The Purpose and Goal of Debating and Challenging Calvinism

Arminius understood that there were ministers of strict Calvinist persuasion who were perturbed and threatened by some of his theological positions. But we must not view Arminius as a lone theological ranger, either, for many Dutch and English theologians agreed with his views -- views which were the theological and soteriological positions of the early Church.1 As a matter of fact, Arminius' successor, Simon Episcopius, writes:
And hence ... when speaking of our [King] James, who was a principal agent in promoting the calling of this synod [the abysmal and extraneous Synod of Dordt], and sanctioned its proceedings while it was sitting, says that he not only afterwards disregarded its decisions, but prohibited the very [Calvinistic] dogmas it had established from being preached in the English churches.2 
James I.'s successor Charles I. of England also advocated Arminian doctrines, as did his Archbishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Calvinism began to wane in the years following the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), and especially so in the Church of England.3 The Calvinists at Dordt may have won the battle, but the Arminians eventually won the war. Though, truth be told, "war" is a bit overkill for our Western sensibilities. The same can be said of the godly attitude of Arminius.

For our Arminius, he refused to view the on-going debate between Calvinists and Arminians as a war, properly taken. This historical fact is most evident in "Oration V. On Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians," published 8 February 1606 and read in the Hall of the University at Leiden, three years prior to his death. Coincidentally, the Calvinists during this exact time were busy attempting to secure for themselves the obtaining from the States General of Holland to hold a national synod in order to condemn the Arminians.4 What that informs us of is the spiritual and psychological state belonging to the Calvinists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Calvinists did not want unity, or toleration, but utter and complete control.

Arminius begins his oration noting that every age has witnessed its own evils, dissensions, and various degrees of schisms. God is still faithful in the midst of all such turmoil. But he privileges himself to mention one blessing of the current age and one evil. "This blessing is that the Divine clemency irradiates our part of the world by the illustrious light of His sacred truth, and enlightens it with the knowledge of true religion, or Christianity."5 But, given our context in a fallen world, he also notes the unfortunate presence of evil:
The evil opposed to it [unity and peace] is that either human ignorance or human perversity deteriorates and corrupts the clear light of this Divine truth, by aspersing [attacking or criticizing the reputation or integrity of someone] and beclouding it with the blackest errors; creates separation and division among those who have devoted themselves exclusively to the service of religion; and severs them into parties, and even into shreds of parties, in direct contradiction to the nature and genius of Christianity, whose Author is called the "Prince of peace," its doctrine "the Gospel of peace," and its professors "the Sons of peace."6
Almost in a prophetic nature Arminius renders the following eerie yet all-too-apt insight: "But the irritation of inflamed hearts does not prescribe a boundary to itself in schism alone. For if it happen that one party considers itself the more powerful, it will not be afraid of instituting persecutions against the party opposed to it, and of attempting its entire extermination."7 This unwitting prophecy is exactly what was to take place in thirteen years' time. Due to the political agenda of Prince Maurice, who conveniently took his side with the Calvinists, the Synod of Dordt convened and later condemned the Arminians as heretics (which also was an indictment of the entire early Church consensus prior to St Augustine of the early fifth century).

The Arminians were deposed of their religious offices and exiled from their homeland. While the Arminians longed for unity, yet allowing for theological diversity, the Calvinists would have no such peace and unity in their midst. All that mattered to them were the doctrines they deemed dogmatically sound biblically, and whatever notion did not comport with their core soteriological scheme, that was heresy.

But human ignorance and perversity are not alone in this evil cause of schism. Satan always leads the parade of Christian division and strife:
In the front of these, Satan appears, that most bitter enemy of truth and peace, and the most wily disseminator of falsehood and dissension, who acts as leader of the hostile band. Envying the glory of God and the salvation of man, and attentively looking out on all occasions, he marks every movement; and whenever an opportunity occurs, during the Lord's seed-time, he sows the tares of heresies and schisms among the wheat. From such a malignant and surreptitious mode of sowing while men are sleeping (Matt. 13:23), he often obtains a most abundant harvest.8
Our purpose for debating the system of Calvinism originates from a love for the truth. "May the God of truth and peace inspire the hearts of the magistrates, the people and the ministers of religion, with an ardent desire for truth and peace!"9 In turn, then, may God Himself demonstrate before the eyes of those deceived by schism and error, "in all its naked deformity, the execrable [extremely displeasing] and polluting nature of dissension concerning religion."10 Often those with fractious spirits are blind to the corrupting nature of schism. God has "blended together the body [of Christ], giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body [of Christ], but the members may have mutual concern for one another." (1 Cor. 12:24, 25 NET)

Jesus prayed fervently for our unity (John 17). Peace and unity has "also been sealed to us by the Holy Spirit, who is the bond of peace, and who has united all of us in one body by the closest ties of the new covenant. (Eph. 4:3)"11 Arminius continues:
Let us be ashamed of contaminating such a splendid title as this by our petty contentions; let it rather be to us an object of pursuit, since God has called us to such a course. Let us not suffer that which has been purchased at such a great price to be consumed, and wasted away in the midst of our disputes and dissensions; but let us embrace it, because our Lord Christ has given it the sanction of His recommendation.12
We should not forget the difficult nature of unity. There are times, so we have experienced, when unity is simply not possible. St Paul experienced this with regard to Barnabas and John Mark: "The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company." (Acts 15:39 NRSV) Thankfully they were able to reconcile later (2 Tim. 4:11). But neither party sought to hinder the other party from the work of the Gospel. Hence, even when our brothers and sisters remain in error -- errors of a secondary or a tertiary nature, none of which instrumentally causes one to forfeit the salvation of God, by grace through faith in Christ -- then may we seek not to eradicate at all costs the opposing party's system of beliefs, but rather seek for unity in the Body of Christ, and for the good of others.

But the goal of debating the system of Calvinism is twofold: the primary goal is the glory of God, while the secondary goal is the deliverance of brothers and sisters from error, so that they, too, may rightly glorify the Lord. Demonstrating true love for one another glorifies our Lord God. Reminded of the Roman Ambassador Fabius, saying to the Carthaginians that he "carried to them in his bosom both war and peace," Arminius replies: "Depending not on my own strength, but on the goodness of God, the promises of Christ, and on the gentle attestations of the Holy Spirit, I venture to imitate his expressions ... and to say, 'Only let us choose peace, and God will perfect it for us.'"13

What would the Lord's church look like if we dwelt together in harmony (Ps. 133:1)? Such a church would not insist that we all think exactly alike. But we could live harmoniously in our diversity. Arminius pictures such an era in this way, quoted at length here:
Then will the happy period arrive when with gladness we shall hear the voices of brethren mutually exhorting each other, saying, "Let us go into the house of the Lord," that He may explain to us His will; that "our feet may joyfully stand within the gates of Jerusalem;" that, in an ecstasy of delight we may contemplate the Church of Christ "as a city that is compact together, whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel to give thanks unto the name of the Lord:" that with thanksgiving we may admire "the thrones of judgment which are set there, the thrones of the house of David," the thrones of men of veracity, or princes who in imitation of David's example are peace-makers, and of magistrates who conform themselves to the similitude of the man after God's own heart.14
We believe that Calvinism is error. But we can in no sense whatsoever know objectively if this is God's absolute truth -- that Calvinism objectively is, in fact, error. We must, in humility, confess that we believe that Calvinism is in error, and that Arminian theology rightly divides the word of God's truth, while also declaring the possibility that we could be wrong. Therefore we do not seek for Calvinism to be entirely eradicated, even if, at the same time, we seek to challenge its assertions and limit its converts. Because if Calvinism is true, and we are, in our fallen state, blind to its truths, then to eradicate Calvinism altogether would be to eradicate the truth of God's word. Therefore we seek God's truth, God's glory, and, of course, a most diverse unity among all believers.


1 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

2 Frederick Calder, Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (London: Hayward and Moore, 1838), 516.

3 Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789 (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 66.

4 See the Introduction of Oration V. in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:434.

5 Ibid., 1:436.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 1:447.

8 Ibid., 1:454.

9 Ibid., 1:538.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 1:538-39.

12 Ibid., 1:539.

13 Ibid.

14 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.