Jacob Arminius vs. William Perkins on the Decrees of God

John D. Wagner, editor of Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, by Daniel D. Whedon, as well as Redemption Redeemed: A Puritan Defense of Unlimited Atonement, by John Goodwin, also brought us Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God. In this post, Arminius speaks in dialogue with William Perkins1 on the primary subject of the decrees of God corresponding with the problem of evil.


Reverend Sir, and beloved Brother in Christ, While I was lately, and with eagerness, examining a certain library abundantly supplied with recently published books, a pamphlet presented itself to me. When I observed that it bore your name, which was already well known to me by previously published works of a high character, I thought that I must diligently read and consider it, and see whether you, who are devoted to the most accurate learning, could remove, in that work, the difficulties which have long disquieted my mind. 

I, therefore, read it once and again, with impartiality, as far as I could, and with candor, as you desire. But, in reading, I perceived that all my difficulties were not removed by your work, while I thought that some things, written by you, deserved to be examined in the light of truth. Accordingly, I judged it not improper to commence a friendly discussion with you concerning your treatise.2 ...

In your Epistle to the Reader, you lay down two fundamental principles, on which the doctrine of Predestination and Divine Grace, can and must be built. The first is "the written word of God;" the second is "the common ideas, and the principles which God has infused into the minds of men." I have no opposition to make at this point, only let this be added, that, when, on account of the darkness of our minds, and the weakness and diversity of the human judgment (which you regret), it is not possible for us to agree concerning these matters, we must recur, for definite and final decision, to that which is first and equivalent to all other things: the word of God.

Of the first principle, laid down by you, I remark that it is true; but care must be used, lest anything not in accordance with human judgment, should be attributed to God, and defended as just, on the consideration that it is declared to be unjust by corrupt human judgment; unless it can be made clear, by a conclusive argument, that it is suitably ascribed to the Deity. For, it is sufficient, for the sake of referring any action or work to God to say that He has justly performed it; though, from the antecedent, God has done this, will follow, of necessity, the consequent; therefore, it is just.

Of the second: I concede that it is true. For He is the first cause, and the causes of causes, who, from the foreseen free act of rational creatures, takes occasion to make any decree, and to establish a certain order in events; which decree He would not have made, and which order He would not have established, if the free second causes had acted otherwise. The Apostle says, "the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of Him who hath subjected the same" (Rom. 8:20).

To this vanity the creature would not have been subjected, if he, for whose sake it was created by God, had remained in his original integrity. The decree, in reference to sending Christ into the world, depends on the foresight of the Fall. ... 

The decrees of God, by which He ordains to punish His creatures, are universally on this principle, according to the Scriptures: "That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25) "Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book" (Exod. 32:33) ... But it is not therefore to be supposed that the imposing of penalties depends on second causes. So far from it, they would put forth every effort to escape judgment, if they could do so either by reason or force.

I could wish also that the word "ordaining" were used in its proper sense: from which they seem to me to depart, who interpret it -- to decree that something shall be done. For its true meaning is to establish the order of things done, not to appoint things to be done that they may be done; though it is used sometimes by the fathers in the latter sense. But then God is denied by the fathers to be the ordainer of evils. Thus says Augustine: "God knows how to ordain, not crime, but the punishment of crimes."

Of the third: It is characteristic of a wise being to do nothing in vain. But he does something in vain, who does it not to attain some end. But God is infinitely wise. Let me caution you, then, not to extend the phrase, "to regard with indifference," farther, or to interpret it otherwise than is suitable. There is a real distinction between doing and permitting.

He who permits anything, that he may attain some end, does not regard it with indifference. From this it is clear that not to regard with indifference is not the same as to do or to make. Of this also I remind you for a certain reason. Then consider whether the phrase you use is correct. The word "prudently" seems too feeble to be applied to so great wisdom.

And it is not a usual form of expression to say that an action is performed "in view of a certain end," but for the sake of that end. The statement, He does not will or decree that which He cannot, is ambiguous, and not sufficiently full. It is ambiguous, because it may be understood to mean that He cannot will or decree, or that He cannot do. It is not sufficiently full, because there should be an addition, so that the statement would be this: "He does not will or decree to do or permit that which He cannot do or permit." For which reason also your conclusion is likewise imperfect, and, to this expression, "He has decreed thus to do," add, "or permit."3


1 John D. Wagner comments that William Perkins was "a prominent Cambridge theologian and leader of the Puritan movement in the sixteenth century. The following was written by Arminius in 1602 in response to Perkins' A Christian and Plain Treatise on the Mode and Order of Predestination, and on the Amplitude of Divine Grace, originally published in Latin in 1598." Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God, ed. John D. Wagner (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 88.

2 Arminius continues: "This I do, with the greater freedom and confidence, because, in the second page of your pamphlet, you say, to the encouragement of my mind, that you 'have written these things, that, by those devoted to theological investigation' -- among whom I willingly reckon myself -- 'they may be read without prejudice or acerbity [sourness] of mind, duly weighed, and judged by the pure word of God.' This I undertake, and pledge myself to do according to my ability; asking of you that in return, you will, with the same disposition, read my remarks, weigh them, and examine and judge them by the rule of the same Scriptures. 

"May God grant that all may fully agree, in those things necessary to His glory, and to the salvation of the church. And that, in other things, if there cannot be harmony of opinions, there may at least be harmony of feelings, and that we may 'keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.'

"With this desire, then, expressed at the beginning of our discussion, I enter on the subject itself, following in the track, which, in your writing, you have pursued before me. I will commence with your Epistle to the Reader, and then proceed, with the divine help, to the treatise itself." (89)

3 Ibid., 88-91.


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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.