A Dutch theologian, Jacob Hermanszoon (better known by his Latin name Jacobus Arminius) bears the dubious honor of being the founder of a system of doctrine known as “Arminianism” that denies the basic tenets of the gospel and the Reformed faith concerning the matter of the salvation of man and the sovereignty of God. He lived from 1560-1609.
His theological training was in the Reformed faith where he was educated at Leyden, Basle, and Geneva. He studied under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. In 1588 he returned to Holland to serve as a pastor of a Reformed congregation for fifteen years. Holland had become a center for Calvinism in the sixteenth century.
Arminius vs. Gomarus
Disputes arose in his pastorate as Arminius questioned some of the basic teachings of Calvinism. Here his theology began to adopt the humanist doctrines of Erasmus. Arminius left the pastorate to become a professor at the University of Leyden in 1603. A series of lectures on the subject of “Predestination” led to a heated controversy with the Reformed theologian Francis Gomar (Latin: “Gomarus”) who was a skilled and zealous defender of Calvinist orthodoxy and also a professor at the University of Leyden. As this debate spread through the university and churches in Holland, the result was a division into factions known as “Arminian” and “Gomarist” (also called “Strict” or “Hyper-Calvinists” who held to the supralapsarian position). Gomar was a member of the Synod of Dort, but did not take a very active part–asking for the floor only once and then to deny that Calvinists taught the doctrine of “absolute predestination.” He spent the years from 1618 to 1641 teaching at the University of Groningen.
Following the death of Arminius in 1609, his followers published a “Remonstrance” which spelled out Arminius’s position–one contrary to the Reformed faith. Attempts were made through the Dutch government (then in the hands of a liberal politician, Jan van Oldenbarneveldt) to have this issue settled, but this was refused.
Sometime later, however, the Calvinists received the support of Maurice of Nassau, son of William the Silent, who sought a more centralized, monarchical government. Fierce controversy between Maurice and Oldenbarneveldt followed. In 1619 Maurice won the debate, having his opponent judged guilty of treason and subsequently beheaded in that year. This opened the way for a Synod to be held at Dordrecht (shortened to Dort) in which this religious controversy between Arminians and Calvinists could be carefully scrutinized and answered from the Bible.
The Remonstrant Position
The position known as “Arminianism” was outlined in a “Remonstrance” (a statement of protest) which was published by its proponents in 1610 (see Appendix for the text of their protest). This became known as the “Five Points of Arminianism.”
This Remonstrance can be summed up by observing its five primary teachings.
(1) God’s decree of salvation applies to all who believe in Christ and who persevere in obedience and faith. In other words, God’s decree to elect a people unto salvation was general and not particular. All men are chosen, but this can only be effective if man chooses to accept it. Such a doctrine rested on the belief that man, after the Fall, still possessed a free will. Their contention was that the fall of our first parents did not result in a total sinful depravity, but enough good was still left in man for him to choose good over evil – to choose Christ as Savior. They took exception to both Martin Luther (see Bondage of the Will, a book by Luther) and John Calvin who were agreed that the Fall of Adam placed all men, with all of their faculties (including the will of man) in bondage to sin and Satan.
The Remonstrants claimed that all men are free to reject or accept, to deny or decide in favor of, salvation by themselves. They did have a doctrine of election, but it was a “Conditional Election,” the condition being man’s response in faith to God’s “offer.” God’s election unto salvation was determined by foreseen faith. God, they claimed, was able to foresee before creation which men would accept His offer of salvation. God chose or elected them on that basis. Certainly God does foresee all things, but this Arminian doctrine leaves God’s decrees subject to the condition that sinful men will accept His offer. God’s elective decree results from His foresight of what man determines to do with the offer.
(2) Christ died for all men, although only those who “accept” this “offer” in faith are saved. This doctrine of a universal atonement is derived from their first point and rests on the belief that God loves all men to the extent that He wants to save all men. If all men are free by themselves to choose salvation, then not just the message of the gospel, but the actual atoning work of Christ must also be provided for all men, either to accept or reject.
(3) The divine grace of the Holy Spirit is necessary to help men perform any good deed, such as having saving faith in Jesus Christ. Superficially, this sounds right. However, man is free and of sufficient power to accept or reject this work of the Holy Spirit in him. Their doctrine rests on the assumption that God is not sovereign, but for man to be saved there must first be a cooperation between man and God.
(4) God’s saving grace is resistible. Since it was God’s desire to save all men, He sent His Holy Spirit to try to convince all men to believe. Nevertheless, man can, by his free will, resist this power of God. According to Arminianism, God’s plan to save can be frustrated and halted by man’s stubborn refusal.
(5) It is possible for true Christians to fall from God’s saving grace. This is based upon the assumption that if man is able to come to salvation by his own will, then it also depends on man to continue to will to be saved. Perseverance in faith is left up to man who may lose this saving faith.
These are the points the Remonstrants introduced into the church as a rejection of the teachings of Calvin and most other prominent reformers of his day. They also contradicted the teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism which was written in 1563 and had come into wide use in Reformed churches. Most importantly, these teachings contradicted the clear teachings of the Bible. The Remonstrants insisted that both the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism must be changed to conform to their views.
Questions to Ponder
- Why is it impossible for man to be “free” unless he is a Christian?
- What is the Christian free to do?
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author. If you’ve enjoyed reading it, you can purchase a copy for yourself.