Rather than blabbing on about how insanely long it's been since I've blogged, I'm just gonna say "hello again!" and introduce you to the paper I just wrote for class on the theology of Calvin and Arminius. I had fun writing it and I hope you all like reading it. Sorry if I left a footnote number or two behind...
As the church began to truly take shape after the reformation, an old question of the Christian faith began to come into dispute yet again. Many Christians are fully aware of the names of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. The disagreements in their theologies have occupied the conversations and debates of seminary students for centuries. Not only students, but many lay Christians as well. Anyone who has chosen to apply their mind to the topic of freewill and the sovereignty of God in salvation has likely been forced to come to terms with the complexity of this issue.
Central to much of the theology of John Calvin was the foundation of God's comprehensive sovereignty. While this in some cases may have caused some controversy among theologians of Calvin's day, it was mainly his application of sovereignty to the human will in salvation that brought about eventual disagreement with Jacob Arminius after Calvin's death.
While a few things will be pointed out concerning the similarities between Arminius and Calvin on this issue, there are a few foundational differences that will be focused on. These issues relate to human depravity, the nature of freewill, the nature of God's election, and the certainty of Christian perseverance in saving faith.
While Calvin may have articulated it a bit differently than Arminius, the doctrine of the depravity of man between the two of them is no doubt very similar. Both of them state that the fall of Adam brought humanity into a condition in which they could not restore themselves to a place of saving relationship with God apart from grace. This is clear in Calvin's institutes. It is also clear in the writings of Arminius in response to the Calvinists.
While this starting point may be held in common between the two systems of thought, once God's gracious work is begun in the human heart, there is a great deal of disagreement that can be seen in the understanding of these two men as to how that grace takes its effect as well as what the sin nature requires of grace.
For many who debate this issue, the term “freewill” is frequently used, yet is seldom carefully defined. Because of this, the disagreements that are so strongly stated between these two positions can easily become grounded upon misunderstanding. The best way that one may define Calvin's view of the will is that it operates in unison with the nature of the human being both in the fallen state as well as throughout the course of the salvation of that nature. Ultimately, the affections and desires that flow from the nature of the human being were seen to be synonymous with what one might call the “will.” To desire something most strongly inevitably led to willful choice.
Arminius on the other hand held to a different view. While he may have agreed that the will was bound to the nature in the fallen state, it is clear that he saw the work of grace as a liberation of the will from the nature. Once the will was acted upon by prevenient grace, it was then free to choose to remain in sin or to embrace and cooperate with God's saving effort.
In summery, Calvin saw ultimate freedom as a liberation from sin. Arminius saw ultimate freedom as a grace birthed independence in one's choice between sin and salvation. While neither theologian may have articulated this distinction in opinion so simply or clearly, if it is true that such a distinction existed, it explains a great deal of the profound disagreement that flowed between those who debated these two systems of doctrine.
The Nature of Election
With these two definitions of the will in place, it is now possible to begin looking at the way they expressed themselves in specific doctrinal distinctions. For Calvin, the biblical idea of “election” was seen as an unconditional choice in which God selects from fallen humanity a people that he will convert and bring to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Those whom he did not choose for salvation were left in their sinful state and given their just punishment for sin. Some of their punishment is manifested in this life, and it is eternally manifested in the next. In this life, they may be hardened by demonic activity, or they may be denied a hearing of the gospel. While Calvin never discouraged a promiscuous and universal spread of the gospel, he used the inevitable falling short of this goal as an example of God's providential judgment. Election unto salvation was not based on any works, merit or distinction of any kind between sinners, but on the independent and free choice of God out of his merciful nature. Calvin defended such a limited view of election with passages such as Romans 9.
The process of sanctification that then flowed out of this act of electing grace was also seen by Calvin as a sovereign act of God. This is expressed most clearly by his followers in the Synod of Dort. If the first definition of the will described is accurate to Calvin, then it should be understandable why sanctification was seen this way. If choices of the human being are the summation of the strongest desires which flow from the nature, then there is no other fountain from which decisions can flow. Therefore the good choices of the human being are fully dependent on God's sovereign redemption of the nature.
With Arminius' definition of freedom in mind, the way he inevitably disagreed with Calvin should now be clear. If God's work of prevenient grace did not bring about an inevitable choice of salvation, but only a potential one, then Arminius was able to look at the gracious work of God's drawing as universal in scope, though more limited in effect. This allowed him to explain how the universal effects of God's gracious call still resulted in both salvation and damnation. He defended the wide scope of God's gracious work with passages such as John 3:16. God's potential invitation to salvation through evangelism was not merely external to all people, but was seen as equally internal in all that heard and did not bring about an inevitable saving result. The final choice for salvation rested in the heart of the human being. Therefore, God's work of election as stated in scripture was understood by Arminius to be based on God's foreknowledge of who would make good use of his gracious offer of salvation.
With Calvin's view of election in mind, his view of persevering faith along with that of his followers should not be surprising. If indeed God is sovereign over the transformation of the nature, then that which flows from it, both faith and its ultimate perseverance, should be inevitable. While God's work was certainly seen as progressive, this did not give license for reveling in the failures God permits. Repentance, return to holy living, and increasing sanctification were seen as necessary as well as inevitable. With this mindset, it is then understandable that Calvinist thought saw the warning passages such as Mark 13:13 as necessary
means by which God continues his work in the heart of His people. It should then follow that they saw passages of promised perseverance such as Jude 24 as those that should be embraced as support for the Calvinistic view.
While many Arminians today fully reject the idea of inevitable perseverance, Arminius and his followers were not so dogmatic. In the end it was clear that Arminius decided to remain non-committal on this issue. He saw scripture as having possible support for both perseverance as well as the apostasy of truly regenerate Christians. Therefore he and his followers chose not to make a final stand.
Observations and Conclusion
In the end, there are gaps left in the theology of both of these great thinkers as well as their followers. While Calvin seemed to be fully aware of the inevitable difficulty of his system of thought, one might say the difficulties in the theology of Arminius were not clearly acknowledged by him or his followers. The difficulty in the theology of Calvin ultimately rests in the fall of Adam. Because Calvin's theology placed the decisions of the will in alignment with the desires of the nature, the means by which Adam's fall sprung from a good nature were not easily articulated by Calvin. In many ways, Calvin is willing to intentionally allow mystery to have its place in God's work of election and reprobation.
In the case of Arminius on the other hand, he seemed, at best, very discontent with such a mystery and, at worst, very confused by the way Calvin articulated it. While reasons for articulating a universal and equally distributed work of grace are certainly understandable, Arminius did not do much work in articulating just how God applies this work to the human will. Indeed, he didn't do a great deal of work in articulating the nature of the will in general. While he made it clear that he saw it as capable of choosing good or evil once liberated by grace, he didn't give any reason for which the will might go one way or another—other than that it was
While Arminius may not have acknowledged it, this understanding of the will, at best, also leads to great mystery and, at worst, it places the potential for good choices in the hands of sinful men independent of grace. Indeed, if God is not to be blamed for the rejection of grace, then how can the will not take credit for the embrace of God's gracious work? It would seem that the choice to continue in the grace by which all good choices flow cannot come from grace itself.
As one attempts to form an opinion on this deep and difficult issue, one must acknowledge that both sides of the problem must be content with mystery in one form or another. The question that must always be asked is, which side takes the most full and honest look at scripture? Which view is more willing to sacrifice intuitive thinking for submission to divine revelation? Which view is willing to be shaped in mind and heart by God's word, no matter how painful that journey may be?