Arminius and Creation

I thought I’d withdrawn from the BioLogos thread on Darrel Falk’s piece, but Ted Davis threw me a challenge in a response to a reply I made to penman on the Reformed view of creation. He picked up a reference to John Owen  on this blog, and suggested his views on sovereignty and freedom were so particular that I’d be optimistic to find a TE website that endorsed them. I replied along the lines that Owen wasn’t the only name I cited, and that Reformed views on providence are hardly a forgotten footnote in Evangelicalism.

But as I wrote, I was musing on the fact that, given his circumstances, a 17th century Congregationalist probably, even in his large body of work, wrote little on the natural creation itself, apart from the complicating factors of free agents like men and angels  and the question of sin.

Then  it occurred to me to wonder what might have been the views of rival theologies about creation, and in particular of course, that of Jacobus Arminius. If I were a fan of his, would I find his views on creation reflected at BioLogos? The problem with this enterprise is fairly obvious. To any of these ancient writers, the natural creation was virtually contemporary with the creation of man: within the lifetime of Adam greater theological questions were being posed, so any classical treatment of creation is more or less a short preamble to the issues of salvation. For us it is different – human history is a thin crust on a creation extending 14 billion years into the past and a greater number of light years across.

Nevertheless Arminius did write on creation, and here is a link to what he taught. There seems virtually nothing of substance here that John Owen wouldn’t have endorsed. To both of them creation is the sovereign act of God imposing his will on, initially, non-existence, but subsequently on chaotic matter, moulding it by his wisdom into the created world. He does so entirely by the freedom of his will, and by no necessity:

The form is the production itself of all things out of nothing, which form pre existed ready framed, according to the archetype in the mind of God.

This would seem to include no conception of a natural world with any final forms not originally conceived by God. The same sovereignty would seem to be further endorsed here:

…creation is the immediate act of God, alone, both because a creature, who is of a finite power is incapable of operating on nothing, and because such a creature cannot shape matter in substantial forms [my italics].

For this reason, Arminius considers the creation to be perfect, complete, fit for purpose and without defect:

The effect of creation is this universal world, which, in the Scriptures, obtains the names of the heaven and the earth, sometimes, also, of the sea, as being the extremities within which all things are embraced. This world is an entire something, which is perfect and complete, having no defect of any form, that can bear relation to the whole or to its parts; nor is redundant in any form which has no relation to the whole and its parts. It is, also, a single, or a united something, not by an indivisible unity, but according to connection and co-ordination, and the affection of mutual relation, consisting of parts distinguished, not only according to place and situation, but likewise according to nature, essence and peculiar existence. This was necessary, not only to adumbrate, in some measure, the perfection of God in variety and multitude, but also to demonstrate that the Lord omnipotent did not create the world by a natural necessity, but by the freedom of his will.

An important related point – and one often made by Calvinists – is that only our immediate (in the sense of “unfiltered”) creation by the will of God gives him the right to our worship and loyalty:

This creation is the foundation of that right by which God can require religion from man, which is a matter that will be more certainly and fully understood, when we come more specially to treat on the primeval creation of man; for he who is not the creator of all things, and who, therefore, has not all things under his command, cannot be believed, neither can any sure hope and confidence be placed in him, nor can he alone be feared. Yet all these are acts which belong to religion.

Arminius also comments on the purpose of creation:

The end, which is called “to what purpose,” is the good of the Creatures themselves, and especially of man, to whom are referred most other creatures, as being useful to him, according to the institution of the divine creation.

This is as anthropocentric a view as that of Genesis, of course, but note also that God has concern for the good of the creatures as the reason for their creation. He has made each of them – the apes, the sloths, the moths – for their own specific sake. None of them is an aberration or error (though I imagine he may have taken a different view on “fallen” nature – but that is not an issue in this discussion of “primitive” creation).

Finally, one quote speaks to that strand of Christian thought (as expressed by Bilbo on the original Falk thread) that God might create an infinite Universe, or even a Multiverse, knowing that in some corner of it life might develop. Arminius, having already excluded an infinite Universe anyway, says:

This creation is the first of all the divine external acts, both in the intention of the Creator, and actually or in reality; and it is an act perfect in itself, not serving another more primary one, as its medium…

In other words, the whole Universe is fit for purpose, and not simply a wasteland with pockets of function.

Now given this picture of creation, apparently completely consistent with the kind of absolute government a Calvinist might express, how is it that so much TE thought has drifted into such a more open (small “o”) idea of creation? I would suggest that it is the difference between the Arminian and Calvinist views of providence in human affairs, when confronted with deep time and evolutionary theory.

For the Calvinist, God’s sovereignty in all things is easily accommodated into any version of evolutionary theory. God invisibly oversees all the events in our world – why should he not be doing so in the world of “random mutation and natural selection”?

For the pre-Darwinian Arminian, though, primitive creation was just the brief preamble to a more complicated picture in which God’s sovereignty acts in a very different way with regard to the free will of men and angels. Briefly, an instantaneous creation of un-self-determined beings didn’t impinge on the more contentious areas of will, chance and fore-ordination. God creates the stage set, and then the interesting stuff of history begins.

Before then, arguments had been about whether or not a game of chess was played by free choices or by some-predetermined plan. Nobody had thought to doubt that the chess-board itself was determined.

Evolution, however, introduces a vastly long history, replete with contingent events, apparent errors and dead ends and so on. So the Arminian concepts of contingency independent of God began to require to be applied to the natural world, as well as to the human. From there, in my view, the progress towards an increasingly independent and/or accidental creation became inevitable, and of great importance theologically because, put simply, it took up so much of God’s time. Arminianism suffered great challengeswhen the business of evolution was deeply considered, and so has required great revision to accommodate to it.

The seeds of such a massive shift in basic doctrine were therefore, perhaps, inherent in the Arminian system. But it is instructive to note that that shift cuts right across what Arminius himself believed.

So loyal Arminians, as well as devoted Owenists, might find it equally difficult to find a TE home.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Arminius and Creation

  1. Cal says:

    It is funny to note that:

    1) Arminius listed, second to Scripture, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” as the greatest work on theology
    2) Arminius considered himself reformed all his life

    I happen to think there was much more similarity in thought amongst Calvin, Arminius and Amyraut than their successors would let on.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal.

    They differed profoundly nevertheless. What they did have in common, I think, was a heritage of rigorous logic and careful argument – in other words they were disputing in the same language and could be judged on the merits of the cases they put.

    Maybe where that differs from today is the influence of Pietism and its successors, that will reply to the arguments of any of these old theologians with, “Well, that just doesn’t feel right to me,” or “Don’t give me all that complicated logic – just sum it up for me in a sentence.” Or even of course, “Well you would say that, because you’re a Calvinist/Arminian/Fundamentalist” etc.

  3. Cal says:

    As for rigorous logic, I’d disagree. As far as I know, Calvin had the bright colors of his humanist-classical education in his writings. His theological writings were driven by Christ-centeredness. That was not something Beza captured. Calvin’s writings became Calvinism and the principle of election became the sifter of Scripture.

    Despite Calvin’s treasonous orthopraxy, his insights are excellent. I’m not quite an Arminian nor am I a Calvinist, but I disagree with your assessment that the two men were so far apart. Dordt and the Remonstrants may have dug a great divide, it’s just a pity that Calvin and Arminius did not live as contemporaries.

  4. Cal says:

    By the way, I’m not dismissing Calvin as a rigorous thinker, merely that this was his hallmark. He used systematics to provide a framework for the uneducated (admitted in his own words as pegagogy), but not a systematic approach that is absolute.

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