This October 31st (2017) marks the 500 year anniversary of what is known as the Protestant Reformation. As one who considers himself to be aligned with the original Reformation movement, this is a glorious anniversary and one I am excited to celebrate!
In the 16th Century, to be a part of the Reformation meant that one recognized the Roman Catholic Church had some practices and/or beliefs that did not have the support of the Scriptures. Luther’s “95 Theses” nailed to the Wittenburg Church’s door raised issues which troubled him and he felt needed to be debated by church scholars. Because of this, some Reformers left the Roman Catholic Church while others attempted to bring reform from the inside. (Luther led the way by leaving the church but initially tried to bring reform from within). This provided the catalyst to what has come to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
Theology on a Reformed Foundation
But what does it mean to be a “reformed theologian”? When considering this question, North-West University (NWU) provides insight as to what it means to practice reformed theology:
The Faculty of Theology of the North-West University practises the science of Theology on Reformational foundation. This implies recognition that the Word of God, the Bible, originated through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that the Bible is therefore inspired and authoritative. This is the basis on which all paradigms (including our own) are subjected to constant critical and reformative study . . .
The Faculty of Theology of the North-West University rests on a Reformed foundation. In this way it recognises its historical links with the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries . . . The Reformed foundation implies recognition that the Word of God, the Bible, originated through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that it is authoritative. In our practice of Theology as a science, we recognise and respect the Reformed view of God and the written Word of God as the particular revelation of God. The Bible – the particular revelation of God, in addition to his revelation in creation – constitutes the object of scientific study. Teaching-learning, research and the application of expertise are conducted on this revelation and in the light thereof, through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. The kingship of God, owing to its primary position and significance in the Bible, is regarded as the orientational foundation on which Theology is practised.
This Reformed foundation and ethos entail a constant analytical, critical and Reformed scientific study of all paradigms (including our own) . . .
I love how NWU describes what it means to practice theology on a reformed foundation and that it entails a constant and critical examination of one’s own beliefs! This is exactly the practice in which I have devoted my life — and also why some of my “sub-beliefs” under my big Christian umbrella have changed in recent years. For example, because I have scrutinized my own reformed beliefs, I can no longer affirm deterministic Calvinism. In this sense, although I am no longer a Calvinist, I do continue to practice theology on a reformed foundation! Therefore, I consider myself to be reformed!
A Quick History Lesson
The Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, arose as a biblical revolution of sorts against some practices of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century. John Calvin, a French theologian, joined the movement and had a powerful influence among those demanding reform to the Church. Those who aligned themselves with Calvin’s ideas came to be known as “Calvinists.” With history in mind, Tim Challies describes what he thinks it means to be Reformed:
Thus by affirming Reformed theology, a person is implicitly denying certain other theologies, such as Catholic theology (which Reformed theology rose in opposition to) and Arminian theology (which later rose in opposition to Reformed theology). While Calvinism predates Arminianism, it was only codified in the five points after the rise of Arminianism. There is a sense in which Calvinism is both a cause of and the reaction to Arminianism. Or perhaps we could say that Arminianism is a response to Reformed theology, and the codification of Calvinism is a response to Arminianism.
The “codification” Challies is referring to was the Canons of Dordecht (Dort for short), the doctrinal statement and defense composed by Calvinists from nine countries who met at the Synod in Dort (1618-1619). These theologians were specifically reacting to the affirmations of the followers of another theologian who was part of the Reformation movement named Jacobus Arminius. Arminius died in 1609, but his followers (“Arminians”) attempted to popularize his views shortly after his death. (There is significant debate if the Arminians accurately portrayed Arminius.)
The Calvinists at Dort considered the views of the Arminians to be heresy and responded by publishing the Canons of Dort. The five pillars of this lengthy document—directly addressing the teaching offered by the Arminians — addressed the following points (which have been rearranged with the familiar acronym TULIP): Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.
Molina the Reformer
Another theologian of importance is the scholar and Spanish Jesuit priest Luis de Molina (1535-1600). Molina considered himself to be just as much a Reformer as Luther and Calvin (See Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge, by Kirk MacGregor). In fact, MacGregor reports that Molina agreed with his fellow Reformers that grace was totally unmerited; however, he disagreed with the deterministic views coming from Luther and Calvin (See Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology). The significant difference between these Reformers is that Molina believed that he could offer more reform to the Catholic Church from within. This was Luther’s initial approach as well.
Molina’s writings are often mistakenly understood as equivalent to Arminius’ teachings. However, it is important to note that Molina lived prior to the teaching of Arminius. Moreover, many Molinists — along with some Arminians like Jack Cottrell (via personal interaction) — would insist that these two views (Molinism and Arminianism) are not the same thing (Cottrell is an Arminian who claims that Molinism is basically equivalent to Calvinism).
According to Thomas McCall of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (via private conversation) Jacobus Arminius was a Reformer who died in good standing with the Reformers. He did not want to lose his standing with his Reformation colleagues. At one point Arminius was accused of being “too Catholic,” and simply could not risk aligning himself with Luis de Molina since he was a Catholic Spanish Jesuit Priest (remember, Molina was a Reformer within the Roman Catholic Church). With this in mind, many historians think that Arminius took Molina’s work and attempted to repackage it and offer it in different words. Historians infer this explanation because Molina’s writings have been found in Arminius’ library (See Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius).
Because of this, many believe that Arminius was actually a “closet Molinist” of sorts. Molina scholars, however (such as Kirk MacGregor), contend that Arminius may have liked some of Molina’s views, but failed to express them correctly, or that Arminius was highly influenced by Molina, however, held a different view. Others contend that Arminius did understand Molina correctly, and would consider himself to be a “Molinist” (See Was Arminius a Molinist), but those who were attempting to popularize Arminius’ teachings did not properly understand Arminius’ attempts at teaching Molina’s middle knowledge view.
Whatever the case might be, it is vital to note that the Synod of Dort was not responding to the real thing. It is of upmost importance to understand that the theologians at Dort did not respond to actual Molinism!
Consider the timeline of historical events:
– Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1506-1564)
– Molina’s response to a Roman Catholic audience (1535-1600)
– Arminius’ (incorrect?) “repackaging” of Molina (1560-1609)
— Arminians publish Remonstrance (1610)
— The Synod of Dort specifically responding to the incorrect “repackaging” offered by the Arminians (not against genuine Molinism) (1618-1619)
– Centuries of confusion within the church (1619-present day)
With this historical backdrop in mind, it is clear that the Synod of Dort consisted of some Calvinistic Reformers responding to the followers (Arminians) of another Reformer (Arminius), who were offering a caricature of a system — not the real thing — deriving from a Reformer (Molina) who was attempting to bring reform in a different manner than the majority of the Reformers.
According to MacGregor (via personal interaction) the thesis that McCall puts forward was first articulated and defended by the Reformed scholar Richard Muller in his book God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Baker, 1991). MacGregor informed me of the following:
It is true that Arminius possessed a copy of Molina’s Concordia in his possession and that he quoted it twice in his own writings. The question raised is whether this makes Arminius a “closet Molinist” in the way Muller proposes.
Prior to MacGregor’s biography of Molina, most scholars assumed—and many still do!—that Arminius was really a Molinist. MacGregor disagrees and states that his research indicates that, in the best “closet” case scenario, Arminius may have thought he was a Molinist but misunderstood Molina drastically on several fronts. MacGregor argues for this case in the introduction and conclusion of his book on Molina and in chapter 2 of Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology. MacGregor contends that Arminius viewed the doctrine of middle knowledge as an effective weapon against the Calvinist view of deterministic predestination without fully grasping the doctrine of middle knowledge or its logical implications.
The Canons of Dort, then, should not be used by Calvinists today as a refutation against Molinism since they were not dealing with Molina’s specific work. One wonders how the Synod of Dort would have responded to Molina if he had been able to defend his actual views (as opposed to the caricature of which was offered by the followers of Arminius) both logically and biblically.
Consider this counterfactual: If the Synod of Dort would have been interacting directly with Molina’s biblically based and logical arguments, the acronym TULIP would have never come into existence! That is to say, the tenets behind the acronym TULIP would have never come into existence, but rather, something slightly – but radically – different in which Molinists and the Synod at Dordrecht would both agree. Perhaps the acronym TULMP or TRUMP would have come into being instead!
Bottom line: Calvinists do not have exclusive rights to the word “Reformed.” That is to say, if one is an active Reformer, then one could claim to be “Reformed” in a sense. That is to say, not all Reformers are Calvinists. To claim otherwise is to engage in historical revisionism. Reformers included Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Arminians, and Molinists!
Stay Reformed and reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),
 Other scholars have found MacGregor’s reading of the evidence correct, including Arminian scholar Roger Olson and William Witt in his PhD dissertation on Arminius at Notre Dame.