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A Debate Begins

Jacobus Arminius was a pastor and professor living in Holland. Arminius was well known and well liked. Trained in the reformed theology of Calvinism, Arminius was asked to disprove a theologian named Dirck Koornhert, “a theologian who rejected some aspects of Calvin’s doctrine, particularly in the matter of predestination.” (Predestination is the belief that God establishes what will happen beforehand, particularly in regard to salvation). And what was Calvin’s understanding of predestination? Calvin once wrote, “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man.”

But in the process of studying in order to counter Koornhert, Arminius came to believe that Koornhert was actually right. In 1603, Arminius took a new position at the University of Leiden. There Arminius began to debate a man named Franciscus Gomarus.Gomarus was, González tells us, a “firm believer in predestination in the strictest sense.” Now, while both Arminius and Gomarus agreed that Scripture points to predestination, they disagreed on “the basis on which predestination takes place. “How do we understand the differences in their arguments? For Arminius, his understanding was that “God elects to eternal life those who will respond in faith to the divine offer of salvation. In so doing, he [Arminius] meant to place greater emphasis on God’s mercy. González notes, “According to Arminius, predestination was based on God’s foreknowledge of those who would later have faith in Jesus Christ. Gomarus, on the other hand, claimed that faith itself is the result of predestination, so that before the foundation of the world the sovereign will of God decreed who would have faith and who would not.”

The Synod of Dort

After Arminius died, the debate continued in the Netherlands. Eventually, Prince Maurice of Nassau decided to support the cause of Gomarus. A gathering was called in order to finally settle the debate between followers of Arminius and followers of Gomarus. This gathering, called the Synod of Dort, met from November 1618 to May 1619. At the synod, the Arminian position was condemned. Those gathered set out five key principles in response to Arminius’ teaching. These principles, including the doctrines of irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints (the belief that those in Christ can’t fall away), have become known as the five points of Calvinism.

What started as a debate within Calvinism led to a widespread theological perspective called Arminianism. While followers of Arminianism faced persecution in the Netherlands after the Synod of Dort, eventually policies against them relaxed. In time, Arminianism emerged as a major movement within Protestantism. Included in Arminian theology are the beliefs that “Christ died for all (not just the elect) and individuals can resist grace and even lose salvation.” As scholar Roger Olson writes, “It is the belief that God does not save people without their free assent but gives them ‘prevenient grace’ (grace that goes before and prepares) to liberate their wills from bondage to sin and make them free to hear, understand, and respond to the gospel call.” Today, Arminian theology continues in many independent, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches.

Unity in the Midst of Diversity

In the course of our study of the Protestant Reformation, we have seen disagreements between Protestant groups play out in various ways. With the Anabaptists, other Protestants responded in often violent and extreme ways. In other instances, disagreements kept reform movements from uniting (as was the case with Luther and Zwingli). In the landscape of Christianity today, with numerous denominations around the world, there are certainly still disagreements and divergent theological perspectives even alongside a shared commitment to the gospel. Without minimizing these differences, what does unity look like in the midst of diverse expressions of the Christian faith? Spend some time pondering what the Lord wants to say to you in this.

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How can you build bridges with other brothers and sisters in Christ who may hold to different theological beliefs or express their faith in a different manner than you?

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