tradition, then it seems like those with an Arminian heritage would have had to have been exposed to confessional teachings from James Arminius for them to even be thought to be “of the Arminian heritage.” Otherwise, the “default setting,” as it were, may be some combination of beliefs about God’s existence, human freedom, Wesley’s hymns perhaps, and a certain reading of Bible. But it won’t be confessional Arminianism.

I suspect most persons in mainstream evangelicalism have found certain theologies more appealing because of how they seemed to gel with their own privately-held beliefs. But in terms of default settings, I think you have more of a little bit of this tradition, mixed in with a little bit of that tradition, situated against the backdrop of American cultural influences that all of us have been shaped by.

One of the ways Taylor’s work is helpful is because of how he doesn’t focus on secularism as some disappearance act of the church or religious influence from the state (Secularism 1), or even the decline of religious belief and practice (Secularism 2). He does discuss these, but he is decidedly focused on a third type of secularism, which has to do with the conditions of our beliefs. In other words, the important “secular question” to explore is how is it that we have come to the place where what once was the default position for most, has now become simply an option among many, and not a very good one?

Secularism calls attention to how the conditions of certain kinds of beliefs or commitments in this age are under examination. That we would be choosers of our religion in a way that we wouldn’t have been in 1500 bespeaks secularization. Secularity, in this way of understanding it, “is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place” [2].

I think this is a fruitful way of studying history and cultural change. It’s also a helpful way of thinking about the history of doctrine. It reminds us that (1) Some beliefs do take hold at certain times for reasons which sometimes aren’t all that theological in nature, and yet (2) If we believe that the pursuit of sound doctrine is a moral responsibility for believers, then there will always be a deliberative component to our pursuit. That is, the mind, heart, and will are involved in the adoption of sound, biblical beliefs. Though we seek diligently and humbly to understand “the material conditions of our existence,” we don’t have to be a slave to them.

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[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 84.

[2] Taylor, 3.