Theology Corner

Addressing commonly asked questions about Christianity from the perspective of a non-theologian

Theology Corner


James Arminius (1560 – 1609 AD) is sometimes portrayed as an argumentative, mediocre theologian, of Dutch origin, who wished to elevate himself to the intellectual level of John Calvin (1509 – 1564 AD) and Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD).  His plan of self-aggrandizement was, allegedly, to dispute a fundamental principle of the Christian faith which had been elucidated by Augustine in about 410 AD.  Curiously, this principle was then lost in the dust bin of history for 1100 years when it was re-discovered by John Calvin and Martin Luther (1483 --1546 AD) in about 1540 AD.  That principle may be stated as:  


Unconditional salvation, from the consequences of sin, is given only to the elect of God who were predestined for Heaven before the world was formed.


Protestantism exploded under Luther and Calvin based on this re-discovered Augustinian principle of predestination.  Lutheran Theology was deeply sacramental while the Reformed Theology of Calvin was more clearly focused on the predestination theology of Augustine.  Also, during the last three years of his life, Luther publicly condemned Jews who did not convert to Christianity; this tainted his legacy.  Conversely, the Reformed Theology of Calvin has flourished since that time and found its fullest expression in the 1646 Westminster Confession.  A key sentence in this Confession is:


God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.


This means God not only predestined the elect to salvation; but, in fact, God predestined everything!

Returning to Augustine, he reasoned that if Christ died for all men, all men would be saved.  But not all men are saved!  Therefore, God must have chosen particular men for salvation.  The rest are left in their sins.  It is inconceivable that Christ should die for anyone who would not be saved.  Since God cannot change, it is only reasonable to suppose that elect men were chosen from all eternity.  Therefore, individual predestination is the only logical way to account for the salvation of any man.  Personal predestination, to Augustine, was not a Biblical doctrine but instead the ultimate conclusion for a logical process.  However, Augustine did not follow his own logic to its inevitable conclusion and make God the author of sin.  This step would be taken by his followers in later years.

According to Calvinism, God makes sure everyone sins but He offers salvation from the consequences of sin only to the elect.  In other words, by this astounding intellectual principle, discovered by Augustine and re-discovered and promoted by Calvin, God is the ultimate cause of all sin in the soul of man but He redeems and regenerates only the souls of the elect.   In this way God is justified in sending the non-elect (reprobate) to eternal damnation in Hell.

This was a curious development in Christianity because the New Testament church believed and taught that Christ died for all men.  They said any man could be saved by turning to Jesus Christ.  They did not question the God-given ability of all men to respond to God’s invitation.  This belief generated an explosion of evangelistic impetus in the Pentecostal church (2 Cor 8:1-5).

A conviction, that the offer of salvation is made to all persons, dominated Christian belief well beyond the annexation of the Christian Church by the Roman Empire (see Section 1.20 of Theology Corner).  Augustine alone developed the new principle of predestination during his intellectual struggles with Pelagius in about 410 AD.  The Roman church did not embrace this principle and it lay dormant for 1100 years.  Unfortunately, both Calvin and Luther used this principle as a corner stone for the Reformation church.  God looked for someone who would attempt to right the ship and restore the church to apostolic teaching.  He found that person in James Arminius who was four years old when John Calvin died.

Born in Holland in 1560, his widowed mother gave him to a Catholic priest who sent him to school in Utrecht.  The priest died and a professor sent Arminius to a Lutheran school.  Shortly thereafter, the Spaniards took the hometown of Arminius and murdered most of the inhabitants because they refused to return to the Catholic faith.  Among those killed were the mother, brothers and sister of Arminius.  The reality of such ruthless political brutality probably shaped the remainder of his life.

Arminius found refuge in the home of Peter Bertius, pastor of the Reformed church at Rotterdam.  Bertius sent him to the new university at Leyden.  Here he achieved distinction as a scholar.  The patrons of the Amsterdam church took him under their wing, assuring him of the best possible education in exchange for his promise that he would return to them as pastor if this became their will.  At the conclusion of his education, he was installed as pastor of the Amsterdam church.  He was a brilliant preacher, a gifted Bible exegete, and a humble and dedicated Christian.

In 1589 a layman named Koornheert began lecturing and writing against Beza’s supralapsarian theory of the divine decrees (see Section 1.11 of Theology Corner).  Koornheert argued that if God causes sin, then God is, in reality, the author of sin.  The Bible, he said, does not teach such evil.  No minister was able to refute him; consequently, Arminius was commissioned to do so.  The deeper Arminius delved into this issue, the more he became convinced that the Bible actually refuted the concept of predestination.  He compiled evidence showing that no reputable church father had ever taught unconditional predestination of the elect to Heaven and the reprobate to Hell.  Scholars of the Reformed Church turned on Arminius, but they couldn’t defeat him in a debate.  In 1603 he was placed in the chair of theology at Leyden University with full knowledge of his theological position.  He was clearly the intellectual equal of Calvin and Augustine. 

Arminius died in 1609 AD before the theological war reached a denouement.  After his death, Simon Episcopius (1583 – 1643 AD) and his colleagues, calling themselves Remonstrants, formulated the Arminian position in preparation for a public hearing.  They summarized the Arminian position in the Five Points of the Remonstrants which were laid before the Dutch States in 1610 AD.  These can be paraphrased as:


  • True faith cannot proceed from the exercise of our natural faculties and powers, or from the force and operation of free will, since man, in consequence of his natural corruption, is incapable of thinking or doing any good thing. It is therefore necessary to his conversion and salvation that he be regenerated and renewed by the operation of the Holy Spirit which is the gift of God through Jesus Christ.


  • God, from all eternity, determined to: (1) bestow salvation on those who, as He foresaw, would persevere unto the end in their free will faith in Jesus Christ and (2) inflict everlasting punishment on those who would continue in their unbelief and resist His divine grace.


  • The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ covered the sins of all mankind in general and those of every individual in particular; however, none but those who believe in Him can be partakers of that divine benefit.


  • The Holy Spirit begins, advances and brings to perfection everything that can be called good in man; consequently, all good works are to be attributed to God alone. Nevertheless, this grace does not force man to act against his inclination but may be resisted and rendered ineffectual.


  • Those once united to Christ by faith may, by turning away from God, lose the great gift of salvation.


The powerful political forces of the Reformation retained the first point but negated the next four. The five points of the TULIP thus became:


  • Total depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the saints


The "U" indicates the elect of God were unconditionally selected for salvation before the world was formed and not because of any work in this life such as responding to God's prevenient grace (the grace that comes before salvation) by confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience. The "L" means Jesus died only for the elect; the sins of the non-elect (or reprobate) are not covered by the substitutionary atonement. The "I" suggests the elect cannot resist the grace of God even if they choose to do so. The "P" reinforces the inevitability and permanence of salvation for the elect.

A conference was held shortly after the Remonstrants delivered their 5 points but it ended without any definite results.  In 1618 – 1619, a synod was called known as the Synod of Dort, which met on November 13, 1618 and continued until May 9, 1619 – a total of 154 sessions.  The Remonstrants appeared in the person of thirteen deputies, headed by Episcopius.  The Remonstrants lost that particular battle.  The synod drew up 93 canons developing more thoroughly the Calvinistic system.  But the seed of rebellion against Calvinism had been planted!