I'm going to discuss Calvinism versus Arminianism. I am not, however, planning to defend one ... or the other. I think we've heard these terms bandied about for so long that we no longer understand them at all. But ... we've heard them so we're pretty sure we do. All very confusing. So let's take a moment to straighten this much out.
After the days of John Calvin (1509-1564), a Dutch theologian by the name of Jacobus Arminius was teaching in Amsterdam (1591). Arminius had previously been tasked with a defense of the doctrine of predestination and was quite aware of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, a four-volume systematic theology. At some point Arminius started arguing in his classes against some of Calvin's work -- against the standard Protestant Reformed theology of the day. Actually, he argued against 5 points out of the entire theological system. I point that out to indicate that there was a vast amount of agreement, lest we focus too much on the differences. The Amsterdam government required that he not teach things contrary to Reformed theology, and that was it for awhile. He was later called to Leiden University and the controversy escalated. Arminius died in 1609 with the debate still raging. In 1610 a group of Dutch Protestants who agreed with Arminius filed a grievance, so to speak. The formal name was remonstrance, and it was the method by which disagreements with the Church could be addressed. This group filed the Five Articles of Remonstrance:
- The divine decree of predestination is conditional, not absolute.
- The Atonement is, in intention, universal.
- Man can of himself exercise a saving faith.
- Though the grace of God is a necessary condition of human effort, it does not act irresistibly in man.
- Believers are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace.
The Dutch Reformed Church, in response, called a synod, a gathering of church leaders to meet and determine the validity of the remonstrance. They met in Dordrecht and held the Synod of Dordt from 1618-1619. The group consisted of 39 pastors and 18 ruling Elders from the Belgic churches, 5 professors from the universities of Holland, 19 delegates from the Reformed churches in Germany and Switzerland, and 5 professors and bishops from Great Britain. (France was invited but opted not to attend.) They held 154 sessions and other side conferences. They finally produced a document called the Canons of Dordt:
- God's predestination is not conditioned on anything in Man.
- The Atonement is not unlimited; it is particular.
- Natural Man is born a sinner and is depraved to the core.
- Man, depraved to the core, can only be regenerated if God overcomes his will.
- God will cause to persevere all whom He regenerates and saves.
These five points have become known as "the Five Points of Calvinism". The truth is that "Calvinism" was a term applied by Lutherans to designate those in the Reformation who differed with them (essentially) on the Eucharist (whether or not Christ's body was actually present) and the use of God's law for believers. Calvin himself despised and rejected the term. But these five points are the issues today that designate what we call "Calvinism" even if they didn't come about until long after Calvin was dead.
So, in the end, the issue is not John Calvin versus Jacobus Arminius. Neither Calvin nor Arminius took their positions on their own. Both took them from Scripture. Some people will try to eliminate the discussion by claiming that one or the other got their lousy theology from some bad people in the past -- Calvin from Augustine and Arminius from Pelagius. That's nothing more than an ad hominem argument, suggesting the source is bad while ignoring both the source (Scripture) and the argument. The other option not on the table is "I am neither." On each point you may agree or disagree with one or the other, but you're going to have to come up with a strange position if you say "neither". "Is Arminius right about his claim that God's choice of who is saved is conditional or not?" "Neither." See? Doesn't work.
There has been so much debate and confusion over both sides of these issues that I thought I'd lay them out more succinctly so you can decide better where you stand apart from names ("Calvinism" or "Arminianism") or dodges ("I'm neither."). I'll let you examine that on your own. Generous, ain't I?