Reforming Arminianism

It was with great joy that I read an article a few days ago in which Matthew Pinson, President of Welch College, highlighted a healthier form of Arminianism. Having grown up in a Free Will Baptist church, I was more familiar with his claims than many of my contemporaries and I was happy to see that they were given space by a calvinistic organization. This is healthy ecumenical progress as far as I am concerned. While I remain a thoroughgoing Calvinist I recognize that many of my brethren will never be Calvinists as long as they draw breath. I can live with that. They will most certainly be made Calvinists posthumously. But I digress…

The brand of Arminianism espoused by Pinson and others in one that has roots in the rich soil of the Protestant Reformation. Though they cannot be theologically identified as “Reformed,” it is perfectly fair for them to be historically situated under that banner.

I appreciate that Pinson wants to stand in the tradition of those who conscientiously stand in a tradition. His desire to distance the views which he represents from wind-blown evangelicalism, in which every doctrinal idea is a historical vagabond, is laudable. So I applaud the desire to be both theologically and historically grounded. Calvinism, as such, is not a litmus text for me. However, I wonder if further work (and clarification) in the arminianism of Arminius still needs to be done by those operating under that preferred moniker. It seems to me that there are a few serious areas that need to be addressed before they can credibly give credence to a full-throated Arminius Redivivus theology. Since my brethren seem to prefer the Reformed title hopefully they will take up the Reformed theme: Semper Reformanda. Perhaps I can offer a few ideas as to where to begin that continuing project.

(The following is a summary of some of the salient points in Richard Muller’s article on the Christology of Jacob Arminius published in the Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiendenis, 1988.)

In the years leading up to Dordt, Arminius debated the Reformed theologians on both predestination and christology, and in various documents of the period it is apparent that “the christological debate appears as a topic equal in importance to the predestinarian debate, both in Arminius’ estimation and in the estimation of his opponents and questioners.” Thus, Muller argues that Arminius’ christology was not incidental to the more notable issues. Instead “I would suggest . . . not only the equivalent importance of the debates but also their profound interrelation and, in addition, the necessity of the christological issue to the full formulation of Arminius’ doctrines of predestination and the order of salvation” (p. 149). Several issues may be noted:

1) The nature of Arminius’ christological “problem” (as Muller describes it): For Reformed theologians, the designation of the Son as a participant in the decision that He be mediator; He is not simply appointed by the Father, but is also the appointer. In Barthian terms, for the Reformed orthodox, the Son is both electing and elected. Arminius appears to follow the same pattern, but in fact subtly shifts it. He does not “attempt to relate the anointing or the official subordination of the Mediator to the self-emptying of the divine nature” (p. 151). There is a subordination of the Son to the Father even apart from the mediating subordination of the Son to the Father. Thus, “Not only does Arminius not explain the subordination of the Son in terms of the Son’s designation to office, he also implies that the office of the Mediator is constituted by God the Father alone” (p. 151).

This hint of subordinationism in Arminius’ understanding of the mediatorial office of the Son is more pronounced in his claim that the Son receives His deity, and not merely His personality as Son, from the Father. For Arminius, the Son is not autotheos , but has both “divine essence” and “divine life” of himself. In part, his argument is that the Reformed view of the “autotheotic” reality of the three persons is inevitably tritheistic: “the Reformed doctrine of the Son’s aseity . . . violates the unity of the divine essence by postulating three divine persons each God from himself — in short, by postulating three separate deities and lapsing into tritheism” (p. 153). From his reading of the fathers, Arminius concluded that “God the Father is the principium of the Godhead” (p. 153).

2) Influence on Atonement theology: In contrast to the Reformed theologians of his time, Arminius believed that the atonement was accomplished purely by the passive obedience of Christ. By his life, Jesus was qualified and prepared to exercise his priesthood, but He actually exercised that priesthood only in his death. This struck at an important crux of the Reformed understanding of the Trinity as well as of the atonement, for the kenosis doctrine and the status humiliationis that went with it had been used by the Reformed as a way of maintaining the balance between Christ’s absolute divinity (a se) and his subordination as mediator. Thus “rather than use the idea of a voluntary self-emptying to explain the way in which the eternal Son is subordinate to his work, Arminius tends to view the subordination in terms of the order of persons in the Trinity and to view Christ’s as conferred by the Father, without reference to the will or act of the Son” (p. 155).

3) Influence on soteriology: Because Christ’s active obedience plays no role in Arminius’ understanding of the atonement, room is opened up for human obedience as the means for accomplishing salvation: “As in the satisfaction-theory of the medieval doctors, the distinction between a salvific passive obedience of Christ and a non-salvific active obedience points in the theology of Arminius toward a doctrine of human involvement or cooperation in the work of salvation. In other words, Arminius’ separation of Christ’s active and passive obedience in his christological locus correlates with his soteriological synergism” (p. 157).

4) Influence on doctrine of predestination: Reformed orthodoxy had argued a predestinarian doctrine in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, insisting that election took place “apart from any foreseen merit or faith” but was founded on “a trinitarian construct in which Christ, as God, was acknowledged with the Father and Spirit as the one who predestines.” But that needs to be made more precise. Arminius broke up the decree of election into four decrees. According to this scheme, the Father elects the Son as the Mediator at the beginning of the sequence, but Christ does not appear as elector until the end, the fourth decree. This movement corresponds to the distinction between the antecedent and consequent will of God. According to the first decree (antecedent will), God the Father appoints the means by which all who will be saved will be saved; only at the fourth decree (consequent will) does the Son choose those who have believed on him. Two of Muller’s statements summarize the issues: “Arminius’ grounding of the economic subordination of the Son to the antecedent will of the Father in the concept of a generated deitas or divine essentia is foreign not only to the Reformed and Lutheran views of the Trinity but also to the views of all the great medieval doctors” (p. 160). And, “What Arminius seems to have done is to have taken the side of the patristic argument which argues some subordination in order in the Godhead and to have developed it into the basic principle of his view of the Trinity. This subordination of the Son became, in turn, the lynchpin of his final statement on the doctrine of predestination. There, the Father, as principium of the Trinity antecedently wills the election of human beings in Christ and consequently gives to Christ the choice of believers as his own” (p. 161).

These are not incidental issues.  I hope that in the days to come we will real that our Reformed Arminian brethren have set about the task of reforming, sharpening, and clarifying such important issues as these.

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