Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) was a Dutch pastor and theologian. His theology is best known for its counter-arguments against the theology of John Calvin. The two theologies were at the heart of the Dutch Remonstrant movement and opposition. The famous Synod of Dort (1618) and subsequent Canons of Dort were motivated by Arminians (followers of Jacobus Arminius) and Calvinists (the followers of John Calvin) attempting to come to a conclusion about which theology was more biblically correct. Since there was no separation between church and state at that time in Holland, this theological crisis had severe repercussions nationally as well as for the church. The Synod of Dort came down decisively on the side of Calvinism. Ever since that time, the theology of Jacobus Arminius has been polarized against Calvinist theology.
Jacobus Arminius was a pastor in Amsterdam and had a good reputation among his parishioners as a compassionate man and a gifted preacher. But his teachings sparked a controversy, and some began to accuse him of being a Pelagian, a charge he denied. Pelagianism is the belief that man in his natural state is able to freely choose good over evil and live a sinless life, without help from God. It denies the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and it denies original sin. Arminius’s teachings were compared to Pelagianism because of his emphasis on man’s free will: Arminius said that a man could struggle against sin before being regenerated by the Holy Spirit and had the power of free will to either refuse or accept regeneration. Calvinists disagree with this notion, reasoning from the Bible’s teaching that the natural man is “dead in trespasses and sins” that we can do nothing to be saved without the supernatural intervention of God (Ephesians 2:1–3). The main issue is man’s free will versus God’s sovereignty in salvation. Jacobus Arminius and his adherents would say man has the ability to make choices that advance him toward his eventual regeneration. Calvinists disagree on this and other points, saying that Arminianism amounts to a denial of the biblical doctrine of God’s election and places salvation ultimately in the hands of the individual rather than in the hands of God.
Jacob Arminius’s teaching was summarized in the Five Articles of Remonstrance, which caused a rift in the Dutch Reformed Church in the early seventeenth century and led to the formation of the Synod of Dort. The five points of Arminius are as follows: 1) Partial Depravity – humanity is sinful but, with the help of universal prevenient grace from God, still able to seek God. Human will is free, and all men have the power to respond to the influence of the Spirit. 2) Conditional Election – God only “chooses” those whom He knows will one day choose to believe. No one is predetermined for heaven or set on a path to inevitable salvation. 3) Unlimited Atonement – Jesus died for everyone, even those who are not “chosen” and who will not believe. 4) Resistible Grace – God’s call to be saved can be and often is rejected. 5) Conditional Salvation – Christians can actively reject the Holy Spirit’s leading in their lives and thus voluntarily give up their salvation. Salvation must be maintained to be retained. In unanimously rejecting the Five Articles of Remonstrance, the Synod of Dort drafted five counterpoints, today often called the five points of Calvinism or the doctrines of grace.
A good reference point is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus the Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night, ostensibly hiding from the other Pharisees, who did not approve of Jesus. Jesus tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3) and clarifies by saying, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (verse 5). According to Jesus, regeneration (the rebirth) must occur before a person can attain the kingdom. This seems to support the Calvinist argument: we must experience a new birth—and a birth is not something a child chooses. At the same time, however, Nicodemus (who as yet did not believe) chose to go to Jesus to be taught. This seems to support the Arminian argument: we can seek God before salvation. It is likely that certain aspects of both Calvinism and Arminianism are correct, from a certain point of view. Yes, regeneration must occur first. But we cannot always tell when that regeneration has begun. We tend to think it happens at one point in time because there is always a moment when we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9). But it is likely that regeneration (God’s first move) begins, for many people, long before that confession occurs.
Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin would likely be very surprised if they could see how their teachings have reverberated down through the ages. What is important to remember is that Scripture is always true, even when our frail human minds have trouble understanding how the assorted truths it presents fit together. The parts of Scripture that seem to support the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty are true; the parts that seem to support the Arminian view of man’s free will are true. And it is also true that we are to strive for unity with one another as believers: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:2–5).