27 Mar


by Providence Crowder

Second generation Protestant theologians such as John Calvin and James Arminius had broadened Protestantism to boundaries their predecessors had not attained.  Calvin, in particular, was a staunch Augustinian who became critical of the Roman Catholic Church in which he had been a part of, and challenged previously held viewpoints on traditional church teachings.  He was a controversial figure whose hermeneutics greatly influenced Protestantism, firstly in Geneva, where he led the mission for reform.  Calvin, in his quest for doctrinal clarity, comprised a summary of the Christian faith called the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The Institutes was a huge success and showed a “profound knowledge, not only of Scripture, but also of ancient Christian literature—particularly the works of Augustine—and theological controversies of the sixteenth century.”[1]  Calvin developed what was known as a systematic approach to Protestant theology, and the scholarly brilliance of his polemic and apologetic writings have gained him prominence as the greatest theologian of his era.  With his fame came many followers, making him the chief figure of the branch of Protestant theology termed Calvinist or “Reformed” Protestantism.  

Reformed theology during Calvin’s lifetime was similar to those theological views held by Calvin’s contemporaries, Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, and others; differing primarily on the manner in which Christ was present in communion.[2]  However, after Calvin’s death, various Calvinist groups and other Protestants arose, either distorting his views or disagreeing altogether with Calvin’s theology concerning divine grace, the human will, and election.  One such person, James Arminius, challenged and attempted to reform some of the tenets of Calvinism, particularly concerning the aforementioned.  Although initially Calvinistic in his leanings, Arminius’ soteriology became the foundation for Arminianism, a doctrinal system of beliefs contradictory to the teachings of Calvinism that maintained: Christ died for all not only the elect, God’s grace was not irresistible but capable of being rejected by the unbeliever, and that the believer was capable of falling from Grace.[3]  After his death, the Remonstrants, a group of Dutch Protestants, sought to keep Arminianism alive by promulgating the teachings of Arminius and particularly challenged the more extreme Calvinistic views such as supralapsarianism[4] and other high Calvinism teachings such as those promoted by Protestant leader Theodore Beza.[5]  Nonetheless, Arminianism did share a few key theological similarities to Calvinism.


            Calvinism and Arminianism agreed concerning the grace of God.  Both believed in original sin and the necessity of God’s grace as the only means for redeeming a totally depraved and fallen sinful race.  Calvin in particular preached that “Man has no means within himself, by which he can escape from guilt, and the impending curse: that, on the contrary, until he is reconciled and renewed, everything that proceeds from him is of the nature of sin.”  He further believed, “Man being thus utterly undone in himself, and incapable of working out his own cure by thinking a good thought, or doing what is acceptable to God, must seek redemption

without himself, in Christ.”[6] 

Thus, grace was an act of love initiated by God to justify those sinful persons who respond in faith to the gospel and God considered those persons completely righteous as if they had no sin; this without the individual having done any other work to receive this unmerited favor.  Although in agreement concerning the purpose and need for grace, the Calvinist and Arminian doctrines differed on whether or not God’s grace was irresistible.  Calvinism maintained that Grace was irresistible while Arminianism argued that it was not.

            The Synod of Dort, an “assembly of the Dutch Reformed Church that convened at Dort to deal with the Arminian Controversy,”[7] asserted the irresistibility of Grace.  The Canons of the Synod of Dort proclaimed that faith was offered as a gift to the elect, or those predestined for salvation; “breathed and infused into him,” and God who works in man to will and do all things “produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.”[8]  Arminius contradictorily declared, “I by no means do injustice to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free-will.  For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, ‘is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’”  He concluded that according to the Scriptures, “Many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.”[9]  The subject of the human will also became a point of conflict between the two Protestant groups.  The Calvinists accused the Arminians of Pelagianism,[10] a claim that Arminius adamantly denied, declaring that the Arminians attributed too much to man’s free will.

The Human Will and Election

Within Reformed theology, the human will played little, if any role in soteriological matters.  According to God’s divine Providence, nothing happened, not even a drop or rain fall, without the command of God.  Even faith was initiated and directed by God, as Jesus declared in the book of John, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (Jn. 6:44).  Therefore, election played a greater role than human will, although every man was responsible for his own conduct.  The elect, though deserving of death for their sin, were saved according to God’s good pleasure.[11]  Calvinism declared that Christ died only for the elect, “those who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith” according to God’s will, and not only that but God “should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end.”[12] 

Those who were not among the elect were eternally damned because “God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any for how can he be indebted to man, who had no previous gift to bestow . . . Who had nothing of his own but sin and falsehood.”[13]  Therefore the elect owed God eternal gratitude and thanks for satisfying his sin and giving him the gift of eternal life.   Unlike Arminius, Calvin avowed that because of God’s free mercy, the elect do not wholly fall from faith and grace, nor continue and perish in their backsliding because grace is not in consequence of their own merits.  Even when the elect commit enormous sins, God does not entirely withdraw his Holy Spirit from his people, nor does he suffer them to commit sin unto death, nor does he totally desert them, allowing them to plunge into everlasting destruction.[14] 

Calvin’s view of election, that some were predetermined for salvation and some for destruction, was not totally rejected by Arminius.  However, because Arminius believed in universal atonement, declaring that Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men, he affirmed “Faith is not an effect of election, but is a necessary requisite foreseen by God in those who are to be elected.  The decree concerning the bestowing of faith preceded the decree of election.”[15]  The Reformed believed that election preceded faith whereas the Arminians maintained that faith preceded election; thereby giving the human will a greater role than in the Reformed’s soteriology.    


Calvinism and Arminianism have both greatly influenced the Protestant theologies of their era as well as the modern era.  While Arminianism found its roots in Calvinism, it soon became the antithesis of the Calvinistic faith by those who maintained a strict or high view of Calvinism.  Due to the Arminian controversy, the Reformed, at the Synod of Dort, took a harsh stance against the Remonstrance and produced Canons and creeds of Calvinism that expressly establish clear differentiations between the two Protestant Denominations.

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2004), 64.

[2] Ibid, 68.

[3] The Creeds of Christendom, the Evangelical Protestant Creeds, Volume 3.  Edited by Philip Schaff, revised by David S. Schaff.  6th edition; (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990), 545-549.

[4] “Supralapsarianism is the form of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination which maintains that God decreed the election and non-election of men before the Fall of Adam.  Calvin himself regarded Divine Predestination as an inscrutable mystery; he did not presume to elaborate the whole subject.  It was his followers who boldly asserted such doctrines as supralapsarianism.” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Supralaparianism.”

[5] “Beza Theodore was the Calvinist theologian who  succeeded Calvin as the head of the Genevan Church and leader of the Calvanist movement in Europe.  He is usually considered to have hardened Calvin’s doctrine of predestination by arguing that even the Fall was part of God’s eternal plain; it followed the election of some to salvation and others to damnation, the atoning death of Christ being offered only for the former.” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Beza, Theodore.”

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religions, Prefatory Address, Christian Library Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

[7] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “Dort, Synod of.”

[8] The Creeds of Christendom, With a History and Critical Notes, Edited by Philip Schaff, revised by David S. Schaff.  6th edition, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990), 591.

[9] James Arminius, Sentiments of Arminius. Christian Library Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

[10] Pelagianism is the heresy which holds that man can take the initial and fundamental steps towards salvation by his own efforts, apart from Divine grace.  Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Faith, s.v. “Pelagianism.”

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 16.  Christian Library Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

[12] Creeds of Christendom, 587.

[13] Ibid, 591.

[14] Creeds of Christendom, 593.

[15] James Arminius, Apology or Defense, Article 4.  Christian Library Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).


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One response to “CALVINISM vs. ARMINIANISM

  1. Publius/Huldah

    March 30, 2011 at 12:49 am

    A very interesting paper, Providence! Thank you!


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