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Arminius on Foreknowledge and Predestination

Although some Christians have heard of the great Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, few know much about him. Two new books aim to change this.

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Nov

18

Arminius on Foreknowledge and Predestination

Although some Christians have heard of the great Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, few know much about him. Two new books aim to change this.

At the November 2013 American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore, I’m responding to the authors of these two new books on Arminius. (Roger Olson is also responding.) I’ll get into more details in my response, but here’s a taste of what these books offer.

Stephen Gunter begins his book, Arminius and His “Declaration of Sentiments” with a helpful survey of the life and times of Jacob Arminius. I found Gunter’s writing accessible and his narrative fascinating.

FOREKNOWLEDGE

I read this book with Arminius’s view of God’s foreknowledge at the fore of my mind. According to Arminius, “though the understanding of God be certain and infallible, that does not impose any necessity in things, nay, rather it establishes in them a contingency” (66-67).

Arminius advocates a position known as middle knowledge (aka “Molinism”), by which he means God foreknows all things, although God foreknows some things as necessary and others as contingent. But God’s foreknowledge, alleges Arminius, is compatible with the notion that humans are free.

PREDESTINATION

In the book’s second section, Gunter gives the reader an understandable translation of Arminius’s famous Declaration of the Sentiments, in which Arminius sets forth his view of predestination in response to critics.

Arminius affirms predestination, but he has in mind a class of people, not individuals. Individuals can freely choose to join the class of people or freely choose not to join it. Those who believe in Christ are predestinated to salvation, but their faith is logically prior to their predestination.

Arminius believes God’s grace excites human free will, so that “faith should be by persuasion and not by compulsion” (82). And “because grace is interwoven with the nature of humanity in such a way as not to destroy the freedom of the will, but rather to give it proper direction and to correct its depravity,” says Arminius, “[grace] allows the creature to devise actions of his own accord” (118).

“God’s glory consists neither of a declaration of liberty or might,” he says, “nor of a demonstration of anger and power – except as the demonstration of such may be consistent with justice and the continual preservation of God’s goodness” (119). Here we find the classic Arminian idea that God’s glory is primarily based on God’s goodness and love rather than on God’s power.

THE EXISTENTIAL PROBLEMS OF PREDESTINATION

In the Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius argues that predestination understood by Calvin has negative implications. Such an understanding of predestination prevents godly sorrow for sins committed, for instance. It removes concern that we should turn from sin toward God. It extinguishes the zeal for prayer and hinders zeal for good works.

Predestination as understood by Calvin’s followers, says Arminius, produces an inward despair of being able to affirm what duty requires. Calvin’s view of predestination leads to carelessness as well. Arminius says the doctrine is “viewed so negatively by many in our land that they have declared their unwillingness to continue attending our churches” (129).

As I read the worries Arminius has about a Calvinist version of predestination, I realized these same worries motivate many open and relational theologians to espouse their position. For most open theologians, the notion that the God foreknows the future exhaustively undermines creaturely freedom and thus creates all of the problems Arminius rightly sees associated with Calvinism’s form of predestination. It leads to despair, carelessness, lack of zeal for prayer – especially petitionary prayer, and discourages some to attend church.

In other words, both Arminius and many contemporary open theists share similar motivations in their criticisms of theologies that advocate a deterministic deity, although open theologians believe many of these criticisms also obtain if God is said to foreknow all things.

FOREKNOWLEDGE AND OPEN THEISM

Gunter concludes his book with a summary of the practical theology of Jacob Arminius. Gunter says, “Arminius’s theological motive is comprehensively soteriological” (167).

In light of soteriology, I want to return to Gunter’s discussion Arminius’s belief that God can possess exhaustive foreknowledge without this foreknowledge fully determining creatures.

Most open theists agree that if God could exhaustively foreknow the future, this foreknowledge itself would not entirely determine others. In other words, open theists don’t say foreknowledge is coercive action.

Rather, most open theists argue that exhaustive foreknowledge could only be possible if the future was already settled, complete, finalized, or set. So the ontological nature of the future is the real question.

Open theists believe freewill requires a future that is not set, not settled, and not complete, because only an ontologically open future is compatible with free choices. And this is an important reason (along with various biblical reasons) why open theists think it makes little sense to say God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge.

CONCLUSION

Despite what I see as an important problem in Arminius’s theology – the problem of exhaustive foreknowledge – I found myself feeling optimistic and grateful as I concluded Gunter’s book on Arminius.

I will review the second book on Arminius, by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall, in a follow-up blog.

Posted in 2013 under Open and Relational Theology

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Comments

Tom McCall

11.19.2013
2:27pm

I look forward to our conversation in Baltimore in a few days.

 

Ben Duarte

11.19.2013
3:18pm

Hello Dr. Oord, thank you for the article and the interesting blog topic. The issue of traditional and open theism does seem to attract the minds of those that enjoy theology. It seems (to me) that open theism does not agree with either Arminianism or Calvinism. In both of these ideas the future is settled for God, but not for man. The difference is in Calvinism (according to the hypothesis) God decides what will occur in the future. In Arminianism God knows what humans will decide, but God does not decide for humans (as in Calvinism) in other words, God decides how many hairs will be on our head (Calvinism)- in Arminianism God does not decide, but knows how many hairs will be on our head. In an open theistic view-neither God, nor man can know anything about the future, since the future is not settled, neither God, nor man knows what one will decide. In open theism, it is not about what humans or God ‘knows’- it is an assessment of reality. In this line of reasoning God, cannot know the future (as man cannot) since there is nothing to be known. I believe that open theism is neither Calvinistic nor Arminian, but goes in a foreign direction at this juncture? Is this correct?

 

Ben Duarte

11.19.2013
3:22pm

“Open theology argues that the future is not entirely settled. This means God does not know with certainty what free creatures will actually do until creatures act” (Thomas J. Oord, Nature of Love, pg.88)

Does this mean that God did not know what I would eat for lunch today until I ate it? Our decisions can create God’s knowledge? How is God’s foreknowledge supposed to exist in this type of theory or ontology?

 

DinkyDauBilly

11.27.2013
8:39am

Hi Ben! Perhaps you - and many others - are making much too much of it? Perhaps it really is as simple as a parent/child relationship? Most parents, at least those who pay attention to their kids, have some idea of what the kid will do in most situations ... but as any parent knows, the little urchins are full of surprises. Why can’t the God/human relationship be that simple? Are we so fixated on what we might call the “Oz Syndrome” that we can’t, perhaps dare not, being too busy groveling, see that God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent? And quite possibly is indifferent to being either, much less both? Little kids tend to see their parents as being both, but as they get older, they see that this is not so. Is it not possible that this blockage in thought is preventing the development of a more mature God/human relationship? And in any case, why would God give a hoot one way or another what you have for lunch? I mean, like, She’s pretty good at multi-tasking, but don’t you think fretting about whether the Supreme Being is making your lunchtime menu selections is a bit over the top in an egocentric kind of way? That might sound a bit snotty, but I assure you that is not the intent. I’m curious as to how you would explain it.

 

Ben Duarte

11.27.2013
12:50pm

Hello,
No offense taken. However, I do not see anything to explain on my part. On the other hand, to point out “lunch” in the question that I asked commits the strawman logical fallacy. This is the fallacy that argues a point that the person did not make. “Lunch” can be replaced with an act of murder, rape or something else that may serve as more important. This is about our Ontology and what can be known, and what is knowable, not about the choice of words described in making the point. Another logical fallacy I take note of is the fallacy of begging the question-in your assumption that Human parents and God share the same amount of knowledge, instead of arguing your point. Your conclusion is in the premises. Is God all knowing? Biblical theology asserts “If our hearts condemn us,we know that God is greater than our hearts-and he knows everything (1 John 3:20) I may be more curious as to how you would explain this? (if any logical fallacies exist in your own words) and what “everything” means in this verse? (assuming that the bible is a source of interest to you.

 

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Thomas Jay Oord is a professor, author, and theologian from the Northwest. Read more