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Copyright © 2005
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IS ARMINIAN THEOLOGY AN ERROR?
DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINES
In the book, The History of Christian Doctrines, Louis Berkhof traces the development of the following doctrines throughout the history of the Church - the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of sin and grace and related doctrines, the doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine of soteriology, the doctrine of the Church and the Sacraments, and the doctrine of the last things. Each of these doctrines is traced throughout the following periods of Church history - the Patristic period, the Medieval and Scholastic period, the Reformation and Post-Reformation period, and the Modern Period.
Berkhof does a masterful job of showing how these important doctrines developed and were formed throughout Church history in this relatively brief book and, for the most part, his treatment is fair and balanced.
FIVE ARTICLES OF ARMINIANISM
In particular, I would object to the idea that Arminian theology is an "error," as Berkhof claims on pages 152, 189, and 190. I believe that there is just as much biblical basis for the five articles of Arminianism as there are for the five points of Calvinism.
I would like to focus especially upon the development of the doctrine of soteriology. Berkhof defines soteriology as "the doctrine of the application and appropriation of divine grace" (p. 201). He further describes this doctrine as "the method in which believers obtain a share in [the atonement's] benefits, or ... the subjective application of the merits of Christ through the operation of the Holy Spirit" (p. 203).
During the Patristic period in Church history, we see that "all of the pre-Augustinian Fathers taught that in the appropriation of salvation there is a co-working of freedom and grace" (p. 203). Berkhof notes that the early Fathers stressed, as we read in Acts 20:21, "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 203).
While it is true that during this period "faith, rather than the works of the law, was regarded as the means of justification ... It cannot be said, however, that a clear conception of faith emerged in the thinking of the first three centuries. In their emphasis on faith the Fathers largely repeated what the found in the Bible" (pp. 203-204).
Unlike the Calvinistic conception of soteriology that developed during the period of the Reformation, Berkhof notes, "faith and repentance are sometimes represented as being simply dependent on the will of man" (p. 204).
Some early signs of a gradual movement toward contemporary Roman Catholic practices can be seen in the following observation-"[Penitential] deeds are… regarded as having expiatory value in atoning for sins committed after baptism. There is a tendency to stress the necessity of good works, especially works of self-denial, such as liberal almsgiving, abstinence from marriage, and so on, to attach special merit to these and to co-ordinate them with faith as a means of securing the divine favour" (pp. 204-205). Moreover, there was already a marked "drift toward ceremonialism" (p. 205).
ON PELAGIUS AND AUGSTINE
Berkhof next gives an account of the heretical teachings of Pelagius, who "deviated much further from the Scriptural application of redemption than any of the earlier Church Fathers" and who denied "the absolute necessity of the grace of God in Christ unto salvation." He also considered "it quite possible for man to obtain salvation by keeping the law" (p. 205).
Augustine, however, had "a radically different view of man's spiritual condition." He regarded "the natural man as totally depraved and utterly unable to perform spiritual good" (p. 206).
Berkhof summarizes Augustine's teachings by saying, "The notable feature of Augustine's doctrinal system is that he refers everything to the grace of God" (p. 207). Of course, one might ask, if man is utterly unable to perform spiritual good, as Augustine asserts, then why is he continually commanded by God in the Scriptures to turn from his wickedness and to repent?
There was "an intermediate position" between that of Augustine and of Pelagius, and those who adopted it were called "the Semi-Pelagians." These held that the grace of God and the free will of man both "co-operate in the work of redemption" (pps. 207-208). The Semi-Pelagians believed "There is no such thing as irresistible grace" (p. 208).
"There was a protracted struggle between Augustinianism and Semi-Pelagianism, which revealed a strong opposition to the doctrines if predestination, the total inability of man to do spiritual good, and irresistible grace. And the position that was finally sanctioned by the Church was that of a moderate Augustinianism" (pps. 208-209).
Some negative developments that took place towards the end of this period included an increase in the "practice of saint-worship and dependence on the intercession of saints, and especially of the virgin Mary" and "a growing tendency to make salvation dependent on baptism" (pps. 209, 210).
During the Medieval or Scholastic period, Berkhof tells us that, "we meet with a variety of opinions respecting the main elements of the saving process, such as grace, faith, justification, merit, and good works… The views of Peter the Lombard, which show an unmistakable affinity with those of Augustine, were rather widely accepted" (p. 211). Peter the Lombard taught that, "the free will of man acts, but divine grace assists it as a co-operating principle, and thus secures the desired effect" (p. 212).
Another important figure of the scholastic period was Alexander of Hales. He was "in general agreement with that of Peter the Lombard, but he introduced another division, which is characteristic of scholastic theology, when he spoke of a gratia gratis dans, a grace giving freely (referring to the gracious activity of God), a gratia gratis data, a grace given freely (designating all actual graces and infused virtues), and a gratia gratum faciens, a grace making gracious (grace as a permanent quality of the soul, making it well-pleasing to God)" (p. 212).
One development during the Scholastic period was the distinction between "faith as a form of knowledge, a mere assent to the truth, and faith as a spiritual affection, productive of good works" (p. 212). Peter the Lombard went so far as to make "a threefold distinction here, namely, Deum credere, Deo credere, and in Deum or Christum credere. The first two mean practically the same thing, that is, to accept as true what God says; but he last denotes faith in a deeper sense, by which we enter into communion with God. He says that it is one thing to believe God, to believe that what He says is true, and quite another to believe in God, that is, to believe so as to love Him, to go to Him, to cleave to Him and to be joined to the members of the body of Christ. He also makes a distinction between faith which is believed, that is, the creed or dogma, and the faith by which one believes and is justified" (pp. 212-213).
During the scholastic period, it was commonly taught, "that justification is effected through the infusion of sanctifying grace into the soul by God. It includes on the part of God the infusion of sanctifying grace and the forgiveness of sins, and on the part of man the turning of the free will to God through faith and contrition… The Scholastics were generally agreed as to what was included in justification," but they "differed… in their determination of the logical order of the various elements in justification" (p. 213).
It was during this period that Thomas Aquinas wrote The Summa Theologica, which is considered by many to be the greatest work of medieval theology. "Aquinas distinguished between two kinds of merit, namely, 'merit of condignity', which in strict justice deserves reward and belongs to Christ alone, and 'merit of congruity', which is fit to be rewarded and can be acquired by men" (p. 214).
Some negative developments during this period include the increasing emphasis, especially made by many of the priests, on "unquestioning submission to the authority of the Church" (p. 213). Moreover, Berkhof notes that, "the doctrine of merit came to the foreground. The meritoriousness of virtue, especially as expressed in good works, was generally taught in the Middle Ages, and was hardly opposed by any scholastic theologian of note" (p. 214).
The Reformation rejected all that was most distinctive in medieval theology, such as indulgences, expiatory penances, priestly absolution in the Roman Catholic sense, works of supererogation, and the doctrine of human merit (p. 217).
Three of the most important figures in the development of theology during the Reformation period were Martin Luther, John Calvin, and James Arminius. Each of these developed a distinct ordo salutis, or "order of salvation."
ORDERS OF SALVATION
The Lutheran ordo salutis, which at first comprised only three elements, became far more elaborate in the writings of the great Lutheran theologians of the seventeenth century. It was based rather artificially on Acts 26:17, 18, and made to include calling, illumination, conversion, regeneration, justification, renovation, and glorification… The process of salvation was conceived of as follows: Children born of Christian parents, who cannot yet resist the grace of God, are regenerated in baptism and receive the gift of faith. Others, however, are called in later life with a vocatio suffciens, which is alike in all cases, and which by illuminating the mind and strengthening the will enables them to not resist the grace of God. If they do not resist the work of the Holy Spirit in calling, they are brought to contrition (penitence in the limited sense), are regenerated, and are endowed with the gift of faith. By faith they are then justified, receive the forgiveness of sins, are adopted as children of God, are incorporated into Christ, are renewed by the Holy Spirit, and are finally glorified… The Lutheran ordo salutis centers in faith and justification… Everything, therefore, depends on faith (pp. 218, 219).
In Reformed theology the ordo salutis acquired a somewhat different form. This is due to the fact that Calvin consistently took his starting point in an eternal election and in the mystical union established in the pactum salutis… The salvation of the elect is not conceived atomistically, since they are all eternally in Christ, and are born out of Him, who is the Head, as members of His mystical body. Regeneration, repentance, and faith are not regarded as mere preparations, altogether apart from any union with Christ, nor as conditions to be fulfilled by man, either wholly or in part, in his own strength. They are blessings of the covenant of grace, which already flow from the mystical union and grant the grace of Christ to the Church (pp. 219, 220).
The Arminians teach that God bestows a universal grace on man, which is sufficient to enable the sinner to believe and obey the Gospel; and that the call which comes to man through the preaching of the Word exerts a merely moral influence on his understanding and will. If he assents to the truth, trusts in the grace of God and obeys the commandments of Christ, he receives a greater measure of divine grace, is justified on account of his faith and, if he perseveres to the end, becomes a partaker of life eternal (p. 221).
IN CONTRAST TO THE ROMAN CATHOLIC INTERPRETATION
All three of these views, in contrast to the Roman Catholic interpretation, maintain that justification is an instantaneous act of God. "They deny that it is a progressive work of God, asserting that it is instantaneous and at once complete, and hold that the believer can be absolutely sure that he is forever translated from a state of wrath and condemnation to one of favour and acceptance" (p. 220).
THREE DIVERGENT VIEWS ON THE ARMINIAN ORDER OF SALVATION
During the period following the Reformation, some divergent views on the Arminian order of salvation arose. Berkhof gives three different variations on the Arminian order of salvation. These include the view of the School of Saumur, the Neonomian view, and the Wesleyan view.
The School of Saumur holds to the belief that "the will of man always follows the final dictate of the understanding, and that therefore in regeneration and conversion an effective illumination of the mind is all that is required and all that actually takes place. There is no supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit directly on the will of man" (p. 221).
The Neonomian view teaches that "Christ atoned for the sins of all men, that is, made salvation possible for all and brought them all into a savable state. He did this by meeting the demands of the old law, the law of the covenant of works, and by substituting for it a new law, a law of grace which is satisfied with faith and conversion, and a true, albeit imperfect, obedience of the repentant sinner. This work of Christ may be called the sinner's legal righteousness, since it was instrumental in satisfying and abrogating the old law. But evangelical righteousness, consisting in obedience to the new law, that is, faith and conversion, constitutes the ground of the sinner's justification" (p. 221).
The Wesleyan view of the Arminian order of salvation is also known as Methodism or the Methodist view. This tends more towards pietism than the above views.
It concentrates all efforts in the preaching of the Gospel on a single point: casting the sinner down by the preaching of the law, dragging him, as it were, to the very brink of the abyss, filling his heart with fear and trembling; and then placing him at once before the glorious Gospel of redemption, and pleading with him to accept Jesus Christ by faith and be saved from eternal damnation. The sinner who does so accept Christ passes in a single moment from the greatest misery into the most rapturous ecstasy, and from the deepest gloom into the most transcendent joy. This sudden transition carries with it an immediate assurance of being saved" (p. 222).
TWO MODERN CONCEPTIONS OF ARMINIANISM
Berkhof then briefly reviews two modern conceptions of the order of salvation, the Antinomian and the Mystical.
"The Antinomians really leave no room for a subjective application of the redemption wrought by Christ. They do not distinguish between the work of Christ in procuring, and that of the Holy Spirit in applying the blessings of saving grace; but speak as if Christ did all there is to be done, as if He took upon Himself not only our guilt but also our pollution, so that we are justified, regenerated, and sanctified - in short, are perfect in Him. In view of the fact that man is subjectively righteous and holy in Christ, the only thing required of him is to believe, that is, to become conscious of that fact. He may rest assured that God can see no sin in him as a believer" (p. 222).
The Mystical view of the order of salvation developed
in Germany, England, and the Netherlands [when] a large number of preachers arose who sought the essential thing of the Christian life in experience, and emphasized the fact that true faith is experience. They enlarged on what one must needs experience before one can be considered as a true believer, and in doing this were primarily guided, not by the representations of Scripture, but by the experience of those who were reputed to be 'oaks of righteousness'. (p. 223).
All quotes have been taken from the History of Christian Doctrines, by Louis Berkhof, and published by The Banner of Truth Trust in 2002.
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