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This question came from a church member of ours and I want to answer it in three parts. First, we will define what is meant by “Arminian.” Second, we will see how Arminianism has been developed and treated historically. Then, we will consider whether Arminianism is heresy, an interpretive mistake, or a valid interpretation of the Scriptures.
Arminianism is probably what you might hear coming from most pulpits in our own day stretching across denominations and religions. Most people do not refer to this teaching as explicitly Arminian, nor do they recognize the teaching as Arminian because most people are spiritually illiterate in our day. This is one reason we always want to do everything we can to know exactly what God has said in context. It is also a reason we try to overcome our own confirmation bias and practice the principle of Semper Reformanda (always reforming). If we only learn what we already believe, then there is no benefit for us in the study of God’s word, which expresses its clear intent to change us throughout its pages. I get to experience this change each week as I study God’s pages more deeply and as I observe His spoken word manifested as the material universe through the lens of those explicit pages. My simple hope is for you to experience this daily along with me as we learn from Christ within the ranks of every philosophical and scientific discipline.
What is Arminianism?
I have done much study regarding the five points of Arminianism. For our purposes, I will be following the basic outline of The Five Points of Calvinism by David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Quinn. At the beginning of their book, the authors give a brief history and philosophical basis for Arminian thought. They also describe the historical evaluation of the Arminian doctrines directly following their inception.
James (or Jacobus) Arminius was a Dutch Seminary Professor who died in A.D. 1609. After he died, his disciples drafted five articles of faith based on his teachings. They drafted these five articles in response to the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, two documents that resulted from the Protestant Reformation (p. 1).
What was then known as the Remonstrance, Arminianism arose as a next-generation counter-protest against the previous generation’s reformers. Arminianism directly opposed every major protestant doctrine that came out of the Reformation. Essentially, it was a turning back to a largely Roman theology less than 100 years after the Reformation.
The five articles of the Remonstrance are summarized below (p. 5-8):
- Free Will
- God makes it possible for every sinner to repent but does not interfere with any person’s freedom in any way.
- Conditional Election
- God’s choice is based on His knowledge of who will willingly come to faith.
- General (or unlimited) Atonement
- It is possible for everyone to be saved, but salvation was not explicitly secured for anyone. Christ died for all, but not all are saved.
- Resistible Grace
- The Holy Spirit does all He can to bring every person to repentance, but every person has the power to resist the Holy Spirit if he is unwilling.
- Insecure Salvation
- Salvation can be lost if the person does not keep up his or her faith.
- Free Will
Doubtless, you have heard these things in the teaching of a church if you have spent much time looking or listening to different preachers or teachers. These doctrines abound in our day. These doctrines also undoubtedly logically follow one after the other. Once we grant the Arminian doctrine of Free Will, we have to grant the other doctrines for our belief system to be coherent. To see what Scripture says about free will (not necessarily the Arminian Doctrine), click here.
These five doctrines can be traced back to at least the Pelagians, against whom Augustine spent much time writing. These doctrines found their source more in pagan philosophy than in Scripture (p. 9). Augustine believed that people were not free in this sense. Pelagius believed in the absolute freedom of human will. This has been the central doctrinal battle in every century following the apostles. Peter condemned those who were self-willed, both in the Old Testament and in His current time (2 Peter 2:10). Christ Himself set the example for the Christian mentality regarding one’s own will as compared to the will of God (Matthew 26:39).
The historic Biblical response
The Arminians (Neo-Pelagians), submitted these five articles to the Church of Holland in 1610 hoping that they would be adopted as the official stance of the church. In 1619, nine years later, the church gathered at the Synod of Dort and offered a Biblical response to the proposed change (p. 8). The response included a point-by-point biblical evaluation and a systematic proclamation of Scripture’s stance on each proposed point. No true biblical support was found for any one of the five points. We can take a single verse, or even a single passage, and make it out to say anything we want. This was genuine and intensive Biblical inquiry. The answer was the result of serious exegesis and systematization. For each Arminian point, the Synod described explicitly what the Bible stated, resulting in the development of the Canons of Dort, summarized by what we now refer to as the Five Points of Calvinism.
Heresy or not?
One article is not enough space in which to write on the five points and evaluate them Biblically. It is also the case that this work has been done. It was done in 1619 and it has been repeated in every generation. The conclusion is always the same. Arminianism, or Neo-Pelagianism, is entirely contrary to the Scriptures. In fact, these doctrines contradict the Scriptures at every point.
Heresy, misinterpretation, or valid?
Since they contradict the Scriptures and have been found to be contradictory through the centuries now, the Arminian doctrines cannot be a valid biblical viewpoint. They are also not merely a mistaken interpretation of the Bible because they relied more on the pagan philosophy of the early 17th Century. They were developed, not as a discipline of theology but under the headship of what was then the intelligentsia. The points were not developed out of a genuine biblical inquiry. Really, they were not the result of biblical interpretation at all. This puts the five points under the particular and historical heading of heresy. My encouragement is for each one to actually go back and evaluate the five points of Arminianism biblically and sincerely for him or herself. Read the Canons of Dort after reading the whole of Scripture. Listen to good expository preaching. Read the book referenced earlier in this article. If enough people request a blog series on the five points comparatively, I will do it.
Are people who believe heresy lost and going to Hell?
Just because people make a mistake or believe something that is incorrect does not mean that they are without hope. The truth of sanctification is that God’s people are being brought into a true understanding of who He is. This means that we are not yet complete. The mark of a Christian is not that he or she is perfect in knowledge. It is that he or she bears fruit that is consistent with repentance (Matthew 3:8). This means that we, as much as we can, reject confirmation bias and let the Scriptures change us regarding our understanding and our practice. God is the one transforming. We are the ones being transformed.
How does the church relate to proven heretics?
We must be very careful who we think of or refer to as a heretic. While there are probably many, I would not normally refer to people as heretical in their teaching because I do not want to be guilty of the ad hominem fallacy- not listening to someone because I perceive their character or system of beliefs to be a certain way. Even if I believe someone’s teaching to be wholly contrary to Scripture, I still consider the content against Scripture as we have done with Arminianism over the centuries. There are only a special few of whom I will ever use the term heretic.
Scripture gives us clear instruction. God may be calling people from the midst of Arminian churches to Himself. Again, most Arminian churches have no idea about this centuries-long controversy. Since there is such illiteracy, people are unable to learn from history. Without knowing, so many make a mistake by preaching or teaching what has so clearly and definitively been labeled as heresy because it sounds good and nice and if we don’t look at the context of the Bible many singular verses or passages can be used to support these ideas. This is why it is so important to be under biblical teaching at church- meaning the teaching of the Bible and the rejection of only using or teaching from the Bible. There is a big difference.
“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you have received, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:6-9).
Paul is not referring to people who get details wrong. He is not referring to simple misinterpretation. He is not referring to those people who say something that we disagree with (this would be confirmation bias). We are not the standard for what is right or correct. Paul is not referring to people who simply mistakenly believe false doctrine. He is referring to those who preach or teach a different Gospel, whether or not it is intentional. He defines the Gospel in the previous few verses as the story of Jesus’ death for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father who receives all glory forevermore (Galatians 1:3-5). Anyone who teaches that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice isn’t absolutely necessary is to be accursed. Anyone who teaches that we somehow rescue ourselves or that it is us who make the world a better place is to be accursed. Anyone who teaches that Christ’s salvation is according to anyone’s will other than the Father’s is to be accursed. Anyone who teaches in any way that glory is not God’s alone is to be accursed. These are strong words according to Scripture. Sound doctrine is this important.
I won’t say any more on this. I can’t soften the blow of Paul’s words to the Galatians. It is important that we know the true Gospel and that we strive to learn what God has said in context. I am here, still learning alongside you. I am convinced that we will always be learning together. While we are on this earth, until we are made complete creatures, we will always be changing. I do not know if theoretical knowledge will exist in the resurrection- but if it does, we will be adjusting our understanding forever. God bless you. Semper Reformanda.