Tag Archives: Sin

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.)

Our Fears Betray Us

by W. Jackson Watts

(this essay first appeared on the Helwys Society Forum on November 16; It has been republished here with permission)

In the days following the election of Donald Trump, thousands of opinion pieces have appeared in newspapers, periodicals, and online news outlets. Such pieces range from the jubilant and finger-wagging to the angry and finger-pointing. Some are analyzing the data gleaned from exit polling, while others are scrutinizing the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump.

However, one sentiment that has emerged since around the midnight to 1am hour (CST) on Wednesday is fear. Such fearful disbelief was seen on the faces of disheartened young volunteers at Clinton headquarters, in celebrities’ tweets, and in pundits’ commentary. Fear is certainly not all that is on display; anger is, too. The anti-Trump protests certainly reflect deep anger toward the president-elect, those who elected him, and the campaign that swept him into office. Fear and anger often go hand-in-hand.

But the fears concerning Mr. Trump are most troubling from the standpoint of our republic, and certainly from a deeper religious perspective. Fear often betrays deeply held beliefs, emotions, and commitments, which may hinder our thriving as human beings and as a nation. Here I’ll focus on two problems that our current fears reveal.[1]

(1) Our Vision of the Presidency

Ever since the Progressive era (circa late 1800s to 1940), a vision of the Constitution arose that viewed it and its signatories as being out of touch with the demands of modern times. Underlying this vision were several beliefs, among them being an evolutionary view of human thought and history. The thought goes something like this: “The founders couldn’t have envisioned the complexity of modern civilization, or intended that the Constitution not occasionally undergo revision or reinterpretation.”

Fast-forward to our present day, and we find ourselves living in the wake of several progressive presidencies (some democratic, some republican), which did much to expand the executive powers beyond their constitutional limits. Our system was designed with a separation of powers, distinguishing the executive branch from the legislative branch, the legislative branch from the judicial branch, and the judicial branch from the executive branch; equal, but separate. Such an arrangement was intended to provide checks and balances against any one branch or leader assuming power that wasn’t properly granted to them— an important reminder Matthew Bracey alludes to in his recent essay.

Why, then, is such fear present not only among ordinary citizens, but also among elites in the media, entertainment, and sports? Certainly wealth insulates some from many of the vulnerabilities typical of middle-to-low income Americans. This fear must be rooted in something besides party affiliation: Many believe we’re about to have a dangerous president.

This fear should first cause some anti-Trump persons to give pause, and remember the manner in which they ridiculed and dismissed the fears of anti-Obama persons over the last eight years. Obama advocates assured their fellow citizens that they were being unreasonable, unfair, and just plain wrong. So there seems to be some inconsistency here. As one journalist recently put it, separation of powers is suddenly en vogue again!

I would be chief among those who would name President-elect Trump’s flaws in terms of character, views, and preparedness to lead our country. However, our political system was designed precisely to protect citizens from flawed leaders. If there was ever evidence in recent history that our vision of the presidency has been compromised, it is the widespread fear. Our views of the executive branch and its power have grown to unhealthy and dangerous proportions. Conservatives have warned of this for years, though in truth, some were less troubled by it when purported conservative presidents were in office.

In 2014, columnist George Will explained the phenomenon of progressive presidential leadership in an excellent PBS documentary on the Roosevelts. He explained that the presidency is like a warm, leather glove. Each president who’s been elected has put that glove on. However, each successive president (at least every few anyway) has a larger hand, and thus stretches the glove just a bit larger.

Most conservatives would agree with these observations. However, Christians in particular should recognize that some who are fearful genuinely don’t know how to process the fact that the newly-elected president has sounded at times like a racist, misogynist, and/or any number of other despicable things. When we encounter such feelings, we should reassure fellow citizens that we’re just as committed to protecting their legitimate constitutional rights as we are our own.

Even assuming that the worst is true of Mr. Trump’s character and intentions, that one man could singlehandedly provoke, antagonize, or do legal harm to citizens belonging to any other nationality or religious group says something much worse than we know. It tells us that the executive branch—and the presidency specifically—has departed from its proper place, that it’s not a co-equal branch of government, that it doesn’t have checks and balances.

Christians have something significant to say to these concerns. We not only should reaffirm the constitutional separation of powers, but we must point to the larger metaphysical claim upon which this arrangement is based: there is such a thing as human nature, and it isn’t good. No doubt the founders’ beliefs differed about some of the specifics of human nature. It’s fair to say that though they weren’t all Reformed, they understood that too much power given to any one individual or institution could and would lead to lawlessness and tyranny. Believers can refine this insight with verses like Romans 3:10: “There is none righteous, not even one.”

A strong doctrine of sin is critical to preserving the integrity of limiting mechanisms within our social, civil, and political institutions. These mechanisms ensure that one bad man or woman cannot, in fact, take what is not theirs to take, or give what is not theirs to give (cf. Mk. 12:17).

The Bible has much to say about sin and its attendant components—guilt and depravity. Where we have sometimes failed is by stressing the individual dimensions of sin at the expense of the institutional or structural manifestations of sin, a point that mainline theologians have more often stressed. Biblically, sin is explained as an individual and corporate reality, but the discerning person recognizes that individual and corporate wickedness also manifests itself in the institutions humans create. In fact, such a claim may help explain why many suddenly find themselves so fearful about the presidency: we’ve turned a noble, limited office into a scary, unlimited office.

(2) Our Faith in Men

A second issue surrounding present fears is where the dangerous expansion of presidential power takes us. If we believe the office itself has the symbolic, political, and legal power to do such great harm, it becomes critically important that we have complete faith in the person elected, as well as the populace which does the electing. As many are learning now, hell hath no fury like a Clinton-voter scorn. But it isn’t the usual type of frustration. It is a sense of betrayal: “How could you put America in the hands of this person?”

Voters bear some responsibility for allowing and sometimes encouraging presidents to attempt to fix things that either they cannot fix, or should not attempt to fix. Good intentions or not, the blurring of proper boundaries sets dangerous precedents. That we allow this reveals beliefs we have about people that never serve us well in the end. Whenever one has an unrealistic and unhealthy (not to mention unconstitutional) view of presidential power, it fosters and then reveals a misplaced confidence in political leaders. This is true whenever we weep for joy when our candidate is elected, or weep fearfully when another chosen. We feel vulnerable to the whims of the elected, and the electorate.

Christians are warned of this type of false confidence, notably in two psalms. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:8-9). Then again, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:3-4).

 In both passages, the psalmists warn about the folly of trusting in earthly rulers. These serve as cautions for those Christians who may have unwavering confidence that President-elect Trump will make good on all his promises they liked. If this isn’t enough of a caution, it may be healthy to revisit some of the fearmongering among evangelical Christians prior to the election. One would have thought that Mrs. Clinton’s status as the antichrist (or next to it) rose to the level of biblical revelation for some.

Conclusion

No doubt this was an important election, in ways still unknown at this point. For this reason, Christians still have responsibilities beyond the voting booth. Yet the fears of our current national moment are instructive about human nature, the lessons of history, the problem of double-standards, and the need to trust the one who sits on heaven’s throne, not who occupies the Oval Office.

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[1] My remarks on fear in this piece are not intended to apply to an otherwise biblical and prayerful concern that we might exhibit towards our nation and our times. Rather, my focus is more limited to the reaction of many to the outcome of the election and what it reveals.