Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Calvinist in the hands of an angry modern Arminian

As stated, I was lead to a blog post here which attempt to refute my article on the heresy of Classical Arminianism. In this post, I would like to briefly respond to Birch's attempted rebuttal of my article.

Heresy, really?

We will start with the idea of heresy. In a footnote, Birch quotes Neo-Orthodox church historian Alister McGrath on the definition of heresy. Of course, Birch is always welcome to use whatever definition of heresy he wants to exclude Arminianism from that charge. The definition McGrath proposes however is vague. What does "the entire church" refer to? If if refers to all who consider themselves churches, even Arianism is not a heresy, for the Arian "churches" certainly did not judge Arianism unacceptable.

It is a fact that the Remonstrants were kicked out of the Reformed churches after Dordt. Such excommunication means that these people were not regarded as being part of the church. If by the "entire church," we are referring to the established churches at that time, then the entire church did judge Arminianism as being "unacceptable by the entire church." Furthermore, by its international character, the judgment at Dordt was endorsed by many Protestant delegates from other countries, who represent their national and/or city churches in endorsing the ecclesiastical judgment against the Remonstrants. So upon what basis can McGrath, and Birch, declare that Arminianism is not a heresy even according to that vague definition proposed by McGrath himself?

McGrath and Birch can always claimed that the Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox were not invited to Dordt. But that of course presupposes that these churches were regarded as true churches by the delegates to Dordt. Does the category of what we mean by the "entire church" changes depending on what the current scholarly consensus of what the "entire church" is supposed to be made up of? Are we to ignore the 17th century context of the Synod of Dordt and anachronistically read the modern scholarly views of what constitutes the "entire church" into the discussion of the Synod of Dordt?

If we however let the Bible and the usage of the ancient church to define the term, we will come up with a better definition. Heresy is any error which if embraced fully destroys the faith of professing Christians. If we adopt such a better definition, then the question of whether Classical Arminianism is heresy can be better addressed.

Partial or Total Depravity

Birch charges me with not providing the full context of the Remonstrant Opinions, and therefore I have distorted the true view of the Remonstrants who embraced Total Depravity. If all he is saying is that the Remonstrants do indeed use the language of Total Depravity, I will of course acknowledge that. If the charge is that I did not inform my readers that they did use such language, perhaps he has a point.

I have of course read the Remonstrant Opinions, which is available in many places, with Birch reproducing them on his website. What I was driving with in the quote is to show a place where the Remonstrants reveal their belief in partial depravity. As I had argued in my article, the issue is that the denial of the doctrine of imputation of Adam's sin undermines any language about Total Depravity. Who cares if the Remonstrants have used the language of Total Depravity if while doing so they do not embrace its substance?

Along the way, Birch charged me with not quoting Arminius on the issue of imputation of Christ's righteousness. First of all, I was dealing with the Remonstrants, who deviated further doctrinally from Arminius himself (a prominent example is the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints). Secondly, using the language of imputation does not necessarily mean the Reformed understanding of imputation itself is believed. Arminius was not forthright in his views, and fought vigorously against the calling of a national synod to deal with them. Merely stating one section where he was trying to refute his critics (and thus he has a vested interest in appearing orthodox there) does not do full justice to what Arminius' actual views are.

Regardless, as I have said the first time, I was dealing primarily with the Remonstrants. If Birch cannot differentiate between Arminius himself and the Remonstrants, there is nothing I can do to help him.

The case of Conrad Vorstius

Birch faults me here in two ways. First, he faults me on the history of what exactly happened. Vorstius according to him resigned, not that he was kicked out. Next, the issue of Vorstius with King James I was theological, not political.

To this, I will say that the charges are disingenuous. Yes, it is theological, but are we to imagine that it is also not political? So if King James strongly suggest to the Dutch princes that Vorstius was doctrinally aberrant, there would be no political ramifications if the Dutch princes ignored it? We are talking about the King of England, a sovereign nation. Is Birch suggesting that a theological controversy involving the King of England has no political overtones as well? In a time when church and state were not separate, that is surely a tall order.

As to whether Vorstius resigned or he was kicked out, that is a mere technicality. King James I was pressuring the University of Leiden to do something about Vorstius. Vorstius could either go willingly or be fired — either way he was forced out. Just as today nicer bosses ask an unwanted employee to voluntarily resign instead of being fired, so then Vorstius' leave of the University of Leiden was forced. It is irrelevant whether he technically resigned or not, because he was not going to be able to remain there anyway, and better to leave voluntarily than to be shamefully ejected.

The second charge that Birch launched at my article is that Vorstius was not truly an Arminian, although his soteriology is Arminian in nature. The problem here is that Vorstius' Socinian leanings were not known early on. As Birch pointed out, he was earlier exonerated of Socinianism by the Heidelberg theologians. He was therefore considered an Arminian until he was found out to be a Socinian before his death. It is indeed interesting that Birch does not even consider this fact at all. Instead, we are told that Vorstius because of his Socinianism was not an Arminian, as if Vorstius was known and considered as a Socinian early on instead of being considered one of the Remonstrants.

Birch's charge therefore misses its mark altogether. To disavow Vorstius, one must show that his contemporaries and especially the Remonstrants knew and rejected him as a Socinian in 1610 when he was elected to the chair formerly occupied by Jacobus Ariminius, but this Birch cannot show because it is historically untrue. It is no point showing that Vorstius will finally be outed as a Socinian, because we are discussing about Vorstius in the time period before his Socinianism was fully known.


In conclusion we see that Birch's criticism misses the mark altogether. Birch is of course welcomed to create his own version of Arminianism based upon his interpretation of the works of Jacobus Arminius. But to do so absent interaction with actual people, writings and positions of the 17th century Remonstrants but merely upon his evangelical interpretation of Jacobus Arminius and the Remonstrant Articles and Opinions is bad historiography. Nowhere is his historiography worse than his blithe dismissal of the case of Conrad Vorstius, which is of course understandably embarrassing to his goal of making classical and evangelical Arminianism one when they are in fact not.

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