There is a connection between the Understanding of God and His Will that is overlooked or neglected by those who hold to a two wills in God theory. In this post we will discover what Arminius believed about God’s Knowledge or Understanding, and its relation to the one Will of God, with its various distinctives.
THE UNDERSTANDING OF GOD
Arminius begins by defining the Understanding of God as “that faculty of His life which is first in nature and order, and by which the living God distinctly understands all things and every one, which, in what manner soever, either have, will have, have had, can have, or might hypothetically have, a being of any kind” (Works, 2:341). God also understands “the order, connection, and relation of all and each of them between each other” (341). In this manner, nothing is excluded or exempted from what God understands regarding all things.
If one asks how God knows all things, we do not confess that He knows all things because He has strictly decreed all things, as though the only way in which He could know all things is via foreordination. Neither could we confess that God knows all things because He first viewed what the future would hold, and thus learned what should become of all things. Arminius answers:
- 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 (341).
Therefore God knows all things by His own essence — omniscience is an attribute and quality which comprises God’s nature. He does not and cannot know evil or sin as He knows all other things since in Him there is no hint of sin whatsoever: “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. . . . He is in the light . . . ” (1 John 1:5, 7 NKJV). He knows all things in a succession of order: He knows Himself “entirely and adequately,” and knows “all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible” (341).
God’s exhaustive knowledge and understanding 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.” Arminius is quick to add: “But this infallibility depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will” (341). God’s exhaustive understanding of all things does not establish or necessitate determinism but contingency. Arminius writes:
- How certain soever the acts of God’s understanding may itself be, this does not impose any necessity on things, but it rather establishes contingency in them. For as He knows the thing itself and its mode, if the mode of the thing be contingent, He must know it as such, and therefore it remains contingent with respect to the Divine knowledge (342).
God’s knowledge is not causal; His will is causal (those things which He has decreed shall come about, for example, the crucifixion of Christ Jesus). The knowledge by which God knows anything “precedes the free act of the will with regard to intelligence. But it knows something future according to vision, only through its hypothesis” (342). Again, this foreknowledge (i.e. vision) depends on the infinity of the essence of God. Also, middle knowledge “ought to intervene in things which depend on the liberty of created . . . choice or pleasure” (342). This Knowledge or Understanding of God is comprehensive and absolute.
THE WILL OF GOD
God’s will is “spoken of in three ways: First, The faculty itself of willing. Secondly, The act of willing. Thirdly, The object willed” (343). The first faculty is the “principal and proper one, the two others are secondary and figurative” (343). Arminius does not count three wills in God, but one single will with various distinctives. The second faculty, “the act of willing,” flows from the life of God, flowing through “the understanding from the life . . . that has an ulterior tendency; by which faculty God is borne towards a known good” (343).
However, the sin or evil (not calamity, disaster or punishment for sin) which “is called . . . that of culpability, God does not simply and absolutely will” (343). In other words, God has in no wise decreed that person A will sin by necessity, while person B will not sin by necessity. He may decree that a wicked person sin as an act of judgment or consequence for sin, but not without regard to the sinner’s voluntary wickedness or disobedience.
The will of God is “borne towards its objects in the following order: (1.) He wills Himself. (2.) He wills all those things which, out of infinite things possible to Himself, He has by the last judgment of His wisdom . . . determined to be made” (343). God wills to make a creature, and then He is “affected towards them by His will, according as they possess some likeness with His nature [Gen. 1:26], or some vestige of it” (343).
God also wills those things “which He judges fit and equitable to be done by creatures who are endowed with understanding and with free will: In which is included a prohibition of that which He wills not to be done” (343). He also permits things to be done, chiefly by which “He permits a rational creature to do what He has prohibited, and to omit what He has commanded” (343). A well-used example includes the sacrificing of children to a false god by the Israelites. The God of the Hebrews comments: “which I did not command or speak nor did it come into My mind” (Jer. 19:5 NKJV). Also, the Israelites wanted to set up their own kings. God responds: “They set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them” (Hosea 8:3 NKJV).
God wills those things “which, according to His own wisdom [Eph. 1:11], He judges to be done concerning the acts of His rational creatures” (344). Though God is sovereign over all things, events and persons, yet so, that “when He acts either through His creatures, with them or in them, He does not take away the peculiar mode of acting or of suffering which He has divinely placed within them” (344). God concurrently allows them to “produce their own effects, and to receive in themselves the acts of God, either necessarily, contingently, or freely” (344).
Arminius further comments: “As this contingency and liberty do not make the prescience of God to be uncertain, so they are not destroyed by the volition of God, and by the certain futurition of events with regard to the understanding of God” (344). There is no tension between God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will, since God has not determined all things by a strict decree, and no one commits an act by necessity.
THE VARIOUS DISTINCTIVES OF THE WILL OF GOD
Arminius begins: “Though the will of God be one and simple, yet it may be variously distinguished, from its objects, in reference to the mode and order according to which it is borne towards its objects” (344). God always “tends towards His own primary, proper, and adequate object, that is, towards Himself” (344). But regarding all other things, He tends towards them “by the liberty of exercise, and towards many by the liberty of specification; because He cannot hate things, so far as they have some likeness of God, that is, so far as they are good; though He is not necessarily bound to love them, since He might reduce them to nothing whenever it seemed good to Himself” (344). Roger E. Olson comments:
- Arminius was puzzled about the accusation that he held corrupt opinions respecting the providence of God, because he went out of his way to affirm it. He even went so far as to say that every human act, including sin, is impossible without God’s cooperation! This is simply part of divine concurrence, and Arminius was not willing to regard God as a spectator. . . .
Arminius argued that when God has permitted an act, God never denies concurrence to a rational and free creature for that would be contradictory. In other words, once God decides to permit an act, even a sinful one, he cannot consistently withhold the power to commit it. However, in the case of sinful or evil acts, whereas the same event is produced by both God and the human being, the guilt of sin is not transferred to God, because God is the effecter of the act but only the permitter of the sin itself (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 121, 122).
Arminius writes that the will of God “is distinguished into that by which He absolutely wills to do any thing or to prevent it; and into that by which He wills something to be done or omitted by His rational creatures” (344). Though God does not need to strictly decree something in order for it to be done, this truth does not rob Him of His sovereignty, since God both “absolutely wills” to do any thing or to prevent it, or “wills” to permit or not to permit it, according to Arminius and Classical Arminianism. Everything that is done is in some sense “willed” by God, but not by necessity (or decree, strictly taken). God’s various distinctions of His one will includes a “will of His good pleasure,” and of His “open intimation” (344-45). Arminius comments:
- The latter is revealed, for this is required by the use to which it is applied: The former is partly revealed, partly secret or hidden. The former employs a power that is either irresistible, or that is so accommodated to the object and subject as to obtain or insure its success, though it was possible for it to happen otherwise. . . .
One [distinctive of the] will of God is absolute, another respective. His absolute will is that by which He wills any thing simply, without regard to the volition or act of the creature; such as is that about the salvation of believers. His respective will is that by which He wills something with respect to the volition or the act of the creature (345-46).
Again, Olson explains that for Arminius and his followers a distinction between two modes of God’s will is absolutely crucial: “the antecedent and the consequent wills of God. The first has priority; the second exists because God reluctantly allows human defection in order to preserve and protect the integrity of the creature” (Arminian Theology, 123). The effort here is not to preserve “human self-determination,” as erroneously asserted by John Piper. There is no “human self-determination” when it comes to trusting in Christ Jesus for salvation (John 6:44, 65), meaning that no one trusts in Christ by him- or herself, without the aid or grace of the Spirit of God (we are not semi-Pelagians); though we certainly believe that this grace is resistible, and no one trusts in Christ for salvation without the freedom of the will to do so. But there certainly is human self-determination when it comes to one sinning against God, else we are forced to admit that the sinner sins by God’s determination, which is libelous against God’s holy character, nature and essence.
Arminius offers this corollary: “Is it possible for two affirmatively contrary volitions of God to tend towards one object which is the same and uniform? We answer in the negative” (346). Therefore, God cannot decree or will for person A to not sin by necessity in one sense and also decree or will for person A to sin by necessity in another. John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, and a host of other Calvinists are convinced that this does not have to be so. We confess that they hold a contrariety in God, and they jump through philosophical hula hoops to prove otherwise.
James Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputations XVII. On the Understanding of God: XVIII. On the Will of God: XIX. On the Various Distinctives of the Will of God,” The Works of Arminius, Volume II, translators James and William Nichols. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996.