Calvinism and Arminianism: An Overview

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

In this episode of the Ask Anything Theology series, I address a question that comes up a lot: what is Calvinism? What is Arminianism? Where do we see these theologies and what do they affect?

The terms Reformed and Calvinist, though not the same, are often used interchangeably. So if you have been introduced to “reformed” theology, this would be a good listen for you. If you are a Calvinist who has been taught that Arminians compromise the gospel or are “semi-Pelagian”, I would also encourage you to listen! You might be surprised at what Arminius actually taught.

  • 4:45 – a history of determinist and provisionist theology from 400 to the Reformation
  • 16:55 – an overview of Calvinist doctrine via TULIP
  • 21:00 – history of Jacob Arminius and his theology
  • 23:55 – an overview of Arminian doctrine in five points
  • 29:50 – four lies about Calvinism and Arminianism

Resources for Further Study

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Welcome to Verity. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher. This podcast will help you embrace the history and depth of the Christian faith. Ask questions, seek answers, and devote yourself to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to settle for watered down Christian teaching. If you’re ready to go deeper, God is just as ready to take you there. This is Verity, where every woman is a theologian. 

If there ever was a topic that I was asked about more than any other topic, this is probably it. There is absolutely no way I can cover every single angle in one short episode, but I do hope that this will give my listeners who maybe are as familiar with either Calvinism or Arminianism, a little bit of an overview and a starting point for your own study of this topic. Now, I have been studying this topic for over 10 years. I’ve been at least engaging with it for more than that, but definitely studying for a significant amount of time. I love to read both Calvinist authors and Arminian authors. I think that’s important regardless of where you land when it comes to your salvation theology. Before we get into what these are as far as the breakdown of the theological viewpoint, I want to do a little bit of church history and some defining of terms, because if you’re like, “What on earth is a Calvinist, what is an Arminian, and am I one of those?”, [laughs] you probably will have a better idea of where you land by the end of this episode. But I want to make sure that we start out with some definition of terms and a little bit of church history, because it won’t make sense otherwise. 

The first thing I want to make sure you understand is that both Calvinism and Arminianism fall within the Orthodox Christian community. That means that the Calvinist brother is your brother in Christ. The Arminian brother is your brother in Christ. Now, there may be people in either of these camps who aren’t walking as if they were a Christian, or maybe don’t even fully understand their theology, or maybe they’re just plain mean and rude about their theology, or maybe they don’t know exactly what they believe they just assume it. So, yes, there’s a spectrum of behavior. But as an actual theology, both Calvinism and Arminianism can be biblically supported and do fall within Orthodox Christianity.

These are not denominations. That’s important. A denomination is a specific church that has a structure, an elder board, and oversight committee, and in order to be within that denomination, you have to align with specific doctrines, usually in secondary and third tier issues. So, we’re not talking about say, Methodism or Presbyterianism. Calvinism and Arminianism are theological frameworks. They are ways of understanding the Bible and certain denominations fall within those frameworks. By and large, Arminianism is the dominant view, because Charismatics, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Methodists, many Baptists all fall under the Arminian viewpoint, whether they know it or not. Your Reformed Baptists, Presbyterians, Presbyterian Church of America, 1618 Baptist, those churches are all under the Reformed or Calvinist umbrella.

As we talk through this, I want you just to keep in mind that we’re not talking about a church that says, First Calvinist Church of America. [laughs] You’re not going to see that. You’re going to see denominations that reflect either Calvinistic or Arminian ways of understanding salvation. Both of these camps affirm that Christ is the only way to God. They both affirm original sin, and the atonement, the resurrection, the virgin birth, all of those orthodox necessities. That’s important, because we should be affirming those orthodox necessities. So, that’s a little bit about the terminology and understanding what this means. 

Now, we’re going to look at history and kind of where we saw these theologies first emerging. So, this actually goes way, way back, even beyond the Reformation. The Reformation happened in the 1500s, it’s when the Protestant church broke From the Catholic church. Originally, they wanted to reform it from the inside, Luther specifically. When that couldn’t happen, they broke from the Catholic church, and after that is where we see this boom of different denominations that we’re developing from the 1500s to today. The Reformation is where we usually hear people talking about Calvinism and the rise of Reformed theology. Reformed theology linked to the Reformation.

But it goes further back than that. It actually goes back to the 400s. The first three centuries of the church, there was a lot of hammering out of the Trinity, the nature of God, the nature of Christ, and narrowing down, what are the some of these fundamental doctrines that we need to make sure are in writing. We got the Apostles’ Creed, we got the Nicene Creed, and eventually the Athanasian Creed. But after that in the next few centuries, the fourth through the eighth, the question then began to be, what is our anthropology, what is our theology of man, of original sin, and how grace works, and what happens in salvation? In the 400s, we saw theologians hammering out what these things look like. Two of the key players at this point were a monk named Palladius, and another one named Augustine. 

Now, you’re probably familiar with Augustine. He was a prolific writer. He wrote his Confessions, which are one of the greatest works of Christian history. But a lot of what Augustine was writing and working on arose directly due to some controversies with Pelagius. So, who is Pelagius? Pelagius was a pastor. One of the big problems that he ran into was Christians, or so-called Christians in his churches or in churches around him, who were not living as genuine believers. They were living in sinful lifestyles, sexually immoral lifestyles, and they just didn’t seem to care about the fact that their lives did not reflect holiness. Pelagius began to draw the conclusion that the doctrine of original sin actually was making Christians apathetic about holiness. His desire was to preserve the need for a holy lifestyle. So, he began to present the idea that Christians are fully responsible for their behavior, and God gives them the ability to choose right or choose wrong.

Basically, he leaned so far into a doctrine of works, that it’s all up to man, that he started to actually downplay and even ignore the doctrine of grace. What’s interesting here is that, when people talk about Pelagius, they usually talk about him as if he thought that humans were just so good. They could reach God on their own. But that’s not actually what he believed. He believed that teaching original sin was giving the idea that Christians could tolerate their own sins, that they could just live with them, and that there was no real hope of getting rid of it, so, why really even try? He thought Christians should take responsibility for their sin and that God expected them to do so. But there were consequences to what he did with his theology because of that concern.

Now, on the other end of things, you had Augustine. I’m quoting Justin Holcomb here, who said that, “Augustine really firmly believed in original sin. In his view, humans begin life in the grip of a power they cannot shake, and which will draw them deeper and deeper into destruction unless God Himself rescues them.” Now, here’s something important about both Augustine and Palladius. Just as Palladius’ dogmas reflected his own life of self-discipline and hard work, Augustine was influenced by a youth that was wasted in increasingly selfish pursuits. From his point of view, his desires propelled him into sin, but he had not reformed his life by increasing his desire to do good. So, he goes on to say that we need grace to even walk in freedom from our sins. We can’t just choose to reject our sins.

And so Pelagius had solved the problem of sin and human responsibility, again quoting Justin Holcomb, “By arguing that humans are perfectly capable of doing whatever they want.” So, they are responsible for what they do. Augustine solved it by saying that humans deliberately act against the good ideals that they don’t know and are selfish, greedy, lustful, stubborn, and proud. So, Augustine’s framework what he put forth in Latin is called non posse non peccare, not able not to sin. This was the argument of the fourth century, and ultimately, what happened was the church had to address it, and they addressed it via a council, calling together all the bishops and pastors, the ones in power to come and decide which of these was more biblical. At the Council of Carthage, Pelagius’ view was condemned and Augustine was embraced. Now, this doesn’t mean that they embraced every single thing that Augustine taught, but it does set us up for an understanding of the difference in these theologies, and how Augustine’s theology, which is what much of Calvin’s work and Luther’s understanding is based on, carried forward into the Reformation. 

It’s important at this point to make a quick little distinction, and all of these names and things will come back up in a little bit when we talk about the actual theology. There was a third option at this point. This option was proposed by a man named John Cassian. John Cassian argued that human freedom is not in conflict with God’s grace. God predestines based on foreseeing who will freely choose Him. This is kind of a Molinist standpoint. We’ll have to do a podcast episode on Molinism at some point. So, God knows who will choose Him, but He gives him the grace to do so. God’s still the initiator, and He is enabling people by giving them the will to choose or reject. He used the story of Zacchaeus to back this up. Now, at that time in the drama surrounding the Council of Carthage, people like John Cassian were often labeled semi-Pelagian, which they actually didn’t even hold to at all. They really were in between, and they were not adhering to Pelagius’ view because they did hold to original sin, and they do believe that God is the initiator. This Cassian view of theology is going to show up again, when we talk about Arminian theology, and you’ll see the difference, the fundamental difference between Pelagius and Arminius in a few moments. So, that gives us a little idea of what was happening in the four hundreds. 

Now, let’s wildly do a big jump forward into the 1500s in the Reformation. At this point, the Catholic church has given in to a lot of corruption, and originally, Luther and other reformers were hoping just to change the church and make it better, but because that couldn’t happen, there ended up being a schism and a split away from the Roman Catholic church. There were quite a few reformers who were working and writing at this time, but two that are important to know are, of course, Martin Luther and then John Calvin. Calvin is the namesake of Calvinism. Even though Lutheranism and Calvinism hold a lot of the same theological tenets, Calvin ended up developing a system of theology that today gives us a more structured way of understanding what reformed churches believe.

Now, we’re going to walk through some of the basic tenets of Calvinism and also the basic tenets of Arminianism. But I want to note that as we walk through them, these really were not nailed down and put into nice, neat little boxes until Arminius started writing. So, Calvin preceded Arminius in developing these thoughts, and he also, I think I mentioned, like Augustine, he was a prolific writer. So, he has outlined this theology in his commentaries, in his institutes, but it’s not in a neat little package. It was later scholars who summed up his views and summarized them in an acronym called TULIP. We’re going to do next is we’re going to walk through to look which is the five tenants of Calvinistic theology, and then, we’re going to walk through Arminian tenants which are written as a counter to TULIP. These two views, Calvinism and Arminianism, bounce off of each other, much like Augustine and Palladius were feeding off of one another and arguing against one another, and thus their arguments are perhaps more exaggerated than they would have even personally believed, the same thing happened between Calvinists and Arminians post Reformation.

Let’s walk through some of the basics here of Calvinism, and then we’ll get on to Arminian theology. Again, this is a very broad overview. I get more into this and my theology basics classes that are four weeks long, where we are able to do more reading, and discussion, and talk about God’s sovereignty, and how these different views deal with that. We don’t have time for that in this episode. So, we’re just going to do a high-level view. 

The Calvinist salvation theology is best summed up by the acronym TULIP. The T stands for total depravity. The first tenant of Calvinist salvation theology is total depravity, but it’s better said total inability. Calvinists, Catholics, and Arminians all affirm that man is totally depraved, as in sin is affecting every part of his personality. So, they all affirm this, but Calvinists take it a little further, and they use the term ‘total inability.’ According to this point, man is completely incapable of responding to God’s offer of salvation without God first regenerating him. This idea is taken from Romans 5:12, that man is dead in his sins. Since, dead men are unresponsive, no one is able to respond to God of His own will. God must will him to choose salvation in Christ. 

This then is connected to the second point which is unconditional election. This has to do with who is saved. God elected certain individuals to salvation based on his own will. Romans 9 is often cited for this. This decision was made before the foundation of the world, Ephesians 1. Election is often termed predestination. Oftentimes, people will ask me, “What do you think of predestination?” I always answer, “It’s in the Bible. [giggles] It’s part of Christian theology.” The difference is how churches view that it works out. What is that how? Calvinists believe predestination means that God is choosing certain individuals to be saved. Some Calvinists believe in what’s called double predestination, that God not only elects who will be saved, but he also elects who will be going to hell specifically. There’s a little difference there between those two. The unconditional election is characteristic of Calvinistic theology and absolutely connected to total inability. So, we’ve got the T, and the U in TULIP. 

Next, we’re going to talk about the L, limited atonement. Limited atonement like the other two, it’s integral to the whole picture. In this tenet, Calvinism teaches that Christ died for some, Matthew 26:28, but not for all. His salvation is effective only for those who God gave him to save. This is according to John 17:9. So, limited atonement is basically that the atonement applied only to those who God had Jesus save, those who were elected.

Irresistible Grace is the I in TULIP. This tenant teaches that those who are called and elected by God will certainly respond. God isn’t going to call someone, and someone resist Him. That’s not possible in this sociological framework. Irresistible Grace is teaching that all who God has elected will be saved and anyone who was saved is saved because God chose him. God elected him. This is according to John 6 and Romans 8. So, grace cannot be resisted. God is not going to call you and you say, “No, thanks, God, I’m walking away.”

Now, let’s connect some these dots here. Remember T is for total inability. You can’t reach God without being first regenerated. Unconditional election, God is choosing who he regenerates. Limited atonement, the atonement only applies to those he regenerates. Irresistible grace, you cannot resist His grace and you wouldn’t because you’ve been regenerated and are responding to Him. The final is perseverance of the saints, TULIP ending with a P. The simplest way to define this is, “Once saved, always saved.” Christians, true saints will persevere in their salvation. They will not and cannot lose their salvation or reject it. If someone is rejecting the Christian faith, they were never saved in the first place. This is a summary of Calvinist salvation theology, TULIP. Total depravity or total inability, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. Again, this was not directly outlined by Calvin. In fact, this was outline more specifically after Arminianism began to take route. 

Now, let’s talk a little bit about what Arminianism is. A lot of people tend to confuse this with the nationality to be Arminian, and there’s a difference. Arminian has an eye, it’s named for Jacob Arminius. Some interesting things about Jacob Arminius. He actually started out as a Calvinist apologist, and he was really good at it. He was asked to defend Calvinism against what we would now call an Arminian teacher or a follower of John Cassian’s views. In writing his rebuttal to this person, Arminius actually became convinced that Calvinism was an error regarding salvation theology. Now, here’s where we need to make a very important distinction. Arminius did not hold to Palladius’ theology. He was not a Palladian. He did not believe that original sin wasn’t a thing.

In fact, I’m going to read you a quote by Jacob Arminius about original sin. He put it this way.

“In this state,” so in the sinful state, “the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirmed, bent, and weakened, but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. Its powers are not only debilitated and useless, unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever, except such as are excited by divine grace.”

What Arminius is saying here is that, the will of man is to imperfect and affected by sin to ever reach God on its own. This is an important departure from what Pelagius was teaching.

One of the accusations that will sometimes come against Arminian teachers and Christians is that Arminians are semi-Pelagian, and that’s simply not true. When you study what Arminius taught, you quickly see that he held to the fundamentals of original sin and the necessity of God’s initiation and grace as much as a Calvinist would have. Further he was very familiar with Calvinist theology, and would have been familiar with the Council of Carthage and how Pelagianism was condemned.

Let’s talk a little bit about the principles of Arminians. What do they believe? I’m going to talk about these in the same order as I talked about TULIP lip because that’s just going to make the most sense from a listening perspective. Total depravity, Arminians are in agreement with Calvinists on the effects of sin on the human personality. Salvation begins with God. He is the one who calls to each person, He is the initiator, and no one can come to God unless He draws them. This is according to John 6:44, Genesis 3, Ephesians 2, Colossians 2, and other passages. Unlimited atonement, this differs from Calvinism, and I want to make a quick little caveat here. The Arminian view of unlimited atonement that all people can be saved, that Jesus died for anyone who would call upon His name, this is distinct from universalism that believes that whether or not someone follows Christ, they will be saved. This kind of universalism is also called total reconciliation, that no matter what happens or who you follow in this life, at the end of your days, Jesus will save you regardless of whether you ever put Faith or allegiance in Him. That is not what Arminius taught, and it’s not what Arminians believe. They do not hold the total reconciliation or universalism. They hold to unlimited atonement, which can also be called unlimited provision. 

Arminians believe Christ died for whoever would respond to God’s initiation, according to John 3:16. God loves everyone in the world. He sent His Son to atone for them. 1 John 2:2, and God’s desires for all to be saved, 1 Timothy 2:4. So, God’s mercy is driving His salvation. However, only those who believe in Christ, who give their allegiance to Him can experience eternal life. According to John 3:36, it says, “Whoever believes in His Son has eternal life. But whoever rejects His Son will not see life for God’s wrath remains on them.” So, here in this verse, we see that we’re already under wrath and separated from God and it’s only through Christ that we are able to participate in the atonement. But according to earlier verses, John 3:16, 3:18, and Arminian would argue that we are able to respond to God’s initiation.

We have total depravity, unlimited atonement. Our next tenet is freed by grace to believe. God in His prevenient grace, prevenient grace is a principle of Arminian theology. It gives me the opportunity to respond or reject His atonement. His spirit will draw on convict, but you will not force or will someone to accept the gospel. In his sovereignty, He has imparted man the ability to respond. So, the fact that that He has supernaturally given this freewill, if you want to say, to sinners, to believe or not believe is an act of His Almighty nature. It’s actually an example of His sovereignty. 

I’m going to read you another little quote here from Jerry Wells that talks a little bit more about this. “God is no less sovereign in a world where He chooses to grant His creatures libertarian freedom than He is in a world where He determines everything. Sovereignty cannot simply be equated with meticulous control. Rather, sovereignty is the freedom to choose as one will and to accomplish one’s purposes. If God chooses to create people who are free, and to accomplish His purposes through their undetermined choices, it is his sovereign right to do so. Less control is not the same as less sovereignty, if God chooses to have less control. A perfectly good and wise God will exercise just the amount of control appropriate for the sort of world He chooses to create.” This is another important distinction for Arminians because sometimes because of the emphasis of God’s sovereignty and Calvinist theology, it can be said that Arminians don’t support the view of God’s sovereignty or God’s supremacy in the universe, but a true Arminian will affirm God’s sovereignty and sees God’s grace as evidence of that sovereignty and how He granted man the will to choose or reject Him. 

The next tenet is conditional election. God elects only those people to salvation who respond to Christ. He has known who will respond from before the foundation of the world, Ephesians 1, and has predestined the plane of salvation through Christ. That plan of salvation is available to those whom He knew would repent and follow. 1 Corinthians 2, 1 Peter 1 are proof texts for that. So, this is probably the view you’re familiar hearing. Those who respond to Christ will be part of His flock. This is called conditional election versus the Calvinistic unconditional election where God is choosing who will respond to Him. He’s basically leading them to respond to Him. Here, God is initiating, He’s calling to that person, but He has sovereignly given them the ability to respond to that call or reject it.

The last point is security in Christ. Christ secures our salvation eternally. Our salvation is preserved by Him, and by walking in the Spirit, who helps us continue in our faith. Now, Arminians are divided a little on whether you can lose your salvation or whether the only way to “lose it” is to consciously and actively reject Christ. Some Arminians, Reformed Arminians hold to “once saved, always saved view” that those who reject Christ never knew Him to begin with.

So, that’s kind of a high-level overview of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism. Now, I want to go over a few lies that are put forth about each and I’m trying to keep this a shorter episode, so, I’m only going to cover two lies about Calvinism and two lies about Arminianism. First lie I want to talk about is related to Calvinism. That’s that Calvinists believe that God ordained sin. They do not believe this. During the Reformation, there were some Calvinists who are called High Calvinists, who did go all the way to this extreme, specifically a man named Joseph Beza. But the reality is, he was a fringe extremist among Calvinists. Calvin himself did not teach that God ordains, or starts, or causes sin in any way. He upheld what he believed that Scripture teaches about sin, about grace, and about election. But to take it all the way to the extreme that God is ordaining and causing sin would taint the character of God. Calvinism does not hold to that.

The second lie about Calvinism is that Calvinists believe there is no free will, and therefore, people aren’t responsible for their sinful choices. This is also not true. It’s the lie that Palladius was actually reacting against when he created his strange theology of original sin, that it didn’t exist. [laughs] Calvinists believe that you have a freewill to choose sin or to reject it in your daily life. God will hold you accountable for those choices that you make, whether you choose to walk by the Spirit as a Christian or you choose to walk in your flesh. That is a power that God gives you. But they don’t believe that you can choose to be saved or that you can reach God on your own power. They believe that God is electing you and choosing those who will be within the body of Christ. 

Let’s talk about the two lies regarding Arminianism. I covered one of these, but I do want to revisit it. Arminians are not semi-Palladian, the lie is that they are. Remember, there’s a huge difference between what Arminius was teaching and what Palladius was teaching, and that’s the doctrine of original sin. Arminius upheld that man was totally depraved and unable to save himself. He also upheld God’s sovereignty and that God sovereignly gave man the ability to respond to His call. The second lie is connected to the first and that’s that Arminians deny original sin. As I read that quote from Arminius a little bit earlier, you can tell, he definitely did not do that, and he upheld God’s sovereignty as well.

In the end, for both Calvinists and Arminians, we unite around what we absolutely know for sure and that is the core doctrines, what we see in the Creeds that is affirmed by those who hold on to Orthodox Christianity. As far as an Arminian and a Calvinist hold to those core doctrines and don’t revert to fringe extremist views on those doctrines, they are brother and sister who are walking in fellowship in the church. The goal here is for you to continue your study, to continue digging into these things, and as I always say, be reading authors from the other perspectives. Don’t just read in your own camp. Be willing to read outside of your camp and explore what other Christians believe, who are writing about these things from a slightly different perspective, while still being within Orthodox Christianity. 

I hope this episode was helpful and a jumping off point for you. If you would like more information and instruction on this. and how it connects to God’s sovereignty and to determinism and things like that, you can join one of my theology basics classes. These classes are small, they have limited sizes, and we put them up on my websites. You can choose the month you want to join, but I’m delighted to be able to offer them, and I think that if you really want to dig more into this, that would be a great opportunity to learn alongside other members of my community. Thanks for joining me again. I will be back next week with the next installment in Ask Anything Theology. 


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