I often hear that Methodists are Arminians, rather than Calvinists. This is true, but only in a limited sense. Wesley did publish the Arminian Magazine later in life, though he and Calvin had far more in common than we often acknowledge. His indebtedness to Arminius, moreover, was particularly related to notions of grace, free will, and election.
What we really mean when we claim to be Arminians is that we affirm certain claims that Jacob Arminius made over against certain claims of what’s called “high Calvinism.” High Calvinism is really a product of some of Calvin’s early followers, like Theodore Beza. The high Calvinists won day at the Synod of Dort (1618-19), trouncing the “Remonstrants,” followers of Arminius. Nevertheless, Arminianism persisted, finding its most powerful expression in the Methodist movement that emerged in the next century.
Without getting into the granular details, Wesleyan/Arminian Christians have two main points of disagreement with the high Calvinists:
- We don’t affirm individual double predestination, the idea that every person is predestined either for heaven or hell.
- Correlatively, we also reject what’s called supralapsarianism—the belief that God chose the elect and the reprobate before the fall.
In contrast to these claims, we believe that God has provided enough grace to all of humanity that each person can turn to God or reject God. Wesley called this “preventing” grace, or as it is often rendered today, “prevenient grace.” Wesley and Arminius both affirmed original sin, and even total depravity. It is only by the free gift of preventing grace that we can perceive our own sinfulness and begin to repent.
In my experience, Methodists often evoke the figure of Arminius, but we don’t know a great deal about him. For those who would like to learn more, I’d suggest picking up a copy of Jacob Arminius: The Man from Oudewater (Cascade, 2015), by Rustin E. Brian. It’s part of the Cascade Companions series and provides a succinct, clear summary of Arminius’s life, work, and major claims. I’d recommend this especially for any seminary student or ordination candidate.
One of the features of this book that I found most helpful is its comparison of Arminius to three theological thinkers: Pelagius, Wesley, and Barth. In particular, I found the section on Pelagius helpful. Those of us in the Methodist/Arminian traditions are often accused of being Pelagians or semi-Pelagians. These are straw-man arguments, however, easily dismantled by those who know something of both Pelagius and Arminius. Brian’s analysis provides an accessible account of why this is the case.
The Wesleyan/Arminian faith is an intellectually and spiritually rich tradition. Digging down into our roots and learning about our forebears in the faith can help us to grow as Christians, evangelists, and apologists. There are many fine resources available to teach us, including Brian’s work on Arminius, for those who are interested and motivated.