October 26, 2010

Grace, Free Will, and Judgment

From October 14 to 16, 2010, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University will host the symposium “Arminianism and Adventism: Celebrating Our Soteriological Heritage,” bringing together theologians, graduate students, pastors, and anybody else interested in church history to ponder the ?links between Arminianism and Adventism. This article introduces some of these important links to the readers of the Adventist Review.
The name Jacobus (James) Arminius (1560-1609) and the terms Arminian and Arminianism have not always been readily recognized by Seventh-day Adventists. Actually, many have initially confused these terms with either the ethnic Armenians of Turkey and their brand of Orthodox Christianity or the great anti-Trinitarian heretic Arius and his Arian teachings. But despite the obscurity and confusions related to this terminology, Arminius and Arminianism have played a very important role as part of the Protestant heritage of Adventist theology.
It is interesting, even a bit startling, to discover that Arminius and Arminianism were not even mentioned by Ellen White in The Great Controversy (or anywhere else in her writings). Such an omission, however, was probably because most of his important ideas were transmitted to Ellen White and Adventism through the influence of John Wesley (1703-1791).1 Be that as it may, Arminius’s ideas have proved to be quite foundational for key Adventist doctrinal teachings. But before we turn to a review of these important ideas, we need to know more about the person Jacobus Arminius and his later Arminian disciples.
Biographical Sketch
Jacobus Arminius was born in Oudewater, near Utrecht, in the Netherlands.2 His middle-class family was devastated during Jacobus’s infancy by the death of his father. But this tragedy was further compounded by the death of his mother and siblings during the Spanish massacre of Oudewater in 1575. The young Arminius was subsequently raised by family friends who saw that he received a very good university education.
2010 1533 page16His higher education began at Marburg, Germany, in 1575 and at the University of Leiden, Holland, from 1576 to 1581. His talents as a student caught the attention of a number of wealthy Amsterdam merchants who sponsored his subsequent theological studies. This lengthy period commenced on New Year’s Day of 1582 at John Calvin’s Genevan Academy and continued until 1586, with a break for additional studies at Basel (1582-1583). The highlight of his theological education was to be able to study under the renowned scholar Theodore Beza (1519-1605).
Beza had become John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, especially in his role as the leading theology professor at the famed academy (now the University of Geneva). During Arminius’s studies at Geneva, Beza (then 62 years old) was already widely respected among Reformed/Calvinistic believers all over Europe. Beza was a staunch “High Calvinist” and took the most extreme position on the doctrine of irresistible predestination. These ideas proved to be very crucial in the later theological developments of Arminius and to subsequent developments in Calvinism and Protestantism the world over.
Following a brief study tour to Italy in 1587 (including the University of Padua), Arminius returned to Amsterdam in the Netherlands to begin his lifelong career as a pastor/scholar. After his ordination as the pastor of the influential “Old Church” (the center of Reformed church life in Amsterdam), Arminius would serve that congregation with great faithfulness and distinction until 1603. In 1590 he married Lijsbet Reael, a prominent daughter of the Amsterdam aristocracy, thus ensuring financial stability and the continued support of the most influential merchants and leaders of the city.
In 1603 he was appointed professor of theology at his alma mater, the University of Leiden. This was to be the most crucial appointment of his career, which would only conclude with his untimely death in 1609. These final six years of his career included his election as rector of the university (the president), ongoing work as a pastor, and the publication of his mature theological work, Declaration of Sentiments.3
The most memorable events of his teaching career were the “theological controversies” (formally called “disputations”) with his fellow theology professor, Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641). These controversial, even bitter, debates were to provide the setting for Arminius’s most lasting contributions to subsequent developments in European, North American, and world Protestantism. But before we turn to these decisive developments, we need to briefly review the previous history of Protestantism and how Arminius’s views would fit into this unfolding heritage.
Historical Background
While Arminius’s views would cause a split in the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition, he always claimed (and justifiably so) to be a Calvinist in his basic theology and churchmanship. The major differences, however, would center on his controversial interpretation of predestination and its implications for other closely related doctrines. It is interesting to note that all of the previous major Protestant reformers of the European Reformation of the sixteenth century had adopted Augustine of Hippo’s (late fourth, early fifth century A.D.) ideas of irresistible, “double predestination.”4 Luther, ?Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, and Bullinger all held that every human has been predestined to either eternal damnation or salvation by the irresistible and inscrutable wisdom of God. Furthermore, there was simply nothing that any person could do about it (except to cry out that they are willing to be either saved or damned, all to the glory of God).
Almost the only major exception to this consensus before Arminius was Luther’s understudy and successor, Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560). But while Melanchthon’s dissent created relatively little controversy among Lutherans, Arminius’s ideas would create a major uproar that would forever change theological directions in later Protestantism, especially in Britain and North America.
Arminius and the Arminian “Remonstrants”
The key theological themes of Arminius all had important implications for the doctrine and experience of salvation.5 As already mentioned, the key controverted doctrine that opened the way for what we now call doctrinal Arminianism was Arminius’s rejection of the Augustinian/Calvinistic doctrine of irresistible election via double, absolute predestination. Over against the “High Calvinists,” Arminius taught that predestination is “based on divine foreknowledge of the use men would make of the means of grace.”6 Closely related to absolute predestination in High Calvinist thought was the doctrine of “limited atonement,” the concept that since only the “elect” would be irresistibly saved, then Christ died only for the “elect.”
Against this restrictive idea, Arminius “asserted that He [Christ] died for all, though none receive the benefits of His death except believers.”7 Additionally, Arminius and his Arminian followers opposed the “Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace” and “taught that grace may be rejected.”8 And finally, Arminius and company “declared uncertainty regarding the Calvinist teaching of perseverance, holding it possible that men may lose grace once received.”9 In other words, “once saved, always saved” was questioned by many and rejected by the vast majority of later Arminians.
Following the death of Arminius in 1609, 41 of his most loyal followers composed a statement of faith in 1610 called the “Remonstrance” (strong protest). Thus it is from this title that the group that would form the genesis of the Arminian party in Protestantism received the name “Remonstrants.” The publication of this document would set in motion a very complicated series of religious, political, and social forces that would eventuate in the calling of the famous Synod of Dort (Dordrecht in Holland) in late 1618 and early 1619.
The Synod of Dort was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it was the first truly formal, international gathering of Calvinists, with representation from not only Holland but also Germany, Switzerland, France, and Great Britain. Because of the political ascendancy of the “High Calvinists,” it was no surprise that the “Remonstrant Arminians” were roundly voted down and there ensued terrible persecutions, including executions of a number of Remonstrant leaders and forced exile for the majority of the rest.
But for subsequent generations of both Calvinists and Arminians, the deliberations of the Synod of Dort helped to fully clarify the key conflicted ideas and their respective positions outlined ?earlier in this article. The Arminians clearly rejected five key points of the Calvinists. The Calvinist counterresponse came to be identified with the mnemonic (memory device) Dutch flower, TULIP—T (total depravity), U (unconditional election or predestination), L (limited atonement), I (irresistible grace), and P (perseverance, or no loss of salvation).
How It Affected Later Protestant Theology
Whil2010 1533 page16e the basic ideas of Arminianism represented the consensus of the early church of the first four centuries of Christianity, they were certainly a clear departure from the “High Calvinism” inspired by the thought of Augustine of Hippo. But the key shaping influences of Arminianism found their most fertile soil in Evangelical Anglicanism and what became known—because of its most famous sons, John and Charles Wesley, in the eighteenth century—as Wesleyan Arminianism, or “Arminianism on fire.”10 It was this form of Evangelical Arminianism of “the heart” that was to greatly influence the nineteenth-century revivalism from which Seventh-day Adventism emerged.
Arminius’s Importance for Adventism
The clutch of the key concepts of Arminianism has been implicitly, if not explicitly, embraced by the vast majority of theologically concerned Seventh-day Adventists. Our understanding of salvation strongly resonates with the ideas of human freedom that result from God’s gracious creative and re-creative initiatives. Mentored by the former Methodist and very Wesleyan Ellen White, we have embraced converting grace, which comes from God’s sovereign, saving initiative. But such grace always unfolds persuasively, not coercively. God knocks persistently at the heart’s door, but He never kicks that sacred door in! We have affirmed the doctrine of human depravity and corruption, but we have generally maintained that there is a godly, grace-endowed freedom of a “freed will.”11
Furthermore, we have always been leery of irresistible perseverance, or the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Such notions seem to constitute a ready-made venue for “cheap grace” attitudes, which lead to presumptuous sinning and dismissive attitudes toward God’s holy law.
But at a more elemental, though possibly more subtle, level, there probably would be no Adventist doctrine of the judgment (especially the doctrine of the pre-Advent investigative judgment) if there were no doctrine of free grace and its offspring of “freed wills.” In fact, one of the very strong reasons why Arminians came to reject the doctrine of irresistible election, or deterministic predestination, was their logical claim that this teaching effectively made God out to be the author of sin! Thus at the very heart of this strong, negative reaction to irresistible election was a desire to vindicate the God of loving grace.
This whole notion of Arminian (even biblical) free grace seems to implicitly lead to a strong emphasis on calling, convicting, converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace—all of whose fruits will be on full display in the final public judgments of God. It will therefore be this display of the evidential “fruit” of faith that will persuasively contribute to the final vindication of God’s dealings with sin and sinners through His judgments of investigation. To put it very simply: no “free grace” and its “freed wills,” no God-vindicating “Great Controversy theme” for Seventh-day Adventism!
Maybe the issue could be restated rhetorically: Why should there be any questioning of God’s judgments if all of His saving decisions have already been predetermined? Thus anything that suggests a public judgment would simply be a process of revealing the unexplained, inscrutable, irresistibly predetermined decisions of God’s saving and damning decrees. There just does not seem to be much drama or winsome appeal in such a predeterministic venue. Why should God even bother with such a judgment?
Good Counsel
And finally, with the introduction of a strong doctrine of sanctification or transforming grace emanating from Arminianism, especially the Wesleyans and Seventh-day Adventists, it should come as no surprise that even “father” Arminius himself was led to ponder the questions of the personal assurance of salvation and its closely related but always challenging issue of Christian perfection. His sensible wisdom invites a careful reading and a thoughtful response:
“But while I never asserted that a believer could perfectly keep the precepts of Christ in this life, I never denied it, but always left it as a matter which has still to be decided.” Thus, while not preoccupied with perfection, he did go on to offer some sage counsel about the seemingly endless disputes over the perfection issue that should positively resonate with Seventh-day Adventist Arminians of “the heart”:
“I think the time may be far more happily and usefully employed in prayers to obtain what is lacking in each of us, and in serious admonitions that every one endeavor to proceed and press forward towards the mark of perfection, than when spent in such disputations.”12 Could this practical wisdom be vindicated in the lives of Arminius’s children who will take it to heart? We can fervently hope so!
While Arminius has not had much of a conscious hearing among Adventists, I pray that this brief introduction to his life and thought and their positive influences on subsequent developments among our nearest Protestant and Adventist forebearers will pique your spiritual and theological curiosity. Without the influence of the life and thought of this faithful and judicious servant of God, our doctrine and experience of salvation would be greatly impoverished and the freely bestowed love of God (including the often misunderstood doctrine of God’s judgments) would be greatly undervalued.
1 For an authoritative, concise, yet readable account of the life of Wesley, see Kenneth J. Collins, A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1999).
2 The name Jacobus Arminius is a Latinized form of his birth name, Jacob Harmenszoon. The best scholarly biography of Arminius is still Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1985). The following biographical sketch was basically drawn from (1) Carl Bangs’ article entitled “Arminius, Jacobus,” in Mircea Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: MacMillan, 1987), vol. 1, pp. 419, 420; (2) Victor Shepherd’s article entitled “ARMINIUS, Jacobus,” in Timothy Larsen, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003), pp. 18-20; and (3) J. K. Grider’s article entitled “Arminius, James,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2001), pp. 98, 99.
3 These writings, along with the rest of his literary pieces, are included in the most recent edition, entitled The Works of James Arminius, 3 vols., translated and edited by James Nichols and William Nichols (Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker, 1996).
4 The phrase “double predestination” marks the view that God chose who would be saved and who would be lost, and that His decision is infallibly to come to pass.
5 The following theological developments have been greatly informed by the concise comments of Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959), pp. 399-401; the clearly written and helpful insights of Justo L. Gonzalez in his A History of Christian Thought, Vol. III, rev. ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1975), pp. 279-288; and J. K. Grider’s article entitled “Arminianism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, pp. 97, 98.
6 Walker, p. 400.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Grider, “Arminianism,” p. 98.
11 This is theologically expressed by the technical term “prevenient grace,” which literally means the grace of God that comes before (pre-venio) sinners would ever think to go to God for help.
12 Cited by Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, p. 347.
Woodrow W. Whidden II, PH.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology at theAdventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Philippines. This article was published October 14, 2010.