Review of ‘Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace’ by Stanglin and McCall

JacobArminiusTheologianofGrace Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Paperback

The greatest trick Calvinists ever pulled was convincing the world that Jacob Arminius was Pelagius redivivus. The charge—whether in a strong (Pelagian) or weak (semi-Pelagian) form—was false in Arminius’s day and has not become true since then, Calvinist polemics to the contrary notwithstanding. Unfortunately, it has largely succeeded in both tainting Arminius’s good name and obscuring his theological contributions.

In Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall render a valuable service to readers by outlining the main points of Arminius’s theology under three headings: “God and Creation,” “Providence and Predestination,” and “Sin and Salvation.” Their discussion of each of these topics include valuable insights into the late-16th– and early 17th-century Dutch milieu in which Arminius lived, served as a minister of the gospel, and taught sacred theology.

Readers accustomed to Calvinist polemics against Arminius’s “synergism” and “anthropocentrism” will find themselves surprised by the depth and breadth of his agreement with numerous points of the Reformed tradition. This shouldn’t be surprising however. As a minister in good standing (during his lifetime) of the Dutch Reformed church, Arminius both subscribed to and taught the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. Only after his death, a decade later, did the Synod of Dordt formally denounce the theology of his Remonstrant followers, effectively foreclosing the range of Reformed theological options that Arminius himself worked to keep open.

Moreover, Arminius was conscious of being the inheritor of a Christian tradition larger than its Reformed component. His deepest desire was fidelity to the teaching of Scripture. However, he was also attentive to the Great Tradition of Christian theology, especially and effectively using it at points to show the novelty (and danger) of the supralapsarianism of his professorial colleague and theological rival, Franciscus Gomarus. Whereas Gomarus turned to Augustine, Calvin, and Beza for inspiration, Arminius appropriated the insights of Irenaeus, Origen, Thomas, and Molina.

Drawing on Scripture, the Great Tradition, and even Reformed resources, Arminius articulated a theology at odds with Calvinism on three crucial points, as Stanglin and McCall note.

First, “Arminius stresses that God’s act of creation is the communication of good only, intended for the creature’s good.” Consequently, “God, as holy love, created humanity for the purpose of eternal communication with him.” Given the doctrine of unconditional election—especially the supralapsarian doctrine of unconditional reprobation, which Gomarus taught—Calvinist theologians could not state things so simply. In Reformed theology, “God does not love all people for the purpose of salvation.”

Second, according to Arminius, “election to salvation and reprobation to condemnation are conditional. God chooses those who are foreknown to be penitent believers, and he condemns those he knows to be impenitent unbelievers.” What distinguishes Arminius and Calvinism, in other words, is not that the latter has a doctrine of election or predestination while the latter does not. Rather, what distinguishes them is the ground of election of predestination. For Calvinists, election is unconditional. For Arminius, it is conditional, based on God’s foreknowledge—middle knowledge, to be precise—of a person’s faith.

Third, “the grace that is necessary for salvation can be refused.” Stanglin and McCall explain: “God’s love is communicated not as an irresistible coercion, but as a tender persuasion that will not finally override the human will.” Faith, the assent of the human will to God’s grace, is not self-willed or meritorious, however. Instead, “grace must still precede the human will to enable any turn toward God,” which is why Arminius cannot fairly be labeled as either Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. “But salvation is received by those who refuse to resist God’s grace. It is offered, even if counterfactually, to all, but is resisted by some.”

The upshot of these theological emphases is a robust defense of God’s goodness that places the blame for sin and damnation squarely on the shoulders of sinners. By contrast, Calvinism—especially supralapsarian Calvinism—grounds both election and reprobation in the unconditioned will of God, effectively making God the author of human sin, which he willed, and therefore the unjust punisher of his own handiwork.

The past two decades have witnessed a renaissance of Calvinism among North American evangelicals. Some results of that renaissance have been salutary, since most of Calvinism—like most of Arminianism—is “mere Christianity.” Other results—especially the recrudescence of supralapsarianism—have not been salutary and need a response. Whether they claim his name or not, the theological heirs of Jacob Arminius would benefit from a fresh engagement with this evangelical theologian. Toward that end, Stanglin and McCall’s book serves as an excellent introduction to and explication of the grace-filled theology of Jacob Arminius.

I highly recommend this book, along with Carl Bangs’s biography, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, and Roger Olson’s study, Arminian Theology: Myths and Reality. Together, they provide an excellent introduction to the man, his ideas, and the movement that followed him.

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