In this essay we shall take a look at Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) and his theology. Arminius was a Calvinist professor of theology in Holland, who was appointed to defend a particular type of Calvinism [supralapsarian] against two ministers who were teaching another type [infralapsarian]. The “supra” view says that God decreed who would be elect and who would not; and then he permitted the fall to carry through with his decree. The “infra” view says that God permitted the fall; and then he decreed election as a means of saving some of the lost.
As Arminius freshly studied the whole matter, he came to the conclusion that Calvin’s whole system was a wrong interpretation of the New Testament evidence. Arminius concluded that, though Calvin was correct in his view of total depravity, he was wrong about unconditional election.
Arminius came to believe that the biblical evidence simply did not support the idea that God chooses only some to be saved, while leaving the rest to be damned, with no hope whatever. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that it is the will of God that all be saved. This means that election is conditional rather than unconditional. And the condition is faith. All who believe in Christ by faith are saved.
Once Arminius made that discovery, he and his followers saw that the rest of Calvin’s system is overthrown. The atonement is not limited. Christ died for all men who will believe, not just some who are elect without any real choice. Furthermore grace is not irresistible. Human beings can reject the grace of God; and it is those who reject it who are not saved. And finally, this free choice carries over into the state of salvation. A saved person can choose to reject the grace of God and fall from grace. The prime example, of course, was Adam. Adam was in a saved relationship before the fall. But he used his freedom to choose to reject the grace of God and become alienated from God. In other words, perseverance of the saints is not automatic. A human being’s capacity to reject God is not taken away at salvation.
Interestingly, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, did not get his view on this matter from Jacob Arminius. The Anglican tradition of which Wesley was a part already believed in human freedom. But the name of Arminius had become so closely attached to the view by Wesley’s time that people began to refer to the Wesleyans as Arminians. So Wesley accepted the label, and the Methodist tradition has been known as the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition ever since.
It would be wonderful if one tradition or the other could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their view is more scriptural than the other. I personally believe that the Arminian view is more biblical. But I never have been able to convince a stanch Calvinist. And committed Calvinists never have been able to convince me that their position is more biblical.
We have to be honest here. The biblical evidence, like it or not, is ambiguous enough that equally committed and intelligent orthodox Christians can come to different conclusions. God is presented in Scripture as sovereign, as the Calvinistic tradition says. And as we have seen, taking their cue from Augustine and Calvin, Calvinistic believers are convinced that God is absolutely sovereign. They believe that God predetermines everything, including who will be saved or not.
This conviction has led to use of the phrase “double predestination.” Calvinistic theology says there are two groups of people: those predestined to salvation, and those predestined to damnation. Thus there is a double predestination.
And Calvinists interpret the Bible accordingly. Passages that indicate human freedom are interpreted in such a way that human free choices result in what God predetermined. Passages that say God wants to save everyone are interpreted to mean everyone whom God has chosen.
The Arminian tradition, on the other hand, believes that human freedom is not manipulated by God in any way. Our free choices are truly that. And we interpret the passages that indicate such freedom in that way. In addition, we interpret the passages that say God wants to save everyone to mean he really wants to save everyone.
The passages that are difficult for Arminians are those that teach strongly that God is sovereign, and that he does what he wants to do. Obviously the Calvinist believers use these passages to build the heart of their case.
We Arminians have to deal with those from our perspective, and we do. We do not have space to look at the scriptures that support the two positions. Therefore I am going to list them for you. If interested, you can work through those on your own and see more clearly the tension in the Scriptures themselves that I have been trying to explain.
Primary Scriptures that support Unconditional Election (Calvin): Rom. 9:6-29; Eph. 1:3-14; Rom. 8:28–30.
Other Scriptures that Support Unconditional Election: Isa. 6:9f; Mt. 13:13-15; Mk. 4:12; Lk. 8:10; Jn. 12:37-40; Acts 28:25-27; Jn. 6:37, 44, 65; Mt. 11:27; Jn. 5:21; 10:26; 3:8; 8:47; 9:39; 15:16, 19; 17:9; Acts 2:39; 16:14; 18:27; 13:48; 1 Pet. 2:7f. Jude 4.
Primary Scriptures that Support Conditional election (Arminius): 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 4:10; Titus 2:11; 2 Peter 3:9.
Other Scriptures that Support Conditional election: Rom. 5:18; 11:32; Col. 1:20; Rev. 22:17; John 7:37f; Acts 17:30; Isa. 45:22. “World” Passages: 2 Cor. 5:19; Jn. 3:14-17; 6:33,51; 1 Jn. 2:2; Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15f.