God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy

Written by Richard A. Muller Reviewed By Mark E. Dever

The rise of a scholastic, Aristotelian theological method among the Protestant theologians in the generation after the Reformation was the cause of the development of the Reformed doctrine of predestination. True? ‘False’, says Richard Muller, associate professor of historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this study, Muller effectively lays aside this thesis (already waning in academic circles) in a most unusual way. Instead of writing carefully on the theological method of the Reformed theologians (which he has already done quite helpfully), Muller investigates the chief Protestant ‘villain’ among the Reformed theologians, the Leiden professor Jacob Arminius. His conclusion is that Arminius, as much as any of his Reformed antagonists, drew on scholastic, Thomistic, Aristotelian categories in formulating his theology.

The reader can discover this much simply by reading the introduction and conclusion of the book (a decision which may particularly commend itself in light of the awkward lengthy sentences with complex ideas expressed in r numerous subordinate phrases throughout the book). If one proceeds into the body of the work, what one finds is an intellectually and historically disciplined discovery of the roots of Arminius’ theology in medieval and 16th-century Roman Catholic debates, and in the discussions of the preceding generations of Reformed and Lutheran theologians. Muller, clearly at home in what is to many the theological hinterland of the late-16th century, therefore presents a much more balanced treatment than those many books which have investigated Arminius solely through the controversies which led to the Synod of Dort.

In the first chapter Muller gives his apology for the book, by surveying the literature on Arminius, finding it surprisingly sparse and insubstantial for one who is so widely considered to have been influential. After noting some 17th-century studies of Arminius, Muller briefly appraises the 20th-century works on Arminius. In the second chapter Muller traces Arminius’ own education, noting the influences of logical Ramism on the one hand, and a revised Aristotelianism on the other. Muller suggests that Arminius was less influenced by Ramus than is frequently suggested, and that instead the influence of the metaphysics of the Spanish Jesuit, Francis Suarez, is more pronounced in Arminius’ theological method. Muller suggests that Arminius’ theological conclusions were as substantially different as they have often been represented, but that these conclusions did not emerge mechanically from a particular theological method. Arminius was typical of his generation in being more open to the method and interests of medieval scholastic theology; he was atypical in the conclusions that he reached. In the third chapter, this scholastic method (explored in more detail in early works by Muller) is distinguished from the earlier Reformers’ reluctances about medieval scholastics. Though ‘a profound doctrinal continuity’ between the Reformers and their theological progeny was maintained, Muller rightly insists that the historian’s first task is not one of inquisition as to whether the Reformers’ theology was distorted or altered. To do so ‘utterly misses the point of his [Arminius’] work’. Arminius must first be understood in his own context before comparisons and contrasts with other theologians can move from mere polemic to greater understanding. Though Muller denies that Arminius could be accurately described as ‘a Reformed theologian’, he insists that Arminius ‘must … be understood in relation to the Reformed tradition’ (p. 42). Muller characterizes his theology as ‘an eclectic theology with a Thomistic center or of a modified Thomism’ (p. 39). In chapter 4 Muller expounds Arminius’ understanding of the theological task as practical (having knowledge of an object for another goal). Arminius was, however, unusual in that he also advocated (and more unusually for a Protestant) seeing our knowledge of God as speculative (having knowledge of an object for no further reason). It is this combination of the practical and speculative understandings of theology which Muller in chapter 5 presents as unusually eclectic.

In Parts 3, 4 and 5 of the book, Muller turns to the contextual explications of Arminius’ theology of God, our knowledge of God and his will, and God’s acts of creation and providence. He shows how Arminius, along with other of his contemporaries, went beyond the earlier generation of Reformers in exploring the proofs of the existence of God as foundations for Christian theology. With considerable insight Muller demonstrates the influence of Aquinas and Suarez on Arminius’ explication of both the mode and object of theology, e.g.knowledge of God and of his divine attributes (chapters 6 and 7). He presents careful discussions of both the method of knowing the attributes of God, and of Arminius’ descriptions of the attributes themselves. In chapter 9 he reconstructs some of the history of theological discussions about divine knowledge, concluding with a particularly helpful and important investigation of the history of the concept of middle knowledge, and its function in Arminius’ theology. He corrects Isaac Dorner’s misconception of the supreme place of divine power in Arminius’ theology (p. 173). Chapter 10 is a careful discussion of Arminius’ understanding of the different types of God’s will. In the crucial Chapter 11 Muller points out the centrality of the creation in Arminius’ theology, no longer seeing creation as a means to a higher end, as did his Reformed contemporaries, but instead giving creation ‘a virtually principal status for theological system’. Here he also explains why Arminianism has been perhaps uniquely open to intellectual alliance with, if not subversion by, rationalism. In the final chapter Muller carefully sets out the discussion that has traditionally been the focus of interest in Arminius—providence.

Whether lamented or lauded, Jacob Arminius’ theology has been a remarkably neglected field of study. Particularly welcome, therefore, is this balanced study, appreciative but critical, aware of secondary works, but with a masterful command of medieval and contemporary Roman Catholic discussions. This book should help to create more interest in Arminius than any study since Carl Bangs’ Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation appeared over 20 years ago.

Mark E. Dever

Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge, England