Can Baptists Be Arminian?

Non-Calvinistic Southern Baptists have received no small amount of ridicule for the label “Traditionalist” despite our continued effort to explain our reasons for sticking with this label (which can be read HERE.)  The term “traditional” rarely means “the way something started.” For example, “traditional music” in our churches today is not how music sounded when it first began.  The term “traditional” typically refers to what has been most widely accepted by the majority for the last several generations.  So, when Calvinistic Baptist insist that the term “Traditionalist” is misleading because many of the earliest Southern Baptists were Calvinistic, they have simply misunderstood our intentions. 

Even if we were to talk about “the way something started” with regard to this doctrine, we could always appeal the the Early Church Fathers, who even by Calvinistic historians’ own admission, “clearly held to a form of libertarian free will.” <link> Further, it should be noted that Baptist history goes beyond where many Calvinistic Baptists wish to focus their studies, which brings us to our topic today.

a&amp;bMany of you probably read my recent article in response to William Birch, which expressed the reasons I do not consider myself an “Arminian.” 

However, the label Arminian, for many, has simply come to mean “not-a-Calvinist.” Few are fully aware of the various nuances that mark these labels which can lead to much confusion. However, for the purpose of this article, those nuances are going to be ignored so as to better understand the formation of Baptist doctrine from its very beginning.  Who better to do this than William Birch, who references the work of J. Matthew Pinson: Arminian And Baptist.

This article was originally posted at, but has been reproduced here by permission:

Arminian and Baptist: Can Baptists Be Arminian?

by William Birch

Due to a lack of teaching Church history, combined with apathy from the average pew-sitter Christ-follower, few realize that what we refer to as Arminian Baptists are the General Baptists of the sixteenth century. The focus of these Arminian Baptists is not free will but atonement provided, though not applied, to all. Hence these early Baptists defend not a limited atonement, as their Calvinist counterparts, but an unlimited atonement or, better, a general atonement — an atonement provided for and available to all generally. (cf. John 1:292 Cor. 5:14151 John 2:2)

These “Arminian Baptists” are the first Baptists; and they provide a proper framework for the “Calvinist Baptists” known as Particular Baptists — “particular” referring to the atonement, that God had provided an atonement particularly for those whom He intended to save, i.e., the unconditionally elect. But the advent of Calvinistic Baptists would take a whole generation after the formation of the General Baptists.1Why? I can only grant my opinion: Calvinism proper, in its Reformed context, is framed as strictly pædobaptistic. If a Calvinist decides to become a Baptist, this means he is abandoning the Reformed tradition, as is evinced by Arminius, when he enters the homes of the Anabaptists, attempting to persuade them to return to the Reformed church.2 The question remains whether a Baptist can be considered Reformed. See the post: “Baptists and the Reformed Tradition.” 

The question “Can Baptists be Arminian?” assumes an entirely new and affirming perspective when considering that Arminians comprise the first Baptists. A better question may be “Can Baptists be Calvinist?” But whether these early Arminian Baptists derive their theological doctrines directly from Arminius is inconclusive and, I think, implausible. Granted, Arminius’ theology is very popular, especially among certain professors and clergy, even if not exhaustively so among the populace. Yet, Arminius is a favorite preacher among other preachers at the Old Reformed Church, and his teachings are widely discussed.3 So, early Baptists such as John Smyth (1570-1612) and Thomas Helwys (1575-1616) may learn about Arminius’ soteriological debates from the average Joe on the street.

Helwys in particular does not name Jacob Arminius — neither does Smyth — in their theological writings and yet both advocate his soteriology, and even theodicy, including liberty of conscience and freedom of religion. Pinson writes: “That Helwys would tie his doctrine of general redemption to the Dutch Reformed churches, despite his lack of reference to Arminius personally, indicates he was familiar with early Dutch Arminianism and viewed it favorably.”4 There is a possibility, of course, that Helwys, like the early Anabaptists (or Mennonites), came upon “Arminian beliefs” on his own. After all, Arminius’ theology is merely the expounding upon the teachings of the early Church fathers,5 and others disconnected to Arminius in his Dutch context arrive at similar conclusions regarding the atonement, predestination, and the operative Holy Spirit in His work of grace.

Helwys, because of the controversies stirred up among the Calvinists in Holland over the doctrines of Arminius, may decide to refrain from quoting Arminius directly. He is already distancing some of his doctrinal views from that of his friend and colleague, co-founder of the General Baptists, John Smyth. Perhaps in order to avoid a guilt by association charge he merely outlines and defines his theological positions without formally aligning those doctrines to Arminius or the Remonstrants. I remember reading Jason K. Lee’s view that John Smyth did not name Arminius, either, as the theological progenitor of his doctrines on the atonement, predestination, or the work of grace.6 Among most Southern Baptists today, very little mention is made of Arminius, though they agree with him on matters such as predestination, general atonement, grace, a non-causal or non-necessitated view of God’s sovereignty, and ecclesiological matters such as freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

Free Will Baptists, however, are proud to name Jacob Arminius as representative of their theology, as these Baptists align their views with his on subjects such as total depravity, total inability and, hence, a will that must be freed in order for one to believe in Christ7, conditional election, general atonement, a proactive, initial, enabling or prevenient grace that can be resisted (though regeneration proper cannot and would not be resisted), original sin, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, the absolute authoritative and infallible Word of God, and, of course, a non-determined view of the sovereignty of God. Are these Baptists considered Reformed?

In a traditional and historical sense Baptists do not care to be considered Reformed — though, without doubt, they belong to the broadly Reformed tradition, given that they quite zealously reject the Roman Catholic Church, its supposed authority, and its teachings, and give heed to the Reformed mantra of the five solassola scripturasola gratiasola fidesolus Christussoli deo gloria (one is saved by scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone). According to historically Reformed persons, however, any Baptist who rejects pædobaptism is not in the Reformed tradition. Such is not a concern for historic Baptists, many of whom claim, “We have no creed but the Bible.” Other Baptists, particularly Free Will Baptists, include the moniker for themselves: they are Reformed Arminians within the broadly Reformed tradition.

Can a Baptist be an Arminian? A Baptist is the singularly most appropriate candidate for being an Arminian! Arminianism is not defined strictly as either pædobaptistic, or Presbyterian in church government, as are Arminius and the Remonstrants, as is demonstrated in the life and teachings of Thomas Helwys. Pinson argues that Helwys’ theology is “a more grace-oriented Arminianism that emphasized that salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, though divine grace is resistible. Helwys’s plain-styled approach in [the] first Baptist treatise on predestination laid the groundwork for more extensive works by General Baptist thinkers such as Thomas Grantham.”8 The modern-day Free Will Baptist tradition is the only major denomination that is “historically connected to the seventeenth-century General Baptists.”9

1 J. Matthew Pinson, Arminian and Baptist: Explorations in a Theological Tradition (Nashville: Randall House, 2015), 83.
2 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 167. Take for an example the following quote: “When many Separatists in Amsterdam were going over to the Mennonites, or to Baptist views, [Henry] Ainsworth [a Brownist] remained firm in his Reformed beliefs.” In other words, to be Baptistic, even if also Calvinistic, renders one outside the Reformed tradition. (158)

3 Ibid., 183.

4 Pinson, 84.

5 Kenneth D. Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

6 Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003).

7 “In an epilogue, Helwys clarified what his beliefs were concerning human free will after the fall. He argued that the belief in free will as Calvinists commonly define it is often attached to the doctrine of general redemption. Yet he wished to distance himself from that doctrine. If by free will is meant the Pelagian or semi-Pelagian belief (which, for example, John Smyth and the Waterlander Mennonites held) that man after the fall has the natural free will to choose the good without the interposition of divine grace, then Helwys does not believe in it.” Pinson, 98.

8 Ibid., 99.

9 Ibid.


7 thoughts on “Can Baptists Be Arminian?

  1. Maybe the questions should be, What are the minimum number of beliefs one should have to legitimately be called a Baptist? … or better yet, where in the Scripture are we encouraged to use labels for congregations, to publicly display to the world that there are differences in Christianity that require such a traditional man-made naming!

    I believe believer’s baptism (anti-paedobaptism”) is an essential for pastoral qualification, being a sound doctrine that elders must hold fast too (Titus 1:9). It think it is better to trace Christian History using believer’s baptism as one of the essentials for following the paths of the men that Jesus called and qualified for building His church throughout each century, before any group thought it would be helpful to call themselves “Baptist” beginning in 17th century England.

  2. “Traditionalism” still means anti-Calvinism, and one could say that up to the point “Arminianism!” I was a Southern Baptist pastor and a very “gong-ho” for the SBC. But once I learned that SBC had it’s beginnings as mostly Calvinistic, I wonder what had happened that most Southern Baptists are ignorant of their beginnings. Nevertheless, as I started preaching the Doctrines of Grace as a SBC pastor, I began to get ‘flak’ because of what I was preaching, so I decided just to preach the truth as it is in Jesus; and let things fall where they fell, as God willed. Sadly, my experience as a SBC pastor, I found that the average SBC church-member are ignorant (and the word doesn’t mean “stupid,” it simply means “not knowing), of what they are supposed to believe as Southern Baptists doctrinally. They can go to church for years and still not know the basic doctrines of “the gospel of the grace of God;” and not simply that they believe something of ‘justification, regeneration, grace, faith, repentance, etc., etc.; but that they have some understanding of these great truths, and can defend themselves against heretics and to stand up against error. I’m afraid that the very great majority of Southern Baptists are as Paul says in Hebrews 5:11-14: “Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing you are dull of hearing. For when for the time you ought to be teachers, you have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that uses milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a baby. But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern
    both good and evil.” Whose fault is it? One has to be faulted. Personally, I believe that the pastors are to blame; for I can say that throughout the years, the great doctrinal preaching and teaching that the people of God need from the pulpit is much lacking; and it has seriously effected the ones on pews. May God have mercy on us that responsible to feed the flock of Jesus Christ with the words of faith and good doctrine. “Take heed to yourself, and to the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this you shall both save yourself, and them that hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). Amen.

    1. As an “average ignorant SBC church-member” I have been taught by many great traditional Baptist preachers and teachers. Under their instruction I have learned to recognize the errors taught by Calvinists. I have learned to believe what the Bible says, not some mans interpretation. One of the “first principles” that it teaches is that God loves all men, that men are created in God’s image. God desires all men to be saved and none to perish. He loves all men so much that He died for the sins of all men
      Unfortunately the churches have been infiltrated by those teaching doctrine contrary to these first principles. They teach of a God with a lesser love and a man with a lesser image.
      I am thankful that God has shown many former Calvinists the errors of this system. I am thankful for the courage these men are showing by renouncing the pablum of Calvinism and feeding their flock the true meat of the Gospel.

    2. I could not have been more blessed that I was. I sat under Dr. Adrian Rogers’ preaching for 30 years. He fought the fight, I believe, against the Calvinist influence in the SBC as President thereof. But that was years ago. Currently, I am in a city in Texas where SBC means “Calvinism.”

    3. /I found that the average SBC church-member are ignorant (and the word doesn’t mean “stupid,” it simply means “not knowing), of what they are supposed to believe as Southern Baptists doctrinally. /

      I have found that too many S Baptist preachers are also ignorant as evidenced by their belief and preaching Calvinism which is found no where in the Bible but only in the writings of a few misguided 16th century men.

      I thank God that, as in the past. Calvinism will be shown false and many of those ignorant preachers will mature in their faith and Calvinism will once again be swept into the dust bins of history where it rightfully belongs.

  3. Just wandering where is that recent article in reply to William Birch, you mention in the beginning? The one you nuanced your position in relation to Arminianism. Can you share the link? It would be an interesting reading. Thanks.

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