Calvinism and Arminianism are two doctrines that have divided nations, denominations, churches, and families. For the most part, those who subscribe to Calvinism will easily misrepresent those who subscribe to Arminianism and vice versa. The only way to remove any misunderstanding and misrepresentations is to take a close look at both doctrines so as to understand what differentiates them. Let’s start by looking at the historical background.
The historical background
Calvinism and Arminianism can be traced back to the 17th century when Father Augustine (354-430) from North Africa wrote several pieces to defend the Christian faith. Augustine’s writings sought to argue against the Pelagianism views. Pelagius (390-418) had taught that mankind doesn’t inherit a sinful nature from Adam and that Adam only set a bad example which we either chose to follow or avoid. He, therefore, taught that we are sinners by choice. Augustine contended that we inherited the corrupted nature from Adam and we are consequently sinners by nature.
Years after Augustine, another man by the name of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) came with a doctrine that he believed to be what the Bible taught. Arminius was brought up in a reformed tradition and even studied under a renowned theologian, Theodore Beza (1519-1605), who was himself tutored by John Calvin. Even though Arminius studied under Beza, he didn’t subscribe to most of the teachings which were inspired by the teachings of John Calvin. He believed they were misrepresenting scripture and he therefore sought to correct them.
The first point of contention was what was referred to as the order of decrees. According to Arminius, the order of these decrees makes a huge difference. The decrees are:
- The decree to create the world
- The decree to permit the fall into sin
- The decree to elect certain people
- The decree to send Jesus as savior
The order of these decrees can be said to be the foundation of the differences between Arminius and Beza (or Calvin). At the time of his death in 1609, Arminius had a huge following of saints who subscribed to his views. Arminius’s doctrine on the four decrees and his stand on grace and predestination is what was later referred to as Arminianism. Because Arminius was largely a contestation against the teachings of John Calvin, the term Calvinism was also coined to help differentiate between the two doctrines.
What is the Difference Between Calvinism and Arminianism?
The acronym TULIP is often used to denote the 5 points of Calvinism (Total Depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible Grace, & Perseverance of Saints) can be said to be the main differences between the two doctrines.
Let’s have a close look at each of these below.
Total depravity Vs. Free will
According to Arminianism, man will not be saved unless assisted by God’s grace to believe. Even though Calvinists teach that man has free will and can make a decision to repent, the two doctrines agree that salvation is by faith through God’s grace. However, Calvinists believe that man has to beg for God’s grace while Arminians believe that the preaching of God’s word is enough and that the hearers can believe without being made to seek his grace.
Unconditional vs. Conditional Election
Arminian doctrine teaches that election is based on God’s decree to justify saints through Jesus Christ. As a consequence, all those that respond to the gospel by faith will attain salvation. On the flip side, Calvinism somewhat ignores the responsibility of man in God’s plan for salvation. Calvinism may even lead Christians into a state of pride as they view themselves as those that have been elected to grace. While it is true that salvation is an act of God’s mercy, the individual must first believe in the Lord, and only then will they be saved (Romans 10:9).
The Calvinists believe in the doctrine of limited atonement which stipulates that salvation is only limited to a chosen few. Scriptures like many are called but few are chosen are often cited in support of the doctrine. On the other hand, Arminians teach that the blood of Christ was shed for all sinners and that anyone is a good enough candidate for salvation. Both doctrines teach the importance of accepting the work of the cross for salvation and only differ on who can actually receive salvation.
Irresistible Vs. Resistable Grace
The Calvinist doctrine teaches that man draws men to himself and only then can they be saved. The implication of this teaching is that the elected ones cannot resist God’s plan of salvation for their life. On the flip side, Arminians believe that man can resist God’s plan of salvation because man was created with free will. At the foundational level, both schools of thought recognize the power of the Holy Spirit in convicting sinners to repent. However, they disagree on how convicted sinners would respond to such a conviction.
Perservatnace of saints Vs. Falling from grace
It is the view of Calvinists that those God has elected will persevere to the very end and that they cannot backslide. Arminianism holds a different view because the doctrine teaches that Christians can fall from the faith. Even though both Calvinists and Arminians believe in the concept of predestination, they do not agree on what it is. For a Calvinist, predestination means God has already decided the destiny of the elected and they can therefore not fall away from the faith. For an Arminian, however, predestination is God’s future plan for the believer – a future that can be embraced or resisted.
Here is a table that summarizes the differences between the Calvinist and Arminian doctrines.
|Total depravity – man is totally lost in sin and cannot repent unless God first initiates it.
|Free will – man has a free will and can therefore choose whether to cooperate with God and repent or resist God and perish in sin
|Unconditional election – God is sovereign and he chooses who he will elect and this choice is not based on how they may or may not respond to the call
|Conditional election – God is all-knowing and he therefore chooses only those he knows will out of their free will respond positively to the call
|Limited atonement – the blood of Christ that was shed on the cross was only for the elected ones and none else
|Unlimited atonement – The blood of Christ that was shed on the cross was for every sinner. The price was paid for all but was not guaranteed for anyone
|Irresistible grace – only those that are elected can access the grace. God’s grace is not for the ones that have not been elected
|Resistible grace – God’s saving grace can still be resisted by man because. Man will only be born again after he believes and receives the grace of God.
|Perseverance of the saints – No chosen person can be lost. God will persevere them and they will persevere to the end.
|Falling from grace – even the Christians that are saved can still lose their faith by falling away.
To sum it up, the doctrines of Calvinism and Arminianism have divided the church for centuries because the church has been preoccupied with the differences between the two doctrines while ignoring the similarities. Instead of allowing these differences to create animosity, embracing respectful dialogue and seeking common ground can foster a deeper appreciation for the complexities of faith and contribute to greater unity within the Christian community. Our goal should always be to attain unity of faith as per Ephesians 4:13.