Given some recent comments, I thought I would share my review of a recent book that will soon appear in Restoration Quarterly. The author, Keith Stanglin, is a friend and former student (indeed, he was my Graduate Assistant for several years) at Harding University Graduate School of Religion. He now teaches at Harding University in Searcy, AR, after receiving his Ph.D. in historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary (2006). Those interested in the Calvinism/Arminianism discussion might be interested to see his syllabus on that topic which has a significant number of helpful reading assignments and bibliography.
Keith D. Stanglin. Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609. Brill’s Series in Church History, Volume 27. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. 285 pages. Price? Don’t ask.
2009 is the 400th anniversary of the death of Jacobus Arminius. While many have identified themselves as “Arminian” since his death, few have pursued scholarly and technical examinations of Arminius’ context and theology. Keith Stanglin’s thorough and substantive analysis is a welcome reprieve from cursory and superficial conversations about “Arminianism.” Indeed, this is the first monograph wholly focused on Arminius’ soteriology with special reference to its epistemology (how do I know I am saved?).
Based on his dissertation at Calvin Theological Seminary, Stanglin—who is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Harding University—makes several significant contributions to the study of Arminius. He contextualizes Arminius’ theology in the framework of Reformed theology and the debates that consumed his Leiden professorship from 1603-1609. This contextualization includes a comparison with the soteriology of Arminius’ contemporaries (e.g., William Perkins, Franciscus Gomarus). Further, he utilizes Arminius’ full Latin corpus, including unpublished Leiden disputations, as the basis for his analysis. This enables Stanglin to interpret Arminius’ soteriology in the specific context of his Leiden controversies. This has a significant impact on how one reads and understands this oft misunderstood Dutch theologian.
Stanglin argues that Arminius, despite his detractors, proposed a doctrine of assurance that was suited to the pastoral needs of believers. Arminius’ understanding of election is conceived in such a way that it preserves the love of God as the fundamental ground of the believer’s assurance. On this basis he rejected both unconditional election and irresistible grace, which are the primary soteriological differences between Arminius and Gomarus. Since faith is a “resistible gift, then defection from faith also may happen by free choice” (p. 141). According to Stanglin, apostasy was possible in Arminius’ soteriology.
Given the possibility of apostasy, what does assurance mean to Arminius? This is the major burden of the book and Stanglin rigorously explores Arminius’ “epistemology of salvation” (pp. 143-235). Assurance, for Arminius, is fiducia (a trusting tranquility that rests in God’s love for us) that avoids the twin pitfalls of desperatio (despair) and securitas (from sine cura, meaning, without care or careless; a kind of presumption). Arminius’ pastoral experience in Amsterdam from 1588-1603 alerted him to these dangers. He witnessed some despair as they suffered from the plague but also saw others arrogantly presume their election. While his contemporaries agreed with his concern about disperatio, Arminius “was a lonely voice in the struggle against securitas” (p. 152).
Stanglin demonstrates that securitas was usually understood as a negative quality arising from pride (e.g., Augustine and Luther). While Calvin used securitas and fiducia interchangeably (loosening the securitas from its historic moorings), he hinged securitas on the attitude of “godly fear” and distinguished between “simple security” and “carnal security” (pp. 163-4). Stanglin argues that early Reformed Orthodoxy (e.g., Gomarus) equated fiducia and securitas while Arminius wanted to preserve the historic caution against securitas as the fruit of pride. This did not undermine certainty (certitudo) but it did exclude presumption (praesumptio). Unfortunately, for Arminius, his assault on presumption took place at the moment when securitas had become a “new normal” for the Reformed understanding of assurance (p. 175). While characterizing securitas negatively, Arminius did affirm that fiducia yields assurance and certainty.
Interestingly, it is precisely because Arminius wants to avoid despair and presumption that he opposes unconditional election. On the one hand, Reformed soteriology may produce despair because ultimately authentic faith is practically indistinguishable from “temporary” faith (p. 183) and the despair this creates is “focused” on the believers’ inability to discern whether they are included in “God’s immutable decree” (p. 187). On the other hand, Reformed soteriology may produce an unhealthy security that leads to presumption due to a lack of godly fear about salvation. Unconditional election provides no functional deliverance from these two hazards.
Precisely because he rejects unconditional election Arminius affirms that fides yields fiducia which yields certitudo. The evidence or testimony that yields this conclusion is both objective—which is primary—and subjective. The subjective includes faith, testimony of the Spirit, good works, and the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, which does not differ from his Reformed contemporaries (p. 204). The difference comes in the objective. For the Reformed the objective is God’s eternal decree. For Arminius it is the love of God.
Significantly, Stanglin argues, “Arminus views God’s love of humanity as something more than mere means (uti) towards the goal of his own glory (which is Reformed supralapsarianism, JMH), but as approaching enjoyment (frui), the beatitude of the creature as the end that God enjoys” (p. 220). In other words, the goal of God’s love is not his own glory as if God is egocentric but rather enjoying the communion of his creation. This is the fundamental ground of assurance—all believers know they are beloved. This belovedness, which Reformed believers cannot know absolutely since they cannot see into the divine decree, yields a present certainty without despair or presumption.
Stanglin has effectively and persuasively argued that assurance was not only significant for Arminius but it was his “principal” soteriological concern (p. 243). It was because the Reformed doctrine of predestination could not provide a “healthy doctrine of assurance” that Arminius dissented from the Reformed Orthodoxy of his colleagues. Assurance, then, was “both the point of departure and the conclusive goal of his system” (p. 244).
This is a significant book. It is one of only a few critical and substantial treatments of Arminius available. We can only hope that it will encourage others to follow Stanglin’s lead.