Dr. Keith Stanglin is the Associate Professor of Scripture and Historical Theology at Austin Graduate School of Theology in Austin, TX. He and Tom McCall are the authors of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace that will be out next month from Oxford University Press.
I have become aware of Dr. Stanglin’s work on the often-misunderstood and often-neglected theologian Jacob Arminius and was thrilled when he agreed to answer a few questions.
Dr. Stanglin, let me begin with an odd question, but one I think you might appreciate: was Arminius an “Arminian”? (I ask this in the same sense that people often ask, “Was Calvin a Calvinist?”)
If “Arminian” means a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian who believes we somehow earn salvation by making the first move toward God, then Jacob Arminius was not an Arminian. Arminius’s rejection of Pelagianism and his affirmation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone could not be clearer in his writings. In fact, John Calvin was more of a Calvinist than some modern theologians presume, and he was more of a Calvinist than Arminius was an Arminian. The Arminianism of the Remonstrants (Arminius’s followers in The Netherlands) and that of the Wesleyans have continuities with Arminius, but the discontinuities are also significant.
Calvin would have been comfortable as a delegate at the Synod of Dordt, and probably as a Westminster divine, too. But when one hears of “Arminian” doctrines of grace, predestination, perfection, atonement, sin, free will, and human reason, these accounts often owe very little to Arminius himself.
I have heard even a Reformed stalwart like R.C. Sproul bemoan the fact that seemingly nobody reads Arminius. Why do you think so few people, especially those who profess to disagree with Arminius, actually read his works?
Most people don’t read Arminius for the same reason most people don’t sit down and read Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. Arminius was a Protestant scholastic, and he wrote academic works not intended for laypeople. Besides the academic disputations, he did not write anything for publication; his works were published posthumously. He has no magnum opus with the appeal of John Calvin’sInstitutes. Although he preached for fifteen years as a pastor in Amsterdam, we do not have a single transcript of a sermon. Whoever reads Arminius must be prepared to wade through Aristotelian causality, Ramist bifurcations, and many lists. Of course, I think the reward is worth the effort.
It could be that opponents in particular don’t read him because it’s easier to refute a caricature and tear down a straw man. I remember hearing Reformed M.Div. students at Calvin Theological Seminary say that, once they read Arminius, they really found out he wasn’t so bad after all. Some, in fact, were inclined to his position.
Do you believe that publishers and Arminian scholars have not done a sufficient job of making Arminius’ works available in more user-friendly and accessible formats, or is the absence of such formats attributable to a lack of market demand for such?
Luther, Calvin, and Arminius are the three most important and enduring figures of the Reformation, each lending his name to a distinct theological trajectory. But if one compares the status of the works of Luther and Calvin with those of Arminius, the Arminians should be embarrassed.
There has never been a modern critical edition of Arminius’s works, and the editions that we have are incomplete. Many of his works have never been translated, and many letters have never been transcribed. The translations that do exist at present are in stilted, nineteenth-century English. A new, readable, and accurate translation would go a long way in making Arminius accessible. Some of us are making plans to remedy these shortcomings, but doing these transcriptions, critical editions, and translations takes time and funding. If you know any interested donors, let me know!
Scholars have definitely dropped the ball. Arminius has often been dismissed as an anti-Calvinist who only had one important thing to say. Scholars are rediscovering the breadth and virtuosity of his theological system, but I can count on one hand the Arminians who are currently doing technical work on Arminius, and still have a couple of fingers left over. There is no denomination, seminary, research or study group, or institute that bears the name of Arminius; but this is incongruous with the extent of his impact. If the scholars, churches, and seminaries most influenced by Arminius do not promote within their own circles the importance of claiming their heritage, then the market will never demand what it doesn’t know about.
There is some demand, though, despite the neglect. The Nichols and Nichols edition of Arminius’s works was last reprinted in 1986, and it’s still selling online for at least $70. Never-before-published works and new translations would be a real shot in the arm. Completing Arminius’s works and making them accessible should be one of the top priorities of a Protestant and evangelical ressourcement.
What do you think Arminius would make of the modern American Christian landscape were he dropped into our country today?
I have often thought of how historical figures would react to life today. Remember that Arminius is closer in time and in worldview to Aquinas than he is to us. He would be absolutely disoriented by American Christianity. His head would spin when he learns how the Enlightenment and the modern nation state have undermined Christianity in the West and what historical criticism has done to the church’s Scripture. Because he despised dissension among Christians, Arminius would probably be quite disappointed with the ecclesiastical fragmentation that has happened among Protestants over the last four centuries.
Once his eyes got used to the scenery, Arminius would see some positive aspects that continue his legacy. He would appreciate the ecumenical spirit and the overall openness of churches to cooperate across denominational lines. He would be pleased to see that, in general, Americans need not fear persecution or harassment for their beliefs. He would feel a little satisfaction to know that many (or most?) “Reformed/Calvinist” Christians don’t really believe in unconditional predestination. He would love the practical emphasis on good deeds and social justice that permeates American churches.
Arminius would be happy to find that we do not spend so much time fighting about doctrinal intricacies and opinions, but sad to learn of our biblical illiteracy and loss of theological grammar. He—along with any of his contemporaries who happen to time travel with him—would wonder why mainline churches don’t seem to believe the Bible, and why evangelical churches have loud bands and sing kids songs in worship. Arminius and his friends would be astonished at the secularization and lack of piety in the church. But, above all, these time travelers would be alarmed to discover television and how much time we waste in front of it.
You are not a Baptist, but do you have any thoughts or perspectives on the current controversies surrounding Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention?
Both Calvinism and Arminianism are present in Anglo-American Baptist history. What I find interesting about the SBC is that many non-Calvinists do not want to self-identify as Arminians, and many non-Arminians do not want to self-identify as Calvinists. Efforts to transcend the categories of these debates are generally well-intentioned but usually not well-informed. I have my doubts whether Arminianism is accurately understood. Most so-called “Calminians” are probably unwitting Arminians.
Can both groups get along in the same denomination and congregation? They have in many places for a long time. The practical similarities between Calvinism and Arminianism—especially their milder forms—make close ecclesial fellowship and cooperation possible. Both groups will evangelize; both will admonish Christians to repent of sin; both will acknowledge God’s grace and love in their lives. On the theological level, however, there are significant differences in the doctrine of God and the extent of his salvific intent. Baptists will simply have to ignore these differences or agree to disagree.
I would add that, of the two, Arminianism seems to cohere better with believer’s baptism than does Reformed theology. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin understood this point in their polemic against the Anabaptists, and the Anabaptists understood this well in their affirmation of free will in salvation and their voluntary submission to baptism and membership in the church. This is not to say that Reformed theology and believer’s baptism are absolutely incompatible, or that Arminius couldn’t be a paedobaptist (which he was!). There just seems to be more tension with those combinations. Like his Reformed predecessors, Arminius opposed Anabaptism; unlike his predecessors, he did not oppose their doctrine of free choice.
Where would you direct a modern reader to go if he or she wanted to begin studying Arminius and his thought?
The Declaration of Sentiments is the best place to start. And skip his introductory account about attempts to have his hearing. In the main body, Arminius addressed the principal controversies of his day one year before he died. It represents his mature thought on these issues, though it is by no means his whole theology. He directed this speech to laymen, so it is less burdened than other writings by scholastic categories, and therefore more accessible to beginners.
What do you see as Arminius’ greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Tenacious perseverance was one of his strengths. He could pursue a theological question with unbridled energy and with little concern for whether his contemporaries would approve of the outcome. Arminius comes across as someone who was not easily intimidated. He was on a faculty filled with the strictest “Calvinists” in the land. He was well aware that his words and deeds were always being scrutinized. When he died at about 50 years of age, his sympathizers all seemed to realize that they lost someone irreplaceable. He had the right balance of humility and confidence. Arminius promoted Christian piety and practiced what he preached. He was a dedicated minister and family man, a popular teacher, and an indefatigable polemicist. He could see through the arguments of his opponents and communicate his ideas effectively. And it helps that he was, as his theological opponents also acknowledged, wicked smart.
It’s hard to say what Arminius’s weaknesses were. In some ways, we don’t know enough about his personal life to note any vices. His opponents accused him of teaching things in private that he wouldn’t say in public. He denied such charges, though he readily admitted that he didn’t always say everything he privately believed. In so doing, he was merely being prudent with his words, something that most pastors and theologians have found to be a good practice. Otherwise, I think that most “weaknesses” we could come up with would simply show that he was a child of his age.
Why do you believe the legacy of Arminius is worth safeguarding today?
Arminius’s legacy includes an emphasis on Christian unity and toleration within limits, the priority of Scripture above confessional documents, and the role of good works in the Christian life. These issues are still important in the church today.
Above all, he dealt with the relationship between God and humanity, and this is where he made a lasting contribution in the history of theology. The doctrines of God, humanity, and their mutual relationship are fraught with notorious difficulties. Arminius articulated a system that resolves most of those difficulties in a historically orthodox, balanced, and coherent way. The questions related to these doctrines are also perennial issues in the church. When the church wrestles with God’s love, foreknowledge, grace, human freedom, sin, providence, predestination, sanctification, and assurance, but fails to consult older brothers such as Arminius, we do ourselves a great disservice.