A Rejection of Calvinism: Council of Orange and Church of England

At the Second Council of Orange (529 CE), not only were the errors of semi-Pelagianism refuted, and rightly so, but so were some of the errors of St Augustine, father of both Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. Thus what is referred to below regarding St Augustine can also be inferred regarding Calvinism, historically and presently. Edward Harold Browne, who would not consider himself an Arminian, strictly taken, in his An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, writes (all emphases added):
In the year 529 was held the second Council of Orange, at which Cæsarius of Arles presided. Its canons and decrees bear the signatures of fourteen bishops, and were approved by Boniface II., Bishop of Rome. They are chiefly directed against the errors of the Semi-Pelagians. But to the twenty-five canons on this subject there are appended three declarations of doctrine.

  1. That by the grace of baptism all baptized persons can, if they will, be saved.
  2. That if any hold that God has predestinated any to damnation [e.g., supralapsarian Calvinism], they are to be anathematized.
  3. That God begins in us all good by His grace, thereby leading men to faith and baptism, and that, after baptism, by the aid of His grace, we can do His will.
These propositions of the Council of Orange, coming immediately after canons against Semi-Pelagianism and exaggerated notions of free will, express as nearly as possible a belief in Ecclesiastical Election (i.e., [corporate] election to the church and to baptismal privileges), but reject the peculiar doctrines of St. Augustine.1
History itself verifies that Augustine's soteriological views were quite unorthodox and novel -- views adopted by some of the early reformers, as well as Luther and Calvin, whose theology is grounded upon that of Augustine, to the degree that Calvin considered himself an apt and faithful interpreter of this fifth-century church saint whose theology (and not ecclesiology) he expounded and reflected.

Some in recent history have suggested that Luther came to reject some strict Augustinian-Calvinistic forms of his earlier theology. As to Luther's later alleged rejection of Calvinistic ideology, Browne attests:
We saw, under Article X., how strongly Luther, in his earlier writings, spoke of the slavery of the human will [to which Arminius and the Remonstrants concur], and the necessity under which it was constrained. In the first edition of the Loci Theologici [Luther's successor Philipp Melanchthon's systematic theological treatise], Melancthon held language of the same kind.

But in the second edition these expressions were all withdrawn; and, as we saw in the last Article, Luther, later in life, condemned what are called Calvinistic views of election. Archbishop Laurence has shown, by abundant and incontrovertible evidence, that after the diet of Augsburg, A.D. 1530, when the famous Lutheran Confession was presented to the Emperor, Luther and Melanchthon entirely abandoned the high views of absolute predestination [unconditional election] which they had at first adopted [emphases added].

Luther continually exhorted his followers to abstain from all such speculations, and to believe that because they were baptized Christians, they were God's elect, and to rest in the general promises of God. Luther expressly approved of the later edition of Melanchthon's Loci Theologici, put forth A.D. 1535, in which his former views of predestination were retracted. [emphasis added]

He himself speaks of the predestinarian controversies set on foot in his own time as the work of the devil. [emphasis added] Melanchthon too, in the strongest terms, condemned what he called the Stoic and Manichean rage, and urged all people to fly from such monstrous opinions. [emphases added]

The doctrine both of Luther and Melancthon, after their first change of opinion, appears to have been very nearly that which, we have reason to conclude, was the doctrine of the earliest fathers [the same is admitted with regard to Arminius and his theology].2
By the standards of most Calvinists, then, Luther himself, and most certainly Melanchthon, could not be considered "Reformed" because of an alleged rejection of certain Calvinistic doctrines. But these notions of Luther's alleged change of opinion are fiercely argued against and hotly debated. The seeming majority of Luther scholars have yet to find retractions of Luther renouncing unconditional election or Augustinian-Calvinistic predestination. We are better regarded to view Brown's assertions with suspicion. While we can quite definitively insist that Melanchthon rejected Calvinism, generally, we should be very cautious in assuming that Luther did, as well.

Why this is important for us regards the use of appropriately measuring the influence of Calvinism throughout Europe, Holland, and England, especially with regard to Article XVII of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in the Church of England. Should anyone assume that the Anglican confession is uncontestedly Calvinistic, one should rethink that position. Arminius' influence -- to say nothing of the influence of Grotius -- in England cannot be underestimated.

Though places in Holland were antagonistic toward Arminians, Amsterdam among them, religious toleration flourished in other parts eastward: "the Reformed [i.e., Calvinistic] Church exercised far greater political pressure and achieved a more repressive hegemony [predominant influence] vis-à-vis minority religious communities."3 But Calvinism's influence in England has been somewhat exaggerated, especially with regard to Church of England dogma, the theology of many English reformers, and with respect to the now-titled Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. The disputed Article XVII, in part, reads as follows:
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God, be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity. 
Candidly, those who assume that the above statement is purely Calvinistic have never read Arminius, the Remonstrants, or classical Arminian theology. Is the confession above overtly Calvinistic? Again, Browne writes:
The doctrine of our own [English] Reformers on this deep question [of election or predestination], and the meaning of the XVIIth Article, have been much debated. The Calvinistic divines of our own communion have unhesitatingly claimed the Article as their own; although the earnest desire which they showed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, to introduce the far more express language of the Lambeth Articles, shows that they were not fully satisfied with the wording of it. ... On the other hand, the Arminians assert that the seventeenth Article exactly expresses their own views. ...

Now the Article says nothing concerning the moving cause of predestination; and therefore speaks as much the language of Arminius as of Calvin. The latter clauses of the Article appear specially designed to guard against the dangers of the Calvinistic theory, and therefore the former cannot have been intended to propound it [emphases added].

Moreover the sentiments concerning election most prevalent in the Church before the Reformation were that God predestinated to life and death, not according to His absolute will, but according as He foresaw future faith or unbelief; and there being no ground for supposing that the English reformers had been mixed up with any of the predestinarian controversies of Calvin and the Swiss reformers, there is ever ground, it is said, for supposing that the Article ought to be taken in the Arminian, not in the Calvinistic sense [emphases added]."4
If one wonders today how Arminians like John and Charles Wesley could have rightly referred to themselves as "Church of England men unto their death," one can only perpetuate an opinion to the contrary by mistakenly assuming the influence of Calvinistic overtones within Anglican theology. As a matter of fact, the more appropriate question would be, How could a man like Calvinist George Whitefield call himself a faithful Anglican when the doctrine of his own church maintained a faithful strand of Arminianism, or even that of Lutheranism? Browne assumes as much when he writes (emphases added):
The language of Cranmer and Ridley, and of our own Liturgy, Articles and Homilies, is remarkably unlike Calvin's concerning effectual calling and final perseverance. It is also clear, that the English Reformers held, and expressed in our formularies, with great clearness and certainty, the universality of redemption through Christ. So that, in three out of five points of Calvinism, Particular Redemption [Limited Atonement], Effectual Calling [Irresistible Grace], and Final Perseverance, the English reformers were at variance with Calvin.5
Browne, then, concludes that "Calvin's system had not produced much influence, at the time the XVIIth Article was drawn up," confessing that history demonstrates the Articles were constructed from Lutheran models, agreeing remarkably with the language of Melancthon and the Confession of Augsburg"; stating, moreover, that Archbishop Laurence evinced that "the greatest intimacy and confidence existed between Cranmer and Melancthon."6 Is there a theological connection between Arminius and Melanchthon, thus connecting the sentiments of Arminius in some sense also to the Church of England?

First, we know from history that Arminius matriculated in 1575 at the University of Marburg, which was, in Melanchthon's own time, under his guidance. Second, we understand that Arminius "appealed to Lutheran predecessors who taught a similar doctrine of predestination, especially Philip Melanchthon ... whose works appear in his personal library."7 Third, we know of the close ties between Arminian-Remonstrant Hugo Grotius -- who maintained a close friendship with Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud -- and the Church of England, which he would have but was hindered from joining.

Finally, Arminius's doctrinal influence on the Church of England is also verified by the Rev. Tobias Conyers (1628-1687), who writes: "It is well known, my Lord, what countenance the scriptures carry with [Arminius'] doctrine of General Atonement, and how much it looks like the doctrine of the Church of England (so we call it), and that the major part of the Bishops and Doctors [theologians], during the Episcopal Hierarchy, were deeply baptized thereinto, and the late king [Charles the First] himself. ..."8

The author of the footnote here informs the reader that this is "a very important testimony in favour of the genuine Arminian complexion of the doctrine of the Church of England."9 Hence the theology of the Church of England was predominantly both Arminian and Lutheran, in nature, with barely any semblance of overtones of Calvinistic doctrine at all.


1 Edward Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010), 416.

2 Ibid., 417-18. Dr. Kenneth Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, comments, "What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy." See Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

3 Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, "introduction," in Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age, eds. R. Po-chia Hsia and H.F.K. van Nierop (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 6.

4 Ibid., 420-21.

5 Ibid., 421.

6 Ibid.

7 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 44. See also Keith D. Stanglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609 (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2007), 84.

8 The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, "Testimonies from Various Authors," trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:xli.

9 Ibid.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.