Arminius and natural providence

Back in 2012 I posted a piece about the views of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius on creation. The start of my argument was that the still-prevalent semideistic “freedom of creation” teaching amongst theistic evolutionists is most logically taken as a projection of the Arminian teaching on human free-will.

Much popular Evangelicalism, if it thinks about things at all, considers itself broadly “Arminian” in being opposed to “Calvinism”, which positioning it interprets as being for “free will” and against “rigid determinism.” This is not only a complete misunderstanding of Reformed theology, but (as a formerly regular poster Cal commented on that post) a fundamental misinterpretation of what Arminius actually taught.

In fact the common popular views on freedom owe more to out and out heretics like the Socianians, whose rationalist tendencies fed into the mix that led to Unitarianism and Deism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It was the Socinians who first taught (as Open Theism now does) that free-will can not be real if God knows the contingent future, and in our age that radical elevation of autonomy above God has led to the idea that God is a tyrant if he fails to allow even the inanimate Creation to be its own master, and even its own “co-creator”.

That last idea seems to go beyond even the Socinians to gnostic concepts of a world created by a flawed demiurge. But it also leads to the question of providence, after the initial creation, and it’s quite instructive to see what the real Arminius taught on that. How did he see God’s role within the natural Creation? This link tells us:


My sentiments respecting the providence of God are these: It is present with, and presides over, all things; and all things, according to their essences, quantities, qualities, relations, actions, passions, places, times, stations and habits, are subject to its governance, conservation, and direction. I except neither particular, sublunary, vile, nor contingent things, not even the free wills of men or of angels, either good or evil: And, what is still more, I do not take away from the government of the divine providence even sins themselves, whether we take into our consideration their commencement, their progress, or their termination.

If you’re interested (and I’m not, here) he goes on to develop in detail how he subjects the human will, and even sin, to God’s governance, followed by his points of contention against other Reformed views, which are subtle enough to keep people arguing about whether he’s virtually in agreement with mainstream Reformers or playing with weasel words.

My point here is just to demonstrate his classic view of natural providence, absolutely, it would appear, in line with the tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, but light-years away from what is assumed both in popular religion (“God does not cause natural events – they just happen”) and academic discourse (Robust Formational Economy Principle and all that ASA/BioLogos jazz).

Just one thought to leave you pondering regarding this: Augustine’s and Aquinas’s thought still forms the main intellectual foundation for Catholic views on Providence. Calvin’s near-identical views form the basis of the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Arminius is seen as the Father of the remainder of orthodox Protestantism, including the Wesleyan, Pietist and broad Episcopalian stream where that has departed from its Reformed roots. From what stream of tradition, then, does the idea of a divine providence that does not, cannot, will not or should not direct the affairs of the world, including the outcomes of evolution, arise?

There would seem to be only Deism, Unitarianism and Socinianism to choose from, from what I can see. Those are also the groups that most played down the inspiration and authority of the Bible back in the days before mainstream Evangelicals began to do so.


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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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