Though traditionally associated with the soteriological doctrines of Calvinism, the phrase “the five points” did not originate with the Calvinists but was rather conceived and developed within Arminian circles. To combat the charges of heresy and effectively differentiate the issues of theological contention between the followers of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, the adherents of Arminian theology presented a Remonstrance, or a formal statement of grievances, to the States General of Holland. This Remonstrance contained five articles outlining the essential doctrines of Arminian theology and are summarized as follows: 1) Conditional Election, 2) Universal Atonement, 3) Total Depravity, 4) Resistible Grace, and 5) Conditional Preservation. This paper will review and critique the five points of Arminianism against the doctrines of Calvinism and conclude by briefly assessing the theological and practical implications of Arminian theology. To assist in understanding the context of the five points, a brief synopsis of its development in history will begin the study.
Arminian Theology in Context
Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was born in the Netherlands town of Oudewater during the closing years of John Calvin’s life in Switzerland. After studying under Calvin’s disciple and successor, Theodore Beza, he served as pastor in Amsterdam, where his preaching aroused the suspicions of some Calvinists who judged him to be placing too much emphasis on human freedom in the process of belief and repentance. In 1603, as professor of theology at the University of Leiden, Arminius openly rejected some of the doctrines of Calvinist theology, especially the concept of predestination, which contends that God has predetermined the eternal destiny of all humankind; some elected to salvation while others to eternal damnation. Arminius argued that such teachings lessen the gracious love of God, are devastating to the exercise of religion, and are not affirmed by any of the ecumenical creeds of the ancient Church. Salvation, he taught, certainly depends solely on God’s grace, but God has also given people the freedom to receive this grace or reject it. His opponents accused him of doctrinal error and criticized his theology as Pelagian. Despite the accusations, Arminius never denied the doctrine of predestination, but rather challenged the fatalistic nature of Calvinist theology according to his interpretation of the Bible.
Following Arminius’ death, forty-six advocates of Arminius’ theology met in the city of Gouda to solicit protection of the state from Reformed clerics who were seeking their suppression. The assembly drafted a short Remonstrance designed to respond to the charges of heresy from the Calvinists and clearly set out the issues of theological disagreement. The brief document, set in the form of a traditional confession of faith, was divided into five points and was thus referred to as The Five Arminian Articles. These five articles defined Arminius’ views of predestination and, though the Calvinists defeated the Remonstrance at Synod of Dort (1618-1619), the five articles remain the central tenets of Arminian theology.
The Five Points of Arminian Theology
1. Conditional Election
The first article expresses the concept that God elects those who believe in the gospel of Christ and persevere in faith and obedience to the end. Contrary to the Calvinist position which regards election as unconditional, or that salvation is not based on any foreseen merit, quality, or achievement by the individual but is solely according to the purposes of God, Arminius understood the doctrine of election to be conditional based on those who believe in Jesus Christ. The essential idea of predestination is maintained, however its frame of reference is radically altered. Enunciating the sentiments of St. Augustine, Arminius states in his Apology Against Thirty-One Theological Articles, “The grace sufficient for salvation is conferred on the Elect, and the Non-Elect; that, if they will, they may believe or not believe, may be saved or not saved.” For Arminius, though God foreknows every person’s ultimate and final decision regarding Jesus Christ, God does not predetermine people for either salvation or damnation outside of their choosing to accept or resist his grace.
Though Arminius insisted that the faith that God foresees in people is not meritorious, Calvinist theologians contend that Arminius’ doctrine of election cannot fully escape the allegation that merit is intrinsic to his understanding of salvation. Arminian theology wants to have it both ways, suggesting that faith has no merit, yet faith somehow motivates God to respond with salvation; that God chooses people on the basis of people choosing God. However, Arminius emphasized that faith should not be thought of as a work, an earning of salvation in some way, or some kind of cooperative process between God and humans, where God does his part and humans do their part. Instead, faith is enabled by grace and is a response to grace. Thus, while faith is the condition for being elected to salvation, God alone is the cause of the election and the one who moves people to respond in faith. Within the initiative of divine grace, cooperation of the human will is necessary because the free agent decides whether the grace proffered is accepted or rejected. Thus, for Arminius, election is solely dependent on the grace of God, but is only effectual when received by the recipient, making it clear that the foundation of election is God’s grace at work within people and not human effort.
2. Universal Atonement
Specifically aimed at the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement or the notion that Christ died only for the elect, the second article of Arminian theology asserts that the atonement of Christ is efficient for all people. According to the Remonstrance, Christ suffered and died for all and, in his death, merited reconciliation and forgiveness of sin for all. Though only believers actually enjoy the forgiveness of sins, it is the will of God that all people would believe in Christ for their salvation. Arminius, rejecting the Calvinist theory that the atonement was only effectual for those whom God predestined for election, expounded on numerous Scripture passages that explicitly express the universal scope of Christ’s redemption. He also argued that the universal character of many of God’s commands and exhortations profoundly illustrates his sincere and earnest desire for the salvation of the entire human race.
His opponents interpreted Arminius’ doctrine of universal atonement to inevitably lead to universal salvation because if Christ paid the penalty or suffered the punishment for every person, then every person must be saved. Calvinist theologian Edwin Palmer, echoing an historical criticism of the Arminian view of the atonement, expresses that if Christ died for all, then no one is lost but all are reconciled and redeemed. However, Arminius was careful not to imply that redemption is applied or communicated universally but clearly articulates that though Christ died for every person, “God has by a peremptory decree resolved that believers alone should be made partakers of this redemption.” Aligned with his argument for conditional election, Arminius maintained that Christ’s death on the cross provides possible salvation for everyone, but it is actualized only when humans accept it through repentance and faith.
3. Total Depravity
The third article of Arminian theology finds agreement with the Calvinist position on the condition of human nature, yet further ignites debate over the issue of human liberty. The Remonstrance asserts the pervasive depravity of the human being, explaining that, due to Adam’s Fall, humankind is in a state of apostasy, bound by sin and incapable to think, will, or do what is right. In a disputation entitled “On The First Sin of the First Man,” Arminius states:
Wherefore, whatever punishment was brought down upon our first parents has likewise pervaded and yet pursues all their posterity so that all men…are devoid of that original righteousness and holiness. With these evils they would remain oppressed forever, unless they were liberated by Christ Jesus.
The main point for both Arminius and the Remonstrants is that humankind is totally depraved and completely incapable of salvation within themselves. Only through God’s initiation of redemption can they be delivered from sin and enabled to fulfil God’s demand for obedience. Though Calvinists agree with the Arminian doctrine of total depravity, they question how it can correspond with Arminius’ optimistic view of human free will and his synergistic view of redemption which insists that acceptance of the gospel is a necessary condition for regeneration. Since humans are completely in bondage to Adam’s sin, how can they choose to follow God or accept salvation? The solution to this question, presented in the next article, is the centre of Arminian theology and the primary issue of division between the two theological systems.
4. Resistible Grace
The fourth article states that humans cannot exercise saving faith apart from the prevenient grace of God, yet this grace is not irresistible, meaning that people can choose to accept or reject the grace offered by God for salvation. Essentially, divine grace operates to draw sinful humans to salvation, but salvation is only achieved when it is freely received. For Arminius, the work of salvation cannot be effectual without two parties, the grace of God and human free will. In a disputation entitled “On The Free Will of Man and Its Powers,” he states, “Take away free will and nothing will be left to be saved, take away grace and nothing will be left as the source of salvation” and quoting thirteenth century theologian Bernardus, he states, “No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation and nothing except free will is capable of receiving it.” Thus, divine grace, functioning preveniently, is completely sufficient for salvation, but can be received or resisted by those to whom it has been offered.
Calvinists accuse Arminianists with the charge that they treat the grace of God as inefficacious for salvation and unable to fully accomplish redemption in the sinner. Instead of divine grace being causal in nature, they regard Arminian’s view of divine grace to be merely persuasive and dependent upon the response of the recipient, making the decisive factor in salvation the meritorious initiative of fallen human beings. For the Calvinist, God does not merely initiate redemption; he effects it entirety and, completely independent of the recipient, brings the sinner into the company of the redeemed.However, Arminius emphasized that prevenient grace is more than merely persuasive, it is thoroughly regenerative in nature. Prevenient grace is effectual for salvation in that it liberates the will so that the person can for the first time exercise their liberty toward God in repentance and faith. Thus, the decisive factor in salvation is not the sinners’ mere acceptance of redemption, but is the grace of God from beginning to end.
5. Conditional Preservation
Following the Arminian argument that contends that humans have the freedom to respond to divine grace, the fifth and final article states that those who have been redeemed, may, through their own negligence, fall away from their salvation. Though careful not be dogmatic about the matter, the Remonstrance indicates that believers may not be beyond the possibility of turning away from grace. Arminius, in his article “On The Perseverance of the Saints,” states, “That [opinion] which affirms it possible for believers to fall away from the faith, has always had more supporters in the church of Christ, than that which denies its possibility or its actually occurring.” The Calvinist position is unsurprisingly critical, contending that this article, as with the previous four, illustrates how Arminian theology is based on the achievements and the strivings of humans, denigrating even the preserving nature of the grace of God. However, despite the accusations, Arminius never considered divine grace insufficient for the preservation or security of believers, but only suggested that through a deliberate and intentional act of the human will, can a person turn away from or abjure redeeming grace. To support his claim, he respectfully admitted that there are several passages of Scripture which appear to suggest such a conclusion and seem to be affirmed by the writings of several early Church fathers.
Implications of Arminian Theology
The soteriological tension between these two schools of thought has centred on those who contemplate God’s love and humanity’s free will, and those who prefer to emphasize God’s dominance and humanity’s helplessness. However, in comparing the two theological systems, the Arminian position seems to offer a more optimistic picture of the salvific plan of God to rescue and redeem fallen humanity. Contrary to the Calvinist position, which depicts God as an arbitrary deity who only elects those he has chosen for salvation, Arminianism recognizes that God desires all people to be saved, expressing his genuine love for humankind and his desire to be in mutual fellowship. Though Adam’s Fall has bound all humanity in sin, God has provided universal atonement through Christ and administered prevenient grace to all people with the invitation to respond to his offer in repentance and faith. This not only illustrates God’s justice and mercy toward humankind, but reflects his impartiality and respect for the autonomy of the human being, who is created in his image. Furthermore, since humanity has the freedom to accept divine grace and live according to Scripture, God must also consider the exercise of faith significant and beneficial. Unlike the pre-determinative doctrine of Calvinism, where there is little impulse for ethical living, maturing in the faith, or evangelizing the lost, Arminian theology inspires believers to an active faith. Though both Arminian and Calvinist doctrines, taken to extremes, will obviously impair a proper biblical understanding of soteriology, the optimism of Arminian theology seems to be more palatable to understanding the nature of God and the plan of salvation.
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