History

III. The Basic Concepts of Each System Are Much Older Than the Synod of Dort

A. The Controversy between Pelagius and Augustine

Neither John Calvin nor James Arminius originated the basic concepts which undergird the two systems that bear their names. The fundamental principles of each system can be traced back many centuries prior to the time when these two men lived. For example, the basic doctrines of the Calvinistic position had been vigorously defended by Augustine against Pelagius during the fifth century. Cunningham writes, As there was nothing new in substance in the Calvinism of Calvin, so there was nothing new in the Arminianism of Arminius; . . . . The doctrines of Arminius can be traced back as far as the time of Clemens Alexandrinus, and seem to have been held by many of the fathers of the third and fourth centuries, having been diffused in the church through the corrupting influence of pagan philosophy. Pelagius and his followers, in the fifth century, were as decidedly opposed to Calvinism as Arminius was, though they deviated much further from sound doctrine than he did.

Pelagius denied that human nature had been corrupted by sin. He maintained that the only ill effects which the race had suffered as the result of Adam’s transgression was the bad example which he had set for mankind. According to Pelagius, every infant comes into the world in the same condition as Adam was before the fall. His leading principle was that man’s will is absolutely free. Hence every one has the power, within himself, to believe the gospel as well as to perfectly keep the law of God.

Augustine, on the other hand, maintained that human nature had been so completely corrupted by Adam’s fall that no one, in himself, has the ability to obey either the law or the gospel. Divine grace is essential if sinners are to believe and be saved, and this grace is extended only to those whom God predestined to eternal life before the foundation of the world. The act of faith, therefore, results, not from the sinner’s free will (as Pelagius taught) but from God’s free race which is bestowed on the elect only.

B. Semi-Pelagianism, the Forerunner of Arminianism

Smeaton, in showing how Semi-Pelagianism (the forerunner of Arminianism) originated, states that Augustin’s unanswerable polemic had so fully discredited Pelagianism in the field of argument, that it could no longer be made plausible to the Christian mind. It collapsed. But a new system soon presented itself, teaching that man with his own natural powers is able to take the first step toward his conversion, and that this obtains or merits the Spirit’s assistance. Cassian . . . was the founder of this middle way, which came to be called SEMI-PELAGIANISM, because it occupied intermediate ground between Pelagianism and Augustinianism, and took in elements from both. He acknowledged that Adam’s sin extended to his posterity, and that human nature was corrupted by original sin. But, on the other hand, he held a system of universal grace for all men alike, making the final decision in the case of every individual dependent on the exercise of free-will. Speaking of those who followed Cassian, Smeaton continues, they held that the first movement of the will in the assent of faith must be ascribed to the natural powers of the human mind. This was their primary error. Their maxim was: ‘it is mine to be willing to believe, and it is the part of God’s grace to assist.’ They asserted the sufficiency of Christ’s grace for all, and that every one, according to his own will, obeyed or rejected the invitation, while God equally wished and equally aided all men to he saved . . . The entire system thus formed is a half-way house containing elements of error and elements of truth, and not at all differing from the Arminianism which, after the reauscitation of the doctrines of grace by the Reformers, diffused itself in the very same way through the different Churches.’ 7

Calvinism, the Theology of the Reformation

The leaders of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century rejected Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism on the ground that both systems were unscriptural. Like Augustine, the Reformers held to the doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and of unconditional election. As Boettner shows, they stood together in their view of predestination. It was taught not only by Calvin, but by Luther, Zwingli, Melancthon (although Melancthon later retreated toward the Semi-Pelagian position), by Bullinger, Bucer, and all of the outstanding leaders in the Reformation. While differing on some other points they agreed on this doctrine of Predestination and taught it with emphasis. Luther’s chief work, ‘The Bondage of the Will,’ shows that he went into the doctrine as heartily as did Calvin himself. 8

Packer states that all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation, stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points, they had their differences; but in asserting the helplessness of man in sin, and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them, these doctrines were the very life-blood of the Christian faith . . . . To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith. Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith; whether, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, or of self-reliance and self-effort. 9

Thus it is evident that the five points of Calvinism, drawn up by the Synod of Dort in 1619, was by no means a new system of theology. On the contrary, as Dr. Wyllie asserts of the Synod, It met at a great crisis and it was called to review, re-examine and authenticate over again, in the second generation since the rise of the Reformation, that body of truth and system of doctrine which that great movement had published to the world.” 10

IV. The Difference between Calvinism and Arminianism

The issues involved in this historic controversy are indeed grave, for they vitally affect the Christian’s concept of God, of sin, and of salvation. Packer, in contrasting these two systems, is certainly correct in asserting that The difference between them is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God Who saves; the other speaks of a God Who enables man to save himself. One view [Calvinism] presents the three great acts of the Holy Trinity for the recovering of lost mankind election by the Father, redemption by the Son, calling by the Spirit as directed towards the same persons, and as securing their salvation infallibly. The other view [Arminianism] gives each act a different reference (the objects of redemption being all mankind, of calling, those who hear the gospel, and of election, those hearers who respond), and denies that any man’s salvation is secured by any of them. The two theologies thus conceive the plan of salvation in quite different terms. One makes salvation depend on the work of God, the other on a work of man; one regards faith as part of God’s gift of salvation, the other as man’s own contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of saving believers to God, the other divides the praise between God, Who, so to speak, built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it. Plainly, these differences are important, and the permanent value of the ‘five points,’ as a summary of Calvinism, is that they make clear the points at which, and the extent to which, these two conceptions are at variance.’ 11

V. The One Point Which the Five Points of Calvinism Are Concerned to Establish

While recognizing the permanent value of the five points as a summary of Calvinism, Packer warns against simply equating Calvinism with the five points. He gives several excellent reasons why such an equation is incorrect, one of which we quote: ” . . . the very act of setting out Calvinistic soteriology [the doctrine of salvation] in the form of five distinct points (a number due, as we saw, merely to the fact that there were five Arminian points for the Synod of Dort to answer) tends to obscure the organic character of Calvinistic thought on this subject. For the five points, though separately stated, are really inseparable. They hang together; you cannot reject one without rejecting them all, at least in the sense in which the Synod meant them. For to Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners. God the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves—does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners—men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot. God saves sinners—and the force of this confession may not be weakened by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity, or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man’s own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner’s inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Saviour. This is the one point of Calvinistic anteriology which the ‘five points’ are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; Amen. 12

This brings to completion Part One of our survey. No attempt whatsoever has been made in this section to prove the truthfulness of the Calvinistic doctrines. Our sole purpose has been to give a brief history of the system and to explain its contents. We are now ready to consider its Biblical support.

7 George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, pp. 300,301 Italics and capitalizations are his. Semi-Pelagianism was repudiated by the Synod of Orange in 529 A.D., just as Arminianism was repudiated by the Synod of Dort almost eleven hundred years later.
8 Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p.1.
9 James I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Historical and Theological Introduction,” Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, pp. 58m59. In speaking of the English Reformation, Buis shows that “the advocates of that Reformation were definitely Calvinistic.” To substantiate this he quotes the following from Fisher, ” ‘The Anglican Church agreed with the Protestant Churches on the continent on the subject of predestination. On this subject, for a long period, the Protestants generally were united in opinion.’ ‘The leaders of the English Reformation, from the time when the death of Henry VII placed them firmly upon Protestant ground, profess the doctrine of absolute as distinguished from conditional predestination.’ ” Harry Buis, Historic Protestantism and Predestination, p. 87.
10 Quoted by Warbuton, Calvinism, p. 58. Smeaton says of the work of the Synod of Dort that “it may be questioned whether anything more valuable as an ecclesiastical testimony for the doctrines of sovereign, special, efficacious grace was ever prepared on this important theme since the days of the apostles.” George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, p. 320.
11 Packer, “Introductory Essay,” (above, fn. 4), pp.4,5.
12 Packer, “Introductory Essay,” (above, fn. 4), p. 6. Italics are his.
Article from: The Five Points of Calvinism Defined, Defended, Documented
  by David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas