Book Review: Arminius and the Reformed Tradition

Fesko, J. V. Arminius and the Reformed Tradition: Grace and the Doctrine of Salvation. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022. 192 pages. $25.00.

The theology of the early modern theologian Jacob Arminius has been largely neglected in the history of Protestant theology. Defenders and detractors alike stand to benefit from a closer investigation of his theological proposals, but to this point he has been overlooked. It was thus with gratitude and a keen sense of anticipation that I approached John V. Fesko’s study of aspects of Arminius’s soteriology. In Arminius and the Reformed Tradition, Fesko focuses on several issues in Arminius’s understanding of the doctrine of salvation, and he hones in on these issues in relation to the Reformed theology of Arminius’s contemporaries. The book helps to contextualize Arminius’s theology, but it also falters in some important respects.

An Overview

After a brief introduction to the life and career of Arminius, Fesko then addresses several major theological loci. He begins with a treatment of Arminius’s theology in relation to the late medieval slogan facientibus quod in se est, et Deus non donegat gratiam (roughly: do what is within you, and God will not deny grace), and he follows this with examinations of Arminius’s doctrines of predestination, effectual calling, union with Christ, justification, and perseverance. In each case, he works to provide a sense of the relevant theological context, the controversial aspects of Arminius’s theology, subsequent doctrinal deliberations and decisions, and his own analysis of the debates. In each case he renders a critical verdict, and his overall assessment of Arminius is unmistakably negative: Arminius reintroduces and defends a version of the facientibus and thus endorses and promotes Semipelagianism (29), retains only formal similarities with his Reformed peers with respect to union with Christ (86), “transgresses the confessional boundaries established in his own day” with respect to the doctrine of justification (106), and in general leaves Reformed orthodoxy and ends up with a “completely different soteriological alternative” (129).

Fesko’s work is helpful in some ways; there are places where he sheds light on Arminius’s work by contextualizing it. He is especially insightful in showing where Arminius differs from both his Reformed contemporaries and from later Reformed confessional statements. Unfortunately, however, Arminius and the Reformed Tradition also obfuscates our understanding in some crucial ways. At some points, it evinces a misreading of both text and context. In other places, it engages in overstatement and draws unwarranted conclusions while suffering from conceptual confusion. In what follows, I offer a few brief examples of these problems and then focus on the issue of ‘Semipelagianism.’

Misunderstandings and Confusions

In several places, Fesko offers readings of key texts that are simply hard to sustain. In other places, Fesko relies upon tendentious interpretations of the context. For instance, Fesko repeatedly claims that Arminius’s views on predestination, effectual calling, and perseverance are incompatible with the Heidelberg Catechism (e.g., 52-53). But at no point does he actually demonstrate that this is the case. Nor would it be easy for him to do so. The Heidelberg Catechism has been warmly received by theologians who are broadly “Arminian” for centuries; indeed, it was even included as a founding theological document at the formation of the United Methodist Church.[1] At one point Fesko extends this claim to the Thirty-Nine Articles (38). But not only are the Anglican Articles of Religion not a binding confessional standard on Arminius, there is nothing in the statement on predestination that is obviously inconsistent with Arminius’s own theology. Indeed, the Anglican tradition has a long and rich history of theologians whose views are quite close to those of Arminius on predestination.[2] Such confessional statements would, of course, have been interpreted differently by various theologians, but this is nothing new or unique to Arminius (compare: the very vehement and almost violent disagreements between the supra- and infralapsarians at the Synod of Dordt). One cannot simply cite a document that affirms “predestination” or “election” and thereby conclude that it is a distinctly Reformed statement.

When trying to drive a wedge between Arminius and Calvin on the doctrine of union with Christ, Fesko says that “Arminius does not prioritize justification sola fide over sanctification in the ordo salutis, unlike his peers, Reformed theologians were accustomed to giving justification priority over sanctification by arguing that justification indefectibly secures a person’s salvation” (71). Fesko’s claim does not exactly sparkle with translucent clarity, and it is not obvious that the assumption from which he starts is a safe one. He claims that the Reformed “prioritized” justification over sanctification, but we are left unsure of what he means. Here are three possible disambiguations. Perhaps he means that justification is “prioritized” by the Reformed in the sense of being necessary (as opposed to sanctification as contingent) or otherwise more important. If so, then it is hard to see that Fesko provides much in the way of support for the claim. Meanwhile, it is not hard to produce (what appear to be) counterexamples to his claim; Johannes Heidegger, for instance, says that sanctification is our “greatest need” (sanctificationis summa necessitas est).[3]

For the Reformed, sanctification is no less necessary for salvation than justification. Peter van Mastricht holds that sanctification is a gift – it is a gift that is now inherent within God’s children. It is never their possession or something of which they can boast; it is always and ultimately a gift. But it is not a gift that is an entity somehow exterior to them; it is an “infusion” into them, and it truly changes them. Sanctification is rightly said to be necessary – not necessary for gaining or earning salvation (which we cannot do), but necessary for the reception of it.[4] If it is necessary for salvation (as Mastricht says), then there is no salvation – and thus of course no justification – without sanctification. Even closer to home for Arminius, his Leiden colleague Lucas Trelcatius Jr. says much the same thing.[5]

Alternatively, perhaps Fesko means that justification is causally prior to sanctification. He seems to suggest this when he says that on the Reformed view “a person is sanctified because he is justified, but a person is not justified because he is sanctified” (71). Again, however, Fesko misses the crucial context with regard to causality and sanctification. The Reformed scholastics employ the conceptual tools inherited from the medieval traditions, and they specify that while the Triune God (and more particularly the Holy Spirit) is the efficient cause of sanctification, the written Word is the instrumental cause.[6] Note carefully what is not assigned a causal role in the process of sanctification: justification is neither an efficient nor instrumental cause. Fesko does not demonstrate that Arminius is out of step with the Reformed tradition at this point; he does not show Arminius to reject the notion that justification is causally prior to sanctification. But then again, neither does he demonstrate that the Reformed actually think that justification is causally prior to sanctification. He gives us no reasons to think either that Arminius rejects the idea or that Arminius’s Reformed colleagues accept it.

Perhaps when Fesko refers to the Reformed “giving justification priority over sanctification” he only means that justification is temporally prior to sanctification.[7] If this is what he means, then I take it that he is exactly right about the Reformed: justification indeed is temporally prior to sanctification. But if this is what Fesko means, then it does nothing to support Fesko’s case against Arminius’s orthodoxy. For Fesko gives us no reason to think that Arminius disagrees with the claim that justification is temporally prior to sanctification in the ordo salutis.

At other points Fesko simply elides important distinctions and announces conclusions that are not warranted. For instance, consider his discussion of the will of God in the theology of Arminius and his “Reformed peers” (35-36). Both Arminius and his Reformed peers distinguished between the antecedent and consequent wills of God. Fesko says that the “Reformed place the decree of election in the antecedent will of God and the elect’s subsequent salvation in His consequent will,” and then he claims that “Arminius inverts this pattern” (36). It may be that Arminius “inverts” things here with respect to his Reformed contemporaries. But at another level, it is arguable that is his Reformed contemporaries who are all about inversion, for Arminius’s approach is arguably very much in accord with deeply traditional ways of thinking about the divine will with respect to antecedence and consequence. There is a long line of theologians from John of Damascus through major medieval theologians such as Aquinas and Scotus and extending not only to Arminius but also to his Lutheran scholastic counterparts – if anyone is “inverting” a tradition, it is arguably Arminius’s Reformed peers.

More importantly, Fesko goes on to make a set of massive assertions: Arminius’s account “assumes two contradictory wills in God, makes God reactive to human decisions, constitutes a denial of divine freedom of the will, and suggests contingency in God Himself” (36). Unfortunately, he never demonstrates – nor even tries to do so – that Arminius’s theology entails contradictory divine wills. He simply announces this conclusion as if it is self-evident. Nor does he show that Arminius’s doctrine either equates to or entails a denial of divine freedom. Again, he simply announces that this is so without so much as making an argument for his conclusion. Similarly, the claim that there is “contingency in God Himself” is both unexplained and unsupported. It is, however, critically ambiguous. For on one hand, the claim that God performs contingent actions is part and parcel of medieval and early modern scholasticism generally; if this is what Arminius means then there is nothing so much as unusual about his theology. On the other hand, the claim that God exists contingently or is only contingently good indeed would be revolutionary – but there is no reason to think that Arminius holds such a view and in fact is on record saying that the idea that God is only contingently good is the ultimate blasphemy (summa blasphemia).[8]

Arminius and Semipelagianism

Fesko is convinced that Arminius was a Semipelagian. He gives forceful expression to this charge through reconsideration of the traditional maxim “Facientibus quod in se est, et Deus non denegat gratiam” (again, roughly: “Do what is in you, and God will not deny grace to you”).[9] Fesko claims to “prove” that Arminius “taught it” (13). For, on Fesko’s reading, Arminius does – albeit with important qualifications – “accept the facientibus”(17). Fesko judges Arminius’s acceptance of this doctrine to have profound and negative consequences: he says that “the fact that Arminius incorporated the facientibus also means that it affected his soteriology by making key monergistic elements synergistic. That is, God does not sovereignly regenerate fallen sinners” (14). Arminius, he says, “drops the dye of the facientibus into his soteriology, and it arguably colors his understanding of predestination, effectual calling, union with Christ, and perseverance” (29). Arminius’s “use of the facientibus manifests the characteristics of semi-Pelagianism” (29). His is view “is not Pelagian, but it does fall into a semi-Pelagian category” (24). For “God and fallen sinners cooperate in salvation” (29).

What are we to make of all this? Taking a closer look at these charges. I demonstrate that a lack of conceptual clarity at crucial points combines with some historiographical missteps to fuel the misunderstanding of Arminius on this issue, and I conclude that the case against Arminius has not been “proven.”

Arminius and “the Facientbus”

A. The Charge Against Arminius

It is beyond doubt that Arminius was accused of teaching the facientibus. He responds directly to the charge, so we know that he was aware of it and exercised to reply to his detractors. Fesko claims to “prove” that Arminius “taught it.” But just what did Arminius say about this?

Notably, Arminius’s discussion of the issue is found in his “Apology or Defense Against Thirty-One Theological Articles.”[10] The context is important: he is responding to a set of false accusations. One of these is the charge that he was teaching the facientibus. His response is unmistakably clear: he denies ever teaching it, and he rejects it with force. He refers to the accusation as nothing less than “calumny,” and he says that the charge is “absurd.” Indeed, the theological claim is of such “great absurdity, that we would not be induced to attribute it to any person of the least skill in sacred matters.”[11] Arminius seeks to make his own position plain: without the assistance of divine grace, no one – not even Adam in the prelapsarian state – can perform any good deed.[12]

In light of such clear and forceful denunciation, we might wonder why Fesko would say that Arminius “invokes” or “teaches” or otherwise embraces the statement. Fesko takes note of Arminius’s denials, but he contends that “despite his dismissal of the accusation, Arminius does accept the facientibus” in a manner that is admittedly free of Pelagianism but nonetheless tainted with Semipelagianism (17). Fesko takes this position because Arminius says that “if this expression be understood in the following sense, ‘To him who does what he can by the primary grace already conferred upon him,’ then there is no absurdity in this sentence, ‘God will bestow further grace upon him who profitably uses that which is primary.’”[13]

Note carefully what Arminius is – and is not – doing here. He is saying that there is a way that the facientibus might be altered so that it is no longer “absurd.” But this does not mean that he “accepts” it or “invokes” it or “taught” it. Arminius’s rejection of the common statement is not only starkly clear but also very emphatic: he says that it never entered his mind to endorse it, and he insists that to say that he did is nothing short of calumny. And even with his major modification of it, he does not endorse it or defend it. He does not – pace Fesko – “adopt” it as an adequate or preferred theological statement. He does not say that it accurately reflects his theology. He merely says that it is not – with the crucial added qualification about prevenient grace – crazy or heretical. As Keith D. Stanglin observes, “Arminius should not be portrayed as attempting to rescue an orthodox meaning for the phrase. He seems to have no positive affinity for it, but only uses it here apologetically contra his opponents.”[14]

B. Antecedent and Consequent Grace: Looking Through a Wider Lens

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that Fesko is right that Arminius does fully endorse the seriously amended version of the facientibus. So what? Just how would that endorsement entail Semipelagianism?

The amended version contains the following claims:[15]

(a) the person enabled by grace should respond positively to the grace of God;
(b) God will grant further grace to the person who responds positively to grace.

Just what is Semipelagian about these claims? Surely there is nothing untoward in (a) – what Reformed theologian would disagree with that? So is (b) somehow problematic – does the statement that God will grant further grace to the person who responds positively to prior or prevenient grace somehow equal or entail something Semipelagian? Surely not. Perhaps it is worth noting that if there is something Semipelagian in (b), then many theologians with otherwise impeccable Reformed credentials will also be guilty of “Semipelagianism.” For notions of antecedence and consequence are not at all foreign to the Reformed theological tradition. John Davenant, for example, insists that God gives more grace to those who not only repent and believe but also perform good works: “We admit fully that God preserves and increases the gifts of grace in those who apply themselves to good works, and by the zeal of good works draws them on to the goal of salvation.”[16]

Interestingly, Fesko finally admits that Arminius’s treatment of the facientibus offers no smoking gun; there is “no explicit indication of synergism” to this point (18). But Fesko claims to find “elements of synergism” elsewhere in Arminius’s theology (18). For Fesko, it seems, such “elements of synergism” entail Semipelagianism. But just what is synergism? Broadly speaking, it is “working with.” To work from Latin rather than Greek, it is simply cooperation. If synergism is cooperation or “working with,” then “working with” God (or, if one prefers, cooperating with God) in the order of salvation is “soteriological synergism.” But to say this is not to say a lot. Both Arminius and his Reformed contemporaries affirm cooperation with God in the order of salvation. So mere affirmation of cooperation – even in soteriological matters – does not separate them, and it does not illuminate matters simply to say that the Reformed were “monergists” while Arminius (and the Remonstrants) were “synergists.” For in some ways, both Arminius and his Reformed contemporaries are monergists, while in other ways both are synergists. So just what is Fesko’s objection to Arminius?

Fesko rightly notes that Arminius does not hesitate to affirm both prevenient grace and cooperating grace. Arminius refers both to “that special concurrence or assistance of grace [auxilium gratiae] that is also called ‘cooperating and accompanying grace’” and to “that exciting or moving grace which is called prevenient and operative [praeveniens et operans];” and although we can recognize distinctions between these elements of the doctrine of grace, we should not be misled into thinking that these are somehow radically different — for it is the “same grace continued.”[17]

But Arminius’s recognition of distinctions in the doctrine of grace is nothing unique. Nor is his affirmation that there is not a “real” difference between these aspects of grace.[18] Consider Arminius’s Reformed contemporary Amandus Polanus. Polanus says that we see distinct degrees or stages [gradus] of the (singular) divine grace when we consider how grace operates in the true conversion of the sinner.[19] The grace for which the believer gives thanks is fivefold [quintuplex]: prevenient [praeveniens], preparing [preparens], working or operating [operans], cooperating [cooperans], and preserving [persiciens].[20] Prevenient grace is defined as that grace by which God brings about any good thoughts, good purposes, or desire for supernatural good in the mind or soul of the sinner [animum peccatoris].[21] Preparing grace is the grace by which the mind and will of the sinner [mens et voluntas peccatoris] are prepared to conform to the Holy Spirit in obedience. This is entirely and completely a divine gift, and by this gift it is possible for the sinful human person to receive the supernatural gift of salvation.[22] Working or operating grace is the divine act of liberation from the domain of sin whereby the sinful human person is reborn in mind, will, and affection [mente, voluntate, et affect], and it enables the saved person to truly obey God.[23] Cooperating grace follows these other stages, and God uses it to work in continuous progress as the believer now works with God in sanctification and good works.[24] Such good works are made possible, and such works are truly necessary for salvation.[25] Finally, preserving grace refers to divine action in protecting the sinner even as God brings the salvation of the sinner to its completion.[26]

What is here with which Arminius is in disagreement? What does Polanus say here that is inconsistent with Arminius’s own theological formulations? Like Polanus, Arminius also believes in prevenient and preparing grace; he is insistent that no one can even take the first step toward salvation – indeed, even desire it – apart from the grace of God which comes before and prepares. With Polanus, he believes that God’s work liberates human sinners from the domain of sin and supernaturally renews them wholly; saving grace comes from God, and such grace enables a sinner to desire to please God and walk in obedience. This life of obedience and good works is real and actually happens – but again, only by grace. God does not perform the good works that are commanded and necessary for salvation in place of the human person, but nor does God throw the redeemed and regenerate person back upon herself to do good deeds by herself or in her own strength. And God promises, by his grace, to take his people all the way home. So Arminius is with Polanus; they both think that there are different stages or elements of grace. It is always God who is at work, but this God is at work not only for us but also before us and in us and even with us. For both Arminius and his Reformed colleagues and critics, by grace it is both possible and necessary for redeemed human persons to work with God. So, not only for Arminius but also for the broader Reformed tradition, cooperation – working with God in the process of salvation – is part and parcel of soteriology.

I hate to belabor this point, but the confusions run so deep and the common criticisms come so forcefully that it must be belabored. Fesko concludes that Arminius’s theology “manifests the characteristics of semi-Pelagianism,” and he explains this by saying “That is, God and fallen sinners cooperate in salvation” (29). But from a traditional Reformed perspective, to view all cooperation in salvation as Semipelagianism is clearly mistaken – at least so long as we keep in mind the fact that salvation is more than justification. Cooperation is central to Reformed doctrines of salvation (again, where these doctrines are understood to be more than mere justification). Francis Turretin considers head-on the question “Are good works necessary for salvation?” His answer is both representative of the Reformed scholastic tradition and unmistakably clear: “We affirm.”[27] So does Arminius. Again, both Arminius and Turretin believe that good works are necessary for salvation. And both think that such good works are only possible by divine grace. In other words, both affirm that divine grace precedes and enables and then cooperates with human persons in the process of salvation.

If affirming cooperation with God equals or entails Semipelagianism, then Arminius is not the only theologian at risk of heterodoxy. But of course cooperation with God neither equals nor entails Semipelagianism. So is there something else about Arminius’s theology that triggers the familiar charges? Fesko seems to think so. He says that Arminius’s theology makes “key monergistic elements synergistic,” and he explains this further by saying that “God does not sovereignly regenerate fallen sinners” in Arminius’s theology (14). This is a bold and striking claim. Unfortunately, however, Fesko offers no evidence for it. He provides no citations from Arminius’s oeuvre where Arminius says such a thing. Nor would it be easy for Fesko to provide such statements. Hear the words of Arminius himself: “I ascribe to God’s grace the origin, the continuance, and the fulfillment [het heghinsel, den voorgangh, ende de volbrenginghe] of all good, even so far that the regenerate person himself, without this prevenient and stimulating, following and cooperating grace, can neither think, will, or do good, nor also resist any evil temptation.”[28] Maybe – although he does not say this explicitly – Fesko is not saying that synergism simpliciter equals or entails Semipelagianism; perhaps he is only saying that Arminius is a Semipelagian due to a commitment to synergism with respect to justification (or perhaps regeneration). To make good on such an argument, however, Fesko needs a (non question-begging) definition of Semipelagianism. He also needs to show that Arminius is actually committed to divine-human synergism in justification. To make the point plain, he needs (something much like) the following argument:

(1) If a soteriology endorses or entails synergism in justification, then that soteriology is Semipelagian;
(2) Arminius’s soteriology endorses synergism in justification;
(3) Therefore, Arminius’s soteriology is Semipelagian.

Note that Fesko would need both (1) and (2). With respect to (1), he would need a historically-grounded account that spells out what it is that there is about synergism in justification in particular that is problematic. Why is cooperation in, say, sanctification acceptable while cooperation in justification is heterodox? But Fesko offers nothing of the sort. Turning to (2), Fesko would need to produce evidence that Arminius has a synergistic doctrine of justification. But, again, he offers only assertions.

Perhaps Fesko’s claim is a conceptual or theological claim rather than a historical one. In other words, maybe he knows that he cannot provide textual evidence showing that Arminius affirms synergism in justification; perhaps instead he means to say that some elements of Arminius’s theology entail the denial of the belief that God alone justifies (or, to change the doctrinal locus, “sovereignly regenerates”) fallen sinners. In that case, it would be helpful for Fesko to make an argument showing that Arminius’s theology entails synergism. Then the argument would be (something like):

(1) If a soteriology endorses or entails synergism in justification, then that soteriology is Semipelagian;
(2*) Arminius’s soteriology entails synergism in justification;
(3) Therefore, Arminius’s soteriology is Semipelagian.

But Fesko again assumes (1) and makes no effort to argue (2*). Unfortunately, as things stand, all we would have is an unsupported assertion.

To summarize, Fesko objects to the “synergism” of Arminius. Unfortunately, he attempts to argue for an ill-defined conclusion by means of an ill-defined term; he insists that Arminius is a “Semipelagian” – but without close definition of this crucial term – by arguing that he is a “synergist.” But this term is vague and undefined – and thus ineffective as a polemical weapon. Yes, synergy refers to “working with.” But so does cooperation, and it is arbitrary and jejune to accept one as orthodox while simply labeling the other heretical – as if it is acceptable to use a Latin term that means “working with” while unacceptable to use a Greek term that means the same thing. Both Arminius and his Reformed contemporaries hold that human sinners are utterly and completely helpless in their sins and thus radically dependent on God’s grace. Neither Arminius nor his Reformed contemporaries believe that human sinners can earn or merit that grace. Neither thinks that we give birth to ourselves. Both the critics of Arminius and Arminius himself think that such grace is received in stages; it is God’s work from first to last, but the movement of grace from prevenience to preservation includes cooperation. Both Arminius and his interlocutors agree that God radically renews the human heart, and both insist that God’s work in regeneration and sanctification enable and require genuine human response and cooperation. There are important differences between Arminius and his Reformed critics, but such differences cannot be understood in overly simplistic categories of “monergism vs. synergism.” The case that Arminius’s “synergism” makes him a Semipelagian remains incomplete and unproven.

Fesko is not yet done, however. He says that “in several places Arminius argues that there is some good in the unregenerate” (23). He points to Arminius’s citation of Augustine to support his contention that Arminius is a Semipelagian: “… let this servant [fear] have the precedence, and preserve a place within for his lord and master who will soon arrive. Do this, act thus, even from fear of punishment, if you are not yet able to do it from a love of righteousness. The master will come, and the servant [fear] will depart, because when love is perfected, it casts out fear” (23-24). In Fesko’s judgment “this quotation bears a resemblance to the facientibus,” and he concludes that although Arminius’s theology “is not Pelagian,” nonetheless “it does fall into a semi-Pelagian category” (24). But the fact that some theological statement “bears a resemblance” to some other theological statement does not mean that the two statements are equivalent. Nor does it mean that one entails the other. So while such resemblance may be interesting, it tells us very little.

Moreover, Fesko fails to observe the provenance of the statement from Augustine that Arminius cites. It is taken directly from one of the Bishop of Hippo’s anti-Pelagian treatises. To see the relevance of this fact, consider the following scenario: suppose that several centuries after the treatise is written, a contemporary theologian discovers the Christological treatise of some late medieval or early modern Thomist. The contemporary theologian, perhaps under the influence of Robert Jenson or Bruce McCormack, does not like the scholastic Christology of the Thomist. She knows that it is not Nestorian, but she wants a closer connection between the humanity and divinity of Christ than is afforded by Thomism and thus finds the scholastic account unpalatable. So she labels it “Semi-Nestorian” and pronounces it fatally flawed. In support of her criticism, our critic points to a place where our Thomist has cited a patristic source, and she announces that this is the “smoking gun” that incriminates the scholastic. What would we make of this? I think we can safely assume that contemporary defenders of Thomism (whether Reformed or Roman Catholic) would be rather underwhelmed by the attempt at criticism-by-label-and-libel. Indeed, they might suspect that the category “Semi-Nestorian” has been made up for strictly polemical purposes, and their suspicions might be deepened when they are unable to find anything approaching an actual definition of “Semi-Nestorianism.” But what if they were to discover that the smoking gun citation that allegedly proves that the Thomist is “Semi-Nestorian” was actually written by Cyril of Alexandria and indeed was written by Cyril against the Nestorians? Surely they would find the accusation implausible, and, at any rate, they should demand more by way of argument.

The situation is relevantly similar here. Fesko charges Ariminius with Semipelagianism, but what he produces as the “smoking gun” is nothing less than an anti-Pelagian statement from Augustine himself. Similarly, Fesko fails to notice that Arminius also appeals to various Reformed predecessors and contemporaries (including Calvin, Beza, and Musculus) at this point. Perhaps Fesko thinks that Arminius misreads these luminaries, but he owes us an argument for that conclusion. In the absence of such argumentation, Fesko’s case falters.

Fesko is determined to find Semipelagianism in Arminius – so determined, in fact, that he even finds evidence of it in Arminius’s anti-Pelagian insistence on the necessity of grace. He underscores the fact that the authors of the Synopsis of a Purer Theology associate the views of Arminius and the Remonstrance with “a renewal of the Pelagian error” (125). Fesko knows that an allegation of Pelagianism is unsustainable, and he opts for Semipelagianism instead. Thus he says the following: “Arminius regularly emphasizes the need for grace throughout his discussion of perseverance, which means that the label of ‘Semi-Pelagian’ is a more accurate description” (125-126). Note carefully what is happening – somehow, even an insistence on the need for grace now counts as proof of Semipelagianism. This is hard to take seriously. Yes, Arminius does regularly – and sometimes forcefully – emphasize the need for grace. Fesko is right; this is beyond question. But how this amounts to Semipelagianism remains puzzling, and why an insistence upon the necessity of grace would implicate Arminius but not his Reformed peers is a deep mystery.


So where does this leave us? What can we glean or gain from Fesko’s labors? What should we conclude about Arminius and his place in both the Reformed tradition and the broader tradition of confessional Protestantism? The following observations seem plain. First, and at a very basic level, it remains clear that there is an obvious sense in which Arminius was not only Protestant but also Reformed. He was, after all, a minister in good standing with the Reformed church of the Netherlands and an esteemed – if also somewhat controversial – professor of theology when he died. Second, his doctrinal proposals are not in obvious disagreement with the confessional standards of his time. Fesko repeatedly asserts that Arminius was outside his own confessional tradition, but he is able to support those assertions only by appeal to various individual theologians of Arminius’s own day (whose views were not, in that time, either conflated with the confessions themselves or synodically endorsed as the official interpretations of those confessions) or by appeal to later confessional standards. Third, and here Fesko is indeed very helpful, it may be concluded with confidence both that Arminius’s views are not in agreement with what many Reformed theologians were saying, and further his views are clearly out of line with later confessional statements. Arminius really does differ from his Reformed contemporaries in some ways that were considered important by all parties; he does, for instance, have a very different doctrine of predestination. Interestingly, however, the very existence of such later confessional statements could arguably be taken as support for the claim that Arminius’s own views could not be proven to contravene the confessional standards that were current while he was alive; in other words, if his doctrinal statements really were in opposition to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, then the Canons of Dordt would have been unnecessary and redundant. Now one might argue that the Canons of Dordt really capture and clarify what the framers of, and most subscribers to, the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism believed and wanted to say further, but that is a different issue than the question of what these confessional statements explicitly say and directly entail. Fourth, and finally, it must be said that many of Fesko’s charges remain unfounded; he does not show that Arminius has a “completely different” soteriology, that Arminius’s doctrine of justification is Protestant but not Reformed, or that his doctrine of union with Christ bears only formal similarities to the Reformed. Notably, his allegations of Semipelagianism suffer from historiographical misunderstandings, textual misreadings, and conceptual slippage. The case that Arminius is a Semipelagian remains unproven.

Editor’s Note: The London Lyceum seeks to publish book reviews by experts in their field of research for the purpose of inspiring thinking. Therefore, not all reviews and/or reviewers will hold to our confessional commitments. But as with all our work, we publish a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

[1] According to my colleague Steven J. O’Malley, a historian of Methodism.

[2] See Thomas H. McCall and Keith D. Stanglin, After Arminius: A Historical Introduction to Arminian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), pp. 62-97.

[3] Johannes Heidegger, Corpus Theologiae Christianae (Zurich: 1700), p. 314.

[4] Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologica, 2nd edition (1698), pp. 735, 745-746.

[5] Lucas Trelcatius Jr., Opuscula theologica omnia (Leiden, n.d), pp. 348-378, 386.

[6] E.g., Johannes Wollebius, Christianae Theologiae Compendium (Basel: 1634), pp. 258-259.

[7] I thank Hunter Hindsman for this suggestion.

[8] Arminius, Opera Theologica, p. 166-167; Works 2: 3-34.

[9] Important discussions of this statement are found in Heiko A. Oberman, “Facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam: Robert Holcot, O.P. and the Beginnings of Luther’s Theology,” Harvard Theological Review (1962), pp. 317-342; idem, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), pp. 132-134.

[10] Jacob Arminius, Works 2:19-20; Opera Theologica, p. 159.

[11] Arminius, Works 2:20; Opera Theologica, p. 159.

[12] Arminius, Works 2:20; Opera Theologica, p. 159.

[13] Arminius, Works 2:20; Opera Theologica, p. 159.

[14] Keith D. Stanglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), p. 11.

[15] See further Thomas H. McCall, “On Doing What You Can: Toward Recovery of a Protestant Doctrine of Good Works,” Trinity Journal (2020), pp. 169-170.

[16] John Davenant, A Treatise on Justification; or the Disputatio de Justitia habituali et actuali: Trans. from the Latin together with translations of the ‘Determinationes’ of the same prelate, by Josiah Allport, Vol. 1 ((London: Hamilton Adams, 1841), p. 299.

[17] Arminius, “Private Disputations,” in Works 2:451; Opera Theologica p. 431.

[18] “Real” in the scholastic sense of the distinctions between different and separable things of the same kind or different and separable things of different kinds.

[19] Polanus, Syntagma, p. 3018.

[20] Polanus, Syntagma, p. 3018.

[21] Polanus, Syntagma, p. 3019.

[22] Polanus, Syntagma, p. 3019.

[23] Polanus, Syntagma, p. 3019.

[24] Polanus, Syntagma, p. 3019

[25] See the discussion in Thomas H. McCall, Caleb T. Friedeman, and Matt T. Friedeman, The Doctrine of Good Works: Recovering a Neglected Protestant Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2023).  

[26] Polanus, Syntagma, p. 3019.

[27] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol. , translated by George Musgrave Giger and edited by James T. Dennison, Jr.(Philipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1994), p. 702.

[28] Arminius, Dec sent, pp. 113-114; Works 1:664. Cf. Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 155.


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