A Test of Reformation: Arminianism

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2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which began when Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. In the years following, the Reformation spread across Europe, taking root in Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, and the Netherlands. Jacobus Arminius was born in the Netherlands in 1560. A capable student, he attended the University of Leyden and the Geneva Academy, then led by Theodore Beza (1519-1605), the successor to John Calvin (1509-1564). In 1588, Arminius was ordained a pastor of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam. His sermons attracted large audiences.

According to Arminius, certain aspects of the faith of the Reformation were wrong. By 1592, Arminius had been accused of adopting Pelagianism, a fifth-century heresy denying original sin and the transmission of Adam’s guilt to his posterity, and emphasizing the freedom of man’s will. Arminius actually held to a strong view of total depravity, differing strongly with Pelagius on this point, but his views on election, the efficacy of God’s grace, and the extent of the atonement departed widely from Reformation principles, and brought him in line with aspects of Pelagianism.

Accusations of departing from the faith followed Arminius until his death in 1609. The implications of his thinking inflamed young ministers with combative religious zeal. Some of them, known as Remonstrants, presented objections to the teachings of Calvin. Their points came close to the teaching of the Reformation in some areas, while diverging widely in others. They held that 1) man is totally disabled by sin from meriting favor with God, and cannot choose for God by his own free will, similar to the view of the Reformers. 2) God did not sovereignly choose (elect) some men for salvation out of the mass of sinful mankind, but rather God elected those whom He had foreseen would believe. 3) Christ’s death obtained redemption for all men, but only believers benefit from this redemption. 4) While man absolutely needs the grace of God to believe and act for good, he can resist that grace to prevent God’s purpose of salvation for him. 5) Once regenerated, man can fall from grace through sin. These doctrines came to be known as “Arminianism.”

Nine years after Arminius’ death, when the whole church was caught up with theological debate, a council was held. The Synod of Dort was conducted by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1618-1619 in Dordrecht (or Dort), the Netherlands, with many foreign delegates attending.

The Synod concluded with a rejection of the Remonstrants’ Arminian views and set forth the Reformed doctrine point by point: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement (arguing the efficacy of Christ’s atoning work was applicable only to the elect and not the unregenerate world), Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints. Many remember these “doctrines of grace” by using the mnemonic “TULIP.”

The Canons of Dort is the doctrinal explanation of the decision of the Synod. In the original preface, the Decision is termed a “judgment, in which both the true view, agreeing with God’s Word, concerning the aforesaid five points of doctrine is explained, and the false view, disagreeing with God’s Word, is rejected.” For more about the Reformation and its aftermath, please see The Church in History: A Glorious Institution part 3, available from Chapel Library. The Canons of Dort, the original document from 1619, is available free of charge upon request from Chapel Library.

 

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