Ever since Augustine of Hippo's battle with the Pelagians in the fifth century, there has been dispute, particularly in the western Church, about theological cornerstones of soteriology — including depravity, predestination, and atonement. The Calvinist-Arminian debate is most well-known as a dispute between Dutch Protestants in the early seventeenth century and a current disagreement amongst Protestants, particularly evangelicals.
Pelagius was a British monk who journeyed to Rome around 400 AD and was appalled at the lax behavior within churches. To combat this lack of holiness, he preached a Gospel that began with "justification through faith alone" (it was actually Pelagius, not Luther, who first added the word alone to Paul's phrase) but finished through human effort and morality. He had read Augustine's Confessions and believed it to be a fatalistic and pessimistic view of human nature. Pelagius' followers, including Caelestius, went farther than their teacher and removed justification through faith, setting up the morality- and works-based salvation now known as Pelagianism. It should be mentioned that the only historical evidence of the teachings of Pelagius or his followers is found through the writings of his two strongest opponents — Augustine and Jerome.
In response to Pelagius, Augustine adopted a theological system that included not only original sin (which Pelagius denied), but also predestination, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Critics maintain that part of Augustine's philosophy might have stemmed from his expertise in Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism and Manichaeism, which maintained a very high view of a man's spirit and very low view of a man's body. Against the Pelagian notion that man can do everything right, he taught the notion that man can do nothing right. Thus, he reasoned, man cannot even accept the offer of salvation — it must be God who chooses for himself individuals to bring to salvation.
A group of Italian bishops, led by Julian, defended the Pelagian view against the Augustinian concept of predestination but were rejected by Pope Innocent I at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Later a monastic movement in Southern Gaul (modern-day France) also sought to explain predestination in light of God's foreknowledge, but a flurry of writings from Augustine (Grace and Free Will, Correction and Grace, The Predestination of the Saints and The Gift of Perseverance) helped maintain the papal authority of his doctrines.
Augustine’s teaching on grace was considered the touchstone of orthodoxy within the western church throughout the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, within an Augustinian context, theologians continued to debate the precise nature of God and man’s participation in salvation, as well as attempting to work out a place for the church’s emerging system of sacraments in the overall scheme of salvation.
Aquinas believed that by this system, he had reconciled Ephesians 2:8 ("By grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God") and James 2:20 ("faith without works is dead") and 2:24 ("by works a man is justified and not by faith only"), and had provided an exposition of the Bible's teaching on salvation compatible with Augustine's teachings.
A second stream of medieval thought, commonly referred to as the Ockhamists after William of Ockham and also including Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel rejected Aquinas’ system as destroying man’s free will. The Ockhamists argued that if a man loved God simply because of "infused grace", then man did not love God freely. They argued that before a man received an infusion of grace, man must do his best in a state of nature (i.e. based on man’s reason and inborn moral sense). They argued that just as God awards eternal life on the basis of man’s condign merit for doing his best to do good works after receiving faith as a gift from God, so too, the original infusion of grace was given to man on the basis of "congruent merit", a reward for man’s doing his best in a state of nature. (Unlike condign merit, which is fully deserved by man, congruent merit is not fully deserved, and includes a measure of grace on God's part. Congruent merit is therefore also sometimes called "semimerit". According to the Ockhamists, a gracious God awards an individual with congruent merit when he or she does the best that he or she is able to do.)
Aquinas’ followers, commonly referred to as the Thomists, accused the Ockhamists of Pelagianism for basing the infusion of grace on man’s works. The Ockhamists defended themselves from charges of Pelagianism by arguing that, in the Ockhamist system, God was not bound to award the infusion of grace on the basis of congruent merit; rather, God’s decision to award the infusion of grace on the basis of congruent merit was an entirely gracious act on God’s part.
Martin Luther’s condemnation of "justification by works" clearly condemned Ockhamism. Some proponents of ecumenism argue that the Thomist view of salvation is not opposed to Luther’s view of grace, and, since Ockhamism was rejected as Semipelagian by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent, theology of salvation need not pose a bar to Protestant-Catholic reunion. (The major streams of modern Catholic thought on the theology of salvation are Thomism and Molinism, a theology developed by Jesuit theologian Luis Molina in the 16th century and also held today by some Protestants such as William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga.)
However, since the Catholic Church’s rejection of Jansenism in the bull Unigenitus (1713), it has been clear that Calvinism could not be accommodated within Catholicism. Arminianism, on the other hand, while it might not square entirely with Catholic theologies of salvation, probably could be accommodated within the Catholic Church, a fact which Arminianism’s Protestant opponents have often pointed out. (Augustus Toplady, for example, famously claimed that Arminianism was the "Road to Rome.")
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk in Erfurt. In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517, Luther entered into the medieval debate between the Thomists and the Ockhamists by roundly assailing the Ockhamist position and arguing that man by nature lacks the ability to do good that the Ockhamists asserted he had (and thus denying that man could do anything to deserve congruent merit). Modern scholars disagree about whether Luther in fact intended to criticize all scholastics in this Disputation or if he was concerned only with the Ockhamists. Arguing in favor of a broader interpretation is the fact that Luther went on to criticize the use of Aristotle in theology (Aristotle was the basis of Thomist as well as Ockhamist theology). If this is the case, it is likely that Luther saw Aquinas' fides caritate formata as merely a more cautious form of Pelagianism (or as Semipelagianism).
Luther continued to defend these views. In 1520, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull Exsurge Domine, which condemned a position which Luther had maintained at the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, namely that "After the Fall free will is something in name only and when it does what is in it, it sins mortally." Luther subsequently defended the proposition in his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles Unjustly Condemned by the Roman Bull of Leo X (1520), in the process stating that "free will is really a fiction...with no reality, because it is in no man's power to plan any evil or good. As the article of Wycliffe, condemned at Constance, correctly teaches: everything takes place by absolute necessity."
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, though first sympathetic to Luther, reacted negatively to what he saw as Luther's determinism. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (A Disquisition on Freedom of the Will) (1524), Erasmus caricatures the limitations of free will that he saw Luther espousing. Though at times in the Diatribe, Erasmus sounded like an Ockhamist, for the most part he attempted to espouse a middle course between grace and free will, attempting to avoid on the one hand the errors of the Pelagians and the Ockhamists, and on the other hand, the "Manichaean" error of Luther and other strict Augustinians.
Luther responded with his De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) (1525) in which he attacked Erasmus vehemently and argued that man was not free to do good. Rather, man's fallen nature is in bondage to sin and to Satan and man can only do evil. The only way an individual can be saved is if God freely chooses to give that person the gift of faith. Luther's position in On the Bondage of the Will became the position adopted by the Protestant movement.
John Calvin did much to redefine and clarify the theological system that began with Augustine; indeed, his work has been repeatedly called "Systematic Augustinianism".
Some scholars of Calvin, such as R. T. Kendall, allege that Calvin disagreed with his predecessors on two points. Firstly, they claim that Calvin believed that Christ died to atone for the sins of the whole world, meaning every individual person in the world, not just the elect. They base this belief on statements which Calvin made in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, in his commentaries on the Bible and in various other works. For instance, in the treatise On The Eternal Predestination of God, Calvin wrote: "It is also a fact, without controversy, that Christ came to atone for the sins 'of the whole world.'" (p. 165). Many Calvinists dispute this understanding of Calvin, maintaining that Calvin must be allowed to define his terms in his own context, and concluding that he actually maintained the doctrine of limited atonement rather than denying it. For example, these Calvinists cite the context of the same passage, which reads as follows:
|“||Georgius imagines himself to argue very cleverly when he says, "Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Therefore, those who would exclude the reprobate from a participation in the benefits of Christ, must, of necessity, place them somewhere out of the world." … This great absurdity, by which our monk has procured for himself so much applause amongst his own fraternity, has no weight whatever with me. John does indeed extend the benefits of the atonement of Christ, which was completed by His death, to all the elect of God throughout what climes of the world soever they may be scattered. But though the case be so, it by no means alters the fact that the reprobate are mingled with the elect in the world. It is also a fact, without controversy, that Christ came to atone for the sins "of the whole world." But the solution of all difficulty is immediately at hand, in the truth and fact, that it is "whosoever believeth in Him" that "shall not perish, but shall have eternal life." For our present question is, not what the power or virtue of Christ is, nor what efficacy it has in itself, but who those are to whom He gives Himself to be enjoyed. Now if the possession of Christ stands in faith, and if faith flows from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that he alone is numbered of God among His children who is designed of God to be a partaker of Christ. … From all which we conclude that although reconciliation is offered unto all men through Him, yet, that the great benefit belongs peculiarly to the elect, that they might be "gathered together" and be made "together" partakers of eternal life.||”|
(ibid., pp. 165–66).
Secondly, the claim is made that Calvin was ambiguous about the possibility of losing salvation, sometimes writing in such a way that he seemed to affirm that believers can fully depart from the faith and be lost. Many Calvinists believe that Calvin made a distinction between those who appear to have true faith then fall away, and those who have true faith and hence can never fall away. Hence, they believe that where Calvin seems to be ambiguous about losing salvation, he is actually addressing those who lack genuine faith, not true believers.
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Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch pastor born in 1559, only five years before the death of John Calvin. At the age of 17, Arminius enrolled at Leiden University and after five years of education — still too young for a pastorate — Arminius traveled to study at Calvin's academy in Geneva. Theodore Beza, Calvin's hand-picked successor, was the chairman of theology at the university, and admiration flowed both directions in his friendship with Arminius. Beza later defended Arminius by saying "let it be known to you that from the time Arminius returned to us from Basel, his life and learning both have so approved themselves to us, that we hope the best of him in every respect…"  In late 1587, at the age of 28, Arminius returned to Amsterdam to fulfil his desire to be a pastor.
Arminius' entry into the predestination debate that was raging in Amsterdam happened only two short years after his return when he was asked by city officials to refute a modified form of Beza's high Calvinism. According to historic tradition, Arminius' study of the Scriptures led him to the conclusion that the Bible did not support Calvinism. Other scholars believe that Arminius never accepted Beza's views, even while a student at Geneva. Regardless, Arminius avoided adding to the controversy and, apart from two incidents regarding sermons on Romans 7 and Romans 9, he lived in peace for a little more than a decade.
When Arminius received his doctorate and professorship of theology at Leiden in 1603, the debate over Calvinism roared back to life. Arminius rose to the forefront of the debate, teaching and defending that Calvinist predestination and unconditional election made God the author of evil. Instead, Arminius insisted, God's election was an election of believers and therefore was conditioned on faith. Furthermore, Arminius argued, God's exhaustive foreknowledge did not require a doctrine of determinism.
Arminius and his followers believed that a national synod should confer to win tolerance for their views. His opponents, fearing any changes to the confessions of the Dutch Reformed Church (whose creeds were Calvinist), maintained the authority of local synods and denied the necessity of a national convention. When the Dutch State General finally called together both parties, Arminius' opponents (led by fellow professor Franciscus Gomarus) accused him of not only of the teaching doctrines which currently characterize Arminianism (see below) but also of errors on the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, original sin, and works salvation — all charges which Arminius not only denied, but cited agreement with both Calvinism and Scripture.
While Arminius was acquitted of any doctrinal error, the process left him terribly weak. Still seeking to win legal tolerance for his views, he accepted an invitation of the State General to a "friendly conference" with Gomarus but his health caused the conference to end prematurely. Two months later, on October 19, 1609, Jacobus Arminius died.
Quinquarticular Controversy refers to the theological Calvinist-Arminian controversy that was addressed by Dutch Reformed churches at the Synod of Dort in 1618–1619. Quinquarticular (which means, "having to do with five points") refers to points of contention raised by the Arminian party in its publication of five articles of Remonstrance in 1610 and rejected by the Synod in the Canons of Dort, the essence of which is commonly referred to as the Five Points of Calvinism.
The Controversy marked the transformation of what was a reasonably loose Arminian movement into a separate, initially persecuted church organization in the Netherlands, and set the stage for the continuation of the predestination-free will controversy to this day in Protestant ranks.
The controversy is seen quite differently by the diverse groups involved in or affected by it: for Arminians it was the start of full persecution after the imposition of an edict with no real debate, for Calvinists it was the settling in clear points of doctrine that were started by John Calvin himself, clarified by his successor Theodore Beza but not yet fully codified, and for Lutherans the ending of any possibility of unification with the Calvinists.
After the death of Arminius, his followers penned a petition to the State General, called a "Remonstrance", which highlighted five aspects of their theology: (1) election was conditional on faith; (2) Christ's atonement was unlimited in extent; (3) total depravity; (4) prevenient and resistible grace; and (5) the possibility of apostasy. Leading influences among Arminius' followers (now called Remonstrants) were Arminius' close friend and Roman Catholic-turned-Reformed pastor Jan Uytenbogaert, lawyer Hugo Grotius, and a scholar named Simon Epicopius.
Behind the theological debate lay a political one between Prince Maurice, a strong military leader, and his former mentor Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, Grand Pensionary of Holland and personification of civil power. Maurice, who had Calvinist leanings, desired war with Holland's enemy, Roman Catholic Spain. Oldenbarnevelt, along with Arminius and his followers, desired peace. In the years after Arminius' death, Maurice became convinced that Oldenbarnevelt (and by association, Arminians) had strong Catholic sympathies and were working to deliver Holland to Spain. As insurance, Maurice and his militia systematically and forcibly replaced Remonstrant magistrates with Calvinist ones.  Thus, when the State General called for a synod in 1618, its outcome was predetermined. Oldenbarnevelt and Grotius were arrested, and the synod, held at Dordrecht, convened.
This Synod of Dort included Calvinist representatives from Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, and France, though Arminians were denied acceptance. Three Arminian delegates from Utrecht managed to gain seats, but were soon forcibly ejected and replaced with Calvinist alternates. The synod ultimately ruled that Arminius' teachings were heretical, reaffirming the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism as its orthodox statements of doctrine. One of the results of the synod was the formation of the Five points of Calvinism in direct response to the five articles of Remonstrance.
Robert Picirilli summarized the aftermath of the Synod of Dort as follows:
|“||"Punishment for the Remonstrants, now officially condemned as heretics and therefore under severe judgement of both church and state, was severe. All Arminian pastors — some 200 of them — were deprived of office; any who would not agree to be silent were banished from the country. Spies were paid to hunt down those suspected of returning to their homeland. Some were imprisoned, among them Grotius; but he escaped and fled the country. Five days after the synod was over, Oldenbarnevelt was beheaded.||”|
After Maurice died, the Remonstrants were accorded toleration by the state and granted the freedom to follow their religion in peace, to build churches and schools. The Remonstrant Theological Seminary was instituted in Amsterdam and Simon Episcopius and Hugo Grotius were among its first professors. Today both the seminary and the church have shifted dramatically from their founders' theology.
Early Stuart society was highly religious. Though King James I managed to remove religious conflict for most of the 1610s, most Protestants still maintained a fear of Catholicism. Though Arminians were Protestant, they were perceived as being less antagonistic to Catholicism than the Calvinists were. James I initially supported moves to keep them out of England, Scotland and Ireland, and supported the official position of the Synod of Dort. However, his later life saw a change in his policy towards them.
In 1618, the Thirty Years' War began. It was a highly religious war, and many of James' Puritan subjects (particularly in Parliament) wanted England to go to war on the side of the king's son-in-law, Frederick V, Elector Palatine. James, however, preferred diplomacy and did not want to send English and Scottish forces to war. The loudest of the supporters for war were the Puritans, who were declared enemies of the Arminians due to their differing beliefs regarding predestination. Some scholars believe that the Arminians' support for the king's efforts to prevent war led to him promoting a number of them in order to balance out the Puritans. Others argue that these promotions were simply the result of meritocratic considerations: 'James promoted Arminians because they were scholarly, diligent and able men in their diocese.' In any case, the growing influence of the Arminians proved important to keeping peace, but in 1625, James I died, leaving the throne to his son, Charles I.
Charles I fully supported the Arminians, and continued the trend of promoting them. However, while James was careful never to give any one group too much favor over another, Charles tended to promote only Arminians. The changes which Charles imposed on his subjects brought him into direct conflict with the Scottish Presbyterian Calvinists of the Church of Scotland, who already viewed Arminianism as a major problem. The resulting Bishops' Wars were a trigger for the English Civil War, both of them part of the larger Wars of the Three Kingdoms which had complex roots, among which religious beliefs were a major factor.
The so-called "four-point Calvinists" claim that the doctrine of limited atonement is non-scriptural and claim that the doctrine was never endorsed by Calvin or the Synod of Dort.
The four-point Calvinists, like five-point Calvinists, accept a distinction initially made by Peter Lombard and subsequently adopted by Thomas Aquinas that the atonement was sufficient for the whole world but efficient only to the elect. Put another way, Christ's death atones for the whole world (it is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world), but the benefits of Christ's death are applied only to the elect (it is efficient only to atone for the sins of the elect).
The four-point Calvinists argue that Calvin adopted this position when he wrote that "It is also a fact, without controversy, that Christ came to atone for the sins 'of the whole world.'" They also believe that the four-point position was endorsed by the Synod of Dort under Article 3 of the Second Main Point of Doctrine where the synod proclaimed that "This death of God's Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world."
The debate between Calvin's followers and Arminius' followers is distinctive of post-Reformation church history. The heated discussions between friends and fellow Methodist ministers John Wesley and George Whitefield were characteristic of many similar debates. Wesley was a champion of Arminius' teachings, defending his soteriology in a periodical titled The Arminian and writing articles such as Predestination Calmly Considered. He defended Arminius against charges of semi-Pelaganism,
holding strongly to beliefs in original sin and total depravity. At the same time, Wesley attacked the determinism that he claimed characterized unconditional election and maintained a belief in the ability to lose salvation. Whitefield debated Wesley on every point (except for their agreement on total depravity) but did not introduce any additional elements into the Calvinists' conclusions set forth at Westminster.
To this day, Methodism and its offshoots (Pentecostals, the Holiness denominations, Charismatics and Third Wave Charismatics) along with General Baptists usually subscribe to Arminianism, while Presbyterians, Reformed Churches, Particular Baptists, and others subscribe to Calvinism. Largely because of its origins in Germany and Scandinavia rather than the British Isles, Lutheranism was uninvolved in the dispute, and official Lutheran doctrine (as well as, coincidentally enough, Primitive Baptist belief) does not fully support either group, preferring instead its own peculiar doctrinal formulations about the relation of human freedom to divine sovereignty. Post-reformation Roman Catholicism, and even more so Eastern Orthodoxy, have remained outside the debate.