Why I Am An Arminian
Part III: History

, posted by Martin Glynn

Many Calvinists claim that they represent historical orthodoxy. However, I believe that the opposite is true. In this post I intend to traverse Christian history and tease out, on a very basic and incomplete level, the development of those issues that form the backbone of the Arminian/Calvinist debate, and see where the two systems lay. For the sake of clarity I will lay out here my thesis for this post:

Calvinism has never been THE central understanding of salvation within the church.


I am really sorry that I am including paganism within my exploration of the history of this debate, but there has been a consistent claim that paganism is the source of Arminianism, and, since it is an antecedent to the debate, we must have an understanding of what themes it has that could have any baring on the discussion at hand.

First of all, paganism never was a systematic philosophical position. Classic paganism, in all its forms except for maybe the Greek philosophers, was a hodgepodge of local myths and legends that represent the historic political interactions of a region as much as it represents the worldview of that region. This must be understood.

Second, when we are talking about paganism in terms of it possibly having an influence on Christian thought, we are talking about Greek paganism, especially its culmination with Aristotle and Plato.

Third, within the topics involved with the Calvinist/Arminian debate, before the Greek philosophers, Greek paganism would be considered to be inconsistently deterministic. Indeed, the early Greek pagans believed in beings known as the fates, who determined the life and death of all beings through the weaving and cutting of thread. The Greeks strongly believed in the notion of fate and destiny, and that we do not control what happens to us. Even the gods were at the mercy of fate. However, the fates could be tempted and persuaded with, which is why I would call the pagans inconsistent. A good example of Greek determinism is the story of Oedipus (Aeschylus, Laius and Oedipus).

The Greek philosophers, on the other hand, were consistent determinists. They held that there was a singular deity who moved and shaped all things, and within which all things had their source. Such a deity was perfectly logical, and was motivated primarily, if not entirely, by such concepts as the greatest good, maintaining absolute control, and the dispensation of justice. This deity would be purely impassive, for emotion denotes change, change denotes a move toward or away from perfection, and this must be impossible since this deity must initially and constantly be perfect. It is very important to note that the notion of libertarian free will came late to Greek philosophy, and Plato and Aristotle and most schools held to something more like compatabilism. However, libertarianism did develop before the maturation of Christian theology, but this was rather concurrent with early Christianity itself.

It is also important to note that modern Jews, and as far as I know ancient Jews, do hold to the notion of free will. Jews during Greek times were actually divided. According to Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 3; cf. Antiq. XIII. v. 9; War II. viii. 14), the Pharisees and Sadducees held to a view of free will, while the Essenes were more deterministic. Therefore an appeal to extra-biblical Judaism leans things in an Arminian perspective.

Before Augustine

Before Augustine and Pelagius you will not find a systematic presentation, or even a careful development, of free will/determinism themes. However, out of all of the early church fathers, you will find many polemical works (which are works that speak out against a position) against paganism and gnosticism that cite determinism as a problem with these positions. What you won’t find is any apologetic works (which are works that defend a position) for determinism, or anything at all which speaks of a deterministic worldview.

Here is a short list of quotes:

  • Justin Martyr (ca. 160) writes: “Lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. . . . And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions” (285).
  • Tatian (ca. 160) writes: “We were not created to die. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God. We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it” (86).
  • Irenaeus (ca. 180) writes: “But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff” (286).
  • Clement of Alexandria (ca. 195) writes: “God ministers eternal salvation to those who cooperate for the attainment of knowledge and good conduct. Since what the commandments direct are in our own power, along with the performance of them, the promise is accomplished” (294-5).

Pelagius, Augustine, and the Council of Orange

In the early 5th century, a British monk by the name of Pelagius became insistent about demanding the need for Christians to recognize their responsibility to the biblical law. At around the same time, a African bishop of the city of Hippo by the name of Augustine had established a name for himself theologically. Augustine felt a need to emphasize the greatness of God’s work within the realm of redemption, and the human’s absolute need for divine action.

These two persons eventually came to a head, and developed two very different theological systems. Pelagius claimed that the concept of human responsibility necessitates the idea that salvation is the result of a human’s piety (a rather pagan idea), and that the human’s free will is the source for his piety (not a very pagan idea). Augustine on the other hand put forward the doctrine of original sin, and stated that human beings are incapable of doing any real good from birth as a result of Adam’s first sin completely infecting his progeny. As a result, all those saved are only saved because God initiates and completes a saving work within them. Those who are saved are individually chosen by God to be saved before the inception of the world.

It is very important to note three things about these two positions. First, neither position was previously espoused within the church, which means that one cannot conflate all positions on these issues to these two positions (as many often try to do).

Second, Arminians are not Pelagians (not even close) and Calvinists are not Augustinians (though certainly based off of him). Though Arminians believe in a free will, we hold that God initiates the process of salvation, and we agree with Augustine on the notion of original sin (loosely) and total depravity. Meanwhile, Augustine himself did not outright reject free will, and was not a pure determinist. Though he introduced the concept of unconditional election to the church, he did not hold to perseverance of the saints, and held that one persevered in the faith by one’s devotion to the Church’s sacraments. In other words he believed that one was unconditionally elected to the Church, but it was through the Church that one found the grace to enable them to persist in the faith. This was most certainly not Calvinism.

The third thing to note is that the Church did not agree completely with either side. Pelagius was declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus, but though Augustine’s beliefs were not condemned, they also were not accepted unqualified. Indeed, debate continued after his death as two new systems developed: Semipelagianism and Semiaugustinianism.

Semipelagianism held that though one was saved by piety, one could not obtain the necessary level of piety without divine intervention. But the human must initiate this intervention through prayer. Semiaugustinianism held that though the human is born into a state of total depravity because of original sin, God seeks the redemption of all, and so works within all to bend them towards faith. However, all humans must respond within and to this grace by free will in order for faith to reach its full fruition. In 529 there was a council held at Orange that examined these two belief systems. It condemned Semipelagianism, and fully excepted Semiaugustinianism as official orthodoxy.

Arminianism, though distinct from either of these views, has as much in common with Semiaugustinianism as Calvinism does with Augustinianism. It is interesting that many Calvinists call Arminianism ‘Semipelagian’, but those that do so often do not know that there is a belief system by that name, and that it is completely dissimilar from Arminianism (they also don’t know of the system of Semiaugustianism. Indeed by Semipelagianism is seems to me that they usually mean anything which falls short of the deterministic Calvinism).


The Council of Ephesus and the Council of Orange solidified things within this area for quite some time. However, after the fall of Rome, the Western Church fell into the dark ages. Within this time, theology became divided between those in the monasteries (which often debated high philosophical ideas) and common folk religion (which really didn’t represent official dogma at all). Indeed, even most priests had little to no theological understanding, and were really only trained in administering sacraments.

By the time of Martin Luther, most of the church believed in a kind of Semipelagianism, though it was officially heresy. This was mostly due to lack of teaching, but also because many of the leaders of the church were more politicians than ministers and abused the people’s ignorance to push their own agendas (Like, maybe, selling indulgences to build a cathedral. As if that ever happened).

Luther, being an Augustinian monk, developed much of his theology from Augustine himself. Indeed, it was a kind of Augustinianism that typified much of the early soteriology of the Reformed Church. It is little wonder that Calvin, who systematized this, also worked within this same mindset.

However, Calvinism itself never defined the Reformed movement. Indeed, Luther, though he believed in and taught a sort of predestination, never emphasized these issues, and many within the second generation of Reformers were already moving in a Semiaugustinian direction. The defining stances of the Reformation was always the five solas: “Scripture alone”, “faith alone”, “grace alone”, “in Christ alone”, and “to the glory of God alone”. These were not, and are not, strictly Calvinist ideas, but were equally held among the semiaugustinian reformers, including Jacob Arminius.

It is only at Geneva, the city and university founded by Calvin, that we find people really emphasizing Calvinist dogma. Indeed, within Geneva there seemed to be an almost veneration of Calvin, and much of his works became unquestionable (which brings up the question of their allegiance to Sola Scriptura, but I digress). It was within this environment that we have Arminius and Beza enter. It may be worth mentioning here that what we call Calvinism today is based more off of Beza’s articulation of Calvin than Calvin himself. Indeed, Arminius saw himself as an interpreter of Calvin.

One must also recognize that Geneva was as much a political institution as it was a theological one. The strength of Geneva and Beza gave strength to the government. It is difficult for us to fully appreciate the relationship between the theologians and politicians of those days, but if we remember the political power of the Catholic Church we would realize that the Reformation never would have gotten off the ground if it did not have some political power behind it. Thus, a challenge to the theological stances of Beza and Geneva was a political threat, and was often cast as being “Romist” in source.

Synod of Dort

Jacob Arminius was a brilliant theologian and rhetorician that rose up a generation after Calvin. He did not create Arminianism, but simply became the figurehead for it due to his eloquence. Like I said above, there were many Reformed theologians moving towards a Semiaugustinian stance; Arminius simply became the spokesman.

Throughout Arminius’ career, he often called for a council to help settle the matter: some place where the two opinions could be fairly presented and compared. He never got one though. He died before any council was convened. His followers eventually wrote a document called “The Articles of Remonstrance” to state precisely what their stances were. This document was a plea to the larger church for a council to protect them from the political powers within the Netherlands. This group was later called the Remonstrants after this document.

After Arminius passed away, a council (more accurately a synod since it was purely local) was convened at Dort. This synod was not convened to decide the issue though, but to condemn Arminianism due to its political danger. There were a few ministers called in from outside of the Netherlands (some of which became convinced of Arminianism), but for the most part the synod was comprised of Dutch ministers there to protect the political prestige of Geneva. Dort was a kangaroo court, as Ben Henshaw would say (hence his pen name over at Arminian Perspectives).

It is also important to note that this synod’s political influence was fairly short-lived. A generation later the Remonstrants were welcomed back into the Netherlands.

What Happened Next

Since Dort, the matter has been rather up in the air. There are lots of theological movements associated with the two stances that could be discussed: particular vs. general Baptists, the Puritans, the Wesleys and Methodism, Edwards, The Great Awakenings, Finney (who wasn’t in either camp but influenced the debate dramatically), Pentecostalism, and, of course, the recent Calvinist Resurgence.

However, with the steady decentralization of theological authority since the Reformation, to claim that either side could be the central theological position of Protestantism or Evangelicalism is impossible. Certain movements were more Calvinist (like the First Great Awakening) while others were more Arminian (like the Second Great Awakening). In general, the waters have been pretty muddy.


Returning to my original thesis: Calvinism has never been THE central understanding of salvation within the church. We have seen:

  • That pagan and Greek antecedents were deterministic, rather than believing in free will
  • That the Jewish antecedents were libertarian
  • That the earliest Church fathers opposed determinism
  • That in the Augustine/Pelagius debate, both Arminianism’s and Calvinism’s antecedents (Semiaugustinianism and Augustinianism) were accepted to be within orthodoxy
  • That while the early Reformation was undoubtedly Augustinian, it never flat out rejected Semiaugustinianism, nor did it emphasize the issue
  • That Arminian like beliefs began to rise within the first generation of Protestants of which Arminius was merely the most articulate in the Reformed camp
  • That Dort was a purely local synod which was motivated as much by politics as it was by theology and it therefore cannot be considered to represent official Protestant orthodoxy
  • That since the Remonstrant/Dort episode, there have been many movements and persons of note on both sides of the question.

So where does history stand on the issue? I would argue that history supports Arminianism over Calvinism. Semiaugustinianism was generally preferred over Augustinianism, and Arminian thoughts rose up quickly within Protestant circles. Calvinism’s one claim on history was that the early Reformation leaned that way, as well as Geneva’s prestige within the early Reformed Church, but that was relatively short lived, and since those times history has been rather flippant.

For my next post, I’m going to turn to the actual theological issues.

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