Thursday, 2 March 2017

Big Theology on Narrow Shoulders: a Brief Outline of Arminian Baptist History

Here is the amazing thing about the Arminian Baptist theology espoused by Reformation Arminians like Robert Picirilli and his long time colleague Leroy Forlines.

Thomas Helwys???
Arminian Baptist theology is a Baptist theology with a long pedigree going back to the first Baptist congregation (Thomas Helwys) and Thomas Grantham--one of the best known Christian writers in 18th century England. (Arminian Baptists preceded Calvinist Baptists by a few decades.) It was imported into the colonies (Roger Williams and the first Baptist church are said to have begun as Arminian), but largely succumbed to a highly resurgent Calvinist strain of Baptists in the Philadelphia Baptist Association which aggressively preyed on disorganized Arminian Baptist churches in the south in colonial times (especially in South Carolina).

With the explosive growth of Southern Baptists after the Civil War, Arminian Baptist theology mixed with Calvinist Baptists theology to produce the Majoritarian Baptist position in SBC. Southern Baptists liked Arminian views on the extent of the atonement and election, but preferred Calvinist views on continuance in salvation (who wouldn't like a doctrine of once saved always saved?).

In 1907-1911, the Calvinistic Northern Baptists and the Free Baptists [= Freewill Baptists] in the north merged, having decided that their soteriology was compatible enough to cooperate as a unified denomination (1100 Free Baptist churches merged at that time, along with denominational infrastructures such as 7 colleges and a press). Free Will Baptists in the south were never really organized and mostly languished until their organization in 1935. 

Now, the very narrow ecclesiological swath of the modern FWB denomination preserves the much larger Arminian Baptist theology of Helwys and Grantham. That is to say, this venerable and very significant Arminian Baptist theology in its pure form is carried on the very small shoulders of a minor and mostly regional denomination of about 2200 churches. Its preservation and dissemination is largely the result of the efforts of two capable theologians, Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli, both octogenarians who are still very active. They were hardly known outside of their denominational context until the Calvinist resurgence of the 1990s when Arminians began desperately seeking good Arminian books to read.

But here is my point: despite the frail denominational structure that undergirds this Arminian Baptist theology, I have found the theology itself to be incredibly strong. I carried it with me through J.I. Packer's systematic courses at the graduate level, and tested it in the most rigorous exegetical courses of Fee and the Calvinist Bruce Waltke. I carried it with me to Cambridge where it was tested by my PhD supervisor and by Cambridge NT scholar Simon Gathercole. I may not have convinced those who were already committed Calvinists, but many of my peers felt that I satisfactorily presented a system that passed exegetical muster and the logical demands of a unified theological system. Forlines' overall view of Romans has survived even the New Pauline Perspective debate (indeed, he was making comments similar to E.P. Sanders for years prior to the publication of his 1987 commentary).

Click on Helwys for more info on Helwys.

For more on Reformation Arminianism click here.

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