After John Calvin’s death and the expansion of his theology in France, the Netherlands and the British mainland, theologians began to parse his teachings more closely.

Some reinterpreted parts of Calvin’s Institutes of Religion. Others said that the theology was too harsh. Another group wanted to see a reunification of Calvinism and Lutheranism for occasional public worship as well as a rapprochement between the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.

In 1540, two decades before the birth of Jacobus Arminius (literally, ‘James, son of Herman’ in Latin, the surname being Hermanszoon in Dutch), John Calvin signed Melanchthon’s revised Augsburg Confession.  Arminius, whose father during his childhood, was taken in by his Dutch Calvinist pastor and sent to school in Utrecht.  Pastor Aemilius died when Arminius was 14. Arminius’s mother died a year later.  Fortunately, another benefactor enabled the lad to continue with his studies, which culminated at the University of Leiden, where he read theology.

Whilst at Leiden, Arminius learned of God’s sovereignty, which some of his professors represented as being arbitrary and unforgiving.  Arminius hadn’t forgotten those messages when he studied under Theodore Beza — John Calvin’s successor — in Geneva in 1582.  Finding his theological views unpopular in the birthplace of Calvinism, he moved to Basel for a time before heading home to the Netherlands.

In 1588 Arminius moved to Amsterdam and served as a Dutch Calvinist pastor.  A few years later, it was apparent to his congregation and other clergy that he was preaching ‘opinions’ about free will, which clearly contradicted Calvin and Beza’s teachings.  The city councillors of Amsterdam — European cities were still run as theocracies at the time — managed to calm everyone down enough to avoid open Protestant conflict.

The plague, running rampant through Europe at the time, brought an opportunity to Arminius.  As some of the professors at Leyden fell victim to this fatal pestilence, the University invited Arminius to teach theology.  His appointment was not approved without controversy among the faculty.  Their difference in religious views also coincided with political partisanship, to the extent that Arminius and his staunchly Calvinist rival Franciscus Gomarus were invited to the Hague to each deliver speeches before the Supreme Court in 1608.  (Politics and Protestant Christianity were closely bound in the Netherlands until the 20th century.)

By the time Arminius and Gomarus were invited back to the Hague the following year for a second conference, their respective viewpoints had begun to split Reformed clergy around the country. Arminius did not last the full duration of the second conference and returned to Leiden because of ill health. He died in October 1609.  However, his legacy of free will theology — as expressed in what he called Arminianism — lives on to the present day, most notably in Wesleyan and Evangelical churches, particularly in the United States.  Arminian followers of the 17th century were called Remonstrants, adhering to a radically revised view of Calvinism — which ended up being no Calvinism at all.

The House of Orange attempted to silence Remonstrants by making their lives difficult, sometimes imprisoning them. The orthodox Calvinist theologians and clergymen at the Synod of Dordrecht upheld the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.  It wasn’t until 1795 when the Remonstrants received official Dutch State recognition and were allowed to open their own churches.  Their congregations still exist today as the Remonstrant Brotherhood, based in Rotterdam. They align themselves with the European Liberal Protestant Network.

In a stark departure from the Reformed confessions of faith, the Remonstrants adhere to the following five articles of faith (emphases mine to point out fundamental differences between Arminianism and Calvinism):

  • that the divine decree of predestination is conditional, not absolute;
  • that the Atonement is in intention universal;
  • that man cannot of himself exercise a saving faith;
  • that though the grace of God is a necessary condition of human effort it does not act irresistibly in man and
  • that believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace.

Meanwhile, in France, Moses (Moïse) Amyraut was just a boy when Arminius died.  Amyraut was born in what we know today as the Pays de la Loire and lived in the Province of Anjou for much of his life.  Even when he left home to study in Orléans and Poitiers, he was never too far from home.

Amyraut was only two years old when the bloody French Wars of Religion ended in 1598. Old, established French families — I’ve known a few quite well — took the decision around this time whether to associate socially with those of another Christian denomination. I know French Catholics who today will not associate with Protestants outside of a work situation.  There are also French Protestants who eschew Catholic friendship. The war was acute in Anjou as well as around Nantes and La Rochelle, further west along the Atlantic coast.

Interestingly, Amyraut’s academic course of study was not unlike Calvin’s. Both obtained degrees in the law and then immersed themselves in theology.  Amyraut studied in the Protestant city of Saumur.  His scholarship was so outstanding that, when it came time to be appointed to a church or to a theological post, he attracted the interest of Calvinists in Rouen and Paris.  In the end, he earned both a pastorate and a professorship in Saumur in 1633.

He and his fellow professors had both studied under the same theologians and became lifelong friends. Amyraut’s published works were prodigious, numbering 32 books.  In 1631, he participated in a conference at Charenton and gave Louis XIII a speech on the violations of the Edict of Nantes, which was to have given Protestants a number of distinct rights and accommodations. Yet, by the time Amyraut presented his oration, a number of Huguenot (French Calvinist) rebellions had already taken place.  Little by little, Louis XIII had refused to renew many of the provisions of the Edict of Nantes.  However, after Amyraut’s oration, the synod at Charenton debated whether to admit Lutherans to the Calvinists’ Lord’s Table. They approved the motion and, although he was absent for it, Amyraut’s star continued in the ascendancy.

In 1634, Amyraut published his Hypothetical Universalism, which, as part of his Treatise on Predestination, understandably, divided many Protestants.  It stated:

God … predestines all men to happiness on condition of their having faith

For this, Amyraut was brought up before the national synod on charges of heresy in 1637, 1644 and 1659. They acquitted him all three times.  The University of Saumur gained pre-eminence as France’s Protestant university.

Amyraut was also part of talks attempting to reunite French Catholics and Protestants. Nothing came of them, although he was known for his ‘statesmanship and eloquence’ in the negotiations.

Amyraut suffered a bad fall in 1657, from which he never fully recovered. He died in January 1664.

True Calvinist theologians, however — among them Francis Turrentin — firmly opposed Amyraut’s questionable theology.  In a targeted attempt to reduce the growing influence of the University of Saumur’s theology, a Swiss group of Calvinist theologians devised the Helvetic Consensus in 1675, which denounced heterodoxy, particularly that coming from Saumur, including Amyraldism.  Amyraut maintained that Jesus’s atonement was ‘hypothetically universal’. His closest university colleagues (and friends) denied the verbal inspiration of the Hebrew Old Testament text and maintained that the notion of Original Sin was ‘arbitrary and unjust’.  Although the Helvetic Consensus was binding on Swiss Calvinist clergy, only a  generation later, however, the orthodox doctrine upholding it gave way to the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and a less doctrinal and more ethics-oriented Christianity in Europe.

For better or worse, Arminianism and Amyraldism made their way across the English Channel at a time when the Churches of England, Scotland and the Independents were contending with each other.  John Davenant (1572 – 1641), a Church of England cleric and Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, provoked the then-Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, with his unorthodox theological views.  Yet, Davenant represented the Church of England at the Calvinist Synod of Dort in 1618, the purpose of which was to settle the controversies arising from Arminianism.

This is why I was hesitant to list too many 17th century C of E clergy in my list of Calvinists.  It’s quite a complex of people and theological beliefs to untangle. At the same time, whilst I can somewhat appreciate Calvinists’ annoyance with Archbishop Laud, I personally do not dislike the man. He pegged Davenant to a tee, pointing out the contradictions in his theology.  Davenant’s Wikipedia entry explains:

At Dort there were divisions in the Anglican camp:

On the one hand Davenant, Ward and Martinius believed that Christ died for all particular men; Carleton, Goad, and Balcanquhall himself believed that Christ died only for the elect, who consisted of all sorts of men.[2]

A compromise pursued went in Davenant’s direction. According to one interpretation of Davenant’s views:

Davenant attempted to find a middle road between outright Arminianism and the supralapsarianism which some in England favored. He found in the theology of Saumur such a road and defended the Amyrauldian views of hypothetical universalism, a general atonement in the sense of intention as well as sufficiency, a common blessing of the cross, and a conditional salvation. All these views stood in close connection with the theology of the well-meant offer of salvation to all.[3]

Other interpretations see Davenant as distinguishing himself from the School of Saumur and from the views of Moses Amyraut.[4] When French Amyraldians attempted to garner support, citing the views of members of the British delegation to the Synod of Dort, Davenant offered a reply by way of clarification in his tract, “On the controversy among the French divines,” in which he appears to make a distinction between his own views and those of the Amyraldians.[5]

Davenant sympathised with the aims of John Dury, as far as unifying Protestantism went, and wrote in his favour, a piece subsequently quoted by Gerard Brandt[6].

On the topic of predestination, he engaged in controversy with the Arminian Anglican Samuel Hoard.

In an undated letter to his friend Samuel Ward, with whom he had served as a delegate to Dort, Davenant endorses the view (shared by Ward) that all baptized infants receive the remission of the guilt of original sin in baptism and that this constitutes their infant baptismal regeneration, justification, sanctification, and adoption.[7] In his view, this infant baptismal remission, which involves the objective status of the infant apart from subjective operations of grace, will not suffice for justification, if the child does not later come to faith. Nonetheless, he goes on to argue that this poses no contradiction to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints as articulated by Dort, since the “perseverance” intended there presupposes subjective grace.[8]

Davenant sounds as if he was a consummate politician — telling his various theological audiences what they wished to hear.

Then, in 1645, an English layman, thought to be a man by the name of Edward Fisher (1627 – 1655) writing under the thinly-disguised pseudonym ‘E.F.’ penned a work which remains controversial to this day, The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

At a time when many Britons were leaning towards Pietism, particularly Calvinists, this work was considered problematic. Fisher’s intentions appear to have been good — trying to direct his readers to a straight course between antinomianism and the New Testament’s obedience through faith and repentance, which Richard Baxter (1615-1691) advocated. Fisher held a degree from Oxford and had read Church history and classical languages.

Baxter, although the author of inspiring works still read today, subscribed to Amyraldism. His Wikipedia entry summarises his theology as follows:

  1. The atonement of Christ did not consist in his suffering the identical but the equivalent punishment (i.e., one which would have the same effect in moral government) as that deserved by mankind because of offended law. Christ died for sins, not persons. While the benefits of substitutionary atonement are accessible and available to all men for their salvation; they have in the divine appointment a special reference to the subjects of personal election.
  2. The elect were a certain fixed number determined by the decree without any reference to their faith as the ground of their election; which decree contemplates no reprobation but rather the redemption of all who will accept Christ as their Savior.
  3. What is imputed to the sinner in the work of justification is not the righteousness of Christ but the faith of the sinner himself in the righteousness of Christ.
  4. Every sinner has a distinct agency of his own to exert in the process of his conversion. The Baxterian theory, with modifications, was adopted by many later Presbyterians and Congregationalists in England, Scotland, and America (Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, and many others).

You can see how such beliefs could be misinterpreted and further extended from Amyraldism to Arminianism, especially the final point.

Back to Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity, however. The book appears to have been relatively unknown until a copy of it surfaced in Scotland nearly 50 years after Fisher’s death. For the aforementioned theological reasons, the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly duly instructed church members not to read it.  This was in 1719.  Needless to say, after that edict, many ordinary Scottish Presbyterians sought the book out and read it. The Marrow Controversy was born.  Clerics who supported the book at the time were known as Marrowmen.  The last time the book was reprinted was in … 2009!

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia has a lengthy — and fascinating — essay on the Marrow Controversy, entitled ‘Universalism and the Reformed Churches’.  It states, in part:

In view of the debate in the Assembly, the manner in which the formularies were applied in England, the argument of the Schools of Davenant and Amyraut, and the ambiguous system of modified Calvinism since the beginning of the eighteenth century, the question of application of the Westminster formularies to the doctrine of universal redemption as to purchase, and the terms of the Marrow can only be decided by a Declaratory Act of the Church …

The Marrowmen, like their modern counterparts, attempted to hold to the particularism of Calvinism and at the same time preach the gospel in the universalistic terms of the Marrow. They therefore reinterpreted the terms of the book from that of its original context within the School of Davenant, and declared against the obvious, that it did not have reference to universal redemption …

The Marrow theology is thus committed to the following ambiguities:

  1. “Christ has taken upon Him the sins of all men,” and being a “deed of gift and grant unto all mankind,” is not a universal purchase of the death of Christ, therefore it logically follows that,
  2. He said deed of gift and grant of Christ to all mankind is effective only to the elect, ie., an infallible redemption gifted to all secures only a portion of its objects.
  3. A deed of gift and grant to all is only an offer. In other words, Christ is gifted to all, without that He died for them.
  4. Since the gift of Christ to all is not a benefit purchased by the atonement, the substance of the free offer of the gospel, does not consist of Christ as redeemer, but only as a friend.

Thus it was the Marrowmen in the first half of the eighteenth century who first injected into the stream of Scottish theology the ambiguous and contradictory system which has been the subtle vehicle or Trojan horse which for two hundred and fifty years has worked to the downfall of the Calvinism of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches throughout the world.

Modern modified Calvinism is but a refinement of the same system. Like the Marrowmen, as demonstrated hereafter, it presents the gospel in universalistic terms. It does so by introducing a system of interpretation of Scripture which brings in a doctrine of divine precepts and decrees, which not only perpetuates the errors of the Marrow, but extends the ambiguities and contradictions of that system.

As previously intimated, modern modified Calvinism is now the received doctrine of most Presbyterian and Reformed Churches which represent them selves as holding to the doctrines of the Calvinistic Reformation.

Professor Herman C Hoeksema, one of the founders of the Protestant Reformed Churches, a North American Reformed denomination, also cited this article, warning people about compromised doctrine.  He:

agreed with Luther in his Bondage of the Will that “merit” is an impious word when used concerning man’s relation to God (including Adam’s relationship to God, but not with Christ’s relationship with God as taught concerning man in Luke 17:10, Jesus says, “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”

In vain does one look in the Word of God for support of this theory of a covenant of works.”[4]

From 1645 to today, The Marrow of Modern Divinity has helped to shape formerly Reformed churches — the Congregationalists, the United Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church of the USA (PCUSA) — into quasi-Universalist and quasi-Arminian institutions that we know of today.

The Anglican Communion has also fallen into two camps — one clearly being Reformed (Lutheran and Calvinist) on the matter of justification by grace through faith and the other clearly Arminian. Whilst the 39 Articles of Religion are not as forensic and thorough as the Reformed Confessions and Canons are, their meanings and intent are clear: there is no place for Arminianism in the Anglican Church.  No doubt this is why copies of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are no longer available in our pews.  Our postmodern clergy would not like us to read the simple truths of faith whilst listening to their works-based, legalistic sermons.

Tomorrow: More on Calvinist beliefs and the fight against error