This begins a series of articles based upon the earliest work of Puritan theologian John Owen, A Display of Arminianism. I could never think to improve upon one of the most outstanding thinkers in the history of the church. He was precise, articulate, full of love for the Scriptures, and witty. This is not intended to replace his work. On the contrary, I hope to whet your appetite to read the entire work yourself.
I write for three reasons.
First, though this work is one of Owen’s most accessible, his language is very academic. Having an introduction to it in the language of our day may help you to navigate through his work more easily. His Display is full of Greek and Latin (which I know nothing of) and the language of the Puritan era (which I am somewhat familiar with), both which can slow you down. I will try to help here as I can, using research and the comments of others as necessary to fill in the gaps.
Second, the topic is largely being ignored by much of the church today, as the influence of Arminius, (particularly through the revivalism of Charles Wesley, Charles Finney and others), has made “free will” the predominant defense of the modern doctrines of salvation, most of which I fear are leading millions of souls into hell. It has had a blinding effect upon much of evangelicalism and a deadening effect upon much of the reformed church.
Third, this damnable doctrine of free will is couched in modern terms and ideas that must be addressed in the context of our own language and preconceptions, though Owen has aptly paved the way with his work. I will not add anything new to the discussion doctrinally (Ecclesiastes 1:9) but hope to bring out the old paths using modern idioms and illustrations and challenge those of us who believe in free grace to be more courageous in rescuing professing Christians from this doctrine of demons.
John Owen wrote this, his first work, in 1642, just prior the beginning of the English Westminster Assemblies (1643-1649). The full title is A DISPLAY OF ARMINIANISM: BEING A DISCOVERY OF THE OLD PELAGIAN IDOL FREE-WILL, WITH THE NEW GODDESS CONTINGENCY, ADVANCING THEMSELVES INTO THE THRONE OF THE GOD OF HEAVEN, TO THE PREJUDICE OF HIS GRACE, PROVIDENCE, AND SUPREME DOMINION OVER THE CHILDREN OF MEN; Wherein THE MAIN ERRORS BY WHICH THEY ARE FALLEN OFF FROM THE RECEIVED DOCTRINE OF ALL THE REFORMED CHURCHES, WITH THEIR OPPOSITION IN DIVERS PARTICULARS TO THE DOCTRINE ESTABLISHED IN THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND, ARE DISCOVERED AND LAID OPEN OUT OF THEIR OWN WRITINGS AND CONFESSIONS, AND CONFUTED BY THE WORD OF GOD.
Chapter One of Owen’s work is his introduction. He briefly describes each chapter of his short book and its purpose. The title itself would be too controversial or confrontational for our own day. First, he calls “Free-Will” an idol, something we would be unlikely to do. Many Presbyterians and Calvinists of our day seem to be somewhat “free-will” on the issue of free-will. At most we might say it is just a different point of view within the church than our own view of free grace:
“There’s usually a waystation” where it is said, “I believe that doctrine, but I don’t think it’s important for other Christians to believe it”
Owen then suggests that its companion doctrine,(the notion that God’s decrees are contingent upon the will of man) is a feminist pretender to the throne of God. I believe Owen’s title suggests he would reject the distinction we are apt to make between Pelagianism and Arminianism.
Display is divided into two parts, representing the two ends of Arminianism as Owen sees them. First, advocates of free will aim to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of God’s “all-ruling hand of providence” replacing it with “chance, contingency, and their own free wills,” making God himself subject to these things. Second, they rejected the utter fall of man in Adam. If they are saved, it is because they are smarter, wiser, more faithful than those who are lost, thereby gaining to themselves the glory which is due to God’s name.
Owen’s work was written only about 30 years after Arminius died. We live 369 years after Owen’s Display. I have been amazed of late how quickly the words “free will” come to the lips and pen when any Doctrines of Grace or Providence are even mentioned. Suggest that God has something to do with natural disasters, and free-will raises its head. Suggest that God chooses to save some and not others, and free-will fights with all of its strength. If you dare say that God sends troubles or judgments leading to death, hoards of “free-willers” will risk committing blasphemy by calling our God a monster. Others will say out loud they don’t want to serve a God that sends people to hell. Others are doubting the very existence of hell. Free-will leads not only to rejection of predestination, but eventually rejection of belief in God’s omniscience, hence the Open Theism movement.
“Free Will” is on display and we need to understand it.