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Arminianism, an Overview

Compiled by Lewis Loflin

Arminianism is a Protestant Christian theology founded by the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. The Arminian party arose within the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, to advocate a revision of the Reformed doctrine of predestination, in favor of an idea of predestination that was more agreeable to reason and Catholic tradition. Armanians reject the system of Calvinism of Theodore Beza and Franciscus Gomarus. They had developed and their system of doctrine that made God the author of evil as well as of good.

Arminianism broadly,

  • Free Will with Partial Depravity: Freedom of will is man's natural state, not a spiritual gift - and thus free will was not lost in the Fall. The grace of Christ works upon all men to influence them for good, but only those who freely choose to agree with grace by faith and repentance are given new spiritual power to make effectual the good they otherwise impotently intend.
  • Resistible Grace: The grace of God works for good in all men, and brings about newness of life through faith. But grace can be resisted even by the regenerate.
  • Fall from Grace: Those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith have power given them through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit, sufficient to enable them to persevere in the faith. But it is possible for a believer to fall from grace.
  • Conditional Election: God has decreed to save through Jesus Christ, out of the fallen and sinful human race, those foreknown by him who through the grace of the Holy Spirit believe in Christ; but God leaves in sin those foreseen, who are incorrigible and unbelieving.
  • Universal Atonement: Christ's death was suffered on behalf of all men, but God elects for salvation only those who believe in Christ.

Calvinism with its emphasis on predestination and total depravity, produced a system where the believer could do nothing right and all moral conduct meant nothing. Drawing from former Manichaean Gnostics like St Augustine (based on Paul alone), Jesus' death mean nothing for the vast majority of humanity. This produced two reactions: Armanianism in Holland, and Unitarianism in Poland, Transylvania, and America. (Unitarianism would be transplanted to England from Holland) See Unitarianism Armanianism also influenced some Unitarian Christians as well.

The Wesleyan revival in England, which was part of the first Great Awakening in America, recovered the Arminian emphasis on personal responsibility; but it did not widely result in the adoption of Arminianism by the traditionally Calvinist denominations. However, the Second Great Awakening, beginning approximately sixty years later, brought a widespread overthrow of Calvinism in favor of Arminianism, especially through the influence of Methodism and the Presbyterian Charles Grandison Finney, who aggressively advanced the Arminian system as an antidote to hypocrisy and religious apathy. Restoration Movement revivalists, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone popularized an anti-Calvinist, democratic concept of salvation early in the Second Great Awakening, but this can be contrasted with Arminianism on a number of points. Also, their followers typically reject all, Arminianism vs. Calvinism, Augustinianism vs. Pelagianism, and other typical distinctions, as "ecclesiastical idols".

Today, most Protestant churches in America Armanian in some form.

Governmental theory of the atonement: This doctrine says that the purpose of Christ's death is that all will see that forgiveness is costly and will strive to cease from anarchy in the world God governs. This is in opposition to the Calvinist substitutionary theory of the atonement that says that Christ dies to substitute his punishment for the sins of believers only.

Compare to Calvinism

Arminianism, another view and history.

Jacobus Arminius was born in Holland in 1560, and grew up in a land that jealously guarded the faith for which so many had shed their blood. By this time, the majority of the Protestants in the Netherlands were Calvinists. Personal views of Scripture were allowed, but there was little toleration for anything but Calvinist views to be publicly expressed.

But this was also a land where humanistic traditions from the Renaissance period had never died out and where Anabaptism was widely spread. Some people felt there needed to be a greater emphasis on the practical aspects of religion, less emphasis on finely distinguished doctrine, and a more tolerant attitude. Arminius, whose relatives were killed in the Netherlands' struggle for independence, was educated through the support of friends, at the University of Leyden.

Later Arminius went to Geneva, where he was greatly influenced by Beza. After Calvin's death, Beza assumed Calvin's mantle and took full leadership of the Academy at Geneva. It was Beza who developed the doctrine of predestination a step further than Calvin, in what is known as the supralapsarian view. This has to do with the order of divine decrees.

Did God first "decree" election and reprobation (who would be saved and who would be damned) and then permit the fall as a means by which the decree could be carried out (the supralapsarian position, from Latin supra lapsum literally before the fall), or did he first permit that man would fall and then decree election as the method of saving some (infralapsarian from Latin infra lapsus, after the fall)?

In 1588, Arminius entered a pastorate in Amsterdam, winning distinction as a preacher and pastor. Later he was chosen to succeed Franz Junius as professor of theology in Leyden, where he remained till his death. Dirk Koornhert, a scholarly layman, who wrote against Beza and all strict predestinarians, rejected the notion of predestination, demanding a revision of the Belgic Confession (the Netherlands' own reformed confession, similar to Westminster Confession).

Arminius, who was known as a strict Calvinist and an apt scholar, was called to reply to Koornhert and to defend the supralapsarian position. As he studied the problem, Arminius came to doubt the whole doctrine of unconditional predestination and to ascribe to man a freedom which, however congenial to Melanchthon (a disciple of Martin Luther) had no place in pure Calvinism. The essential dispute that Arminius had with Calvinism was regarding the doctrine of predestination.

He did not deny predestination altogether, but denied that predestination was unconditional. A bitter controversy sprang up between Arminius and his supralapsarian colleague at the University of Leyden, Franz Gomarus, who was later the leading spokesman for the Calvinists at the Synod of Dort. The conflict between the two men resulted in a schism affecting the whole church of Holland.

One commendable legacy of Arminius was his call for theological perspective. During a period of intolerant dogmatism, when battle lines were drawn over subtle differences in creeds and confessions, Arminius wrote:

"There does not appear any greater evil in the disputes concerning matters of religion, than the persuading ourselves that our salvation or God's glory are lost by every little difference. As for me, I exhort my scholars, not only to distinguish between the true and the false according to Scripture, but also between the essential articles of faith, and the less essential articles, by the same Scripture."

Arminian Articles of Remonstrance

After Arminius' death, his views were championed and further developed and systematized by two men, Simon Episcopius, and Jan Uytenbogaert. Under their leadership the followers of Arminius in 1610 set forth their views in five articles called Arminian Articles of Remonstrance, (a remonstrance is a reproof, to remonstrate is to reprove or correct) which gave them the name 'Remonstrants'. In substance the articles teach as follows:

  1. God has decreed to save through Jesus Christ those of the fallen and sinful race who through the grace of the Holy Spirit believe in him, but leaves in sin the incorrigible and unbelieving. (In other words predestination is said to be conditioned by God's foreknowledge of who would respond to the gospel)
  2. Christ died for all men (not just for the elect), but no one except the believer has remission of sin.
  3. Man can neither of himself nor of his free will do anything truly good until he is born again of God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. (Though accused of such, Arminius and his followers were not Pelagians.)
  4. All good deeds or movements in the regenerate must be ascribed to the grace of God but his grace is not irresistible.
  5. Those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith have power given them through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit to persevere in the faith. But it is possible for a believer to fall from grace.

The Synod of Dort

The dispute soon became involved in politics. The Netherlands were divided between the supporters of "states rights", which included the wealthier merchant class (to which most Remonstrants belonged) and the national party (to which most Calvinists belonged).

The National Party wished a national synod to decide the controversy. The states-rights party held that each province could decide its own religious affairs and resisted the proposal. By a coup d'etat the states-rights party was overthrown, Oldenbarneveldt was beheaded and Grotius was condemned to life imprisonment, from which he later escaped.

The Synod of Dort was convened to resolve the Arminian/Calvinist controversy. It lasted from November 1618 to May 1619, seven months. It was the largest and, next to the Westminster Assembly, the most imposing of all synods of the Reformed Churches.

Besides representatives from the Netherlands, delegates from England, Scotland, the southern provinces of Germany, and Switzerland shared in its proceedings. Episcopius was the chief spokesman for the Remonstrants, the fire-breathing Gomarus led the charge against Arminianism. The Remonstrants requested an opportunity to discuss their views at the Synod, but were denied the opportunity.

They soon realized that what they thought would be an open forum for theological discussion was in fact a hearing, and that they were in effect being tried for heresy.

They were required to submit in writing statements in defense of the five articles of Remonstrance and points where they disagreed with the Belgic Confession. Finally, when they refused to go on if not given the opportunity to speak against the convictions of their opponents, the Remonstrants were expelled, and commanded not to leave Dort. Arminianism was unanimously rejected and condemned.

The Canon of Dort ("The Five Points of Calvinism")

Five theological points were formulated to answer the Remonstrants in a document known as the Canon of Dort, which declared:

  • that fallen man was totally unable to save himself (Total Depravity)
  • that God's electing purpose was not conditioned by anything in man (Unconditional Election)
  • that Christ's atoning death was sufficient to save all men, but efficient only for the elect (Limited Atonement)
  • that the gift of faith, sovereignly given by God's Holy Spirit, cannot be resisted by the elect (Irresistible Grace)
  • that those who are regenerated and justified will persevere in the faith (Perseverance of the saints)

These doctrines have been called the five points of Calvinism and are often symbolized by the well known acronym TULIP. However, by themselves they are not a full exposition of Calvin's theology, but a caricature.

The Canon of Dort is more properly viewed in its historical context as a theological response to the challenges of seventeenth century Arminianism. These doctrines, together with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, became the doctrinal basis of the Dutch Church.

Not so extreme as some individual Calvinists - it did not adopt Gomarus supralapsarian views - the synod of Dort reached the high-water mark of Calvinistic creed-making.

The Calvinists were rather heavy-handed in their dealings with their 'Arminian' brethren. For refusing to subscribe to the Canon of Dort, some 200 ministers were deprived of their positions, eighty were banished from the country.

Those who continued to minister were sentenced to life in prison. In 1621, a Lutheran professor at Wittenberg, in response to an overture of fraternity from the Dutch Reformed, writes these remarks:

What good there is to be expected from such brethren, may easily be gathered from the Synod of Dort and their proceedings.

The Calvinists had several disputes with the Arminians, particularly about the article of grace or election, in which the latter defended our opinion, and the former that of Calvin.

In this controversy, the Calvinists showed so much heat, that, by a hasty decree of that synod, they condemned the Arminians and their doctrines, without allowing them to make any defense, depriving them of the exercise of their religion, and banishing their most eminent ministers from their country forever.

Was not that a very brotherly proceeding? If they thus treated such who differed from them in one article, namely predestination, what must we expect who differ from them in so many?

Later Arminianism

A period of persecution followed until 1632. Since then the state has extended toleration to the group. Since 1795, the Remonstrants have been recognized in Holland as an independent church body. The present membership is 21,500.

It is thought by many historians that Arminianism was a revival of a humanistic, rational, and moral understanding of Christianity as represented earlier in the Netherlands by Erasmus.

As a theological system Arminianism tries to mediate between the supralapsarianism of Beza, who taught that God willed the fall of man in order to accomplish his decrees, and the Pelagian view, which denied original sin, regarding grace as unnecessary for salvation. Arminianism is flawed by a serious contradiction: on the one hand it affirms predestination and grace, while on the other hand denying it or gutting it of any real significance by asserting that it is conditional upon man's free will. The theologian Otto Heick describes Arminianism as an oxymoron, an "absolute conditionalism":

"God in his decrees is conditioned by man's free will -

Man in his search for salvation is conditioned by God's grace".

The real significance of Arminianism lies in the wider field of English and American church history. The evangelical tenets of Arminianism found a forceful expression in the teachings of John Wesley and the Methodists, with its emphasis on the moral responsibility of man, the need of a new birth, and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

To quote the Catholic Encyclodedia,

The defection of the popular and gifted divine was a severe blow to the rigid Calvinists and started a quarrel which eventually threatened the existence of the United Netherlands. His (Armanius) reputation was greatly enhanced by his heroic fidelity to pastoral duty during the plague of 1602, and the following year, through the influence of admirers like Grotius, he was, notwithstanding fierce opposition, appointed professor of theology at the University of Leyden.

His life as professor was an unintermittent quarrel with his stern Calvinistic colleague, Francis Gomarus, which divided the university and the country into two hostile camps. Arminius did not live to see the ultimate results of the controversy, as he died of consumption in his forty-ninth Year, October, 1609.

Although the principles of Arminius were solemnly condemned in the great Calvinist Synod held at Dordrecht, or Dort, in 1618-19, and the "Remonstrant heresy" was rigorously suppressed during the lifetime of Maurice of Orange, nevertheless the Leyden professor had given to ultra-Calvinism a blow from which it never recovered.

The controversy was soon transplanted to England where it roused the same dissensions as in Holland. In the following century it divided the early Methodists into two parties, the followers of John Wesley adhering to the Arminian view, those of George Whitefield professing the strict Calvinistic tenets.

Other references, Wikipedia, my college textbooks, etc.

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