This has been a rather cursory look at a controversial theologian and his complex theological system. I would like to conclude with a response to one of the most popular criticisms of Arminianism, which response will also reveal a key aspect of Arminius’ teaching. That criticism is the claim that Arminianism is semi-Pelagian. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that mankind, not God, takes the initiative in salvation, and therefore the work of God is denied. However, Roger Olson responds to that charge thusly: “It would come as a shock to many Calvinists to know how much of salvation and the whole Christian life both Arminius and Wesley attributed to grace—all of it” (Against Calvinism, p. 169).
Galli, Mark and Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
Muller, Richard A. Arminius and Arminianism. In Hart, Trevor A. The Dictionary of Historical Theology. Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2000.
Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
The second decree, according to Arminius, was God’s divine will to save specifically those who repent and believe. Therefore, God would be understood as having divine foreknowledge of free human choices. The third decree related to the means of salvation, which include the establishment of preaching, the sacraments, and the instrumental order of grace. Again, those means are only sufficient for salvation in light of human choice. God is understood as providing the conditions for salvation, while also having foreknowledge of the human response to those conditions. The fourth decree in Arminius’ argument is that God foreknows who will respond to salvation and persevere to end. He chooses to save those people, while choosing to damn those people whom he foreknows will not respond to his offer of grace.
Arminius’ positions on predestination soon landed him in hot water with his colleagues on the theological faculty of the university. He continued to defend his theological positions for the remainder of his life. In 1608 he presented his Declaration of Sentiments before the Estates General of Holland, an extremely Calvinist organization. That Declaration is the most important document that we have from Arminius on his doctrine of predestination. That document treats many topics, with predestination receiving the most attention. In that writing Arminius clearly established that he did not embrace Reformed theology of any variation. Arminius listed four eternal decrees that influence his understanding of predestination. First, he understood there to be a general decree from God to appoint Christ as the mediator, without there being a reference to individual people but rather as result of God’s gracious will to save generally.
The theology of Arminius was deeply shaped by his study of Romans 7 and the problem of the will that is posed by that passage. In his study Arminius was led away from the traditional Augustinian pattern of interpretation which was used by the Reformers. He argued that the struggle described by Paul in Romans 7 was not post-conversion, but rather was pre-conversion. His study of Romans 9 led him into an extended debate with Franciscus Junius about predestination. Arminius’ view of Romans 9 was that Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, should not be understood as individuals, but rather as types. That interpretation would lead to the conclusion that Romans 9 does not refer to individual predestination. Overall, Arminius took issue with the Reformed doctrine of predestination. Interestingly, Arminius replaced Junius as a theology professor at Leiden in 1602.
After this broad overview of the life and teachings of Jacob Arminius, I would like to look at his teachings in a bit more detail, being particularly interested in how they compare with Calvinism’s TULIP system. The TULIP label is used to summarize the five major points of Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Arminius and his followers, who became known as the Remonstrants, were deeply opposed to at least the middle three tenets of the TULIP system. The fifth aspect of TULIP, the perseverance of the saints, is a very controversial point in Christian circles. I was surprised to find that even Arminius, who is known to history as the great opponent of Calvinism, did not himself take a position on this issue. He was unclear about it in his own mind and left the issue for further study. He did not come to a conclusion before his death, and the first Remonstrant statement of faith (which came out in 1610) did not deny or affirm belief in perseverance of the saints.
Despite that perhaps surprisingly peaceful statement, Arminius was still disturbed by the Calvinist system. That prompted him to call for a national conference to seek to resolve the conflicts. He also wanted two key Calvinistic documents to be examined: the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. When the council finally met, it was nine years after Arminius’ death. Interestingly, Arminius was in good standing with the Dutch Reformed Church at the time of his death. In reflecting on the life of Arminius, the two key elements of his theological system were that Christ died for all (as opposed to the Calvinist view that Jesus only died for the elect) and that individuals can resist grace, even to the point of losing their salvation. The influence of Arminius’ theology can be seen in some other important characters in church history, including John Wesley, who became the founder of Methodism.
A theologically formative period in the life of Arminius was the time he spent as a minister in Amsterdam. As a minister he studied Romans, and it was that study that set him in firm opposition to Calvinism. He was accused of being a Pelagian because his emphasis on free will was thought to be extreme. He was also accused of other heresies, although his critics were never able to provide sufficient proof to convict him of those charges. Despite the fact that his theological system was controversial, he did not want to see people divided for theological reasons. During the time that he was professor of theology in Leiden, he delivered an address entitled “On Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians.” He stated: “Religious dissension is the worst kind of disagreement, for it strikes the very altar itself. It engulfs everyone; each must take sides or else make a third party of himself.” Perhaps that attitude lends to his reputation as an irenic theologian.