Jacob Arminius– Theologian of Grace– Part Six

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BEN: In regard to the old chestnut about God’s knowing and willing it seems clear that Calvin would say God knows it because he wills it, and therefore Calvin makes God’s will (and its exercise in sovereignty) logically prior to God’s knowledge, whereas Arminius insists on just the opposite— God wills things on the basis of what he knows about things. Right? Further, it seems clear that Arminius wants to say that God acts always according to his goodness, his mercy, his holy love, that is according to his very good nature, so it would not be true to say that whatever God does is inherently good just because it is God doing it. Rather he would assert that a divine act is good because it is in accord with God’s nature. This sort of theological move would seem to be Arminius’ way of heading off at the pass the idea that God might do or be the author of evil, though one would have to redefine it as ‘not evil’ simply because God did it. In other words, it provides him with a way of rejecting supralapsarian arguments about God reprobating people not only from before the Fall, but from before the foundation of the universe, and also rejecting the idea that all things, including sin and evil were predestined by God from all eternity. We actually see this same sort of turning Calvin’s logic on his head when he says things like ‘we are elect because we believe, we do not believe because we are elect’.

KEITH: That’s right. God is the highest good (summum bonum) and is goodness itself, he knows goodness itself, wills it, and then extends it to creation. To be sure, classic Reformed supralapsarianism would also deny that God is the author of evil. But, in Arminius’ judgment, to believe that God created some people for the sole purpose of reprobating them, and that he ordained their sin as a means to that end, is to imply that God is the direct cause of evil.

For Arminius, our election to salvation is conditional upon the reception of faith, whereas for Calvin, the reception of faith is conditional upon God’s absolute decision. The same can be said for reprobation. For Arminius, a person is reprobate because of that person’s rejection of God’s grace; for Calvin, God never grants saving grace to someone whom he willed and created for reprobation.

BEN: Arminius thinks there clearly is a theology of predestination and election in the Bible, but he wants to talk about it as conditional in nature, just as he wants to talk about resistible grace (mentioning the passages about quenching or grieving the Spirit and presumably the apostasy passages). He also seems to affirm the concept of corporate election in Israel, and then in Christ. Can you help us to understand better Arminius’ views on these things. Is one of the things at the root of all this the belief that faith, like love, cannot be coerced or predetermined, but rather requires freely responding to what was freely given?

KEITH: One of the most common misunderstandings people repeat about Arminius is that he rejected the doctrine of predestination. As you say, Arminius certainly did retain the concept. What he rejected was the standard Reformed view.

For the Reformed, God gives justifying, saving grace irresistibly to those whom he has chosen. They are chosen and given grace with no regard whatsoever for their potential willingness to accept the gift. Their will is changed by God in such a way that God’s sovereign will cannot be thwarted. For Arminius, however, God’s grace does not destroy nature (in this case, the human will), but perfects it. Grace is and remains a gift, though it is resistible.

Arminius balanced both a corporate and an individual concept of predestination. First of all, Christ is, according to Arminius, the “foundation of election.” Arminius’ Reformed opponents, and the later Synod of Dordt, rejected this language. They insisted that Christ functions as a means to God’s prior sovereign choice; that is, God first elects individuals to save and then provides Christ as the means for their salvation. But for Arminius, all who are elect are chosen because they are “in Christ.” And they are in Christ by faith.

This is the corporate aspect of predestination. God has in mind two classes of people—penitent believers whom he will choose (God’s people) and impenitent unbelievers whom he will reject (not God’s people). And since predestination is seen as primarily related to salvation, the individual aspect of the doctrine cannot be escaped. God knows which particular individuals would accept saving grace and persevere in it, and he knows those individuals who would finally reject it. In that sense, individuals are also the proper objects of predestination (whether conditional election or conditional reprobation).


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