BEN: Jacob Arminius seems to be a frequently misrepresented theologian, whose works have been neglected, and lack readily accessible translations into English from the Latin and Dutch. To what would you attribute this neglect, and would you see this as an explanation for why his theology is so often caricatured in various unhelpful ways?
KEITH: There are many reasons why Arminius’ writings have been neglected. Although there is an accessible English edition of the main body of Arminius’ works available in the public domain, the problem is that these nineteenth-century translations often use stilted English, are frequently loose and inaccurate, and translate a collection that was incomplete from the start. Though the Works represents the majority of his writings, there has never been a full translation of Arminius’ (100+) letters, his lectures on Galatians, his public disputations, and a few other items. I actually have a proposal for a critical edition of Arminius’ complete works (original language with new English translations), but it would take more hands than mine to make it happen.
Another reason for the neglect is connected to the nature of most of Arminius’ writings. They tend to be apologetic and polemical, aimed at defending his point of view or responding to a document that advocates absolute predestination. These works are academic, employing a scholastic method that does not lend itself to easy reading or much “quotable” material. They were not intended for popular use. So his writings are often neglected for the same reason that much of medieval scholasticism (say, John Duns Scotus) is neglected–it is easier to read an encyclopedia article about Arminius than to pick up his works and engage Arminius for oneself. This is how, even with the best of motives, people pass along caricatures and misrepresentations.
Finally, as I have pointed out several times in print, no one really owns Arminius. That is, those who would most readily identify with his theology–Methodists and other non-Calvinist Protestants–tend to focus their historical scholarship on other figures (especially the Wesleys), or they simply neglect church history altogether in order to go “back to the Bible.”
BEN: Early in the book you and Tom McCall wrote there is a strong emphasis on Arminius’ insistence on the simplicity (and aseity) and also the goodness of God. Why this emphasis, and how do Arminius’ ideas on these subjects shape the way he views things like election, salvation, predestination, the providence of God?
KEITH: Arminius’ insistence on the simplicity and aseity of God reflects his traditional approach to theological questions. These divine attributes were essential to patristic, medieval, and magisterial Protestant theology. God’s simplicity and aseity mean, among other things, that God is not composed of parts, and there is nothing prior to God on which God is dependent. God is not a big, bearded giant in the sky that happens to exist and set a world in motion. God is not one great being among lesser beings, but rather the ground of all being. The oneness of simplicity means that there is a fundamental unity to the essential divine attributes. The distinctions we make among them are merely conceptual.
Arminius’ emphasis on God as the highest good (summum bonum) is again an essential Christian doctrine. God does not just happen to be good; goodness is at the very center of his nature. For Arminius, God’s goodness is expressed in his reaching out toward creation. Creation is an expression of his goodness, and God’s actions are intended for the creature’s good. There is no human creature that God doesn’t want to be saved. Whatever predestination is, it does not include God’s creating some individuals for the purpose of condemning them.