Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Trust and Obey, edited by Don Kistler; Soli Deo Gloria (1996) 206 pp. $15.95 (paperback). Reviewed by Douglas R. Shivers

“If I believed what you believe, I’d do what I wanted,” a man said to Luther. To which the Reformer replied, “Exactly! Now, what do you want to do?” Whether this particular conversation is actual or apocryphal, it does summarize the ripples of tension that run through the “justification by faith alone” debate. Where does personal holiness come in? Are believers supposed to be obedient? What motivates Christian discipleship and discipline?

In our own day, Evangelicals and Catholics Together has generated an Everest of material on salvation in general and justification by faith in particular. There is a desperate need for justification by faith alone to be clarified. It is alarming that this vital doctrine rates only two sentences in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. Whenever justification is plainly taught, however, the question of Luther’s antagonist is again asked. This volume seeks to answer the question by dealing with the living connection between justification and sanctification. R. C. Sproul, Michael Horton, John MacArthur, John Armstrong, Jonathan Gerstner, Joel Beeke, and Ray Lanning all contribute to this book edited by Don Kistler.

As with most other works by more than one author, the reader is jostled a bit by the unevenness of the writing quality. The best material is done by Sproul, Horton and Armstrong. Armstrong’s chapter, “The Obedience of Faith,” is an interesting historical and exegetical exercise. His thesis, based on Romans 1:5, is “Paul called men and women to a faith in Jesus Christ which was conceived of as inseparably connected with obedience to God and the covenant” (p. 94) (emphasis his). Armstrong calls for caution in hermetically sealing the different aspects of salvation. “The most problematic part of all in the ordo salutis concept is the way in which the problem of faith and obedience is related to the larger whole of our actual union with Christ” (p. 111). He calls for a more Christocentric understanding of faith and obedience, which is worthy of deeper consideration.

Michael Horton makes a minor mistake in reference to C. H. Spurgeon and the “Down Grade” controversy. He refers to the “Down Grade” controversy and then quotes from a sermon Spurgeon preached in 1855. This particular controversy did not occur until 1887.

The chapter by Beeke and Lanning, “Glad Obedience,” was not as strong as the others. In an attempt to address the third use of the law, “as a rule of thankful obedience on the part of the Christian” (p. 155), they make use of the fourth commandment, the Sabbath, as a case study. Though the matter of a “Christian Sabbath” and its appropriate observance are issues of interest and concern, this rather polemical material would have been better in a volume dealing with the “Lord’s Day” specifically.

Overall, this work is worth acquiring. It is certainly helpful for articulating the tension between faith and works. A tension is apparently felt by these fine Christian scholars as well.

God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy, by Richard A. Muller; Baker Book House, 1991; 309 pp. (paperback).

Reviewed by Mark E. Dever

The rise of a scholastic, Aristotelian theological method among the Protestant theologians in the generation after the Reformation was the cause of the development of the Reformed doctrine of predestination. True? “False,” says Richard Muller, associate professor of historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, in this, his seventh book. Muller effectively lays aside this thesis (already waning in academic circles) in a most unusual way. Instead of writing carefully on the theological method of the Reformed theologians (which he has already done quite helpfully), Muller investigates the chief Protestant “villain” among the Reformed theologians, the Leiden professor Jacob Arminius. His conclusion is that Arminius, as much as any of this Reformed antagonists, drew on scholastic, Thomistic, Aristotelian categories in formulating this theology.

The reader can discover this much simply by reading the introduction and conclusion of the book (a decision which may particularly commend itself in light of the awkward lengthy sentences with complex ideas expressed in numerous subordinate phrases throughout the book). If one proceeds into the body of the work, what one finds is an intellectually and historically disciplined discovery of the roots of Arminius’ theology in medieval and sixteenth-century Roman Catholic debates, and in the discussions of the preceding generations of Reformed and Lutheran theologians. Muller, clearly at home in what is to many the theological hinterland of the late sixteenth-century, therefore presents a much more balanced treatment than those many books which have investigated Arminius solely through the controversies which led to the Synod of Dort.

In the first chapter, Muller gives his apology for the book, by surveying the literature on Arminius, finding it surprisingly sparse and insubstantial for one who is so widely considered to have been influential. After noting some seventeenth-century studies of Arminius, Muller briefly appraises the twentieth-century works on Arminius.

In the second chapter, Muller traces Arminius’ own education, noting the influences of logical Ramism on the one hand, and a revised Aristotelianism on the other. Muller suggests that Arminius was less influenced by Ramus than is frequently suggested, and that instead the influence of the metaphysics of the Spanish Jesuit, Francis Suarez, is more pronounced in Arminius’ theological method. Muller suggests that Arminius’ theological conclusions were as substantially different as they have often been represented, but that these conclusions did not emerge mechanically from a particular theological method. Arminius was typical of his generation in being more open to the method and interests of medieval scholastic theology; he was atypical in the conclusions that he reached.

In the third chapter, this scholastic method is distinguished from the earlier reformers’ reluctances about the medieval scholastics. Though “a profound doctrinal continuity” between the reformers and their theological progeny was maintained, Muller rightly insists that the historian’s first task is not one of inquisition as to whether the reformers’ theology was distorted or altered. To do so “utterly misses the point of his [Arminius’] work.” Arminius must first be understood in his own context before comparisons and contrasts with other theologians can move from mere polemic to greater understanding. Though Muller denies that Arminius could be accurately described as “a Reformed theologian” he insists that Arminius “must . . . be understood in relation to the Reformed tradition,” (42). Muller characterizes his theology as “an eclectic theology with a Thomistic center or of a modified Thomism,” (39).

In Chapter 4, Muller expounds Arminius’ understanding of the theological task as practical (having knowledge of an object for another goal). Arminius was, however, unusual in that he advocated seeing our knowledge of God as also speculative (having knowledge of an object for no further reason). It was this combination of the practical and speculative understandings of theology which Muller in Chapter 5 presents as unusually eclectic.

In Parts 3, 4 and 5 of the book, Muller turns to the contextual explications of Arminius’ theology of God, our knowledge of God and his will, and God’s acts of creation and providence. He shows how Arminius, along with some of his contemporaries, went beyond the earlier generation of reformers in exploring the proofs of the existence of God as foundations for Christian theology. With considerable insight Muller demonstrates the influence of Aquinas and Suarez on Arminius’ explication of both the mode and object of theology, e.g., knowledge of God and of his divine attributes (Chapters 6 & 7). He presents careful discussions of both the method of knowing the attributes of God, and of Arminius’ descriptions of the attributes themselves. In Chapter 9 he reconstructs some of the history of theological discussions about divine knowledge, concluding with a particularly helpful and important investigation of the history of the concept of middle knowledge, and its function in Arminius’ theology. He corrects Isaac Dorner’s misconception of the supreme place of divine power in Arminius’ theology, (173).

Chapter 10 is a careful discussion of Arminius’ understanding of the different types of God’s will. In the crucial Chapter 11 Muller points out the centrality of the creation in Arminius’ theology, no longer seeing creation as a means to a higher end, as did his reformed contemporaries, but instead giving creation “a virtually principal status for theological system” (Shades of a process-like dualism to come in some of Arminius’ later followers, perhaps?). Here he also explains why Arminianism has been perhaps uniquely open to intellectual alliance with, if not subversion by, rationalism. In the final chapter, Muller carefully sets out the discussion that has traditionally been the focus of interest in Arminius–providence.

Whether lamented or lauded, Jacob Arminius’ theology has been a remarkably neglected field of study. Particularly welcome, therefore, is this balanced study, appreciative but critical, aware of secondary works, but with a masterful command of medieval and contemporary Roman Catholic discussions. This book should help create more interest in Arminius than any study since Carl Bangs’ Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation appeared over twenty years ago.

Personally, as a pastor with Reformed convictions, I found this book to be a telling intellectual journey, suggestive of the unwitting capitulations made by our Arminian brothers and sisters to secularism itself. At the end of the day, in a consistent Arminianism, the understanding of God and of humanity must be seen to be “rational” by the world around. Therefore I fear that their notions of God and of humanity can rise no further than the surrounding unbelieving culture. As an evangelical pastor in postmodern America, this is my fear. I pray that I am wrong.