Calvinism is based on the theological beliefs and teaching of John Calvin (1509-1564), a leader in the Reformation, and Arminianism is based on the views of Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609).
After studying under John Calvin's son-in-law in Geneva, Jacobus Arminius started out as a strict Calvinist. Later, as a pastor in Amsterdam and professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, Arminius' studies in the book of Romans led to doubts and rejection of many Calvinistic doctrines.
In summary, Calvinism centers on the supreme sovereignty of God, predestination, the total depravity of man, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.
Arminianism emphasizes conditional election based on God's foreknowledge, man's free will through prevenient grace to cooperate with God in salvation, Christ’s universal atonement, resistible grace, and salvation that can potentially be lost.
So what exactly does all this mean? The easiest way to understand the differing doctrinal views is to compare them side by side:
Calvinism & Arminianism Compared
- Calvinism - God's sovereignty is unconditional, unlimited, and absolute. All things are predetermined by the good pleasure of God's will. God foreknew because of his own planning.
- Arminianism - God has limited his control in correspondence with man's freedom and response. God's decrees are associated with his foreknowledge of man's response.
- Calvinism - Because of the Fall, man is totally depraved and dead in his sin. Man is unable to save himself and, therefore, God must initiate salvation.
- Arminianism - Because of the Fall, man has inherited a corrupted, depraved nature. Through "prevenient grace," God removed the guilt of Adam's sin. Prevenient grace is defined as the preparatory work of the Holy Spirit, given to all, enabling a person to respond to God's call of salvation.
- Calvinism - Before the foundation of the world, God unconditionally chose some to be saved. Election has nothing to do with man's future response.
- Arminianism - Election is based on God's foreknowledge of those who would believe in him through faith. In other words, God elected those who would choose him of their own free will. Conditional election is based on man's response.
- Calvinism - Jesus Christ died to save only those who were given to him (elected) by the Father in eternity past. Since Christ did not die for everyone, but only for the elect, his atonement is wholly successful.
- Arminianism - Christ died for everyone. The Savior's atoning death provided the means of salvation for the entire human race. Christ's atonement, however, is effective only for those who believe.
- Calvinism - While God extends his common grace to all mankind, it is not sufficient to save anyone. Only God's irresistible grace can draw the elect to salvation and make a person willing to respond. This grace cannot be obstructed or resisted.
- Arminianism - Through the preparatory (prevenient) grace given to all by the Holy Spirit, man is able to cooperate with God and respond in faith to salvation. Through prevenient grace, God removed the effects of Adam's sin. Because of "free will" men are also able to resist God's grace.
- Calvinism - All men are totally depraved, and this depravity extends to the entire person, including the will. Except for God's irresistible grace, men are entirely incapable of responding to God on their own.
- Arminianism - Because prevenient grace is given to all men by the Holy Spirit, and this grace extends to the entire person, all people have free will.
- Calvinism - Believers will persevere in salvation because God will see to it that none will be lost. Believers are secure in the faith because God will finish the work he began.
- Arminianism - By the exercise of free will, believers can turn away or fall away from grace and lose their salvation.
It's important to note that all of the doctrinal points in both theological positions have a biblical foundation, which is why the debate has been so divisive throughout church history.
Christian denominations disagree over which points are correct, rejecting all or some of either system of theology, leaving most believers with a mixed perspective. Because both Calvinism and Arminianism deal with concepts that go far beyond human comprehension, the debate is certain to continue as finite beings try to explain an infinitely mysterious God.