On Arminius, Confessional Subscription, and the Limits of Tolerance

Jacob Arminius (d. 1609) thought of himself as Reformed. He wanted to be regarded as Reformed. He graduated from the seminary in Geneva. He studied with that stalwart of Reformed orthodoxy, Theodore Beza (d. 1605). He was a Reformed minister in good standing. His work was widely appreciated and received with thanks in many parts of the Netherlands and in the British isles. He faced allegedly “narrow-minded” critics in his own day who were unable to see that Arminius represented the next great breakthrough in Reformed theology. Semper Reformanda right?

Toward the end of his career his gifts and contributions were recognized with an appointment to teach Reformed theology in the university. Surely from some perspective Arminius’ theology (and the resulting Remonstrant movement) could have been found a salutary corrective to some “problem” in Reformed theology.

The Synod of Dort, however, didn’t see things thus. They found no perspective from which to appreciate Arminius’ contribution to Reformed theology. Mike Brown explains. Consider the concluding remarks by the Synod:

This is the clear, simple, and sincere declaration of the orthodox doctrine concerning the five articles which have been disputed in the Belgic Churches, and a rejection of the errors by which they have for some time been troubled. The Synod judges this doctrine to be drawn from the Word of God, and to be agreeable to the confession of the Reformed Churches. Whence it clearly appears that some, whom it by no means became, have violated all truth, equity, and charity, in wishing to persuade the public of the following perversion:

Namely, “That the doctrine of the Reformed Churches concerning predestination, with its associated points, by its own genius and necessary tendency, leads the minds of men away from all piety and religion; that it is an opiate administered by the flesh and the devil; the stronghold of Satan, where he lies in wait for all, and from which he wounds multitudes, and mortally pierces many with darts both of despair and security; that this same doctrine makes God the author of sin, unjust, tyrannical, hypocritical; that it is nothing more than interpolated Stoicism, Manicheism, Libertinism, Turcism; that it renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please; and, therefore, that they may safely perpetrate every species of the most atrocious crimes. And conversely that, in this Reformed doctrine of predestination, if the reprobate should even perform truly all the works of the saints, their obedience would not in the least contribute to their salvation; that this same doctrine teaches that God, by a mere arbitrary act of his will, without the least respect or view to any sin, has predestined the greatest part of the world to eternal damnation, and has created them for this very purpose; that in the same manner in which the election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety; that many children of the faithful are torn, guiltless, from their mothers’ breasts, and tyrannically plunged into hell: so that neither baptism nor the prayers of the Church at their baptism can at all profit them.” And they go on to suggest many other things of the same kind which the Reformed Churches not only do not acknowledge but detest with their whole soul.

Wherefore, this Synod of Dort, in the name of the Lord, entreats as many as reverently call upon the name of our Savior Jesus Christ to judge the faith of the Reformed Churches, not from the slander which on every side is heaped upon it, nor from the private expressions of a few among ancient and modern teachers, often dishonestly quoted, or corrupted and taken to a meaning quite foreign to their intention; but from the public confessions of the Churches themselves, and from this declaration of the orthodox doctrine, confirmed by the unanimous consent of all and each of the members of the whole Synod. Moreover, the Synod warns slanderers themselves to consider the terrible judgment of God which awaits them for bearing false witness against the confessions of so many Churches, for distressing the consciences of the weak, and for laboring to render suspect the society of the truly faithful.

Finally, this Synod exhorts all their brethren in the gospel of Christ to conduct themselves piously and religiously in handling this doctrine, both in the universities and churches; to direct it, as well in discourse as in writing, to the glory of the Divine name, to holiness of life, and to the consolation of afflicted souls; to regulate, by the Scripture, according to the analogy of faith, not only their sentiments, but also their language, and to abstain from all those phrases which exceed the limits necessary to be observed in ascertaining the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures, and may furnish insolent sophists with a just pretext for violently assailing, or even vilifying, the doctrine of the Reformed Churches. May Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who, seated at the Father’s right hand, gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth; bring to the truth those who err; shut the mouths of the slanderers of sound doctrine, and endow the faithful ministers of his Word with the spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all their discourses may tend to the glory of God, and the edification of those who hear them. Amen.

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  1. There is no question that reformed CHURCHES and DENOMINATIONS ought not to tollerate Arminianism however that does not discuss the big issue these days. It is how are individuals to relate to arminians and theologically-”neutral” organisations (like Campus for Christ, etc…) and having close friends who love the Lord but never looked outside their theological tradions. The entire life of the Christian is not the local Church but they have their vocation and other stuff and in those two other spheres I do not think the Reformed Confessions ought to shape everything as it ought to in the Church. When I go to a campus for christ meeting I am no more less Reformed than when I worship but I will engage in ”worship” that is not according to the westminster standards or the reformed tradtion and that’s ok because that is not the Body of Christ and it is about personal piety and devotion outside of the normal promised means of Grace which I partake in regularly.

    • Joseph,

      I’m not interested in limiting your Christian liberty nor am I interested in diminishing your vocation in the world. I am interested, however, in limiting what can be called “Reformed,” and what Reformed churches, as such, may do.

  2. On that I would be 100% agreed with you though I would include confessional baptists (1689) as a legtimate group within the Reformed camp.

  3. “In his exposition of Romans 5 and 6 he taught that death would have been inevitable even if man had never sinned, since God alone is immortal.”

    -I believe Pelagius’s disciple Coelestius said that Pelagius believed this. I believe the book was by an author by the last name Bettenson (?)

  4. Scott, can you describe in as few of words as possible what you hold to be the definition of Reformed?

    I have heard you and others (Horton) from WSC talk a lot lately about people saying they are Reformed when they are not really reformed.

      • Dr. Clark, this is a circular definition. You can’t use the term “Reformed” to define “Reformed.”

        • Don,

          We’re I actually doing that you would have a point, but in fact I’m not. The Reformed churches actually confess certain things, have a certain defined piety, and certain practices. Those things are reflected in the Reformed confessions. Those things, as I’ve argued at length in RRC define “Reformed.”

  5. Thank you, Dr. Scott, for this timely, courageous, and necessary post. The time is here to stop the lolli-gagging and confront the rampant Arminianism, revivalism, Finneyism, Campus Crusadism and other egregious sins and slanders against the majesty of God. Good onya! Wish Whitgift had prevailed in my communion–we would never have had the gross disasters of Laud, the Wesley heresies and the other gross sine and scars that remain uncorrected to this day. Again, many thanks. Homerun!

  6. Thanks. If one differs on a view held in the HC, like infant baptism, yet agrees with all other aspect of the HC, the Canons of Dort, Calvin, etc., does this mean one is not “Reformed”? Or is “Reformed” only a church body designation and not a personal one?

    • Michael,

      I’ve discussed this at great length on the HB and I discuss it in Recovering the Reformed Confession. I’m not dodging your questions but I am saying that if you follow the links I’ve given you’ll find the answers I’ve written.

      The designation “Reformed Baptist” was not the original designation. They were “Particular Baptists.” If “Reformed” equals “what the Reformed Churches confess” and if paedobaptism is of the essence of what the Reformed Churches confess (and that’s demonstrably true) then the conclusion is hard to avoid.

  7. One more. In support of my claim that paedobaptism is essential to the Reformed faith, here’s a response to a critique of a review I published in Modern Reformation a while back:

    I am grateful to Mr Balson for raising this important question. I wrote book to address it, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (2008). Evidently the earliest Baptists did not think it necessary to call themselves “Reformed.” They called themselves “General” or “Particular” Baptists. In the Reformation, the Reformed Churches confessed infant baptism as essential to the Reformed faith. In 1530 Huldrych Zwingli did so to the Diet of Augsburg as did the Tetrapolitan Confession (ch. 18; 1530). The First Confession of Basel (Art. 12; 1534), First Helvetic Confession (Art. 22; 1536), Calvin’s catechisms (1537, 1538, 1545), The Geneva Confession (Art. 15; 1536/1537), and the French Confession (Art. 35; 1559), all confessed the moral necessity of infant baptism. In the Belgic Confession (Art. 34; 1561) the Dutch Reformed Churches confess, “We detest the error of the Anabaptists” specifically the practice of re-baptizing believers and denying infant baptism. The Second Helvetic Confession (1561/1566; ch. 20) specifically condemned the denial of paedobaptism. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 74; 1563) insisted on infant baptism. The Westminster Confession 28.5 (1647) arguably calls the “neglect” or condemnation of infant baptism “a great sin.” In the light of this evidence it is hard to see how insisting on it is anything but consistent with confession of the Reformed Churches in which one finds not only a soteriology but also an ecclesiology and doctrine of the sacraments.

  8. I think the debate is rather simple: Should the term Reformed refer solely to what it meant in the 17 century or ought we let to culture determine the meaning of term as opposed to a strict historical-theological deffinition. Spurgeon was considered a calvinist in his time. I would prefer the argument that because of various solteriological issues post Dortretch and the influence of arminians in baptist circles the reason for credobaptists to embrace the term calvinist or reformed seemed logical because the Confessionally reformed have more in common with the reformed/particular baptist than they do with the Arminian, universalist or anninialiationist (sp?). Do words have a concrete meaning or ought they change and are constantly being redefined according to current events? That is where the issue lies.

    • Joseph,

      If you’re right then the Reformed Churches shall have to call themselves something else! This is the great problem. The question is whether there is a genuine connection between the name and the thing named. Paedobaptism, the hermeneutics that underlie, the covenant theology that underlies that practice, and other issues are all essential to the nature, being, and practice of the Reformed faith. They are essential to our theology, piety, and practice. “Reformed” is not just the doctrine of predestination.

      Words do change their meaning, but the change you’re proposing is against our will. It is a hijacking:


      The other problem is that we still confess the same faith that we confessed in the 16th and 17th century. It’s not a “then” and “now” problem but rather a problem of squatters who have moved into our terminological house some of whom want to re-define our theology, piety, and practice.

      If not’s not squatting then perhaps it’s just theft: http://heidelblog.wordpress.com/2009/01/02/stealing-a-tradition-and-calling-it-your-own/

      See also this post: http://heidelblog.wordpress.com/2009/01/23/who-or-what-gets-to-define-reformed-re-posted/

      And this: http://heidelblog.wordpress.com/2009/01/24/a-little-more-on-defining-reformed/

      • I wish you would have included the “Grey Gardens” affect. Even among the NAPARC a lot of what it means to be reformed is like a huge rotting mansion on Long Island, inhabited by two old women who delude themselves into thinking they are still the socialites they always thought themselves to be. The reformed confessions end up as little more than the portrait of Edith Beale, all the while lost among the mountains of used cat food cans. As long as she has that portrait she can ignore what her eyes and mirror tell her. It’s the same with the reformed confessions, they are relics of what it meant to be reformed, but the churches bear little resemblance to what they should if they still really held to the reformed confessions.

        Those who are squatting or have stolen the moniker of reformed are like the raccoons and other wild life that crept in as the house decayed. Who really is to blame? Perhaps if the Reformed churches hadn’t let their mansions rot around them, those squatters and thieves wouldn’t have had such an easy time.

        • They’re not that rotten. I’ve lived in the neighborhood for a long time. Problems? Sure! Like the FV, theonomy, revivalism, moralistic preaching, bad liturgy etc. The confessional foundations are strong, however.

          Sent from my iPhone

          • But the NAPARCs are like the little out buildings on the estate. The Main Line Churches are rotten, just like the main house. So instead of trying to live in the decaying house, we’ve built a garage out of a remnant of salvageable materials, which is in better shape than the main house. The NAPARCs have dealt with the FV, and theonomy (a little bit), but the other problems are pretty much untouched. So for the main line reformed churches, the house is fallen down. It is a cautionary tale. The houses (garages) of the NAPARC might not be totally rotten, but except for the little bit of maintenance with respect to the FV, they’re not doing a lot better than their great-grand fathers did with the main line reformed churches. In 1900 the PCUSA was basically sound, sure it had some problems, but how many years was it before Warfield remarked about the inability to split rotten wood? So if the foundations are strong, was point of RRC (yeah I did read it, thoroughly) that the churches just need some cosmetic fixes? The problem with cosmetic changes is that everyone has a different opinion as to what color the bike shed should be painted. Maybe not every color is allowed, but hey don’t we allow at least three choices for what the phrase, “in the space of six days” means?

            Wanting the reformed churches to adopt their confessions because they are biblical instead of insofar as they are biblical (as the churches currently do) seems to be a bit more than a cosmetic change. The foundation (Christ) is strong but I think the point of your book was there are some serious structural issues, or do you really think they are cosmetic problems only?

            • The PCUSA is more like once noble mansion that has lot it value not for lack of attention but because of too much. The owners, a now middle-aged couple who have squandered their trust funds on get-rich-quick schemes, plastic surgery, and a $125,000 Masters Degree in Women’s Studies, have never stopped renovating. The first thing they did was replace grandpa’s library with a game room. The large oak desk in the den was discarded to make room for a lightly-used treadmill. A hot tub now sits where grandma used to grow her prize rose bush. And so on. The once understated elegance of the mansion has been lost. Tackiness rules the day.

              Their children, now grown and out on their own, rarely call since they learned that the family’s money wouldn’t last another generation. This causes them much pain, because they remember the days when they were much adored by the children. They were the cool parents! Now they’re alone, and they’re discovering that they can’t stand one another and wondering what brought them together in the first place. Too lazy too work on their problems and too scared to get a divorce and face the world alone, the two avoid their problems by hosting parties where they drink wine from plastic cups and babble about art and politics and the stock market….

      • Dr. Clark you’re exactly right, as usual.

        I know that (some) people want to use the term out of a sense of affection for our heritage and our theology, but that’s what makes their use so dangerous. Faithful scholars of the Reformation have been laboring for years to reveal the true depth and beauty of the Reformation, which had been obscured from public view by false, mean-spirited, and ugly distortions. And now that these faithful scholars are making progress, more and more people see Reformation Theology for what it is, and they want to claim it (or at least part of it) and wear it like a badge. But like Lennie Small they don’t understand the damage that their affection can cause.

        For if we accept John Piper as a Reformed Baptist, we implicitly indicate that baptism and liturgy are not central to what it means to be Reformed. If we extend the same to John Macarthur, we imply that his dispensational outlook is Reformed or at least could be Reformed. If we extend our name to our brothers from Bob Jones University, so long as they affirm the Five Points, we announce that one can be Reformed and a Fundamentalist. And finally, on the porch waiting to get in is John Reisinger and the New Covenant Theologians, if we accept them as Reformed, we deny our distinct view of the Lord’s Day.

        And that’s just Baptists!

        What would we be left with? Any outside observer would have to conclude that “Reformed” means nothing more than adhering to the Five Points of Calvinism. And all of the sudden, we’ve all lost any way to easily talk or write about ourselves. And modern usage would reduce the label of our most rich and distinctive theology to nothing more than another brand of modern neo-evangilism and another brand of good old Fundamentalism.

        So, I’m with you Dr. Clark, this is a fight worth fighting. I too serve a precise God!

  9. The description,caricature of the Reformed faith in the paragraph beginning “Namely,” can be found regularly on Scot McKnight’s popular blog, JesusCreed.

    I have heard different posters say they could not worship that God.

    May God have mercy.

  10. I often differentiate between “Calvinism” and being “Reformed theology” as heuristic categories. There are plenty of “Calvinists” (i.e., people who hold to the “five points” out there with anemic ecclesiologies and general disdain for the ordinary means of grace. Preaching is cast in intellectualist terms and Baptism and the Table are simply pledges of human faithfulness in these churches.

    On the other hand, I remain exegetically unpersuaded regarding paedobaptism. This leaves me feeling very much like an ecclesiological nomad. I find much greater affinity within the Reformed tradition than evangelicalism or baptistic churches, but can’t hold to one of its tenets. What does this make me (other than, perhaps, inconsistent)? I would freely affirm the three forms of unity with slight revisions regarding the subjects of baptism. Am I not, at least in some sense, Reformed?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, Dr. Clark, as often so much of what you say regarding hijacking the Reformed tradition resonates with me, even though I recognize you’d also define me as not Reformed.

    By the way, if you could go ahead and persuade me to baptize some infants, it actually would make my life a lot easier!

    • Hi Gen,

      Of course it depends on definitions. If “Calvinism” denotes “that theology, piety, and practice of Calvin and his orthodox successors in Geneva, Heidelberg, Dort, Westminster and elsewhere” then the it’s a full-blooded, rich theology, piety, and practice. Calvinism has a theology of the Word, God, man, Christ, soteriology, church, and sacraments. It has Word and Spirit, Word and sacrament, and churchly piety. It has a practice flowing from these convictions. It has confessions. It’s not as if Calvin himself did not confess, teach, and practice much more than what people often call “Calvinism.” It’s not as if the Calvinists did not confess and practice much more than the Five Points. As Muller and many others have pointed out, the Five Points were NEVER meant to be or become the be all and end all of “Calvinism.” The Five Points were confessed by paedobaptist pastors and theologians and churches! They were confessed by churches that also confessed that in the supper we eat, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit the “proper” and “natural” “body and blood” of Christ.

      None of the several evangelicals listed in the posts above, to my knowledge, confess or practice the same faith as Calvin and the Calvinists on these things or a host of others.

      As I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession (click on the link above for more info) most of those who wish to be considered “Calvinists” today would not only not be permitted to minister in Geneva in the 16th and 17th centuries, they wouldn’t have been permitted to join a church in Geneva! The wouldn’t have been permitted to sit at Dort. They wouldn’t have been permitted to sit at Westminster. They would have been consider “radicals” and “fanatics” etc.

      As I keep saying I don’t know what predestinarian Baptists should call themselves. That’s up to them. They can call themselves Particular Baptists. That’s the original name they used.

      They may be sympathetic with elements of the Reformed faith (thank you B. J.) but that doesn’t make them Reformed any more than my sympathy with my wife’s pregnancy (18 years ago) constituted an actual pregnancy.

      As to baptism, well, there are loads of posts on this space on that topic. I can’t hash it out in the combox but if you’ll follow some links I can help a little.

      Clark, On Infant Baptism: http://www.wscal.edu/clark/baptism.php
      (serialized here: http://heidelblog.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/a-reformed-defense-of-paedobaptism-1/)
      Dennis Johnson, How My Mind Has Changed: http://www.wscal.edu/clark/dejbaptism.php

      • Thanks for the resources, I’ll look at them as I have time.

        To clarify, though (because I think I’ve been a bit misunderstood), I’m using “Calvinism” and “Reformed” as heuristic terms. When someone says they’re a Calvinist, they usually mean they believe in election and predestination. The term has been debased, I admit. And maybe I’m part of the problem by adopting that as one of my categories.

        By Reformed, I do refer to a particular ecclesiology and piety. And apart from the issue of baptism, I find myself at home the Reformed tradition, especially as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity. I don’t consider myself a Baptist, as that implies a certain ecclesiology and doctrine of sacrament to which I don’t subscribe. I realize you would point out I don’t subscribe to the fully Reformed doctrine of sacraments either, as my baptismal practice would exclude covenant children.

        But I would say I’m much more on the side of the Reformed than on the side of the Baptists. I’m not speaking as someone who is just predestinarian. I’m speaking as someone committed to a certain vision of the church, a certain type of ministry (Word and Sacrament, including the classically Reformed emphasis and understanding of sacramental efficacy), a certain type of piety, and so on.

        As I said, I’ll take a look at the resources you’ve posted. This is an issue I’ve done a significant amount of reflection on (having moved from the default paedobaptism of my Catholic upbringing to a credobaptist position), but I’m always open to new arguments and correction.

  11. In regards to the initial post, Richard A. Muller published an article in the WTJ in 2008 called “Arminius and the Reformed Tradition.” He gives a historical account of Jacob Arminius and his relationship to Reformed theology. In his article he shares the some of the same feelings as Dr. Clark. Muller doesn’t really no what to call Arminius, he’s Reformed but he’s not. It seems to be a paradox in the life of Arminius in which he studied Reformed theology, he was a Reformed Minister, he taught at a Reformed University yet his own theology was not quite reformed. I would have to be in agreeance with Dr. Clark, if one does not adhere to the confessions, than how can one be Reformed. A person cannot claim to be Reformed without claiming the tenants of Reformed theology.

  12. My preferred, charitable, if vague term for the ministries of Piper, MacArthur, and others is “Reformed-friendly.” This term can also apply to Particular Baptists (I do prefer that historical term to “Reformed Baptists”), some Southern Baptists, some EV Free churches, and even our charismatic predestinarian brethren.
    My criteria are not that complex – if the choice of church membership is only between, say, MacArthur’s Grace Community Church and the usual PC(USA) [or fill in any mainline type], it’s a clear choice to choose Grace. The other two marks of the church (sacraments and discipline) notwithstanding, the preaching from the pulpit must be sound and preferably expository.

    • My preferred, charitable, if vague term for the ministries of Piper, MacArthur, and others is “Reformed-friendly.”

      Very good. Although it invites (which may be your intention all along) others to ask what you mean by that.

      Given that “Calvinism” and “Reform” are widely used as interchangeable terms, it’s not hard to see what happened to the trajectory of meaning assigned to the word “Reform”.

  13. I would read Richard Muller’s book on Arminius. He deals at length with the possible influence of the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina and his ideas concerning middle knowledge or scientia media.

    In my research on Islam, I found a website by an imam in Canada who had problems with a well-known apologist for Islam (Shabir Ally or something) who was trying to get some ruling on the Islamic (Sunni) doctrine concerning Allah’s foreknowledge of the future acts of men. He wanted to see if the middle knowledge or scientia media solution could be used in his debates with evangelical Christians.

    Before the site was shut down as a terrorist site, (I had many exchanges with him – he refused to call me an infidel or a kafir) I was able to download his exchange with Shabir Ally stating how the latter was ignorant of kalam and Arabic and how this was already debated from the 10th century onwards (A.D.) between the Mutazillites and the Asherites. This imam castigated Shabir Ally for daring to limit the absolute foreknowledge of Allah.

    As an example, Shabir Ally describes how he was able to surprise William Lane Craig in their debate. But how is this possible since W.L. Craig has written on Kalam.

    It amazes me how many baptists think that scientia media is the way to go in order to reconcile their views on God’s absolute foreknowledge and “man’s free will.”

    Sorry, I did not mean to go off on an Islamic tangent. I just wrote my thesis on Medieval Islamic and Christian views on knowledge or scientia in the strict Aristotelian sense and the illegitimacy of using demonstratio in valorizing scripture.

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