Introductory and Historical Questions About Arminianism

Ten months ago, I started to write about Matthew Pinson’s very fine book, 40 Questions About Arminianism. At that time I indicated that my progress would not likely be rapid, but I did not then expect that it would take me this long to get back to it. A move across the country, from Ontario to British Columbia, and a wonderful two month trip to South America and Antarctica, kept me from this work. Now, however, I am happy to pick it up again.

Part 1 of Matthew Pinson’s book, 40 Questions About Arminianism, is devoted to introductory and historical questions. This part is divided into two sections: the first one introduces Arminianism and Calvinism, while the second deals with Arminianism and its place within the Reformed Tradition. Thus, Part I answers the first eight of the 40 questions which Pinson sets out to answer.

Q 1: Who was Jacobus Arminius, and Who Were the Remonstrants?

Arminius was born in the Netherlands in 1559, and he got serious about his academic and ministerial career in 1576, when he enrolled in the university of Leiden. From there, in 1581, he went to Geneva to study under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor. He then studied in Basel for a year, but he returned to study in Geneva until 1586.

Arminius took a pastorate in Amsterdam in 1587 and he was ordained the next year. Before taking up that pastorate, however, he traveled with a friend to Italy, where he studied philosophy for 7 months at the University of Padua. That experience made the Roman Church look “more foul, ugly, and detestable,” than he could have imagined (Pinson, p. 18).

Arminius got married in 1590, a year in which he got embroiled in theological controversy, when he was “asked to refute the teachings of Dirck Coornhert, a humanist who had criticized Calvinism, and two ministers at Delft who had written an anti-Calvinist pamphlet” (p. 18). A minister named Petrus Plancius labeled Arminius a Pelagian who had moved away from the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, but Arminius insisted that he was in line with those confessional standards.

That time of controversy was followed by 10 years of peaceful pastoral ministry, and then, in 1603, Arminius was appointed as professor of theology in Leiden, where he was awarded a doctorate in theology. During the final six years of Arminius’s life, he was afflicted with tuberculosis, but he remained in the thick of theological controversy, particularly in regard to the doctrine of predestination. He wrote his famous Declaration of Sentiments, in which he argued against unconditional election. He and his opponent, Gomarus, were then asked to submit their views in writing to the States General, but Arminius died in 1609, before he was able to describe his position.

Following the lead of Carl Bangs, Pinson believes that “most of the interpretations of Arminius’s theology have been based on misconceptions about him and his context” (p.19). In fact, Arminius “shared the views of numerous Reformed theologians and pastors before him” (p. 20). The Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith were adopted at the Synod of Emden, in 1571, and both of these documents allowed for disagreement on the doctrines of grace and predestination (p. 21).

Not long after Arminius’s death, some of his followers submitted to the States General an entreaty known as a Remonstrance. They became known as “Remonstrants,” and the Calvinists were dubbed “Counter-Remonstrants” (p. 21). Called together by the States General, a synod was convened in Dordrecht, which met from November 1618 until May of 1619. We know it as the “Synod of Dort.” Most of the delegates were from the low countries, but there were some from the European continent and the British Isles. That Synod treated the Remonstrants as defendants and charged them with heresy.

Episcopius spoke for the Remonstrant party, and he wanted to start with a refutation of Calvinism, but they were forbidden to do this and so they were forced to withdraw from the proceedings.  In January of 1619, the Synod denounced the Remonstrants as heretics, and they officially adopted the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. To these, they added a third document, which “crystallized what are often known as the ‘five points of Calvinism,’” (p. 22), and the three documents became known as the “Three Forms of Unity,” which constituted the confessional basis of the Reformed Church from that time onward.  Pinson proposes that “the Canons of Dort were needed because neither the Belgic Confession of Faith nor the Heidelberg Catechism clearly taught the five points of Calvinism” (p. 23). The Remonstrants were mercilessly punished, and some were imprisoned, but others escaped to countries which were more tolerant.

As an irenic Calvinist, I am grieved by all of this, and I find some comfort in knowing that “many of the English delegates to the Synod came to it against Arminianism but left in favor of it” (p. 23). The Remonstrants were tolerated, however, in the Netherlands, after the death of Prince Maurice in 1625. I find it sad that Remonstrant theology began to move away from the more Reformed theology of Arminius. Nevertheless, an approach more like that of Arminius continued, and it bore fruit during the seventeenth century among General Baptists like Thomas Helwys and Thomas Grantham, who carried on with views close to those of Arminius.

Q 2: What is Calvinism?

In the 16th and 17th centuries, ”Reformed” was a phrase primarily identifying people who were not Roman Catholic, and even in the groups which came to be officially known as “Reformed,” the term meant “more than just holding to a Calvinist view of salvation” (p.25). Frequently, it referred to a presbyterial form of church polity or a distinct view of the sacraments. “Calvinism” also varies in meaning, sometimes referring to a Christian worldview or to a society and culture, rather than a soteriology. Arminius viewed himself as “fully Reformed, and he affirmed the Reformed doctrinal standards in the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism. In this book, however, Pinson is dealing with the doctrine of salvation as stated in the “five points of Calvinism.” The French Protestant reformer, John Calvin, had become a Protestant in 1533, and his theological position was very influential, both on the continent and in England and Scotland. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, and his commentaries on Scripture, unpacked his soteriology.

Many contemporary evangelical Protestants consider Calvinism to be summed up in the five points of “TULIP.” These initials designate: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. As Pinson points out, that acronym does not represent the ordering of the Canons of Dort, which started with unconditional election, a belief which follows from God’s determination of all things, not from human depravity. Nonetheless, because TULIP has been so widely affirmed by Calvinists, Pinson uses it in this book, but he asserts that “the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism do not affirm soteriological Calvinism,” and he expands on this in Question 8.

Those five points are widely affirmed by many contemporary Calvinists, but the third (Limited Atonement) has been disputed, and that difference of opinion is also found among those who affirm the Canons of Dort. Pinson points out that “many Calvinists prefer to speak of definite atonement or particular redemption” (p. 31). This includes “hypothetical universalist Calvinists such as John Davenant and Richard Baxter and their modern followers as allowing for unlimited atonement, strictly speaking (that the atonement is sufficient for the world but efficient only for the elect)” (p. 31). Pinson notes that, increasingly, “limited atonement does not seem to be a viable option, even for those Calvinists who accept unconditional election and irresistible grace” (p. 31).

[Excursus on my understanding of the intent of the atonement:

I am a Calvinist who believed and defended limited atonement for many years, and I held that position when I wrote Who Can Be Saved?, but I wish that Icould rewrite that section. About 10 years ago, I wrote frequently about this in my blog, Thoughts Theological. An example of my current thoughts, which gives readers a sense of my present position, can be found in my post: “Four-point” and “Five-point” Calvinism Defined. I believe that the intent of the death of the Son was to provide an atonement sufficient for every human being of all time, but efficient only for those who believe.]

Q 3: How Do Arminianism’s Basic Doctrines Compare with Those of Calvinism?

“Arminius represented a strain of thinking in the Reformed churches prior to the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) that had always been broader than Calvinist predestinarianism” (p. 35). He agreed with followers of Calvin on what it means to be in a state of grace, but he differed from them on how one comes to be in a state of grace. So, Pinson suggests that “full-fledged Arminians are ‘one-point Calvinists’” since “Arminius strenuously argued for total depravity” (p. 35). Despite misrepresentation by many Calvinist theologians, “Semi-Pelagianism is inconsistent with traditional Arminian theology of all varieties” (p. 38).

With regard to the nature of atonement and justification, Arminius and those who followed him “held strongly to a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in justification” (p.38). Later, however, many Arminians rejected penal satisfaction by Christ and held to a more moralistic account of justification, in which Christ imparts righteousness. This is one reason why many Reformed Arminians, including Thomas Oden, put so much emphasis on penal satisfaction.

Pinson proposes that Arminians need not disagree with the “rich Reformed understanding of sanctification,” because “the traditional doctrine of sanctification in Calvin and the larger Reformed tradition maintains a beautiful balance between antinomianism and legalism. It confesses a sola gratia, sola fide approach to sin in the believer’s life that does not cause believers to despair of their justification in the ebb and flow of their growth in holiness, thus conflating justification and sanctification as many Arminian construals do” (p. 39). This approach to sanctification leads to a “more ordinary means of grace approach to spirituality . . . as opposed to the mystical, crisis experience oriented, higher life, and second-work-of-grace emphases of some Arminians” (p. 39).

Q 4: How do Arminianism’s Basic Doctrines Contrast with those of Calvinism?

Arminius believed in the doctrine of conditional, individual election. In eternity, God foreknew who would come to believe in Jesus, in time, and so he predestined them to be his chosen ones. Conversely, God predestined to eternal separation all whom he knew would not be united with Christ through their faith.

Arminians also believe that God desires everyone to be saved, and Christ’s atoning work was universal or general. Consequently, it is difficult for Arminians to understand “the notion of many Calvinists that there are, in essence, two wills in God for everyone’s salvation,” consisting of a “revealed will” for everyone’s salvation, and a “secret will” which desires only the salvation of the elect (p. 42).

[Excursus on “Hypothetical Knowledge Calvinism”:

As a hypothetical universalist, I have significant appreciation for the Arminian perspective in regard to God’s desire for the salvation of everyone and God’s provision of salvation which is sufficient for everyone, as heard in the texts which General Baptist William Jeffery cited, including: Ps 145:8,9; Ex 34:6,7; 2 Pet 3:9; Ezek 33:11;1 Tim 2:4; Heb 3:17; Ps 81:13; Lk 19:41; Isa 5:4, and 1 Jn 2:2 (Pinson, p.43).

My understanding of this matter has evolved considerably through my years of study and teaching, and I now propound what I refer to as “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.” In coming to this point, I am indebted to the work of Molinist scholars, but I cannot affirm Molinism because I find its “middle knowledge” proposal incoherent, on account of the “grounding objection.” I believe that the Molinist proposal that God gives all moral creatures libertarian freedom, that is, the power to do otherwise than they choose to do,  is incoherent. It would be impossible even for God to predict how a creature with the power of contrary choice would act in a hypothetical situation. On the other hand, God can and does know eternally how any particular moral creature would act in any hypothetical situation, because he knows the “principles of agent causation.”

In regard to the occurrence of evil in the actual world, including the evil of unbelief in God and his saving work, I find this construct very helpful. In eternity, God knew the multitude of worlds which he could possibly choose to actualize, and he chose one which is good. His election of people to salvation is thus made with reference to the whole of his creation. It is not based upon a one-by-one decision of whom he would bless with saving faith and whom he would leave in their personally chosen sinful unbelief. If this interests you, my blog post on “The contribution of hypothetical knowledge Calvinism to our understanding of evil, might be helpful to you.]

Calvinists believe that God will keep in faith those who have been justified by the initial faith which God works in all whom he has elected. Many Arminians believe that those who choose to respond positively to God’s gracious drawing can depart from that faith but they can later return, and this might happen numerous times in the course of their life, so their salvation can be lost but then regained. Reformed Arminians, on the other hand, “believe that the Bible teaches only one kind of apostasy, defection from saving faith,” and those who apostatize cannot be “renewed to repentance” (Heb 6:4-6; 10:26-29) (Pinson, p.45).

Q 5: Who Was John Wesley, and What Did He Believe About Salvation?

John Wesley’s father, Samuel, was an Anglican clergyman, and John Wesley rejected much of his parents’ high Church Anglican Arminianism, because he affirmed the English Nonconformity which has been the original position of his parents. In 1735, John Wesley went to the American colony of Georgia as a missionary. On his voyage there, he met some Moravians, and their piety made a deep impact on him. In 1735, with the Moravian Peter Bohler, Wesley started a religious society in London, and named it the Fetter Lan Society. In May of that year, Wesley had his “Aldersgate Experience,” while he was reading Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and Wesley said that he felt his heart was “strangely warmed.”

Wesley was fascinated by reports of the Great Awakening in America, and he and George Whitefield, who were friends from their days as students in Oxford, led Wesley into open-air preaching. For his followers, Wesley defined some methodical spiritual practices, which were dubbed “Methodist,” and Wesley appropriated that term for his new movement, which became “one of the most vibrant evangelistic and missionary forces in the history of Christianity” (p. 48). The hymns which John’s brother Charles wrote became “one of the chief architects of the burgeoning movement of English hymnody that would transform the worship of Protestant churches” (p. 48).

Pinson considers Anglican Arminianism to be the most foundational influence on Wesley’s theology, but a large contribution was also made by two Independents, John Goodwin and Richard Baxter (p. 49).  Though Wesley self-identified as an Arminian, “he never quoted or extracted from Arminius himself” although he “agreed broadly with Arminius on total depravity and original sin” (p. 49). Though Wesley favored a penal satisfaction view of the atonement, he believed that it atoned only for past sins, and he demurred from the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of the obedience of Christ to the believer, and he taught that failure to receive pardon for post-conversion sin results in apostasy, but “backsliding” is remediable. His doctrine of justification and atonement laid the foundation for the understanding of entire sanctification and Christian perfection that characterized later Wesleyan Arminianism.

Q 6: Can One Be Both Reformed and Arminian?

Reformed Arminians agree with Calvinism regarding the meaning of being in a “state of grace.” They believe that Christ’s active and passive righteousness is imputed to the believer and that this is the ground for perseverance, assurance, and sanctification. This differentiates them from “the more mystical, crisis experience-oriented, pietistic, holiness, or Keswick spirituality that characterizes large swaths of the evangelical Arminian landscape” (p. 56).

“Today people often define ‘Reformed’ as the ‘TULIP’ doctrines—five-point or at least four-point Calvinism. Hxvbr, that is not how people in the historic communions that have ‘Reformed’ in their name define the word. They define it as subscription to the ‘Three Forms of Unity,’ which are the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort. . . Therefore, someone like Arminius could self-consciously see himself as organically Reformed, as representing a stream of thought regarding soteriology that was within the bounds of confessional Reformed Theology prior to the addition of the Canons of Dort” (p. 57).

The ’creation-fall-redemption-consummation schema’ characterized the broad Reformed view prior to Dort, and it coheres well with Reformed Arminianism, but then God’s sovereignty in viewed in terms of God’s rule, his Lordship, not in terms of God’s meticulous determination of every detail of reality. Thus, Pinson believes that “Arminians of all varieties will experience renewal as they give Reformed theology, shorn of its TULIP elements, a fresh look and stop throwing the Reformed baby out with the TULIP bathwater” (p. 60).

Q 7: Was Arminius Reformed?

Pinson notes that scholars have tended to take one of two broad positions on the soteriology of Arminius. A group which follows the lead of Carl Bangs views Arminius’s theology as a development of the Dutch Reformed theology of his day. A different proposal has been put forward by those who follow Richard Muller, who portrays Arminius as departing from Reformed categories. Pinson stands with Bangs in this discussion.

As a devout Dutch Reformed theologian, Arminius was loyal to the symbols of his church: the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith, and “he repeatedly reiterated this loyalty” (Pinson, p. 66). Since theologians today recently view Arminius as a foe of Calvin, it is important for us to note that Arminius mostly spoke favorably of Calvin, and he demonstrated high regard for Calvin as an exegete and theologian. There was only one important matter of disagreement between Arminius and Calvin, and this was in regard the particulars of the doctrines of predestination and the irresistibility of grace.  From the perspective of Arminius, however, irresistible grace and unconditional election were not the essential core of either Reformed theology or Calvin’s version of it. Some of Arminius’s contemporaries posited that he recommended the works of Jesuits and of Dirk Coornhert to his students. To the contrary, however, Arminius said:

“So far from this, after reading the Scripture . . . I recommend the Commentaries of Calvin be read. . . . In the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable, and . . . his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the writing of the Fathers. His Institutes. . . I give out to be read after the [Heidelberg] Catechism. But here I add—with discrimination, as the writing of all men ought to be read.” (Quoted in Bangs, “Arminius as a Reformed Theologian,” 216. Pinson, p. 67).

Q 8: Was Reformed Theology Less Calvinistic Before the Synod of Dort?

Richard Muller, who has devoted much attention to Reformed scholasticism, has argued that Arminius’s soteriology was a major departure from confessional Reformed theology in the 16th century, because Muller posits that Arminius contradicted the “authorial intention of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism” (Pinson, p. 70). Pinson grants that there was growing support, in the 16th C, “for interpreting the confessional standards in a soteriologically Calvinist way,” but he observes that Muller does not show that the confessions clearly prohibited views like those of Arminius (p. 71). Furthermore, many scholars have demonstrated that there was a “whole series of Reformed theologies in the sixteenth century” (Pinson, p. 71), and Arminius’s approach was very similar to others of his time, such as Philip Melanchthon and Henrich Bullinger.

Prior to 1618, no national creed incorporated the new theological perspective which the Synod of Dort propounded.

“The Reformed confessional documents prior to Dort left out the details of how one is elected. Irresistible grace was not seen in these confessional documents, and the certain perseverance of the saints is not found in any Reformed confession before Dort except the Irish Articles three years earlier” (Pinson, p. 76, citing H. D. Foster)

The early Reformed were “much warmer than the later counterparts to the Lutherans’ non-Calvinistic Augsburg Confession” (Pinson, p. 76). The Heidelberg Catechism was intentionally constructed to allow for the difference between Lutheran and Calvinist theology. It did not teach unconditional election and it did not make salvation independent of contrary motion on the part of the human will, nor did it settle the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints. It was composed in a way which would gain as wide acceptance as possible, because it was intended to be a consensus document. Arminius was very comfortable in that context.

Similarly, the Belgic Confession did not clearly assert the doctrine of perseverance which was affirmed by Dort. Prior to that, “the possibility of apostasy was a live option in the international Reformed community” (Pinson, p. 79, citing Jay T. Collier).

[Excursus: A reflection on my personal experience regarding the Calvinist/Arminian divide.

On a personal note, it may be worthwhile for me to comment on my experience as a Baptist evangelical. I became a convinced Calvinist, theologically, while I was in the process of preparing for my comprehensive exam in theology, as I reached the end of a Master’s degree program at Wheaton College. During my many years of teaching and preaching, however, I always worked in schools, churches, and mission agencies which did not take an official stance in regard to the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. I was not reluctant to state my own convictions, but I lived at peace with colleagues who differed in their personal convictions, and our theological differences did not disrupt our harmonious working together. I liked this.

About 10 years ago, after I was retired, we moved to London, Ontario, and we joined a non-denominational church. After a few years, I was invited to serve on a committee struck by the elders of the church, to formulate a revision of the church’s statement of faith. Since we were non-denominational and the church had taken no position in regard to the Calvinist/Arminian divide (which could be viewed as the division between monergism/synergism, or compatibilism/incompatibilism, or divine determinism/divine indeterminism), we formulated a simple statement of evangelical belief which could be affirmed by both Calvinists and Arminians. Since it was a generic statement of Christian orthodoxy, I think that it could easily be affirmed by any Bible believing Christian, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant. In my experience, this theological breadth and simplicity fosters a harmonious context for Christian worship and service, but it frequently produces members of the community who are rather weak in their own theological formation and in their personal convictions. As a teacher, I was forthright about my own theological convictions, and I urged my students to study Scripture and the Church’s tradition conscientiously, and to be ready to formulate and defend their own theological perspective. In my theology courses, for many years, I required students to submit to me a detailed statement of their own theological position on the subject we were studying, at the end of the course.]



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

4 replies on “Introductory and Historical Questions About Arminianism”

//The French Protestant reformer, John Calvin, had become a Protestant in 533//

No doubt he was predestined to become a Protestant 1000 years before he actually did, but there’s a digit missing from that year. 😉 Good writeup though!

Also, on your blog many of the headings begin with a square bracket, looks like a markup problem.

Thanks, William. I have corrected what should have been “1533.”

As to the square brackets, I intended them at the points where I was writing an excursus, and you’ll notice that it closes with a square bracket too. The problem arises when I put the opening bracket in an enlarged text heading. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

Thank you for posting again. I love your kind spirit while you tackle deep theological topics that often separate people of faith. It is a breath of fresh air in this contentious world.

Just to say: This was outstanding. Thank you for your demonstration of an irenic spirit! May God emulate you in your students and blog readers.

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