Is Arminianism Heresy?

If the Synod of Dort (1618-19) was so influential among all the churches, and did in fact establish or reaffirm orthodoxy for the Church, then what should follow is that Arminianism was and should be conceived of as heterodox at best and heresy at worst. Is this the case? Did the decade following this infamous Synod consider Arminianism heresy? Did Calvinism experience an explosion of growth due to this Synod? What we find is telling.

Calvinism began to wane in the years following the Synod of Dort, especially in the Church of England.1 Even in Holland, within a decade, the Remonstrants were not only allowed back into their homeland, and permitted to gather and to worship Christ congregationally, but were eventually brought into social and political power.2 The Dutch Calvinists viewed this as a betrayal: "This betrayal of the principles which had triumphed in 1618-19 angered the ministers beyond measure," writes Pieter Geyl, noting that, by 1631, only twelve years after they were condemned as heretics, the Remonstrants had constructed their own church.3 He writes further:
After this recital my readers might jump to the conclusion that the revolution of 1618-19 must have been no more than a violent interlude without lasting result. As far as the constitutional issues are concerned, this view can indeed be defended.4
Beyond social policy, however, only the Dortian Calvinists tended to grant any theological weight to the Synod of Dort. Today, Calvinists can point to Dort and insist that Arminianism was condemned. Well, maybe, but that only seems to matter to Calvinists. The majority of believers worldwide think differently.

In his landmark book, Heresies, Harold O.J. Brown admits that, from the perspective of the Dutch Calvinists, any deviation from the doctrine of unconditional election was to bow the knee to the heresy of Unitarianism.5 Regardless of the fact that a rejection of the novel theory of unconditional election is not the slippery slope to Unitarian heresy, does Brown list Arminianism as a heresy? No, he does not.

Brown rightly acknowledges that the Dutch Calvinists linked Arminians with heretical Socinians because the latter shared an affinity of doctrine on the issue of conditional election with the former. The fact that the Arminians defended the rights of the Unitarians did not help their cause, either.6 But the Remonstrants held to the Reformed notion of freedom of conscience, which stemmed from Luther himself; and, although Arminius and his colleagues were orthodox with regard to the Trinity, they understood the reality that no one can be forced, either by Synod or by Confessions and Catechisms, to believe orthodox doctrines. We may stand with the ancient fathers of the faith and declare what they declare; but we cannot demand that anyone believe the truth-claims of Christianity.

Since the spring of 1619 most Calvinists have conceived of Jacob Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Arminianism as heretical. Theologian and Church historian Alister McGrath, in his book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, remarks that Arminianism cannot be considered heresy since heresy is "ultimately a teaching judged unacceptable by the entire church."7 The Synod of Dort, he rightly confesses, did not represent the entire church, but only politically- and theologically-Calvinistic-minded individuals from several provinces.

Arminianism has always been considered, even if anachronistically so, the teaching of the early Church fathers, as well as Eastern orthodoxy.8 According to Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall, in their book, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga thinks the Dortian Calvinists made an error in judgment:
"As for my view of the Synod of Dort [writes Plantinga], I think that the Arminians should be thought of as Calvinists. They thought of themselves as Calvinists [more likely Reformed instead of Calvinists]. The synod declared that they weren't, but this was probably a mistake on the part of the Reformed or Calvinist community." We need not endorse Plantinga's claim that the early Arminians should be considered [Calvinistic] to see the important point: it still may be argued that the theological proposals of Arminius seem to be "winning" the intellectual battle, even within sectors of Reformed life and thought.9
When certain well-known and well-respected Calvinists make such comments, one can hardly maintain that Arminius, the Remonstrants condemned at Dort, or Arminianism are heretical. This is especially true when four-point Calvinists agree with Arminians concerning the atonement; and, granting that the theories of irresistible grace and necessary perseverance have never been unanimously held throughout Church history, then the only and primary doctrine of contention proves to be election (or predestination), which Arminius, the Remonstrants, and Arminians today affirm -- God elects (has chosen) to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 7:25).

A Latin expression known as ad fontes is translated, literally, "to the fountains," interpreted as "to the sources," a command to read primary sources. Mark Ellis, a Calvinist pastor of a baptistic church, was challenged by a friend to read Arminius' works. He remarks: "Having been taught he was both Socinian and Pelagian [by Calvinists], I was surprised how Calvinist his affirmations sounded about trinitarianism, Scripture, original sin and the necessity of grace."10 Yes, reading the actual words of Arminius and the Remonstrants will enlighten anyone who has been told either overt lies or severe misrepresentations regarding the theology of the Reformed Arminians of the late sixteenth, early seventeenth century. John Wesley confessed the same: "And how can any man know what Arminius held, who has never read one page of his writings?" (link)

Dr. Ellis confesses that this enlightenment "led to a broader study of those who shared Arminius' theology, with special emphasis on his protégé, Simon Episcopius (1583-1643), the primary author" of The Arminian Confession of 1621, which Ellis both translated and edited.11 The Confession was intended as "a concise, easily understandable statement of their faith and a corrective to what they viewed as the misrepresentations published in the Acts of the Synod of Dort."12 At no place in their Confession, at no place in Arminius' writings, can one admit that heresy is taught -- only those beliefs which have been held by the majority of believers throughout the Church age.

Ultimately, what the Calvinists of Dort accomplished is an attempt at making the Reformed teaching of Calvin infallible doctrine, thereby excluding the views of all others who disagree with core aspects of certain doctrines; and also an exclusion of all others from any relation to the Reformation, or to being named Reformed, thus declaring them, and especially Arminians, in the words of J.I. Packer, "un-Christian" or "anti-Christian."13 Well, we are not convinced that the Calvinists of Dort, or Calvinists like J.I. Packer, have been granted the authority to establish theological dogma for the Church universal, and thus we reject their novel theories of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the concept of theological determinism (what they name "the sovereignty of God").

So, is Arminianism heresy? We can only nominate Arminianism heresy if we explicitly condemn the entire early Church prior to St Augustine in the fifth century CE -- and, unless we are willing to take that route, then we are obligated to accept Arminian theology as not merely tolerable among Christian thinkers, but even as preeminently orthodox, in that, within the core tenets of Arminian theology, we find the teaching of our early fathers.

That intellectual Calvinists such as R.C. Sproul and J.I. Packer (among a host of other Calvinists) have not accurately engaged the doctrines of classical Arminianism is an utter embarrassment on their part. Arminians are not "barely" saved, even by "a felicitous inconsistency," as Sproul is infamous for writing.14 Arminians, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, are saved "to the uttermost" according to Scripture (Heb. 7:25 NKJV). The charge of heresy just does not stick with regard to Arminius, the Remonstrants, or Arminianism.


1 Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789 (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 66. Arminius' successor, Simon Episcopius, writes: "And hence, Neal, when speaking of our [King] James, who was a principal agent in promoting the calling of this synod, and sanctioned its proceedings while it was sitting, says that he not only afterwards disregarded its decisions, but prohibited the very dogmas it had established from being preached in the English churches." See Frederick Calder, Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (London: Hayward and Moore, 1838), 516.

2 Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the 17th Century: Part One: 1609-1648 (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1966), 75, 76.

3 Ibid., 76.

4 Ibid., 77.

5 Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 358.

6 Ibid.

7 Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 215.

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

9 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 197-98.

10 Mark Ellis, "Introduction," in The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), v.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Quoted from R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 24.

14 Ibid., 25.