This question comes over the transom regularly. I think most confessional Reformed pastors would probably say that, though they disagree strongly with Arminianism, it is not heresy. Somewhere I read (or heard) that William Ames (1576–1633), who served as an advisor at the Synod of Dort, regarded Arminianism as an error tending to heresy but not heresy itself. Whether Ames actually said that—he wrote treatises against the Remonstrants, which have not been translated—it all comes down to the definition of heresy.
The New Testament noun αἵρεσις (haeresis signals “faction” or “sect.” In Acts 5:17 the Sadducees are described as a “faction” or “sect.” In Acts 15:5 the Pharisees are a αἵρεσις. In Acts 24:5 Tertullus describes the Christians as a αἵρεσις. In 1 Cor 11:19 a αἵρεσις is divisive group in the Corinthian congregation. In Galatians 5:20 it refers to “divisions” that must be avoided in the church.
Already in the apostolic period the line between divisive behavior and divisive doctrine began to blur. The Corinthian congregation was riven by self-described “Super Apostles,” who denigrated Paul’s office and his doctrine. The Galatian Judaizers, who were teaching that God accepts (justifies) us partly on the basis of grace and partly on the basis of our law keeping (obedience) were guilty of schismatic doctrine, which produced divisions in the congregation. The Apostle Peter’s lapse was doctrinal and moral (Gal 2:11–14). Peter and Barnabas accepted false doctrine (i.e., that Gentiles must become Jews to become Christians) for which the Apostle Paul rightly denounced their doctrine and life as out of “step with the truth of the gospel.”
In the early post-Apostolic church this pattern, of recognizing the connection between doctrinal and moral error, continued. The ecumenical church, meeting in council (e.g., at Nicea in 325, at Constantinople in 381, at Ephesus in 431) recognized and denounced moral errors and great doctrinal errors. Today, however, we speak less frequently of moral heresy and more typically of doctrinal heresy.
There is another distinction to consider and that is between heresy used in the broad sense, to refer to error and heresy used in the narrow sense, to refer to a doctrinal error that contradicts the holy ecumenical faith and puts one in jeopardy of damnation. We know that there are such things. There is a sin against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31), namely attributing the work of the Spirit to the devil. The Athanasian Creed (mid-4th to mid-5th centuries AD) declares:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [ecumenical] faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
It is not possible to reject the doctrine of the ecumenical doctrine of the Trinity and be saved nor is it possible to reject the ecumenical doctrine of the two natures of Christ and be saved. The ecumenical faith is summarized by the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (325, 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (451), and the Athanasian.
An Ecumenical Consensus On Salvation
What, however, should we say about the doctrine of salvation (soteriology)? Is there an ecumenical orthodoxy on salvation? Yes. The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned the errors of Coelestius [aka, Caelestius], who was an associate of Pelagius, the British monk who opposed Augustine’s doctrine that humans are fallen in Adam and utterly corrupted by sin and that salvation, including unconditional election, is by grace alone. Pelagius and Coelestius denied that in Adam’s fall sinned we all, as the colonial catechism had it. They denied the doctrine of total depravity (as it has come to be known). They taught that humans are all born like Adam, able to sin or not to sin, that we are able, at birth, if we will, to live sinless lives. They taught the doctrine of sinless perfection and that grace is to make salvation easier. Those doctrines were condemned not only at Ephesus but all through the medieval church and by the Reformation churches. The Second Council of Orange (529 AD), and even the Council of Trent (17 June 1546) condemned it. Pelagianism is condemned by name in the Augsburg Confession (1530), French Confession (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Anglican Articles (1571), and by the Synod of Dort (1619). As I wrote some years ago, “to say that Pelagianism is heresy, is to stand in the broadest stream of the Western Church. It is not a narrow, bigoted position, at least not as seen from the perspective of the historic Western Christian tradition.”
Arguably, to deny the Augustinian doctrine of provenient grace (i.e., unconditional election, that grace comes first, that grace regenerates) and to deny the Augustinian doctrine of sin is to contradict the ecumenical understanding of holy Scripture. This is a significant claim. It is not clear to me how to reconcile the soteriology of post-7th century [Greek/Russian etc] Orthodox traditions, whose soteriology more closely resembles that of Origen and Pelagius than Augustine’s, with the ecumenical doctrine. Nor is it easy to see how the Wesleyan and Nazarene traditions are squared with the broad Augustinianism of Ephesus et al.
It is important to note that, to this point, I have only appealed to Scripture (the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life; sola Scriptura) and to the Council of Ephesus, the Second Council of Orange, to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, to the Council of Trent (!), and to the Reformed church insofar as they all agree contra Pelagius. It is important to recognize that this is not a narrow band of ecclesiastical authorities nor a bigoted opinion.
This bring us to the question of the way the international Synod of Dort (1618–19) addressed the Remonstrants [Arminians]. What category did they use to analyze and reject the Remonstrants?
Above we considered the definition of heresy. We saw that there is a distinction to be made between heresy defined narrowly and broadly. The question remains, what should we think of the Remonstrants? In 1610 they made their Remonstrance against the confession of the Reformed churches. They proposed that the Reformed churches should confess
- that election is conditioned upon foreseen faith (and perseverance). They proposed;
- that Christ died and has obtained forgiveness for all;
- that grace is resistible;
- that it is possible that believers can turn away from Christ
In 1611, the contra-Remonstrance replied to the Remonstrants in a series of 5 articles that would form the core of the Canons considered by the various committees and finally adopted by the Synod. The international Synod of Dort (1618–19) convened to respond to this challenge. Did they regard these proposed revisions as heresy and if so, in what sense? The Canons did not use the word heresy or heretic very often but they did use it in the preface to the Canons:
The truth of this kind promise is evident in the Church of all ages. She has been attacked from the beginning, not only by the public force of enemies and the ungodly violence of heretics, but also by the masked subtleties of seducers.
The promise to which Synod referred was “I will be with you always” in Matthew 28:20.
Synod was explicit in its support for the judgment of the Council of Ephesus that Pelagianism is heresy:
But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains); but it must be wholly ascribed to God…. (3/4.10)
Finally, they invoked the category of heresy in the 5th head of doctrine, article 15:
The carnal mind is unable to comprehend this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and the certainty thereof, which God has most abundantly revealed in His Word, for the glory of His Name and the consolation of pious souls, and which He impresses upon the hearts of the believers. Satan abhors it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocritical abuse it, and the heretics oppose [spiritusque erronei oppugnant] it. But the bride of Christ has always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it as an inestimable treasure; and God, against whom neither counsel nor strength can prevail, will dispose her so to continue to the end. Now to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.
So far it seems likely that Synod was confessing that the Remonstrants were teaching heresy but it is not certain. Even though the phrase “spiritusque erronei oppugnant” (“the spirits of the wanderers”) is widely translated as “heretics,” since the word heretic is not explicitly used in 5.15 some ambiguity remains. If, however, we consider the rhetorical function of their invocation of Pelagius, the picture becomes clearer.
Synod declared that the Remonstrant doctrine of conditional election “savors of the teaching of Pelagius” (Rejection of Errors, 1.10. Hereafter, RE). In the RE 2.3 Synod denounced the teaching that, “by his satisfaction” Christ neither merited salvation itself for anyone nor faith but he only merited the right to create a sort legal new deal, a new set of conditions to be met by the Christian the exercise of free will. Here the Remonstrants were guilty of judging “too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained” and guilty of “bring[ing] again out of hell the Pelagian error.”
In RE 2.6 Synod complained bitterly that the Remonstrants, by using the distinction between “meriting” and “appropriating” such that our salvation depends upon our exercise of our free cooperation with grace, sought to “instill into the people the destructive poison of Pelagianism.”
In 3/4 head of doctrine, article 2, Synod contrasted the Augustinian teaching of the Reformed churches on the corruption and conversion of man with that of the Pelagians who held that sin was not inherited but communicated “by imitation, as the Pelagians of old asserted…”.
The Remonstrant doctrine that “the grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle persuasion” or an “advising,” is “altogether Pelagian and contrary to the whole Scripture…” ( RE 3/4.7). The Remonstrant proposal to return to the old medieval system of grace and cooperation with grace was, according to Synod, a proposed return to “this doctrine of the Pelagians” that had “long ago ago condemned…” (RE 3/4.9). In the 3/4 head of doctrine, article 10, on the corruption and conversion of man, Synod rejected the Remonstrant doctrine that the ability to obey the gospel call lies in the human free will, by which “one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains)…”. In RE 4.7, Synod condemned as “altogether Pelagian” the Remonstrant doctrine that saving grace is but “gentle persuasion” or “advice” and the Remonstrant doctrine that grace and free will are both partial causes of our salvation as the “doctrine of the Pelagians” condemned “long ago” (RE 4.9). The Remonstrant idea that our perseverance depends partly on our free will is nothing but “outspoken Pelagianism” (RE 5.2).
Finally, in her sentence pronounced upon the Remonstrants, Synod explicitly characterized the Remonstrant errors as “heresies.”
Did Synod condemn the Remonstrants as heretics? If we consider the various points at which Synod flatly characterized the errors of the Remonstrants as heresy, the ways in which Synod repeatedly associated the Remonstrants themselves with the Pelagians, and characterized their errors as Pelagian it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that, for the Synod of Dort, the revisions proposed by the Remonstrants were errors of such a magnitude that they not mere errors and not merely heresy in the broad sense, but heresy in the narrow, technical sense described in the first part of this essay: an error transgressing the ecumenical teaching of the church as agreed at Ephesus in 431, in the condemnation of Coelestius (and through him, Pelagius).
In the modern period, and particularly under the influence of neo-Evangelicalism, the rhetorical tendency has been to downplay the differences between the Reformed and the Remonstrants. To be sure, much water has passed under the bridge since 1619 but the Reformed churches still confess the Canons (rules) of the Synod of Dort. These are not mere historical curiosities. They are the living voice of the Reformed Churches, they are our understanding of the Word of God as touching the revisions of Reformed doctrine proposed by Arminius and his followers.
Perhaps the most important use that can be made of a recovery of the judgment of Synod upon the original Arminian doctrine is to recognize how passionate the church was for the Reformation. This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort will be observed in 2018–19 and it is well that we should remember that what Synod feared most was that the Remonstrants were leading us away from the biblical gospel of salvation by grace alone back to the medieval doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. That threat is ever with us. It exists now in the form of the self-described Federal Vision theology. It exists in other proposals too. We ought to be as passionate for the Reformation and biblical doctrines of grace as the Synod was.
We ought also to recognize again how great the difference is between the Reformed confession of the Word of God and the Arminian-inspired versions that have dominated evangelical theology and piety since the early 19th century. Synod did not invoke the category of heresy lightly or unintelligently. They knew what they were doing and they used that language advisedly. It was meant to be bracing to the churches and to her ministers and so it should once again have that same affect in us.
This essay first appeared in May-June, 2017 on the Heidelblog. ©2017 R. Scott Clark. All rights reserved.