Rehabilitating Jacob Arminius

Arminius

Recently Point Loma Nazarene University (or more precisely, its Wesleyan Center) hosted an academic conference entitled “Rethinking Arminius.” That would be Jacob Arminius (1559-1609), a Dutch theologian who is widely regarded today as the quintessential anti-Calvinist champion of human free will. Arminius is dear to Wesleyan and Nazarene folk, but the man himself was long ago replaced by a caricature, and the folks at Point Loma were out to set the record straight. The conference might just as well have been called “The Quest of the Historical Arminius.” To help with the quest, Point Loma called in some big academic guns from Princeton and Leiden (Netherlands) and elsewhere. The result was a high-caliber academic treat, and some surprising revelations.

 

About ten seminarians from Bethel San Diego attended, and learned a lot—not just about a 17th century theological controversy, but about the theological guild today, and how it goes about its business.

 

Perhaps one of the most significant insights of the conference was that the debate in which Arminius got so famously embroiled was an intramural debate among Reformed theologians. There were no outsiders; everyone involved was already inside the Calvinist tent. Arminius himself was at least ninety-four percent Reformed, and was never removed from his Calvinist chair or expunged from Reformed church membership. The man bled Geneva. In fact, his pushing of the envelope was arguably no more radical than some of the ideas more recently promoted by Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, whose Reformed credentials have rarely been questioned.

 

Nevertheless, the Reformed Synod of Dort (the Netherlands) in 1618-19 drew a line in the sand, rejecting the free will views of their fellow Calvinist Jacob Arminius. But the basic disposition and sensibility Arminius represented has never gone away, and indeed never can as long as believers and seekers give epistemic weight to moral sensibility. There is something unacceptably dissonant between the heart of Jesus, weeping over wayward Jerusalem and longing to embrace them like a mother hen her chicks, and the image of a ruthless deity who wills the majority of the human race into eternal damnation before they are even born. Many will continue to believe that either we discover the heart of God supremely in the face of Jesus or we do not.

 

On the more whimsical side, we were reminded that a band of ardent Puritans, exiled from England, sojourned in Leiden for a time prior to their trans-Atlantic voyage to found New England and what became colonial America. We learned that their leader, John Robinson, himself no friend of Arminius, rented a home right across the street from his opponent.

 

But of equal significance to conference attenders was the manner in which academics engage in theological and historical dialogue today. The speakers and delegates were almost entirely white males. Women and minorities were conspicuously few. Discussion and debate was intellectually stimulating and impressively well-informed, but at times woefully deficient in social intelligence and basic empathy. But this is often the way it is at the American Academy of Religion too.

 

Point Loma Nazarene University deserves kudos for organizing this excellent event. The conference highlighted a number of useful sources for Arminius studies. Two are forthcoming in 2012: a biography of Jacob Arminius, Theologian of Grace (Oxford) by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall; and an annotated translation and introduction to Arminius and His “Declaration of Sentiments” (Baylor). Finally, there is Jeremy Bangs’ work on the Dutch segment of the Pilgrims’ peregrinations: Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of the Plymouth Plantation (2009).

 

We are particularly interested in the perspectives of the Bethel students who attended. I invite those of you in this group to join in with your comments now, particularly your observations on the conference subject matter, the demographics of the participants, the ethos of the speeches and conversations, and perhaps also what you took away with respect to your own vocational aspirations. Other readers with opinions on Arminius are welcome to join in too.

 

 

6 Responses to Rehabilitating Jacob Arminius

  1. JVD September 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    Glen,

    Thanks for taking time out during this conference to meet with me. I appreciate your unique perspective and indomitable will for getting your ideas out. Our school is better off with you teaching at it.

    Joseph

  2. Caleb March 18, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    FYI everybody, the entire conference is now available in video form via iTunes University:

    http://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/wesleyan-center/id508155673

    This is a great way to catch up on lost opportunity for those of us who attended the conference and regrettably were unable to attend all the sessions (this would be all attendees, it turns out, as we were forced to make a choice between two options at certain points).

    This is also a great (perhaps even greater) opportunity for those who were unable to attend the conference, as you can now get the full benefit of the lectures with none of the parking hassle. Just imagine yourself surrounded by a hundred tweed sportscoats with elbow patches, and it’s exactly like being there.

  3. Matthew March 15, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    “But the basic disposition and sensibility Arminius represented has never gone away, and indeed never can as long as believers and seekers possess some vestiges of moral sensibility. There is something unacceptably dissonant between the heart of Jesus, weeping over wayward Jerusalem and longing to embrace them like a mother hen her chicks, and the image of a ruthless deity who wills the majority of the human race into eternal damnation before they are even born. Either we discover the heart of God supremely in the face of Jesus or we do not.”

    To say that this is a pejorative statement would hardly begin to describe both the civility and Christ-like speech that are lacking in your article.

    As someone who has an B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies (Minors in History and Greek) and an M. Div from Bethel, I’m saddened to have stumbled across your website.

    The best description of the attitudes represented in your post might be your own: “woefully deficient in social intelligence and basic empathy.”

    The debates between Arminians and Calvinists have been spirited and long standing. Both read the same Bible and believe wholeheartedly that their theology flows faithfully from its pages. Too often this theological dialogue and debate has devolved into caricatures, straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks. Sadly, your post does nothing to lead us away from these tendencies.

    In seeking to rehabilitate and clarify who Arminius was, you inappropriately mischaracterized his opponents, their followers and their view of God.

    When I attended Bethel (graduated from the main Seminary campus in 2008) they prided themselves on being broadly evangelical. A hallmark was making room for differing opinions and professors who refrained from using the lectern as a bully pulpit for their own theological viewpoints. If this article is any indication, I find it hard to imagine your classroom being a safe place for students of differing, yet historically mainstream evangelical viewpoints.

  4. Clay Davis March 7, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    I have had a general affection for Arminius, though I knew little about him before this conference, because of my personal belief and interest in human free will. My mind contemplates this theological issue probably more than any other. So, of course I was interested in attending the conference. It was an honor to hear such amazing presentations.

    I did not attend on Saturday, so I do not relate to Seth’s experience at all (not sure if he was referencing a particular incident or a general feeling). I experienced well-prepared and thoughtful presentations on Arminius and his work, not always engagingly presented, but well-researched no doubt. I learned much about the history of this great theologian.

    I personally am grateful for maligned theologians like Arminius because they constantly correct possible error and bring balance to the legs of the theological table. Augustine and Calvin both need some correction, in my opinion, and Arminius (and Pelagius) championed this challenge. It helps to confirm my personal goal to present my God in the best possible light and present Him as accurately as possible. The Wesleyan-Arminian view can offer much in the area of human free will, the problem of suffering, and a compelling vision of God.

  5. Dwight Carlson March 7, 2012 at 3:16 am #

    Hello All
    Doing classwork, so little time to comment in depth, however I will give the Conference 2.5 stars. Having done a research paper on Mr. Arminius and his good pal Calvin I do understood the subject matter. I am sure most of the PLNU students filing through were lost, as the presentations were a bit too scholarly in my opinion, unless they were targeting a very very small audience. I took my son along on friday and he is 23 yrs old majoring in Psychology and is quite astute in biblical knowledge considering he is mostly self taught. He was disappointed that he kept looking for speakers to punch home some significant point in their dialogue and he felt it never happened. I had to agree with him. Now I just took him to a presentation at Bethel by Henk Vigeveno on Narrative preaching in first person. It included a video of him doing Peter. 5 stars out of 5

  6. Seth March 6, 2012 at 2:27 am #

    The conference was of the highest academic caliber. I can only imagine the amount of research behind every minute of the presentations. It left me, as an aspiring thinker, with something at which to look forward both positively (because of the great knowledge) and negatively (because of the lack of love).

    Dr. Scorgie is right in his pronouncement. “Women and minorities were conspicuously absent. Discussion and debate was intellectually stimulating and impressively well-informed, but at times woefully deficient in social intelligence and basic empathy.”

    I come from a tradition that equates PLNU with disguised liberalism, but how could this be? What did Jacobus Arminius have to do with the plight of women? Where is the Feminist reading of “Jake”? (Apparently, that’s what some people call him.)

    “Liberalism” aside, there was a connection between Arminius and 20th century scholars, but they too were white men. Where is the connection between this Reformed Dutchman and scholars/ministers of significantly different cultures? If Pentecostalism came from the holiness movement, which came from Wesleyans, which came from Arminians, which came from Jacobus Arminius himself, then what does Arminius have to do with, say, William Seymour? It is he that could arguably be considered the greatest “church changer” of the 20th century, and he was by no means a White guy. What about Dr. King? What about Archbishop Tutu? There are numerous others which we could have viewed as being in the line of Arminius by some logic, and this could have been done with a much broader multicultural scope.

    The lack of social intelligence was glaringly obvious, as Dr. Scorgie points out. Certain persons stole a show that should never have been their own to take. These spotlight grabbers might even have been brighter and more knowledgeable in the area at large, but how dare those who call themselves experts in the ways of God (if that is what theology really is) be so blatantly dismissive of hard work not their own. This too was all done under the in-lip-service-only umbrella of a love for an edifying and ecumenical spirit.

    The pride in the room left a bad taste in my mouth.

    My eyes in this experience were opened to the harsh realities of getting rock star scholars together. Sadly, it makes me wonder if the reason they love dead people so much is because they are so poor at loving living ones. Pulling and prodding at the ideas of a dead person in a harsh manner won’t hurt the dead’s feelings. S/he has none left!

    So, was this positive? Yes. Negative? That too. I pray that we from Bethel have the courage to be scholars that share in exchange in a way that truly builds up the other. Two days after the conference I saw an exchange between two of our very own BSSD faculty members that could have ended poorly. (It was concerning a point over which I knew there would be disagreement.) There was give and take, back and forth, but it all was done with a true spirit of mutual respect and interpersonal awareness. The exchange entered, and I became fearful. The exchange ended, and hope entered.