Prereformation Church History & the Calvinist/Arminian Debate

, posted by Godismyjudge

Calivinists have a rich heritage – one that they can be proud of. It’s unquestionable that Augustine, many of the Reformers and Puritans, held Calvinist ideas. But after reading Boettner’s introduction of the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, one might get the impression that Calvinism dominates Church history, and substantially every major theologian accepted Calvinisic predestination. Boettner claims:

The great majority of the creeds of historic Christendom have set forth the doctrines of Election, Predestination, and final Perseverance, as will readily be seen by any one who will make even a cursory study of the subject. On the other hand Arminianism existed for centuries only as a heresy on the outskirts of true religion, and in fact it was not championed by an organized Christian church until the year 1784, at which time it was incorporated into the system of doctrine of the Methodist Church in England. (link)

Boettner equivocates predestination with Calvinistic predestination. The historic creeds do indeed teach predestination, but not Calvinistic predestination. Many simply stick to the language of Scripture. Since Calvinists and Arminians disagree on the interpretation of Scripture, likely they disagree on the interpretation of creeds as well. For example, Scripture says we are elected, which Calvinists take to mean we are unconditionally elected, yet Arminians take as conditionally elected. So, if a creed says we are elected, Calvinists and Arminians are likely to disagree on what the creed means. This is why Arminius states:

This doctrine [supralapsarian Calvinism] was never admitted, decreed, or approved in any Council, either general or particular, for the first six hundred years after Christ…. [The Arminian explanation of predestination] agrees with that harmony of all confessions, which has been published by the protestant Churches. (link)

Arminius goes on to explain how Augustine’s explanation of predestination both falls short of supralapsarian Calvinism and that it was not universally received by the Church. Further, he explains that his view aligns with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and supralapsarian Calvinism does not.

So if creeds are open to interpretation, does that mean we can’t tell anything from them and Church history regarding the Calvinist/Arminian debate? No, but one must be careful. When reading history, one must avoid the temptation of reading their views back into history. Further, it’s difficult to conclude what historic authors thought about a subject (like Calvinism), unless they specifically address that subject. This is why it’s difficult to say exactly where the Church stood on the topics addressed in the Calvinist/Arminian debate. But some Calvinistic ideas (specifically reprobation and limited atonement) did come up at times before the Reformation, and I want to highlight two important episodes to demonstrate that Calvinism was not universally accepted.

No ecumenical councils established Arminianism and anathematized Calvinism, but some regional ones did. In the aftermath of the Pelagian heresy, two fallout errors were condemned by two councils. The more well known of the two is the Council of Orange in 529, which condemned semi-Pelagianism. But prior to Orange, the Council of Arles condemned the errors of Lucian the predestinarian. Lucian began teaching a more severe version of predestination than Augustine; which apparently included reprobation and limited atonement. The Council of Arles (around 472) threatened to excommunicate Lucian if he held these six errors:

1. That man was born without sin, and by his own effort alone could be saved, and could free himself from sinful ways without the grace of God. 2. That a man who, with sincere faith, had received the grace of baptism and had professed the Christian life, and afterwards through temptation had fallen away, perished in the original sin of Adam. 3. That a man through God’s foreknowledge might be destined to death. 4. That a man who perished had not received of grace that he might be in the way of salvation. 5. That man made as a vessel unto dishonour can never arise to become a vessel unto honour. 6. That Christ did not die for all, and does not will that all should be saved.

Thomas Scott Holmes. The Origin & Development of the Christian Church in Gaul During the First Six Centuries of the Christian Era. P 404-405

For variations on the phrasing of the 6 points, see Sabine Baring Gould, The Lives of the Saints. P416 and Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori. The History of Heresies and Their Refutation: Or, The Triumph of the Church. P 116-117. Of note, one variant on the third point reads: “the foreknowledge of God violently drives men to death, or that those who perish, perish by the will of God.”

So the Council of Arles seems to condemn both Pelagianism and certain Calvinistic doctrines.

Because the Council of Arles was championed by the semi-Pelagian Faustus, it’s sometimes called into question, since semi-Pelagianism was condemned by the council of Orange some 60 years later. But it’s wrong to suppose that these two councils are at odds with each other; rather they condemn two opposing extremes. Lucian submitted to the council of Arles rather than question its authority. Further, Arles didn’t contain the semi-Pelagian tenets condemned by Orange, so the two councils didn’t disagree. Interestingly, the Synod of Orange included some language similar to Arles when it stated: “According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul. We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” (link)

A second interesting episode in Church history happened between 848 and 849 when Gottschalk was condemned and imprisoned for teaching limited atonement and double predestination. James Craigie Robertson. History of the Christian Church p307-321.

I bring this up not because I think councils are infallible or because I think Calvinism is a heresy. I actually think what happened to Gottschalk was deplorable. Rather, I just wanted to point out that Calvinism hasn’t dominated Church history.