The Reformed Faith and Arminianism:
Part I

John Murray

[From a series which appeared in The Presbyterian Guardian in 1935-1936.]

 

Arminianism derives its name from James Arminius, a minister of the Reformed Church in Holland who lived from 1560 to 1609. He became Professor of Divinity in the University of Leyden, in 1603. It was particularly during the period of his professorial activity at Leyden that he gave expression to the departures from the Reformed Faith that have ever since been associated with his name. Arminius died in 1609, but he left behind him disciples who continued to teach and develop his tenets.

In 1610 a document known as the "Remonstrance" and frequently spoken of as "The Five Arminian Articles" was signed by forty-six ministers and presented to the civil authorities of the United Provinces. These articles set forth the doctrine of the "Remonstrants" or Arminians, as they came to be called, on the subjects of predestination, the extent of the atonement, the cause of saving grace, and perseverance. These articles were both negative and positive ? they denied one doctrine and affirmed another.

In the early stages of the controversy the precise hearings and implications of some of the points had not become explicit, but, as the conflict precipitated by the Remonstrants developed, it became evident that the five points of the Reformed Faith which the Arminians were particularly insistent upon denying were unconditional predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. These Calvinists affirmed, Arminians denied.

These five points do not define for us what the Reformed Faith or Calvinism is. The Reformed Faith is a system of truth and is much more comprehensive than any five points that might be enumerated, however important in it or essential to it these five points might be. In these five points attacked by the Arminians, however, the system of truth known as Calvinism may said to be crystallized. They express what this system is in opposition to the Arminian system or any other system that, in similar fashion, is opposed to it. They ever continue to be the decisive points at which conflict is joined with any system of thought that is moved by an Arminian bias and directed by the same underlying principles.

Neither are we to think that the error of Arminianism is confined to these five points. Arminianism is a theology and the difference between this theology and the theology of the Reformed Church comes to expression at many other points. The error of the Arminian theology is, however, summed up in these five points and so the greater part of the controversy in the past is quite justifiably found to concern the doctrines enunciated in them. What is true in reality has been demonstrated by history.

 
Unconditional Predestination

The first article of the Remonstrance of 1610 concerned predestination. All of the early Reformers were substantially at one on the doctrine of predestination. It is in the Reformed Church alone, however, that the doctrine of absolute predestination held by Luther as well as by Calvin continued to hold sway and came to its rights. What does it mean?

In answering we cannot do better than quote the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter III:

i. God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

iii. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.

iv. These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

v. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the word was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or anything in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.

This statement of the doctrine was framed by the Westminster divines in 1645, but it is just the well-articulated creedal expression of the doctrine held by the early Reformers, conserved in the Reformed Church, and attacked by the Arminians. The import of the first section quoted is just this: that the whole sweep of universal history from the beginning to the end, in all its extent and minutest detail, is embraced in the plan and decree of God, that all that comes to pass, great or small, good or bad, God from eternity immutably determined would come to pass.

It is not, however, in connection with the all-comprehensive decree of God that the conflict with the Arminian in the first instance is joined. It is as this decree comes to bear upon the destinies of rational beings and more particularly upon the destinies of men, in other words, as the decree becomes operative in the predestination to life of some of mankind and the foreordination to death of others. But the doctrine of the general decree bears directly upon the question of the destinies of men. If God freely and unchangeably ordains whatsoever comes to pass, and if it comes to pass that some men are saved and some perish, then surely He has freely and unchangeably ordained these facts as well as others. If the Arminian denies the latter he must also deny the former.

Predestination to life and foreordination to death mean substantially that from all eternity God sovereignly, according to the counsel of His will, chose or elected a definite number of the human race to everlasting life, that He elected them as individuals, and that in making this election He was not conditioned by His foresight of faith or good works or perseverance in both, but that the election was determined by that sovereign good pleasure which finds its whole ground and explanation in Himself and in nothing else. In other words, God by an absolute, unconditional, and unchangeable decree determined the salvation of certain persons out of free grace and love, and that in accordance with that decree He executes the purpose of His grace and love. The others not elected, by the exercise of the same sovereign good pleasure He decreed to pass by and ordain to everlasting destruction as the reward of their sins.

It is this doctrine Arminianism denies. In the words of James Arminius, "God has not absolutely predestinated any men to salvation; but that he has in his decree considered them as believers." It is peculiarly important that this fact should be appreciated. The fundamental principle of Arminianism on this article of faith is denial of the doctrine set forth in Reformed Standards. Too often the significance and seriousness of this is obscured by appeal on the part of Arminians to the positive side of their teaching. We must not allow this obscuration. Arminianism starts with negation, the denial of the doctrine of sovereign unconditional election. However much truth the more positive elaboration of the Arminian position may embody, it in no way ceases to be Arminian as long as the denial of unconditional election remains, for this is the crux of the question. Everyone who denies unconditional election denies an aspect of truth that is of the essence of Reformed doctrine.

The Arminian position involves, as we have already hinted, more than negation. The Remonstrance reads thus: "Article I. That God, by an eternal unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ His Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ's sake, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through his grace, even to the end."

On superficial examination it might appear that there is no essential difference between this and the position set forth in the Reformed Standards. Does it not speak of an eternal and unchangeable purpose of God by which He determines to save all who believe on His Son and persevere to the end? It certainly does this, and no one in this controversy will deny that what is said is as such true. God does eternally and unchangeably determine to save all who believe and persevere in holiness to the end. But there is a chasm of difference between what the Arminian here affirms and what the Calvinist affirms.

The difference is just this. The Calvinist affirms that God eternally and unchangeably decrees the salvation of certain persons whom He sovereignly distinguishes by this decree from those who are not appointed to salvation. In pursuance of this decree of salvation He decrees the ends towards its accomplishment, and so decrees to give faith and perseverance to all those predestinated to salvation. The Arminian denies any such decree bearing upon the salvation of individuals, and what he affirms in its place is that God decrees or purposes to save all who believe and persevere in faith and obedience to the end. In the former case there is the eternal destination to salvation of persons who are the objects of God's sovereign election; in the latter case there is the divine purpose to save the class characterized by faith and perseverance. In the ultimate analysis the former is the election of persons, the latter is the election of qualities with the provision that all who exhibit these qualities will be saved.

Some Arminians under the stress of the argument, and also on exegetical grounds, perceive the inadequacy of the foregoing position, and so they say that God not only decrees to save all who believe, but that He also elects all who believe. There is therefore, they say, an eternal unchangeable election of individuals whose number is certain, an election indeed of all who are to be ultimately saved. Some may be disposed to say that this is exactly the teaching of the Reformed Standards. A little investigation will expose the fallacy of this.

The hallmark of Calvinism is unconditional election and that is exactly what this highest type of Arminianism vigorously denies. It professes indeed fixed and unchangeable election of individuals. But what is meant is, that, since God decrees to save all who believe and since He knows perfectly beforehand and from eternity who will believe, He on the basis of that foresight as ground and cause elects these individuals to eternal life. God elects all whom He foresees will believe and persevere to the end. His election then is determined by His foresight of some difference that comes to exist among men, a difference which He Himself does not cause but which in the final analysis is due to sovereign choice on the part of the human will. The determining factor in this type of election then is not the sovereign unconditioned good pleasure of God but the decision of the human will which God from eternity foresees. Election is not the source of faith, but faith foreseen is made the source or condition of election.

On close examination it should be evident that this is not divine election at all. The sovereign determination of God is ruled out at the vital point, for the ultimate determinant of the discrimination that exists among men is made to be something in men and not the sovereign good pleasure of God. Indeed this type of Arminianism that at first appears to approach so closely to the Reformed position only serves to show more clearly the total difference between the two systems. The election taught in the Reformed Church is election to salvation and eternal life and therefore also to faith and all other graces as the means ordained of God to the accomplishment of His sovereign decree. Election is not then conditioned upon faith, but faith is the fruit of election. God sovereignly works faith in men because He has in His eternal counsel appointed them to salvation. Faith is not the logical prius of election, but election is the eternal prius and source of faith. Arminianism at its best denies all of these propositions.

The denial of unconditional election strikes at the heart of the doctrine of the grace of God. The grace of God is absolutely sovereign and every failure to recognize and appreciate the absolute sovereignty of God in His saving grace is an expression of the pride of the human heart. It rests upon the demand that God can deal differently with men in the matter of salvation only because they have made themselves to differ. In its ultimate elements it means that the determining factor in salvation is what man himself does, and that is just tantamount to saying that it is not God who determines the salvation of men, but men determine their own salvation; it is not God who saves but man saves himself. This is precisely the issue.


Author

Professor John Murray was born in Scotland and was at the time of this writing a British subject. He was a graduate of the University of Glasgow (1923) and of Princeton Theological Seminary (1927), and he studied at the University of Edinburgh during 1928 and 1929.
     In 1929-1930 he served on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary. After that he taught at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology.
     He was a frequent contributor to theological journals and is the author of Christian Baptism (1952), Divorce (1953), Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), Principles of Conduct
(1957, The Imputation of Adam's Sin (1960), Calvin on the Scriptures and Divine Sovereignty (1960), The Epistle to the Romans, Vol I, Chapters I-VIII (1960) and The Atonement (1976).



Return to the Home Page Return to the Main Highway 

Return to the  Calvinism and the Reformed Faith Index Return to Calvinism and the Reformed Faith Index

Go to Part II  The Reformed Faith and Arminianism: Part II  

 Go to the Resource Page