Arminius Grounds the Knowledge of God in His Essence

Arminius confesses, as should we all, that we cannot know, in an absolute sense, the nature of God.1 However, we can attain to some knowledge of the divine, as He has revealed such to us in His word and through what He has created.2 For Arminius, the essence of God is "the first impulse of the Divine Nature by which God is purely and simply understood to be."3 Hence the Divine Essence is "spiritual, and from this [we deduce] that God is a Spirit [John 4:24], because it could not possibly come to pass that the First and Chief Being should be corporeal [existing in bodily form]: From this one cannot do otherwise than justly admire the transcendent force and plenitude of God, by which He is capable of even creating things corporeal that have nothing analogous to Himself.4 Arminius concludes: "The Divine Essence is uncaused and without commencement."5 From this he intuits that the essence of God is "simple and infinite," "eternal and immeasurable," "unchangeable, impassible [unfeeling,], and incorruptible."6

The Life of God, insists Arminius, is "most simple, so that it is not in reality distinguished from His essence," and yet, "according to the confined capacity of our conception, by which it is distinguished from His essence, it may in some degree be described as being 'an act that flows from the essence of God.'"7 By the "essence" of God, we infer an intrinsic quality that characterizes God, an existence of God, notably a spiritual and personal entity we name "God," as maintaining an inherent and unchanging nature or essentiality in God. Arminius writes further:
As the Essence of God is infinite and most simple, eternal, impassible [unfeeling], unchangeable and incorruptible, we ought likewise to consider His Life with these modes of being and life; on which account we attribute to Him per se immortality, and a most prompt, powerful, indefatigable [unrelenting], and insatiable desire, strength, and delight to act and to enjoy, and in action and enjoyment, if it be lawful thus to express ourselves.8
There are two aspects, or faculties, that this Life of God is active towards -- the Knowledge and the Will of God, both of which include Power, or Capability. The Knowledge of God is "that faculty of His life which is first in nature and order, and by which the living God distinctly understands all things and every one, which, in what manner soever, either have, will have, have had, can have, or might hypothetically have, a being of any kind."9 This is supported by such passages as Acts 17:28, Colossians 1:17, and Hebrews 1:3. The Knowledge of God derives from His "own and sole essence,"10 corroborates according to "the succession of order and not of time,"11 and is entirely exhaustive, as God knows "all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible."12 However, this exhaustive and infallible knowledge of God "depends on the infinity of the essence of God, and not on His unchangeable will."13 He rejects the philosophical-theological determinism of Calvin, Beza, and his Calvinist colleagues.

Arminius then claims that the Knowledge of God never imposes necessity on any event. Because our decisions are not decreed for us by God, meaning that His knowledge of our actions does not cause those actions, then determinism is undermined and notions of Open Theism are deemed gratuitous. God foreknows our future free will acts, yes, but we do not act because He foreknows the act. "How certain soever the acts of God's understanding may itself be, this does not impose any necessity on things, but it rather establishes contingency in them. For as He knows the thing itself and its mode, if the mode of the thing be contingent, He must know it as such, and therefore it remains contingent with respect to the Divine knowledge."14 We still act freely when we act. God's foreknowledge of the act, in itself, does not create necessity of the act: what would create necessity of the act is if God decreed for the act to be performed, decreeing also all the means toward the fruition of that act, thus bringing about the act either directly or indirectly.



He then appeals to the "middle or intermediate [kind of] knowledge [that intervenes] in things which depend on the liberty of created . . . choice or pleasure."15 Is Arminius, here, appealing to middle knowledge? Arminius already tips his hat toward Molinism when he writes, quoted above: God knows "all things and every one, which, in what manner soever, either have, will have, have had, can have, or might hypothetically have, a being of any kind." God's so-called simple knowledge is of what must be; while God's middle knowledge relates to that which could be.16

For example, in the oft-quoted passage of King David, fleeing to the city of Keilah from the pursuit of King Saul, David prays thusly to the LORD, "Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?" (1 Sam. 23:12) David is asking a future-tense question. God answers: "They will surrender you." David and his men, then, head out in another direction in order to avoid being caught by Saul and his men. (1 Sam. 23:13, 14) The event of King Saul and his men entering the city, and the men of Keilah handing David and his men over to Saul, never took place. If Calvinism is correct, and God only knows that which He has decreed to occur, then God could not have answered David. For God could not have knowledge of an event that He had not decreed to take place. Arminius reconciles such knowledge through the lens of middle knowledge: not God's simple knowledge, by which He knows what must take place, but by His middle knowledge, knowing what could take place. (For more on middle knowledge, see the chapter by Dr. William Lane Craig, "Middle Knowledge: A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?")

Is Arminius a Molinist, then? Opinions differ on this question. Molinist Dr. Kenneth D. Keathley informed me that a mere affirmation of middle knowledge, and especially as used by Arminius, does not alone nominate Arminius as a Molinist. Particularly, Arminius' use of middle knowledge regards the subject of salvation, and not merely or solely the doctrine of the Knowledge of God:
If Arminius' endorsement of the doctrine of middle knowledge is clear, so is his disagreement with his Reformed colleagues on this point. As Muller points out, "We finally have a point of difference with Reformed teaching that bears directly on the substance of the later debate." And it is an important point, for Arminius wields this view to support his doctrine of salvation: like Molina, Arminius uses the doctrine to argue that "God has eternally determined to distribute to all mankind the grace necessary for salvation. Grace is, thus, unequally distributed but is sufficient for each individual. According to [God's middle knowledge], God knows how individuals will accept or resist the assistance of his grace and can destine them either to glory or to reprobation on the grounds of their free choice."17
Arminius uses Molinism to his advantage much as he uses Augustine to his advantage: he weaves ideas he deems worthy and biblical into the tapestry of his theology. But his use of Molinism no more renders him a Molinist proper than does his use of Augustine render him an Augustinian proper. As a matter of fact, Stanglin and McCall note that Arminius even "makes very important changes to Molina's [theologically Roman Catholic-contextual] account [of middle knowledge]."18 But Arminius incorporates middle knowledge in his theology on the Knowledge of God, which he emphatically grounds in the very Essence of God, i.e., in the very nature of God. This means, then, that the exhaustive Knowledge of God is an essential attribute to God via essence, being, and nature -- in no sense, moreover, is this an insignificant or secondary doctrine for him.

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XV. On the Nature of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:358.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 2:339.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 2:340.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 2:341.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid. Hence, the knowledge of God being of "order," and not of "time," indicates that He never learns -- God has always known whatever can be known, and that includes all future free will acts in their fullness, which is an explicit denial of Open Theism. The Knowledge of God is "certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves."

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 2:342.

15 Ibid.

16 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford, 2012), 66.

17 Ibid., 68.

18 Ibid., 69.

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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.