Book Review: Arminian and Baptist by J. Matthew Pinson


When you hear the words Baptist and Arminian, what do you think of? Quite possibly it is the debate within the Southern Baptist convention (link) over whether it will promote Arminian (an interview with Roger Olson) or Calvinist (link from Desiring God) views on how one is saved (aka soteriology).

J. Matthew Pinson, President of Welch College, (blog) is not coming from the SBC but rather the General Baptist and Free Will Baptist tradition, which is more strongly rooted in ArminianBaptistBookthe Arminian tradition. In his book Baptist and Arminian (amazon), he explores the theological views held by the founders and prominent theologians of the early General Baptist movement and argues that both they and Arminius are very Reformed in their theological outlook. This view point is often called Reformed or Classical Arminianism.

Reformed Arminianism, unlike most Armininanism, posits a traditional Reformed notion of original sin and radical depravity that only the grace of God via the convicting and drawing power of the Holy Spirit counteract. It puts forth a thoroughgoing Reformed, penal satisfaction view of atonement, with the belief that Christ’s full righteousness is imputed to the believer in justification (ix).

At this point I must admit an unfamiliarity with the various conventions and distinctions within the Baptist tradition, having been saved and discipled within the non-denominational free church movement.

A Theological History Book

In Appendix 3, Pinson reviews Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. In that review, Pinson notes:

Those looking for an exegetical defense of Arminianism will not be satisfied with this book. That is not the book’s purpose. Olson’s work is historical theology at it’s best. He paints a picture of the theology of classical Arminians past and present.

This statement can be equally applied to Arminian and Baptist. The reader will find a collection of essays that explore the historical theology of prominent General Baptist theologians. It is well researched and interacts with the writings of these leaders, as well as the confessions and creeds of the movement during the 17th century.  This is not a defense of Arminian theology, nor is it a book that is out to disprove Calvinism. It is first and foremost a theological history book.

The Baptist movement was born out of the Separatist movement in England. The Separatists sought to remove themselves from the Church of England and establish independent congregations during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many Separatists fled to Holland when they were persecuted in England. The Pilgrims who sailed to Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620 were among this group. Two different Baptist traditions grew out of the Separatist movement (a primer on Baptist history is available here). The English General Baptists (around 1609-1611), who held to a general or unlimited atonement. And the Particular Baptists (the 1630s), who held to a particular or limited view of the atonement.

The Reformers: Arminius, Helwys, & Grantham

The book seeks to not only establish the Reformed Arminian roots of the General Baptists but to differentiate this form of Arminianism from others. The book starts of dedicating two chapters to the life and theology of Jacob Arminius. Pinson defends Arminius as a Reformed thinker who held to the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism but differed from the Calvinists in how they were to be interpreted in key areas of soteriology.

the primary doctrinal difference between Arminius and his strict Calvinist interlocutors: how one comes to be in a state of grace or not (11)

Arminius disagreed with the last four points of the TULIP acronym – unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance based on being elect. Arminus held to a conditional election based on God’s foreknowledge of whether one believed or not. However, Arminius held to a strong view of total depravity or the inability of man to respond to the gospel without aid. Pinson demonstrates that Arminius, like the Reformers, also held to a penal satisfaction view of the atonement (this post surveys various atonement theories) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

The next two chapters examine the theology of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, who founded the General Baptist movement. As Separatists these men fled to Holland, where Pinson surmises they were exposed to the teaching of Arminius and moved away from Calvinist teachings. Pinson holds up Helwys and his holding to Reformed Arminian teaching over Smyth who drifted into Semi-Pelagian thought.

Chapter 5 explores the views of 17th century General Baptist theologians Thomas Grantham and John Goodwin. While both are Arminian, Pinson prefers the views held by Grantham. He advocated Reformed Arminianism over Goodwin; who held to Grotius’s governmental view of the atonement, denied the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and emphasized perseverance through works not faith.

The views of the prominent 18th century Arminian John Wesley are explored in Chapter 6. Wesley also sought to reform the Church of England, as did the Separatists. However Wesley was not a Baptist; he founded the Methodist movement. Pinson notes the distinctives found in Wesley’s theory of atonement and notes the influence of Goodwin; arguing against the perfectionism and perseverance through works that he taught.

Synergism?

One issue worth noting is the use of the term synergism. In the book, Pinson describes the Arminian movement as being against synergism.

Arminius was not a synergist;  … [but] differed from Calvin and many Reformed theologians of his day stating that this grace of God “which appeared to all men” can be resisted (22).

In footnote #83 and #93, Pinson briefly notes the debate between Arminian scholars over the term. Some refer to Arminianism as synergistic; but he disagrees with the term and suggests”conditional monergism”. This idea is explored in more detail in Pinson’s post, in which the faith response is seen as not resisting, rather than actively accepting (link).

I do not think Arminius called himself or would ever have called himself a synergist because of the semi-Pelagian implications of the term. It implies that people are working together with God in bringing about their salvation.

While understanding Pinson’s concern for Arminianism being confused with Semi-Pelagianism, I find myself agreeing with Brian Abiscano in his response to this article (link).

faith is an action and the means by which we are saved by God. But faith itself is not monergistic. … God does not believe for man. And faith is a human act. God enables, but man actually does the believing. …

Salvation is monergistic in that God alone accomplishes it in response to man’s faith. But faith is synergistic in that it involves both the action of God and man.

A Call to Re-Connect

In the final chapter, Pinson argues that Baptists need to “re-connect with their past” and the “tradition of the Reformation”. He argues for sola scriptura, and against the idea of nuda scriptura. A great way to understand the difference between the two is found in this statement from an article on Bible.org (link).

Scripture above all other sources of truth [sola], but not scripture alone as a source for truth [nuda]

Pinson defines the “tradition of the Reformation” as being “rooted” in Scripture and the “consensual orthodoxy” of the creeds and writings of the early church.

Grantham managed to place great value on the wisdom of the Christian tradition, relying heavily on the church fathers, creeds, and councils of the first five centuries of the Christian church, while maintaining a strong posture of sola scriptura. (165)

It is this understanding of the “tradition of the Reformation” that we would all do well to connect with.


The reader should note that I was provided a copy of this book by Dr. Pinson in exchange for a review. As a reviewer, I come as one who is holds to the key tenets of Arminianism, but is not affiliated with the Baptist denomination.

One thought on “Book Review: Arminian and Baptist by J. Matthew Pinson

  1. Pingback: Grace for All: Elect in Christ or into Christ, that is the Question | Dead Heroes Don't Save

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