The History of the Reformation Part I: Differing Views of Predestination, Beza and the Remonstrants, Arminius Defended
The cornerstone of some Reformed Theology, that is, what has been coined as “Calvinism” are doctrines that logically follow each other. These summarized points of Calvinism do not encompass all that is Calvinism or Reformed Theology but is a response to the Remonstrants who took Arminius responses and theology to an extended position. The two subjects you may think of are John Calvin of Geneva and Jacob Arminius of Amsterdam. These two were pinnacle theologians during their respective reformation periods. Despite common belief, Arminius was under the age of ten when Calvin died. Therefore, these two did not interact with each other but rather the former with the latter's theology. Calvin's predecessor Theodore Beza is the one who continued Calvin's ministry, in all its varied aspects, for over 40 years till his death in 1605, by which time Arminius himself was a professor at Leiden, where he was to die only four years later. Beza had sent a reference to the burgomasters of Amsterdam in 1585 warmly commending him [Arminius]. Reformed doctrine, as we might, by reference to Calvin alone, as 'Calvinism.' It was always the doctrine of Calvin and Beza; hardly ever simply the doctrine of Calvin. Only after Beza's death did men gradually realize that the great theological, administrative and educational gifts of Theodore Beza was hardly on a par with the creative genius of his instructor. The standard statement of Arminius's view of Calvin transpires in a private letter to the Amsterdam Burgomaster Sebastian Egbertszoon of May 3, 1607, of which the pertinent passage needs to be quoted in full. The occasion of writing was a malicious rumor that Arminius had been advising his students to read the works of the Jesuits and also of the Dutch liberal theologian Dirck Vo1ckertszoon Coornhert (1523-90), an opponent of Calvinism. As Bangs says, the two rumors should have canceled each other out; they were so far apart. Arminius replies: "So far from this, after the reading of Scripture, which I strenuously inculcate, and more than any other (as the whole university, indeed, the conscience of my colleagues will testify) I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be Arminius Understanding of Calvin read, whom I extol in higher terms than Helmichius himself, as he owned to me, ever did. For I affirm that in the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable and that his Commentaries are more too be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the writings of the Fathers - so much so that I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands indistinguished above others, above most, indeed, above all. His Institutes, so far all respects Commonplaces (loci communes), I give out to be read after the Catechism (i.e., of Heidelberg) as a more extended explanation. However, here I add - with discrimination, as the writings of all men ought to be read." By now Arminius was known, thanks to Junius's breach of confidentiality, as an opponent of Calvin's doctrine of predestination, but he made no frontal attack upon it. His next major work, the Exam nation of Perkins's Treatise (again not published till after Arminius's death) mentions Calvin little, though Perkins had referred to the truth in his introductory epistle as 'the Calvinists' doctrine, as they (opponents) call it.' Arminius confines himself to a defense of Calvin from the charge of Manichaeanism, and to comment on God's permission that 'the remarks of Calvin and Beza, let it be said with due respect to so eminent men, are hardly consistent with the truth.' But his known rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination may well have contributed to the opposition to his appointment as Professor at Leiden in 1603, particularly from Gomarm, whose deliberately provocative paper called "Theses on Predestination" (hyper Calvinist rather than simply Calvinist) were followed thus in his conclusion: "Does that blasphemy follow from this doctrine? that God is the author of sin? For so Castellio and his follower Coornhert and the Lutherans are accustomed to object to our churches especially to Calvin and Beza who has deserved very well of our church and of the truth of predestination against the Pelagians . . . that had brought these illustrious restorers of the churches into odium; they may wound the truth through their sides. and the more easily sow the tares of their own errors in the minds of men. We, how· ever, with the Reformed churches with justice deny that and do not in the least doubt that the truth and sanctity of this opinion will endure in spite of the gates of hell."
The quotation reveals much about the thought-processes of Arminius's Calvinist contemporaries. He did not make mention of Calvin very often in his writings unless he pulled from Calvin in the form of support, but rather he spent much of his time issuing attention to three views of predestination. To use words which came into use soon after the Synod of Dort:
the first view is supralapsarian, the second a modified supralapsarianism and the third is sublapsarian. Arminius makes no personal attributions, but we know from the Conference that he interpreted Calvin along 'supralapsarian' lines, a sense with which modern scholars, on the whole, concur, as far as any man can be labeled on a subject which has not become an issue in his time. Most of Arminius's blast this time is directed against a high Supralapsarianism which excluded that of Calvin's theology.
A difference between Calvin/Beza and Arminius was that in general, Arminius's standpoint has become less systematically logical and anthropocentric and more theological and Christocentrically logical. It has to be noted that Calvin rarely taught on Predestination and was not considered to be an expert in the area but rather one on Justification. Arminius, on the other hand, spent plenty of time defending and studying the issues of predestination. Fast forward, and The Remonstrance give a false impression of the position of Arminius himself, whose final objection to Calvin was that his doctrine of predestination was just not sufficiently Christocentric.
In the midst of this, we see Lutheran theologians arise and argue against both Calvin and some of Arminius' positions. In fact, Arminius defended Calvin at one point against the notion that Calvin held to an Arianist view of the Trinity because Calvin had said that 'many passages of scripture adduced by the ancient church . . . to establish a doctrine of the Trinity, do not conduce in the least to that purpose.' Later, in his letter to Hippolytus a Collibus, Arminius will quote Paraeus's defense of Calvin against the Lutheran Hunnius's Calvinus Judazzans.
Lutheran's have a book called "Bondage of the Will" in which most people agree that Luther disposes of the idea that humans have any sort of free will. Lutheran's differ of course as one book does not define a groupthink, and in this, we see alot of Lutheran's not fully adhere to the Missouri Synod but the majority to The Book of Concord. Now, Lutheran's adhere to neither double predestination nor the doctrine of limited atonement.
People hear the word “predestination” and think of the Calvinist doctrine of double-predestination—the idea that God has chosen some to be saved and chosen others to be damned. Calvin himself writes, “We assert that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined both whom he would admit to salvation and whom he would condemn to destruction” ( Institutes 3.21.7) but however does not adhere to a limited atonement as neo-Calvinist today do. Calvin rather held that Christ work on the cross was sufficient against all sins of every person (whether or not they would be elect).
Such a doctrine is offensive to Lutherans. And, indeed, consideration of such a doctrine was abhorrent also to Luther. In his Lectures on Genesis, given in the last decade of his life, Luther speaks at length on the subject of predestination once more (LW 5:43-50):
“I hear that here and there among the nobles and persons of importance vicious statements are being spread abroad concerning predestination or God’s foreknowledge. For this is what they say: ‘If I am predestined, I shall be saved, whether I do good or evil. If I am not predestined, I shall be condemned regardless of my works.’ . . . If the statements are true, as they, of course, think, then the incarnation of the Son of God, His suffering and resurrection, and all that He did for the salvation of the world are done away with completely. What will the prophets and all Holy Scripture help? What will the sacraments help?”
Luther defines for us here the problem which arises when Christians fixate on predestination—namely, that we begin to consider the subject apart from the actual salvific act of Christ at the cross. We move away from Scripture’s teachings and substitute our own reason and logic. This would be that those who go this far are going further than what Scripture actually offers us.
He says in the Lectures in Genesis:
“This is how I have taught in my book On the Bondage of the Will and elsewhere, namely, that a distinction must be made when one deals with the knowledge, or rather with the subject, of the divinity. For one must debate either about the hidden God or about the revealed God [i.e., God as we know Him through Christ, a God of mercy]. With regard to God, insofar as He has not been revealed, there is no faith, no knowledge, and no understanding. And here one must hold to the statement that what is above us is none of our concern. For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether hellish. With them, nothing more is achieved than that we plunge ourselves into destruction.”
Such attempts to, through our own reason and strength, peer into things God has not revealed in Scripture are sins, according to Luther. These things that Luther proposed are found later in the denomination of Lutherans as one puts it:
"Lutherans look to God as revealed in Christ; they do not speculate about unrevealed aspects of God’s will. Consequently, Lutherans affirm only that which they see affirmed in Scripture. Scripture tells us that Christ died for the whole world (John 3:16-17). So we believe it. Scripture also tells us that God desires all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). So we believe it. It further tells us that God has predestined those who will be saved (Ephesians 1:3-6). We believe this too. And yet, Scripture tells us that not all people will be saved (Matthew 25:41). This we also believe. We are willing to accept the seeming paradox, that an almighty God who predestines believers to be saved and who earnestly desires the salvation of all nevertheless will see some not saved."
Though I think I would disagree on their interpretation of Ephesians, I would say that most of the historical Lutherans do adhere to not only what Luther taught but attempt, at their best, to stay within the confines of what is revealed.
Let us return to Arminius, The Canons of Dordt and Calvin for a few moments. The purpose of the Synod held in Dordrecht (a.k.a. “Dordt”) in 1618-1619 was to settle some theological controversies that had arisen in the Dutch Reformed churches involving the spread of “Arminianism.” These objections were systematized and published after Arminius’ death in a document called “The Remonstrance of 1610.” Essentially, Arminius attempted to shift emphasis away from divine majesty as the starting premise of theology, and the doctrine of predestination along with it. Instead, Arminius emphasized free will: in his understanding of salvation, God alone determines who will be saved and who will be damned, and decrees that anyone who believes in Jesus will receive eternal life, but he also gives everyone the ability accept or rejects divine grace. Free will is limited by God’s sovereignty, but is not abolished by it; the two are therefore compatible.
Contrary to some Calvinists who insisted that God decreed election before the fall of Adam and Eve from grace (i.e., supralapsarian predestination) Arminius reimagined divine predestination as a process with several stages. Arminius held to a different Reformed doctrine called infralapsarian which is a Calvinist view that God's election of only some to everlasting life was not originally part of the divine plan, but a consequence of the Fall of Man. According to Frame and Poythress, "Most Reformed theologians have been infralapsarian; The reformed confessions generally express themselves in infralapsarian ways without condemning the other position." (i.e., The Westminster Confession)
It was in the midst of these theological nuances pouring out that we see two things happen: (1) Beza steps outside of what Calvin spoke on the election and enters into what is already neo-Calvinism and (2) the Remonstrants attempt to do the same with Arminius' teachings. One major issue with the Remonstrants and Dort is that Arminius was unable to address much of what was said because he died prior to these things happening.
For an example here we find Reformed Historian, Muller, pointing this out:
"..we encounter in Beza hardly a trace of Calvin’s teaching concerning Christ as the ground of assurance. There is a strong Christological center in all of Beza’s attempts at systematic formulation, and we sense everywhere the connection between Christ and the decree, but on the problem of assurance, which must always relate to causally to the decree, there is little Christological discussion. In a sense, then, Beza allows more of separation to occur between the munus Christi and the ordo salutis than does Calvin, to the end that the causal-empirical and pneumatological interests of the ordo predominate. . . . "[Richard Muller, Christ, and the Decree, 85]
Beza's "practical syllogism" is what lead him to alter different areas of election and salvation assured through election; in other words, empirically “proving” salvation was predominate within the soteriology of Beza. Furthermore, there is a juxtaposition within the trajectory set by Beza versus the trajectory set by Calvin in regards to the basis of finding assurance (Calvin believed that Christ alone was the sole base for finding assurance of salvation vs. Beza who “demanded” that good works are necessary if a person is to have assurance of salvation).
To further contrast these two, whom layman continue to mesh together, we see something drastically different.
"[Good works] make us more and more certain of our salvation, not as causes of it, but as testimonies and effects (effects) of the cause (cause), that is, our faith . . . . Since good works are for us sure testimonies of our faith, it follows that they also make us certain of our eternal election . . . . So then, when Satan puts us in doubt about our election, it is not necessary to first go and search for the decision of the eternal plan (counsel) of God; his majesty would dazzle us. But, on the contrary, it is necessary, to begin with the sanctification which one experiences in oneself, and to climb higher (monter plus haut). Since our sanctification, from which proceeds good works, is a sure effect (effet) of faith, or rather of Jesus Christ is necessarily called and elected by God to salvation, . . . it follows that sanctification with its fruits is the first step (le premeier degre) by which we begin to ascend (monter) all the way to the first and true cause (la premier . . . vraye cause) of our salvation, that is, our eternal and gratuitous election (4.19)."
— Theodore Beza quoted from his, “Confession de la Foy (1558),” in “Adaptations of Calvinism in Reformation Europe,” 64-5 ed. Matt P. Holt
Contrast Beza with Calvin:
Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. — John Calvin, Inst., 3.2.7.
This is a simple way of showing that even master and student (Beza would later become what Calvin was in terms of role and teaching) disagree and summarizing what we assume Calvin taught into Dort is a grand error in history. In another work, we've shown that Calvin did not hold to a form of limited atonement that Dort attempts to point out. In some 70 years later, Dort attempts to summarize Calvin into five responses to what we will see, was not even the theology of Arminius. Therefore, this moment in history sets up what will be one of the greatest theological wars in the church. We can speculate that Calvin would not have been fond of his massive institutes being boiled down to five points which would later become known as "the five points of Calvinism" which are often used as a standardized test to see if someone is "Calvinist" which fails inherently because we've shown that Calvin differs from them, himself. However, more on this and the Westminster Confession later.
Arminius and the Remonstrants, did they agree entirely to the point that Arminius would have been leading the stampede had he been alive. Most likely not, as we see in the apology works of Arminius, already, there are many speculations going around by him from random people who he never once taught, spoken to or even addressed. Most of the apologies begin with (and I paraphrase) "I never said this, I'm unaware of where you heard this." Jacobus Arminius was a renowned and respected teacher of Gods word who held to a large, vast, majority of Calvin and reformed doctrines. In fact, Beza is who recruited Arminius to begin with.
It's rare that in these debates we address something that is vital to the reformation and understanding the differences of the reformation and the possible shortcomings of summarized confessions. Luther, the man who arguably took what was a spark and made it a massive fire in the reformation, heavily disagreed with Calvin on soteriology and supralapsarianism. Luther also abhorred the notion from Zwingli, a great reformer in his own right, that the Lord Supper was figurative and non-literal as Luther still held to the Roman Catholic view.
Luther, in his native tongue of harshness, famously said:
"I've bitten into many a nut, believing it to be good, only to find it wormy. Zwingli and Erasmus are nothing but wormy nuts that taste like crap in one’s mouth!" At another point he said, "I wish from my heart Zwingli could be saved, but I fear the contrary; for Christ has said that those who deny him shall be damned." Shortly after Zwingli's death in battle, he said, "Zwingli drew his sword. Therefore he has received the reward that Christ spoke of, 'All who take the sword will perish by the sword'. If God has saved him, he has done so above and beyond the rule."
He also remarked the following statements on Zwingli:
"I will not read the works of these people, because they are out of the Church, and are not only damned themselves, but draw many miserable creatures after them." (113;v.1:466)
"It would be better to announce eternal damnation than salvation after the style of Zwingli or Oecolampadius." (46:85)
I do not show this to diminish Luther, whom I hold to be a great theologian and reformer, but rather to show that these great reformers often disagreed in heated battles that we can look at and learn from. In fact, In the quotation in Luther’s Works [37:17], Luther admits that things are in a big a mess as a result of the Reformers all going in different directions, saying that “If the world lasts much longer, men will, as the ancients did, once more turn to human schemes on account of this dissension, and again issue laws and regulations to keep the people in the unity of the faith. Their success will be the same as it was in the past.”
Luther even bouts with Calvin here and there:
It is recorded that Luther later said that Calvin was “educated, but strongly suspected of the error of the Sacramentarians.” (Hans Graß, Die Abendmahlslehre bei Luther und Calvin: Eine Kritische Untersuchung (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1954), 193-194. Grass discusses in these pages multiple recorded mentions of Calvin by Luther).
This all to show that varying degrees of theology, theologians, opinions and even confessions have been derived from the Reformation, all of which are reformed in nature. The mass hysteria of Arminius and Calvin has been a mistake in our history as we should note that today, in our somewhat neo-reformed idea of history, we make unsubstantial claims stating things like: "Capital R reformed is truly reformed." These statements not only derail history but they serve to separate the purpose of the Reformation which was to return to scripture and veer away from what was now Roman Catholic traditions.
Returning to Arminius, the Remonstrants and whether their theology was Reformed in nature we can gander at what actually occurred for Arminius in his time. He concurs against the question, "Do you adhere to the justification doctrine of our confession?"
"Whatever interpretation may be put upon these expressions, none of our Divines blames Calvin or considers him to be heterodox on this point; yet my opinion is not so widely different from his as to prevent me from employing the signature of my own hand in subscribing to those things which he has delivered on this subject, in the third book of his Institutes; this I am prepared to do at any time, and to give them my full approval. Most noble and potent Lords, these are the principal articles, respecting which I have judged it necessary to declare my opinion before this august meeting, in obedience to your commands."
He goes on to mention Calvin nearly 60 times in agreement to defend against rumors and false accusations that have been brought against him. The next event, the Remonstrants, was an unfortunate happenstance in which a group of mild-theologians gathered, after the death of Arminius, his unfinished thesis and attempted to complete a systematic from them. Arminius, surely, never intended for this to happen nor did he attempt to summarize or even systematize his theology.
That is not to say that Arminius somehow wholeheartedly agreed with Calvin on every aspect or every point, for we know that Arminius denied a form of Calvinist thought known as [Supralapsarians] but this should not alarm us because we've established that many confessions and reformed theologians also objected to this, including Luther. Arminius rather exposed and objected to the before mentioned [Supralapsarians] and to parts of Beza's "practical syllogism." He simply did not want to equate "predestination doctrine" with "the doctrine of the Gospel" in so much as making them inseparable.
Therefore, the conclusion by many that Arminius is not reformed is an error. That would be to dismiss Knox, Zwingli, Luther and others from the reformation theology that we so cherish. This mistake is in part due to the fact that many people believe that the Synod's of Dort were, in fact, an Ecumenical council that declared Arminius, himself, heretic or heresy. Nein, rather they declared an objection to Remonstrant theology which greatly theorized incomplete works of Arminius, who was left to no defense.
The conclusions that can be drawn here are many but should be at least a few that resonate with every reader of the Reformation history. The first being that if you attempt to assert claims by Calvin or adhere to a theology known as "Calvinism" you might want to read Calvin's Institutes not only in full but also his commentaries which act as a foothold for much of the Institutes. Second, you will be better off attempting to understand varying views by the various Reformation Theologians like Luther, Zwingli, Arminius, and others - this allows you to better understand Historical Christianity and your very own views of certain theological doctrines. Lastly, in an attempt to understand history we must rid ourselves of our preconceived ideas and neo-reformed perspectives - this allows us to better understand why certain works were written, reading the author in their own words and on their own terms.
Citations and References
The Writings of Arminius, translated by James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1956, vol. 2, 462£.
Arminius, James (Jacobus). The Complete Works of James Arminius . Public Domain. Kindle Edition.