The history of Arminianism and Calvinism

A concise history of Arminianism and Calvinism through the centuries.

The first centuries: a brief overview

During the first three centuries of the Christian church patristic writers left the high doctrines of Calvinism, important as they are, largely undeveloped. Predestination, in particular, received its first full and positive exposition at the hand of Augustine of Hippo, who showed conclusively how divine grace is the only ground of man’s salvation. Had Christendom followed this great theologian, much later dissension would have been avoided.

As it turned out, Augustine’s doctrine was vindicated officially at the Council of Ephesus (431), one year after his death. Still the church at large compromised between grace and merit, grace and free will. The position, somewhere in between open Pelagianism and strict Augustinianism, became known as Cassianism, after John Cassianus, who developed it later on.

A.A.Hodge writes: “The contrasted positions of the Augustinian and Pelagian systems were first thought out and defined through the controversies maintained by the eminent men whose name they bear, during the first third of the fifth century.

“Augustine was bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa from A.D. 395 to 430. Pelagius, whose family name was Morgan, was a British monk. He was assisted in his controversies by his disciples Coelestius and Julian of Eclanum in Italy.

“The positions maintained by Pelagius was generally condemned by the representatives of the whole Church, and have ever since been held by all denominations, except professed Socinians, to be fatal heresy. They were condemned by the two councils held at Carthage, A.D. 407 and 416, by the Council held at Milevum in Numidia, A.D. 416; by the popes Innocent and Zosimus, and by the Oecumenical Council held at Ephesus in A.D. 431. This speedily and universal repudiation of Pelagianism proves that while the views of the early Fathers upon this class of questions were very imperfect, nevertheless the system taught by Augustine must have been in all essentials the same with the faith of the Church as a whole from the beginning” (Outlines of Theology, pages 96,97).

God still raised up men to preach His truth, but in the Middle Ages such were sparse and their mouths quickly stopped. One of the more brilliant among them was Gottschalk who spoke in favour of Augustinianism with boldness...and had to suffer for it.

All in all, Christendom settled down to a scheme of doctrine occupying a middle position between the systems of Augustine and Pelagius. “This system,” says A.A.Hodge, “whose advocates were called Massilians from the residence of their chief, and afterward Semipelagians by the Schoolmen, is in its essential principles one with that system which is now denominated Arminianism” (ibid. p.98).

However it was condemned by the Synods of Orange and Valence in A.D. 529.

Hodge relates the ancient systems of theology to the more modern ones. He says: “After this time Augustinianism became the recognised orthodoxy of the Western Church, and the name of no other uninspired man exerts such universal influence among Papists and Protestants alike. If any human name ought to be used to designate a system of divinely revealed truth, the phrase Augustinianism as opposed to Pelagianism, properly designate all those elements of faith which the whole world of Evangelical Christians hold in common. On the other hand Augustinianism as opposed to Semipelagianism properly designates that system commonly called Calvinism - while Cassianism would be the proper historical designation of that Middle or Semipelagian Scheme now commonly styled Arminianism” (p.98, 99).

In the Middle Ages

Anselm, Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas followed the Augustinian view to a certain extent, more or less identifying predestination with God’s broad providential control over all things.

In pre-Reformation times Wycliffe and Huss set forth strict predestinarian views.

Arminius and his children

Throughout the ages the Christian church has been tried as to its faithfulness by having to deal with savage heresies which threaten its very nature as the “pillar and ground of the truth.” One of these trials flared up in the early seventeenth century; in its aftermath it became known popularly as Arminianism.

Strictly speaking, as we have seen, Arminianism has its roots further back; at least it can be traced to the controversy that the Latin Church Father Augustine engaged in with the British monk Pelagius in the fifth century. But the nickname “Arminianism” refers us directly to that system of false religious doctrine that was expounded by Jacob Hermann (who Latinized his name to Arminius). He was professor of Divinity in the University of Leyden. His peculiar tenets are given expression in his writings.

But if we were to examine his teachings, it would be of a vastly different sort from the type of Arminianism being taught today in many so-called evangelical churches. In many important particulars, those who trace their lineage to the Dutch professor, differ far more widely from their founder, than he himself did from Calvin and his one-time tutor Beza.

So it would be unfair if we charge Arminius with all the erroneous opinions held by modern-day Arminians. These differ from each other to such an extent that some have outrageously adopted the tenets of the Socinians and Pelagians, while some others hold to virtually all doctrine held dear by Calvinists except for the famous Five Points.

The Remonstrants

In 1610, just a year after Arminius’ death, his followers presented a Remonstrance or protest against certain aspects of Reformed doctrine, as was being taught in the Dutch churches. They headed their chief differences under several heads.

Among other things, they taught that God has not fixed the future state of mankind by an absolute, unconditional decree; but determined from all eternity to bestow salvation on those who He foresaw would persevere unto the end in their faith in Jesus Christ, and to inflict everlasting punishment on those who should continue in their unbelief, and resist unto the end His divine succours. Many passages of Scripture were adduced to bolster up this position (for instance, Ezekiel 18:30-32; Acts 17:24-30; Matthew 23:37; Romans 2:4-5; 5:18; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; 2 Peter 1:10; 3:9).

They further proposed that Christ, by His death and sufferings, made an atonement for the sins of all mankind in general, and of every individual in particular. But none can be partakers of the divine benefit except those who believe in Him. Again, several Bible passages were misinterpreted, among them, 1 John 2:2; John 3:16,17; Hebrews 2:9 and 1 Corinthians 8:11.

They maintained that for conversion and salvation man must be operated upon by the Holy Spirit. This divine grace, or energy of the Holy Spirit, heals the disorders of a corrupt nature. It begins, advances, and brings to perfection everything that can be called good in man. Consequently, all good works, without exception, are to be attributed to God alone, and to the operation of His grace. Nevertheless, such grace is offered to all, and does not force men to act against their inclinations. It may, in fact, be resisted, and rendered ineffective by the perverse will of the impenitent sinner. Their argument was apparently strengthened by quotations from Holy Writ (Isaiah 1:16; Deuteronomy 10:16 and Ephesians 4:22).

As for the perseverance of the saints, they gave the impression that they were still undecided on this question and desired to investigate it further. “Whether such (Christians) may fall from their faith, and forfeit finally this state of grace,” has not yet been resolved with sufficient clearness. Once again, passages such as Hebrews 6:4-6; 2 Peter 2:20-2; 3:17 and Luke 21:35 were pointed out in their paper.

Arminianism still undeveloped

The Remonstrants had it in mind to present their novel theory in the most plausible dress. They did not desire to appear to deviate radically from the Belgic Confession and other established standards.

It was incumbent, then, upon their orthodox opponents to expose their real opinions and prove that under the cover of sound expressions, dangerous errors lay hidden. Such a state of affairs came into being: in the conferences which took place at the Hague between the leading theologians of both parties, it became evident that the initial leaven augured ill for the church at large if it was to be tolerated.

As it turned out after the meeting of the Synod of Dordtrecht, the Arminians published an Apology, written by Episcopius, their leader. In it they strenuously defend the opinions charged upon them by the Reformed. The latter were correct in their implications, for one error is known to lead irresistibly to another error, and so on.

The fulcrum question

The main difference, boiled down to its bare essential, between Calvinists and Arminians can be stated as follows: Why is one man saved and another lost? Does this depend on the grace of God exclusively? Or is it owing to the free will of man? Or is it a mixture of both? All the other differences can be traced up to this one.

Admittedly, Arminians acknowledge the necessity of grace, but they make it a universal grace. God is gracious to all and sundry. Making such a statement would consistently lead one to universalism, that is, every person will eventually be saved. But Arminians guard against this obviously unbiblical position by affirming furthermore that grace, available to everyone, depends on the human will. If you accept grace (which is up to you to reject or accept) then you will be saved.

Calvinists, on the other hand, maintain that the grace of God, without doing violence to human liberty, is effective to subdue the stubborn will and renders man cordially willing to be saved from his sins in the way of the gospel. It is a caricature of Calvinism when it is pictured as if God forces sinners into heaven kicking and screaming against their own will. No! As later embedded in several Protestant Confessions, the truth of the matter is that “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into a state of grace, He free him from his natural bondage to sin, and by grace alone He enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.”

So if Calvinists can defend this position biblically, then they cannot but be right in their views of election, redemption, and final perseverance. But if the Arminian view is correct, the real difference in the final destiny of men is not owing to any purpose to save some and pass by others, but to the different use made by different men of the grace afforded to all men. And if the final result depends, in the first instance, upon the will of man, so it will afterwards. Consequently he who believes and repents today may become an unbeliever and impenitent tomorrow. Arminians have historically disagreed among themselves on other issues, but the all agree in this cardinal doctrine of their system: this is what makes them Arminians.

Furthermore, they all hold that there is no election of grace but what depends on the foresight of faith and holiness in the creature. They believe that Christ died equally for all men; by his passion and death Christ intended the salvation of all men. A man is converted because he makes the right use of grace; another man is not converted because he abuses or disregards grace - the determining factor is the will of man. By the exercise of free will the gospel is embraced; and by the exercise of the same free-will the gospel may later on be rejected. The whole Arminian framework depends on the doctrine of the will of man: it must first act and give consent, before grace (available to all) can become effective.

As far as God is concerned He is willing to save everyone without exception. So why is not everyone saved? According to the Arminian, it’s because God respects the free will of man; He will certainly not violate it. It comes to this: the first right choice is not produced by the effective operation of grace, but precedes it. The Arminian view of human depravity is radically different from the Reformed and biblical view. The latter holds that man’s death in sin is so complete that he, until renewed, has no ability of will to do anything spiritually good. Man in his natural state cannot prepare himself for the new birth. The initiative is God’s.

But the Arminian holds that, under the suasive influence of truth, man in his unregenerate state may choose to embrace the gospel, and thus render efficacious that grace which can only operate by his consent. In brief, God and man are co-authors of salvation. Effectively man can boast of having done his part, small as it may be.

Arminianism harmonised with Scripture?

Historically, Arminian apologists have made various attempts to reconcile their theory with Scripture, as every Christian is bound to do. Not only so, but he is also called to harmonise his position with the nature of Christian prayer and thanksgiving, and with apparent facts.

Some questions that are far from easy for Arminians to answer (and have never been answered sufficiently well) are:

1. If God had equally intended the salvation of the whole human race, would He not have equally furnished all men, in all ages, with the gospel, and other means of grace?

2. Can it be said with truth, that sufficient grace has been granted to all the heathen to bring them to salvation? According to Arminian principles, all men should enjoy equal advantages; or at least salvation should not be so improbable and difficult as it is to a vast majority of the human race.

3. If conversion be produced by moral suasion, which the sinner has the ability to comply with or reject, why is it called regeneration? Why does the Bible denominate the new birth as the exclusive work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:1ff.)?

4. Why is it that often the amiable and moral are not converted, while the profligate, and even the blaspheming infidel, are made the subjects of grace? We cannot easily avoid the conclusion that grace is sovereign and effective, and that the stubborn will of man uniformly resists, until overcome by the sweetly constraining power of God.

Arminianism outside of Protestantism

Though introduced in Reformed churches by a once-Reformed pastor, Arminius, this system of theological thought did not originate with him.

Substantially, the Semi-Pelagians before him and the Molinists and Jesuits in the Roman church after him, held basically the same views. It is a remarkable fact that the Reformers seem to have unanimously agreed in their opinions concerning the effectivity of grace, and the impotency of the will in coming to faith and repentance.

But in regard to all errors, their tendency is downward: the adoption of one error commonly prepares the way for another still more erroneous. Arminius in his day sounded almost orthodox; but his followers departed all the more from biblical Christianity. Thus the leaders of the Arminian party in Holland approximated much nearer to Unitarianism after the Synod of Dordtrecht than they had done before, and professed and taught publicly some doctrine which Arminius himself would have rejected with disgust.

Arminianism since its rise

In the seventeenth century the cleavage between Calvinism and Arminianism was accepted for what it was. Nobody attempted to reconcile the two positions: they are mutually exclusive. If one is correct, then naturally the other is erroneous.

After the Synod of Dordtrecht, which was decidedly unfavourable to the new teachings, the Arminians were deposed from all church offices, and from the mastership of all schools and colleges in the United Provinces. Severe laws were passed against them; all who refused submission were condemned to banishment, fines, and imprisonment. Their teachings were obviously regarded as heretical and subversive to sound Christian living.

Such persecution on account of religious persuasion, is now, by the common consent of all Protestants, viewed as unjust and unloving; but we should not judge of the acts of a former age by the liberal sentiments of toleration that now happily prevail.

It should be remembered that in many places, while the Arminians were favoured by the civil authorities, they treated the Reformed with insolence, and excited disturbances which the government was not always able to suppress.

At present there are multitudes professing Arminian doctrines, in whole or in part. Some large denominations, such as the Methodist and Pentecostal, maintain and propagate virtually the whole system. Today all Arminians are at least agreed on one point: that Calvinism is a monstrous theological system! The truth is, Calvinism is consistent Christianity spelled out in all major doctrines, as we will now endeavour to prove by tracing its history.

Calvin’s Calvinism

The nickname given to that system of religious faith which roughly corresponds with that of the illustrious Genevan Reformer is “Calvinism.”

John Calvin (1509-1564) considered the Presbyterian form of government as that by which every church should be regulated. He proposed that it should be governed by presbyteries and synods, composed of clergy and laity, without prelatical bishops, or any clerical subordination. He maintained that the province of the civil magistrate extended only to its protection and outward accommodation. Furthermore, he acknowledged a real, though spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper; and he confined the privilege of communion to such as gave evidence of being true believers. He also practised paedobaptism. However, these sentiments are not upheld by all who today are called Calvinists.

Since the synod of Dordtrecht, which embraced, digested, and established the theological principles, in 1618-19, over forty years after Calvin’s home calling, the term “Calvinism” is generally confined to those principles independent of his system of church polity.

Calvinists not from Calvin

All Calvinists contend that their religious system of belief did not originate with Calvin. They insist, with good reason, that it is the faith of the ancient church and indeed their faith can be traced back to apostolic times and to Scripture itself. They also say that it is in substance the same as that of Augustine (died 430 A.D.). In his Historic Proof, Augustus Toplady has traced the doctrine of Calvinism in a series of quotations from the times of the apostles to those of the Reformation. His scholarly work seems scarcely to admit of refutation. Calvin himself quoted profusely from the Church Fathers, especially Augustine, to bolster up his exposition of Scripture.

When Spurgeon reprinted the Second London Confession of Faith, (a definitely Calvinistic Confession) he wrote a word of introduction: “Be not ashamed of your faith; remember it is the ancient Gospel of martyrs, confessors, reformers, and saints. Above all, it is the Truth of God against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. Let your lives adorn your faith, let your example recommend your creed. Above all, live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. Cleave fast to the Word of God, which is here mapped out to you.” In Spurgeon’s mind the Confession, thoroughly Calvinistic in its framework, derived its authority from the Holy Bible, not from Calvin. If Calvin’s name stuck to that system of faith, then it is because he was mightily used of God to expound His truth bravely, consistently and in a balanced way.

Calvin and predestination

We will go ahead, then, and examine Calvin’s position on predestination, which is surely the fountainhead of all spiritual blessings that in due course accrue to God’s children.

“Predestination,” he says, “ by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no one, desirous of the credit of piety, dares absolutely to deny. But it is involved in many cavils, especially by those who make foreknowledge the cause of it. We maintain, that both belong to God; but it is preposterous to represent one as dependent on the other.

“Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which he hath determined, in himself, what he would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. Every man, therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say he is predestinated either to life or to death.”

The eminent Reformer then proceeds to argue from the conduct of the Almighty concerning the seed of Abraham, and toward certain individuals, as Jacob and Esau.

“Now, with respect to the reprobate, whom the apostle introduces in the same place, - as Jacob, without any merit yet acquired by good works, is made an object of grace, so Esau, while yet unpolluted by any crime, is accounted an object of hatred. Romans 9:13. If we turn our attention to works, we insult the apostle, as though he saw not that which is clear to us: now, that the saw none is evident, because he expressly asserts the one to have been elected, and the other rejected, while they had not yet done any good or evil, to prove the foundation of Divine predestination not to be in works. Secondly, when he raises the questions, whether God is unjust, he never urges, what would have been the most absolute and obvious defence of his justice, that God rewarded Esau according to his wickedness, but contents himself with a different solution, - that the reprobate are raised up for this purpose, that the glory of God may be displayed by their means. Lastly, he subjoins a concluding observation, - that ‘God hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.’ You see how he attributes both to the mere will of God. If therefore we can assign no reason why he grants mercy to his people, but because such is his pleasure, neither shall we find any other cause but his will for the reprobation of others; for when God is said to harden or show mercy to whom he pleases, men are taught by this declaration to seek no cause besides his will.”

Looking back to Augustine

Arminians may assume that this teaching (to their ears, horrendous) was invented by Calvin. But “Calvinism” goes far back in history. The bedrock of Calvinism is the Bible itself; from then on, it was expounded by able teachers, not only by Calvin, but also by others before him. Augustine, for instance, clearly taught that God reprobates some to destruction: “They are sheep through believing, sheep in following the Shepherd, sheep in not despising their Redeemer, sheep in entering by the door; sheep in going out and finding pasture, sheep in the enjoyment of eternal life. What did He mean, then, in saying to them, ‘Ye are not of my sheep’? That He saw them predestined to everlasting destruction, not won to eternal life by the price of His own blood” (On the Gospel of John 48.4).

God’s decree concerning salvation is fixed and unalterable: “I speak thus of those who are predestined to the kingdom of God, whose number is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken from them: not of those who, when He had announced and spoken, were multiplied beyond number. For they may be said to be called but not chosen, because they are not called according to His purpose. But that the number of the elect is certain, and neither to be increased not diminished” (On Rebuke and Grace 39). Such thoughts accord perfectly with the distilled position of Reformed thought as embedded in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 10).

One last quotation from Augustine in order to dispel any remaining doubts that Calvinism started with Calvin: “Therefore God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, predestinating us to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but He chose and predestinated us that we might be so. Moreover, He did this according to the good pleasure of His will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God’s will towards himself. He did this according to the riches of His grace, according to His good will, which He purposed in His beloved Son, in whom we have obtained a share, being predestinated according to the purpose, not ours, but His, who worketh all things to such an extent as that he worketh in us to will also. Moreover He worketh according to the counsel of His will, that we may be to the praise of His glory. For this reason it is that we cry that no one should glory in man, and, thus, not in himself; but whoever glorieth let him glory in the Lord, that he may be for the praise of His glory. Because He Himself worketh according to His purpose that we may be to the praise of His glory, and, of course, holy and immaculate, for which purpose He called us, predestinating us before the foundation of the world. Out of this, His purpose, is that special calling of the elect for whom He co-worketh with all things for good, because they are called according to His purpose, and “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance”” (On the Predestination of the Saints 37).

Original sin, according to Calvin

When properly examined, it is clear that neither Augustine nor Calvin meant to destroy human responsibility, or taught others to despise the use of appointed means. They pointed out how Scripture continually addresses to man exhortations and reproofs, warnings and promises, though it constantly attributes to the grace of God the spirit and power of obedience.

Calvin wrote about human depravity and guilt: “Original sin appears to be an hereditary pravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all the parts of the soul, rendering us obnoxious to the Divine wrath, and producing in us those works which the Scripture calls works of the flesh. ... These two things, therefore, should be strictly observed: first, that our nature, being so totally vitiated and depraved, we are, on account of this very corruption, considered as convicted and justly condemned in the sight of God, - to whom nothing is acceptable but righteousness, innocence, and purity. And this liableness to punishment, arises not from the delinquency of another; for when it is said that the sin of Adam renders us obnoxious to the Divine judgement, it is not to be understood as if we, though innocent, were undeservedly loaded with the guilt of his sin; but because we are all subject to a curse in consequence of his transgression, - he is, therefore, said to have involved us in guilt. Nevertheless, we derive from him, not only the punishment, but also the pollution, to which the punishment is justly due.”

The heritage that Calvin gave to the church, in his sound doctrinal expositions, the Synod that convened in the Dutch town of Dordtrecht, arranged and matured in its articles combating the Arminian Remonstrance.

Since this Synod proved to be pivotal in the history of Protestantism, I will quote extensively from its Five Articles as being the orthodox view of most Reformed churches up to this day.

Concerning Predestination

Originally recording its beliefs in Latin the Synod declared: “As all men have sinned in Adam, and have become exposed to the curse, even eternal death, God would have done no injustice to anyone, if he had determined to leave the whole human race under sin and the curse, and to condemn them on account of sin...

“That some, in time, have faith given to them by God, and others have it not given, proceeds from the eternal decree; for ‘known unto God are all his works from the beginning.’ Acts 15:18; Ephesians 1:11. According to which decree, he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however hard, and he bends them to believe; but the non-elect he leaves, in just judgement, to their own perversity and hardness. And here, especially, a deep discrimination, at the same time both merciful and just, a discrimination of men equally lost, opens itself to us; or that decree of election and reprobation which is revealed in the Word of God; which, as perverse, impure, and unstable persons do wrest to their own destruction, so it affords ineffable consolation to holy and pious souls.

“But election is the immutable purpose of God; by which, before the foundations of the earth were laid, he chose, out of the whole human race, fallen by their own fault from their primeval integrity into sin and destruction, according to the most free good pleasure of his own will, and of mere grace, a certain number of men, neither better nor worthier than others, but lying in the same misery with the rest, to salvation in Christ; whom he had, even from eternity, constituted mediator and head of all the elect, and the foundation of salvation; and, therefore, he decreed to give them unto him to be saved, and effectually to call and draw them into communion with him, by his Word and Spirit: or he decreed himself to give unto them true faith, to justify, to sanctify, and at length powerfully to glorify them. Ephesians 1:4-6; Romans 8:30.

“This same election is not made from any foreseen faith, obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality and disposition, as a pre-requisite cause or condition in the man who should be elected. ‘He hath chosen us, not because we were, but that we might be, holy.’ Ephesians 1:4; Romans 9:11-13; Acts 13:48.

“Moreover, Holy Scripture doth illustrate and commend to us this eternal and free grace of our election, in this more especially, that it doth testify all men not to be elected, but that some are non-elect, or passed by, in the eternal election of God; whom truly God, from most free, just, irreprehensible, and immutable good pleasure, decreed to leave in the common misery, into which they had, by their own fault, cast themselves; and not to bestow on them living faith, and the grace of conversion; but having been left in their own ways, and under just judgement, at length, not only on account of their unbelief, but also of all their other sins, to condemn and eternally punish them, to the manifestation of his own justice. And this is the decree of reprobation, which determines that God is in nowise the author of sin (which, to be thought of, is blasphemy), but a tremendous, incomprehensible, just judge and avenger.”

A potential or an actual atonement?

The Synod then tackled the question raised by the Remonstrants concerning the purpose of Christ’s death. In other words, for whom did Christ die? And what did he accomplish by His death?

The Reformed theologians at Dordtrecht determined thus: “This death of the Son of God is a single and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sins, of infinite value and price, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world; but because many who are called by the gospel do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this doth not arise from defect, or insufficiency of the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but from their own fault. ...”

“God willed that Christ, through the blood of the cross, should, out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, efficaciously redeem all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to him by the Father, - that he should confer on them the gift of faith.”

Grace versus free-will

Continuing its exposition of divine truth, the Synod enlarged upon the theme of grace: “But in like manner as, by the fall, man does not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will; neither hath sin, which hath pervaded the whole human race, taken away the nature of the human species, but it hath depraved and spiritually stained it: so that even this Divine grace of regeneration does not act upon men like stocks and trees, nor take away the properties of his will, or violently compel it, while unwilling; but it spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and sweetly, and at the same time, powerfully inclines it: so that whereas it before was wholly governed by the rebellion and resistance of the flesh, now prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit may begin to reign; in which the renewal of our spiritual will, and our liberty, truly consist: in which manner (or for which reason), unless the admirable Author of all good should work in us, there could be no hope to man of rising from the fall by that free-will by which, when standing, he fell into ruin.”

Perseverance of the saints

The final head of doctrine to be expounded by the Synod concerned the fact that believers all continue in faith and are all cared for until they reach their heavenly home.

“God, who is rich in mercy, from his immutable purpose of election, does not wholly take away His Holy Spirit from His own, even in lamentable falls; nor does He so permit them to decline that they should fall from the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin unto death, or against the Holy Spirit; that, being deserted by Him, they should cast themselves headlong into eternal destruction. ...

“So that not by their own merits or strength, but by the gratuitous mercy of God, they obtain it, they neither totally fall from faith and grace, nor finally continue in their falls and perish.”

Calvinism in succeeding generations

Such then were the sentiments of Augustine, Calvin and the old or strict Calvinists, a position held to this day by many Reformed churches around the world. But it must be observed that many who embrace Calvinism in its leading features object to some particular part or parts, the two most common objections raised being against the doctrine of reprobation and the extent of the death of Christ.

Reprobation, or “predestination to death or misery as the end, and to sin as the means, I call an impure mixture, as having no foundation either in the real meaning of Holy Writ or in the nature of things; except, indeed, we mean by it, what no one questions - a determination to punish the guilty” (Dr. E. Williams).

The quoted author calls this a mixture, because its connection with predestination to life is arbitrary and forced; he calls it impure because the supposition itself is a foul aspersion of the divine character. Augustine, Calvin, Perkins, Twisse and Rutherford appear to give countenance to this doctrine.

It must be confessed after all, that the election of some men to everlasting life implies the non-election of others; which is a point to which the mind can never be reconciled, but from a deep conviction, that had we ourselves been left to perish in our sins, God would have been just in our condemnation, and that we have no claim to distinguishing mercy. As the prophet cried out, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, and because his compassions fail not” (Lamentations 3:22). When viewed in this its true light, the election of any, much more of so vast a multitude as shall finally be saved out of every nation, appears an act of grace equally wonderful and glorious, and worthy of all the rapturous praise ascribed for it in the Bible.

As to reconciling the conduct of God with our intelligence, we can only adopt Paul’s doxology as our own: “O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out” (Romans 11:33). And those who are disposed to cavil, the same apostle answers them, “Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” (Romans 9: 20).


Mention must be made here of a deviation from Calvinistic doctrine as developed in France in post-Reformation days. According to A.A.Hodge, “This scheme of Hypothetical or Conditional Universalism holds that God gave His son to die in order to provide redemption for all men indiscriminately, suspending its actual enjoyment upon their free appropriation of it. At the same time he sovereignly wills to give the effectual grace which determines that free self-appropriation only to the elect” (Outlines of Theology, page 418).

This view, advanced in England by Richard Baxter, makes the decree of election the means of carrying into effect so far forth the general purpose of redemption. John Owen, the prince of Puritans, gave a resounding answer to these novelties in his masterpiece of Christian literature, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

A quarrel within the family

Among Calvinists there has been some difference of opinion as to the order of events in the divine plan. The question here is, Were the objects of the divine decree contemplated as fallen creatures? Or were they contemplated merely as men whom God would create, all being equal?

Infralapsarianism (infra, after; lapsus, fall) insists that those chosen to salvation were contemplated as members of a fallen race. The order of events then is: God proposed first to create, then to permit the fall, then to elect some out of this fallen mass to be saved, and to leave the others as they were, then to provide a redeemer for the elect, and finally to send the Holy Spirit to apply this redemption to the elect. According to this plan, election follows the fall.

The Supralapsarians (supra, before) view the order of events as follows: God proposed first to elect some creatable men (that is, men who were to be created) to life and to condemn others to destruction; then to create; then to permit the fall; then to send Christ to redeem the elect; and finally to send the Holy Spirit to apply this redemption to the elect. According to this scheme election precedes the fall.

Since the scope of this essay is not to prove doctrine by Scripture, but rather to trace its historical development, I will simply point out that no Reformed confession teaches the supralapsarian view. A number of them do explicitly teach the infralapsarian, which thus emerges as the typical Reformed view. (But it does not necessarily follow that it is the correct and biblical view). Great and devout theologians are to be found in both camps.

Calvinism and other denominations

While observing in passing that historic Protestantism is decidedly Calvinistic, the Church of England too was shaped by Calvinistic beliefs, a far cry from the evangelical Arminianism of today. The Established Church in England and the Episcopal Church in America have a mildly Calvinistic creed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, one of which reads as follows: “Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) He hath constantly decreed by His counsel, secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by His Spirit working in due season: they through grace obey the calling: the be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works: and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

“As the godly consideration of Predestination and our Election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh and their earthly members, and drawing up their minds to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: so for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

The Lutheran branch of Christendom also was decidedly Calvinistic in its theology: Martin Luther believed in absolute predestination as did his contemporary Calvin. Luther’s chief works, The Bondage of the Will, and his Commentary on Romans, decidedly show that he went into Calvinism with all his heart, without apology. It was only under the influence of Melanchton, after Luther’s death, that Augustinianism began to be soft-pedalled within Lutheranism.

In the United Kingdom, Arminian views were at first strongly condemned, and James I sent representatives of the Church of England to the Synod of Dordtrecht. Meanwhile a violent and abusive controversy was waged between the two parties in the pulpits, until arrested by a Royal Proclamation. Soon after, mainly from political motives, the Arminians began to be patronised, first by James I and then by Charles I. Owing to the support and policy of Archbishop Laud, the Arminians became so powerful that a largely successful attempt was made, by associating all the Calvinistic clergy with the non-conforming Puritans, to drive the Calvinists from the Church by means of an intolerant system of suspensions, fines, and imprisonments.

The Puritans of England and those who early settled in America, as well as the Covenanters in Scotland and the Huguenots in France, were thorough-going Calvinists.

After the Restoration the bitter controversy between Calvinists and Arminians had almost abated, and it was only renewed again for a short time by the Methodist revivalists in the eighteenth century, when the adherents of George Whitefield, who inclined to the teachings of the Calvinists, opposed John Wesley and his followers, who approximated to the tenets of the Arminians.

In more recent times the pure Calvinistic doctrine has been set forth by such able authors as Charles Hodge, Dabney, Cunningham, Smith, Shedd, Strong, Kuyper and Warfield.


Whatever ideas of an exaggerated sort, as taught by some Calvinists, Calvinism as distinguished from Arminianism, encircles or involves great and sublime truths. Whether dimly or clearly discerned, whether defended in biblical simplicity of language, or deformed by grievous perversions, Calvinism will never be abandoned as long as the Bible continues to be devoutly read.

The Reformed churches of our day ought to be thankful to God in that He has granted to them to hold forth His truth. May it never be that they become callous, arrogant or proud; or even start comparing themselves with Arminian churches. The canon of our faith, whether Calvinistic or Arminian, must be the Holy Scripture. By God’s Word we stand or fall.