Arminius as Theologian of Grace?

November 26th, 2013 / 7 Comments

In Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, Keith Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall elucidate Arminius’s theological perspectives.  I commend them for this much-needed explanation of Arminius’s own theology. But the book left me unsatisfied.


I was especially struck by the authors’ emphasis early in the book upon Arminius’s view of divine simplicity. Stanglin and McCall say Arminius follows divine simplicity as understood by Thomas Aquinas, who argues that God’s essence and existence are identical. This identity of the two leads Arminius, say the authors, to embrace the traditional doctrines of divine immutability and impassibility.

The authors say in this context that although Arminius emphasizes God’s love, he believes God’s love is only active. In my view, Arminius misses an important conviction shared by many contemporary theologians, which is that love involves both active and receptive elements. In other words, love both gives and receives, because love is relational. Perhaps had Arminius distinguished between God’s unchanging essence and God’s changing existence, which many open and relational theologians do, he would have rejected a Thomistic version of divine simplicity, with its entailments of particular concepts of divine immutability and impassibility.


In passages about God’s omniscience and foreknowledge, we find the greatest differences between Arminius and contemporary open theologians. To be clear, Arminius is not an open theist. Here, the authors are right to say that Arminius is “in step with the main lines of the Christian tradition in his simultaneous affirmation of foreknowledge and denial of determinism.” They add, however, that “although most theologians have recognized the tension in holding these two concepts together, many coherent solutions have been proposed over the centuries” (64).

As an open and relational theologian, of course, I disagree with this second sentence. I’ve never encountered any coherent solutions for how God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge and yet creatures be genuinely free.

But I do agree that exhaustive divine foreknowledge – if it were possible – does not logically necessitate divine determination. Instead of foreknowledge necessitating determination, what is at stake is the ontological status of the future. The idea God infallibly and exhaustively knows the future suggests that the future is fixed, settled, and complete, because one can only infallibly and exhaustively know a future that is fixed, settled, and complete. To my mind, however, a fixed future is incompatible with libertarian freedom, which requires a future not yet fixed but open and full of possibilities.


The question of whether God’s nature logically precedes God’s will seems to me the heart of the differences between most Reformed theologies in the Calvinist tradition and Arminius and the general Arminian tradition. Because Arminius believes God’s nature precedes God’s will, God’s actions cannot contradict God’s nature. Many Reformers reverse this and emphasize the sovereignty of the divine will as primary. The vast majority of open and relational theologians side with Arminius on this fundamental dividing line.

I was pleased the authors devote space to Arminius’s statements about what God cannot do. God can only will that which is not opposed to the divine essence. In statements about what God cannot do I believe we find the theological seeds for process theology’s notions about God’s inability to coerce.

Unfortunately, however, Arminius does not work out the implications of divine limitation in a way that allows him to solve the problem of evil. To absolve God, he tries to distinguish between God willing evil to occur and God merely permitting it. Arminius says he understands God’s providence as both willing and performing good acts, but God “freely permits actions that are evil.”

On this point, I’m with John Calvin who criticizes this so-called distinction between an omnipotent God permitting evil rather than willing it: “There can be no distinction between God’s will and God’s permission,” says Calvin “Why say ‘permission’ unless it is because God so wills?”

Distinguishing between God willing evil and God permitting it offers little consolation to victims of evil. When victims realize that God, as understood by Arminius, could have prevented their pain and suffering but voluntarily permitted it, they will likely find it difficult to retain trust in God’s love. After all, an omnipotent God who wills evil is only slightly more morally reprehensible than an omnipotent God who could unilaterally prevent evil but permits it nonetheless.

Arminius employs what I find to be an unsatisfactory greater goods theodicy, when he says, “God would never permit evil if he could not by his omnipotence produce good out of evil” (100). The implication here, of course, is that every rape, genocide, murder, etc. must have been permitted for some greater good. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe this is true for every instance of evil.


I was most surprised by comments the authors make about open and relational theologies. When describing the influence of Arminius, they write, “If the theology of Arminius himself has any real connection with the term, then it is highly doubtful that, say, open or process theism, or views that deny the “classical” doctrine of God… could rightly be considered ‘Arminian,’ despite the fact that, in popular understanding, such views may often be regarded as forms of Arminianism” (196).

In fact, the authors seem to go out of their way to build bridges to those who self-identify with the more Calvinist strand of the Reformed tradition. And yet I found little evidence they wanted to build bridges to open and process theologies.

I agree with the authors when they write that “when most modern readers encounter Arminius’ actual teachings and writings for the first time, they are generally astonished to find him more ‘Reformed’ than they have previously thought” (202). But my experience with this book and my earlier reading of the Declaration of Sentiments is that Arminius’s theology is largely congenial with key themes in open and relational theologies.

For instance, the authors summarize Arminius’s theology by saying, “God’s love is communicated not as an irresistible coercion, but as a tender persuasion that will not finally override human will” (200). This kind of statement is at the core of open and relational theology, and I do not find statements like this in the more Calvinist-leaning Reformed traditions. They also say, “the relationship between God and humans is one of mutuality. God takes the initiative, but salvation is a cooperative process” (188). Again, that sounds like the kind of soteriology championed by most open and relational theologies.

Although the authors note differences between Arminius’s views and Calvinism, they say these differences should not “obscure the similarities” (204). I wondered why Stanglin and McCall do not make similar statements about the even greater similarities between Arminianism and open theology. To say it another way, the authors seemed warmly inclined toward interpreting Arminius as part of the Reformed tradition but cold or silent to the idea that Arminianism shares strong family resemblances with open and relational theologies.

Upon hearing my complaint that the book was warm to Calvinism but cold to open theology, co-author Keith Stanglin argued he was only giving an historical description of Arminius’s theology. He said this is why the book fails to identify similarities between Arminius’s own theology and open and relational theologies. I agree that the work is primarily historical, and I have great appreciation for this work. But quotes like the ones I offer in previous paragraphs suggest that while the book is primarily historical, the authors occasionally make comparisons that go beyond mere historical description.


In Stanglin and McCall’s helpful discussion of Arminius’s opposition to supralapsarianism, I found a significant contradiction in Arminius’s own logic. Arminius rejects supralapsarian predestination, in part because he thinks God cannot demonstrate love and good pleasure to a nonentity (see explanation of supralapsarianism in note below). Neither can God provide salvation and blessing for a non-entity. Arminius makes these statements when he criticizes the supralapsarian idea that God elects some to salvation before God created them. In other words, Arminius says God must create actual creatures before God can elect, love, and bless them.

But here is the problem: if God cannot elect, love, and bless non-entities because they are not yet actual, I fail to see how – using Arminius’s own logic – God could foreknow what non-entities will do. If God cannot bless, love, and elect non-entities because they do not yet exist, why say God can foreknow the actions and decisions of non-entities? Middle knowledge does not help us get around the problem.

(NOTE: The primary difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism is whether the decree of election is considered before or after the fall.  If God decrees that it will be impossible to avoid sin and damnation, Arminius believes that sinners are not morally responsible for their sinful actions and God is responsible for sin. I agree. The Arminian position is neither supralapsarian nor infralapsarian. See the appendix on page 140 of the book, because it lays out nicely differences between supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, and Arminius’s own view of predestination.)


All of this suggests that rational consistency – something Arminius values – requires us to choose between 1) supralapsarian predestination and 2) exhaustive foreknowledge. One could choose to say God can love and foreknow non-entities, which means affirming supralapsarian predestination. To do this, however, entails admitting Arminius was wrong to criticize Calvin’s followers. In other words, a person could simply accept the Calvinist version of predestination.

The other option is to think Arminius is right to oppose supralapsarian predestination and to claim God cannot love non-entities. Choosing this option should also involve, however, admitting God cannot foreknow with certainty the actions and decisions of future non-entities – who by definition do not yet exist – thereby denying exhaustive divine foreknowledge. In other words, one could choose to embrace something like open theism.

Of course, I find open theism more satisfactory overall. And I invite my Arminian friends to consider embracing open theism, because it includes Arminius’s basic soteriology without affirming exhaustive divine foreknowledge. In other words, I believe open theology is more theologically consistent overall than Arminius’s own position.

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Tom McCall

Hi Tom,

You make some very interesting and penetrating observations here.  Let’s assume (for the sake of discussion, although I’m sympathetic to your worry) that there is a deep inconsistency here.  You then say that this leaves us with only two alternatives: either supralapsarian predestination or open theism.  But I don’t see how this dilemma is produced or that these are the only options.  Why couldn’t Arminius simply cut himself loose from *this objection* to supralapsarianism? He has plenty of other objections to supralapsarianism. 

As we say in the book, it is a work of historical theology.  We talk about the relation of Arminius’s theology to Reformed theology because he was (in some senses, although not others) a Reformed theologian.  You simply cannot tell the story without talking about Reformed theology.  Without showing the connections, it is impossible to understand Arminius’s theology within its context.  On the other hand, to draw connections to C20-C21 theological movements would be to distract from our project.  So we don’t talk about process theology because Arminius doesn’t talk about process theology. 

Where we do mention it (as Tom noted), we do so in a context of discussing Arminius’s “legacy”—and while noting the vast range of uses of terms like “Arminian.”  What we say there is not meant to be prescriptive; it is historically descriptive—note the conditional (“If the theology of Arminius…”  And we stand by this claim.  It is, after all, Arminius—not us!—who says that anyone who denies immutability is a “blasphemer.”  This shouldn’t be taken to imply that *we* aren’t interested in dialogue between classical theologians and open/relational theology. Personally, I think that we need more dialogue.

Arminius does indeed think that there are things that an omnipotent God “cannot” do.  But this fact alone does not signal any allegiance to open/relational theology—after all, Aquinas says as much too.

I can’t see how what Tom says here really respects what Arminius is up to.  Arminius (and the Arminian sympathizer) can appeal to the classical Free Will Defense, and he can help himself to the standard moves of “skeptical theism” as well.  Or, if Tom thinks otherwise, then he should support this with an argument rather than a hasty dismissal.

Tom thinks that genuine (libertarian) human freedom is not possibly consistent with exhaustive foreknowledge.  Unfortunately, this only comes as an assertion.  We need an argument—and we wait for one.

He says that the future must be “fixed” for God to have exhaustive foreknowledge.  As I pointed out in the session, this claim is critically ambiguous.  It could mean either (it could helpfully be disambiguated further):
(F1) The future is fixed in the sense that it is determinate;
(F2) The future is fixed in the sense that it is determined.
(F1) merely says that there is only one way that things *will be* (only one possible world is actual), while (F2) says that there is only one way that things *could be* (there is only one possible world, or only one possible world is feasible).  Arminius and open/relational theologies are agreed (with much of the Christian tradition) in their rejection of (F2).  But a very plausible case can be made (and fairly easily) that (F1) is both true and non-controversially true.  Some senses of “fixed” (like F1) are consistent with genuine possibility, contingency, and freedom.  Unless Tom has a good argument that (F1) entails (F2) or can show some other real problem, then there is nothing here to worry about. He makes some big claims here, and he owes us an argument.

Arminius clearly does believe in the doctrine of divine simplicity.  Tom appears to misunderstand Arminius’s doctrine (he says that Arminius follows Aquinas, but—as we point out on pp. 54-55—Arminius goes with a Scotist rather than Thomist doctrine).  Nonetheless, he is right in saying that Arminius has a doctrine of simplicity.  This clearly distinguishes Arminius from most open and process theologians.  Arminius also holds to a classical doctrine of the Trinity.  This separates him from many process theologians.  So: for Arminius, God is Pure Act.  God is Pure Act of Holy Love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is, then relational in se.  God is *infinitely* relational in se.  God is, then *maximally relation.*  Or, if you prefer, God is “more relational than which cannot be conceived.”  So to pit Arminius against “a relational God” just isn’t right.  Arguably, Arminius’s theology actually stakes a stronger claim to being “relational theology.”  After all, what is more relational than a Triune Being of Pure Act who is already and in se “maximally* relational?

Thanks for the discussion!

Tom McCall

Hi again, Tom,

I used up all 5000 characters allowed, so let me post again to say “thanks” for your interest, for reviewing our book, and—more importantly—for our growing friendship. 

We need more dialogue, not less.


Ben Duarte

Dr. Oord, I enjoyed the review. I found the problem of evil as an interesting topic in this review. Here is my question: In traditional theism God knows the future, in open theism, God does not (since open theism insists that the future is not yet actual)- but how does open theism help in solving the problem of evil? If an evil act is occurring at the very moment-God still knows and has access to this evil act at the moment- is that correct? Once a creature “acts” then, God can know. So how does Open theism help solve the problem? In open theism, God is still aware of evil, but does nothing about it- (or He may-less his ‘all-powerful’ virtue is deleted from His aseity also ) is this correct?

Ben Duarte

*QUICK NOTE. Dr. Oord,my question in reference to open theism and the problem of evil is independent of your review. I enjoyed your review. I should point out that you did not necessarily make the argument in your review that I am asking about. Thank you again,


To say that God does nothing about evil is a misstatement. He does something; both in this world and in the next (as in judgment). In this world what is sown is reaped – or as many state: ‘what comes around, goes around’. Seeds grow and what is cast out will return. Evil will begat evil in the life-time of the evil.

Biblically evil is rewarded 7x’s more. And the tendency to commit evil is rewarded in the DNA of sons and daughters. So alcoholic parents birth many alcoholic children and so abusive parents and so unforgiving parents tend to parent like tendencies for generation to generation. But that’s not God’s fault or His choice for the way people should live. They choose. Many holocaust victims choose not to hate. 

A fore-knowing God cannot fore-know that mankind will be evil and still be a ‘good God’ at the same time. Again the Bible states: ‘I knew you before the foundation of the world.’ So He had every created being in mind before He laid the foundation of Earth.

If our will is truly free then how does He know? The Bible does not show God knowing any human would be sinful before He created them. What He did was to create a world that was ‘good.’ Even in the creation of man. But God does prepare. Jesus was prepared to show up if needed. The fish was prepared for Jonah. God fore-sees every angle possible we can take and fore-knows what He will do with our free choice. That’s all knowing! But He believes in us; that we will choose love. That’s all loving. And He is prepared to be involved in our life to draw us into intimate relationship. That’s all present. He is wounded by many of our choices but doesn’t give up on us. That’s all patient. His Spirit goes about the Earth wanting to bless His creation (that He fore-knew He would create). That is all seeking. We are the pearl of a great price. He gave all for us and is willing to keep us in mind. ‘What is man that Thou art mindful of him?’ His mind is full of what to do for us. Love (agape)gives all. He desires us (eros). He wants relationship (phileo).

God fore-knows what He will have to do given any circumstance and fore-knows what the end of creation will be.

Tom there is a huge question that should be addressed: ‘How does a good God justify creating a place of eternal torment?’ Hell.

I do believe there is a justifiable and logical answer to that.

Wade Sikes

Interesting that you note that logical consistency leads to either divine determinism or the open view.  I’ve dialogued with a Young, Restless, Reformed type who came to the same conclusion.  He’s still reformed, and I’m still OT, but he respected the logic of the open view.


The argument on Arminius’ supposed inconsistency between objecting to supralapsarianism and affirming foreknowledge conflates logical and temporal orders.  Arminius objected to the supralapsarian idea that God’s decree of election logically precedes His decree to create.  Let’s say God elects Bob.  On supralapsarianism, the issue isn’t so much that Bob in time does not actually exist, but that in the logical order, God hasn’t even decided if He will create Bob or not.  What if God elects Bob and then decides not to create him? The only solution I could see is to admit that the decree of election is conditional rather than absolute. 

This problem is unique to superlapsarianism and not shared by simple foreknowledge and middle knowledge, since in the logical order God’s choice to create precedes His foreknowledge.

Probably open theists have additional presuppostions about the necessity for existence and knowledge, but Arminius didn’t share them – so he’s not be inconsistent within his own system.

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