The Apologetics of Arminius

We refer to apologetics as a defense (formally an apology, explanation, justification) for the existence of God. There are multiple approaches to a defense of the existence of God demonstrated throughout history. While Reformers like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin approach the subject exegetically, assuming Scripture as sufficient means of evidence for the existence of God, as He has revealed Himself to people throughout history; others, like Melanchthon, Musculus, Hyperius and Arminius prefer, according to Dr. Richard A. Muller, a "highly detailed and philosophically sophisticated view of the divine essence and attributes."1 This historical fact does not dismiss Arminius' use of Scripture, however, as Dr. Muller notes that Arminius' apologetic is "strongly biblical" and "oriented toward questions of human salvation."2 After all, the end or goal of theology, lit., study of God, the highest of all the sciences, is that one may
know God and divine things, may believe on Him, and may through faith perform to Him the acts of love, fear, honor, worship and obedience, and may in return expect and obtain blessedness from Him through union with Him, to the Divine glory. . . . The proximate and immediate object of this doctrine [of God] or science is, not God Himself, but the duty and act of man which he is bound to perform to God: In Theology, therefore, God Himself must be considered as the object of this duty.3
Arminius is a Reformed scholastic theologian, scholasticism being a medieval method used by many in the Reformed tradition to interpret truth claims, whether in Scripture or in philosophy; scholasticism seeks to discover the via media (middle way) or reconciliation between theology and philosophy, between revelation and reason, faith and science. (link) This method rejects the modern notion of mere appeal to the Bible as definitive proof. Given that the non-believer rejects the authority of the Bible, as well that "God" is the author of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the role of philosophy, reason, and science can be implemented as further support to the truths that we believers receive from the history and teachings found in Scripture.

Admittedly, Arminius does not rely upon earlier Protestant scholastics, like Vermigli, Musculus or Hyperius, but primarily on medievals like Thomas Aquinas. The scholastic, categorical method of the evidence for and the doctrine of God includes the following, by way of example: introduction, definition or etymology of terms and words, meaning of thought, method of interpretation, and "proper object of theological discourse; the nature of religion; the authority, certainty, perfection, and perspicuity of Scripture; the essence, life, understanding, and will of God,"4 etc. Scholasticism views an object, like evidence for the existence of God, in categories rather than argument upon argument: the categories are broken down to the finest notions in order to offer support as evidence for the viability of an argument.

Remarkably, in his public disputation "On the Nature of God," Arminius begins: "The very nature of things and the Scriptures of God, as well as the general consent of all wise men and nations, testify that a nature is correctly ascribed to God."5 He begins with a presumption6 of not only the existence of God but also the authority of Scripture in attesting to the notion that a nature may be ascribed to God. This is the approach of presuppositional apologists: such maintain and presume a foundation for the existence of God "and argues from that perspective to show the validity of Christian theism." (link) Another presupposition that must be received is the absolute truth and authority of the Bible. For Arminius, at least in his private disputations on theology and God, he begins not with arguments for the existence of God but with theology itself.

From defining and outlining theology as a science, which is the highest science, he proceeds to argue how theology should be taught, the end (or goal) of theology, on religion and then the rule of religion, which is the Word of God; which, for Arminius, is authoritative and certain in absolutist terms, perfect, perspicuous (clearly expressed, easily understood), a proper method for the interpretation of the holy scriptures, the efficacy of the scriptures, and, finally, the object of the Christian religion, God; which includes creation of the universe, creation of humanity, the fall of humanity, and the role of Christ in the redemption and salvation of humanity.7 Arminius' use of proofs for the existence of God is bold in light of the absence of the same from leading Calvinist theologians among his contemporaries, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Theodore Beza his mentor, William Perkins, Francis Gomarus his antagonist or Lucas Trelcatius.8

Muller notes that Arminius seems to "set forth a positive, nonapologetic, systematic use of the proofs" for the existence of God. He quotes Arminius to the effect:
To every treatise on the nature of God must be prefixed the first and highest axiom of all religion, God exists (Deum esse): without which, it is foolish to inquire into the nature of God, inasmuch as something having no existence would thereby become a pure phantasm in man's thoughts. . . . That God exists has been impressed on every rational creature that receives his voice, and though this indication [of the divine existence] can be grasped by the knower, [the existence of God] can, notwithstanding, be demonstrated by various arguments.9
From the words of Arminius here quoted, I notice both rhetoric and an apologetic, the latter of which Muller denies is present. By use of the word "must" in the first statement, followed by a bold declaration, we conclude with an apologetic -- an argument for the existence of God. By use of the word "foolish" we denote rhetoric. He then follows the rhetoric with yet another apologetic -- an argument for the existence of God -- when qualifying the prior statement and mentioning non-existence. I fail to see, in this brief statement, a nonapologetic use of proofs.



Moreover, Muller is wary of Arminius' final conclusion, the nod toward the role of reason.10 Allow me to respond: 1) I have long detected a fear of reason among Calvinists, and I see that fear rearing its proverbial head in the comment of Muller that follows, and that same fear is noted in the review of Muller's book by Calvinist Mark Dever (link: read the conclusion); and 2) I think that the role of reason belongs even to the fallen individual, even if that reason is philosophically noted as being less than perfect, as reason was perfect prior to the fall. Take, for example, the argument of St Paul to the Romans: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." (Rom. 1:19) Here the apostle is referring to creation (Rom. 1:20) as evidence for the existence of God; and here he insists that this evidence can be known to the rational creature because God has made it known to the rational creature. This evidence may not lead one to know what God has accomplished for humanity, in and through Christ, but God's existence can be known to the rational creature. So we do not question Arminius on this subject.

Moreover, understanding the theological arguments made by Arminius elsewhere, we more appropriately contextualize his comments regarding reason. In a fallen state, argues Arminius, the mind of a fallen individual is "dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God."11 Hence we properly understand the Spirit's role in illuminating the mind, or reason, of the fallen creature. In other words, we understand that the existence of creation itself does not necessarily stimulate the mind or reason of a fallen creature, but that such is motivated toward philosophical and theological thoughts due to the work of God Himself through the Holy Spirit.

Arminius's apologetics seeks to recover "the alliance of faith and reason."12 Ours is not a "blind faith," or a "leap of faith," but a reasonable faith. For Arminius, arguments for the existence of God, and the reliability of the scriptures, are not purely a case for dogmatic exegesis of Hebrew and Christian texts but "a way of demonstrating not only the existence of God but also the right to exercise reason and to use rational argumentation alongside and in concert with the teachings of faith."13 Though some notion of the existence of God may be reasonably derived from creation (Rom. 1:19), the nature and the attributes of such a God cannot be known a priori, but must be revealed by the Being.14 This Being has revealed Himself through prophets and to an entire people group, namely, the Israelites. To no other people group did this divine Being reveal Himself, with the exception of the Incarnation, when Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-18; cf. Heb. 1:1-3). We understand the nature and character of God through Jesus Christ.

Arminius' apologetics, as well as his doctrine of God, is one among the classics. Whatever one decides upon the existence of God, for Arminius, this Triunity is of "infinite goodness." This notion is "utterly bedrock for his theology, and ... it is particularly important for his doctrines of providence and predestination."15 The most difficulty for the atheist to accept is Arminius' assumption of the existence of God. But this difficulty is only compounded by the atheist's insistence on a strictly scientific method for evidence of the existence of God. In essence, what evidence the atheist demands is actually, strictly scientific proof: the atheist must be shown that God exists, in His very Person, and such is an impossibility (Ex. 33:20). Hence, such atheists cannot be persuaded by any apologetic whatsoever, and certainly not that of Arminius.

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1 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, 1991), 84.

2 Ibid., 83.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation I. On Theology," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker 1996), 2:319.

4 Muller, 25.

5 Works, 2:112.

6 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford, 2012), 48.

7 Works, 2:318-91.

8 Muller, 88.

9 Ibid., 89.

10 Ibid.

11 Works, 2:192.

12 Muller, 90.

13 Ibid.

14 Stanglin and McCall, 48.

15 Ibid., 81.

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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.