Bearing false witness? A short description of the central issues with Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) by Rudolph P. Boshoff.  

(Average reading time: 10 minutes)

Born almost a century after Martin Luther, Dutch theologian, minister, and Professor at Leiden University, Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) is purported to be a very controversial figure in the early Reformation.[1] Historically he is caricatured as the antitypical hero who was seemingly instrumental in derailing the pinnacle axis of the Reformation. Theologian Carl Bangs says;

“Calvinism came in, Arminius nearly ruined it, and the Synod of Dort restored it.”[2]

Historical Theologian Dr Roger E. Olsen mentions,

“Without doubt or debate, Arminius is one of the most unfairly neglected and grossly misunderstood theologians in the story of Christian theology. Both he and his theology are “frequently assessed according to superficial hearsay.”[3]

It should be noted that this article does not attempt to account for the claims of classical Arminianism, but rather want to show what Jacob Arminius was purported to have said concerning his own beliefs. As for the accusation that Arminianism is purely heretical and should be avoided, I would add the words of Calvinist scholars Peterson and Williams when they say:

“Heresy is such a corruption of the grace of God in Christ that it invalidates either Jesus as the Saviour or grace as the way of Salvation. Arminian Tradition does neither… Whatever issues relevant to salvation we disagree upon, let us agree on this: The Calvinist and the Arminian are brothers in Christ… The issue of debate is not between belief and unbelief but rather which of two Christian perspectives better represents the biblical portrayal of the divine-human relationship in salvation and the contributions of both God and man in human history.”[4]

Here are some accusations against Jacob Arminius:

  1. Arminius denies total depravity and the bondage of the will.

The first allegation against Arminius is that he denied total depravity and over-esteemed man’s ability to save himself. However, he writes in 11th Disputation:

“the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete anything, but without me ye can do nothing.” That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.”[5]

Arminius did not identify the free will of man to be efficacious in any way that would aid him in his salvation. His early students Simon Episcopius affirms that;

“Man hath not saving faith of or from himself; nor is he born again or converted by the power of his own free will: seeing in the state of sin he cannot so much as think much less will or do any good which is indeed savingly good…of or from himself: but it is necessary that he be regenerated and wholly renewed of God in Christ by the Word of the gospel and by the virtue of the Holy Spirit in conjunction therewith: to wit, in understanding, affections, will, and all his powers and faculties, that he may be able rightly to understand, meditate on, will and perform these things that are savingly good.”[6]

When we look at these statements of Arminius and his student even Calvinist scholars Peterson and Williams, agree that:

“Arminians together with Calvinists alike believe in total depravity.”[7]

It needs to be mentioned that the most common accusation is that Arminians believe in partial depravity with the ability to recognize the call of God themselves; this is not what Arminians believe. Classical Arminians can affirm with Calvinist Dr Donald Grey Barnhouse that,

“total depravity does not mean that there is no good in man, but that there is no good in man which can satisfy God. There is a human goodness, using the word in a corrupt sense, that shows how far man is fallen. An illustration will show what I mean. A spring comes forth from the side of a hill, clear, cold, and limpid, and with a certain metal content from earth. As the stream flows down through the countryside it becomes polluted. Each time man builds on its shores, the stream becomes more foul. If it passes through a village or town, it becomes undrinkable; and if it passes through a city it will bear the gems of death to anyone contaminated by it. And yet there are traces of its original state. The chemical analysis still shows the presence of its original values. And the stream in its depraved state still has its uses. Its flow can carry away the sewage that would mean pollution if left in the city, even while itself becoming more polluted in its task. [8]

As for the inability of man and the biblical understanding of him being ‘dead’ Dr John Rice mentions that:

“It is true that in a spiritual sense every lost sinner is dead, that is, he does not have everlasting life, the life of salvation. But in the sense of being accountable for his sins, knowing about his sins, having the freedom to choose for God or the devil, men are not dead. Their minds, their consciousness, their power of choice are not dead. They are dead in trespasses and sins, and so do not have everlasting life in a spiritual sense, but they can choose… Can a Spiritually dead man repent [Acts 17:30/John 5:25] Yes, if God tells Him to! ”[9]

  1. Arminius believed man’s free will trumps God’s Sovereignty.

Does the ability of man’s free agency of choice inherently denounce of exclude the sovereignty of God? Arminians will say no and add that this can only be true if your definition of Sovereignty is the same as determination. Arminius does not deny the sovereignty of God, but rather affirms the autonomy of the human will in spite of it. He writes;

“Nothing is done without God’s ordination, [or appointment]: if by the word “ordination” is signified, “that God appoints things of any kind to be done,” God ordains it to a good end,” the terms in which it is conceived are in that case correct.”[10]

For Arminius, to think that sovereignty excludes human autonomy and that it can be synonymous with omnicausalism or determinism is simply wrong. Arminians hold God permits evil but is not the author of it! Arminius laments;

“What then, you ask, does free will do? I reply with brevity, it saves. Take away free will, and nothing will be left to be saved. Take away grace, and nothing will be left as the source of salvation. This work [of salvation] cannot be effected without two parties—one, from whom it may come: the other, to whom or in whom it may be wrought. God is the author of salvation. Free will is only capable of being saved. No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation; and nothing, except free will, is capable of receiving it.”[11]

Calvinist Scholar Edward H. Palmer holds that the free will of man inevitably denounces the sovereignty of God! He writes;

“The Arminian denies the sovereignty of God.”[12]

Arminius is not denouncing God’s Sovereignty but rather aims to make God sovereign over the free decisions of man. Arminius holds that man is the author of his own fallen destiny and not God. He writes;

“I grant that the ordination of God does nothing unduly, but as an ordination of sin, such as they attribute to the Deity, is not in harmony with the character of God, it is not wonderful that, from it, something undue should he attributed to God.”[13]

For Arminius God permits evil but he is not the cause or determiner of evil. This is a cardinal difference between Arminius and Calvin. Calvin demands that;

‘By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of those ends, we say that he has been predestined to life or death.”[14]

Arminius simply denies the assertion that God is the one that arranges and makes sure the fall of man and evil in the world.[15] Man is free, but free to choose other than God personally or what God’s wills. Arminius mentions;

“I most solicitously avoid two causes of offense — that God be not proposed as the author of sin, and that its liberty be not taken away from the human will. These are two points which, if any one knows how to avoid, he will think upon no act which I will not in that case most gladly allow to be ascribed to the providence of God, provided a just regard be had to the Divine pre-eminence.”[16]

A.W. Tozer gives a similar idea;

“God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfils it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, “What doest thou?” Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.”[17]

Prince of preachers Charles H. Spurgeon affirms;

“God foreknew the mischief that he would do when he came to the throne, yet that foreknowledge did not in the least degree interfere with his free agency. Nor is this an isolated and exceptional case. The facts most surely believed among us, like the Doctrines most clearly revealed to us, point all of them to the same inference. The predestination of God does not destroy the free agency of man, or lighten the responsibility of the sinner. It is true, in the matter of salvation, when God comes to save, his Free Grace prevails over our free agency and leads the will in glorious captivity to the obedience of faith. But in sinning, man is free—free in the widest sense of the term, never being compelled to do any evil deed, but being left to follow the turbulent passions of his own corrupt heart—and carry out the prevailing tendencies of his own depraved nature.”[18]

It is simply false to assume Arminius denied God sovereignty. For the Arminian, God is eternally in control in spite of man’s free choices. He is not surprised because man fell into sin, but rather allows man to choose contrary and freely to what His revealed will demands. That does not mean that God failed or that non-determined actions trumped Gods eternal plan, but for the Arminian makes man truly responsible for His own action and guilty before God. 

  1. Arminius is a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian.

Many influential scholars today deem Arminius’s Theological perspectives concerning the fallen nature of man and the ultimacy of God to be identical with the early heresy of Pelagianism. Calvinist theologian Steve Lawson writes;

“Never have two systems of thought been more polarized. The first system, Calvinism, is a God-centered, Christ-exalting way of viewing salvation. God alone is the Savior and, thus, God alone is the object of praise. In the other system, Arminianism, a completely opposite perspective is presented. Arminianism, also known historically as Semi-Pelagianism and Wesleyanism, divides the glory between God and man in the salvation of the human race. As a result, it diminishes the glory given to God. In the first system, that of the doctrines of grace, salvation is completely of the Lord. God alone supplies all that is necessary, both the grace and the faith. But in the latter scheme, salvation is partly of God and partly of man. Here God supplies the grace and man supplies the faith. Man becomes his own co-savior. In the first system, all glory goes to God alone. But in the latter, praise is shared by God and man. The only problem is, God will not share His glory with another.”[19]

It is not my intention to show the differences between Pelagianism and Arminianism, or Arminius and Pelagius, even though I might endeavour to do so in a future article. Before we look any further at Arminius let me give a quick synopsis of the theology of Pelagius, as the most common objection is that Arminianism is Pelagian or semi-Pelagianism. Louis Berkhof writes;

“According to the Pelagian conception regeneration is solely an act of the human will, and is practically identical with self-reformation. With some slight differences, this is the view of modern liberal theology. A modification of this view is that of the Semi-Pelagian and Arminian.”[20]

Pelagius (360-418 A.D.) was an early British Theologian that held that man at birth is a ‘tabula rasa’ born neutral because God created everything essentially good and therefore man was neither ‘good nor bad’. Man is also not inherently fallen because he cannot inherit the sins of his forefathers (Deut.24:16) but potentially good or bad, as he exercised his own free will, and in his best state could become possibly liberated from the effects of sin. By the right orientation towards Gods law, Pelagius held that humanity can achieve the right state of morality (corpus non-frangendum, sed regendum est). Sin and death was not a serious matter, and man could potentially vindicate himself from its consequences because it was not innate to man but acquired by imitating the fallen world.[21] It is important to note that many individuals identify as “Arminians” but their soteriology is simply Pelagian, and before we point fingers, some Calvinist profess to be Calvinistic, yet, in their understanding of soteriology, they are simply Arminian. It is equally important to note that Arminius himself never endeavoured to be in any way associated with Pelagius. In his ‘Declaration’ (Volume 1.) under his ‘Own sentiments on predestination’ he asserts about ‘the Free-will of man’:

“This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.”[22]

Calvinist Michael Patton writes;

“This is one of the most widely taught misrepresentations, primarily among Calvinists. Pelagianism is the belief that man is born morally neutral. As well, Pelagianism teaches that man’s will is neutral from birth. Therefore, according to Pelagianism, man does not need the grace of God to live according to his will. Arminianism, on the other hand, believes that man is completely dependent upon God’s grace in order to be saved… Unlike Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism is the belief that man is born in a state of moral brokenness but, in his natural state, is still able to call upon God for aid. Arminianism, on the other hand (and like Calvinism), does not believe that man can do any good whatsoever outside of God’s intervention. Man, in his natural state, is at enmity with God. It is only the prevenient grace of God that gives man the ability to call on Him for mercy. Arminians believe in the doctrine of total depravity to the same degree that Calvinists do.”[23]

  1. Arminius denied predestination, which leads to open theism.

Again, Calvinist, Michael Patton writes;

 “All Christians believe in predestination, including Arminians. Predestination cannot be denied, as it is very clearly taught in Scripture. Arminians deny unconditional predestination, believing that predestination is conditioned on the free-will choice of man.”[24]

To assume sovereignty is the same as determinism is simply a modal fallacy and seemingly not coherent, as John Lennox explains:

“…causal determinism cannot even be meaningfully affirmed, since if it were true then the affirmation itself would be determined, and so would not be a belief freely formed on the basis of weighing the evidence for and against. The affirmation is therefore irrational. Furthermore, it is common for determinists to try to conceive non-determinists to convert to determinism. But that assumes that non-determinists are free to convert, and therefore their non-determinism is not determined in the first place. The cost of holding human free-will to be an illusion would appear to be impossibly high, as it entails the invalidity not only of human morality but also of human rationality.”[25]

Arminius denied the fact that certain people are predestined for hell and others for heaven. For him, unconditional election meant that God shows His grace universally because he foreknows man’s choices but it demands a free individual response. This does not mean man is the proprietor of salvation but simply that God necessitates a free action that is dependent on the individuals ‘freed will’ established via ‘prevenient grace’. As for predestination, Arminius defined it as;

“an eternal and gracious decree of God in Christ, by which he determines to justify and adopt believers, and to endow them with life eternal, but to condemn unbelievers, and impenitent persons.”[26]

Arminius denied Calvin’s decree of predestination and mention that he could not be sincere in his understanding of the reprobate and man’s free response to the Gospel. He argues;

“But if you thus understand it—that God from eternity, without any pre-existence of sin in His own prescience, determined to display His glory by mercy and by punitive justice, and, in order to carry that purpose into effect, decreed to create man good, but mutable; ordained also that he should fall, that in this way there might be room for that decree; – I say that this opinion cannot, in my judgment at least, be established by any word of God.”[27]

This view according to Arminius leaves God ultimately responsible for evil and makes Him the author of Sin. This was unacceptable to him and in his understanding of predestination, he put the onus of man’s lapse into sin on man and not God. A critique of the Arminian position is that if God is dependent on man’s free choice he wouldn’t know what man might choose freely and therefore, the only consistent Arminianism is open theism. Arminius denies that when he writes;

“The knowledge of God is called eternal, but not equally so in reference to all objects of knowledge. For that knowledge of God is absolutely eternal, by which God knows Himself, and in Himself all possible things. That, by which He knows beings which will exist, is eternal indeed as to duration, but, in nature, subsequent to some act of the divine will concerning them, and, in some cases, even subsequent to some foreseen act of the human will. In general, the following seems to me to be the order of the divine knowledge, in reference to its various objects. God knows Himself what He, of Himself is able to do.

All things possible what can be done by those beings which He can make. All things which shall exist by the act of creation.

All things which shall exist by the act of creatures and especially of rational creatures. Whether moved by those actions of His creatures and what He Himself especially of His rational shall do. creatures; Or at least receiving occasion from them.

From this, it is apparent that the eternity of the knowledge of God is not denied by those, who propose, as a foundation for that knowledge, something dependent on the human will, as foreseen.”[28] 

Is the only consistent Arminianism Open Theism? Not exactly, Arminius never conclusively wrote about this conundrum and at the time of his untimely death might have already been in numerous disputes as a result of his perspectives. Arminians are not unanimous in their understanding surrounding these issues but usually opt for two perspectives: ‘middle knowledge’ or ‘open theism’. Roger Olsen mentions that ‘middle knowledge’;

“Is God’s knowledge of what any free creature would freely do in any set of circumstances. In other words, as God envision every possible world, He knows intuitively what person X, who is endowed with libertarian free will, would do at any given moment and in any given situation.”[29]

Dr William Lane Craig explains middle knowledge in the following manner.

“Prior to the divine decree, God knows via His middle knowledge how any possible free creature would respond in any possible circumstances, which include the offer of certain gifts of prevenient grace which God might provide. In choosing a certain possible world, God commits Himself, out of His goodness, to offering various gifts of grace to every person which are sufficient for his salvation. Such grace is not intrinsically efficacious in that it of itself produces its effect; rather it is extrinsically efficacious in accomplishing its end in those who freely cooperate with it. God knows that many will freely reject His sufficient grace and be lost; but He knows that many others will assent to it, thereby rendering it efficacious in effecting their salvation. Given God’s immutable decree to actualize a certain world, those whom God knew would respond to His grace are predestined to do so in the sense that it is absolutely certain that they will respond to and persevere in God’s grace. There is no risk of their being lost; indeed, in sensu composito it is impossible for them to fall away. But in sensu diviso they are entirely free to reject God’s grace; but were they to do so, God would have had different middle knowledge and they would not have been predestined. Similarly, those who are not predestined have no one to blame but themselves. It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined, but it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.”[30]

Some Arminians are hesitant to use this perspective as for them that middle knowledge seems incompatible with a libertarian free will. As for the option of Open Theism, it simply leads the individual back to the problem of divine foreknowledge and libertarian free will and the impossibility of God knowing anything about the future because of the action of a free and autonomous creature. It is important to note that even though some individuals insist that he might have leaned towards Molinism he was never emphatic about this. Arminius held to God’s absolute foreknowledge together with a libertarian free will.  Roger Olsen explains:

“Arminians claim they are justified in embracing both exhaustive and infallible divine foreknowledge and libertarian free will because both are necessary for a sound biblical worldview.”

Getting back to Arminius’s opinion on predestination, he held;

“Since God can love no sinner unto salvation, unless he be reconciled to Himself in Christ, hence it is, that there could be no place for Predestination, except in Christ. And since Christ was ordained and given for sinners, it is certain that Predestination and its opposite, Reprobation, could have no place before the sin of man,—I mean, foreseen by God,—and before the appointment of Christ as Mediator, and moreover before His discharging, in the foreknowledge of God, the office of mediator, which appertains to reconciliation”.[31]

For Arminius, mankind is predestined as a whole in Christ through His Church, not as individuals by the foreknowledge of a sovereign God. 

Summary:

In this article, I looked at four central issues raised by critics of Jacob Arminius. I need to say that I am still reading all of his writings and find that critics of his position have not directly interacted or even read any of his writings. This is not an attempt to vindicate any problems found within the Arminian system of soteriology, predestination, or the foreknowledge of God. I just tried to evaluate the reasonableness of the accusations hurled against him. I am also concerned that some critics can stand guilty by bearing false witness to what he actually said, and would caution anyone on either side of the divide to carefully read through his accounts without swallowing what is popularly said even by some theologians. There are also some who claim to be Arminian but fail to understand the general contours of Arminius’s thinking. They stand equally guilty before God as ones who call upon a historical position that Arminius did not even hold! As a caution to both sides I will end off with the following words from the pen of Martin Luther in his ‘The Large Catechism’ he writes;

“God therefore would have it prohibited that any one speak evil of another even though he be guilty, and the latter know it right well; much less if he do not know it, and have it only from hearsay. But you say: Shall I not say it if it be the truth? Answer: Why do you not make accusation to regular judges? Ah, I cannot prove it publicly, and hence I might be silenced and turned away in a harsh manner [incur the penalty of a false accusation]. “Ah, indeed, do you smell the roast?” If you do not trust yourself to stand before the proper authorities and to make answer, then hold your tongue. But if you know it, know it for yourself and not for another. For if you tell it to others, although it be true, you will appear as a liar, because you cannot prove it, and you are, besides acting like a knave. For we ought never to deprive any one of his honor or good name unless it be first taken away from him publicly.”[32]

Selah. Rudolph P. Boshoff. 

 

Sources:

[1] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xiv.vi.html

[2] Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation Pg.21

[3] The Story of Christian theology, Pg.455.

[4] ‘Why I am not an Arminian’ Pg.13.

[5]https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.v.xii.html

[6] Confessions of Faith of those called Arminians or, a Declaration of the opinions and Doctrines of the Ministers and Pastors which in the United Provinces Are Known by the Name of Remonstrants concerning the Chief points of Christian Religion (1684), Pg.118.

[7]   ‘Why I am not an Arminian’ Pg.163.

[8] Donald Grey Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. I. Pg.216-217.

[9] Predestined for hell? Pg.53.

[10] The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 1 Contends Page.

[11] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.v.xii.html

[12] The Five points of Calvinism, Pg.85.

[13] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works3.iv.xviii.html

[14]  Institutes, iii, xxi, sec.5, 1030-1031.

[15] Institutes, iii, xxiii, sec. 7, 1063

[16] The Works of Jacobus Arminius Volume 2 – Private Disputations, Pg.164.

By Jacobus Arminius

[17] The Knowledge of the Holy. Pg. 146.

[18] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons49.xvii.html

[19] Foundations of Grace by Steven J. Lawson Pg.33

[20] Systematic Theology Pg. 473.

[21] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xiv.vi.html

[22] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.iii.vi.iii.html

[23] http://credohouse.org/blog/twelve-myths-about-arminianism

[24] http://credohouse.org/blog/twelve-myths-about-arminianism

[25] ‘Determined to believe?’ Pg.60.

[26] http://www.godrules.net/library/arminius/arminius154.htm

[27] Examination of Dr Perkin’s pamphlet on predestination, Pg.276.

[28] https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works3.iv.viii.html

[29] Arminian Theology, Pg.195.

[30] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/scholarly-writings/christian-particularism/no-other-name-a-middle-knowledge-perspective-on-the-exclusivity-of-salvatio/

[31] The Works of Jacobus Arminius Volume 3 – A Friendly Discussion By Jacobus Arminius, Pg.110.

[32] The Large Catechism by Martin Luther, Translated by F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau. Pg. 565-773.

2 thoughts on “Bearing false witness? A short description of the central issues with Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) by Rudolph P. Boshoff.  

  1. A very good summary of this issue that we face not only in the times we live in but also in the church! Many of the ideas that surrounds modern day evangelism has been reinveted, shaped and sometimes marginalize to suite these views. We need to stay informed so that we (church) understand all aspects of our faith and still submit to the call of Christ in Matthew 28v19. With that said, we also need to created a platform were dialogue, mutual respect and understand can take place in dicussing these topics. At the end I personally think it’s all about balance. This article was well written and very informitive. I am looking forward to the follow up.

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