Assessing W. Robert Godfrey on the Influence of Arminius

W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California, in his review of Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall's book, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford, 2012), made some historical blunders which, I think, need to be addressed, challenged, and corrected. 

As I have often noted before, Calvinistic bias often clouds the judgment of Calvinist scholars in properly assessing the history of Arminius and the Remonstrants, so much so that they find accurately representing the history, and theology, of either difficult at best. Dr. Godfrey, much like the esteemed Dr. Richard A. Muller,1 is no exception. Mistakenly expecting Stanglin and McCall's book to address all aspects of Arminius and his theology, Dr. Godfrey complains:
Fifth, while the book presents the basic aspects of the theology of Arminius clearly and helpfully, it does not ultimately address the question of the significance of Arminius as a theologian. (link)
But the authors' attempt was not to present us with such a book. The work was not an historical defense of the significance of Arminius as a theologian -- their defense was that he was a theologian of grace, over that of creation, or of God's love, etc. Why, then, does Godfrey expect to find such a book? In an earlier comment, he grants the same notion: "While the consideration of the theology of Arminius in this study is good as far as it goes, at a number of points we might have expected more analysis and evaluation." 

So, this study of the theology of Arminius as a theologian of grace is not, from his view, "comprehensive." Again, such added information that Godfrey requires would extend the boundaries of the goal of the book. Were the authors to grant "more analysis and evaluation," being much more "comprehensive," the project would have been transformed into a magnum opus such that few would read it. (No one complains about John Piper's more popular books lacking further evaluation and comprehension. But I digress.) Dr. Godfrey continues:
It may seem obvious that Arminius is a very important theologian in that he gave his name to a large, influential branch of Protestant soteriological thought. The book certainly shows that Arminius was a bright and erudite theologian. But by almost any other criteria the book itself seems to acknowledge that he was not very important. (emphases added)  
Dr. Godfrey is most certainly over-stating the case; and perhaps, then, this speaks more to his presuppositional framework than it does to the evidence offered by Stanglin and McCall to that effect. In Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, the authors write for nearly ten pages on the influence of Arminius (189-98). How, then, can Godfrey suggest that the authors seem to acknowledge that Arminius was not very important? That does not make sense.

Moreover, regarding Arminius' influence, what of his successor Simon Episcopius, or Hugo Grotius, or Johannes Uytenbogaert? Was their Arminianism not influenced by the theology of Arminius? What of English Arminianism and the Church of England? Was Arminius' theology not the influential force of their Arminianism? What of John and Charles Wesley? Was their Wesleyan-Arminianism developed in a vacuum? Though later Arminians, like later Reformed and even Calvinistic theologians were not attempting to mimic or become slavish followers of their progenitors,2 this in no sense indicates that those progenitors, whether Luther to Melanchthon, Calvin to Beza, or Arminius to Episcopius (or others like Grotius or Limborch), were insignificant or lacking influence.

We are not granted warrant for so easily dismissing Arminius as rather insignificant, as Dr. Godfrey would have us do. As a matter of fact, Calvinist theologian Dr. Richard A. Muller is quoted as lamenting: 
The theology of Jacob Arminius has been neglected both by his admirers and by his detractors. The restrictive conception of Arminius' 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.3 (emphasis added)
Dr. Muller acknowledges that Arminius has been neglected, but this is not due to him being an insignificant or easily-dismissive Reformed thinker. He thinks that Arminius stands in the intellectual tradition of Reformed thinkers; while Dr. Godfrey frets of Arminius' alleged insignificance.

Still, Dr. Godfrey complains: "He published almost nothing during his lifetime and did not present anything that was creative, novel, or innovative in his theology." I found his use of the word "novel" peculiar yet consistent, given the novel place Calvinism has held in the history of the Church. What other theology has presented itself as any more infamously novel than the doctrines of Calvinism, which were expounded somewhat by Luther, by Zwingli and Calvin, all stemming from one man in Church history: St Augustine (354-430) -- the father of Roman Catholicism? May we sacrifice novelty for orthodoxy!

Moreover, anyone familiar with the history of Arminius understands that he was obligated and expected by his peers to spend an inordinate amount of his time answering and refuting misrepresentations and lies propagated by Calvinists,4 such that, coupled with his pastoral duties, and teaching his students at Leiden, he had no spare time for publishing prolific works. Dr. Godfrey adds:
He did not originate a school of theology or inspire followers who continued or refined his thought. The seventeenth-century Remonstrants, who looked back to him as a hero, departed from him radically in the direction of Socinian or Enlightenment thought. 
Arminius did not inspire followers who continued or refined his thought? Has Godfrey not read the Remonstrance of 1610, or The Opinions of the Remonstrants of 1618, or The Arminian Confession of 1621 -- all of which not only continue and refine Arminius' thought, but also betrays his confession that these Arminians -- mainstay Arminians such as Dutch Protestants successor Simon Episcopius, Hugo Grotius, and Johannes Uytenbogaert -- departed radically into Socinian or Enlightenment thought? He is, clearly, wrong on this count. 

That a few later, and not immediate, Arminians did depart from classical Arminian theology and adopted heretical theological views, whether Socinian or Unitarian, is no more the fault of Arminius than is the departure of hyper-Calvinists or Presbyterian Calvinists from classical Calvinism into Unitarianism5 the fault of Calvin; thus demonstrating that Calvinism is, by far, no safeguard from heterodoxy or heresy. Dr. Godfrey continues:
The book itself states that he did not directly influence any later theologians [already proven inaccurate]. Arminius is simply one expression of what we might call the Erasmian or semi-Pelagian tendency in Christian theology throughout the history of the church.
Dr. Godfrey's ludicrous and erroneous "semi-Pelagian tendency" charge has been clearly answered and refuted in the post, "Is Jacob Arminius a Theologian of Semi-Pelagianism?" That Calvinists like Dr. Godfrey continually perpetuate this sort of error speaks volumes about their academic integrity, I think. The semi-Pelagian charge of Arminius and classical Arminian theology has been refuted and answered to the degree that, when a Calvinist continues to make the charge, one immediately recognizes the employment of the charge as nothing more than an attempt at guilt by association, rhetoric, and calumny. 

Calvin's successor Theodore Beza, an apt theologian in his own right -- some would even say he was Calvin's equal (link) -- was also Arminius' mentor, though he would depart and challenge his mentor's supralapsarianism. Though Beza was a significant theologian, leaving his legacy in the form of the Codex Bezae, whom did he directly influence? Beza maintained forty-plus years of ministry, nearly twenty years more than that of Arminius, and still his name is virtually unheard of today. Does this not render Beza insignificant, then? According to the reasoning of Dr. Godfrey, yes, both theologians, Beza and Arminius, are insignificant. We disagree on both counts; and Godfrey's attempt at minimizing the significance of Arminius only speaks to his bias.

But he is also quite mistaken to deconstruct Arminius' theology to mere Erasmian thought: not only was Arminius' theology in line with that of Melanchthon, Luther's successor, and the Lutheran theologians prior to his day, it was also a reclamation of early Church orthodoxy, as noted by Dr. Olson6 -- the general theological orthodoxy from the era of the apostles through the end of the fourth century,7 prior to the advent of St Augustine, who invented what would later develop into the heterodoxy of Calvinism. 

While reading book reviews, I am always reminded that the reader is absorbing information through his or her own worldview (theological or otherwise). W. Robert Godfrey's review of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, is mixed with truth and error; and what disappoints me most is not his obvious lack of even an attempt at objectivity, but that some Calvinists will read his review and take his every word as fact, thus perpetuating errors regarding Arminius and Arminianism for others to adopt. Such is poor and inadequate scholarship.


1 See W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation and Theological Commentary (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 164-66.

2 See Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2014), 164.

3 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 Academic, 2001), 269.

4 "Almost all of his writings were composed in the heat of controversy; he often was under attack by critics and leaders of the Dutch state and church, who demanded that he explain himself." See Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Reality (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 21.

5 See Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 1999), 139. See also J.L. Neve, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. II (Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 31.

6 Olson, 22.

7 Kenneth D. Keathley insists that Arminianism has always been considered, even if anachronistically so, the teaching of the early Church fathers, as well as Eastern orthodoxy. See "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.


Post a Comment


My photo

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.