By Thomas Jay Oord.
Although some Christians have heard of the great Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, few know much about him. Two new books aim to change this.
At the November 2013 American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore, I’m responding to the authors of these two new books on Arminius. (Roger Olson is also responding.) I’ll get into more details in my response, but here’s a taste of what these books offer.
Stephen Gunter begins his book, Arminius and His “Declaration of Sentiments” with a helpful survey of the life and times of Jacob Arminius. I found Gunter’s writing accessible and his narrative fascinating.
I read this book with Arminius’s view of God’s foreknowledge at the fore of my mind. According to Arminius, “though the understanding of God be certain and infallible, that does not impose any necessity in things, nay, rather it establishes in them a contingency” (66-67).
Arminius advocates a position known as middle knowledge (aka “Molinism”), by which he means God foreknows all things, although God foreknows some things as necessary and others as contingent. But God’s foreknowledge, alleges Arminius, is compatible with the notion that humans are free.
In the book’s second section, Gunter gives the reader an understandable translation of Arminius’s famous Declaration of the Sentiments, in which Arminius sets forth his view of predestination in response to critics.
Arminius affirms predestination, but he has in mind a class of people, not individuals. Individuals can freely choose to join the class of people or freely choose not to join it. Those who believe in Christ are predestinated to salvation, but their faith is logically prior to their predestination.
Arminius believes God’s grace excites human free will, so that “faith should be by persuasion and not by compulsion” (82). And “because grace is interwoven with the nature of humanity in such a way as not to destroy the freedom of the will, but rather to give it proper direction and to correct its depravity,” says Arminius, “[grace] allows the creature to devise actions of his own accord” (118).
“God’s glory consists neither of a declaration of liberty or might,” he says, “nor of a demonstration of anger and power – except as the demonstration of such may be consistent with justice and the continual preservation of God’s goodness” (119). Here we find the classic Arminian idea that God’s glory is primarily based on God’s goodness and love rather than on God’s power.
THE EXISTENTIAL PROBLEMS OF PREDESTINATION
In the Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius argues that predestination understood by Calvin has negative implications. Such an understanding of predestination prevents godly sorrow for sins committed, for instance. It removes concern that we should turn from sin toward God. It extinguishes the zeal for prayer and hinders zeal for good works.
Predestination as understood by Calvin’s followers, says Arminius, produces an inward despair of being able to affirm what duty requires. Calvin’s view of predestination leads to carelessness as well. Arminius says the doctrine is “viewed so negatively by many in our land that they have declared their unwillingness to continue attending our churches” (129).
As I read the worries Arminius has about a Calvinist version of predestination, I realized these same worries motivate many open and relational theologians to espouse their position. For most open theologians, the notion that the God foreknows the future exhaustively undermines creaturely freedom and thus creates all of the problems Arminius rightly sees associated with Calvinism’s form of predestination. It leads to despair, carelessness, lack of zeal for prayer – especially petitionary prayer, and discourages some to attend church.
In other words, both Arminius and many contemporary open theists share similar motivations in their criticisms of theologies that advocate a deterministic deity, although open theologians believe many of these criticisms also obtain if God is said to foreknow all things.
FOREKNOWLEDGE AND OPEN THEISM
Gunter concludes his book with a summary of the practical theology of Jacob Arminius. Gunter says, “Arminius’s theological motive is comprehensively soteriological” (167).
In light of soteriology, I want to return to Gunter’s discussion Arminius’s belief that God can possess exhaustive foreknowledge without this foreknowledge fully determining creatures.
Most open theists agree that if God could exhaustively foreknow the future, this foreknowledge itself would not entirely determine others. In other words, open theists don’t say foreknowledge is coercive action.
Rather, most open theists argue that exhaustive foreknowledge could only be possible if the future was already settled, complete, finalized, or set. So the ontological nature of the future is the real question.
Open theists believe freewill requires a future that is not set, not settled, and not complete, because only an ontologically open future is compatible with free choices. And this is an important reason (along with various biblical reasons) why open theists think it makes little sense to say God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge.
Despite what I see as an important problem in Arminius’s theology – the problem of exhaustive foreknowledge – I found myself feeling optimistic and grateful as I concluded Gunter’s book on Arminius.