Arminius on the Doctrine of Election (An Introduction)

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“Most of Arminius’ theological career was a process of discovery and Christology was at the very centre of this. Hence it would necessarily somewhat distort the picture to begin with a crystal-clear thesis . . . As we shall see, Bertius in his Funeral Oration came close to this approach by suggesting that everything resulted from a request to Arminius to answer Corneliszoon and Donteklok’s pamphlet, while in our own time Dekker and Kendall have taken as their starting-point that Arminius discovered that predestination is of believers and built up all his theology on that basis.

“But Arminius’ theology was not the result of startling revelation of unfamiliar truth early in his ministry, which he then worked out step by step. If it had, this study would have been easier to write.

“He was originally reluctant to get involved at all, and when he became convinced that he must, he had to find out what he needed to say over the years, while all the time his opponents were watching with deepening suspicion and hostility. There was no inevitable outcome to this process, except perhaps in the recesses of Arminius’ own personality.

“Perhaps most theologians who had undertaken this work would have finished by accepting the supralapsarian doctrine of predestination which was to become more and more dominant for three-quarters of the seventeenth century, whether they accepted it through conviction, desire for a quiet life, or sheer laziness. Arminius could not do this.

“His doctrine of Christ is at least as important as his (undoubtedly important) doctrines of theological prolegomena, and of God (which [Richard A.] Muller has highlighted), and which certainly had a more positive influence on seventeenth-century Reformed theology.

“I would argue that the doctrine of Christ is even more important and fundamental, using chronological evidence at both ends of his career. There is much earlier evidence for his concern with the doctrine of Christ (1591, as against 1599 for theological prolegomena and the doctrine of God), and he returned to it in his final controversies of 1604-09.

“Arminius did not start writing systematic theology till comparatively late in his career, around the age of forty, but it would be a mistake to think that his earlier experiences did not influence his later thought.

“We should not begin with the actual outbreak of Christological controversy in 1606. As early as 1599 Arminius had privately expressed views similar to those which caused trouble at the later date. These views had been, and continued to be, developed in his controversies over predestination . . .

“Predestination is not a matter of the eternal decrees of God determining the individual’s fate irrespective of that individual’s choices, nor is it an aspect of human psychology and free-will, as perhaps it became for later Remonstrants [followers of Arminius; lit. protestors].”1

Millard Erickson lists the Order of God’s Decrees, within the framework of Calvinism, as:

SUPRALAPSARIANISM

1. The decree to save (elect) some and reprobate others.
2. The decree to create both the elect and the reprobate.
3. The decree to permit the fall of both the elect and the reprobate.
4. The decree to provide salvation only for the elect.

INFRALAPSARIANISM

1. The decree to create human beings.
2. The decree to permit the fall.
3. The decree to elect some and reprobate others.
4. The decree to provide salvation only for the elect.

SUBLAPSARIANISM

1. The decree to create human beings.
2. The decree to permit the fall.
3. The decree to provide salvation sufficient for all.
4. The decree to save some and reprobate others.2

The Supralapsarian model logically leads towards hyper-Calvinism. For Supralapsarians, God “caused” the fall of His creatures “to ensure” His election of some and reprobation of the rest.

Most Calvinists typically fit the Infralapsarian model. For them, God decreed to create humans before He decreed His election to save some of them.

Non-Calvinists and Arminians fit the Sublapsarian model. God genuinely offers Christ’s sacrifice to the world (unlimited atonement), but has elected to save only those who believe (1Cor. 1.21).

Arminius wrote, “I use the word ‘Election’ in two senses: (i) For the decree by which God resolves to justify believers and to condemn unbelievers, and which is called by the Apostle, ‘the purpose of God according to election’ (Rom. 9.11): (ii) And for the decree by which He resolves to elect these or those nations and men with the design of communicating to them the means of faith, but to pass by other nations and men.

“Yet, without this distinction, [some men] fasten these sentiments on me; when, by its aid, I am enabled to affirm, not only, ‘Sufficient Grace is conferred on, or rather is offered to, the Elect and the Non-Elect,’ but also, ‘Sufficient Grace is not offered to any except the Elect.’

“(i) ‘It is offered to the Elect and the Non-Elect,’ because it is offered to unbelievers, whether they will afterwards believe or not believe. (ii) ‘It is offered to none except the Elect,’ because, by that very thing which is offered to them, they cease to be of the number of those of whom it is said, ‘He suffered them to walk in their own ways’ (Acts 14.16) and, ‘He hath not dealt so with any nation’ (Ps. 147.20).

“And who shall compel me to use words of their prescribing, unless proof be brought from Scripture that the words are to be thus and in no other way received?”3

1 F. Stuart Clarke, The Ground of Election: Jacobus Arminius’ Doctrine of the Work and Person of Christ (Waynesboro: Paternoster, 2006), 10-11.

2 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 918.

3 James Arminius, “Apology Against Thirty-One Theological Articles,” The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 53.