Calvin and Arminius set the stage for John Wesley's approach to reform.
Jacob Arminius (1559 – 1609) was a Dutch pastor and scholar who spent most of his career as a pastor in Amsterdam. He served as professor of theology at the University of Leiden for about 6 years before dying of tuberculosis in 1609. His pastoral spirit and sensibilities cannot be overestimated and were clearly present throughout the entirety of his career, including his theological writings.
Jacob Arminius’s theology stands as a crucial bridge between the theology of John Calvin and the theology of John Wesley and his followers. Any understanding of Wesley’s theology that does not pay sufficient attention to the work of Arminius is unintelligible. It is in the work of Arminius, whose life intersected the end of the life of John Calvin (1509-1564), that we see both the connections John Wesley’s theology had with Calvin’s, as well as the key areas that separate Calvinists and Wesleyans theologically. Specifically, Arminius was troubled by a particular doctrine taught by many of Calvin’s supporters, namely, that even before sin entered the world (“the fall”), God predestines some to eternal life and others to eternal separation or damnation. This doctrine was ratified by the Synod of Dort (a specially called meeting of Reformed churches in 1618-19, decades after Calvin’s death). Arminius produced many works, the most important of which was the Declaration of Sentiments in 1608, which spelled out in detail his opposition to that doctrine. Over a century after this, John Wesley took up the mantle of Arminius in his opposition to what became strongly identified with Calvinism.
Arminius was a Reformed Christian. He was deeply sympathetic to the need for reform and to the Reformation cry of Reformata, Semper Reformandi (Reformed, Always Reforming). He loved John Calvin and his theological teachings, even though he disagreed with some key areas of John Calvin. Arminius can be described as a truly holistic thinker who places his ultimate fidelity in Scripture and to the pursuit of Jesus as first and foremost, prior to any hermeneutical or philosophical agenda or tradition.1 As such, he was able to embrace the true spirit of the Reformation in ways that some of Calvin’s other followers were not.
Arminius was ultimately concerned with being faithful to Scripture. The truth of this somewhat oversimplified statement can be seen in Arminius’s willingness to question the view of predestination that had become standard for Calvinists or Reformed Christians. The Calvinistic approach allowed no role for human choice. The source for this line of reasoning was simple: if human volition played even the smallest role in salvation, then humans could be said to cause or even earn their own salvation. Thus the sovereignty of God was questioned and, ultimately, weakened. However, Arminius believed that such reasoning made God the “author of sin,” and deemed this teaching to be utterly unacceptable.
For Arminius, humans do possess a certain free will, though perhaps “freed will” is a better term.
Arminius taught that humans possess a freedom derived by the free gift of God’s undeserved grace. Though unable to do good completely on their own, Arminius thought of humans as vessels that can either be open to God’s goodness or not. By choosing to remain closed off from God’s goodness, Arminius believed humans can choose evil. And though humans cannot necessarily choose goodness on their own, they can be open to it, allowing the Holy Spirit to free them from sin, thereby redeeming and freeing their will.
By choosing to maintain a posture of openness to God’s goodness, Arminius believed the Holy Spirit was allowed to work in and through our imperfect vessels to help us to do good and to grow in grace. This distinction allowed Arminius to maintain God’s utter sovereignty, while nonetheless allowing for human free will to play an important role in faith, discipleship, and sanctification.
Whether John Calvin, in fact, supported this more radical view of predestination is difficult to say. What is clear is that most of his followers did support this position, and it became a fixed Reformed position after the Synod of Dort. Today, most Calvinists do affirm the type of predestination that Arminius rejected. It is also safe to assume that whether or not Calvin himself taught this exact position, by the time of John Wesley, Calvin and Calvinism were taken to be one and the same. So, despite having a strong affinity for the Reformation teachings of John Calvin, John Wesley simply could not agree with this one key teaching. In Arminius, though, Wesley found a way to emphasize God’s sovereignty that also preserved the role of human freewill. This is a cornerstone of Wesley’s theology.
Scholars are uncertain how Wesley first became acquainted with the Dutch pastor and theologian Jacob Arminius. What we do know is that in addition to strong theological similarities, when Wesley started his own theological journal, he called it “The Arminian Magazine” (1778 – 1797). Wesley believed himself to be an Arminian. To be an Arminian is to be a Christian that holds to a variant of Reformed, and therefore Protestant, theology which places biblical and pastoral concerns as central. Wesleyan Christians, in short, should heed this description, and embrace their heritage as Arminian Christians.
A renewed emphasis on the pastoral theology of Jacob Arminius is important today. Typically, Wesleyan’s tend to oscillate between a theology of grace and a theology of God’s sovereignty. Indeed, if we are to understand John Wesley’s penchant for grace coupled with his strongly Reformed and Anglican understanding of God’s sovereignty, we will see that both positions can lay claim to Wesley. Arminius’s theology provides the bridge and key to such an understanding. Through understanding Arminius’s theology, Wesleyans can lay claim to the very best of Reformation theology.
1Rustin E. Brian, Jacob Arminius: The Man from Oudewater. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. See the works cited for a list of helpful resources and works to engage for further study.
Rusty Brian serves as Lead Pastor of Christ Community Church of the Nazarene in Concord, CA and serves as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Northwest Nazarene University.
Holiness Today, Sept/Oct 2017