The Reformed Arminian View of Arminius on the Atonement

The single most misunderstood notion of Arminius' doctrine of the atonement, to say nothing of that of all Arminians, is that classical or Reformed Arminian theories on the atonement are, in nature, synonymous with that of Arminius' colleague Hugo Grotius: the Governmental Theory. Dr. Roger Olson writes: "Many critics of Arminianism accuse it of departing from the strong substitutionary atonement of the Reformers and of most of post-Reformation evangelicalism."1 However, Olson argues, "There is no one Arminian doctrine of Christ's atonement."2 (This is also true of most believers throughout Church history -- they maintain varying atonement theories.) Arminius' doctrine of the atonement, though, is thoroughly Reformed in nature, even though he does not use the restrictive or strictly "limited" language of Calvin or Beza. Then again, neither does Reformed theologian Heinrich Bullinger, as noted in a previous post.

The standard Reformed document, the Belgic Confession, to which Arminius subscribes, concludes with regard to the atonement, using both Ransom and Substitutionary theory language, in part: "Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we 'know nothing but Jesus and him crucified'; we consider all things as 'dung for the excellence of the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.' We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means to reconcile ourselves with God than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever." Righteousness was gained on behalf of sinners by Christ, and "we are justified 'freely' or 'by grace' through redemption in Jesus Christ . . . which is ours when we believe in him."

Note the absence of notions limiting the atonement to the unconditionally elect, from before the creation of the world, as we find among Dortian Calvinists. Yet, the Belgic Confession is one of the Three Forms of Unity among Reformed believers, and Arminius advocates this Reformed view of the atonement. Arminius insists that Jesus, in His office as Priest, is "both Priest and Victim in one person."3 Jesus, as Priest, was "prepared by vocation [calling] or the imposition of the office [by the Father], by the sanctification and consecration of His person through the Holy Spirit, and through His obedience and sufferings, and even in some respect by His resuscitation from the dead." The discharge of this office "consists in the offering or presentation of the sacrifice of His body and blood, and in His intercession before God."4

Here we find the Trinity in motion in the office of Jesus as Priest; we find sanctification of Christ in human form, and thus the Incarnation; we find obedience as the Son of God, and thus obedience rendered to those counted righteous in Him; we find Christ's resurrection, which by necessity includes both His ascension and present role as Mediator; we find also a sacrificial atonement, "the sacrifice of His body and blood." This sacrifice, according to Arminius' Reformed theology of the atonement, is also "propitiatory" [ἱλάσμος] since Christ is "also an eucharistical Priest, so far as He offers our sacrifices to God the Father, that, when they are offered by His hands, the Father may receive them with acceptance." These "sacrifices," being eucharistical in nature, are of thanksgiving and praise (Heb. 13:15).5

A propitiation, ἱλάσμος, is an atoning sacrifice (cf. 1 John 2:2); it is an offering to appease or satisfy an angry or offended party. (link) Who is angry? Scripture informs us that God is angry: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them." (John 3:36 NIV) Do not forget that a holy God and sinful humanity are enemies (Rom. 5:10). A person who spurns the grace of God, through the Holy Spirit, is not covered or shielded from -- has not been atoned by the bloody sacrifice6 of Jesus Christ so as to avoid -- the wrath of God against sin. Moreover, Jesus, being our only High Priest, in His "sacerdotal office has neither any successor, vicar, nor associate."7

We also find, in this aspect of Arminius' doctrine of the atonement, elements of the satisfaction theory. Dr. Olson, again, writes: "William Witt is correct that Arminius accepted and embraced a variation of the Anselmic satisfaction theory not very different (if at all) from the Reformed penal substitution theory. For Arminius, Christ's death was a substitutionary, expiatory and propitiatory sacrifice for sins that perfectly fulfilled the law and established a new covenant of faith."8 So, why were many of the Calvinists of Dordt so offended by Arminius' Reformed views on the atonement? The answer is as much theological as it is also strictly exegetical.9

James Ussher, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, writes his own theological musings on the extent of the atonement, vying for a mediate position, avoiding the errors of the supralapsarian Calvinists of Dordt. Jonathan D. Moore writes:
Ussher is careful to make clear that he agrees with particular redemptionists up to a point. He acknowledges that "the principal end" of Christ's death was the salvation of the elect, and that therefore "Christ in a special manner died for these." However, Ussher held the doctrine of definite atonement to be an "extreme absurdity." Christ died "in a special manner" for the elect, "but to infer from hence, that in no manner of respect he died for any others, is but a very weak collection."10
Ussher's Reformed views of the atonement are affirmed by Arminius and the Remonstrants (as well as Arminians today). We believe that Christ's atonement saves the elect of God -- those who by grace trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. We also agree with Scripture, that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); that Christ is the perfect sacrifice that atones not only for our sins but also provisionally for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2); that God is the Savior of all, and especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10). These passages refer not to automatic, universal salvation, but to the explicit extent of the atonement. The atonement of Christ is capable of saving all people, without qualification, even though the atonement of Christ will not save all people without qualification, since the condition for the application of the atonement procured for all people is faith in Christ by the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit. We believe this to be the pure interpretation of Scripture.



But this view is not strong and restrictive enough for the five-point Calvinist (mind you, it is enough for the four-point Calvinist, demonstrating that four-point Calvinists agree with the Arminian view of the atonement): the five-point Calvinist, and all supralapsarian Calvinists, directly connect the atonement to God's prior decree to unconditionally elect some unto salvation and reprobate the rest -- the majority of humanity (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14). For such Calvinists, as stated brilliantly by Dr. Terry L. Miethe, the assumption remains that "because Christ's death was 'sufficient' to save all for whom he died, then it must save all for whom he died."11 (emphasis added)

We critically charge five-point Calvinism's view of the atonement as tragically necessitated not from proper exegesis of Scripture but explicitly stemming from the prior error of unconditional election. If that error were corrected then one would have no need for restricting the language of the atonement to unbiblical notions. This is especially obvious from "Article 8: The Saving Effectiveness of Christ's Death," under the heading, "The Second Main Point of Doctrine: Christ's Death and Human Redemption Through It," in the Canons of Dordt.

I reiterate here what I have stated elsewhere: Given the various opinions of Reformed thinkers in the pre-Reformation, Reformation and post-Reformation eras on the subject of the atonement, and that Arminius' satisfaction and penal substitutionary views on the atonement are every bit as orthodox as his other Reformed colleagues (including Lutherans), no Reformed minister or theologian of his day has any legitimate claim for charging him of errors on his doctrine of the atonement. According to the narrow views of some Dortian Calvinists, both historic and modern, Reformed persons like Martin Luther, Heinrich Bullinger and many others who can be named cannot be considered "Reformed" because they do not find biblical the conclusions founded in the Canons of Dordt regarding the atonement. The Canons of Dordt may be a rule for naming some as "Calvinists," but the confession is not a rule for naming anyone "Reformed," strictly.

The deplorable fact of history is that Reformed-minded thinkers of Arminius' day heed the extreme voices of the likes of Francis Gomarus and cause Arminius, his family and his colleagues, undue stress, suspicion of heresy, and ultimately their teaching positions, ministries, and the Reformed right to a freedom of conscience. What the Synod of Dordt teaches us is that rigid, particularistic dogmatism trumps freedom of conscience. They do not establish and propagate orthodoxy but fanaticism. The Dortian Calvinists reflect the very same attitudes with which they are persecuted by the Roman Catholics of their era; and yet many Calvinists today laud that Synod as though their theology, identity, orthodoxy and very salvation depends upon it. But the Synod of Dordt maintains relevancy and meaning only for those who give it such. 

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1 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 221.

2 Ibid.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XXXV. On the Priestly Office of Christ," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:381.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 2:382. "That the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ is bloodless implies a contradiction according to the Scriptures."

7 Ibid. "The living Christ [representatur] is presented to the Father in no other place than in Heaven: Therefore He is not offered in the Mass." (2:382)

8 Olson, 225-26.

9 "Grant Osborne is absolutely correct," confesses Calvinist scholar Carl Trueman, "to see the difference between what he refers to as the Calvinist and the Arminian understandings of atonement as being connected to much broader differences in theology. Rather like the debate between Baptists and paedobaptists, the discussion cannot be advanced, or even really engaged, by the mere exchange of proof texts or even of the isolated exegesis of such texts. The issues that divide are deeper (though not, I trust, preclusive of Christian fellowship) and really connected to a much more basic understanding of what Scripture teaches about salvation as a whole. In fact, I am inclined to say that it is really a theological matter as much as it is of the exegesis of any given passage." (emphases added) See Carl R. Trueman, "Response," in Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views, eds. Andrew Naselli and Mark A. Snoeberger (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 127.

10 Jonathan D. Moore, "James Ussher's Influence on the Synod of Dort," in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 168-69.

11 Terry L. Miethe, "The Universal Power of the Atonement," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 74.