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Intellectual Property: The Catholic Scholastic Provenance of Jacobus Arminius’ Prevenient Grace Theology

12 May 2011

The following is a paper presented to Dr Kenneth Melchin for THO 4108, Grace and Christian Existence, on the topic of the Roman Catholic Scholastic underpinnings of the theology of Jacobus Arminius, 16th-17th century Reformed theologian.

Jacobus Arminius, Dutch Reformed theologian and father of Arminianism, posited a doctrine of prevenient grace in opposition to the predestinarianism of his Dutch Calvinist contemporaries. In his Declaration of Sentiments, a systematic exposition of his theology which he prepared in defence of his ideas, Arminius explicitly rejects the prevailing Calvinistic soteriologies which assert that God decreed infallibly and upon no grounds of merit which human beings he would bestow with saving grace (election) and which he would condemn (reprobation) before the fall, necessitating that God also decreed the sin and fall of man (supralapsarianism); that God predestined humans to election but not reprobation; or that God pre-ordained the fall precisely so that some might be elected and others reprobated.[1] In contradistinction to these views Arminius put forward his own theology of prevenient grace.

Over and against the established Calvinistic orthodoxy of the Reformed churches Arminius posited that humans play a role in their own salvation beyond passive election or passive reprobation. Though he accepted the Calvinist assertion that humanity is, by virtue of the fall, unable think, will, or do the good of divine command and that only through the regeneration and continual aid of grace can humanity accomplish such good, he denied that humans are entirely passive under the effects of grace.[2] Arminius considered predestinarianism to be contrary to divine wisdom, justice, and goodness. By asserting that God absolutely predestines humans to salvation or damnation without the cross, by claiming to demonstrate God’s glory in a manner discordant with justice and goodness, and by portraying God is pronouncing unjust decrees, God’s wisdom is, according to Arminius, impugned.[3] Predestination is repugnant to divine justice, says Arminius, because it suggests that God loves those individuals whom he chooses to save more than he loves his own justice, since he had elected them without reference to their own righteousness and that God wishes to subject his creatures to misery, since he has judged them sinners before ever they had opportunity to sin.[4] Lastly, Arminius judges predestination contrary to divine goodness because in his goodness God imparts to his creatures his own good so far as his justice will allow and predestination would have God willing to damn.[5] In opposition to such doctrines formulated his own which would respect God’s goodness, wisdom, and justice, which necessitated that it should allow for human free will.

Though he formulated his opinions in his Declaration specifically against the Reformed theologies of his day and makes no reference to ideas other than those of Protestant reformers and theologians the development of those ideas did not take place in a Protestant vacuum. Rather Arminius formed and developed his ideas in the context of one of the sixteenth century’s great intellectual movements: the Thomistic revival. Born of the work of major Roman Catholic theologians such as the (in)famous Dominican theologian Cardinal Cajetan in the rediscovery of the great Summa theologiae and Summa contras gentiles of Thomas Aquinas, the Thomistic revival saw the ascendancy of Thomas over the previously dominant schools of the Scotists and nominalists.[6]

Arminius understood grace not as an overpowering force of divine will like Calvin but as an infusion of the Holy Spirit, opening the channels of divine power. Grace infuses into the understanding, will, and affections of the regenerate the gifts of the Holy Spirit to turn toward the good of the divine will. This is more than an imputation of righteousness; it is an imparting of righteousness through a sanctifying grace which works within the regenerate human person. It is, to use Arminius’ own words, “…the communication of spiritual gifts, and elevation to dignities.”[7] Foremost amongst the gifts imparted through this sanctifying grace are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are the “fruits of the Spirit,” the absolutely necessary energy or metaphysical substance which bears upon the soul and allows the person do good.[8] In Arminius’ mind these fruits, though absolutely necessary to regeneration and salvation, are not irresistible, and indeed are resisted by a great many people.[9] Without the regenerative effects of the Spirit human beings are utterly incapable of performing or even understanding the true good.[10]

In his understanding of the economy of the work of grace within the person Arminius is closely in line with the theology of Thomas Aquinas.[11] Like Thomas Arminius understood grace as the infusion of new elements of being into the person, manifesting particularly in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.[12] Arminius did not define grace metaphysically to nearly the same degree as did Aquinas but his understanding of grace as infusing the human soul and working within it to sow the theological virtues and to justify, not in an instantaneous act of imputation, but in a process of elevation and sanctification, very closely mirrors the Thomistic understanding of operative grace.[13] For Thomas to have grace is to be moved by God’s gratuitous will, either to new actions or understandings and to have the gift of a new habit infused into the soul.[14] These habits or virtues infused into the soul are of a higher nature and toward a higher end than natural virtues which can acquired without grace, and allow the person to participate in the divine knowledge and love through the infusion faith and charity.[15]

The question is of course raised of whether this correlation indicates causation. Did Thomas Aquinas influence Arminius, or did Arminius develop similar ideas independently of those of the Angelic Doctor? Certainly Arminius was familiar with Thomism, as he owned complete copies of both the Summa theologiae and Summa contra gentiles.[16] Though he rarely cites scholastic sources, and then not positively, Arminius does clearly employ Thomistic ideas in other areas of his theology, such his use of Thomistic intellectualism and the Thomistic notion of the three viae.[17] It may be impossible ever to establish exactly to what degree Arminius actively employed the works of Thomas Aquinas while devising the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace, since the polemical atmosphere in which Arminius wrote would have made such clear reliance on the work of possibly the foremost Roman Catholic theologian a dangerous proposition. Certainly Arminius did not want to attract accusations of heresy.[18] But given the degree to which his thought mirrors that of Aquinas and departs from Reformed orthodoxy it seems clear that Thomistic understandings of the operation of grace influenced Arminius.

What defines Arminius’ theology of prevenient grace in contradistinction both to that of Thomas Aquinas and the irresistible grace theology of John Calvin and his Reformed successors was Arminius’ categorical rejection of predestinarianism. It in this aspect of his thought that the influences of his own contemporary Catholic scholastics, in particular the Jesuit theologians of the Catholic Reformation and the School of Salamanca, become clear. Central to the doctrine of prevenient grace which respects human freedom whilst maintaining perfect divine foreknowledge is a new category of divine knowledge, established by Jesuit theologians face with much the same dilemma as was Arminius. In order to establish that God’s perfect knowledge still allowed for human freedom, Arminius would have to forge along a theology very different from that of Aquinas and his Arminius’ own Reformed predecessors like Franciscus Junius, who recognised only two categories of divine knowledge, which necessitated that God determine human action. For this doctrine Arminius is totally reliant upon the work of his Roman Catholic contemporaries.

It is the theory of scientia media, first proposed by Pietro de Fonseca and greatly expounded upon by Fonseca’s student Luis de Molina, which Arminius employs in his doctrine of prevenient grace.[19] Molina specifies three categories of divine knowledge: scientia naturalis, scientia media, and scientia libera. Scientia naturalis, also recognised by Molina’s predestinarian predecessors, is God’s knowledge of his own totality and of all possibilities outside of himself.[20] Scientia libera, the second category recognised by the predestinarians, is the complete knowledge of all reality past, present, and future after God’s free act of creation, his knowledge of creation as He has created, out of all those potential creations of which he also has full knowledge.[21] To these already extant categories of divine knowledge Molina added scientia media, which is in the ‘middle’ of the former two. Scientia media is that faculty by which God has full knowledge, prior to his own act of will, of how any particular creature(s) will act if placed if any particular circumstance(s). Thus in scientia media God foreknows the determinations of creaturely free will, but that will remains free. Though God knows in advance how a creature will act in a given circumstance the creature is still free to do otherwise and were that other potential act to be actualised then God would have known in advance that the creature would act thusly.[22] Of course the language of “in advance” is only speaking relative to the creaturely experience of time. One might more accurately say that God knows “from eternity,” that is, God has foreknowledge from creaturely perspective but does not exist in time and thus cannot be said to know “before” or “in advance.” God “foreknows from eternity” exactly what will come to exist in time, but this foreknowledge depends upon the determinations of creaturely will, and does not exercise any power over the past.[23]

Arminius’ appropriation and application of the category of scientia media is done within the existing modes of discourse of Protestant theology and his works read more like Calvin’s Institutio Christianae religionis than Aquinas’ Summa theologiae. He does not directly employ the terms “scientia naturalis,” “scientia libera,” or “scientia media,” perhaps for fear of drawing untoward attention through use of such nomenclature to the scholastic provenance of his ideas. Arminius states that God “… knows what things will come from creatures, whether they will come into existence or not, can exist by conservation, motion, assistance, concurrence, and permission… He knows what things He can do about the acts of the creatures…consistently with himself or with these acts.”[24] Arminius is also quick to specify that this knowledge is infallible, so that God sees all future events and contingencies, but that this infallibility rests on God’s infinite essence, and not on an unchanging will that prescribes the unfolding of those contingencies and events.[25] This description of God’s prefect knowledge of creaturely acts very closely mirrors the theory of scientia media as it is described by Molina and though Arminius may not employ exactly the same terminology his debt to Molina for the formulation is clear. Both lay a heavy emphasis on the fact that God’s scientia media is dependent upon creaturely free will, so that in his scientia media God knows how creation will unfold because of the determinations of free will, but God knows perfectly what those determinations will be. Though the content of scientia media may be determined by creaturely will God knows perfectly and from eternity every movement of creaturely will, such that his knowledge precedes the determinations of will which constitute the sole content of his knowledge (specifically his scientia media, since in scientia naturalis God knows every possibility and contingency including all possible determinations of creaturely will). Both are at pains to emphasise that God’s perfect knowledge is not determinant of creaturely will.[26] Another noteworthy point of agreement between the two is the rather fine point that God’s knowledge is not occasioned by anything external to itself. Arminius states that “[t]he act of understanding of God is occasioned by no external cause, not even by its object; though if there be not afterwards an object, neither will there be any act of God’s understanding about it.”[27] De Molina, putting it more succinctly, states that is it never “…the case that God begins to know anything.”[28]

Whether or not Arminius can fairly be classed as a ‘Molinist,” the influence of Molina’s category of scientia media on Arminius’ thought is undeniable, and it is clear that Arminius was engaging with this contemporary Catholic scholastic theologian, however much Arminius himself may have protested to the contrary. The particular importance of the scientia media theory for Arminius’ theology of prevenient cannot be understated; indeed, scientia media is the very foundation of Arminian prevenient grace. It this category which allows Arminius to maintain God’s perfect foreknowledge of all creaturely actions, a central tenet of Reformed belief, without impugning human freedom of the will, and thus (certainly more important to Arminius) not impugning God’s wisdom, justice, and goodness.[29] The importance of the Molinist category of scientia media to Arminius’ prevenient grace theology cannot be overstated. It is this category by which Arminius could resolve the perfect foreknowledge and absolute sovereign will in creation, which are so central to the Reformed conception of God with the free will human Arminius believed so central to divine goodness, wisdom, and justice.

Thus it seems that the substance of Arminius’ disagreement with Calvin and the supralapsarians was formulated through the methods and theologies of Roman Catholic scholastics. Though Arminius cannot be classed as a Thomist or a Molinist, Thomas Aquinas and Luis de Molina, great Roman Catholic scholastic theologians, were important influences on the Arminian concept of prevenient grace and its development in contradistinction to Calvin, irresistible grace, and supralapsarianism. It is unfortunate that Arminius was prevented from citing these authors in his work by the polemical temper of his time, thus making more clear the ways in which the influences his thought and the places where he leaned more heavily on them.[30] However despite the lack of explicit citations the parallels between Arminius’ thought and that of Aquinas and de Molina are undeniable and it seems unlikely that he owned, but never read their work. Without the great help of these important Roman Catholic scholastic thinkers the Dutch Reformed pastor Arminius would likely never has formulated the doctrine of prevenient which gave rise to the theology which today bears his name.

Notes and Bibliography


[1] Nichols, James, trans., The Works of James Arminius vol I of III (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 614, 645, 646. All citations from this volume are from Arminius’ Declaration of Sentiments.

[2] Slate, Howard A., The Arminian Arm of Theology: The Theologies of John Fletcher, first Methodist theologian, and his precursor, James Arminius (Washington D.D.: University of America Press, 1979), 54.

[3]Works, vol I, 623-624.

[4] Works, vol I,  624.

[5] Works, vol I, 624-625.

[6] Muller, Richard A., God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Modern Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker House Books, 1991), 35.

[7] Nichols, James, trans., The Works of James Arminius vol II of III (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 367. Citations from this volume are taken from Arminius’ Private Disputations.

[8] Slate, The Arminian Arm of Theology, 54; Works, 663-664.

[9] Works, vol I, 664.

[10] Works, vol I, 659.

[11] Slate, The Arminian Arm of Theology, 54.

[12] Haight, Roger, s.j., The Experience and Language of Grace (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1979), 60.

[13] Haight, The Experience and Language of Grace, 60, 64-65.

[14] Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, 110, 2

[15] Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, 110, 3; 1a2ae, 110, 4

[16] Muller, Richard A., “Arminius and the Scholastic Tradition,” Calvin Theological Journal 24 (1989), 267.

[17] Muller, “Arminius and the Scholastic Tradition,” 268.

[18] Muller, God, Providence, and Creation, 37.

[19] Muller, “Arminius and the Scholastic Tradition,” 272.

[20] Dekker, Eef, “Was Arminius a Molinist?” The Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1996), 338.

[21] Dekker, “Was Arminius a Molinist?,” 338-339.

[22] Dekker, “Was Arminius a Molinist?,” 339.

[23] Molina, Luis de, On Divine Foreknowledge (Part IV of the Concordia), trans Alfred, J. Freddoso (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), 149-150.

[24]Works, vol II, 341.

[25] Ibids.

[26] De Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge, 149; Works, vol II, 341.

[27] Works, vol II, 342.

[28] De Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge, 149; Emphasis present in translation.

[29] Works, vol I, 624.

[30] Muller, God, Creation, and Providence, 37.

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