What is Reformed Theology? Part 2: Another Historical Look

My last post discussed the origins of Reformed Theology, but we also need to understand the historical backdrop for dominant articulation of Reformed Theology today.  That is what I hope to briefly discuss in this post.

The Reformation spread as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) became famous for their writings.  Calvin became especially famous for his theology when he began publishing The Institutes of Christian Religion (1559 in Latin & 1560 in French) which was a sort of biblical and pastoral theology handbook.  Even before the publication of the Institutes, the brilliance of Calvin along with his pastoral reputation led many people to flock to Geneva, Switzerland to be trained as pastors under his teaching.  His influence spread all over Europe as these men left Geneva to pastor in their own countries.  Scotland, France, Belgium, Holland, and England were all permeated with church planting pastors trained by the great Reformer.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605) led the Geneva Academy started by Calvin once Calvin became ill and then died in 1564.  Beza and Calvin worked together in Geneva while Calvin was pastoring there, and Beza had traveled Europe to spread and defend the Evangelical cause.  However, once he settled in Geneva as Calvin’s successor, his theological method, which differed from Calvin’s, took hold and gave way to a much more philosophical approach, a return to the Scholasticism which Luther and Calvin had rejected.  Calvin had always remained a pastoral and biblical theologian, meaning he allowed the biblical text to shape the questions he asked and the answers he felt able to give.  Beza’s philosophical approach tended to indulge in speculations far beyond what is clearly taught from Scripture, and this led to opposition.

A professor at the University of Leyden in Holland named Jacob (Jacobus) Arminius (1560-1609) began to challenge the theology of those who had followed in Calvin’s steps, particularly Theodore Beza.  By 1610, after Arminius had died, his followers raised 5 objections to the Dutch confessions adopted by the state (for the state and church were united at this time) which were influenced heavily by Calvin and Beza.  These objections were called The 5 Articles of Remonstrance.  An international team of theologians were gathered to consider these objections, and in 1618-1619, the Synod of Dort (also Dordt) took place.  It is here that the famous 5 Points of Calvinism were articulated to respond to the Remonstrants.

Now, all of this is important because many people take issue with the 5 points of Calvinism because it appears to be a rather stunted theology.  No one thinks a Christian’s theology should be summarized in these simple 5 points.  But, this objection fails to understand the historical backdrop of this articulation of the theology.  The 5 points are not meant to summarize Calvin’s theology or the theology of the bible but to respond specifically to the 5 objections raised by Arminuis’ followers on those 5 aspects of Calvin’s theology.

It must be noted that all the men involved in the debate were very bright and intelligent men.  The Arminians (those who followed Arminuis’ teaching) aptly and succinctly honed in on the main issues of disagreement which history has shown are in fact significant disagreements about the character and purposes of God.

To summarize their objections, the Arminians argued that the sovereignty of God’s grace was in some way limited by the freedom of human choice because of God’s universal love.  In some ways, this objection was a return to the Roman Catholic view that God and man participate in salvation, even though salvation is by grace alone.

Therefore, the Arminians argued these 5 points, which I have summarized:

  1. The will is not enslaved to sin to such a degree that it is not capable of believing in Christ prior to regeneration.  However, this capability to choose God is not entirely apart from God’s grace.
  2. The ultimate reason a person believes in God is because of their choice not God’s.
  3. Christ’s work on the cross made salvation possible for all people but not actual for anyone in particular.
  4. God graciously works through the Holy Spirit on every human heart, but each person can resist this work so that the Holy Spirit cannot impart new life unless the sinner willingly receives it.
  5. It is not abundantly clear whether or not a person who believes in Christ can ever fall away from God’s grace by ceasing to believe.

As I begin to explain Reformed Theology doctrinally in my next several posts, I will attempt to address these objections.  As you hopefully can tell, these questions are not peripheral, but deal with the very character of God, the work of Christ, and the application of salvation to us.  These issues have extreme importance in the life of the believer and in the life of the local church.

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