In his work Arminius and the Reformed Tradition: Grace and the Doctrine of Salvation, J. V. Fesko, the Harriet Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, makes a narrow yet explosive claim—namely, that Jacob Arminius’s (1560–1609) view of the doctrine of justification was not Reformed but represents “an alternative Protestant conception.”1 Fesko makes this claim in contrast to Carl Bangs, a twentieth-century biographer of Arminius, who argued that Arminius was, in fact, Reformed.2 Fesko’s claim is explosive because he grounds the exclusion of Arminius from the Reformed tradition, not in his denial of predestination, perseverance of the saints, or the sovereignty of God, as so many defenders of a Reformed systematic theology have done, but in his divergent doctrine of justification itself.3 By putting the entire debate in terms of the doctrine of justification, Fesko cuts to the very core of Protestant theology, contrasting Arminius’s claims with the Reformation’s primary thesis: salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Fesko, thereby renders it impossible to consider the distinctive features of Arminius’s theology as peripheral. If Arminius’s view of justification was distinct from that of the broader Reformed tradition, then he must not be Reformed, Fesko argues. The book is worth reading, as Fesko’s argument is well rooted in primary sources, concisely articulated, and most importantly, exceptionally relevant. It does, however, have one weakness which lessens the force of its rhetoric.
Fesko defends his claim that Arminius was not Reformed with two major arguments: first, that Arminius taught Gabriel Biel’s principle of facientibus quod in se est, et Deus non denegat gratiam (Do what is in you, and God will not deny grace), which was the primary impetus for the Protestant Reformation in the first place; and second, that Arminius’s handling of the ordo salutis was fundamentally different from that of his Reformed predecessors or contemporaries.4 Regarding the former, Fesko ties Arminius’s articulation of the facientibus both to his denial that God’s prevenient grace is irresistible and to his argument for God’s middle knowledge as a way of explaining its resistible nature.5 Regarding the latter, Fesko systematically explains how Arminius’s expression of the ordo salutis lacked the logical priority of justification relative to sanctification (i.e., that justification is considered foundational to sanctification while the inverse is not true) which was an essential point of Reformed systematics.6 In both cases, Fesko’s verdict is that Arminius’s soteriology was definitively semi-Pelagian and, therefore, not Reformed.7
Though clearly standing on the shoulders of Richard A. Muller’s work (which pervades the footnotes), Fesko does not get bogged down in secondary scholarship; rather, he marshals a virtual avalanche of primary sources to support his argumentation, including voices from the Reformation and Protestant-Scholastic eras: such as Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, Beza, Ursinus, Gomarus, Junius, Voetius, Wollebius, Usher, and of course Arminius himself. Fesko also includes discussion of the relationship between Arminius and various Reformed confessions including: the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Westminster Standards, Irish Articles, and Canons of Dort. Fesko consistently provides careful exegesis before jumping to conclusions, tempers his claims with qualifying statements, and above all, remains unwaveringly focused on his thesis.
Although strong overall, Fesko’s work presents a significant challenge and has one major weakness. The challenge is the accessibility of the work. Fesko relies on frequent use of technical theological distinctions—prevenient versus subsequent grace, God’s consequent versus antecedent will, instrumental versus efficient causes of justification, and monergistic versus synergistic acts—without defining these terms. This makes his argument nearly impenetrable to those unacquainted with the application of Aristotelian categories to soteriological debates, or with the finer points of late-medieval/early-modern scholastic approaches to theology. As a result, the book is a good item for seminary students to cut their teeth on, or a useful exercise for pastors looking to keep their skills sharp while still finding practical application (especially because of its short length and narrow scope); but it will not prove useful to many lay readers.
Its weakness is in the second part of its thesis. Fesko convincingly demonstrates that Arminius’s theology was not Reformed, but his claim that he represents “an alternative Protestant conception” is vague and ultimately unsatisfying.8 Despite using this phrase to define the mission of the work, what it means to be Protestant but not Reformed is never clearly defined. The closest Fesko comes to defining this category he creates for Arminius is in the conclusion of his fifth chapter where, after demonstrating that Arminius went beyond Reformed Confessional orthodoxy, he states: “While all Reformed theology is Protestant, not all Protestant theology is Reformed.”9 This statement is confusing, however, in that Arminius does not fall under either of the other two widely-recognized Protestant categories at that time (Lutheran and Anglican). Yes, he is not Reformed; but what precisely about his doctrine of justification makes him Protestant? Is it possible for a Christian to be neither Roman Catholic, nor Eastern Orthodox, nor Reformed, nor Anglican, nor Lutheran, nor of the Radical Reformation in the first decade of the seventeenth century? Did Arminius create a whole new category of Protestantism? These are all important questions Fesko leaves unanswered.
This criticism is not intended to be trite, but directly relates to the force of the rhetoric in Fesko’s argument. Fesko goes to great lengths to show how, unlike his peers, who were both Protestant and Reformed, Arminius was semi-Pelagian and taught the facientibus—the very things the Protestant Reformation sought to refute from within Roman Catholicism. Thus, the implied argument is that the Reformed rejected the teachings of Arminius at Dort precisely because they found in them the same fundamental errors they found in Rome. It would be a powerful argument to say not only that Arminius was not Reformed, but also that his teachings were rejected by the Reformed because his doctrine of justification was found to be essentially Roman (i.e., requiring some degree of human cooperation with divine grace to be efficacious), even if he distinguished himself from Roman theology on many accidental points (I employ Aristotelian categories myself here in order to engage with the inherent complexity of Fesko’s work). Fesko retreats from the full force of this rhetoric, however, when he describes Arminius’s doctrine of justification as “an alternative Protestant conception.”10 The rhetorical power of Fesko’s argument would be substantially strengthened if Fesko were able—without forsaking his efforts to be charitable to Arminius—to categorize Arminius in such a way that demonstrates the gravity of his semi-Pelagian soteriology.
Arminius earned himself an immortal position in the annals of Protestant history when he challenged the doctrine of election as it was being taught at Leiden University in the Protestant Scholastic period; be it hero or villain, it is undeniable that he occupies a place in the popular evangelical consciousness to rival that of Calvin himself. What Fesko’s work has done, for those capable of accessing its high-level academic discourse, is provide a vital reminder of what is truly at stake in the Arminian controversy: the heart of the Protestant Reformation itself. Fesko’s work is an important one in that it takes the so-called “Calvinist versus Arminian” debate over predestination, and drives it to the real issue: is justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone? Or does it require some level of human cooperation to result in salvation? It could only be improved by more boldly asserting this distinction as the fundamental issue.
- J. V. Fesko, Arminius and the Reformed Tradition: Grace and the Doctrine of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), 5.
- Carl Bangs, “Arminius as a Reformed Theologian,” in The Heritage of John Calvin: Heritage Hall Lectures (1960–70), ed. John H. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 209–22.
- Fesko, Arminius and the Reformed Tradition, 6, 89.
- Fesko, 13.
- Fesko, 13–50.
- Fesko, 82–83.
- Fesko, 16, 24, 29, 126.
- Fesko, 5.
- Fesko, 106.
- Fesko, 5.
©J. David Edling. All Rights Reserved.
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