Jacob Arminius, Theologian of Grace

Article by   March 2014
stanglinarminius93.jpgKeith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius, Theologian of Grace, Oxford
 (Oxford University Press), 2012, 240pp. $24.99/£18.99

Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall are well-trained scholars in historical theology, both receiving Ph.D. degrees from Calvin Theological Seminary after studying there with Richard Muller. They also acknowledge themselves to be drawn to Arminian theology. They have set out to write a clear, balanced, and sympathetic introduction to the theology of the Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius (1559-1609). In many ways they have succeeded very well.

This book presents the teaching of Arminius on God and Christ, creation and fall, sin and salvation, grace and predestination. Ultimately it shows that Arminius taught what we might call a very Augustinian Arminianism. His driving concern was not to defend human free will or natural ability, but rather to protect the goodness of God and to avoid even a hint that he might be the author of sin. Arminius is very clear that man is completely lost in sin and that grace is absolutely necessary as the efficient cause of regeneration. But that grace can be resisted and lost by the regenerate. The great predestinating decree of God is that all who believe will be saved and so predestination is conditional. They note that Richard Muller suggested that Arminius' really had a "theology of creation" (p. 93) while they want to call him a "theologian of grace." I might suggest that we call him a theologian of the goodness of God.

In a significant advance on the analysis of Carl Bangs, Stanglin and McCall show that Arminius clearly makes use of Luis Molina's doctrine of middle knowledge in his discussion of predestination to show how God can certainly know future, contingent events. They cite Richard Muller to show the usefulness of middle knowledge: "like Molina, Arminius uses the doctrine to argue that 'God has eternally determined to distribute to all mankind the grace necessary for salvation. Grace is, thus, unequally distributed but is sufficient for each individual. According to his scientia media, God knows how individuals will accept or resist the assistance of his grace and can destine them either to glory or reprobation on the grounds of their free choice'" (p. 68). Stanglin and McCall suggest that this position on predestination makes Arminius a "modified Thomist" (p. 43).

While the consideration of the theology of Arminius in this study is good as far as it goes, at a number of points we might have expected more analysis and evaluation. First, this study of the theology of Arminius is not comprehensive. For example, no doctrine of the church is examined even though Arminius prepared disputations on the church, and issues such as the authority of the confessions of the church and the relationship of the church to the civil magistrates were very important in the experience of Arminius. 

Second, although Calvinist theologians have often been accused of developing their theology as a logical extension of certain basic principles, it would appear that this charge might be applied more appropriately to Arminius. Stanglin and McCall write: "Arminius's positions on the controversial issues of his day can be understood only within the context of his doctrine of God, from which flowed the rest of his theology" (p. 48). Yet they do not raise the question as to whether he is operating with a central doctrine that then is developed by logic rather than by Scripture.

Third, our authors note that Arminius was often more the critic than the constructive theologian: "Arminius's major treatises that deal with predestination give much more attention to what he opposes than to what he proposes" (p. 134). Little analysis is given to the fairness of Arminius's often repeated and biting criticism that unconditional predestination logically makes God the author of sin (see for example p. 130). Yet they rather easily dismiss Calvinist criticisms of the implications of Arminius' thought, whether on subordinationism (p. 90), justification (p. 168), assurance (p. 179), or responsibility for the "Enlightenment rationalism and doctrinal latitudinarianism" of the Remonstrant church in the latter part of the seventeenth century (p. 192). Arminius seems always to give the "fair implications" (p. 181) of Reformed theology, but Calvinists always seem always unfair to him. In particular the book presents at great length Arminius's criticism and rejection of supralapsarianism, but never asks if Arminius's emphasis was appropriate since supralapsarianism was a minority point of view among the Calvinists.

Still, even our authors seem a little embarrassed by the rhetoric of Arminius when he states that supralapsarianism is "'a perversion of the gospel of Christ'" (p. 125), "the subversion of the 'foundation of religion in general, and of the Christian religion in particular'" (p. 126), and "is inspired by Satan and is a doctrine quite compatible with the kingdom of darkness" (p. 129). They seek to exculpate him by recording "his belief that God in his goodness pardons those who teach false doctrine out of ignorance" (p. 129). Since Arminius's complaints seem directed principally at Gomarus, a learned professor of theology, can we hope that he was pardoned for his ignorance?

Fourth, the reader would have been helped with more attention to Arminius's relation to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism to which he, like all the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church, subscribed. They note his insistence that he agreed with the confessional standards (pp. 34f, 137, 202, 205), but also record his desire to see them revised (p. 14). Stanglin and McCall do not offer, where it would have been helpful, a comparison of Arminius's teaching on providence (p. 105), supralapsarianism (p. 111), original sin (pp. 147-9), sanctification and perfection (pp. 171f), and faith (p. 178) with the teaching of the confession and catechism.

Fifth, while the book presents the basic aspects of the theology of Arminius clearly and helpfully, it does not ultimately address the question of the significance of Arminius as a theologian. It may seem obvious that Arminius is a very important theologian in that he gave his name to a large, influential branch of Protestant soteriological thought. The book certainly shows that Arminius was a bright and erudite theologian. But by almost any other criteria the book itself seems to acknowledge that he was not very important. He published almost nothing during his lifetime and did not present anything that was creative, novel, or innovative in his theology. He did not originate a school of theology or inspire followers who continued or refined his thought. The seventeenth-century Remonstrants, who looked back to him as a hero, departed from him radically in the direction of Socinian or Enlightenment thought. The book itself states that he did not directly influence any later theologians. Arminius is simply one expression of what we might call the Erasmian or semi-Pelagian tendency in Christian theology throughout the history of the church.

Stanglin and McCall have a prolonged discussion as to whether Arminius's teaching of conditional predestination is semi-Pelagian (pp. 158-64). The discussion is rather confusing. On the one hand they object strenuously to anyone calling Arminius semi-Pelagian because they want to stress his theology is so much a theology of grace. On the other hand they acknowledge that Arminius clearly teaches that after the initial sovereign work of grace, those regenerated by grace can resist and reject it. They also acknowledge that a number of historians have called such a notion of the resistibility of grace semi-Pelagian. They acknowledge that ultimately the question can only be answered on the basis of how one defines semi-Pelagianism. Certainly in the history of doctrine, the term has been used to describe positions from those near to Pelagius to those near to Augustine. Arminius is semi-Pelagian, but towards the Augustinian end of that spectrum.

Sixth, if the theology of Arminius is not so significant, why is he an important historical figure? The book is clear that it is not a study of the history of Arminius, stating that it relies on the valuable biography of Carl Bangs. Yet it is Arminius's resistance to the dominant Calvinism of his day that makes him a hero for many. More importantly the historical setting in which he worked influenced the way in which Arminius wrote more than this book acknowledges. Certainly he focused so much on supralapsarianism in his "Declaration of Sentiments" at least in part as an effort to set Calvinist against Calvinist in the Dutch Reformed Church.

Despite the long list of additions that I would have desired in this book, I want to reiterate that it is very clear and readable. It succeeds in what it set out to do: present an introduction to the theology of Arminius. The book helped me see Arminius as a theologian of the goodness of God. It did not convince me that he teaches the biblical doctrine of grace.

W. Robert Godfrey is President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California.


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