The Motive for Arminius’ Theology

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What we must first understand about Arminius’ theological thought process is his positional biblicistic framework. Calvinist theologian Richard A. Muller confesses as much: “Had Arminius been a biblicistic pietist,” i.e., a devotional writer, “promulgating a message that was stylistically and doctrinally widely divergent from and foreign to the Reformed mind of his time, he could have been ignored or at least easily dismissed.”1 (emphasis added) The word “biblicistic” is here intended to convey a person who shapes his primary and initial theological position(s) not from prior philosophical meandering but from his reading and study of Scripture. Every believer devoted primarily to Scripture is biblicistic. Hence, when thumbing through theological titles purporting to be “the biblical view” of any given topic, such is little else but that individual’s study and thoughts about biblical texts and the author is in no sense purely objective on the matter.
So, Arminius is “biblical,” as long as we understand by that confession that his primary goal theologically is to expound upon the scriptures — which his mentor, Theodore Beza (1519-1601), John Calvin’s (1509-1564) successor, admits Arminius to be brilliantly apt for the task.2 Muller continues to describe Arminius’ Reformed context: “His scholastic style, however, was precisely the style characteristic of Reformed thought in his day and his modified Thomism was different from the teaching of the Reformed, not in its Thomism but in its modification. Nor was the genuineness of Arminius’ Protestantism ever really in question.”3 Therefore we understand the proper framework for Arminius’ Reformed theology. His motive is not a stubborn determinate to undermine Reformed orthodoxy. He studies the scriptures, like his Reformed colleagues, and maintains varying conclusions regarding certain second-tier — i.e., salvifically non-essential — doctrines.
What we shall call the heart of Arminius’ theology on the doctrine of God is the justice of God: the justice of God “receives the place of primary importance” for Arminius.4 He insists that “God is just in Himself, He exists as the Iustitia [Justification] itself; He does nothing, indeed, can do nothing, except what is most thoroughly in agreement with that nature of His.”5 Based on this sole hermeneutic, Arminius argues that supralapsarian Calvinism undermines the justice and just character and very nature of God.
Keep in mind that Arminius stands in a long Church-historical line among those who condemn supralapsarian Calvinism. The same Church Council (Council of Orange 529 CE) that condemns semi-Pelagianism also anachronistically condemns, even anathematizes, the theology of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Francis Gomarus, John Gill, John Piper and all other supralapsarian Calvinists. Arminius’ historical context is a recovery of early Church theology and tradition more so than a reaction to Calvinism. Our early fathers, from the first century throughout the fourth century prior to St Augustine (354-430 CE), maintains non-Calvinistic, and certainly non-supralapsarian, doctrines. For Arminius, God’s very nature of justice demands that we reject the novel doctrines of Calvin, Beza, Gomarus and other supralapsarians with regard to election, the sovereignty of God and human free will, as well as the functions of grace and perseverance.
The justice of God for Arminius informs us regarding the properties of God’s nature, which are “directed at communication — goodness, justice, wisdom, and power — [and] are the first to illustrate God’s glory.” William den Boer continues to write:

This involves first of all the communication of goodness — wisdom and power deal with the mode and the realization of goodness, but justice is the arbiter of the goodness and prescribes the norm of God’s deeds. What God does is conditioned by who He is, God’s simplicity [or essence] … taking care that the iustitia [justice] as arbiter of God’s goodness is assigned a decisive role.6

In other words, God’s nature as being just, or justice, governs every thought and action toward the human beings God created in His image.7 Hence, decreeing from eternity past to elect and to reprobate, in abstract, and then decree to create human beings in order to fulfill that prior decree to elect and to reprobate, as supralapsarian Calvinists argue, works against the justice of God. In essence, then, God’s nature opposes such a false theory — a theory that not only decimates the goodness and justice of God but one that also requires of us a conception that God is actually the worse sinner in the known universe.

In his conference with infralapsarian Calvinist Francis Junius, Arminius argues that, for God to decree sin, in a strict sense — meaning, God renders sin and evil necessary because He decreed for sin and evil to occur — then the “execution following upon sin does not excuse from blame Him who by His own decree ordained that sin should be committed, which He might afterwards punish.” Arminius continues (emphases original):

Nay, He who decreed and ordained that sin should be committed, cannot with justice punish sin when perpetrated: for He cannot be the avenger of a thing done of which He was the ordainer that it should be done: He cannot be the ordainer of the punishment, who was the ordainer of the crime. And rightly does Augustine say, “God can ordain the punishment of crimes, but not the crimes themselves;” not ordain them, that is, to be committed. And I have already shown that man does not become wicked by his own fault if God has ordained that he should fall and become wicked.8

Arminius detects in the Calvinist’s wrangling over the so-called efficacious vs. permissive decrees of God — that God, by “a permissive decree,” has foreordained all events — a reckless implausibility. “For they say that God does not cause, but decrees and ordains sin,” which is an attempt to escape a logical deduction that God is, thereby, the Author of sin. God, so the infralapsarian Calvinist might suggest, merely fails to grant “to a rational creature that grace which is necessary for the avoidance of sin.” Arminius responds:

This action, conjoined with the laying down of law, comprehends the full cause of sin in itself. For He [God] who enacts a law impossible to be performed without grace, and denies grace to him on whom the law is imposed; He [God] is the cause of sin by means of removing the necessary hindrance.9 (emphasis added)

Why is this view unacceptable? How do even infralapsarian Calvinists necessarily render God as the Author of sin and evil? Because God 1) creates, with exact detail, the very environment conducive for the necessity of a sinful act, which He has rendered certain to occur from eternity past by His own decree; 2) is charged as bringing sinful, evil acts into being; and 3) has also, allegedly, decreed not to grant sufficient grace for the avoidance of sin. Creating a concept of a so-called permissive will, or even John Piper’s philosophical two-wills-in-God theory, is merely a red herring. Whatever one may name the particular will in God which renders sin and evil necessary is irrelevant. The primary question remains the same always and for all time: Must sin or evil have occurred?

The only answer the Calvinist can, with integrity, grant is yes: sin and evil must occur because God, from their own confessions and theological constructs, has decreed for such to occur; again, not due to His foreknowledge of events caused by free will choices, but simply according to His desire of how He wanted the future to unfold. Try as they may, Calvinists cannot avoid charging God as the Author of sin; and, as Arminius himself insists, God is therefore (God Himself forbid!) the only real sinner in the universe.10 Arminius concludes that the justice of God will allow for no semblance of Calvinism, infra- or supralapsarian, and this justice of God’s nature motivates the entirety of Arminius’ theology.

1 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), 275.

2 The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:25.3 Muller, 275.4 William den Boer, “Defense or Deviation? A Re-examination of Arminius’ Motives to Deviate from the ‘Mainstream’ Reformed Theology,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 28.5 Ibid.6 Ibid., 28-29.

7 “For Arminius, the creation of man, the communication of God’s goodness, and God’s will to be the glorifier of man, implied that God’s justice prescribe that this was only possible under the condition of obedience, while abasement would be the consequence of the abuse of God’s gifts. Therefore, man was created to be an instrument for the illustration of God’s just goodness and anger.” Ibid., 29.

8 Arminius, Works, 3:82-83.

9 Ibid., 3:83.

10 Ibid., 1:630. “From these premises we deduce, as a further conclusion, that God really sins. Because (according to this [supralapsarian] doctrine), He moves to sin by an act that is unavoidable, and according to His own purpose and primary intention, without having received any previous inducement to such an act from any preceding sin or demerit in man.

“From the same [supralapsarian] position we might also infer that God is the only sinner. For man, who is impelled by an irresistible force to commit sin (that is, to perpetrate some deed that has been prohibited), cannot be said to sin himself.” In such a scenario, then, sin cannot really be sin, since sin is so very contrary to the nature and character of God, and since God cannot sin. To name such a philosophy as being absurd is an understatement.