Arminius vs. Edwards: The Reformed Battle of God and Creation

From the article, "Jacob Arminius and Jonathan Edwards on the Doctrine of Creation," written by Oliver D. Crisp -- author of Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, and a theologian who specializes in the theology of Jonathan Edwards (the locus of his Ph.D. thesis was the philosophical theology of Edwards, as he was tutored by Calvinist scholar Paul Helm) -- we learn of Jonathan Edwards' panentheist views of God and creation, and that Jacob Arminius maintained closer ties to the Reformed tradition on this matter than did the deviations of Edwards, himself a staunch Calvinist. The following is taken from the book, Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann.

Panentheism, according to Stanford, considers God and the world to be "inter-related, with the world being in God, and God being in the world" -- the world is "somehow an emanation from God."1 Panentheism "seeks to avoid either isolating God from the world," as traditional theism tends towards, or "identifying God with the world as pantheism does. Traditional theistic systems emphasize the difference between God and the world while panentheism stresses God's active presence in the world." (link) Crisp argues that Edwards' absolutist views of God's ultra-deterministic sovereignty forced him to embrace panentheism -- a "doctrine often thought to be at odds with orthodox Christian theology." Crisp writes:
Some critics of Edwards, like [Calvinist] Charles Hodge, have even claimed that his work collapses into pantheism ["God is identical with the cosmos"], given his idealism and robust doctrine of continuous creation. Even if his view is panentheist, rather than pantheist, I submit that it requires a much more significant shift in theology than the addition of a doctrine of middle knowledge [as mildly and conveniently espoused by Arminius] and temporal account of divine conservation to a basically classical account of the divine nature."2 (emphasis added)
Dr. Crisp states that both Arminius and Edwards were "willing to innovate within the traditions that shaped them, where they thought that appropriate," and concedes that the "innovations presented by Arminius were actually less radical than those allowed by Edwards."3 From reading modern-day Calvinists, such as Piper or Sproul, one could never come to such a conclusion. While Arminius' views of God and creation can be referred to as Thomist Calvinism, Edwards, by contrast, "retains divine freedom and aseity at the cost of making creation the necessary product of divine creativity. Indeed, as a number of several studies have argued, Edwardsianism entails panentheism."4

While Crisp thinks that this truth is "not necessarily unorthodox," he confesses that "it does put Edwards's understanding of God and creation much further from the center of classical, orthodox accounts of the divine nature (including classical, orthodox Reformed accounts!) than that of Arminius."5 While Arminius is typically yet erroneously portrayed as the antithesis to much Reformed doctrine, Dr. Crisp notes that Edwards "spent much of his intellectual capital combatting what he perceived to be 'Arminianism,' which was not the same as Arminius's theology, but a sort of freethinking theological sensibility that implied an anthropological turn that Edwards (rightly) regarded as a threat,"6 a bit of historical irony given Edwards' deviations on God's relationship with His own creation.

Crisp rejects the notion that Arminius was a theological maverick or "a thinker who played fast-and-loose with the tradition he inherited." He states that the most significant innovation that Arminius takes in his doctrine of creation is "the inclusion of a doctrine of middle knowledge. This does take him beyond the Reformed mainstream," yet "those contemporary evangelical theologians who claim to be both Molinst and Reformed would do well to pay more attention to the historical dimension to this debate."7 That is a significant point: Should anyone criticize Arminius' use of middle knowledge, alleging that such renders his theology a pure and uncontested deviation from the Reformed tradition, then Calvinists who also claim middle knowledge have, ipso facto, deviated from the Reformed tradition.



But the nomenclature "the Reformed tradition" is perceived by some as being far too monolithic to be true to history. The so-called Reformed tradition incorporated ideas that deviated from any semblance of the mainstream of Calvin's ideology and theology. His successor, Theodore Beza, for instance, fully developed supralapsarian philosophy, where Calvin only introduced the novel theory. He also developed notions of reprobation that were rather disturbing, even for Calvinistic conceptions:
Beza and his followers referred reprobation to the divine good pleasure (εὐδοκία). Arminius objected [to this theory, noting] that every good pleasure of God towards man is in Jesus Christ. Scripture teaches that it is the "good pleasure" of God that everyone who sees the Son, and believes on Him, should have eternal life. Even worse, Beza had suggested that the reprobate are admonished in order to render them inexcusable, because God has determined by the divine decree not to grant them penitence and faith, and also because that is in the intention of the divine admonition, and God is never frustrated in His end. Arminius rejected both explanations.8
What is deplorable, though, is Beza's theory that those who "suffer for eternity in hell can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God."9 Quote Beza to a "mainstream" alleged Calvinist and watch him squirm. (No doubt many of Beza's thoughts led to the future of theological hyper-Calvinism.) The atonement was another issue hotly debated in the so-called Reformed tradition, and was even a heated discussion at the Synod of Dordt between supra- and infralapsarian Calvinists, Gomarus himself calling for a duel with infralapsarian Martinius.10

Arminius' doctrine of creation was contextually framed within the scholastic tradition, much as that of Edwards, so both theologians conducted themselves on equal theological ground. Arminius' doctrine of the nature of God was the "traditional, classical account of the divine nature according to which God is a simple pure act."11 Crisp highlights Stanglin and McCall's thought that Arminius' notion of divine simplicity "may be more Scotist than Thomist,"12 but perhaps a Scotist-Thomist hybrid is closer to the truth. Regardless, Arminius views God as being independent from His creation, and God was in no sense whatsoever required by any semblance of necessity to create.13

Edwards maintained a "classical account of the divine nature and attributes," of course, but Dr. Crisp notes that Edwards understands God's aseity ("existence originating from and having no source other than itself," Dictionary.com) in terms of "his doctrine of theological determinism, so that divine freedom amounts to God necessarily acting according to the perfection of his nature."14 Regardless, God, by nature, according to Edwards, is primarily concerned about His own glorification. Crisp writes:
What is less well known is that Edwards claims in his doctrine of creation: that (a) God is essentially creative so that God must create some world [divine necessity, a concept resultant from his deterministic views]; and that (b) any theater of divine creation must be one in which the full panoply [array] of divine attributes are displayed including God's justice and wrath [to those whom God decreed to reprobate] as well as God's grace and mercy [to those whom God decreed to unconditionally elect unto faith and salvation].15 (emphasis added)
This novel theory seems to undermine God's self-satisfactory relationship within the Persons of the Trinity -- God needed to create, not for His sustenance, but for His creative attribute. Unfortunately, Edwards' theology on this matter is itself, again, necessitated by his a priori doctrine of divine determination. Crisp writes: "One of the startling implications of this deliverance of Edwarsian theology is that he thinks God creates the world so that he may be united with [unconditionally] elected creatures in theosis [to become divine]."16 Edwards also posits continuous creation, contra Hebrews 4:10, so that he imagines the world "does not exist whole and complete at each moment of time that it does exist."17

Dr. Crisp objectively concludes: "Even if Edwards's panentheism does not push him beyond orthodoxy, it should be clear from this sketch of his doctrine of creation that it looks very different from the sort of view one would expect from a representative of Reformed orthodoxy."18 This is a significant emphasis, especially in light of the perception that many Calvinists assume of Arminius. Crisp concludes: "This does not show that Arminius is closer to the Reformed mainstream than Edwards [especially soteriologically], all things considered. But it does give some credence to Stanglin and McCall's view [in their work, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, Oxford] that Arminius is not the bogeyman of much Calvinist apologetic on a central doctrinal locus, namely, the doctrine of creation."19 Of course, much of the confusion and misrepresentation regarding Arminius could be corrected by actually reading Arminius.

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1 Oliver D. Crisp, "Jacob Arminius and Jonathan Edwards on the Doctrine of Creation," in Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2014), 105.

2 Ibid., 107.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 108.

7 Ibid., 106.

8 Peter White, Predestination, Policy and Polemic: Conflict and Consensus in the English Church from the Reformation to the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 27.

9 Taken from Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 459.

10 Tensions are high when supralapsarian Franciscus Gomarus, Arminius' chiefest opponent, challenges infralapsarian Matthias Martinius to a duel over the matter of the extent of the atonement: "ego hanc rem in me recipio [I, in this situation, regain myself, states Gomarus], and therewithal casts his Glove ... and requires the Synod to grant them [him and Martinius] a Duel ... Martinius who goes in aequipace [i.e., is equally endowed] with Gomarus in Learning, a little before him for his Discretion, easily [considers] this affront, and after some few words of course, by the wisdom of the Praeses [Mineral (Wisdom) Stones] matters seemed to be a little pacified, and so according to the custom, the Synod with Prayer concluded. Zeal and Devotion had not so well allayed Gomarus his choler [temper], but immediately after Prayers he renewed his Challenge [to a duel] and required Combat with Martinius again; but they parted for that night without blowes [sic]. See W. Robert Godfrey, "Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dort," in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1619-1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 243.

11 Crisp, 94.

12 Ibid., 95.

13 Ibid., 96.

14 Ibid., 99.

15 Ibid., 99-100.

16 Ibid., 102.

17 Ibid., 103.

18 Ibid., 105.

19 Ibid., 107-08.

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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.