Jacobus (James) Arminius (1559–1609), ironically, is the most famous theologian ever produced by the Dutch Reformed Church. Arminius’ biography is simple. He was born in the province of Holland in about 1559. His father had died in the war against Spain, leaving the family quite poor. Authorities supported his education, recognizing his academic talents. He was among the first students at the new University in Leiden, and from there he went for graduate study in Geneva and Basel. The leading professor in Geneva at that time was Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza. Arminius returned to Amsterdam, where he was ordained to the ministry and served as a pastor from 1588 to 1603. He was then appointed professor of theology at the University of Leiden, where he served until his death in 1609.
For most of his life, Arminius was not well known or widely influential. He caused some local controversy in Amsterdam among ministers for his sermons on Romans 7 and Romans 9. While these concerns seemed to be resolved, they were significant enough that some ministers criticized his appointment to teach theology at Leiden. In the latter years of his professorship, rumors circulated that he was undermining orthodoxy. The criticisms and rumors were hard to evaluate at the time because—as strange as it may seem—Arminius published none of his writings in his own lifetime.
The controversies that increasingly surrounded him came to a head in 1608. To express his views for the government investigation, he wrote his Declaration of Sentiments, presented to the government on October 30, 1608. This document, also not published in his lifetime, contained first a historical section reviewing his understanding of the past dissent from Calvinist orthodoxy in the Dutch churches. The second section was a theological section, in which he vehemently attacked one of the Calvinist understandings of election, called supralapsarianism: “This doctrine completely subverts the foundation of religion in general, and of the Christian Religion in particular.”
Arminius then expressed his own view of predestination, which he very briefly summarized in terms of four decrees. Only the fourth of these decrees deals with predestination in relation to particular individuals; he stated that God decrees “to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing [i.e., prevenient] grace, believe, and through his subsequent grace would persevere.”6 This teaching was contrary to any Calvinist understanding of election and seemed very similar to the teaching of the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina, first published in 1588.
Arminius’ views as expressed in his Declaration would certainly have caused even greater controversy in the church, but his deteriorating health made further investigation difficult. He died on October 19, 1609. Some thought that his death might put an end to the troubles. But after the death of Arminius, it became clear that his teaching had had an impact and attracted a number of ministers. These ministers may have followed his teaching or may have simply felt liberated by his dissent to pursue their own forms of disagreement with Reformed orthodoxy. Whatever the actual direct influence of his thought, he became a symbol of the rejection of Calvinist orthodoxy, and his name became attached to various anti-Calvinist theologies.
The Remonstrance of 1610
Those ministers influenced by Arminius at the time of his death recognized that their positions in the church were precarious. The vast majority of the ministers and elders of the church would have disciplined them for their views. To protect themselves, they prepared an appeal or petition to the civil government. They stated their theological positions and requested that the government ensure their toleration in the church. This petition—called a “remonstrance”—came to be known as the Remonstrance of 1610. Those who signed the petition and supported it came to be called the Remonstrants. In the United Provinces in the seventeenth century, the followers of Arminius were usually called Remonstrants rather than Arminians.
The Remonstrance of 1610 was a rather long document. The executive officer of the state, Jan van Oldenbarnevelt, saw immediately how explosive the document was and decided to keep it secret. As with most government secrets, it soon was widely known and evoked exactly the reaction that Oldenbarnevelt had feared. The orthodox Calvinists soon issued a written response that became known as the Counter-Remonstrance of 1611, and these Calvinists came to be called Counter-Remonstrants.
At the heart of the Remonstrance was a five-point summary of the doctrinal views that the Remonstrants wanted protected. So, in 1610, the five points of Arminianism were articulated. Although the Counter-Remonstrants initially responded in 1611 with seven points, ultimately the Synod of Dort would respond point by point to the Arminians, giving the world “the five points of Calvinism.”
We should remember, however, that Calvinism has never summarized itself in five points. Calvinism is summarized in full confessional statements such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. To be very accurate, Calvinism does not have—and never has had—five points. Rather, it has five answers to the five errors of Arminianism.
In the years between the Remonstrance and the Synod of Dort, various efforts were made to reconcile the Calvinists and Arminians, but the differences were too great and too deep to be negotiated away. The civil government did protect the Remonstrants from discipline by the church. But the polarization of the two sides increased steadily, leading to the edge of a split in the church. Some Calvinists refused to attend churches with Arminian ministers. Some Calvinists spoke of organizing secret classes, as they had done in the days of Roman Catholic persecution.
As long as the civil government remained united in its policy of toleration for the Remonstrants, the Calvinists’ options were limited. But in 1617, Prince Maurits left his congregation, which had an Arminian minister, and started attending a church with a Calvinist pastor. Increasingly, he opposed the policies of Oldenbarnevelt. The polarization of Dutch society was complete. As the civil government, Oldenbarnevelt, and the peace party supported toleration for the Arminians, so Maurits, the army, and the war party came to support the Calvinists. The United Provinces were not far from civil war. But Maurits had the considerable advantage of an army to support him, whereas Oldenbarnevelt did not. Oldenbarnevelt was arrested for treason in 1618, which was a shameful act against a Dutch patriot and one of the low points for Dutch Calvinists. Years of frustration boiled over in excessive anger. The new government, led by Maurits, authorized the meeting of a national synod to address at last the Remonstrant theology.
This excerpt is adapted from Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort by W. Robert Godfrey. To learn more purchase Saving the Reformation in the Ligonier store or watch Dr. Godfrey's message The Synod of Dort from his teaching series A Survey of Church History.