Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace
by keith d. stanglin and thomas h. mccall
oxford, 258 pages, $27.99
Ultimately, as the authors of this new biography of the late-sixteenth-century Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius recognize, there is no “middle ground” between the essential tenets of traditional Arminianism and traditional Calvinism. Arminianism was in fact an “alien theological development” in the Reformed world, and those today who seek a “Calminian” middle ground would find, if they explored Arminius’ thought, that they are in fact Arminians.
In my own Southern Baptist world, this debate is still a live one. Even though at its founding in 1845, the leading lights of the Southern Baptist Convention were almost uniformly Calvinist in their theology, the way the “young, restless, and reformed” element has now captured the imagination and allegiance of many young (and not-so-young) leaders has alarmed many committed to some form of Arminianism. This past summer the Convention essentially agreed to disagree, and there will be no effort to purge Calvinists from the Southern Baptist Convention (for now).
Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCallthe first teaches theology at Austin Graduate School of Theology, the second at Trinity Evangelical Divinity Schoolhave written a volume that will likely be the standard introductory work on Arminius for the foreseeable future. They are fair to all sides but their sympathies clearly lie with Arminius’ theological vision. While his detractors are legion, it is clear that he worked within the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy and the tradition from the Church Fathers to the medieval era to the Protestant world of his own day.
He used the scholastic method and affirmed all the traditional aspects of an orthodox doctrine of God (like simplicity, infinity, eternity, immensity, omnipresence, impassibility, immutability, and incorruptibility). He was, like Thomas Aquinas, an “intellectualist” rather than a “voluntarist,” in holding that the divine intellect has priority over the divine will, which then regulates the divine power.
And while Arminius is not simply an “anti-Calvinist,” he cannot be understood apart from the largely Calvinist context in which he theologized. He taught theology at the (Reformed) University of Leiden, and engaged in ongoing debate with his theological colleagues there, much of it adversarial.
The authors are particularly concerned to show the relationship between creation and providence in Arminius’ theology. He insisted that “The providence of God is subordinate to creation.” This, the authors explain, “means that divine action in providence must be understood in direct relation to God’s purposes in the act of creation.”
Since God creates to “spread and share his goodness,” his providence must likewise be ordered and directed to this same end: the spreading and sharing of his goodness. It is difficult (at least as Arminius saw it) to square these key tenets of his thoughtthat providence is subordinate to creation and that God creates to spread and share his goodnesswith traditional Reformed theology and the notions of election and predestination affirmed by the Reformed.
One cannot understand Arminius’ positions in these debates, and why he has cast a large shadow on the history of Christian theology, without coming to terms with “middle knowledge,” arguably the key philosophical underpinning to his doctrine of providence. Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of what a free person (in Arminius’ sense) would do in any variety of situations.
The authors call this “genuine freedom” and define it as having “a real choice between genuine alternatives, unconstrained by necessity, and therefore strictly incompatible with determinism.” While there is no monolithic Reformed position, the Reformed are usually “compatibilists,” in that they believe that God’s sovereign rule (even to the extent of “determining” events) is compatible with human freedom.
As Arminius explained it, middle knowledge is “that by which he knows that ‘if this thing happens, that will take place.’” This book would have been improved by lingering on the crucial question of the viability of middle knowledge. It is a contested concept (to say the least) but one on which much of Arminius’ theological system depends.
Arminius, wanting to make sense of the Bible, sought to come to terms with predestination. His conception of predestination can only be understood in light of his belief that the fundamental goodness of God is crucial. He argued that God’s decree to save certain persons is (in the authors’ summary) “based on God’s consequent will to save those individuals, known by way of divine middle knowledge, who would actually accept his grace.” God foreknows who will have saving faith and upon seeing such faith predestines those persons to eternal life.
Concerning man as sinner, the authors place Arminius’ thought against the backdrop of competing medieval ideas, including the doctrine of original sin. The Reformed would, generally, affirm that all persons come into the world not only corruptbut guilty as well. Arminius argued that, because of Adam’s transgression, all persons enter the world with a lack of original righteousness and are corrupt but not actually guilty. Guilt, for him, is a result of one’s own actual sins.
Arminius also argued, against the Calvinists, that God’s grace makes salvation a real option but does not efficaciously move someone to believe. Such an efficacious grace, he believed, would be coercive and inconsistent with human freedom.
Again, middle knowledge is central. God’s grace is universal, and he offers salvation to all. God foreseesvia middle knowledgewho will freely accept the offer of salvation. While Arminius can use the terminology of “sufficient” and “efficacious” to describe two types of grace, grace is not efficacious in the sense that it efficaciously moves a person to believe. This is a significant reworking of (perhaps even a departure from) the Augustinian and Reformed stream.
However much Stanglin and McCall want to protest that for Arminius it is grace that is necessary for human faith, he nonetheless left an irreducible space for human acts or beliefs that resist God’s grace. Thus, for him, the decisive player in the beginning of salvation is the functionally autonomous person.
Arminius left space for man’s responsiveness in his relationship with God. Of course, in their own way, so did the Reformed. A fuller treatment of why the Reformed were unconvinced by Arminius’ construal of grace, and the nature of human faith, would have been very helpful.
Jacob Arminius may have been more than an anti-Calvinist, but he was not less than an anti-Calvinist. As Richard Muller has shown in various writings (especially his essay “Grace, Election, and Contingent Choice”), Arminius was engaged in a significant reworking of the basic Reformed tradition of which he was a part.
Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace is a helpful overview of Arminius’ thought, though readers wanting to really grasp the heart of the difference between Arminius and his Reformed critics will need to look at other resources as well. A treatment of the best of Reformed responses to middle knowledge would have been invaluable.
Arminius may have been a theologian of grace, but it was a construal of grace predicated on a major gambit: the viability of middle knowledge. If middle knowledge is indeed viable, so be it. But if not, then those inclined to Arminianism, including the “Calminians” trying to bridge the gap between Arminian and Calvinist, would have significant rethinking to do.
Bradley G. Green is associate professor of Christian thought and tradition at Union University.