This question comes over the transom regularly. I think most confessional Reformed pastors would probably say that, though they disagree strongly with Arminianism, it is not heresy. Somewhere I read (or heard) that William Ames (1576–1633), who served as an advisor at the Synod of Dort, regarded Arminianism as an error tending to heresy but not heresy itself. Whether Ames actually said that—he wrote treatises against the Remonstrants, which have not been translated—it all comes down to the definition of heresy.
The New Testament noun αἵρεσις (haeresis signals “faction” or “sect.” In Acts 5:17 the Sadducees are described as a “faction” or “sect.” In Acts 15:5 the Pharisees are a αἵρεσις. In Acts 24:5 Tertullus describes the Christians as a αἵρεσις. In 1 Cor 11:19 a αἵρεσις is divisive group in the Corinthian congregation. In Galatians 5:20 it refers to “divisions” that must be avoided in the church.
Already in the apostolic period the line between divisive behavior and divisive doctrine began to blur. The Corinthian congregation was riven by self-described “Super Apostles,” who denigrated Paul’s office and his doctrine. The Galatian Judaizers, who were teaching that God accepts (justifies) us partly on the basis of grace and partly on the basis of our law keeping (obedience) were guilty of schismatic doctrine, which produced divisions in the congregation. The Apostle Peter’s lapse was doctrinal and moral (Gal 2:11–14). Peter and Barnabas accepted false doctrine (i.e., that Gentiles must become Jews to become Christians) for which the Apostle Paul rightly denounced their doctrine and life as out of “step with the truth of the gospel.”
In the early post-Apostolic church this pattern, of recognizing the connection between doctrinal and moral error, continued. The ecumenical church, meeting in council (e.g., at Nicea in 325, at Constantinople in 381, at Ephesus in 431) recognized and denounced moral errors and great doctrinal errors. Today, however, we speak less frequently of moral heresy and more typically of doctrinal heresy.
There is another distinction to consider and that is between heresy used in the broad sense, to refer to error and heresy used in the narrow sense, to refer to a doctrinal error that contradicts the holy ecumenical faith and puts one in jeopardy of damnation. We know that there are such things. There is a sin against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31), namely attributing the work of the Spirit to the devil. The Athanasian Creed (mid-4th to mid-5th centuries AD) declares:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [ecumenical] faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
It is not possible to reject the doctrine of the ecumenical doctrine of the Trinity and be saved nor is it possible to reject the ecumenical doctrine of the two natures of Christ and be saved. The ecumenical faith is summarized by the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (325, 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (451), and the Athanasian.
An Ecumenical Consensus On Salvation
What, however, should we say about the doctrine of salvation (soteriology)? Is there an ecumenical orthodoxy on salvation? Yes. The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned the errors of Coelestius [aka, Caelestius], who was an associate of Pelagius, the British monk who opposed Augustine’s doctrine that humans are fallen in Adam and utterly corrupted by sin and that salvation, including unconditional election, is by grace alone. Pelagius and Coelestius denied that in Adam’s fall sinned we all, as the colonial catechism had it. They denied the doctrine of total depravity (as it has come to be known). They taught that humans are all born like Adam, able to sin or not to sin, that we are able, at birth, if we will, to live sinless lives. They taught the doctrine of sinless perfection and that grace is to make salvation easier. Those doctrines were condemned not only at Ephesus but all through the medieval church and by the Reformation churches. The Second Council of Orange (529 AD), and even the Council of Trent (17 June 1546) condemned it. Pelagianism is condemned by name in the Augsburg Confession (1530), French Confession (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Anglican Articles (1571), and by the Synod of Dort (1619). As I wrote some years ago, “to say that Pelagianism is heresy, is to stand in the broadest stream of the Western Church. It is not a narrow, bigoted position, at least not as seen from the perspective of the historic Western Christian tradition.”
Arguably, to deny the Augustinian doctrine of provenient grace (i.e., unconditional election, that grace comes first, that grace regenerates) and to deny the Augustinian doctrine of sin is to contradict the ecumenical understanding of holy Scripture. This is a significant claim. It is not clear to me how to reconcile the soteriology of post-7th century [Greek/Russian etc] Orthodox traditions, whose soteriology more closely resembles that of Origen and Pelagius than Augustine’s, with the ecumenical doctrine. Nor is it easy to see how the Wesleyan and Nazarene traditions are squared with the broad Augustinianism of Ephesus et al.
It is important to note that, to this point, I have only appealed to Scripture (the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life; sola Scriptura) and to the Council of Ephesus, the Second Council of Orange, to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, to the Council of Trent (!), and to the Reformed church insofar as they all agree contra Pelagius. It is important to recognize that this is not a narrow band of ecclesiastical authorities nor a bigoted opinion.
This bring us to the question of the way the international Synod of Dort (1618–19) addressed the Remonstrants [Arminians]. What category did they use to analyze and reject the Remonstrants? More on this next time.