Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Arminius on a Calvinistic Error of Interpretation

A well-attested fact of Church history is the mild mannerism of Jacob Arminius. In debate, Arminius was objective and void of emotional outbursts, very much like Calvin and very much unlike Luther. When challenged doctrinally, he defended his scriptural position without demeaning his opponents. When his theological opponents resorted to calumny (character assassination), he was quick to point out their ad hominem, but did not respond in like manner, nor allow it to affect him, with one exception.

Arminius was already growing sick in his body; he would soon die from tuberculosis. The following debate took its toll on Arminius' health. Public Disputation XVI, "On the Vocation of Men to Salvation," one of Arminius' final public debates, was with a Roman Catholic named Adrian Smetius, who was objecting to Arminius' theological points regarding prevenient grace. Two hours into the debate, Smetius was still arguing, much as do opponents of Arminianism today, that if some people who are graced by God to come to Jesus Christ for salvation can successfully resist such grace, then

  1. God's grace is not sufficient; 
  2. some other force (for lack of a better word) is needed to enable a person to come to Christ (i.e., his or her free will); 
  3. people get to determine who will and will not be saved rather than God; and 
  4. human beings can boast of their salvation (hence the boasting charge is at least four centuries old).
Arminius replied that human beings indeed determine whether or not to act upon the enabling work of the Holy Spirit, but "not without grace: For free-will is in concurrence with grace, so that, in determining, the one does not act without the other."1 The charge that, in Arminian theology, a person self-wills faith in Christ is entirely erroneous, and that charge is repeated ad nauseum, even today. What this demonstrates is that the ones making the charge remain woefully yet willfully ignorant of Arminian theology, and the ones making the charge have no intention of accurately representing Arminian theology. Both conclusions are very telling of the attitude of those involved. 

Smetius, Arminius' opponent, insisted that if Arminianism is true then the force which moves a person toward faith in Christ is the will and not the grace of God. Arminius opposed his assertion, noting that when an individual does not resist the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit, then more grace "is bestowed on him who performs the act [of faith], not in a prevenient form, but only in an accompanying; in which respect it may also without impropriety be said that more grace is bestowed on him, so far as grace is continued to him and urges his operation to the completion of the act, when its course is cut off by him who rises in rebellion against the Spirit."2 Arminius' view has less to do with the proactive will of humanity than in humanity not resisting the enabling grace of the convicting Spirit of God (cf. John 16:8-11).

Arminius' Church

Annoyed by Arminius' reply, his opponent charged, "By this means man can boast or glory." Smetius' retort mirrors one granted by Calvinists today, in that, unless the individual is entirely passive -- not doing anything in any way, even believing in Christ -- then salvation is works-oriented, self-willed, and all glory is taken away from God, resulting in humanity allegedly boasting in its own salvation. If this summation were true, however, then Scripture encourages all the charges, since God commands all people to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nowhere in Scripture is such passivity even alluded to or implied. God is the one who saves, and He has chosen or elected to save those who believe in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21; Heb. 7:25).

Replying to Smetius, Arminius remarks that boasting cannot be made, "because Faith, Hope and Charity are of such a nature as to exclude all boasting: This it is possible to prove from the plainest and most evident testimonies of Scripture."3 Smetius then took a passage of Scripture out of context for his rebuttal: "If the matter stand thus, then a man maketh himself to differ; which is in direct opposition to the express affirmation of the Apostle,"4 quoting, "For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7 KJV) Many Calvinists today, some four centuries later, still misuse and misinterpret this text to their own advantage, having no regard for its context. Arminius exposed his opponent's attempt to prove his case by distorting this passage of Scripture, stating:
In this there is no absurdity whatever, if man be said to use grace, and through grace to make himself to differ [cf. Matt. 7:24-27] so far as to be able to say that he has not been disobedient to the heavenly call [cf. John 3:36; 6:29] and is not a rebel against Divine Grace, and that he has not so frequently resisted the Holy Spirit, as another man who rejects the grace of God [cf. Matt. 13:1-9], and who pours contumely [i.e., contempt] on the Spirit of grace.
With regard to the passage just cited (1 Cor. 4:7), it has no reference to the present subject; since the apostle is there treating, not upon the grace . . . which renders a man accepted, but only upon the graces which are gratuitously bestowed [cf. 1 Cor. 4:8], that is, on the gifts of tongues, or miracles, and on other matters of a similar kind, which had regard to the edification of the church, and which might furnish matter for glorying. . . .5
Being utterly perturbed, Smetius responded under his breath, "This is . . . a very trite reply."6 Actually, Arminius' reply was spot on, and even many of his Calvinistic/Gomarist opponents agreed, for Smetius had abused Scripture to his own advantage. Those present acknowledged that Arminius had won the debate. When Smetius then remarked that his narrative had been "rather confused" by Arminius' replies, it had a harmful effect on the weak frame of Arminius, "for it produced a violent [convulsion] of his [Smetius'] bilious [relating to bile] complaint, from which he never recovered."7 In effect, this last comment from Smetius sent Arminius into an emotional state that affected him physically.

No doubt, telling Arminius that his theology was man-centered or that his theology drew away glory from God and cast it upon humanity, led him to becoming terribly disgruntled. Since both statements are in no manner true, there is opportunity for correction. But insisting that Arminius or Arminians intentionally confuse or distort their opponent's views in order to win their case has the tendency to lead the most humble among us to lose godly composure altogether.


1 Jacob Arminius, "On the Vocation of Men to Salvation," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:230-31.

2 Ibid., 231.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.


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