So what exactly is Calvinism and Arminianism? Let’s do a very quick and brief peek at history.
Calvinism is one among many branches of Christianity. Perhaps, it is one of the major branches in it. Sometimes, people would refer to it as the Reformed faith, even if this is not entirely accurate. To be more precise, we can probably call it as the mainstream branch of the Reformed faith since, after all, there are other groups among the Reformed churches that don’t really follow the Calvinistic view on salvation. One such group are the Arminians. We’ll get to that in a little bit.
Calvinism is named after John Calvin, a French theologian who ministered in Geneva, Switzerland. It is interesting to note that while it may have been named after John Calvin, he himself was actually a 2nd generation Reformed theologian. There was an entire generation of theologians that preceded him who laid the groundwork for the Reformed theology. Perhaps the branch was named after him because he was arguably the most influential Reformed theologian at that time, thanks in part to his writing in Institutes of the Christian Religion.
It is probably wise to note that John Calvin held a significant amount of political power during his ministry in Geneva. Excommunications and the executions of heretics were fairly common during that time, and John Calvin was no exception to that. Some might point towards the atrocities that Calvin might have done or allowed during his time, but we have to keep in mind that we are discussing the merits of what he taught and not really his personal merits. Let us not be side-tracked by that.
The Reformed faith covered a wide range of topics with it came to its theology. This is one of the main reasons why even though it came out directly from the Roman Catholic church around the same era that the Lutherans did, they are still considered distinct from the Lutherans. Basically, the Reformed faith and the Lutherans disagreed in the matter of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, with former viewing communion as a symbolic remembering of the Lord’s death while the latter believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.
Arminianism, on the other hand, was formed within the Reformed faith as a response in disagreement to what John Calvin taught with regard to salvation. The figurehead of the Arminians, also called the Remonstrants, was Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch Reformed theologian. Jacobus Arminius was actually a student of Calvin’s successor, so as far as Calvinism is concerned, he was quite well versed in it. But as he studied the word of God, he came into disagreement with what Calvin taught about salvation. And thus he taught something different from what traditional Reformed faith taught.
This led to a large divide among the Reformed churches to the point that they had to convene to settle this issue. Eventually, the Synod of Dort decided to reject Arminianism in favor of Calvinism, albeit largely for political reasons. This snowballed towards the discharging, excommunication and even execution of some Arminian ministers and supporters.
Yes. The fact is, Church history is really quite dirty. Let’s face it.
Nevertheless, this gives us certain context as to why this matter became such a divisive and bitter issue within the Christian church, even if technically both sides agree on the essentials.