Calvinism and Arminianism


     When John Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1535 (at the ripe old age of 27), his intention was to serve the Protestant interests at large, but its influence must have far exceeded his anticipation. It proved to be the most influential work of the Protestant Reformation. Protestants in different countries saw Calvin as a pillar of strength to their cause, a theologian of the highest rank, while Romanists feared his pen as one of their most formidable foes. A Catholic writer had this to say of the Institutes:

     "It is the Koran, the Talmud of heresy, the foremost cause of our downfall,... the common arsenal from which the opponents of the old Church borrowed their keenest weapons. No writing of the Reformation era is more feared by Roman Catholics, more zealously fought against, and more hostilely pursued, than Calvin's Institutes".

     The Swiss city of Geneva, under Calvin's influence as pastor and reformer, became a refuge to which fugitives might flee from persecution, and a training-school in which missionaries and reformers might be equipped and sent forth for heroic service. It was truly the nerve-center of the Reformation. Emperor Philip II, son of Charles V, expressed the thoughts of many foes of the Reformation when he wrote the following to the King of France regarding Geneva:

     "This city is the source of all mischief for France and the most formidable enemy of Rome. At any time I am ready to assist, with all the power of my realm, to overthrow it."

     The French government on its part threatened to destroy the city if it did not keep its evangelists at home, and sent an ambassador to give notice to that effect. The evangelists continued to pour forth, in defiance of the French government, after Calvin assured the magistrates of the city of Geneva with these bold words:

     "Inasmuch as the city depends upon the omnipotent God alone for protection, the highest prudence consists in the most perfect obedience to His will."

Calvinism in Western Europe:

     The city of Geneva was truly the nerve-center of the Reform movement. The congregations founded in Switzerland in the time of Zwingli were united with Geneva in a great sisterhood of churches, which came to be known as the Reformed Church of Switzerland. There were many reformed churches in Germany, and many of the southern provinces of Germany were predominantly of the Reformed faith, (e.g. Hesse, Bremen, and the Palatinate, where in 1563 the famous Heidelberg Catechism was produced). The Church or 'kirk of Scotland' as the Scots called it, was of course thoroughly Calvinistic in theology and in practice, having been modeled in many respects on the church in Geneva. The Puritans of England were Calvinists, of course, but the non-Puritan ministers of the Church of England were predominantly Calvinistic also, until the reign of King Charles II. From the time that the French edition of the Institutes were published in France, Calvin was the intellectual master of the Protestant movement in France, and the Huguenots (French Calvinists) grew rapidly in numbers in the 16th century. As early as 1558, there were no less than 400,000 adherents. Calvinism was also the predominant Faith in the northern part of the Netherlands (modern Holland). Calvin's missionary vitality led to the tremendous spread of Calvinism throughout Europe and by the 17th century it superseded Lutheranism as the most vibrant representative of Protestantism.

     The Netherlands (modern Holland and Belgium) was composed of anciently independent provinces, where democracy and freedom of thought had grown since the time of the Middle Ages. Because of its industriousness, it was the richest and most thriving district of Europe. Among a people of such intelligence and independence, the doctrines of the Reformation found an early and earnest acceptance. This land of Thomas Kempis, and Erasmus was fertile ground for the Reformation. Though the districts in the Netherlands were self-ruled, they were, unfortunately, under the 'protection' of the most unholy Roman emperor, Charles V. As early as 1521, only four years after Luther posted his 95 theses at Wittenburg, Charles V issued a severe edict against the Lutheran heresy. Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Netherlanders were burned, strangled, beheaded or buried alive in obedience to the edicts of Charles V for such offenses as reading the Scriptures, refusing to worship graven images, or ridiculing the idea of the actual presence of Christ's body in the wafer.

     It was Charles V who presided over the Diet of Worms, and who, at its convening, intended to have Martin Luther burnt at the stake for heresy. Luther escaped in the night and went into hiding, and was later protected by the German magistrates. Charles V's son, Philip II succeeded him and sought to outdo his father in exterminating the heretics from Netherlands. In 1568, he sanctioned a sentence, passed by the Inquisition of Madrid, which included the whole population of the Netherlands in the crime of treason against God and the King. The chief Inquisitor was zealous to carry out the sentence, remarking: "His majesty had rather see all his territories deserted and uncultivated, than to suffer one heretic to remain in them." The inquisition in the Netherlands grew in intensity, as it did in France, but despite this, the number of Protestant Christians grew. Under the leadership of William of Orange, the northern provinces revolted against this bloodthirsty tyranny and gained independence, forming a federation in 1579.


     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.