Question: What is Arminianism? I’ve heard the term mentioned, but I don’t really know what it means.
First, let’s get the spelling issue out of the way. Armenians are people from the country of Armenia. Arminians are people who share the beliefs of a Dutch theologian named Jacobus Arminius who taught at the University of Leiden from 1603-1609.
In grad school, I had a fabulous Church History professor, Dr. Edward Panosian, who was an Armenian. He was humorously concerned to let us know that being Armenian didn’t make him an Arminian!
Jacobus Arminius (his real name was Jakob Hermanszoon) was a Dutch Reformed Protestant Christian who lived from 1560-1609. He studied theology in Geneva, Switzerland under Theodore Beza, one of the greatest Calvinist scholars of the post-Reformation period. All of his life, Arminius believed himself to be an uncompromising supporter of the Reformed Protestant faith. He had the highest regard for John Calvin’s commentaries, and recommended them as the finest commentaries on Scripture since the early church fathers. Arminius also had a high regard for John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Theology, one of the most widely read systematic theologies of his time.
As he studied Scripture, however, Arminius became convinced that God had not predestined some men to be saved and some to be damned. Calvin taught that God had by an eternal decree, “determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man … some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation” (Institutes 3.21.5). Arminius argued that God foreknew who would respond to his grace and who would not. On the basis of God’s foreknowledge, He then predestined those he foreknew who believe to be saved.
Along with a good many other theologians of his time, Arminius also disagreed with Calvin on the details of the doctrines of original sin, human inability, the extent of the atonement, and perseverance of the saints. After Arminius died, those who agreed with him worked out their beliefs in a document titled Five Articles of Remonstrance.
At their core these articles taught the following five things:
- The divine decree of predestination is not absolute, but conditioned upon God’s foreknowledge of faith.
- God intended to provide an atonement that was available and sufficient for all men, not just for the elect.
- Man cannot exercise a saving faith on his own, but must have God’s grace to enable him to do any truly good thing.
- Though the grace of God is a necessary condition of human effort, it does not act irresistibly in man.
- Believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace.
Arminius and his followers were not the first to read Scripture this way. Most of the early church fathers affirmed these doctrines. However, these doctrines came to be associated with Arminius’ name because of the controversy that arose because of his teaching of them.
100 years or so later, John and Charles Wesley both became convinced that Scripture teaches these doctrines. Thus all Methodist descendants of the Wesleys are Arminian. (Methodist descendants of George Whitefield are Calvinist). Wesley’s key theological contribution was his doctrine of entire sanctification or Christian perfection. Because Arminius did not clearly teach that believers may be entirely sanctified in this life, Wesleyan-Arminians are regarded as a distinct subgroup of Arminians.
Non-Wesleyan Arminianism is sometimes called Classical Arminianism or Reformed Arminianism. Arminian denominations that are non-Wesleyan include the Free Will Baptists, Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, General Baptists, some Anglicans, some Evangelical Free Churches, most Pentecostals, and others.
Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.