Arminius and the Doctrine of Election

By far the most disputed topic engaged by Arminius -- the primary issue that led to tensions with the controversial professor at Leiden -- was that of election or predestination. He did not deny the doctrine at all, but he did not understand its particularities as did the Dutch Calvinists of his time, and as did his mentor Theodore Beza, John Calvin's successor. (Then again, the early Church fathers did not articulate the doctrine of election as did many of the reformers, either.) Just as in his day, when many accused him of corrupting this doctrine, the same charge is leveled against Arminians today by modern Calvinists.

Dr. Roger Olson notes that only "the most cynical scholar could claim that Arminius and Arminians deny predestination," stating further: 
Nevertheless, some Calvinists dispute the Arminian interpretation of predestination as unbiblical and illogical; Arminians often return the favor. In spite of widespread scholarly acknowledgment that Arminians do believe in predestination, popular Christian opinion has become firmly convinced that the difference between Calvinists and Arminians is that the former believe in predestination and the latter believe in free will. That has been elevated to the status of a truism in American pop theology and folk religion. But it is false.1
False indeed. But much in the same way as Calvinists contend that Arminians do not believe in God's sovereignty, due to their qualifications of the term, Calvinists also insist that Arminians do not believe in election or predestination for the same reason.

Let us, first, examine and distinguish between the words election and predestination. These two words are typically conflated when this topic is being discussed. For over four centuries, the word predestination (as used by both Calvin and Arminius) has indicated those whom God has seen fit to save (i.e., their eternal destiny being predetermined). Strictly speaking, this concept belongs to our English word election, not predestination

The English translation predestination is rather unfortunate (cf. Eph. 1:5 KJV). The Greek word proorízō is translated as predestined in many if not most English Bibles. This is both unfortunate and unwarranted, for the word has little to do with one's destiny, strictly taken (i.e., for either heaven or hell). This Greek word is a compound word: pró, before, and horízō, to set or determine. The resources Strong's, Thayer's, and Webster's grants the definition thusly: to determine beforehand. What has God determined beforehand? The New Living Translation renders Ephesians 1:5: "God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ." What God determined beforehand (predestined) is that those who would come to be in union with Jesus Christ, by grace through faith, would be adopted as God's own children.

The same method of interpretation can be used elsewhere: "In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Eph. 1:11 NIV). God predetermined for those in Christ to have (or to actually be considered as) an inheritance (cf. Rom. 8:17). At Romans 8:29-30, Paul writes (my translation): "For those whom God knew beforehand, He also determined beforehand to be conformed to the image of His Son ... and these whom He determined beforehand (to be conformed to the image of His Son), He also called (or, named as His own)." Here we find God "knowing" His people beforehand, and determining something about them beforehand -- the conforming of them to the image of His Son. Hence to "predestine" is to determine beforehand.

The Bible indicates that God determined beforehand to adopt as His children those who would trust in Christ Jesus His Son (Ephesians 1:5; cf. 1 Cor. 1:21), making them His inheritance (Ephesians 1:11), conforming them to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29), and calling or, better, naming them as His own (Rom 8:30). Hence predestination concerns the believer, not the unbeliever (or unregenerate). So, when reading Arminius (or Calvin for that matter), one must consider that when he is speaking on the nature of predestination, he means election unto salvation or damnation, not of God's predetermination concerning believers, in conforming them to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29, 30, Ephesians 1:5, 11).

Arminius indicates that he uses the word election in two senses: For the decree by which God is resolved to justify believers but to condemn unbelievers, and which is called by the Apostle Paul, "God's purpose of election" (Rom. 9:11); and, also, for the decree by which God is resolved to elect these or those nations and individuals "with the design of communicating to them the means of faith, but to pass by other nations of men."2 Olson comments: 
Clearly, Arminius did believe in predestination. His definition even contains a hint of foreordination, but further examination of Arminius's writing reveals that the predestination of individuals is conditional while corporate predestination [of nations] is unconditional. The "believers" that God decrees from all eternity to justify, adopt and endow with everlasting life is simply that group of people who accepts God's offer of the gift of faith; that is, those who do not resist prevenient grace. ... The main point here, however, is that Arminius did not cast aside predestination. He defined it differently than most Calvinists of his day but in harmony with many medieval theologians.3
In a bit of criticism, one might suggest that most Calvinists tend to forget that their method of interpreting this doctrine is preceded by nearly fifteen hundred years of Church history; and that the majority of Church fathers, especially prior to St Augustine in the fifth century, did not define election or predestination as did Calvin, Beza, and Dortian Calvinists.

There are those persons who do not understand and hence misrepresent the concept of election according to God's foreknowledge. If God foreknows that a person will believe in Christ Jesus, so it is argued, then to what effect is God's election? Did He not merely choose those whom He foresaw choosing Him? What should be noted is that those who advocate the foreknowledge view of election are merely taking certain texts of Scripture at face value. Paul writes: "For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined" (Rom. 8:29). Peter confirms such when he writes to "those who are elect exiles in the Dispersion ... according to the foreknowledge of God the Father" (1 Peter 1:1-2 ESV). No matter what one thinks of this foreknowledge view, what cannot be admitted is that the doctrine of election is to any degree denied by foreknowledge advocates. 

My judgment is that, for Arminius, God has always known people ultimately -- and by a simple yet exhaustive knowledge, which comports with the divine essence -- in two categories: believers and unbelievers. That is how Arminius can admit that God, by decree nonetheless, has resolved "to justify believers and to condemn unbelievers." God did not, as supralapsarian Calvinists insist, first decree to elect and to reprobate and then decree to create human beings in order to fulfill that first decree. Nor did God, as infralapsarian Calvinists promote, decree the fall and then decree to unconditionally elect whom He would save and whom He would reprobate: both are notions against which Arminius argues.4

Calvinist theologian Richard A. Muller further explains Arminius' idea of God's knowledge (foreknowledge) in its relation to His will: "Foreknowledge follows the divine will but is not identical with it -- its certainty rests upon the divine apprehension of the object, not upon the divine will concerning the object." He writes further:
Arminius can say, therefore, "that things do not exist because God knows them as existing in the future, but that he knows future things because they are future." Arminius appears to follow the argument, first set forth by Boethius and later adopted by a majority of the medieval scholastics, that God, as eternal, sees things as they are: his knowledge does not precede the objects in time and recognize them as about to come into existence; rather it [the divine knowledge] knows objects as they are in time from beyond time. What is future to me God knows as future to me because he simultaneously knows all things, whether they are past, or present, or future in relation to me.5
    So God did not "look down through the corridors of time" to see or learn who would or who would not receive His grace and therefore believe in Christ so that He could save them. God has always known, from His eternal perspective and from His exhaustive knowledge, those who are His and those are not His. God did not and does not rely on fallen creatures for His knowledge. Calvinists who level the charge at Arminians to the contrary do so only by misunderstanding and thus misrepresenting this aspect of Arminianism.

    For Arminius and Arminians, generally speaking, the supra- and infralapsarian models of the Dutch and Genevan Calvinists leads one to believe that God is the author of sin, and, as others would have it, makes God the worst kind of sinner. God, as holy, must not be thought to decree or foreordain, strictly speaking, sin or evil. Commensurate with that confession, Arminius thinks that to suggest God would unconditionally elect some unto salvation but reprobate the greater majority (cf. Matt. 7:13-14) of helpless sinners is to call into question God's integrity when He, seemingly and genuinely, offers salvation to and desires the salvation of all people (John 3:16; 3:36; 1 Tim. 2:4). Dr. Olson concludes:
    What Arminius objected to in the Calvinist account of predestination is the exclusion of particular persons from any possibility of salvation and the unconditional bestowal of faith on particular persons. He even argued that it made God a hypocrite "because it imputes hypocrisy to God, as if, in His exhortation to faith addressed to such [i.e., the reprobate], He requires them to believe in Christ, whom, however, He has not set forth as a Savior to them."

    In other words, if some particular individuals have already been foreordained unconditionally by God for damnation, then the universal call for them to believe in Christ cannot be sincere. In spite of what some Calvinists claim, in other words, the universal call to repent and believe the gospel for salvation cannot be a "well meant offer" either by God or by those who believe in that decree of predestination and practice evangelism.6
    Not only is God's integrity and character "on the line" in this doctrine, but so is the ground of election. For Calvinists, the very ground of election is in God's decree to unconditionally elect only some unto faith and salvation. For Arminius and Arminians, the ground of election is found in Christ alone. This is the subject of the following post.

      1 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 177.

      2 James Arminius, "Apology Against Thirty-One Theological Articles: Article XXVIII," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:53.

      3 Olson, 181.

      4Concerning God's decrees, Arminius, quoted at length here, writes:
      The decrees of God are the . . . extrinsic acts of God, though they are internal, and, therefore, made by the free will of God, without any absolute necessity. Yet one decree seems to require the positing of another, on account of a certain fitness of equity; as the decree concerning the salvation or damnation [of that creature] on the condition of obedience or disobedience.

      The act of the creature also, when considered by God from eternity, may sometimes be the occasion, and sometimes the outwardly-moving cause of making some decree; and this may be so far that without such act [of the creature] the decree neither would nor could be made. . . .

      One and the same in number is the volition by which God decrees something and determines to do or to permit it, and by which He does or permits the very thing which He decreed. About an object which is one and the same, and uniformly considered, there cannot be two decrees of God, or two volitions, either in reality, or according to any semblance of a contrary volition -- as to will to save man under conditions, and yet to will precisely and absolutely to condemn him [emphasis added]. A decree of itself imposes no necessity on any thing or event. But if any necessity exists through the decree of God, it exists through the intervention of the Divine Power, and indeed when He judges it proper to employ His irresistible power to effect what He has decreed. . . .

      As many distinct decrees are conceived by us, and must necessarily be conceived, as there are objects about which God is occupied in decreeing, or as there are axioms [self-evident truths] by which those decrees are enunciated. Though all the decrees of God have been made from eternity, yet a certain order of priority and posteriority must be laid down, according to their nature, and the mutual relation between them. (2:709-10)
      5 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 152.

      6 Olson, 181-82.


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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.