The Reformed Persepctive of the Atonement in Arminius

The artfully-, wonderfully-, beautifully-constructed Belgic Confession, itself a work of Guido de Brès (d. 1567), impacted the theology of Dutch theologians. But a little known historical fact is the impact of the theology of Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), who had "an even deeper impact among the Reformed than Melanchthon" [Luther's successor] in Holland.1 Though John Calvin is more widely read today among many Calvinists, the theology of Bullinger rather than Calvin was actually what "shaped the theological development in the Netherlands through his Decades. . . ."2 Dr. Mark Ellis writes:
During the initial phases of the Dutch Reformed movement [Heirich Bullinger's Decades] exercized [sic] greater influence than its counterpart, Calvin's Institutes. Bullinger taught a form of predestination that contrasted with Calvin and reconciled with that of Melanchthon, affirming that Christ's redemptive work was available to all mankind upon the condition of faith.3 
This is proof positive that the theology of Arminius on the atonement was far from being unorthodox and unacceptable among the Reformed. If one can refer to Bullinger's doctrine of the atonement as being Reformed in nature then one can also refer to Arminius' doctrine of the atonement as being Reformed.

This conclusion is not, however, what one might gather from reading the likes of John Owen or J.I. Packer. In his Introduction to the 1958 reprint of Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Packer admits the book is a polemical piece, yet "designed to show among other things, that the doctrine of universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive of the gospel" (link); a comment which maligns the Word of God itself, since the authors of the Christian scriptures so very clearly lead us to believe that Christ died, in fact, on behalf of all persons (John 1:29; Rom. 5:6, 8; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:2).

But Owen and Packer's views on the subject also oppose members of their own tribe, for if we have learned any truth from the division between the supralapsarian and infralapsarian Calvinists of the Synod of Dort, that truth is that they vehemently disagreed on the matter of the atonement. For instance, delegates from Bremen at the Synod advocated for a "moderate" or infralapsarian view with regard to the doctrine of election or predestination:
It was mainly through their efforts [the Bremen delegates] that the Synod did not choose for an extreme, supralapsarian version of the predestination doctrine. But one of the Bremen theologians, Matthias Martinius, went further: his conception of election (that made Christ the author and cause of it, rather than its "effector") sounded more like that of Arminius than of Calvin and Beza. And after the Synod he would, in an Arminian way, advocate a wise reticence with regard to the doctrines of predestination and election: these were issues that called for an omission of imposing absolute certainties upon one another.4
This infralapsarian Calvinism stemming from the Synod of Dort came at the price of a threatened duel-to-the-death instigated by supralapsarian Francis Gomarus, Arminius' fiercest opponent, concerning the atonement. The "bitter, partisan attacks" of supralapsarian Calvinists with infralapsarian Calvinists is a well-known fact of history.5 English observer John Hales (below) describes Gomarus as being so embittered against Martinius on the extent of the atonement (Gomarus vying for strict limited atonement intended from all eternity solely for the unconditionally elect) that he, Gomarus, informed the Synod
ego hanc rem in me recipio [I, in this situation, regain myself], and therewithal casts his Glove . . . and requires the Synod to grant them [Gomarus and Martinius] a Duel . . . . Martinius who goes in aequipace [i.e., is equally endowed] with Gomarus in Learning, a little before him for his Discretion, easily [considered] this affront, and after some few words of course, by the wisdom of the Praeses [Mineral (Wisdom) Stones] matters seemed to be a little pacified, and so according to the custom, the Synod with Prayer concluded. Zeal and Devotion had not so well allayed Gomarus his choler [temper], but immediately after Prayers he renewed his Challenge [to a duel] and required Combat with Martinius again; but they parted for that night without blowes [sic].6
This heated situation is telling -- not necessarily of how frustrated were the members of the Synod over the situation of Arminianism but of the type of Calvinists with which Arminius and the Remonstrants were forced to wrestle. See, for example, the post "Arminius and the Remonstrants Plead for Religious Freedom." The governing authorities, under the direct and explicit command of Prince Maurice, refused to help the Arminians when they were being ransacked, mobbed, and generally persecuted by their Calvinist detractors.


Though the Synod of Dort was politically successful in condemning Arminianism, many observers of this event were horrified, and began to sympathize with the Arminians and their theology. For example, delegates from the Church of England changed their opinions at the conclusion of the assembly:
Remarkable is the example of John Hales, who was in Dort not as a member of the royal delegation, but as an observer on behalf of the English ambassador. In the course of the meetings he drew closer and closer to the Remonstrants. According to a widespread anecdote he is supposed to have declared, impressed by one of Episcopius's addresses to the Synod: "There I bid Calvin good-night." Be that as it may, the English guests were shocked by the way in which the Remonstrants had been expelled from the church. Their reports on it contributed to "the growing sympathy which was felt in England for the Remonstrant position." Arminianism became a well-known phenomenon there, be it a rather ambiguous one.7
That the English divines of the next generation favored Arminius' doctrine of the atonement is obvious from their own confessions. For example, the Rev. Tobias Conyers (1628-1687), writes: "It is well known, my Lord, what countenance the scriptures carry with the 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 . . . were deeply baptized thereinto, and the late king [Charles I.] 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

Arminius' doctrine of the atonement is, first and foremost, substitutional in nature. Merely for the fact that Scripture denotes Christ's atonement as a dying "for" someone else accounts for its substitutionary tone. The following post will outline and define Arminius' Reformed doctrine of the atonement.


1 Mark A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius' Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2008), 27.

2 Ibid. 

3 Ibid. Dr. Ellis continues: "Nor were Bullinger's differences with Calvin over predestination limited to the printed page. Calvin's persecution of Jerome Bolsec (d. 1584) over predestination elicited a sharp letter from Bullinger in which he criticized both Calvin's theology and conduct, and created a temporary breach in their relationship."

4 Th. Marius van Leeuwen, "Introduction: Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe," in Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe: Jacobus Arminius (1559/60-1609), eds. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin, and Marijke Tolsma (Leiden: Brill, 2009), xix.

5 Anthony Milton, "The Hales and Balcanquahall Letters," in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1619-1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 136.

6 W. Robert Godfrey, "Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dort," in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1619-1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 243.

7 Leeuwen, xx.

8 The Works of Arminius, 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.