Walter Beachy is a well-respected teacher, preacher and leader. He served as pastor at United Bethel Mennonite Church for thirty-five years and was one of the founders of Biblical Mennonite Alliance. He is known far and wide in Anabaptist circles as an Anabaptist historian and teacher and is a captivating storyteller. But that’s enough for now—I’ll let him introduce himself!
Thank you, Walter, for taking the time to do an interview! Before we jump into the topic at hand, I’d like for our readers to know a little more about you. Could you share a little more about yourself?
I’m the fourteenth born to Old Order Amish parents. When I was fifteen years old, I attended revival meetings where Andrew Jantzi—a widely known evangelist—was sharing. There I made a commitment to Christ and was baptized a few months later at United Bethel Mennonite Church, where I met my wife Mary Jane.
In 1965, I was ordained at United Bethel and right after that I began attending Rosedale Bible Institute. I graduated four years later and then began teaching Anabaptist history, which I taught until the year 2000. I also served as president of the Institute from 1976 to 1989.
After pastoring for thirty-five years at United Bethel, I retired and spent more time traveling and speaking. It was in 2002 that I started having a stabbing chest pain. I went to a cardiologist who discovered that I had a dissection of the aorta and needed an emergency open heart surgery.
A prayer chain started and I was scheduled for surgery the next day. Early the next morning, they wheeled me away to take one last look before starting the surgery. But they couldn’t find anything. I had been completely healed! I want to honor and praise God for this miracle.
Now I am eighty-five, going on eighty-six and am still feeling good! My wife Mary Jane and I have five married children, sixteen grandchildren and thirty-five great grandchildren.
I’ve heard it said that you consider yourself a “Calminian.” Could you explain what you mean by “Calminian?” How did you come to this place?
I come from Amish background where there’s a strong emphasis on works. As a pastor, I have encountered many pastors, ministers and young people who really struggle with the assurance of their salvation because they can’t live up to their ideals.
As Anabaptists, we tend to diminish the sovereignty of God and focus on the free will of man. Far too many Christians feel they are saved one moment, and then the next moment they’re dealing with sin in their lives and are no longer sure.
Over the years, I have come to embrace a personal philosophy of life based on the following three points.
- God is sovereign – Ultimately, He is in control of everything. He doesn’t cause everything but He can overrule and cause whatever He wishes. He is sovereign.
- God has my good at heart – He is benevolent.
- God is redemptive – Even when I mess things up, He can redeem the situation if I respond rightly to Him in repentance.
I will never be able to completely mesh the sovereignty of God over against the free will of man. But I believe the Bible teaches both and maybe that’s why I have said in public teaching that I am a “Calminian.”
Based on the five points of Calvinism and Arminianism, I would be Arminian.
The five points of Calvinism are:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election – God elects people from eternity past
- Limited Atonement – Jesus died only for the elect
- Irresistible Grace – If you are an elect one, you cannot resist the grace of God
- Perseverance of the Saints – Once saved, always saved
The five points of Arminianism are:
- Grace is open to all – God wants all to be saved
- Christ died for all – Salvation is there as an option for everyone
- The Holy Spirit does enable man to respond – It is the goodness of God that leads us to respond
- Grace is not irresistible – We can resist the grace of God
- One can fall from grace after salvation
I do not completely embrace any of the five points of Calvinism, but I do believe there is evidence in Scripture for the sovereignty of God and assurance of our salvation, which would not mesh with radical Arminianism. Because of our emphasis on a changed life as Anabaptists, we need to be really careful. The Amish aren’t even sure they can know if they are truly saved.
To summarize, I have confidence in my salvation like a good, persuaded Calvinist and I have carefulness about how I live like a persuaded Arminian. I personally believe that I got saved on the third Sunday of April of the year 1950 and I’ve never been lost since.
Many Anabaptists seem to react to Calvinism or anything that sounds Calvinist. Any thoughts about this?
Radical Calvinists believe that if there is evidence of salvation in someone’s life at any given point, it doesn’t really matter what happens after that. I think we should react negatively to that and clearly not accept that as a Biblical position.
However, I think our emphasis on holy living makes us vulnerable. If we struggle with weakness of the flesh, temptations or even emotional challenges, we begin to question if we’re saved. We should not be so Arminian that if we’re not feeling the joy of the Lord, our salvation is called into question. We need to react to extreme Calvinism without rejecting it entirely.
Some years ago, there was a series of three articles in Christianity Today about Calvinism and Arminianism. The author seemed to document quite well how Arminianism has led more individuals and denominations to theological liberalism and a low view of Scripture than Calvinism has.
For example, the Southern Baptist Convention is quite conservative theologically and has a high view of Scripture. Contrast that with the liberal elements of the Mennonite church where their view of Scripture is so unbiblical, I wonder if one could even consider them Biblical Christians anymore.
Since the time that Calvinism and Arminianism were clearly articulated (1580 to 1610), a larger percentage of Arminian denominations, colleges and seminaries have gone liberal than those that are Calvinist. It seems to be fairly well documented that Arminianism is more vulnerable to liberal theology.
What are some ditches we need to be careful about on both sides of this discussion?
We as Arminians need to be very honest with Scripture passages such as Romans 9-11. Clearly, the Scriptures do teach that God is sovereign and we need to be careful that we don’t think too much in terms of man holding all the responsibility in decision making.
When it comes to our confidence in salvation, we need to be honest with Scriptures such as Romans 8 where it talks about nothing separating us from the love of God–it is a very comforting passage! We need to embrace it fully and believe it so that we can feel confident about our salvation, even if we are struggling for a time.
I remember walking with a new believer from Muslim background who was struggling with tobacco habits. In working with him through these issues, I tried hard to build up his confidence in his initial conversion to Christianity and his belief that God knows his heart and intentions and wants to enable him by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to live a godly life. But I reminded him that a godly life would not be enough to save him, it’s the grace of God that saves. We tend to diminish grace a bit when we emphasize holy living too much, especially for those who have a sensitive conscience.
Do you have any resources you might recommend to help guide one’s study of this topic?
The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church by Zondervan has a rather extensive article on the history and beliefs of Calvinism and a good article on Arminianism as well.
The majority of evangelicals who write books today, and through my lifetime at least, would be Calvinist. Some of them are radical Calvinists, but many of them are moderate Calvinists with whom, in a practical way, we wouldn’t have that big a disagreement.
Do you have any concluding thoughts to share?
The younger generation has more opportunity to learn than we did in my generation. And yet, knowledge isn’t the bottom line when it comes to our experience with the Lord. It has to do with our heart response to Him, our love for Him, our desire to serve Him faithfully and our hope in Him for life to come.
I would encourage you to embrace Scripture, love the Lord, serve Him and do your best to have basic tenants of theology settled in your mind from your studies of Scripture and your reading of other people’s lives.
Ian Miller lives in Queens, NY with his wife Marci and young daughter Aliyah. Ian serves in administration for a non-profit organization while working a part-time job and finishing up his college degree. He is passionate about urban, cross-cultural church planting, and verbal, personal evangelism.