What Is Calvinism vs. Arminianism?


Calvinism is a name derided much more often than understood. Typically, debates are framed by the so-called “5 Points of Calvinism.”  This 5-point framework is both helpful and misleading.  If one were to ask John Calvin about 5-point Calvinism, he wouldn’t know what to say.  He never devised such a theological pentagon.  For Calvin, there was 1 point of concern: the gospel.

So, in the face of what he saw as grave errors of theology (both practical and doctrinal), Calvin researched the Scriptures to clarify what the Bible teaches about salvation.  The result of his research was the publication of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he fleshed out in detail what the Bible teaches about God and man.  For Calvin, this was an exploration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He wrote at a time when men were being executed for teaching error; so, he tried to get the gospel right.

After Calvin died, one of his students attempted to correct what he thought were errors in Calvin’s theology.  The student was Arminius, and he disagreed with some of what his teacher had taught him.  Arminius never worked out all the details of his disagreements with Calvin, but his followers did.  They issued a report to the Synod of Dort in which they presented 5 areas of theological disagreement with Calvin’s theology.  These 5 areas are those we know by the acrostic, TULIP.  The acrostic, like the 5 points, can be both helpful and misleading.  The 5-point acrostic is helpful as a memory device, but it is misleading as a theological statement.

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2 thoughts on “What Is Calvinism vs. Arminianism?

  1. I love talking about and debating the whole Calvinism v.s. Arminianism issue. I think it’s important that, as thoughtful Christians, we have a clear grasp on the theology and doctrine of Scripture and the Gospel.

    However, debates like these can have a tendency to significantly distract Christians from the real call of the Gospel: to advance the Kingdom. I was just talking with a Bible college graduate about these theological debates a few days ago, and he said that he was consumed (as so many young doctrinal-minded thinkers can be) with debating and understanding these theologies for the purpose of knowing which one was “right.” He said that he won many debates during college, but that he also never led one single person to Christ.

    In my opinion, the call to be a worker for God’s Kingdom and to advance His glory must be first in a Christian’s life, and these theological issues should come second. They have their place, but if you find yourself incredibly well learned in theology, and yet you are not helping to lead the lost to Christ- there’s a problem.

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    • Alex, thanks for a thoughtful reply. Of course, the point I was making in this particular article was that for Calvin and Arminius, the gospel was the issue. We tend to look backwards at the discussion and assume an academic posture, as though this is a scholastic nicety that is not necessary to salvation. For Calvin, the gospel was the issue. If those after him have taken his presentation of the gospel and turned it into scholastic gymnastics, it really isn’t Calvin’s fault. Also, I have found that every conversation I have about depravity, election, atonement, grace, and perseverance is itself a gospel conversation. So, though I hear your word of caution, I would also say it is impossible to share the gospel with someone without using these very ideas. The question, then, is not whether we should speak of these doctrinal issues, but whether we will speak of them rightly.

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