“Are Vineyard churches and pastors Calvinistic or Arminian?” I remember the question well because I was trying to choose between about five different answers, but I decided to go with the best answer I could muster: “Yes.”
For some, one must be either a Calvinist or an Arminian because one must choose between these two theological positions as the only viable options. You either emphasize God’s sovereignty in saving the elect (while damning the reprobates to eternal judgement) or you emphasize human responsibility and choice. You can’t choose neither or opt out of having an opinion on these central biblical-theological subjects! Or at least that is what we are often told.
So what is the Vineyard’s approach to these two theological traditions? How has the Vineyard movement understood its theological identity in relation to Calvinism and Arminianism? Does the Vineyard believe in God’s sovereignty? Does God graciously draw sinners, whom are dead in their sins and unable to choose God on their own, to Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit? Or are human beings held responsible for their actions? Don’t people have to make a decision to follow Jesus in order to experience salvation?
What is Biblical Theology?
Biblical theology is one of my favorite disciplines and approaches to doing theology in relation to Scripture. While Geerhardus Vos, author of Biblical Theology, is considered one of the pioneering innovators in the somewhat recent past, there are a number of ways that scholars define biblical theology. The differences of perspective are explored well in Klink and Lockett’s Understanding Biblical Theology, a book that I believe everyone interested in the subject should own. The author’s brilliantly explore five different approaches to biblical theology and the scholars most often associated with them, including James Barr, D. A. Carson, N. T. Wright, Brevard Childs, and Francis Watson.
For our purposes, I largely agree with Michael Lawrence’s summary toward defining biblical theology when he writes:
“When we talk about biblical theology, we mean a theology that not only tries to systematically understand what the Bible teaches, but to do so in the context of the Bible’s own progressively revealed and progressively developing storyline. Faithful biblical theology attempts to demonstrate what systematic theology assumes: that the Scriptures are not an eclectic, chaotic, and seemingly contradictory collection of religious writings, but rather a single story, a unified narrative that conveys a coherent and consistent message. Thus biblical theology is concerned not just with the moral of the story, but the telling of the story, and how the very nature of its telling, its unfolding, shapes our understanding of its point.” (Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry, 26)
One significant concern for some biblical theologians attempting to do biblical theology is to determine what is the center of biblical theology, what is the primary theological issue found in Scripture. Scholars, as Understanding Biblical Theology demonstrates, differ on what i the best approach and what is central. This is seen in the differences found in James M. Hamilton Jr’s God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgement and Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant, which is of interest because each of these scholars teach at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, are Reformed Baptists, and committed to the discipline of biblical theology.
This brings us to another question for us to consider…
What is the Vineyard’s Biblical-Theological Center?
Other traditions, denominations, and movements are known to define their biblical-theological center on a number of topics. The Reformed tradition often centers itself on the sovereignty of God, the doctrines of grace, and, to a lesser extent, individual election and the atonement. Those who identify themselves with the tradition coming from Jacobus Arminius (whose real name was Jakob Hermanszoon), known as Arminians, tend to center their theology on God’s love, human responsibility, and to a lesser extent, corporate election and the atonement. Each of these traditions also have advocates who it could be arguably said would center their theology on what they are against rather than what they are for. Thus, some Calvinists are more known for being anti-Arminian and some Arminians are more known for being anti-Calvinist.
But what about the Vineyard? Where does the Vineyard center its biblical theology?
The Vineyard centers its biblical theology and praxis on king and kingdom. Kingdom theology, expressed in the phrase “kingdom of God,” is the primary influence in the Vineyard, for “Vineyard kingdom theology determines kingdom practice.” The theology of the kingdom could be said to function as the sine qua non of the Vineyard’s approach. We are deeply committed to the proclamation and demonstration of God’s kingdom, the same message that Jesus said he came to this earth to preach (Luke 4:43).
It’s not that we find these other matters unimportant or that we do not have opinions on the various perspectives that have been offered throughout the history of the Church; rather, we are convinced that the center is King Jesus and his kingdom… and his center will hold!
Some Vineyard “History” from a Pastor-Theologian.
I’m not a trained historian. I certainly have interest in historical studies and I do my best to approach matters of historicity in as informed as I can, but I have not spent the bulk of my academic training studying the methodology of proper historical studies. Plus, I’m convinced that history is, like most academic disciplines, a matter of interpretation and perspective.
With that caveat, I’d like to suggest that the Vineyard has been fairly influenced by both Reformed theology and Arminianism.
For example, Dr. Don Williams, one of the primary authors of the Vineyard Statement of Faith, was a Presbyterian pastor-theologian who openly articulated a commitment to traditional Reformed theology. In other words, Williams would be more Calvinistic. Moreover, Wayne Grudem, a well known Reformed Baptist systematic theologian, was a close friend of John Wimber who wrote several of the early Vineyard position papers and whom is a Calvinist. Sections of Rich Nathan’s writings in Empowered Evangelicals reveal Calvinistic leanings.
The late Bill Jackson wrote of the theological shift that took place in the Vineyard during “prophetic era.” In his opinion, it was connected to the issues of Calvinism and Arminianism, for he writes:
“There had also been, in the board’s mind, a dramatic shift away from the Vineyard’s Reformed foundation. Wimber had always believed that renewal and ministry were under the sovereignty of God. He was just a “fat man trying to get to heaven,” precious treasure in a jar of clay. If God had used him, it wasn’t because he had prayed harder than other men. It had been God’s sovereign choice. The prophetic emphasis had shifted the center to a much more Arminian emphasis on fasting, intercession and holiness in order to usher in the coming revival. Ministry was in the hands of the new breed and dread champions. John had always taught us that everyone gets to play— we just have to play nice and share our toys. Dread champions we were not.” (The Quest for the Radical Middle, Kindle Locations 3133-3138, emphasis mine)
My own understanding of whether or not the Vineyard is Calvinistic or Arminian is to suggest that you’ll find people who lean in either of those two camps. The Vineyard is not a Calvinistic or Arminian tradition apart from having advocates of both views within. That’s why I answer that question as “Yes.”
Personally, I hold to a broadly Reformed theological approach. I consider Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation’s theology quite influential in my understanding of Scripture. I enjoy reading Puritans, love Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and like Timothy Keller a lot (who doesn’t?!?!). I attended a Reformed seminary for my M.Div. and I would largely come down in the realm of the Westminster Confessional (except it needs to be properly baptized by immersion for believers, ha ha). I certainly read way beyond the Reformed tradition and have no qualms with those who do not identify as Reformed… but it’s part of my theological heritage.
Several of my close friends in the Vineyard are on the opposite side of Calvinism, articulating their theology in more Arminian terms.
But we seem to have no problem working together because we tend to center our theology on the kingdom. We can certainly have discussions about those topics and may even raise our voices and stomp a little in doing so, but we come back to king Jesus and the kingdom. That is our biblical-theological center. Sometimes I see the need to point out that in the broad and historic Reformed tradition, plenty of emphasis has been placed on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility and that some of the most passionate missionaries and advocates for social justice were pesky Calvinists, but that’s about the time when my Arminian friends point out that there are some pretty arrogant Calvinists out there that make it difficult to hear the good folks from the bad folks. And you know what? I largely agree.
I even find myself wanting to throw some furniture around my house when I hear Vineyard preachers say things like, “In the Vineyard, we are more Calvinistic” or “In the Vineyard, we are more Arminian” because those statements are both inaccurate as well as likely to misrepresent a fair number of people who call the Vineyard “home.”
On January 10 of 2011, Bert Waggoner, former Vineyard National Director, wrote a brilliant letter that spelled out the Vineyard’s theological diversity. In that letter, he wrote the following:
“We have tensions that arise out of the fact that we have come out of a variety of spiritual traditions. We are not old enough as a movement to have many leaders who came to the Lord and were raised up in the Vineyard without a prior religious association. We don‟t have exact figures in our database regarding the spiritual and ecclesiastical origin of all of our pastors. But we do have the backgrounds of all the churches that have adopted into the Vineyard. The majority of these adoptions have come from an independent Charismatic background with all the diversity that implies. The rest of the adoptions were formerly in the Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Calvary Chapel and Christian Church traditions.
There are many other Vineyard pastors on whom we do not have data in regards to their former religious association who are either Vineyard church planters or who became Vineyard pastors in established Vineyard churches. My personal knowledge of these men and women leads me to assert that these represent an even wider diversity than is reflected in the case of adoptions. We have former Anglicans, Methodists, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and all varieties in between. We also have those who would consider their theological roots as Reformed, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Armenian, Catholic, Evangelical, Post-modern, Post-Pentecostal/Charismatic – you name it.” (Berten A. Waggoner, National Director Letter 1.10.11, 2-3)
Bert went on to note that within the Vineyard, there is a lot of theological diversity. That diversity is spelled out in the way that Vineyard people talk about spiritual gifts, the atonement, eternal salvation, Spirit baptism, eschatology, and much more. This doesn’t mean that some of these divergent views are more or less “Vineyard” than others but that you can’t broad-brush a movement as diverse as the Vineyard.
So what unites the Vineyard? Again I suggest that it is king and kingdom.
I think that those of us in the Vineyard, when asked whether we are Calvinists or Arminians, should continue to respond with a hearty “Yes!” and then clarify that we intentionally choose to center our theology on King Jesus and his kingdom. We intentionally choose to embrace the tensions and paradoxes that appear to be raised by Scripture in emphasizing both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of human beings, the emphasis upon God’s grace and mercy as well as God’s amazing love.
We do not need to play by epistemological “rules” and false dichotomies that appear to owe more to the Enlightenment than to an ancient biblical worldview(s).
In the Vineyard you’ll find a Calvinistic woman praying alongside an Arminian man for the kingdom to come and break into another person’s needs. You’ll find pastoral staffs that include people who have attended Reformed seminaries as well as Pentecostal seminaries that are largely influenced by Wesleyanism. What unites us is our commitment to the proclamation and demonstration of God’s kingdom because we are committed to continuing Jesus’ ministry!
I’d love to know your thoughts, so feel free to jump in the comment section…
- What do you think?
- How would you respond to this question?
- Why is king and kingdom so important in the Vineyard in relation to theological diversity?
 Don Williams, “Theological Perspective and Reflection on the Vineyard Christian Fellowship,” Church, Identity, and Change: Theology and Denominational Structures in Unsettled Times, eds. David A Roozen and James R. Nieman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 184. Furthermore, John Wimber was and the Vineyard still is heavily influenced by George Eldon Ladd’s inaugurated eschatology that produced a “now and not yet” understanding of the kingdom; cf. Jackson, The Quest for the Radical Middle, Kindle Locations 711-714; Derek Morphew, Breakthrough: Discovering the Kingdom (Cape Town: Vineyard International Publishing, 2006); Don Williams, Start Here: Kingdom Essentials for Christians (Ventura: Regal, 2006). Also see Mark Saucy’s observations in The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus: In 20th Century Theology (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997), 304-306. For Ladd’s inaugurated eschatology, see George Eldon Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), A Theology of the New Testament, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). Ladd’s influence upon the Vineyard cannot be emphasized enough.
 This central claim will be established in a forthcoming version of Dr. Doug Erickson’s dissertation, which I believe should be and will become a required reading for Vineyard pastors and theologians.