Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we head to the mailbag to answer a question about the history of Calvinism and Arminianism.

It is the 12th of September 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Hey, it’s Tuesday, and the mailbag, what gives? Well, I wrote down the name of Johannes Brenz for the 12th- today, but as I was preparing everything as I’m off on my trip, I realized that Brenz died on the 11th. So, you know- sometimes I can call an audible.

 Back to the mailbag and a question from long-time listener Lindsay in Arab Alabama- yes, spelled like Arab, a misspelling of the postmaster's son’s name- Arad- and good for a chuckle like “Toad Suck, Arkansas” or “Two Egg, Florida.”

Ok- Lindsey wrote: “I, for one, could really use a "Calvinism vs. Arminianism for Dummies" weekend edition [she then mentioned a recent debacle in her town and wrote]

I don't think many people around here know anything about Calvin unless they were required to read a snippet of his writing in a lit class. And if you said "Arminian, they would automatically assume you were talking about Armenia and ask what the Kardashians have to do with church.”

Okay, Lindsey, I’ve got a Weekend Edition on Calvin in the works that will deal with this in part- but I think I can give you a brief rundown.

It is two things: 1. one of the perennial theological questions- how does our salvation work and who is responsible for it and 2. So frequently caricatured and flattened into two guys fighting who lived in different countries and whose lives intersected only four years. (Calvin died in 1564, and Arminius was born in 1560)

So- Calvin is John Calvin, the Frenchman who fled to Geneva, where he made it into a haven for the Reformed (including John Knox, who would take “Calvinism” to the British Isles and the Presbyterians). He was concerned with any human boasting in salvation- as Paul warns about. And so, using those passages that seem to teach an eternal election, taught that God does all the work in salvation and has elected his chosen.

At its very basic level, this is close to what’s called “monergism”- that is, there is one (mono) in charge of salvation, and that is God.

Jacob Arminius- of Jacob Harmensen, who gave himself a fancier last name was a professor in the Netherlands. He initially taught Calvin’s view but soon came to make a place for the human will- in his view, God elected those who he saw would, by their own free will, have faith in Jesus.

Arminianism isn’t Pelagianism- that old heresy that said we don’t have a fallen will and that we are neutral and choose good works or evil works. Arminius stressed the human choice of faith- and that election was made with foreknowledge. After he died, some of his followers began to make a fuss- a Synod was called in the Netherlands to discuss the issue (the Synod of Dordt in 1618 and 19). But the Arminians, as they would be called (or “remonstrants” then) were kicked out of the synod for being difficult, and so the remaining Calvinists put together a 5 part response to the Arminians that today are known as the 5 points of Calvinism.

At the heart of this, Lindsey is something else you wrote to me about- heresies surrounding the problem of evil. Arminius and others could argue that if God was so sovereign, as Calvin proposed,  He is responsible for evil! He actively damns people. As a note: it is not crazy to read Romans 9 and come away with that idea.

I believe we suffer from a desire to know exactly how it works… to scrutinize God’s plans as if we were God himself. Romans 9 and other parts of scripture emphasize God’s sovereignty, and other parts stress the importance of choosing, of repenting, of acting… like the problem of evil, these two seem incompatible, and so we tend towards one extreme. I remember when I met my first Lutherans in the wild at Concordia, Irvine. I wanted to get their answers on this and was surprised that their answer was, “Yeah, weird, God certainly does all the work through Christ and the Spirit, but we respond in faith… huh, some things are tricky that way”. It infuriated me, and then I came to rest in the position that affirms Monergism- God does all the work and whatever works I’m commanded to do, and he is doing through me. Bible scholars can do this (check out the Romans 9 on 30 Minutes in the New Testament pod) but historically, it’s the ideas of the followers of Calvin (the 5 Points of Calvinism are in Calvin's writings in some form) and the ideas of the followers of a Dutch reformed Professor whose followers thought leaning into the free will passages and stressing foreknowledge was more faithful to the biblical text. If you want to look up the acronym TULIP, you can get more specific theologically- I have been, honestly, a little allergic to the whole discourse outside of its historical development. But I’ll have more on a weekend edition of Calvin himself.


The last word for today is from Philippians- I chose it because it nicely puts the paradox of God’s sovereignty and our works in place- this is Philippians 2 verses 12 and 13:

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of September 2023 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who I believe might call himself a 2 or 2.5 point Calvinist- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who in college was called both “side burns Dan” and “calvinist” Dan- neither really fit me today- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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