A is for Arminianism, C is for Calvinism: The Background

Over the past 400 years, a central issue of division in the Church has been the “free will” vs. “predestination” debate. Those advocating for the “free will” side are generally known as “Arminians” (from Jacob Ariminius, the Dutch theologian) and those advocating for the “predestination” side are known as “Calvinists” (after the French theologian John Calvin). Though many people simply discard this debate as an issue that unnecessarily divides the Church, I’d argue that it actually shapes the way a person understands the Gospel.

Now, I should add a caveat here: I think there are saved Arminians. However, it is a matter of serious concern if a person is confronted by the Biblical text and persistently ignores its plain teaching. For as Paul writes, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). According to the apostle Paul, one who does not accept what the Word of God teaches is called a “natural person;” they have not yet been born again as a “spiritual person” (1 Cor 1:15-16).

In case you haven’t figured it out already, I would probably be lumped on the Calvinist side of things. Surprise! However, I am fully convinced of the scriptural soundness and biblical importance of the doctrine of predestination. So, over the next few weeks, I will be examining this debate and its effects from several different angles, such as the Scriptural position, the historical events, and the objections raised against predestination as a biblical doctrine.

First however, I think it would be helpful to gain an understanding of the basic tenets on both sides of the historical debate.

The Background

Throughout the Protestant Reformation, the leading men of the Reformation (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc) all held to the doctrine of predestination (or election). Though there was some differences among them, they all upheld election as a biblical doctrine. However, Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian (who originally began as a Calvinist) eventually disagreed with much of Calvinistic teaching. Eventually, the followers of Arminius, known as the Remonstrants, issued a theological statement opposing Calvinism. The Reformed (Calvinist) leaders responded in turn with a statement at the Synod of Dort (a church council). Today, these statements are known as the “5 Points of Calvinism” and the “5 Points of Arminianism.” *

*However, more historical names are “The Canons of Dort” and “The 5 Points of Controversy,” respectively.

Here’s a summary of the points:

5points.jpg

Now, what exactly do all these points mean? Here’s a summary of each derived from the original statements issued by the Reformers and the Remonstrants:

Arminianism

-(from The Dictionary of Theological Terms, p.179)

Calvinism

-(from The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, p. 5-7).

Depravity: Because of his natural corruption, man cannot think or do any good thing, and so true faith (by which alone sinners can partake of the benefits of Christ’s atonement) cannot proceed from the exercise either of man’s natural faculties or of his free will… Total Depravity: Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free, it is in bondage to his evil nature; therefore, he will not–indeed he cannot–choose good over evil in the spiritual realm…
Conditional Election: From all eternity God determined to bestow salvation on those whom He foresaw would persevere to the end in their faith in Christ. Likewise, He determined to inflict everlasting punishment on those whom He foresaw would continue in their unbelief and resist to the end of their life His divine help. Unconditional Election: God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world rested solely in His own sovereign will. His choice of particular sinners was not based on any foreseen response or obedience on their part, such as faith, repentance, etc. On the contrary, God gives faith and repentance to each individual whom He selected. These acts are the result, not the cause of God’s choice…
Universal Atonement: The Lord Jesus Christ by His sufferings and death made atonement for the sins of mankind generally and of every individual in particular. However, only believers actually partake of the benefits of that atonement. Limited Atonement: Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only and actually secured salvation for them. His death was a substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners. In addition to putting away the sins of His people, Christ’s redemption secured everything necessary for their salvation, including faith which united them to Him. The gift of faith is infallibly applied by the Spirit to all for whom Christ died, thereby guaranteeing their salvation.
Resistible Grace: This divine energy of the grace of the Holy Spirit heals the disorders of corrupt nature and begins and perfects everything that can be called good in man, so that all good works in man are attributed to God and the operation of His grace. Nevertheless, such regenerating grace may be resisted and rendered ineffectual by the perverse will of the impenitent sinner. Irresistible Grace: In addition to the outward general call to salvation which is made to everyone who hears the gospel, the Holy Spirit extends to the elect a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation…By means of this special call the Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His work of applying salvation by man’s will, nor is He dependent upon man’s cooperation for success. The Spirit graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ.
Fall from Grace: Believers are furnished with abundant strength and help, sufficient to enable them to triumph over the seductions of Satan and the allurements of sin. However, by the neglect of this help, they may fall from grace, and if they die in such a state, must finally perish. Perseverance of the Saints: All who were chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.

As you can see, this debate revolves exclusively around the means and methods by which God saves sinners. There is nothing more important to understand than the Bible’s teaching on this issue. After all, if you don’t rightly understand how God saves sinners, how can you know if you yourself have been saved?

The next post will analyze the first point (Depravity) of each system from the biblical teaching.

Bibliography

Cairns, A. (2002). Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

Schaff, P. (1878). The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The History of Creeds. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers.

Steele, David N., Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance. Quinn. The five points of Calvinism: defined, defended, documented. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publications, 2004.

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