Arminius on God's Decrees, Foreknowledge, and What Shall Be

Have all events in this life been fated? Pagans, ancient philosophers, and Christians throughout the ages have contemplated, wrestled with, and debated this question. The Norse pagans believed the gods have fated every event which occurs. The Greeks and the Romans believed the gods even warred with each other in order to bring about certain events in our lives. Christians have wrestled with the notion of God's sovereignty throughout the Church age, wondering and debating the extent to which He is involved in our lives, some concluding with rather disturbing characteristics of God. 

Calvinists, for example, believe that God could not have foreknown any future event without having first decreed the event. For, in order for Him to foresee any event, that would require Him to rely on someone else for His knowledge. If God must rely on any other being for His knowledge (or any other attribute), then He is not God, not divine. The only conclusion one can render from this view is that God decrees sin (i.e., rape, incest, child molestation, adultery, bestiality, theft, murder, atheism, satanism, apostasy, etc.) as well as every other known reality in our lives because God wanted such instances to be manifested in our lives.

God did not decree such horrors due to His foreknowing or foreseeing people who would freely commit them, so claim Calvinists. God decreed them in order for people to bring them to pass:
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin [merely because they insist so], nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures [we will to do that which God has decreed?]; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes [which must also be decreed] taken away, but rather established.

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 3:1, 2, emphasis added)
Though most Christians have rightly rejected these errors, throughout Church history, Calvinists who defend them think that those who reject this general view of God's decrees deny God His rightful sovereignty. We believe, however, that God's sovereignty and His determining whatever comes to fruition are not the same concept. In other words, God's sovereignty need not include the notion that He must have determined all events in order for Him to be considered sovereign. God can still be sovereign without necessitating Him to have decreed all of the most heinous acts of history, the present, or the future.

Vincent of Lerins (early fifth-century Christian writer in southern France) stated that orthodoxy is "that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all."1 What has been the orthodox view of the Church on the matter of God's knowledge? Exactly what does God know, and is there any limitation to that knowledge? How does God know what He knows? Can He foreknow future free will decisions? Finally, what did Arminius believe about the knowledge and foreknowledge of God, as well as to God's decrees, and to Open Theism?

Moderate Calvinist Millard Erickson writes, "Many have assumed that there simply was agreement on the traditional understanding of God's foreknowledge, but it is important that we examine the actual history of the tradition."2 Erickson traces the various views on the foreknowledge of God from Clement of Alexandria to Justin Martyr, and from Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley and Barth, to modern philosophers and theologians. Erickson notes that there was "a tradition of understanding of foreknowledge that [was] consonant with that of open theism, but it [was] the tradition of [heretics] Celsus, Marcion, and Socinus. It [was] not the tradition of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Arminius."3 Open Theism is not a novel theory.

Some, having not rightly understood Arminianism on God's foreknowledge, erroneously promote the folk notion that Arminianism inevitably leads to Open Theism. This is patently false. Erickson, quoted at length, writes of Arminius:
As the sixteenth century drew to a close and the seventeenth century began, James Arminius made a clear break from the received position on some significant points. The most prominent of these was the rejection of the [unconditional] predestination doctrine, according to which God foreknows because he has predetermined. Yet while altering the basis for the foreknowledge, Arminius in no sense altered the strength of belief in that doctrine.

This is especially important, since some have mistakenly identified the difference between the traditional view and open theism on the matter of foreknowledge as being a Calvinistic-Arminian dispute. It is clear that for Arminius, divine foreknowledge was exhaustive and certain. Thus he wrote, "Inclination in God is natural towards His own creature, whether the man believes or not. For that inclination does not depend on faith, and uncertainty cannot be attributed to the will of Him who, in His infinite wisdom, has all things present to Himself, and certainly foreknows all future events, even those most contingent."

He is also equally clear, however, that this foreknowledge does not conflict with human freedom, because it does not make something necessary: "Prediction sometimes follows this prescience, when it pleases God to give intimations to His creatures of the issues of things, before they come to pass. But neither prediction nor any prescience induces a necessity of any thing [futurae] that is afterwards to be, since they are [in the divine mind] posterior in nature and order to the thing that is future. For a thing does not come to pass because it has been foreknown or foretold; but it is foreknown and foretold because it is yet [futura] to come to pass."4
"How, then," some might ask, "does God not rely on man for His knowledge?" The word "rely" is not appropriate, but is conveniently chosen by our detractors in order to catch us in a rhetorical trap. For if God decided to create human beings, He must have foreknown, by His own innate essence, as Arminius states the truth of the matter,5 all that could be known about every creature.

Otherwise, God is bereft of an essential divine attribute; and, essentially, this is exactly what Calvinists do -- they rob God of the essential attribute of omniscience, and are, frankly, no better than the Open Theists against whom they complain of the very same issue. Calvinists insist that God cannot foreknow any reality but that which He has decreed to take place, thus stripping God of His inherent omniscience! Yet Scripture proves them wrong.


If God can only know that which He has decreed to take place, then the Bible is in error. When King Saul was pursuing David, rightful King of Israel, David inquired of the LORD whether or not the citizens of Keilah would surrender him to Saul, and if Saul was, in fact, headed toward the town. The LORD answered David, that Saul was coming toward the town, and that the people of Keilah would surrender him to Saul (1 Sam. 23:11, 12). "So David and his men . . . left Keilah and kept moving from place to place." (1 Sam. 23:13 NIV) God foreknew an event that never took place.

But how can this be, if Calvinists insist that God can only have knowledge of that which He has decreed to occur, how could God know if the people would surrender David to Saul? God, obviously, had not decreed for the people to surrender David to Saul because the event never happened. Yet God had knowledge of an event that He did not decree to take place. The Calvinist view of God's knowledge and foreknowledge is felled by one single verse.

In his disputation, On the Understanding of God, Arminius, also quoted at length, writes:
The understanding [or knowledge] of God is that faculty of His life which is first in nature and order, and by which the living God distinctly understands all things and everyone, which, in what manner soever, either have, will have, have had, can have, or might hypothetically have, a being of any kind: By which He also distinctly understands the order, connection, and relation of all and each of them between each other; and the entities of reason, those beings which exist, or which can exist, in the mind, imagination, and enunciation.

God knows all things, neither by intelligible representations, nor by similitude, but by His own and sole essence; with the exception of evil things, which He knows indirectly by the good things opposed to them, as privation [lack] is known by means of the habit [having]. The mode by which God understands is not by composition and division, not by gradual argumentation, but by simple and infinite intuition, according to the succession of order and not of time.

The succession of order in the objects of the Divine Knowledge is in this manner: First. God knows Himself, entirely and adequately, and this understanding is His own essence or being. Secondly. He knows all possible things in the perfection of their own essence and therefore all things impossible.

In the understanding of possible things, this is the order: 1) He knows what things can exist by His own primary and sole act. 2) He knows what things from the creatures, whether they will come into existence or will not, can exist by His conservation, motion, assistance, concurrence, and permission. 3) He knows what things He can do about the acts of the creatures consistently with Himself or with these acts. Thirdly. He knows all entities, even according to the same order as that which we have just shown in His knowledge of things possible.

The understanding of God is certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves. But this infallibility depends on the infinity of the essence of God [an inherent ability within God that is part of His essence], and not on His unchangeable will [i.e., decree of what shall occur].6
Arminius's view of God's knowledge has historically been commended as being just as orthodox as that of Calvin, Luther, and Augustine. The fact that some Arminians, Wesleyans, and semi-Pelagians have adopted Open Theism is not the defect or blame of Arminius or of Arminianism any more than that reception of supralapsarianism or hyper-Calvinism can be blamed strictly on Calvin or on Calvinism. Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism necessitates the adoption of positions rejected by their progenitors.

Open Theists reject unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace, just as do Arminians in their soteriology. While some Open Theists are Arminian soteriologically, or are in an Arminian tradition, most Arminians are not Open Theists (some Open Theists are semi-Pelagian or overtly Pelagian); in the same way that all hyper-Calvinists are Calvinists, but not all Calvinists are hyper-Calvinists; or in the same that all Methodists (assuming they are born again) are Christians, but not all Christians are Methodists. The two groups -- Open Theism and Arminianism -- should not be conflated. Neither Arminius nor the Remonstrants were Open Theists.

As an aside, concerning the knowledge of God, many still speculate whether Arminius was a Molinist. Calvinist theologian Richard A. Muller writes:
Once it is recognized that Arminius read deeply not only in the works of medieval scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas but also in the works of contemporary scholastic philosophers and theologians -- Zabrella, Suarez, Molina [father of Molinism], Vorstius, and Timpler -- and in the works of early Reformed scholastics like his predecessor Junius, it becomes possible to view Arminius not merely as a Protestant scholastic but also as a teacher of theology immersed in the life and thought of his time, aware, as any teacher of theology must be, of issues at the forefront of theology, logic, and metaphysics.7
There is simply a lack of evidence indicating that Arminius was dramatically influenced by Molina, in particular, to the effect that his views regarding God's knowledge were formed and shaped by Molinism. Dr. Kenneth D. Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, himself a Molinist, is not convinced that Arminius was a Molinist, stating that being a Molinist requires more than mere acceptance of middle knowledge.

What is all too obvious, however, is that Arminius rejected any notion of Open Theism, as is evident from any cursory reading of his works on the subject of God's knowledge. But he also rejected even the slightest hint that God could have decreed, in a strict sense, the most egregious events of history. Though Arminius defended the truth that, "because whatever God does or says, He does or says it according to His own eternal decree," or that, "God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do,"8 God decrees what is commensurate with not only His will but also His foreknowledge of what relatively free creatures will do. Only in Arminius' system is both the sovereignty of God and the free will of man genuinely kept intact, from our perspective.

__________

1 Millard J. Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? The Current Controversy Over Divine Foreknowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 87.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 89-116.

4 Ibid., 104.

5 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XVII. On the Understanding of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 2:341.

6 Ibid.

7 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), 269.

8 Arminius, 2:235.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.