Jacob Arminius: Disputant to Open Theism

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Vincent of Lerins (early fifth century Christian writer in southern France) said that orthodoxy is “that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”1 What has been the orthodox view of the Church on the matter of God’s knowledge? Exactly what does God know, and is there any limitation to that knowledge? How does God know what He knows? Can He foreknow future free will decisions? And, what did Arminius believe on the foreknowledge of God?

Moderate Calvinist Millard Erickson writes: “Many have assumed that there simply was agreement on the traditional understanding of God’s foreknowledge, but it is important that we examine the actual history of the tradition.”2 Erickson traced the various views on the foreknowledge of God from Clement of Alexandria to Justin Martyr, and from Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, and Barth to modern philosophers and theologians. Erickson found that there was “a tradition of understanding of foreknowledge that [was] consonant with that of open theism, but it [was] the tradition of Celsus, Marcion, and Socinus. It [was] not the tradition of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Arminius.”3

Some, having not rightly understood the Classical Arminian position on God’s foreknowledge, erroneously promote the notion that Arminianism inevitably leads to the errors of Open Theism. This is patently false. Erickson writes of Arminius:

      As the sixteenth century drew to a close and the seventeenth century began, James Arminius made a clear break from the received position on some significant points. The most prominent of these was the rejection of the [unconditional] predestination doctrine, according to which God foreknows because he has predetermined. Yet while altering the basis for the foreknowledge, Arminius in no sense altered the strength of belief in that doctrine. This is especially important, since some have mistakenly identified the difference between the traditional view and open theism on the matter of foreknowledge as being a Calvinistic-Arminian dispute.

It is clear that for Arminius, divine foreknowledge was exhaustive and certain. Thus he wrote, “Inclination in God is natural towards His own creature, whether the man believes or not. For that inclination does not depend on faith, and uncertainty cannot be attributed to the will of Him who, in His infinite wisdom, has all things present to Himself, and certainly foreknows all future events, even those most contingent.”

He is also equally clear, however, that this foreknowledge does not conflict with human freedom, because it does not make something necessary: “Prediction sometimes follows this prescience, when it pleases God to give intimations to His creatures of the issues of things, before they come to pass. But neither prediction nor any prescience induces a necessity of any thing [futurae] that is afterwards to be, since they are [in the divine mind] posterior in nature and order to the thing that is future. For a thing does not come to pass because it has been foreknown or foretold; but it is foreknown and foretold because it is yet [futura] to come to pass.”

This is in contrast with what God decrees to Himself: “It is an absurd assertion that ‘from prescience that necessity follows in the same way.’ For what God foreknows, He foreknows because it is to take place in the future. But what He decrees, purposes, and determines in Himself to do, takes place thus because He decrees it.”4

It is not mere invective for critics of Classical Arminian thought to connote that Arminianism inevitably leads to Open Theism, it is defamatory and deceitful — an attempt at constructing a straw man, thus caricaturing Arminianism to make one’s system appear orthodox.

In his disputation On the Understanding of God, Arminius writes:

      The understanding of God is that faculty of His life which is first in nature and order, and by which the living God distinctly understands all things and everyone, which, in what manner soever, either have, will have, have had, can have, or might hypothetically have, a being of any kind: By which He also distinctly understands the order, connection, and relation of all and each of them between each other; and the entities of reason, those beings which exist, or which can exist, in the mind, imagination, and enunciation.

God knows all things, neither by intelligible representations, nor by similitude, but by His own and sole essence; with the exception of evil things, which He knows indirectly by the good things opposed to them, as privation is known by means of the habit.

The mode by which God understands is not by composition and division, not by gradual argumentation, but by simple and infinite intuition, according to the succession of order and not of time.

The succession of order in the objects of the Divine Knowledge is in this manner: First. God knows Himself, entirely and adequately, and this understanding is His own essence or being. Secondly. He knows all possible things in the perfection of their own essence and therefore all things impossible. In the understanding of possible things, this is the order: 1) He knows what things can exist by His own primary and sole act. 2) He knows what things from the creatures, whether they will come into existence or will not, can exist by His conservation, motion, assistance, concurrence, and permission. 3) He knows what things He can do about the acts of the creatures consistently with Himself or with these acts. Thirdly. He knows all entities, even according to the same order as that which we have just shown in His knowledge of things possible.

The understanding of God is certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves. But this infallibility depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will.5

Arminius’s view of God’s knowledge has historically been commended as being just as orthodox as that of Calvin, Luther, and Augustine. The fact that some Arminians and semi-Pelagians have wandered off into the fields of Open Theism is not the defect of James Arminius or of Classical Arminianism; and neither he, nor his followers, should be automatically correlated with them as holding to a heterodox view of the knowledge of God.

Theological Open Thesists (as opposed to merely secular, philosophical Open Theists) are typically Arminian in their soteriology. Hence they in that regard can be and are frequently referrred to as Arminians. While all theological Open Theists are Arminian soteriologically, or are in the Arminian tradition (I am not aware of that being disputed), most Arminians are not Open Theists; in the same way that all hyper-Calvinists are Calvinists, but not all Calvinists are hyper-Calvinists; or in the same that all Methodists (assuming that they are born again) are Christians, but not all Christians are Methodists. The two groups should not be conflated.

Concerning the knowldge of God, many have speculated whether Arminius was a Molinst. Calvinist Richard A. Muller notes:

      Once it is recognized that Arminius read deeply not only in the works of medieval scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas but also in the works of contemporary scholastic philosophers and theologians — Zabrella, Suarez, Molina, Vorstius, and Timpler — and in the works of early Reformed scholastics like his predecessor Junius, it becomes possible to view Arminius not merely as a Protestant scholastic but also as a teacher of theology immersed in the life and thought of his time, aware, as any teacher of theology must be, of issues at the forefront of theology, logic, and metaphysics.


There is simply a lack of evidence indicating that Arminius was influenced by Molina, in particular, to the effect that thereby his views on God’s knowledge were formed and shaped. One thing is painfully obvious, however, Arminius rejected any notion of Open Theism, as is obvious from any cursory reading of his works on the subject.

1 Millard J. Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The Current Controversy Over Divine Foreknowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 87.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 89-116.

4 Ibid., 104.

5 James Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XVII. On the Understanding of God,” in The Works of Arminius, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 2:341.

6 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 269.