In the (1973) preface of his book Knowing God, J. I. Packer writes, “For more than three centuries the naturalistic leaven in the Renaissance outlook has been working like a cancer in Western thought. Seventeenth-century Arminians and deists, like sixteenth-century Socinians, came to deny, as against Reformation theology, that God’s control of his world was either direct or complete, and theology, philosophy and science have for the most part combined to maintain that denial ever since.”1
In one fell swoop Packer has lumped Arminians with the heresies of the Deists and Socinians. Is Packer right in doing this? That “seventeenth-century Arminians” denied Reformation theology of God’s sovereignty is only part of the story. They did not deny God’s sovereignty, they denied the Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty.
Calvinist Richard A. Muller, who holds to the same definition of sovererignty as does Packer, writes the following concerning the matter of God’s sovereignty and providence in the thought of James Arminius, which his followers, the Remonstrants, held to as well: “Arminius’ doctrine of creation and providence can be described, in accord with our evaluation of his doctrine of God, as a modified Thomism set forth in the context and in response to the early orthodox Reformed scholasticism of his contemporaries. His method of exposition and the categories of his thought are no more and no less scholastic, no more and no less biblicistic, than the methods and categories of the Reformed writers who opposed him.”2
The seventeenth-century Arminians’ view of God’s sovereignty was biblical, even though it was at variance with the Calvinistic view. What does Packer (and the Calvinist) mean by sovereign anyway? Typical of the Calvinist’s view of God’s sovereignty is the following quote from Knowing God: “Still he [that is, God] shows his freedom and lordship by discriminating between sinners, causing some to hear the gospel while others do not hear it, and moving some of those who hear it to repentance while leaving others in their unbelief, thus teaching his saints that he owes mercy to none and that it is entirely of his grace, not at all through their own effort, that they themselves have found life.”3
Arminians agree entirely that salvation comes not an ounce by a person’s own effort: it is by grace from first to last. However, we find his definition of God’s love and sovereignty to be amiss from clear biblical teaching.
Packer’s portrayal of God as a somewhat reluctant, angry Being who does not “owe” anything to anyone but to send them to hell is, in my opinion, by far not an entirely accurate one. This is not to say that God is not angry at sin. He most certainly is. But God did something about sin. He sent His Son into the world to atone for sin, so that whosoever would trust in Christ Jesus by the grace of God through faith in Him might be saved from the wrath of God (John 3:36). In spite of Packer’s tone, God is willing to save.
Is God’s love, as Packer puts it, a “sovereign love”? Once again it is all about semantics. By “sovereign love” Packer means that God reserves the right to “love” and “hate” whom He chooses. But even by that term he means that God has pre-selected to save some and not others apart from any condition by a decree. And this He has done for His own glory.
He also writes, “God was happy without humans before they were made; he would have continued happy had he simply destroyed them after they had sinned; but as it is he has set his love upon particular sinners . . .”4
For Packer (and all Calvinists), God displays His love by choosing to bestow it upon some pre-selected sinners. No one can know why He has chosen whom He has chosen, nor actually who He has chosen (in future conversions) to love, until they are regenerated and bear the fruit of the indwelling Spirit.
He also wrote that “he [that is, God] will not know perfect and unmixed happiness again till he has brought every one of them to heaven. He has in effect resolved that henceforth for all eternity his happiness shall be conditional upon ours.”5
For me, that was one of the most shocking statements in the book. Is God’s “happiness” really conditioned upon my happiness and presence in His sight? At the risk of misunderstanding his point and misrepresenting him here, I will let it be. However, it does need to be looked into.
What does the Arminian mean by saying that God is sovereign? Roger Olson writes:
- Of course, when Calvinists say that Arminians do not believe in God’s sovereignty, they undoubtedly are working with an a priori notion of sovereignty such that no concept but their own can possibly pass muster.
If we begin by defining sovereignty deterministically, the issue is already settled; in that case, Arminians do not believe in divine sovereignty. However, who is to say that sovereignty necessarily includes absolute control or meticulous governance to the exclusion of real contingency and free will?
Does sovereign entail these meanings in human life? Do sovereign rulers dictate every detail of their subjects’ lives, or do they oversee and govern in a more general way? And yet even this analogy does not sufficiently illustrate Arminian belief in divine sovereignty and providence.6
To be continued . . .
1 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 13.
2 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 268.
3 Packer, 79.
4 Ibid., 125.
6 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 116.