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Did Arminius Think the Intellect Can Know the Good and Direct the Will Despite Sin?

Matt Pinson

Recently I was re-reading Richard Muller’s God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius. Muller is thestellar scholar of Reformed scholasticism whose work, on the whole, has richly informed my thought and for whom I have great appreciation.

Muller’s work, however, has emphasized his view that Arminius’s theology was a radical departure from sixteenth-century Reformed theology, a view with which I disagree. Unlike Carl Bangs and others who have argued that Arminius fit the description “Reformed,” because Reformed theology before the Synod of Dort was broader on the question of predestination than after the Synod of Dort, Muller seems to intimate that the predestinarian Calvinism that characterized Dort was the Reformed theology.

All one has to do to see that this is not the case is to read the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, to which Arminius proudly subscribed to his dying day. One does not have to believe in predestination, etc., as Calvinism does to love and agree with these Reformed confessional documents. Both “Calvinists” and “non-Calvinists” (in the modern way we use these terms to speak of the doctrine of predestination, etc.) fit within this expression of Reformed confessional theology.

When I was reading Muller recently, I came across an interesting passage. He says that “Arminius’s own theological concern for the problem of grace and human ability raised anew the epistemological problem of the relationship of the fall to the human faculties and—against Calvin—Arminius argued the ability of the intellect to know the good and to direct the will despite the problem of sin” (p. 37). After that sentence appears a footnote that refers to Arminius’s Public Disputation 11, paragraphs 1, 5, 7, 9, and 10.

It had been a while since I had read Muller’s book, and I was taken aback. I thought to myself, “I have read this disputation dozens of times, and it has never struck me that way.” So I went back and re-read it. I have reproduced those paragraphs below and will allow the reader to conclude whether they demonstrate that Arminius thought the fallen intellect can know the good and direct the will despite the problem of sin, or whether in fact they demonstrate the opposite of that assertion. (I have also included paragraph 2 because it provides information that is relevant to the assertion Muller is making.)

  1. The word, arbitrium, “choice,” or “free will,” properly signifies both the faculty of the mind or understanding, by which the mind is enabled to judge about any thing proposed to it, and the judgment itself which the mind forms according to that faculty. But it is transferred from the Mind to the Will on account of the very close connection which subsists between them. Liberty, when attributed to the will, is properly an affection of the will, though it has its root in the understanding and reason. Generally considered, it is various.

(1.) It is a Freedom from the control or jurisdiction of one who commands, and from an obligation to render obedience.

(2.) From the inspection, care, and government of a superior.

(3.) It is also a freedom from necessity, whether this proceeds from an external cause compelling, or from a nature inwardly determining absolutely to one thing.

(4.) It is a freedom from sin and its dominion.

(5.) And a freedom from misery.

  1. Of these five modes of liberty, the first two appertain to God alone; to whom also on this account, autexousiaperfect independence, or complete freedom of action, is attributed. But the remaining three modes may belong to man, nay in a certain respect they do pertain to him. And, indeed, the former, namely, freedom from necessity always pertains to him because it exists naturally in the will, as its proper attribute, so that there cannot be any will if it be not free. The freedom from misery, which pertains to man when recently created and not then fallen into sin, will again pertain to him when he shall be translated in body and soul into celestial blessedness. But about these two modes also, of freedom from necessity and from misery, we have here no dispute. It remains, therefore, for us, to discuss that which is a freedom from sin and its dominion, and which is the principal controversy of these times.

    5. In the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will, as far as was sufficient for the salvation of man and the glory of God; he had a heart imbued with “righteousness and true holiness,” and with a true and saving love of good; and powers abundantly qualified or furnished perfectly to fulfill the law which God had imposed on him. This admits easily of proof, from the description of the image of God, after which man is said to have been created, (Genesis 1:26, 27,) from the law divinely imposed on him, which had a promise and a threat appended to it, (2:17,) and lastly from the analogous restoration of the same image in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10.)

    7. In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.” That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.

    9. To the darkness of the mind succeeds the perverseness of the affections and of the heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil. The Apostle was unable to afford a more luminous description of this perverseness, than he has given in the following words: ”The carnal mind is enmity against God. For it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:7.) For this reason, the human heart itself is very often called deceitful and perverse, uncircumcised, hard and stony.” (Jeremiah 13:10; 17:9; Ezekiel 36:26.) Its imagination is said to be “only evil from his very youth;” (Genesis 6:5; 8:21;) and “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries,” etc. (Matthew 15:19.)

    10. Exactly correspondent to this darkness of the mind, and perverseness of the heart, is the utter weakness of all the powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil, in a due mode and from a due end and cause. The subjoined sayings of Christ serve to describe this impotence. “A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” (Matthew 7:18.) “How can ye, being evil, speak good things?” (12:34.)

    The following relates to the good which is properly prescribed in the gospel: “No man can come to me, except the Father draw him.” (John 6:44.) As do likewise the following words of the Apostle: ”The carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be;” (Romans 8:7;) therefore, that man over whom it has dominion, cannot perform what the law commands. The same Apostle says, “When we were in the flesh, the motions of sins wrought in us,” or flourished energetically. (7:5.) To the same purpose are all those passages in which the man existing in this state is said to be under the power of sin and Satan, reduced to the condition of a slave, and “taken captive by the Devil.” (Romans 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:26.)

Addendum: Another Favorite Book from 2017

W. Jackson Watts

Usually I manage to read a book or two during the holidays. Recently I read one I had wanted to read for years, but finally had an excuse to read it due to its pertinence to a  current research project. It was Alister McGrath’s The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. Though I had not read this book in time to be included in our Commission members’ recent post on our favorite books from 2017, I thought I would briefly comment on it since I found it incredibly stimulating and theologically significant.

McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. He has held numerous other notable professorships throughout the years, and has published voluminously in the fields of historical theology, and especially in the relationship between science and theology.

This volume is a project in “doctrinal criticism.” On its face this may sound threatening to some. But McGrath is not trying to pick apart Christian doctrine. He is not only a scholar, but a committed Anglican Christian. Doctrinal criticism here refers to an attempt to evaluate the nature of doctrine as a historical phenomenon. He wants to consider how doctrinal statements are developed, communicated, and what they presuppose. He is especially interested in how our understanding of the past and its authority comes to bear on contemporary views of doctrine.

To put McGrath’s project in his own words, “The discipline of doctrinal criticism seeks to evaluate the reliability and adequacy of the doctrinal formulations of the Christian tradition, by identifying what they purport to represent, clarifying the pressures and influences which led to their genesis, and suggesting criteria—historical and theological by which they may be evaluated, and if necessary, restated” (vii).  Let me try to add my gloss to the background against which McGrath is working, then return to his argument.

When we consider the nature of the biblical text, we recognize that it does not present itself in the form of a contemporary systematic theology textbook. Instead it is divinely given in the form of poetry and prophecy, wisdom and narrative, oracle and history. There are no doubt places in the New Testament that appear to be part of early creedal formulations. However, by and large the theological heritage we have has come to us by way of post-canonical interaction with the apostolic doctrine, and believers formulating those teachings in a contextually appropriate way.

These claims in no way diminish the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. But they do put our treatment of key doctrines such as justification by faith or the Trinity in a historical perspective. We know that there were early church councils which contributed significantly to how doctrines have been formulated, and then transmitted by way of witnesses throughout the ages. We know that theological errors, in part, are what required the church to clarify particular doctrinal views. Recognizing the historical and social context of doctrinal development then gives us a better understanding of how our statements came to be what they are, and helps us evaluate them afresh and anew in light of the biblical text.

McGrath is motivated in part by a desire to avoid reductionist accounts of doctrine. One of the main examples he uses of such reductionism is George Lindbeck, the very influential Yale theologian. Lindbeck’s seminal book on the subject is The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984). McGrath appreciates some of Lindbeck’s aims and concerns, but he spends the early portion of his book showing where Lindbeck himself fails to understand the complexity of Christian doctrine.

Lindbeck chided propositionalists for focusing merely on the truth claims of doctrine, and experientialists for focusing solely on the emotional or experiential aspects of doctrine. Yet Lindbeck offered his own reductionist account with his “cultural-linguistic” model of doctrine. McGrath’s critique is fair, but pointed.

McGrath’s alternative, which is an effort to help readers appreciate the breadth of Christian doctrine, includes four theses about doctrine. First, doctrine functions as a social demarcator. Second, doctrine is generated by, and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. Third, doctrine interprets experience. Fourth, doctrine makes truth claims (37).

Space does not permit me to explore or fully define each of these, but if one reads these theses carefully they can see that McGrath is trying to avoid reductionisms when it comes to defining what doctrine is and how it has functioned historically.

I suspect most Free Will Baptists will focus primarily on point number four. As important as this is, if we think carefully about the lived experience of the church today and in the past, we realize doctrine is even bigger and more significant than simply in what it affirms to be true or false.

What we believe does in fact set us apart from other groups (thesis 1). It helps distinguish our views from other, potentially harmful views, and provides social cohesion. We believe our doctrine does arise from the narrative of Scripture (thesis 2), yet it also enables us to reread Scripture in light of our doctrinal heritage (think here about the idea of “the hermeneutical spiral”). And we also believe that Christian doctrine makes sense of our experience. It gives us a language, concepts, and categories to make sense of what happens to us, and what is happening around us.

I can’t say enough about the depth and extent of McGrath’s work. I admit it is probably to be seen as more of a graduate-level treatment of doctrine, and so it probably isn’t the place to start for those looking to simply refresh themselves on Christian doctrine.

However, for those who may be wondering about how modern Christian thought has come to be what it is, and perhaps those interested in historical theology or philosophical hermeneutics, this may just be a book for you.

 

 

Our Favorite Books in 2017

by Theological Commission

Members of the Commission for Theological Integrity enjoy a good book as much as anyone. This year has afforded each of us the opportunity to read a number of titles, some published more recently and others published in prior years. This post features a couple of favorite books by each Commission member. Note that while our mention of these books doesn’t represent a blanket endorsement of their entire content, we felt they were significant, interesting, and/or enjoyable. We commend them accordingly unto our readers.

Kevin Hester

Since this year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I read several books on this topic. I reread two classics: Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers and Roland Bainton’s, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Of particular interest on this topic was Zondervan’s Five Solas Series: Christ Alone (Stephen Wellum), Faith Alone (Thomas Schreiner), God’s Glory Alone (David VanDrunen), God’s Word Alone (Mathew Barrett), and Grace Alone (Carl Trueman), all of which are to be commended for theological clarity and attention to the continued practical relevance of these Protestant principles.

One of the more interesting books I read related to the Protestant Reformation was Matthew Levering’s Was the Reformation a Mistake: Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical (Zondervan, 2017). Unlike most Roman Catholic apologetics, this one was aimed squarely at Evangelical Protestants. Levering, in a rather irenic spirit, strives (unconvincingly) to demonstrate the biblical background of nine Roman Catholic doctrines including: justification, Mary, monasticism, purgatory, the Saints, and the papacy among others. Continue reading Our Favorite Books in 2017

Free Will Baptists and Evangelical Scholarship

by Theological Commission

Two years ago a post appeared on this blog that noted the relationship between Free Will Baptists and evangelical scholarship. This was specifically in reference to there being four presenters at the National Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society who serve Free Will Baptist churches and/or entities. This year’s meeting took place two weeks ago in Providence, Rhode Island. The theme was the Heritage of the Reformation, and as usual the meeting featured a range of interesting presentations, panel discussions, plenary addresses, and more.

This year five Free Will Baptists presented or moderated across five different sections of the program. The following are the presenters and their paper titles:

Dr. Matthew McAffee (Provost and Professor at Welch College): “Ugaritic Ditanu and  Greek Titans: An Appraisal of Etymological and Narrative Connections.”

Rev. Jesse Owens (Church Planter, Adjunct Professor; Doctoral Candidate) – “English General Baptists: the Arminian Anti-rationalists.”

Dr. Matt Pinson (President of Welch College; Commission Chairman) – “Are Predestination and Election Corporate or Individual? Toward a Reformed Arminian Account.”

Rev. W. Jackson Watts (Pastor, Commission member; Doctoral candidate) – “Cultural Analysis and the Dynamics of Leading Change in the Church.”

Dr. Jeff Cockrell, professor at Welch College, moderated a New Testament section on the Gospel of Mark, and Mr. Matthew Bracey, Vice Provost and Professor at Welch also attended.

Audio recordings of these presentations can be found and purchased at Word Mp3. Readers may also note that a few of these papers are adapted from presentations given at the 2017 Theological Symposium. For more information on ETS or these specific presentations, you may leave us a question on the blog’s comment thread.