Tag Archives: Richard Muller

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.)