Jacob Arminius and Open Theism

There exists a false charge that Arminius' theology, when consistently maintained, renders one an Open Theist. This charge is merely a rhetorical one, synonymous with the insistence that the only consistent Calvinism is hyper-Calvinism, or some such notion. John Mark Hicks tackles this rhetorical plea head-on in his work, "Was Arminius an Open Theist? Meticulous Providence in the Theology of Jacob Arminius," in the recent book, Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin (a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians), Mark G. Bilby and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2014).

This post is heavily edited, such that those interested in this topic will want to purchase the book for a full review. By way of caveat: I intend no personal ill-will toward Open Theists, so that this post need not be viewed as in any sense an attack. Note, however, that we Arminians sharply disagree with you on this matter. The intent here is to give an answer to baseless complaints regarding Arminius and his theology consistently leading one to Open Theistic tendencies.

Moreover, keep in mind that the Society of Evangelical Arminians does not admit Open Theists as members. So this issue is more than a benign theological disagreement between members of the same tradition. Note, also, that when Hicks refers to "Reformed" folk below, the referents should be viewed as "Calvinistic" or "Calvinist" and the like, as I refuse to equate the Reformed moniker solely with those who espouse a Calvinism-only position. Hicks writes the following. 

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Ever since the emergence of open theism on the evangelical scene in the 1990s, there have been several attempts to saddle Arminianism with the theological interests of open theism. On the one hand, Reformed theologians find it to their advantage to identify Arminianism and open theism, if for no other reason than the slippery slope or logical entailment argument has a concrete example. Open theists, on the other hand, seek some historical legitimacy through identification with Arminianism if not also some theological cover. As a result, whether one is seeking to delegitimize open theism (as some Reformed theologians intend) or to legitimize it (as some open theists intend), it is to the mutual benefit of Reformed theology and open theism to classify Arminianism and open theism together.

At one level all agree that there is a significant chasm between Calvinists and free will theists. Arminians and open theists stand together on one side of that abyss. Most agree that libertarian freedom is a significant part of that great divide. Consequently, in a recent 4 Views book titled Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, Paul Helm and Bruce Ware represent Reformed ("Calvinist") positions whereas Roger Olson and John Sanders [Sanders being an Open Theist] represent libertarian positions. Ware's introduction places Olson and Sanders in a "broad Arminian camp."

Sanders no doubt appreciates Ware's classification. One of Sanders's interests has been to persuade the evangelical community that open theism is closer to a miniscule modification of Arminianism than a radical revision. Indeed, Sanders seems to emphasize only two major differences, that is, the extent of divine foreknowledge and divine temporality. Between these, claims Sanders, the main issue is the question of exhaustive foreknowledge.

But even then there "are no practical differences" between the two. Neither Arminianism nor open theism questions the nature of foreknowledge as divine dependence upon contingent events -- no matter what their understanding of divine temporality. Open theism is actually, according to Sanders, "an attempt to correct some logical problems" that "are present in establishment Arminianism." In fact, Sanders refers to his position as "open Arminianism."

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DEFINING METICULOUS PROVIDENCE

The philosopher of religion Michael L. Peterson was one of the first to introduce the phrase "meticulous providence" into contemporary philosophical discussions. He used it to clarify various responses to the evidential problem of evil, that is, the problem of the quantity, quality, and gratuitous character of evil in the world. He identified the "meticulous providence" principle as "an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good God would not allow gratuitous or pointless evil." The term, then, arose first in the context of philosophy of religion in the interest of theodicy. ...

Meticulous providence is the denial of gratuitous or pointless evil. But what is gratuitous evil? John Hick called it "dysteleological evil" such that some events are "random and meaningless." Philosophers of religion are constantly engaged in fine-tuning that definition. My concern, however, is not to settle any such discussion. Rather, I will only note that for Peterson -- who inaugurated the use of this phrase -- the meaning of gratuitous evil, defined in dependence on William Rowe, is whatever does not lead to a greater good. In other words, meticulous providence assumes some form of "greater good" theodicy.

[ ... ]

In essence, meticulous providence in current philosophical theology entails at least two affirmations. First, no gratuitous evil exists -- that is, every instance of evil serves a greater good. Second, God either directly or weakly actualizes every event in the world. More broadly, God thus governs the world in such a way that nothing happens without God's direct action or specific permission. Bruce A. Little, an Arminian who denies meticulous providence, summarized these points in this way: "God supervises every potential event of evil/suffering so that only those evils that can be used for God's good purposes are actualized." Given this definition, open theists deny meticulous providence while Arminius himself would affirm it.

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ARMINIUS ON METICULOUS PROVIDENCE

I will approach the theology of Arminius through three lenses that are part of his theological world. Each of these provides a window through which we may see Arminius's affirmation of meticulous providence: (1) divine concurrence; (2) sovereign divine permission; and (3) divine governance. In effect, not only is Arminius a "greater good" theodicist, but he also believes that God weakly actualizes all things in such a way that God is sovereign over evil. God permits evil while also ruling over it.

Olson describes Arminius's notion of "divine concurrence" as "the most subtle aspect of his doctrine of sovereignty and providence." It is most thoroughly discussed in the secondary literature by Richard A. Muller in God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius. He argues that Arminius's theology of providence is a "modified Thomism" in response to the development of "early orthodox Reformed scholasticism." Specifically, Arminius modifies early Reformed orthodoxy "with a distinctly Molinist view of divine concurrence." This modification differentiates Arminius from his Reformed contemporaries, but it also embraces an understanding of concurrence that is antagonistic to open theism. This demands close attention because the implications are momentous.



Divine concurrence is a common assumption in Thomistic theology, as well as in the emerging Reformed scholasticism of Arminius's time. It affirms that God is the first cause of all finite acts. Through concurrence, God sustains finite reality, provides both the capacity and efficacy of creaturely actions, and specifically directs those actions toward the divine goal. In other words, God is the primary causal factor in every finite act -- God sustains, effects, and directs everything.

Arminius modifies this understanding of concurrence. He maintains the notions of sustenance and direction, affirming that God ontologically sustains every act and directs (governs) every act. He modifies, however, efficacy. Specifically, in the divine permission of sin, "God suspends any efficiency (efficientia) possible to Him." He writes:
The last Efficiency of God concerning the Beginnings of sin, is the Divine Concurrence, which is necessary to produce every act; because nothing whatever can have an entity except from the First and Chief Being, who immediately produces that entity. The Concurrence of God is not His immediate influx into a second or inferior cause, but it is an action of God immediately [influens] flowing into the effect of the creature, so that the same effect in one and the same entire action may be produced [simul] simultaneously by God and the creature.
Whereas traditional scholasticism affirmed a divine "influx" in the secondary cause such that God is a causal actor in every act, Arminius -- following Molina, at least with regard to sin -- places this efficacy in the effect rather than the cause. God simultaneously acts in the effect rather than "acting in or on the secondary cause." God effects the effects of sin rather than efficaciously causing the sin itself. For Arminius, as Muller notes, God acts "with the secondary cause and flowing, with it, into its action and effect." This protects the secondary cause as "determinative of its own action, and, therefore, free," while at the same time recognizing the simultaneous action of God. God, as Arminius writes, "joins His own concurrence to the creature's influence" and that concurrence "produce[s] an act."

The difference between acting in and acting with a sinful act is the difference between theological determinism and libertarian freedom as it pertains to efficacy. Theological determinism attributes the primary efficacy to divine causation such that God causes the sinful action within the secondary cause. Arminius wants to avoid such a position because he thinks it makes God the author of sin.

Consequently, Arminius argues that in the agent's determination to sin there is a suspension of divine efficacy along with a specific enabling permission of God. For Arminius, God ontologically sustains the secondary cause as the determinate cause, enables the capacity for secondary causation, and acts with the secondary cause rather than determining the secondary cause's action. Arminius rejects the notion that God is the primary (determinate) efficient cause in the sinful acts of the secondary agent because he wants to preserve both the freedom of the human will and the goodness of God who is not the author (cause) of sin.

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CONCLUSION

I suggest that we no longer use the language of "meticulous providence" as an equivalent for "theological determinism" (what open theists think is the Reformed understanding of sovereignty). Originally the phrase "meticulous providence" identified a view of providence that denies pointless or gratuitous evils. This does not entail determinism or any understanding of eternal decrees, as in Reformed scholasticism. ...

Arminius affirmed with Reformed theology a "meticulous providence" where God has sovereignty over evil such that no evil act is autonomous and uncircumscribed by God's intent for good. God is sovereign in such a way that God concurs with the act itself and its effect has specific meaning and significance. This is a critical difference between classic Arminianism and open theism. Whereas Arminius asserted an understanding of concurrence that entails meticulous providence, open theism does not.

This difference is no minor one since it reaches to the very core of why open theism, at least pastorally, arose as an alternative to Reformed theology and more traditional Arminianism. When classic Arminianism affirms "meticulous providence" (in the sense defined herein), this constitutes a radical disagreement with open theism. In terms of "meticulous providence," Reformed theology and classic Arminianism stand together. ...

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John Mark Hicks, "Was Arminius an Open Theist? Meticulous Providence in the Theology of Jacob Arminius," in Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide, eds. Keith D. Stanglin, Mark G. Bilby, and Mark H. Mann (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2014), 137-54.

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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.