Was Arminius a Determinist?

That question may seem perplexing at first glance: Was Arminius a determinist? Someone may respond: Of course he was not a determinist! But that is not the conclusion of all Reformed thinkers. Eef Dekker,1 for instance, posits that, due to Arminius' modal logic, he is himself an unwitting deteminist.2 First, we must remember to view Arminius as a scholastic theologian, scholasticism being, in a simple form, a medieval, early-Church, Aristotelian tradition of understanding faith, the will, the intellect, God, theology, etc. Second, we must consider Arminius' context of modal logic, which, simply stated, references both necessary and possible realities.3

Arminius at times offers arguments that accord with his Reformed tradition such that appear too Reformed for the non-Reformed (the word Reformed here referring to the broad Reformed tradition, which is not synonymous with Calvinistic theology). For example, when Arminius insists that God does nothing in time which He has not decreed to do from all eternity,4 non-Reformed thinkers raise a furrowed brow and challenge him as to the degree God has decreed to act in history. Also, when Arminius insists that people do not even sin without the cooperation of God,5 those outside the broadly Reformed tradition challenge that notion, demanding an answer of God's involvement in our sin.

St Paul informs us that, in God, we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28) He also teaches us that Christ holds all things together. (Col. 1:17) The author of Hebrews teaches us that Jesus sustains all things by His powerful word. (Heb. 1:3) Therefore, even when we sin, God must, at the very least, permit us to the act of sinning; but even more so, He is sustaining our existence while we are committing the act of sinning. For Arminius, and Reformed thinkers, this is an inevitable consequence of the sovereignty of God over all of life or that which exists. While God does not commit sin, nor has He decreed, strictly taken, that we sin -- we do not sin because God decreed that we sin -- He, nevertheless, concurs with our decision to sin and sustains our lives when we sin.

God in no sense whatsoever is pleased when we sin, nor does He agree with our decision to sin, but He permits us to sin when we decide to sin. Regardless, God "truly hates the sins of the regenerate and of the elect of God, and indeed so much the more as those who thus sin have received more benefits from God and a greater power of resisting sin."6 Arminius is emphatic that God is neither negligent nor passive in mundane affairs.7 He refuses to advocate the notion of God as entirely passive, with regard to sin and evil, yet argues that God does not render the same necessary.

Perhaps, though, we need to consider the plausibility of an early Arminius and a later Arminius, much as we do with St Augustine and Martin Luther. Many theologians experience an evolution of their views -- a sharpening of theological points and, in some cases, a change either in emphases or in theological views. For instance, under the tutelage of Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza, early in his theological career, Arminius may have once been a supralapsarian Calvinist and, hence, a theological determinist.

Otherwise, why would Arminius have been chosen by Martinus Lydius to challenge and correct the non-Calvinist Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, who himself challenged Beza on the points of supralapsarian dogma? If Arminius had already opposed supralapsarianism, as he most obviously did later in his Declaration of Sentiments, which is a devastating critique of supralapsarian (and even infralapsarian) Calvinism, then Lydius would not have considered Arminius as an apt option for the charge.8 As a matter of historical fact, while reading Coornhert, in an effort to refute his views, Arminius found himself unable to do so, and ended up converting and then defending many of Coornhert's theological opinions.

With regard to the subject of determinism, Dr. McCall supposes that Dekker is most likely right in suggesting that, in Arminius' letter to friend Johannes Uytenbogaert, Arminius unwittingly held to a nuanced form of determinism, but "Arminius later significantly alters his views."9 Arminius, to Dekker, appears a determinist because, in his modal logic, that which is deemed certain is also rendered necessary. For instance, if God foreknows that Susan will be saved, by grace through continued faith in Christ, and God knows this fact as a certainty, then He also necessarily knows this fact, and Susan necessarily will be saved.

Later in his theological career, when he challenges supralapsarian Calvinist Francis Gomarus, Arminius expounds upon (or, perhaps, corrects) his views of God's sovereignty, certainty, and necessity. But, for Arminius, certainty is not rendered a necessity because of contingency.10 God foreknows Susan's salvation, for example, not because of necessity but due to contingency. Susan's salvation was not necessary but contingent upon grace and faith. Consider modal logic: one is surmising necessary and possible realities. If God had, from eternity past, rendered Susan's salvation certain by decree, then God's knowledge of that fact would be necessary -- indeed, Susan's salvation itself would be one of necessity. This Arminius rejects, that God decreed her salvation by strict, necessitarian decree.11

Why this subject is significant to the study of Arminius, as well as to Arminian theology, concerns the relation of his theology to the broadly Reformed tradition. If Arminius can, at times, be mistaken for a determinist, that demonstrates well his Reformed context, and his relation to the same. In other words, we need not relegate Arminius as the Boogeyman of Reformed orthodoxy. As a matter of fact, Dr. Muller reminds us of this fact:
As a colleague of mine recently observed, the conflict between the scholastic Arminius and the scholastic Reformed theologians [like his Calvinist predecessor Francis Junius] is, like many of the bitter philosophical and theological debates we continue to experience, a battle between brothers. Had Arminius been a biblicistic pietist promulgating a message that was stylistically and doctrinally widely divergent from and foreign to the Reformed mind of his time, he could have been ignored or at least easily dismissed. His scholastic style, however, was precisely the style characteristic of Reformed thought in his day. ..."12
Was Arminius a determinist? We have to conclude that, no, he was not in fact a determinist -- at least, not when we properly frame his own biblical philosophy regarding certainty, contingency, and necessity. Given that God's knowledge, indeed His foreknowledge, is not causal, then we cannot assume that His foreknowledge of future events, or foreknown decisions made by rational creatures, are necessary even if God's knowledge of the same is certain. Why? Because those future decisions are not rendered necessary by God's decree, or by Him rendering them certain by His causation in bringing them about, or by His influencing them toward His wishes or divine will and power.

Granted, Arminius' Reformed doctrine of divine concurrence is as close as Arminius comes to Calvinistic determinism without actually embracing and promoting determinism. Still, God's concurrence cannot be properly hailed as being deterministic in nature, since God, in concurrence, has not rendered any sinful decision, evil intention, or sinful or evil event necessary by decree. Strict determinism requires God's rendering an event necessary by an eternal decree, and this is a notion which Arminius rejects, and confesses to require we view God as the Author of sin and evil. (See the post: "Why, for Arminius, Does Determinism Name God the Author of Sin?")


1 Eef Dekker, "Jacob Arminius and His Logic: Analysis of a Letter," in the Journal of Theological Studies 44 (1993): 119-42.

2 Thomas H. McCall, "Was Arminius an Unwitting Determinist? Another Look at Arminius's Modal Logic," in Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2014), 24.

3 See 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 Books, 1991), 15-51.

4 Cf. The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235; 2:350; 2:368.

5 Ibid., 2:162-77. See also Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 121.

6 Arminius, Works, 2:725.

7 Ibid., 2:163. See also Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 94-106.

8 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1985), 138.

9 McCall, 24.

10 Ibid., 26. McCall notes that "necessity is not contradictory to possibility; rather necessity subimplies possibility. In other words, if something is necessary surely it is possible -- although if something is possible it need not be necessary (it could be contingent)." (28)

11 Ibid., 27.

12 Muller, 275.