An Accidental Arminian & A True Post-Conservative

Derek Ouellette —  March 23, 2011

Many learned people have studied systems of doctrine and have been convinced by the arguments put forth in them. Most other people however probably join churches not out of doctrinal conviction, but for more organic or natural reasons.

  • They were led to the Lord by someone who attends that church
  • They like the music
  • They like the pastor
  • They like the messages
  • They have many friends there
  • Most of their family attend it
  • They were raised there
  • It has been an intricate part of their tradition

And so on.

For better or for worst, this is probably the case most of the time. This doesn’t mean that theology or doctrine does not play a part. It usually does, but usually it’s role is secondary and only after the natural outworking of indoctrination takes place does it become primary.

But many after avid study become convinced for one reason or another to change theological allegiances (which often goes hand in hand with changing denominational allegiance). Consider

  • Clark Pinnock who famously journeyed from 5-Point Calvinism through Classical Aminianism and into Open Theism
  • R.C. Sproul who purportedly moved from Arminianism to 5-Point Calvinism
  • Francis Beckwith who resigned as president of the ETS to join the Roman Catholic Church
  • Edith Humphrey who journeyed from the Salvation Army through Anglicanism and into Eastern Orthodoxy

These are just some of the more well know shifts which occurred as a result of having been convinced by one system of theology or another. Such shifts occur probably every moment of every day somewhere in the world.

The point is that we find the system which we believe is most aligned with Jesus and make an allegiance to that system of theology, and in so doing we have brought ourselves in closer alignment to Jesus himself. We are a people who access Jesus through our theology. If we somehow feel detached from Jesus we reexamine our current theological allegiance which, if found wanting, we discard in favor of another theological system which shows greater hope of best expressing the real Jesus (or Paul, for some).

When I was young I knew nothing about this tradition or that tradition. I knew there were Protestants which I took to be synonymous with “Pentecostal” and “Christian”, and then there were Roman Catholics which in my mind were people who needed to get saved. I knew nothing of the Eastern Orthodox.

Years ago when I began to explore theology, two systems kept vying for my allegiance: Calvinism (which I associated with “once saved, always saved” theology) and Arminianism (which was the alternative). The moment someone says that they are a Calvinist or they are an Arminian two things happen: 1) they have drawn a line in the sand and 2) they have made an allegiance.

Given the reasons above for people to choose their system of theology (that they are what they are for natural unreflective reasons or they are what they are because a system of theology makes the most sense), I find myself in no-man’s land.  I am what a friend of mine recently termed a “theological maverick”.

I did not study Arminianism, find that it makes the most sense, and then start calling myself an Arminian. Rather, I studied Arminianism, found that it agreed with me, and then started calling myself an Arminian. It is not so much that I am an Arminian, as it is that an Arminian is me. I am not defined by my Arminianism, my Arminianism is defined my something about me. Namely, that I am post-conservative.

The significance of this point can’t be missed. My allegiance to Jesus is not defined by a system of theology. I don’t get closer to Jesus or further from Jesus based on committing myself to Calvinism, Arminianism, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism or any other -ism. My theology is not based on any of these systems. My theology – my articulation of God and Creation and everything involved in that – is derived from the Scriptures.

This means that I am not threatened by biblical engagements on “hell” or biblical engagements on “sin nature” or biblical engagements on “justification by faith” and so on. Do I believe in some sense of Total Depravity? Yes. Do I believe in justification by faith? Yes. Do I believe in “hell”? Yes. Now let’s discuss what we mean by those terms.

Let’s be open and engaging. Not flippant or wishy-washy. But not so dogmatic and close minded as to say that our definition of these terms is the definition of these things. I’m not emergent, postmodern or liberal. But neither am I modern, conservative or a fundamentalist (though at times I can be a little bit of all of this).

My philosophical approach to the Christian faith is a post-conservative one, a term I proudly borrow from classical Arminian, Roger Olson.

Post-conservativism is marked by the habit of keeping all of our traditions (even my Arminian one) and beliefs open to revision in light of further biblical insight and study. It does not bow to novelty or contemporary assumptions (like liberalism) but neither does it pay blind homage to fallible traditional beliefs in light of God’s unchanging Word.

I will not be strong-armed – neither by Calvinist’ nor by Arminians – into adhering to certain beliefs unique to the Reformed tradition by raising those distinctives up to the level of orthodoxy or heresy. Orthodoxy and heresy are determined by the Church Universal, as McGrath says in his book Heresy: “A heresy is a teaching that the whole Christian church, not a party within that church, regards as unacceptable.”

This is why – in the recent debate – I will not stand along side my neo-Reformed brethren or for that matter my Arminian friends in their sustained attack against Rob Bell. I stand opposed to their onslaught and I do this without affirming Bell’s teaching. This is crucial to note because everyone wants to force everyone else into one side of the camp or another. “You’re either for us, or your for them way over there.” I say, let’s engage Bell’s book the same way I engage dozens of other books here on Covenant of Love every week: critically. The best example of this is Dr. Paul Owen’s review of Love Wins.

Dr. Owen’s overall assessment of the book?

“Let me just start out by saying that there is nothing particularly amazing about the theological contents of this book.  His theology is evangelical, Arminian, and Baptist.  His view of Scripture is well within the mainstream of the evangelical world.  His openness about the question of the salvation of people outside the Church is hardly remarkable.  He plainly upholds justification by faith, the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Christ and all the faithful at the end of the age, etc.”

In other words – yawn – boooorrrrinng. There is nothing novel about Love Wins. That is, broadly speaking, Bell’s book – and thus his views expressed in it – fall within Christian orthodoxy. But let’s not stop there. Just because broadly speaking Bell is orthodox does not mean that in the particulars we have nothing to criticise and tear apart. That is the nature of book reviews often, and that is usually the nature of theological engagement. And Dr. Owen does a fantastic job of tearing asunder some of Bell’s arguments (particularly his engagement with Chapter 3).

Now my point here is not to rekindle the so-called Rob Bell controversy, but to point out that I am first and foremost post-conservative. This means that if I am presented with a view of hell – squarely based on scripture say, from an Orthodox perspective – or, to add a curve ball, a view of God’s omniscience also squarely based on scripture but which holds that the future is partly open, I would rather engage and listen to what my interlocker has to say rather then wave off his views and engage in a knee-jerk reactionary defense of my system of theology.

I am an Arminian because I am post-conservative. But one day I may be post-conservative and no longer welcome in the Arminian camp. Such is the nature of putting scripture first.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Aaron

    Derek your post is almost word for word how I describe my own faith and how I approach things. It is so nice to know there are others out there that understand :) thanks for sharing!

  • FrGregACCA

    What you write, Derek, is probably appropriate for someone who stands outside the Apostolic Tradition.

    However, I have to ask: what happens when you discover that the Bible, like any text, can be deconstructed along Derridean lines?

    “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.”

    “You search the Scriptures,” says Jesus, “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.” (John 5:39)

    • Derek

      Greg, the letter Paul speaks of in 1 Cor. 3 is the Law. The Spirit does indeed give life, while the Law of God (read: “Covenant Charter via Exodus-Deuteronomy) condemns (Galatians 2:19-20 and 3:23-27)I don’t expect the scriptures to save me anymore then I would expect the law to do so (you should know that about me by now). In any case, the scriptures themselves have come about by the Spirit who gives live (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21 and 3:16).

      Again, regarding John 5:39. Your quote must mean something, otherwise you would not have put it up. With no explanation, I can only assume that you put me in the place of the Pharisees and thus conclude that I must think that in the scriptures I can find eternal life. So disappointing :( You should know me better by now. If I look to the Word of God, it Jesus – not the letter – which saves me (John 1:1).

    • brad d

      WWW man I hate to not have a confrontation here, it isn’t consistent with my spiritual gift of agitation., (go ahead, try me on that)…. but thanks for the j. 5 vs, I had Forgotten about that lately, it comes in handy explaining the word works in eph 4 11-15 ish.

      And even though I’m not part of the apostolic tradition, I defend it often, clement seems to make a lot of sense there….

  • FrGregACCA

    I hope so, Derek, but I suspect that more people have ended up in very weird theological places by taking this “me and my Bible alone” position than by anything else.

    We all, to some extent, are the final arbiters of the belief systems we buy into, regardless of the reasons involved. However, that being said, if my belief system in no way challenges me and yes, changes me, it cannot be worth very much; it is as if I am worshiping a God that I have created in my own image and likeness, not vice-versa.

    Scripture, if read apart from the rest of the Tradition, will indeed fall apart as surely as a brick wall without mortar. A little deviant wind of doctrine comes along, and down it goes. In this case, the mortar is the rest of the Tradition. For the purposes of this discussion, you can think of this Tradition primarily in terms of the way that other Christians are reading the Bible and have read it, most especially Christians who were unaffected by the Reformation.

  • brad d

    Argh, that’s twice in one day, I am really losing control here. I AK mostly rowing that not with you padre.

    D, a question, but not an assumed pigeon hole:

    how do you answer that scripture shows is that maturity comes through works and not study?

    I would argue that most of the western church takes much pride in what they know, that they forget they were saved for a purpose.

    As a result the purpose is avoided, and the maturity never gained.

  • A.M. Mallett

    Arminianism is not “postconservatism” any more than it is defined by the disputes between young earth and old earth creationism. Arminianism is predominantly a soteriological understanding of scripture that remains well within Reformed Protestant auspices. I can easily agree with much of Roger Olson’s Arminian perspective and vehemently disagree with his anti-conservative approach to “orthodoxy”. For that matter, I suggest that most “clasical Armnians” would not consider themselves to fall into the realm of “postmodernism”.

    • Derek Ouellette

      A.M.: You misunderstood me. I never meant to imply that Arminianism is Post-conservative. I said that I am post-conservative. Post-conservative simply means all tradition (even my Arminian one) must remain open to revision in light of further biblical reflection. It’s bible first before any system of theology.

      And who said anything about being post-modern? I think I was pretty clear when I said that I was not postmodern (above).

  • A.M. Mallett

    I probably over-reacted to your post. I suppose my perspective is that I do not believe there are many classical Arminians who would embrace “postmodernism”. Olson’s description of it is biased in that he assumes conservative evangelicalism to be grounded in tradition rather than scripture. I believe Olson’s “postmodernism” is grounded in his experiences and projections.

  • Derek

    A.M.: If I’m reading you correctly, you are using the terms “post-conservative” and “post-modern” interchangeable. They are far from the same thing.

    But I do tend to agree with Olson. When I engage, say, the neo-reformed on the issue of Imputation I find they reach for Calvin and Luther’s interpretation of imputation, rather then simply looking at the text itself. Their “high view of scripture” becomes not so high in that their interpretation is immovably grounded in how their tradition has always interpreted the key texts.

  • Pumice

    I say I am an Arminian because it comes closest to my understanding of the Bible. I find labels handy because they give us a chance to start communicating on a deeper level. I will have to look at this “post-conservative” label more before it means anything to me. As I have said in other places, our allegiance needs to be to the teachings of the Bible, not to any one Reformation leader. They made mistakes, I make mistakes, it does not.

    Interesting thoughts.

    Grace and peace.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Hi Pumice, you sound pretty “post-conservative” to me :)

      The book I’d recommend is: How to be Evangelical without Being Conservative. Note: this book is talking about conservative in a theological sense and has nothing to do with politics.

  • Jon Sellers

    Derek, excellent post. I agree and see my own faith articulated the same way in relation to the “traditions”. This can be a lonely place as most churches and the denominational institutions of which they are a part of often very concerned about strict adherence to the accepted formulations.

    I love to read across traditions and often find myself in agreement with many things, then I find some things that I cannot accept and so I could not fully embrace that tradition. The resulting eclecticism is not always satisfying, but holding to scripture is what we are called to do, even at the cost of the traditions of men.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Jon, “lonely place” indeed.

  • FrGregACCA

    A note of caution: if someone thinks they’ve found something completely new in theology, they are simply incorrect.

    (New ways of saying old things, yes; something completely new? No.)

    We all have things to learn when it comes to our Faith. Some of us have things that we need to unlearn so we can encounter the Truth. However, what all of us most need to learn is to put what we already know into practice. We all have enough of the Truth to commence DOING, instead of just knowing, the Truth.

  • EnnisP

    Great post. It mirrors my own perspective on “theological traditions.” Unlike FrGreg I don’t revere tradition. I am grateful for what I learned from it and that I managed to break free from the hold it tends to have on adherents.

    Although I’m not perfectly Arminian – I’m not sure there is such a thing – I’m absolutely not Calvinistic. I can say that because the only acceptable tenets of Calvinism are reflected in many other traditions as well.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Derek Ouellette

    So basically, no. You’ve exercised your right to misunderstanding and took the opportunity to draw up a caricature. Nice job.