John Owen: A Display of Lies

Had I only read John Owen's book, A Display of Arminianism, published in 1642 (full title footnoted), I would have taken him for a sorely misinformed Calvinist whose sole ambition is to prattle off coarse rhetoric to entertain equally misinformed Calvinists. But Owen is no fool. His Puritan intellect is obvious to anyone who lends only a cursory glance at his works, or sermons, which makes the following post utterly tragic. Owen is not misinformed about classical Arminianism in the least. In him one finds a very proficient and perceptive theological acumen more than able to accurately assess the views of his Arminian opponents. Accuracy, however, is not his intent; his aim is merely to smear; and it is because of this that Arminians reserve the right to be horrified and disgusted at the contempt inherent in his words against them. 

Owen does not merely disagree with Arminianism. To him the system is idolatrous and satanic. Arminians are "tares in the field," used by Satan, and "never did any of his emissaries employ his received talents with more skill and diligence than our Arminians,"1 and, hence, they are not saved. This deplorable error is only slightly worse than what Calvinists such as J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul advocate.

Owen is not exposing some contorted view of Arminianism, which develops later into some form of Socinianism or Unitarianism; he is insisting that the doctrines of Arminius and his followers are alluring others "by their words, which are smoother than oil, to taste the poison of asps that is under their lips."2 Owen is not a simpleton, merely misrepresenting Arminianism accidentally; he quite intentionally lies about and caricatures the system, speaking great volumes about his character; he is one who has full knowledge of the tenets of Arminianism and yet promotes nothing but distortions of the system. He begins:
First, To exempt themselves from God's jurisdiction, to free themselves from the supreme dominion of his all-ruling providence; not to live and move in him, but to have an absolute independent power in all their actions, so that the event of all things wherein they have any interest might have a considerable relation to nothing but chance, contingency, and their own wills; a most nefarious, sacrilegious attempt!3
One would deduce from Owen's summation that Arminians desire nothing more than to dethrone the sovereign God and place themselves as Almighty ruler. Yet, when one considers what Arminius and his followers the Remonstrants actually teach on the sovereignty of God, we find another matter entirely. What Arminius detects in Scripture is that God cannot be responsible for directly causing evil (cf. James 1:13), including the necessitarian notion of God absolutely decreeing it, a notion to which Owen and other Calvinists subscribe. Arminius writes:
The will of God is distinguished into that by which He absolutely wills to do any thing or to prevent it; and into that by which He wills something to be done or omitted by His rational creatures: The former of these is called "the will of His good pleasure," or rather "of His pleasure;" and the latter, "that of His open intimation."

The latter is revealed, for this is required by the use to which it is applied: The former is partly revealed, partly secret or hidden. The former employs a power that is either irresistible, or that is so accommodated to the object and subject as to obtain or insure its success, though it was possible for it to happen otherwise.

To these two kinds of the Divine Will is opposed the remission of the will, that is, a two-fold permission, the one opposed to the will of open intimation, the other to that of good pleasure. The former is that by which God permits something to the power of a rational creature, by not circumscribing some act by a law. The latter is that by which God permits something to the will and capability of the creature, by not placing an impediment in its way by which the act may in reality be hindered.4
Clearly, Arminius and his followers are not advocating the freeing of themselves "from the supreme dominion of [God's] all-ruling providence," as Owen fabricates the truth. Calvinist Richard A. Muller admits that "Arminius' argument here reflects the scholastic distinction between the absolute and the ordained power of God."5 He also notes that Arminius' view of the "absolute and ordained rule represents an important departure from Reformed doctrine in general but also that his arguments are framed with particular issues in mind -- such as the Reformed doctrine of predestination."6

There is a lot more at stake in Arminius and his followers' view of God's sovereignty than merely seeking to flee "to live and move in him [and] ... to have an absolute independent power in all their actions, so that the event of all things wherein they have any interest might have a considerable relation to nothing but chance, contingency, and their own wills," as Owen beguiles his readers into thinking. Arminians do not believe in chance; though, according to Owen, they do believe in the "new goddess, contingency."Even Arminius' successors the Remonstrants are defenders of God's sovereignty and not chance. Roger Olson writes: "Episcopius [successor to Arminius] agreed with Arminius that God concurs with the will of the free and rational creature without laying any necessity on it of doing well or ill."8 But Owen, as many other Calvinists, can abide no doctrine that does not entail absolute necessitarianism, determinism, strictly taken. Owen writes:
They question the prescience or foreknowledge of God; for if known unto God are all his works from the beginning, if he certainly foreknew all things that shall hereafter come to pass, it seems to cast an infallibility of event upon all their actions, which encroaches upon the large territory of their new goddess, contingency; nay, it would quite dethrone the queen of heaven, and induce a kind of necessity of our doing all, and nothing but what God foreknows.9
I only wish we could chalk this up to Owen's ignorance but we, simply, cannot do so. He conflates foreknowledge with absolute necessitarianism or theological determinism. But God's foreknowledge does not cause things to happen. His plight, as other Calvinists like him, is as Roger Olson states: "Of course, when Calvinists say that Arminians do not believe in God's sovereignty, they undoubtedly are working with an a priori such that no concept but their own can possibly pass muster;"10 and because Arminius and Arminians deny necessitarianism, or determinism, and affirm contingency, they are heretics deluded by Satan, used by him to accomplish his purposes. Though convenient for the Calvinist, this deceptive notion is a lie, and a blight on Calvinists who perpetuate the same.

Arminius and classical Arminians hold to God's exhaustive foreknowledge of all events. (Open Theists are not classical Arminians theologically even though they are so soteriologically.) Indeed, God "announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred." (Isaiah 46:10 NET) Though Open Theists agree with some tenets of Arminian soteriology, they do not agree with the theology of classical Arminianism regarding God's exhaustive knowledge and foreknowledge. Arminius admits:
But, because "known unto our God are all His works from the beginning of the world" (Acts 15:18), and as God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do, this vocation [unto salvation] is likewise instituted and administered according to God's eternal decree: So that what man soever is called in time, was from all eternity predestinated to be called, and to be called in that state, time, place, mode, and with that efficacy, in and with which he was predestinated.11
Here we find Arminius' admission that God knows all things absolutely, and that God has decreed all things by this knowledge, even foreknowledge. The real question here is why Owen lies about Arminius' views on the issue. Since God has perfect foreknowledge of all events and persons and choices, Arminius writes, concerning salvation and reprobation: "This rests or depends on the prescience and foresight of God, by which He foreknew, from all eternity what men would, through such administration, believe by the aid of preventing [prevenient] or preceding grace, and would persevere by the aid of subsequent or following grace; and who would not believe and persevere."12 Consistent with Owen's own philosophy, if Arminius admits that God foreknew who would believe, and God's foreknowledge causes and fixes future events, then the elect of God (believers) are also fixed from eternity past in such a state. Why, then, would Owen protest? Unless, of course, Owen fails to comprehend the consequences of his own philosophical logic.

Owen has every right to disagree with Arminius and classical Arminians based upon the presuppositions by which his theology is constructed. However, he has absolutely no license whatsoever to vilify Arminius and Arminianism, even placing himself as Judge or Arbiter over Arminian souls (which belong to our sovereign God) in sentencing them to hell (for such is the fate of "tares in the field," Matt. 13:36-43, as Owen previously states). Such tends to make for angry Arminians. Calvinists who agree with Owen and promote his views regarding Arminianism have only themselves to blame for the ire of Arminians.


Think of this matter in the following light. Using Owen's logic, if Owen is (or if Calvinists are) dead wrong on these issues, for which garners the soul who believes in them the sentence of an eternal hell -- being aligned with Satan as his emissaries for promoting such blasphemous doctrines of demons -- then Calvinists are damnable heretics, in need of Christ's salvation, and exist on the brink of hell itself as we now live and breathe. They are "tares in the field," alluring unsuspecting souls "by their words, which are smoother than oil, to taste the poison of asps that is under their lips." Moreover, the father of lies, Satan himself, has "depths [within Calvinism] where to hide, and methods how to broach his lies; and never did any of his emissaries employ his received talents with more skill and diligence than our" Calvinists.13 This conclusion is merely the consistent opposite truth of the confessions of Owen, those at the Puritan Board and, and other Calvinists who perpetuate the same against Arminians. R.C. Sproul notes:
In the perennial debate between so-called Calvinism and Arminianism, the estranged parties have frequently misrepresented each other. They construct straw men, then brandish the swords of polemics against caricatures, not unlike collective Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. As a Calvinist I frequently hear criticisms of Calvinistic thought that I would heartily agree with if indeed they represented Calvinism. So, I am sure, the disciples of Arminius suffer the same fate and become equally frustrated.14
Yet, Dr. Sproul, Arminians are equally frustrated, especially when men such as yourself admit that Arminians are "barely saved"; and especially when men such as John Owen misrepresent Arminius, classical Arminians and classical Arminian theology, as is found in A Display of Arminianism; which is still in print, and which is still being promoted by Calvinists today as an accurate refutation of classical Arminianism. This work is deplorable, deceptive, and belongs in the library of hell.

Moreover, what is equally frustrating is when Calvinists tolerate and promote such lies, caricatures, and misrepresentations and do not correct their colleagues with the truth, as well as do not correct them for vilifying their theological opponents. To vilify is to make vicious and defamatory statements about someone or something that is not true. This concept epitomizes John Owen's A Display of Arminianism, and is, perhaps, the most amiable description of the work. This post is not intended for villainy but for truth.

Calvinist Richard A. Muller states that the "theology of Jacob Arminius has been neglected both by his admirers and by his detractors."15 According to John Owen, however, the theology of Arminius has not been neglected but unduly tolerated; Arminians make "themselves differ from others who will not make so good use of the endowments of their natures; that so the first and chiefest part in the work of their salvation may be ascribed unto themselves -- a proud Luciferian endeavour!"16 

Rather than relegate Arminius' theology to Luciferian doctrines, Muller notes, "The restrictive conception of Aminius' theology as a counter to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, indeed, as an exegetical theology posed against a predestinarian metaphysic, has led to an interpretation of Arminius as a theologian of one doctrine somehow abstracted from his proper context in intellectual history."17 But never mind Muller, who has his own erroneous issue with historical truth regarding Arminius. John Owen would have hailed Muller as a deluded Arminian sympathizer. Owen fancies himself as God's Judge, insulting Him by taking the place of God's own Son (cf. John 5:22), passing judgment on the eternal destiny of Arminians; which, of course, is hell.

Concerning Owen's view of the Arminians' doctrine of free will, he writes the following:
Our next task is to take a view of the idol himself, of this great deity of free-will, whose original being not well known, he is pretended, like the Ephesian image of Diana, to have fallen down from heaven, and to have his endowments from above. But yet, considering what a nothing he was at his first discovery in comparison of the vast giant-like hugeness to which now he is grown, we may say of him as the painter said of his monstrous picture, which he had mended or rather marred according to every one’s fancy, "Hunc populus fecit," it is the issue of the people's brain.18
Owen is forced to deny any semblance whatsoever of free will in order to maintain his absolute nessitarianism (i.e., determinism) in relation to life in general or one's salvation in particular. God, from Owen's and the Calvinistic position, cannot, i.e., is incapable of merely freeing a person's will in order for him or her to freely receive or reject Christ Jesus as Savior. No, that would somehow detract from the sovereignty of God, with regard to the theory of unconditional election. Hence regeneration must, by necessity, precede faith; and of course this "man-made doctrine" comes from the Calvinist's a priori rather than sharing any affinity with honest exegetical work of Scripture.

The more that Owen writes against Arminian doctrines in his book the more he exposes his lying nature -- for, clearly, the man is far from merely ignorant; and lie he must, in order to calumniate Arminianism and promote Calvinism. Yet, Arminius and Arminians do not believe in inherent free will; they believe in freed will. Arminius writes that
the blessings of which man has been deprived by sin cannot be rendered more obviously apparent than by the immense mass of benefits which accrue to believers through the Holy Spirit; when, in truth, nature is understood to be devoid of all that which, as the Scriptures testify, is performed in man and communicated by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2 Cor. 3:17); and if those alone be "free indeed whom the Son hath made free" (John 8:36); it follows that our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit.19
If God must, by the activity of the Holy Spirit and the Son of God, free an individual in order for him or her to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, then how can Owen or any other Calvinist suggest that free will is the Arminian's idol, his Dagon, as Owen puts it,20 as though we treasure it above God? We ascribe all enabling grace to God, not to our will. Man, according to Arminius' followers the Remonstrants,
does not have saving grace of himself, nor from the powers of his free will, seeing that he, in the state of sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, or do any good (at least that which is saving good, which is chiefly saving faith); but it is necessary that he be of God, in Christ, through His Holy Spirit, reborn and renewed [a pre-regenerating function of prevenient grace] in understanding, affections, will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, observe, will and accomplish saving good.21
Is this a portrait of idol worship? Do Arminius and his followers establish the idol of free will? If Owen cannot be trusted with such a simple task, as to accurately represent the views of his theological opponents, then he can hardly be trusted with the weightier matters of interpreting God's Word. What Owen cannot abide is the resistibility of God's grace in the freeing of one's will to good (i.e., to faith in Christ). For such not only weakens the power of God, from his perspective (in unconditionally and monergeistically saving His elect, something which He efficaciously predetermined to do from all eternity), but it renders unconditional election irrelevant and unnecessary. Owen continues:
"Herein," saith Arminius, "consisteth the liberty of the will, that all things required to enable it to will any thing being accomplished, it still remains indifferent to will or not." ... "All unregenerate men," saith Arminius, "have by virtue of their free-will, a power of resisting the Holy Spirit, of rejecting the offered grace of God, of contemning the counsel of God concerning themselves, of refusing the gospel of grace, of not opening the heart to him that knocketh." What a stout idol is this, whom neither the Holy Spirit, the grace and counsel of God, the calling of the gospel, the knocking at the door of the heart, can move at all, or in the least measure prevail against him!22
Owen's natural theological dilemma in appropriately assessing classical Arminian theology is in assuming his doctrine is sanctioned by God, an arrogant yet typical ploy of Calvinists, and then interpreting all other doctrines accordingly. One can quote to Owen from Scripture to prove Arminianism as the truth of God until the second advent of Christ Jesus Himself, but if it accords not with Calvinism, for him it is heresy. 

One must ask oneself three questions: 1) What is God's intent or design in offering to sinners salvation conditionally through faith in Christ Jesus? 2) What means does God employ in accomplishing the salvation of sinners? and 3) Are these means necessary and sufficient or necessary and efficacious? Clearly, salvation is conditional (Acts 4:12). Hence, we believe that election is also conditional (1 Cor. 1:21), conditioned upon faith in and union with Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4; cf. Isa. 42:1). No one is saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:17; 3:22); and, considering that regeneration is a means unto salvation (Titus 3:5), then no one is regenerated apart from faith in Jesus Christ as well. This biblical and logical notion undermines the core tenets of Calvinistic philosophy.

God's design and intent is the leading of a person unto repentance (Rom. 2:4) and faith in Christ (Acts 20:21). He does so, however, unrestricted by a decree to unconditionally save one person but not another. The grace -- gracious ability -- He employs in the heart and mind of a sinner, then, is necessary and sufficient, but is not efficacious: in other words it does not always obtain the desired end, which is the salvation of every soul (1 Tim. 2:4). This, we believe, is how God established all things pertaining to salvation. The grace that Calvinism promotes is efficacious, by necessity, and it must be, for it is presupposed by God's unconditional election of some unto faith and salvation, and the rest unto reprobation (condemnation) and hell. God's grace, then, is both necessary and efficacious; it always obtains God's desired end, for God has absolutely willed by decree to save His unconditionally elect, and willed by decree to condemn the reprobate.

At this point, I could clamor and balk about the Calvinist's idol of decrees, or their Dagon of determinism. But is that necessary? I believe that Calvinism teaches false doctrines, promoted by the three central letters in the TULIP: Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace (as well as supra- and infralapsarianism). However, I do not need to arrange posts against Calvinists with the invective and derision used by John Owen or some Calvinist scholars and other Internet Calvinists. Assuming that John Owen was born again -- and that is quite an assumption -- I suppose that the redemption he has experienced has tempered him quite a bit (as it will the rest of us as well). I would have given much to eavesdrop, then, on the meeting of Arminius and Owen in heaven. If anything, what I have learned from Owen's book is how not to assess and critique, caricature, misrepresent, and lie about the views of my theological opponents.


1 John Owen, A Display of Arminianism: Being a Discovery of the Old Pelagian Idol Free Will, With the New Goddess Contingency, Advancing Themselves into the Throne of the God of Heaven, to the Prejudice of His Grace, Providence, and Supreme Dominion Over the Children of Men; Wherein the Main Errors by Which They Are Fallen Off From the Received Doctrine of All the Reformed Churches, With Their Opposition in Divers Particulars to the Doctrine Established in the Church of England, are Discovered and Laid Open Out of Their Own Writings and Confessions, and Confuted by the Word of God (Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1989), 8.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 12.

4 James Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XIX. On the Various Distinctions of the Will of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:344-45.

5 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), 238.

6 Ibid., 239.

7 Owen, 12.

8 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 125.

9 Owen, 12.

10 Olson, 116.

11 Arminius, 2:235.

12 Ibid., 2:719.

13 Owen, 8.

14 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997), 126.

15 Muller, 269.

16 Owen, 13.

17 Muller, 269.

18 Owen, 114.

19 Arminius, 2:194.

20 Owen, 114.

21 From Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola, FL: Vance Publications, 2002), Appendix 3:601-06.

22 Owen, 117.


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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.