Was Arminius an Arminian? (Report on A Vigorous Discussion)

Was Arminius an Arminian? (Report on A Vigorous Discussion) November 25, 2013

Yesterday (Nov. 24, 2013) I participated in a vigorous and invigorating panel discussion (followed by questions from the scholarly audience) about Arminius. The focus of the discussion was two new books about Arminius. (I have held off reviewing them here until after this session.) The authors of the two books were on the panel as were respondents Thomas Jay Oord and me. Joy Moore skillfully planned and moderated the discussion.

The two books under consideration are Arminius: Theologian of Grace by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall and Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments by W. Stephen Gunter. Both are recent publication and “must reading” for anyone who wants to understand Arminius. But neither book is directly about “Arminianism.” I do believe, with these authors, that anyone who claims to be Arminian must at least be familiar with Arminius and, I would add, agree with his basic soteriological impulses (not every detail of his theology).

These are excellent books and I commend them highly.  From now on, I will tell any Calvinist who dares to describe Arminius’s theology or Arminianism that they should shut up until they have read my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP) and/or one of the two books mentioned above.

However, I do have some qualms about the Stanglin/McCall book. They are  relatively minor ones, depending on how much emphasis is placed on certain points. I worry that their book may lead some readers to think that Arminius was a divine determinist. They explicitly deny that, but for me the line between meticulous providence (for example, based on God’s middle knowledge and his exercise of it in guiding history meticulously) and divine determinism is very thin–almost invisible.

Clearly Stanglin and McCall do not agree and believe that Arminius did believe in Molinism and regarded God’s sovereignty as total, comprehensive, absolute. They may be right. But let me explain.

As Gunter pointed out (during the discussion) and as I agree, there may be (I think there is) real tension between Arminius’ soteriology (what I call “evangelical synergism”) and his foundation of classical Christian theism (divine simplicity, immutability, impassibility, eternality as simultaneity with all times, etc.). I also think there is real tension between Molinism and Arminius’ soteriology and theodicy (God as not the author of sin or evil).

None of this tension in Arminius surprises me or dismays me. There’s tension in Calvin, too, and Calvinists argue about which sides of Calvin to follow.

I happen to think Arminians of the heart after Arminius (not those who drifted in the direction of liberalism)    allowed his soteriological ideas and his emphasis on God’s goodness (justice and love) to soften his classical theism and especially his (occasional) reliance on Reformed sovereignty.

During the discussion I mentioned a long-forgotten Arminian theologian named Richard Watson who wrote one of the first Wesleyan systematic theologies (in the early 19th century). Watson rightly gave up those aspects of classical theism that are not biblical but philosophical (e.g., strong immutability, impassibility, simplicity, and especially “eternal now” eternity) and that are in tension with Arminian soteriology (“evangelical synergism”). This is a story I tell in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

Tom Oord would go further–into open theism if not process theology. I can’t go there even though I don’t have a quarrel with open theism (except that it is radically non-traditional and I value tradition). I do have a quarrel with “real” process theology–at least process theology that is non-trinitarian, has a low Christology, denies God’s omnipotence, etc. That is a Rubicon I will never cross (into process theology).

All in all, it was a very stimulating session with good questions from the audience that provoked thoughtful discussion among the panelists.

I cannot post my written response to the books (that I read at the session) yet. I will do that sometime later this week.


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