Whether or not one adheres to the theology of Jacob Arminius in toto, Arminius’ careful attention to context regarding scriptural interpretation cannot be overemphasized. For example, debating Roman Catholic apologist Adrian Smetius on the subject of God’s call of sinners to the grace of salvation — Smetius arguing the classic Augustinian and Calvinistic position of unconditional election — Arminius catches his opponent misusing a passage of Scripture.
An historical Calvinistic interpretation of 1 Corinthians 4:7 has maintained that God’s monergistic gift of salvation is granted irresistibly to His unconditionally elect. But, when interpreting Scripture, Arminius implicitly teaches us that the first rule of a proper interpretation is context. He rightly notes that St Paul is not here referring to the alleged monergistic gift of salvation but, generally, to spiritual gifts:
In this there is no absurdity whatever, if man be said to use grace, and through grace to make himself to differ [cf. Matt. 7:24-27] so far as to be able to say that he has not been disobedient to the heavenly call [cf. John 3:36; 6:29] and is not a rebel against Divine Grace, and that he has not so frequently resisted the Holy Spirit, as another man who rejects the grace of God [cf. Matt. 13:1-9], and who pours [contempt] on the Spirit of grace [Heb. 10:29].
With regard to the passage just cited (1 Cor. 4:7), it has no reference to the present subject; since the apostle is there treating, not upon the grace … which renders a man accepted, but only upon the graces which are gratuitously bestowed [cf. 1 Cor. 4:8], that is, on the gifts of tongues, or miracles, and on other matters of a similar kind, which had regard to the edification of the church, and which might furnish matter for glorying.1
Perturbed that Arminius had defeated his argument by exposing the misuse of the Corinthian passage, Smetius responds: “This is … a very trite reply.”2 Trite the reply is not — even those among Arminius’ opposing team confesses that he has won the debate.3 But this happened on another occasion, as well, when English Puritan William Perkins uses Matthew 16:18 as proof-text for advancing the concept of necessary perseverance and against the possibility of apostasy.
While a debate still exists as to whether or not Arminius affirms the doctrine of apostasy — that the possibility remains for a regenerate believer to forfeit his or her salvation by rejecting to perpetuate faith in Christ — Arminius, in his correspondence with Perkins, argues quite persuasively for the doctrine, as against necessary perseverance, and demonstrates how Perkins has misinterpreted and, hence, misused Scripture in supporting his presupposition.
Arminius addresses Perkins (emphasis original): “With regard to your eighth error, I should not readily dare to say that true and saving faith may finally and totally fall away; although several of the [early Church] Fathers often seem to affirm that.”4 This is a significant fact which should not be (and yet all too often is) undestimated by all involved in this discussion — both Calvinists and non-Calvinists (or Arminians who affirm perseverance of the saints and deny the reality of apostasy): the general consensus of our Fathers in the Faith admit that apostasy is a very genuine actuality. But this historical fact is most significant with regard to Calvinism.
Firstly, if apostasy is true, then the theory of unconditional election is, quite unavoidably, proven false ipso facto. The theory of unconditional election renders perseverance absolutely necessary. Secondly, apostasy also undermines the theory of limited atonement, since, if Christ died solely for the elect, and some among the number of the elect may forfeit salvation, then Christ’s specifically-applied atonement would cover apostates, a concept entirely incompatible with justification by faith (Rom. 5:1; Gal. 2:16).
Arminius continues: “Yet your arguments, by which you prove that it [faith, and by implication, salvation] cannot fail either totally or finally, must be considered.” He then confronts Perkins’ misuse and misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (NIV) Perkins imagines that the Rock is one’s faith, or faith-confession, against which even the gates of Hades cannot shake or destroy. Arminius demonstrates Perkins’ interpretive error:
The major [or primary argument] is not contained in the words of Christ: for He does not say that those built upon the rock shall not fall away from it, but that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against the rock,” or the Church. But it is one thing for the gates of hell not to prevail against the rock; quite another for those who are built upon the rock not to fall away from the rock. For a stone built upon a foundation may fail, and fall away from that foundation, the latter meanwhile continuing to stand firm.5
Arminius then argues for the notion of a person falling away from the Rock, the Church, or true salvation: “If this is predicated of the Church, I say that not even then is it the same for those who are built upon the rock not to fall away … For the falling away is that of a free will falling away: but if the gates of hell prevail against the Church, that happens from the frailness of the rock on which the Church rests.”6
For Arminius, even the minor or secondary argument of this case is faulty, for “believers are said to be being built [cf. 2 Cor. 2:15; 3:18; Eph. 2:22; Col. 3:10 NRSV; Heb. 2:11 NET; Heb. 10:14; 1 Pet. 2:5], not yet perfectly built upon the rock, on account of the continuation and confirmation of the building, which is necessary while they are here: but while that continuation and confirmation lasts, believers do not seem to be placed beyond the danger of falling.”7 He concludes: “For just as any one may be unwilling to be built thereon, so may the same man, if he has begun to be built, fall away, resisting the continuation and confirmation of that building.”8
Regardless of the immediate debate on apostasy, the point here is that Perkins and other Calvinists tend to abuse passages of Scripture, taking the same out of their original contexts, and force them into a preconceived framework that does not fit. “But it is not probable,” Arminius responds, “that Christ wished to signify by those words that believers cannot fall away from the faith” — especially since personal salvation is not even mentioned anywhere in the surrounding text — “because that seems useless.” He continues:
For, since it is necessary for them to have their stability in the rock, and therefore always to rest and lie upon the rock, they will be more slothful in their care to adhere firmly to the rock in temptations, if they be taught that they cannot fall away from the rock. It may suffice to encourage them, if they know that no power or prudence can dislodge them from that rock, unless they of their own will forsake their position.9
Arminius directs Perkins’ notice back to the Fathers: “As regards the opinions of the Fathers, you doubtless know that almost all antiquity is of that judgment, that believers may fall away and perish,” an historical fact that is either ignored, misrepresented, or denied by most Calvinists. “But the passages which you adduce from the Fathers treat either of faith in the abstract, which is unshaken and immovable, or of predestinated believers, on whom God has [allegedly, unconditionally predetermined] to bestow [necessary] perseverance.”10 Unless this complaint is veiled: he is implicitly charging here where elsewhere he explicitly charges, that his Calvinist colleagues tend to use the early fathers to their advantage.11
Why is the matter of assurance and perseverance so significant in most Arminian and Wesleyan circles? Arminius answers, that, “hereon depends the perpetual necessity of praying, which does not exist if any man obtains that assistance of God without daily prayers: nor is it here said that believers may not intermit [suspend action for a period of time] the duty of praying: which yet must necessarily be presupposed to that conclusion which you [Perkins] endeavor to elicit from the act of prayer.”12
The doctrine of apostasy, in Arminian theology, primarily concerns an attempt at being faithful to God’s word. We refuse to deny what is rendered evident in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, warning believers about falling away (John 15:1, 2, 3, 4, 5; Heb. 2:1, 2, 3; 3:12, 14; 4:1), and encouraging the same toward mutual edification (Heb. 3:13, 14) and faith in Christ (Heb. 12:1-2). Secondarily, the doctrine concerns spiritual disciplines, holy living, and seeking to glorify God in and through one’s life; to which salvation is merely the outcome of this spiritual disposition, wrought by the Holy Spirit in those who, by grace, continually trust in Jesus Christ.
1 Jacob Arminius, “On the Vocation of Men to Salvation,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:231.
4 “Examination of Perkins’ Pamphlet,” Works, 3:454.
5 Ibid. Further in this response he writes: “As to the third proof, even though it should appear that Christ says that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, yet it will not thence follow that no one can fall from the faith. For, even if any one falls away, yet the Church remains unshaken against the gates of hell. For that falling away … does not take place on account of the power of hell, but by the will itself of the person who falls away, concerning the inflexibility of whose will the Scripture says nothing, because it would be useless to employ that argument of consolation for the confirmation of believers.” (3:455)
6 Ibid., 3:454-55.
7 Ibid., 3:455.
11 Arminius complains: “But it does not appear [fair], that, whenever it is agreeable to themselves [Calvinists], they should be displeased with those who dissent from … the [early Church] Fathers; and again, that, whenever it is their good pleasure, the same parties do themselves dissent from the Fathers on this very subject.” “Apology against Thirty-One Theological Articles,” Works, 2:12-13. Calvinists have, historically, used the early fathers prior to Augustine in the fifth century to their own advantage and, conveniently, disregarded the fathers when they disagree. Yet, they blame the Arminians when they disagree with the fathers, namely, Sts Augustine and Jerome.