Jacob Arminius. Theologian of Grace– Part Three


BEN: There is also a strong emphasis early on in the book on what is called the ‘intellectualist’ approach to the nature of God, which is to say that God’s knowledge is given priority over God’s will in the divine attributes. This in turn seems to lead Arminius in a very different direct than Calvin when it comes to figuring out the relationship between God’s knowledge and God’s will (e.g. Calvin and later Calvinists would argue that God knows things with certainty because he antecedently willed them). Can you unpack for us Arminius’ views on this sort of matter?

KEITH: For Arminius, as for Thomas Aquinas, God’s will is conceptually subsequent to God’s understanding or knowledge (thus the term “intellectualism,” often misunderstood by modern theologians). Just as God’s intellect is inclined toward the good, his will is also always oriented toward the known good. Because he always knows the good, he always wills–and is able to do–the good. In this sense, God obliges himself to communicate nothing but the good to his creatures.

This intellectualist perspective, steered in an Arminian direction, indeed contrasts with the voluntaristic perspective of Duns Scotus, John Calvin, and most of the Reformed. In fact, one historian has recently described classic Reformed theology as “Perfect Will Theology.” From the Reformed perspective, God’s sovereign will is stressed to the point that God has no obligation to the goodness of the creature. He can and does do whatever he wants with the creature.

BEN: In some strains of modern Calvinistic theology (I’m thinking now of Grudem’s work) there is a strong emphasis on the subordination of the Son to the Father, indeed some would even talk about the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. Do you think that Arminius would support this sort of logic, and I am asking because he certainly does say that before time began the Son received his divinity from the Father, so that they share the divine essence and both can be truly called God without crossing one’s fingers?

KEITH: Arminius did come into some controversy with his Christology. It revolved around the application to Christ of the Greek word “autotheos,” which is ambiguous. If it means “God himself” or “truly God,” then it is certainly appropriate to apply to the Logos. If, however, it is taken as “God from himself,” then it is not appropriate, for the second person of the Trinity receives his deity from the Father, who is the “source of divinity” (fons divinitatis), as the early church taught. The Son is, after all, (eternally) begotten. This debate was an ongoing Reformed debate, not unique to Arminius.

Though it seems to be one of the concerns of his contemporaries, Arminius’ position does not entail any kind of ontological subordinationism. He would not be pleased with such a position, and Calvin sure wouldn’t recognize it as Calvinism!