My Response to Two Books about Arminius

Response to W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments and Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace

Roger E. Olson

            These two books are significant contributions to what I call the “Arminian Renaissance” in contemporary theology. For centuries Arminius’s theology and Arminianism have been defined by their critics, mostly in the Reformed camp. The best thing I heard a traditional Reformed theologian say about Arminius was “He was a heretic, but he was our heretic.”

I wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities to attempt to set the record straight—mainly about Arminianism but also about Arminius. My main point there, one supported, I believe, by Stanglin, McCall and Gunter, was that Arminius did not neglect the grace of God or give sinners any reason for boasting if they became saved. That is, Arminius and theology faithful to the true impulses of his theology, true Arminianism, were and are not Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. The two books under consideration here, and their authors, have taken the project of defending Arminius a step further; they have demonstrated conclusively that Arminius was a constructive theologian faithful to the Protestant reformation but with his own, distinctive voice to add to the conversation within Protestant orthodoxy. Unless one sets up Dort as definitive of orthodoxy there is no possibility reasonably to call him a heretic.

Henceforth, after the publication of these books, no person who claims to know what he or she is talking about should dare to criticize Arminius’s theology without reading these two books first. Of course, one can hope such critics would also read Arminius himself! But these two books are scholarly guides to his theology that must not be ignored or overlooked. Of course, Arminians should also read them. As especially Gunter points out, many self-identified “Arminians” know little or nothing about Arminius’s own theology; before calling themselves Arminians they should at least know the theology of the man himself. Either one or both of these volumes will guide them in that endeavor.

So much for sweetness and light. Now to the interesting stuff.

Besides being excellent guides to understanding Arminius’s theology, both books under our consideration here raise interesting questions—some intentionally and some perhaps unintentionally. And, I will argue, especially Stanglin’s and McCall’s possibly falls into error in terms of emphasis, placing at the center of Arminius’s theological project some ideas I think are best seen as peripheral.

But please hear me about this. I am very wary of contributing to a growing divide among Arminian scholars. As a historical theologian I see a pattern throughout the history of Christian theology. A theological movement, perhaps of rediscovery, is born. Christians come together around a lost or forgotten motif or theme. There is great rejoicing among them as they circle the wagons and are beset by their critics. “We have each other!” is the war cry. Then, inevitably, inexorably, but unnecessarily, divisions begin to occur within the camp. Think for example of the Protestant reformation or the Pentecostal movement or early dialectical theologian. It seems there is always a tendency for those who are so close to draw apart over minor issues. Perhaps it’s due to awareness of the kernel of truth in the old saying “Where two think alike, one is superfluous.” I am dismayed by what I see already beginning to happen among especially evangelical Arminians as, after the excitement of finding support from each other in a hostile theological environment, they begin to focus on secondary issues of interpretation and cast suspicion if not aspersions at each other. “Who is a true Arminian?” they ask and point fingers at others in the camp. This has happened to me ever since the publication of Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Perhaps I am guilty of it with regard to others and, if so, I apologize.

One flashpoint of controversy among Arminians has been the issue of meticulous providence and the degree to which Arminius believed, and therefore Arminians should believe, that God controls events. This controversy has lit up the internet-based discussion lists and blogs.  I admit my own dismay over the heat the debate has generated but also the belief of some evangelical Arminians that God exercises meticulous, detailed control over all events including the free decisions of human persons. I have been told by some fellow Arminians that they do embrace compatibilism and find no conflict between their Arminianism and that.

So, now, let me turn to the books under consideration here. Both grapple with an apparent ambiguity in Arminius’s own theology. On the one hand, there can be little or no doubt that Arminius firmly rejected any necessity of sin. On that all agree. Arminius’s main complaint about his theological opponents such as Gomarus was that they made God the author of sin and evil. Theodicy was an overriding concern of Arminius’s. The reason is, our authors agree, not because he held human free will in especially high regard but because he feared injury to God’s character—especially God’s love and justice. With this I whole heartedly agree. As Stanglin and McCall say repeatedly and as Gunter agrees, the controlling doctrine of Arminius is God and his nature including his character. It would seem, then, that Arminius would have avoided or even rejected any idea that implied any necessity of sin and evil in God’s good creation or in God’s plan for the world or for any individual in it.

And yet, as our three authors have all shown in these two books, it is possible to interpret Arminius as including in his theology ideas that incline toward absolute sovereignty, meticulous providence, detailed control of all events according to a preconceived plan, and thus at least threaten to raise for him the very issue of theodicy he raised against his theological opponents. The main idea that would, I believe, do this is middle knowledge. What I am saying here is that especially Stanglin and McCall demonstrate that it is possible to interpret Arminius as relying on middle knowledge, Molinism, to reconcile God’s absolute foreknowledge and meticulous providence with free will.

I have tended to agree with Arminius scholars William Witt and Stuart Clarke that Arminius did not rely on middle knowledge and with William den Boer that, if he did, it raises serious questions about creaturely contingency and God’s justice (148). Gunter seems to acknowledge that Arminius used middle knowledge, not only to reconcile divine foreknowledge with creaturely freedom but also to establish an absolute decree of double predestination, Arminius’s fourth decree of election. But rightly, in my judgment, he strongly hints that in doing so Arminius stepped too far from his own “basic impulses” and “essential message,” falling into speculation and inconsistency.

My complaint about Stanglin’s and McCall’s exposition of Arminius’s theology is the emphasis they place on middle knowledge and, behind or beneath it, God’s simplicity and infinity. It seems to me that they make too much of Arminius’s classical theism as central, crucial to his whole theology. Of course, this is a matter of interpretation, but it impacts how Arminius and Arminianism are perceived, which is why I’m especially concerned about it. Perhaps, I say perhaps, they and Eef Dekker and other scholarly expositors of Arminius’s theology are right and, here and there, Arminius did make use of middle knowledge—even to render certain a preconceived plan, blueprint, in God’s mind, in order to bring the most good out of evil. My point is that if so, Arminius fell into conflict with himself and Arminians are best advised to avoid it by discarding middle knowledge and any idea of a preconceived divine plan meticulously rendered certain by God.

In my estimation, middle knowledge used by God in this way, to exercise meticulous providence, thins the line between certainty and necessity to invisibility. And it raises for Arminius and any Arminians who would follow him in this the issue of theodicy to intense pitch. A God who plans for certain persons to fall into sin and do evil, even of their own free will but such that they could not in reality do otherwise, and such that they end up suffering in hell for eternity, so that it would have been better for them had they never been born, and such that there was nothing they could have done to avoid that, would be a moral monster—something Arminius clearly wanted to avoid.

If Arminius relied on middle knowledge, he fell into conflict with himself, with his own basic impulses. If Arminius believed in meticulous providence and an absolute decree of predestination of individuals, he fell into conflict with himself, with his own basic impulses.

There would be nothing particularly surprising about this. I have studied Christian theologians from Irenaeus to Wolfhart Pannenberg for forty years and have always found some element of contradiction in their writings—insofar as they lived long enough and wrote voluminously enough. I’m sure the few persons who read everything I have written, if any exist, would not have trouble finding contradictions in my own thought.

Let’s assume for the moment that Stanglin and McCall are right about Arminius’s reliance on middle knowledge to reconcile divine foreknowledge with the contingency of sin and evil according to free will. They disagree with Dekker who “argues that Arminius’s system is unwittingly deterministic.” (103) I happen to agree with Dekker, that if and insofar as Arminius used middle knowledge to explain God’s sovereignty, and what other use does it have?, he unwittingly fell into determinism.

I ask “What other use does it have?” because I cannot conceive of God having middle knowledge without using it for providential advantage and Stanglin and McCall seem to admit that (102-103). They seem to agree with Richard Muller that, according to Arminius, “God can and does offer inducements to his creatures on the basis of his knowledge of their disposition toward or against certain acts.” (103) In spite of all denials and objections, this does seem to incline toward determinism which, of course, makes God the author of sin and evil, even according to Arminius.

So what does all this mean for Arminians? My argument is that Arminianism is a dynamic theology with room for genuine diversity. Most Arminians after Arminius, possibly excepting Episcopius and Limborch, did not rely on middle knowledge to explain God’s foreknowledge. Most Arminians from Wesley on shook off Arminius’s scholastic tendencies, including his Molinism, if he was a Molinist, and chose consistency with Arminius’s Grundmotif of God’s justice and love. It may be true that, at certain points of Arminius’s theology, later, especially contemporary, Arminians must depart from him in order to preserve his basic theological impulses. They are no less Arminians for doing so.


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