Part 1. The Classical Calvinists V. The Arminians: An Introduction to the Problem (Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility)

This post represents the first of many (I think, we’ll see how that goes) on engaging the issue of God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in the realm of salvation. I had intended on getting into the text of John Webster’s Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, in this post; which is where I will be endeavoring to explicate a way beyond the impasse represented by the polarizing ends of either framing this issue of salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty and/or Human Responsibility, as if these can be pulled apart this way (which as we will see, they really can’t, or shouldn’t be). But given the breadth and depth of this topic, I think this post will have to contain itself with some necessary ground clearing that will provide a little more context to what I will be intending to resolve, or reframe. So this post will be just that, an exercise in ground clearing through problematizing the issue at hand: i.e. God’s Sovereignty in salvation and Human Responsibility just the same.

Thus, the following will be a minimalist comparison, and abductive exercise in teasing out the differences that have provided fuel for the fire of the long contested debate that has inhered between those rascally Calvinists and curmudgeonly Arminians over the last few centuries. In order to accomplish this task what better place to go than the documentary source of the debate in the first place; to Holland we must go! We turn then to the 5 Articles of the Remonstrance which Jacobus Arminius penned (by and large), which have provided the space for Arminian theology to grow in; and then the response from the Calvinists, their Canons of Dort (which later became popularized by the acronym TULIP). We will not look at the whole of either document (although I will have linkage to both of them so you can survey them in total for yourselves, if you like); instead, for our purposes, I will only be comparing what I deem the most salient points of contact for us. That is, we will pay attention to the ‘points’ that illustrate the difference (or maybe the similarity, surprisingly in some ways) that has provided the kindling for the fire that continues to burn between the Calvinists and Arminians. Here is the first article of the remonstrance:

Article 1.

[Conditional Election – corresponds to the second of TULIP’s five points, Unconditional Election]

That God, by an eternal and unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son before the foundation of the world, has determined that out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who through the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath and to condemn them as alienated from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John 3:36: “He that believes on the Son has everlasting life: and he that does not believe the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him,” and according to other passages of Scripture also. [See all the Articles, here]

So the emphasis falls on those who ‘shall believe’ as the basis of God’s choice of them in election. Old school theologian, and Arminian theologian, Henry Thiessen states the logic of this article very clearly when he writes,

[…] It was an act of grace [election], in that He chose them “in Christ.” He could not choose them in themselves because of their ill desert; so He chose them in the merits of another. Furthermore, He chose those who He foreknew would accept Christ. The Scriptures definitely base God’s election on His foreknowledge: “Whom He foreknew, He also foreordained, … and whom He foreordained, them He also called” (Rom. 8:29, 30); “to the elect … according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet. 1:1, 2). Although we are nowhere told what it is in the foreknowledge of God that determines His choice, the repeated teaching of Scripture that man is responsible for accepting or rejecting salvation necessitates our postulating that it is man’s reaction to the revelation of God has made of Himself that is the basis of His election…. [brackets mine] [Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures In Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), 344.]

This could be a more contemporary rendition and elucidation of what was originally written in the first article of the Remonstrant back in 1610. So God’s election to salvation, in this schema, is based on his ability to look down the corridor of time, see those individuals who will respond in the affirmative to His call of salvation; and then it is on this basis, that God is said to elect these individuals. God’s election is contingent on the choice of the person, God’s election in salvation is grounded in the human being’s Yes or No to Him.

And then the seventh article, in response, from the Canons of Dort:

Article 7: Election

Election is God’s unchangeable purpose by which he did the following:

Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, God chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. God did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.

And so God decreed to give to Christ those chosen for salvation, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through the Word and Spirit. In other words, God decreed to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of the Son, to glorify them.

God did all this in order to demonstrate his mercy, to the praise of the riches of God’s glorious grace. [see in full the Canons of Dort here]

In contrast, then, to the Remonstrance; the Calvinists, the Canons of Dort make clear that they believe that God’s choice of humanity is not contingent on the individuals who choose Him. Instead, salvation, for the Dortians is grounded in God’s choice of particular, and thus ‘elect’ individuals. The emphasis is on God’s choice and not man’s or woman’s.


Hopefully this has been an effective exercise in highlighting the historic differences between the classical Calvinist and Arminian distinctions on this highly debated topic. In the next post I will resummarize this debate, and use this as the backdrop towards a solution to this conflict that is provided through the grammar and theo-logic of Karl Barth and John Webster. For the classic Calvinist and Arminian salvation is either based solely on God’s choice or Humanity’s. But the reality is, is that it can be both; and the both can still all be grounded in God’s choice without denigrating the Human choice and responsibility therein.

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One Response to Part 1. The Classical Calvinists V. The Arminians: An Introduction to the Problem (Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility)

  1. Pingback: Part 2. The Impasse, God’s Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: God’s Freedom for Himself as the Sustaining Freedom For Us, For Him « The Evangelical Calvinist

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