The Necessity of Practical, Biblical, Systematic Theology

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Noted Arminius scholar Carl Bangs writes the following regarding Arminius’s practical theology: “So Arminius finished his three orations. They were polished productions, noncontroversial, and widely applauded. He was launched on his teaching career, and the storm clouds were for the moment not visible.”1 Those storm clouds, however, were worth weathering because theology matters immensely.

Doctrine conforms the hearts and minds of its adherents. Ideas have resolute consequences. Whatever is admitted concerning the character and nature of God, His Son Christ Jesus, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the divinely-inspired and inerrant word of God, if they in any way contradict or do not conform to the clear teaching of Scripture, they must be resisted. Calvinist theologian Richard A. Muller writes the following regarding Arminius’s theology as a practical discipline.

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Arminius wrote at considerable length on the idea and method of theology. Indeed, there is no topic in the whole of theological system — apart from the doctrine of predestination — on which Arminius discoursed at such length and in such detail. . . . [His “orations”] represent a moment in Arminius’ career that was free of debate and open to the presentation and elaboration of ideas. . . . In the following analysis, I have drawn on both the orations and the disputation. Taken together, these essays on theological prolegomena [prefatory remarks] not only provide a view of basic definitions held by Arminius, they also adumbrate [prefigure indistinctly], with remarkable consistency, the basic themes of his doctrines of God, creation, and providence — themes that are, in turn, constitutive of his theology and formative in his development of an alternative to the Reformed [Calvinistic] dogmatics of his day. . . .

The term “theology” means, literally, “a word or rational discourse about God” (sermo sive rationem de Deo). Like most of his contemporaries, Arminius appears somewhat sensitive to the fact that it is not a biblical term — and perhaps to the fact that it was seldom used by the Reformers as a description of the content of their writings. Religio [religion] had been the term preferred by the Reformers. The idea of theology is biblical, however, and Arminius notes that theologia is precisely the “science” identified by Paul as “the truth which is after godliness” (Titus 1:1). . . . Theologia, then, is rightly and properly identified as “a rational discourse about God” and the definition itself points to God as the “object of theology” (obiectum theologiae). . . .

Definitions follow for mathematics, medicine, jurisprudence, ethics, [economics], and politics. “All these sciences,” concludes Arminius,

are ordered in subordination to God, for indeed they all have their origin in him, are dependent on him alone, and return to him in their ultimate direction and tendency. This science [i.e., theology] is the only one that occupies itself with the Being of beings and the Cause of causes, the foundation or ground (principium) of nature and of the grace existing in nature, by which nature is assisted and surrounded. This object therefore is the most worthy and dignified of all. . . .

Clearly, the most excellent object of any possible inquiry will be the object “which is in itself the best and the greatest, and immutable,” which is also “most lucid and clear,” and which is capable “by its action on the mind completely to fill it and to satisfy its infinite desires.” These three conditions are satisfied only by God, the proper object of theological study. Thus, it can hardly be debated that God is the best — that is, the superlatively good — being, inasmuch as God is the summum bonum and goodness itself. God alone is capable of communicating this goodness — limited only “by the capacity of the recipient, which he has appointed as a limit and measure of the goodness of his nature and of his self-communication.” . . .

Equally so, God is great and immutable — great because “he is able to subject to his power even nothing itself, that it may be capable of divine good by the communication of himself”; immutable because “nothing can be added to him and nothing can be taken away from him.” It is “delightful” to contemplate the goodness of God, “glorious to consider his greatness, and “certain” to ground discussion in his immutability. Theology alone, therefore, meets the first criterion of excellence.

Even so, in reference to the second criterion of lucidity and clarity, God must be recognized as “most resplendent and bright,” as “light itself” and “that which [is] most disposed [to be known] by mind.” This clarity of divine truth is such that no object can be rightly understood unless all that is known in and through that object has been first “seen and known” in God. God is, thus, offered to the understanding as “Being itself” (Entitas ipsa) from which all finite beings, whether visible or invisible, have their essence and upon which their existence is grounded. All creatures bear signs of this divine origin and signs indicating their place in the “number and order” of beings. . . .

Like his Reformed contemporary, Keckermann, Arminius concluded both that theology is an essentially practical knowing and that its method of exposition would be suitable to a praxis [applicable practice]. Theology does not deal, after all, with knowledge of God as he is in himself (in se). Rather, theology is a knowledge of God and the “things” or works of God that are directed toward the salvation of human beings in the context of their life in the world. Theology may therefore be defined as the doctrine or science of the truth, which is according to godliness (secundum pietatem), revealed to man by God, that he might know God and divine things, believe in him, and may through faith perform acts of love, fear, honor, worship, and obedience, and in return expect and obtain blessedness from him, through union with him, to the glory of God.

The practical or resolutive approach to theology also creates in Arminius’ thought a close association between the theological and the religious that places him firmly into the tradition of the Reformers as well as that of the medieval scholastics. . . . Arminius understands the practical character of theology as directing the mind not only to knowledge but also to worship. We are not only given to know that God desires worship but that right worship is not offered in vain: God promises “an exceedingly great reward” to those who worship obediently. Therefore, worship must also “be instituted according to his command.” These considerations lead Arminius — like many of the orthodox or scholastic Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century — to place a locus [central location] on religion between the basic definitions of theology and the presentation of the individual doctrines of the theological system.2

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1 Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 261.

2 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 55-70.