Calvinism vs. Arminianism

Arminianism is a Reformation-era development which grows out of a conflict dating back to the 5th century: the conflict between Pelagius and Augustine over human nature and sin. The Eastern church of the 5th century had a relatively sanguine view: man possess free will, is responsible for his actions, and may-with the help of God's grace-recover that which was lost in the fall. Origen, an early father of the Eastern church, promulgated a doctrine of universal salvation: everyone, even including Satan himself, would ultimately be redeemed by God. The Western church had a much darker view: though they believed both in the free will of man and the grace of God, the primary emphasis of the Western fathers was on sin and a concept of fallen man as incapable of willing anything good and as totally dependent on God's grace.

Pelagius was shocked at the immorality and vice of Roman society in the 5th century. He attributed these conditions to the deterministic theology of the Western church, a theology that discouraged any moral effort on the grounds that men are born sinful, only grace can overcome that sin, and no individual can will even the slightest good in and of himself. Pelagius denied the idea that men are born sinful, and affirmed free will and the responsibility of each individual. He even went to the extent of suggesting that humans could, theoretically, live absolutely sinless lives. Man suffered no hereditary consequences from the fall of Adam and Eve: "everything good and everything evil . . . is done by us, not born with us." Pelagius even anticipated the tabula rasa view of human nature which would later be promulgated by Locke: "we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice." Pelagius thought that God wished men to practice righteousness of their own free will, and he also believed that human action, whether for good or evil, always remained within the power of human will to decide.

All of this outraged Augustine. He thought that this doctrine left no room at all for the influence of god's grace, the sacrifice of Christ, or the authority of the church. Augustine responded to Pelagius by promoting the following ideas: Adam's fall contaminated the entire human race; this fall not only deprived mankind of its original righteousness, but it left humans with an inclination to sin passed down to each generation of descendents; Men's wills are so warped in the direction of sin that they can only will and do that which is evil; Sin is inescapable, and the only way to salvation is through the unearned receiving of God's grace; God determines, in a choice made from all eternity, who shall receive his grace (Augustine referred to this as the "predestination of saints."

Augustine won the official battle; Pelagianism was condemned by the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D. The views of the Eastern church, however, remained much the same as they always had. The real descendents of Augustine were Luther and Calvin. Fallen man, in their view, was inherently worthy of damnation; all deserve the most severe and horrible judgment, but some-quite undeservedly-are given the gift of God's grace.

According to Calvin, "man is so enslaved by the yoke of sin, that he cannot of his own nature aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.iv.1). Man's "heart is so thoroughly envenomed by sin that it can breathe out nothing but corruption and rottenness" (II.v.19), and "Man has now been deprived of freedom of choice and bound over to miserable servitude" (II.ii.title). God ordains election and reprobation: "Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children" (III.xxiii.1).

Calvin's theology is called Supralapsarianism. Supralapsarianism claims the following: in order to glorify himself by manifesting both his mercy and his justice, God decreed that some rational creatures would be saved and some would be condemned; these creatures, however, did not yet exist as anything other than possibilities in God's mind. God decreed the creation of these rational creatures, and then decreed permission for their fall. Out of this now-fallen mankind, God ordained the justification of some to be saved, and the reprobation, or damnation, of others to be condemned. Calvin expresses the supralapsarian position this way: "The decree, I admit, is, dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknow what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree. Should any one here inveigh against the prescience of God, he does it rashly and unadvisedly. For why, pray, should it be made a charge against the heavenly Judge, that he was not ignorant of what was to happen? Thus, if there is any just or plausible complaint, it must be directed against predestination. Nor ought it to seem absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it. For as it belongs to his wisdom to foreknow all future events, so it belongs to his power to rule and govern them by his hand" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xxiii.7)

Arminianism developed in response to Calvin's theology. Dutch divines who subscribed to a position known as Sublapsarianism charged that Calvin's doctrines made God the author of sin. The sublapsarian view held that God foreknew, but did not decree, the fall of man.

In other words, God created man in order to manifest his own goodness, and Man was created in a blessed state and was endowed with free will. However, God foresaw in what direction free will would lead mankind, but God did not interfere, and thus permitted the fall. After the fall, God decreed the predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation.

Arminius became the defender of an even more radical position, rejecting both Supra- and Sublapsarianism as unbiblical. Two ministers from Delft, Arnoldus Cornelisz and Reynier Donteclock, in 1589 published a document entitled Responsio ad Argumenta quaedam Bezae et Calvini ex Tractatu de Predestinatione in Cap. IX ad Romanos. A professor at Franeker, named Martin Lydius, was disturbed by this work and sent a copy of it to James Arminius, who was at the time a newly ordained Amsterdam minister. Lydius asked Arminius to defend the supralapsarian position of Calvin (and Calvin's deputy and eventual successor, Beza). Arminius ended up being convinced by the work of Cornelisz and Donteclock, and defended what is now known as an Arminian position for the rest of his life.

Arminianism rejects both the totally autonomous man of Pelagianism who independently works out his own salvation, and the totally helpless man of Calvinism, who depends utterly on the arbitrary will of a predestining God. Human will cooperates with divine grace to attain an earned, rather than an ordained, reward of eternal life. Human nature is not completely depraved. Man forfeited his original righteousness with the fall. With his decree of predestination, God renewed in each man sufficient freedom to choose the good that will lead him to attain to salvation and eternal life. With God's grace, man can think, will, and do the good. God does not arbitrarily select some for salvation, but calls all. Those who heed the call are rewarded; those who refuse the call are punished. God's decree of predestination is not absolute (as in Augustine and Calvin), but conditional: if man believes and turns to God, he will be saved; if man does not believe and turns away from God, he will be damned. God foreknows the number of his elect; he does not know this, however, through arbitrary selection, but by his perfect foreknowledge of how each person will act according to free will.