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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Doctrines of Grace

"The Arminian Controversy"
By Fred Butler

The Doctrine of Predestination can be defined as follows:


Predestination: “God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to

                           become of each man.  For all are not created in equal condition; rather

                           eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”  Calvin


                        The counsel of God concerning fallen men, including the sovereign election of

                           some and the righteous reprobation of the rest.”   Louis Berkhof                        



The controversy surrounding predestination: 


Before we can begin a discussion of the controversy between the Calvinists and Arminians, it would be helpful to grasp Calvin’s doctrine of biblical predestination, and the controversies God used to shape his thinking.


Beginning early in Calvin’s Christian walk, he was taught the biblical doctrines of predestination by the French reformer Jacques Lefevre D’etaples.  Other Reformers also discussed predestination in their writings.  Martin Luther, for instance, wrote on the doctrine extensively, even more so than John Calvin.


In his first edition of the Christian Institutes, Calvin gave no real discussion to predestination.  Later, however, the teachings of Augustine, a fifth century Church father who wrote at length on predestination in order to counter the heresies of Pelagius, who denied the doctrine, came under assault by Roman Catholic scholars.  Calvin expanded his Institutes to include the doctrine because of these attacks.  His intentions were to defend the truth against error.  “Even a dog barks,” wrote Calvin, “when his master is attacked: how could I be silent when the honor of the Lord is assailed?"


Two men were used by God to stir Calvin’s pen to define this biblical doctrine for the Protestant Church.


Albert Pighius:

The first attack against predestination came from a RCC archdeacon named Albert Pighius.  He wrote a book called, On the Freedom of the Will.  In it he challenged predestination, claiming the doctrine, and Calvin’s teaching of it, destroys basic morality and makes God the author of sin.  Calvin countered with writing a response, but Pighius shortly died, and Calvin turned to other matters.


Jerome Bolsec:

Another individual by the name of Jerome Bolsec also caused controversy over predestination.  Jerome was an ex-monk who had become a protestant.  Even though he was protestant, some of his RCC theology remained intact, including his rejection of predestination.  He came to Geneva as a refugee, but shortly after his arrival he began to publicly denounce Calvin’s teachings on predestination.  He was dealt with gently at first, with Geneva’s church authorities telling him to cease from his denunciations.  However, in 1551, during a church meeting, he suddenly erupted in a vigorous attack against predestination and the Genevan clergy.  Calvin and Bolsec exchanged terse words with each other and Bolsec was arrested and put into prison.  He later was released and banished from Geneva, and eventually, he returned to the Roman Catholic Church. 


It was under these circumstances that Calvin was forced to deal with the doctrine of predestination.  If there hadn’t been this opposition, Calvin would not have been so closely associated with this doctrine, or written so eloquently upon it.


Calvin’s doctrine of predestination:  “It was both a horrible decree and a very sweet fruit”


Calvin believed biblical predestination had two sides to it: Election and reprobation.

Election displays God’s gracious mercy.  Reprobation manifests God’s righteous judgment.




Calvin believed that nothing demonstrated God’s mercy more than the doctrine of predestination.  The doctrine teaches that sinful, undeserving men, who should receive divine wrath, instead receive divine salvation.  That was the purpose of Christ coming to die.  He died in the place of those sinful men God chose to extend mercy.  To diminish predestination, in Calvin’s thinking, diminished the finished work of Christ on the cross that accomplished salvation.




It was the other side of predestination that roused people’s scorn and hatred of the doctrine.  Reprobation is God righteously condemning those he does not elect to divine judgment.  All men are deserving of wrath. To acknowledge reprobation is to acknowledge that God hates and punishes sin.  When God passes over those He does not choose to salvation, He gives them what they deserve, eternal damnation.


Calvin believed when this doctrine was fully understood and accepted, it would result in a truer understanding of God’s character, and man place’s before that God.


Understanding predestination results in:

·         Acknowledging God’s sovereignty: God is sovereign over all things, especially the means of salvation.  It is an act of God’s sovereignty to choose those men He will save from destruction, and those men He will leave under destruction.

·         True Humility: A Christian who recognizes that they didn’t get what they deserved, but received immense goodness extended to them, would have their soul humbled in true humility.

·         Assurance: Rightly understood, predestination is a bulwark against doubt.  Those whom Christ elected will surely be kept from falling away and can be assured of eternal life.

·         Stimulation to Christian Activity: When sinners are elected, God has elected them to be holy.  The new Christian desires to be active for God, especially with evangelistic and missionary efforts. The Christian is that chosen instrument in God’s hands to bring the gospel to others who are predestinated. 


During Calvin’s life, his theology shaped the thinking of all those in Geneva, and because of Geneva’s influence in Western Europe, Calvin’s theology spread to many like-minded protestant churches in Switzerland, Germany, England and Scotland, and the Netherlands (modern Holland).  The major reformers were generally of one mind with regards to the doctrine of predestination, or what was called, “the doctrines of Grace.”


The Arminian Controversy:


In the Netherlands, Philip the II viciously persecuted the Protestants.  His inquisition intensified, but the Christians grew, and under the leadership of William of Orange, they revolted against Philip’s tyranny, and gained independence, forming a federation in 1579.


Arminianism takes its name from a seminary professor named Jacobus Arminius. 

Jacobus Arminius was born in Holland in 1560. (His original last name was Van Harmen).

He grew up under Calvinistic doctrine, and even had family who died during the fight for independence.


When he was older, he attended the University of Leyden, and then later he went to the academy at Geneva.

After the death of Calvin, a man named Theodore Beza took up the leadership at the academy, and his teaching concerning God’s decrees troubled young Arminus. 


NOTE: It was Beza who taught what was called supralapsarianism.  This has to do with the order of God’s decrees.


There are two main views:

1. Supralapsarianism (from the Latin supra lapsum, “before the fall”)

God first decreed election of some sinful men to salvation in Christ and reprobation of the rest of sinful mankind in order to make known the riches of His gracious mercy to the elect, and then permitted the fall of man to take place in  order to carry out that decree.


2. Infralapsarianism (from the Latin infra lapsus, “after the fall.”)

God first decreed to create the world and all men, and then decreed that all men would fall, and then decreed election as the method of saving some.


Arminius believed Beza’s teaching of supralapsarianism was too rigid and made God chargeable for sin.


In 1588, after graduating from Geneva, Arminius entered a pastorate in Amsterdam.  He was a well-liked preacher and teacher.  In 1603, he was chosen to be the professor of theology in Leyden.


Legend has it that shortly after Arminius became a professor, a scholarly layman named Dirk Koornhert, published some writings against Beza and rejecting the doctrines of predestination.  Arminius was called upon to reply to Koornhert, and to defend Beza and supralapsarianism.

As he studied the issue, he came to reject the whole doctrine of unconditional predestination.


There is reason to doubt this popular version.  Arminian scholar, Carl Bangs, makes a compelling case that Arminius was never Calvinistic in his convictions even when studying in Geneva, that he had never accepted Beza’s predestinarian views, and that he had always held to the theology that would eventually bear his name.  It may have been also, that Luis De Molina, a Jesuit priest who was an apologist against the Reformers, heavily influenced Arminius.  Molina thought up the Middle Knowledge view of predestination, a supposed middle ground between God’s sovereign election and man’s free will.


What ever the case, Arminius drew two conclusions with his theology:


1.        He believed the Bible regarded faith as a free and responsible human act.  Thus, saving faith is not caused by God, but is exercised independently from Him. (He seemed to ignore Eph. 2:8: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that, not of yourselves: it is a gift of God.”).

2.        Since the Bible regards faith as obligatory on the part of men, the ability to believe must be universal.  In other words, man is not so completely corrupted by sin that he cannot savingly believe the gospel when he hears it; nor is he so controlled by God that he cannot reject it.


Ariminus made man’s salvation dependent upon man himself.  God has only made a way for man to be saved by the instrumentality of Christ’s sacrifice. 


Controversy sprung up between Arminius and his colleague Franz Gomarus, a staunch defender of Calvinism.  There was so much contention between the two professors that a schism resulted in the whole church of Holland. 


Arminus made a public declaration of his beliefs in 1608, however, he died in 1609, before he could develop them further, or defend them with any lengthy debate.


Two of Arminius’s students, Jan Uytenbogaert and Simon Episcopius, systematized his beliefs and published them in 1610 under five articles.  They were called, The Arminian Articles of Remonstrance, (Remonstrance means “to protest,” or “show opposition”).


Because of these five articles, the followers of Arminus became known as The Remonstrants.


The five articles are summarized as follows:


I.                     God elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief. (In essence, God looks ahead through time to see who will believe the gospel or who will not, and elects according to that basis).


II.                   Christ died for all men, although only believers are saved.


III.                 Man is just enough depraved, that grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed.

              (Though accused of it, Arminians never fully rejected the depravity of man).


IV.                 This grace, however, can be resisted, and rejected.


V.                   Whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the faith is a point which needs further investigation. (This last point was later altered to definitely teach the possibility of the truly regenerate believer loosing his salvation. It should also be noted that Arminians have been divided over this last point. Some do teach eternal security).


The Synod of Dort:


The Reformed churches in the Netherlands were so divided over this issue that a council was necessary to resolve the controversy.


On November 13th, 1618, the States-General of Holland convened a council in the Dutch city of Dordrecht, [Dort]. Calvinist delegates from the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany and Switzerland came to the city to participate in the Synod.  From November 1618 to May 1619, seven months, the delegates met 154 times to discuss the Ariminian’s doctrine.

The Leyden professor, Franz Gromarus led the charge against the Arminians, and Simon Episcopius was the chief spokesman for the Remonstrants. 


The Remonstrants requested an opportunity to discuss their views.  They were denied.

What they thought was an open forum for theological discussion, was in fact a hearing. They were in effect being tried for heresy.


The Canon’s of Dort:


Five theological points were formulated to answer the Remonstrants in a document known as the Canon of Dort.  The document became known as the Five Points of Calvinism.


The Five Points of Calvinism:

·         Fallen man was totally unable to save himself. (Total depravity).

·         God’s electing purpose was not conditioned by anything in man. (Unconditional election).

·         Christ’s atoning death had as its end and goal the salvation of the elect. (Limited Atonement).

·         The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing men (the elect) to faith will always achieve its objective. (Irresistible grace).

·         Those who are regenerated and justified will persevere in the faith. (Perseverance of the saints).


The five articles are denoted by the acronym T.U.L.I.P.


As a result of the synod, the Calvinists defined their doctrine of salvation.

For refusing the synod, 200 Arminian pastors were removed, 80 were banished from Holland.



Later Arminianism:


Far from dealing a crushing blow to the movement, however, the Arminians were forced underground with their doctrine.


After the Canon of Dort was published, the Arminians were rejected from Holland, but in 1632, the state extended toleration to the group.  They were allowed back in to the country and even started their own university. There is still a denomination in Holland called, the Remonstrants.


The Methodists: 


John Wesley and his brother, Charles, are the most notable evangelicals who adopted the Arminian doctrines of salvation.  Wesley refined Arminianism with a strong evangelical emphasis on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone.  As an ‘Evangelical Arminian,’ he believed grace extends equally to all men and its acceptance or rejection must therefore depend ultimately on human decision.

Wesley, and his Calvinistic evangelist colleague George Whitfield, held to similar truths with regards to the work of salvation:


·         Both believed that God commands all men to repent and believe the gospel.

·         Both taught human responsibility and insisted that sin alone is the cause of man’s ruin.

·         Both showed that Christ is to be preached with compassion to all men.


Calvinist, however, taught that those who actually receive Christ are those for whom God intended salvation from all eternity. And further, they believed the work of Christ is particular in that He will save all those for whom He died.  Wesley and his Arminian followers replied that such beliefs prevent a preacher from telling his hearers they are unable to exercise faith at any time. (See, Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism, chapter 7, “The Emergence of Revivalism” pg. 160-190).


Wesley brought his Arminian beliefs to America in the 1700’s.  Those men who followed in his evangelistic efforts spread those beliefs all over the new continent.


Francis Ashbury and Thomas Coke published the first American Methodist newspaper in 1789.  It was called The Arminian Magazine.  Ashbury was so anti-Calvinistic, that he wrote to Wesley asking him to provide, “the best pieces you can get, both ancient and modern, against Calvinism.”


The 1800’s in America:


The new United States experienced a second great awakening from the 1800’s to the mid-1800’s.  Unlike the first awakening under Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, this period of time was marked by much aberrant theology, a lot of it due to the doctrines of Arminianism.


The religious scene in America saw:

·         The emergence of camp revivals. Religious meetings that gathered large crowds topping, at times, 20,000 people who would camp for weeks to hear gospel preaching. 


       The Camp meetings were marked by:


       1) Poor theological preaching.


       2) Rank emotionalism. (These meetings introduced a forerunner to being “Slain in the Spirit.”


       3) Corrupt behavior. Such things as prostitution, “hustlers”, and “swindlers.”


       They were the basic forerunners to the modern day mass crusades of the 20th century.


·         The introduction of Charles Finney’s “new measures” evangelism. Finney was a full Pelagian.  He rejected the biblical teaching of man’s original sin.  He believed God made away for men to be saved, but men have to be persuaded to choose it. Thus, he introduced new techniques (new measures) for evangelism.  One such technique was his “anxious bench.”  A seat in the meeting place where the anxious could come to be addressed specifically during the meeting.  This led to the “invitation system” in which the sinners under conviction would be “manipulated” to come forward to receive Christ. (Note the man centeredness to all of these ideas).


·         The emergence of new denominations. 


1.        From the Methodists sprang the Church of the Nazarene, Holiness churches, and

eventually the Pentecostal denominations.                  

2.        Alexander Campbell was the founder of the Disciples of Christ, which split to become

        the Church of Christ and the Christian Church.

3.    Benjamin Randall formed the Free-will Baptists.


·         The emergence of new cults.


1.        Joseph Smith formed the Mormons

2.        Ann Lee founded the Shakers. (A charismatic version of the Quakers).

3.        Ellen G. White formed the Seventh-Day Adventists.




1.        Arminianism is serious flawed with a major contradiction.  On one hand, it affirms predestination and grace, while on the other hand it “guts” predestination of any significance by asserting that it is conditioned upon man’s free will.  Though God has set up predestination, its effectiveness is dependent upon man’s choice.


2.        Arminianism cuts down God’s sovereignty.  God is no longer sovereign over His creation.  Though most Arminians would agree that God is sovereign, they deny His sovereignty extends to man’s salvation.  It is there God’s sovereignty ends, and man’s begins.

·         Calvinists believe man’s salvation rests solely with God – monergism.

·         Arminians believe God’s grace initiates the act of salvation, but to become effective, grace cooperates with the human act of response to that grace – synergism.


3.        Arminianism has led to some seriously awful evangelistic methodology.  Preaching, for instance, is no longer grounded in theological exposition of scripture, but on messages fitted for evangelism.  Thus, in most evangelical churches, sermons are not designed for the edification of the body, but for manipulating “the lost” present in the congregation to respond to a closing invitation.


Also, evangelism is geared to teach Christians how get a response from a potential convert.  Often times, guilt trips are laid upon believers who are not perfecting their “soul winning” techniques.

This thinking has produced in our modern times churches suited for the comfort of the non-Christian.  This is done in the hope that an unbeliever will feel at easy and attend a service.


Furthermore, this evangelism has produced a gospel that is too easy to believe.  Committing one’s life to following Christ is reduced the gospel to a simple prayer and the raising of the hand after a crusade.  The earnestness of the cost of following Christ is ignored.  Thus, it is common to have a person pray to receive Christ, but not totally commit to Christ’s lordship.  A changed life hasn’t resulted, because true salvation was absent.  The potential convert has only repeated a pre-fabricated formula, after he was manipulated down an aisle in a church or an arena.


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Please let me know about new Articles & Bible Studies from Fred's Bible Talk.


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