God, Creation, & Providence in Jacob Arminius

In this volume Richard Muller attempts to fill in a lacuna in the histories of Arminius and early Arminianism. Rather than focus on the debates of predestination, Muller notes that “[I]t must still be explained why Arminius’ doctrine developed along certain technical lines and with attention to such questions as the internal logic of the divine will, the character of human beings in their original created state, the relationship of the divine will, in its providential concurrence, to the acts of human beings, and the nature of the divine foreknowledge of future contingents (Muller, 10). Similar to Muller’s larger project (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), he attempts to set Arminius in a larger historical context, one that explores the connections between late medieval scholasticism and a burgeoning Reformed orthodoxy (or lack thereof).

Despite what many saw as his later theological errors, Arminius correctly placed his theological roots “in the presuppositional structure and foundational principles of [the Protestant scholastic] system, which is to say, in the definition of theology and in the doctrine of God, the so-called principium essendi of theological system” (Muller, 25).

The Method of Arminius’ Theology

Arminius follows the general outline of both Catholic and Protestant scholastics. He is perhaps a bit more metaphysical in his doctrine of God. Muller notes, “Arminius appears far more willing than Protestants of previous generations to draw ratinal metaphysics into the service of theology: (59). One should be careful, however, in inferring that this is or is not the cause of his theological downfall, so to speak. Arminius’s use of the scholastic method, particularly his emphasis on God as the principium essendi, stands in line with Reformed scholasticism. However, Arminius did phrase his method in such a way to deemphasize final causality, and hence to lessen a decretal theology (68).

After identifying the being of God as the ground of theology, Arminius makes the relationship between God and the world the “fundamental datum…rather than, as in the case of his Reformed contemporaries, a secondary issue predicated on the doctrine of God” (75). Perhaps this does condition Arminius’ later theology; Muller notes, “the conditions established by God in the act of creation become determinative of all subsequent discussions concerning God and the world.” Arminius has made the world a “subordinate principium essendi.” (Cf. pp. 100-101; 171 ff.). As Muller notes elsewhere,

“Whereas the theology of Arminius’ Reformed contemporaries tended to place the work of grace prior to the work of creation and, therefore, to understand creation increasingly as a means to God’s higher salvific end, , Arminius’s theology tends to conjoin nature and grace, to understand creation as manifesting the ultimate goodness of God, and therefore, to conceive of the divine act of creation as standing prior to all other divine acts ad extra and as establishing both the context and limitations within which those acts must occur” (233).

The Existence and Nature of God

On the surface level Arminius begins with the standard scholastic prolegomena, archetypal and ectypal theology, but as he expands it when begin to see his departure from Reformed theology. Arminus notes that existence (esse) and life (vita) must be the two fundamental categories for the essence of God (114). Arminius’s key point is in identifying these two terms as the “two moments” of God. His language is a bit confusing, for he isn’t using the word “moments” in the conventional use of the term. What does he mean by this? A sympathetic reading could simply gloss these terms as the traditional terms actus purus and actus secondus. It appears for Arminius that “there is no first moment of being in God without the second moment, life” (116).

As it stands this is not all that striking. He is not saying anything different from other scholastic theologians, whether Protestant or Romanist. The problem arises when Arminius applies this distinction to God’s will. As Muller notes, “If God is utterly simple, then the fact of God having a will and the divine willing must be identical” (117). Arminius’s distinction of “two moments” will posit a gap between what God intends to will and what he actually wills.

The Divine Knowledge and Will

Arminius does make a unique move concerning God’s knowledge: he refers knowing entirely to the intellect and misses an established Reformed point on the knowledge of God: God’s sapientia (144). Given that sapientia is a knowledge of purposes and goals, and that Arminus omits it, one must wonder if this will play out in his understanding of divine foreknowledge. Arminius further departs from Aquinas by taking the Boethian model that God knows future things because they are future (Muller1991, 152-153; contrast with Aquinas, Summa, Ia, q. 14, art. 8, ad obj. 1). As Muller notes, “[T]his provides a less than total conjunction between the divine will and the divine intellect” (153).

This novelty leads directly into Arminius’s use of the scientia media. After a lengthy discussion of how Aquinas and those following him dealt with “middle knowledge” (e.g., the idea that this knowledge of contingencies stands prior to any free act of God’s will), this means that for Arminius “God will, therefore, be able to ordain the means of salvation on the basis of a hypothetical or consequent knowledge of the creature’s free choice in a context of grace” (161).

The Object of God’s will 

Arminius posited the divine goodness as the object of the divine will; this means that God could not have permitted evil, only permitting the free function of the created human will to evil. This raises one problem that Arminius easily solved: if the divine will is the simple essence, how can we speak of a multitude of objects? Arminius does so by noting that God wills the plenitude of his divine goodness. This raises another problem which he doesn’t solve as well, notes Muller: how do we then speak of “experience[s] of freedom, contingency, and, indeed, of evil running counter to the will of God, in the finite order” (175)?

Arminius makes another subtle move. Muller gives a brief but succinct summary of the ways in which Arminius discussed God’s will. At first glance it is no different from the typical Reformed and medieval scholastic discussions, except for one point. Muller notes, “Arminius emphasizes the way in which the divine opus alienum is a response to the willing of contingent beings—over against the opus proprium as an absolute will of God” (185). In short, and in contradistinction to his Reformed contemporaries, Arminius places God’s will (both antecedent and consequent) as standing in relation to and as a response to the creature’s willing (187). Interestingly, Arminius switches terms. Scholastics had tradtionally spoken of God’s will as voluntas, the facutly that exercises volition, which for God is always perfect and complete. Arminius changed it to velleitas, an inchoate and imperfect will, because incomplete (188).

Creation 

This section is admittedly difficult. Muller gives a fine overview of the scholastic glosses on creatio ex nihilo, noting that the phrase ex nihilo does not mean “deriving its origin from the principle of nothing-ness,” but rather “an indication of the ontological and temporal limit and order of the creative process: first there was nothing and, then, after the creative act, there was something (216). The following, however, is not clear as to what Arminius and his contemporaries were aiming at, but given Arminius’s earlier contention of a connection between God and the world, seeing both in a reacting towards the other (75, 100-101; 171), it appears that one can reconstruct Arminius’s view. It seems that the concept of the nihil, rather than functioning as a “limit,” now functions as a material substratum, a realm of possible being existing independently of the realm of actual being (219).

Conclusion:

Muller effectively rebuts the common charge that Arminius rejected the scholastic method of his Reformed colleagues and chose rather a purer biblicism that rejected supralapsarian predestination. Arminius followed the method of numerous divines and gave careful attention to complex theological problems (26). In light of current intra-Reformed controversies today over the nature of election and the covenant—and this is my point, not necessarily Muller’s—we can see those who argue for a fresher, more biblical theology in contrast to stodgy Protestant Scholasticism, not only come to the same conclusions as later Arminianism, but they lack all of Arminius’ own theological strengths; they get all of his errors and none of this benefits.

Arminius can be seen as a theologian who took some elements of Thomism and modifed them for his own use. As it stands that is not too remarkable. Most every early Reformed orthodox thinker did that. It is the specific modifications Arminius made that set him apart: the use of scientia media and creation as a temporal limit upon God’s power.

Advertisements