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Was Arminius pursued and persecuted by strict Calvinists? To answer this question, it is necessary to look at the three periods of his life about which we have the most information: as a student in Switzerland (1582–87), as a pastor in Amsterdam (1588– 1603), and as a professor in Leiden (1603–1609).

Switzerland (1582–87)

The first episode in Arminius’ life that needs reevaluation is his time in Switzerland. The chronology of his studies there is not entirely clear. He finished his studies at Leiden in 1581 and registered in Geneva on January 1, 1582. The traditional dating of his life holds that he left Geneva in the middle of 1582 to study in Basel, returning to Geneva in the middle of 1583. Bangs presents a different dating, arguing that he left Geneva for Basel in the middle of 1583 and returned a year later. A history of the University of Basel records that he led a disputation there in September 1582, but [Carl] Bangs argues that that date must be wrong and must mean September 1583. Bangs adduces Arminius’ close friend Jan Uytenbogaert who wrote that Arminius particularly left Geneva because of trouble with an Aristotelian professor, Petrus Galesius, who did not arrive in Geneva until 1583.32 Uytenbogaert is likely to be a reliable witness generally, but he did not write up these memories until 1647. Bertius seems to support his going in 1582, stating that Arminius left Geneva “after a short time.” Again Bangs’ reconstruction is at best problematic.

Whether Arminius was in Geneva initially for six months or eighteen months, Bertius does comment on the zeal with which he defended his philosophical Ramism against the Aristotelians and how he offended some of them. Bertius wrote that Arminius “could not secure the favour and regard of some of the principal men in Geneva” because of “his invincible attachment to the philosophy of Peter Ramus, which he publicly defended in the warmest manner.” It was not the Calvinists who caused Arminius trouble during his first period in Geneva for theological reasons, but Arminius who confronted Aristotelians (who were also Calvinists) over philosophical issues.

Whatever problems Arminius had in Geneva, he seemed to do well in Basel. Bertius as well as Uytenbogaert records that Arminius was so highly regarded in Basel that the faculty wanted to award him a doctoral degree. He certainly received a fine letter of recommendation from Johannes Jacobus Grynaeus, the leading professor of theology in Basel.

Grynaeus’ letter, dated September 3, 1583, is quite revealing:

Since we ought to refuse, to no learned and pious man, such testimonials as are worthy of obtaining credit for learning and piety in behalf of those to whom they are granted, such testimonials are on no account to be denied to James Arminius, of Amsterdam. For he lived in the University of Basel a life of piety, temperance and study; and in our Theological disputations he very often proved to all of us that he possessed the gift of the spirit of discernment, in such a measure as to elicit from us our sincere congratulations. Lectures were likewise lately delivered out of the ordinary course, at the request and by the command of the Faculty of Theology; on which occasion he publicly expounded some chapters of the Epistle to the Romans, and excited within us the greatest hopes of his soon becoming qualified to undertake and sustain the province lawfully assigned to him of communicating instruction, with great profit to the Church, provided he continues to stir up the gift of God which is in him. I commend him therefore to all pious persons, and especially to the church of God which is collected together in the famous city of Amsterdam; and I reverently ask it as a favour, that some regard may be paid to this learned and pious youth, and that he may never be compelled to experience any interruption in his Theological studies which have been happily commenced and continued to the present time.

This letter shows that Grynaeus is very positive about Arminius. Since Grynaeus was a champion of unconditional predestination who urged the church in Basel in these years to adopt the Second Helvetic Confession, it would appear that he did not hear anything from Arminius that was clearly opposed to that doctrine. The letter also shows that Arminius’ interest in the epistle to the Romans, on which he would preach for years in Amsterdam, goes back at least to his student days in Basel. We do not know precisely which chapters Arminius covered in Basel, but the lectures do not seem to have been at all controversial theologically.

After Arminius returned to Geneva, Bertius tells us, “he judged it proper to curb his former impetuosity.” Similarly, Uytenbogaert wrote of Arminius’ second period in Geneva that Arminius “did not dispute so much, conducted himself in a milder manner, and was not so enamored with the Ramist philosophy as formerly.” His friends show that he was better behaved during his second stay in Geneva.

Theodore Beza, the leading theologian in Geneva, wrote another positive letter of recommendation for Arminius to Amsterdam. Beza wrote to the Rev. Martin Lydius, a minister of the church of Amsterdam, these words of recommendation for Arminius:

To describe in a few words, be pleased to take notice, that from the period when Arminius returned from Basle to us at Geneva, both his acquirements in learning and his manner of life have been so approved by us, that we form the highest hopes respecting him, if he proceed in the same course as that which he is now pursuing, and in which, we think, by the favour of God, he will continue. For the Lord has conferred on him, among other endowments, a happy genius for clearly perceiving the nature of things and forming a correct judgment upon them, which, if it be hereafter brought under the governance of piety, of which he shews himself most studious, will undoubtedly cause his powerful genius, after it has been matured by years and confirmed by his acquaintance with things, to produce a rich and most abundant harvest. These are our sentiments concerning Arminius, a young man, as far as we have been able to form a judgment of him, in no respect unworthy of your benevolence and liberality.

Beza does indeed recommend Arminius “from the time Arminius returned to us from Basel,” perhaps an implicit criticism of him during his first stay in Geneva.

On August 19, 1585, city leaders in Amsterdam wrote to Beza, presumably pondering further financial support for Arminius, with several questions that Bangs summarizes: “They wanted to know about his personal development. Is he stubborn and arrogant? Does he obstinately defend his own personal opinions? Is he making proper use of his education? The burgomasters were evidently nervous about the earlier episode of Arminius’ defense of Ramus.” Apparently, word had gotten back to Amsterdam about the problematic behavior of Arminius in Geneva, which is not surprising, since between 1559 and 1586 some 190 Dutch students studied in Geneva.

The letters of recommendation from Grynaeus and Beza were clearly intended to elicit continued financial support from the church of Amsterdam for Arminius’ theological studies. They present strong testimonies to Arminius’ brilliance, piety, and learning in 1583 and, perhaps, 1585. Grynaeus’ letter reflects much more personal familiarity with Arminius than does Beza’s. Financial aid for Arminius from Amsterdam continued for the whole time of his study in Switzerland. No clear evidence survives as to why Amsterdam provided financial support for Arminius, but it must surely have reflected earlier recommendations from Calvinists, perhaps from Danaeus, who had taught him in Leiden.

Certainly, Arminius’ time in Geneva was significant. According to Bertius, while in Geneva, Arminius heard Beza preaching on Paul’s letter to the Romans “to the great and deserved admiration of the multitudes who heard him.” It may have been Beza, ironically, who further encouraged Arminius’ interest in Romans, on which he began to lecture in Basel. (Perhaps this testimony of Bertius is further evidence of theological harmony between Arminius and Beza before 1590.)

Near the end of his time in Geneva, with the church in Amsterdam urging him to return, Arminius decided to travel to Italy. Such a decision is certainly understandable from the perspective of an eager student, but his seven months in Italy and then a few more months in Geneva before returning to the Netherlands certainly justify James Nichols’ comment that his decision represented “a degree of youthful rashness.” Arminius finally arrived back in Amsterdam no later than September 1587.

The reports of his friends indicate that while he was in Switzerland, Arminius was impetuous at times and had both caused trouble and been appreciated. Here is the pattern that we will see repeated in his life. The pattern is not an unobtrusive man who is attacked by mean Calvinists. Rather, we see a very bright and talented person who was willing to initiate confrontation with those with whom he disagreed and could be quite adamant in advancing his views. Rather than a moderate Arminius mistreated by mean Calvinists, we see an Arminius who could be impetuous and stubborn but who was treated with a great deal of kindness by Calvinists.

Pastor In Amsterdam (1588–1603)

In Amsterdam, he reported to the classis in October 1587 and to the consistory in November. Bangs cites the consistory minutes: “Jacobus Arminius, an alumnus of this city, having come from Geneva, appeared in the consistory and delivered his testimonial from the school in Geneva, which was signed by Beza.” This testimony, which we do not possess, was apparently another one from Beza on behalf of the whole faculty. In February 1588, Arminius was examined by classis, and he was ordained on August 27, 1588. It is not clear why there was a delay of almost seven months.

While no specific record survives of Arminius’ subscribing the confessional standards of the church (the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism), in the strongly Calvinist church of Amsterdam, he must have subscribed. Bangs wrote: “The candidates were also to be required to sign the Belgic Confession according to the actions taken by the National Synod of Dordrecht (1578) and the National Synod of Middelburg (1581). This, as will be seen, was not uniformly observed.” H.H. Kuyper wrote in 1899, “Already from the first General Synod the decision was made in the Church Order that all preachers must subscribe the confession as the expression of unity.” The synods of Dort (1574), Dort (1578), Middleburg (1581), and The Hague (1586) all required subscription to the Belgic Confession, but none adopted a specific form of subscription.

In terms of Arminius’ later career, the crucial section of the Belgic Confession was article 16 on predestination: “God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just. He is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel, has elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. He is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves.” Here is a clear, brief statement of unconditional predestination that is not supralapsarian and with which Arminius apparently agreed in 1588. When Arminius was ordained in August 1588, Arminius must have known, in light of his studies in Geneva, the character of confessional Calvinism. He received two letters of recommendation from Beza and sustained a thorough examination by the Amsterdam classis. It is extremely unlikely that Beza and the classis would have failed to discover if Arminius believed in the conditional predestination that he later taught. It is much more likely that Bertius was correct and that Arminius held to some form of unconditional predestination at the time of his ordination. This is not to say that he was an enthusiastic supralapsarian. That would not have been required in Geneva or in Amsterdam.

Marriage

On September 16, 1590, a little more than two years after his ordination, Arminius married Lijsbet Reael. This event was, of course, very important personally for Arminius, but may also have been important for his theological development. Arminius had lost his own family, and his new family connections by marriage brought him into a prominent, prosperous merchant family in Amsterdam. “By his call to the Amsterdam ministry and by his marriage to Lijsbet, he was caught up in an extended network of professional, political, economic, and family relationships which extended into every corner of the leading families of Amsterdam.” Lijsbet’s father, Laurens Reael, probably shared the views of most of his associates in Amsterdam. He held to the Reformed faith but wanted the church and ministers to be under the supervision of the civil government.

By 1591, Arminius had clearly come to share the Erastian views of his father-in-law rather than the view of most of the Dutch Reformed clergy, which was Calvin’s view of the relative independence of the church. Arminius may have adopted Erastian views already in Basel, but the influence of his new family at the very least reinforced such views. His new connections might have been a factor in encouraging him to reconsider the theology with which he returned from Geneva, for according to Bertius, the period 1589–91 is the time in which he changed. It may also be that his new connections gave him the courage to become independent of and think differently from his ministerial colleagues. Certainly, in 1591, he served on the committee appointed by Jan van Oldenbarnevelt, the leading government official in the United Provinces, which drew up an Erastian church order for the church. (None of these church polity issues is really discussed in Bangs.) This church order was sharply Erastian and was so controversial with the majority of the church that it could not be implemented.

Later in the treatise, he writes: “In the second place, you assert, that ‘divine Election is the rule of giving or withholding faith. Therefore, Election does not pertain to believers, but faith rather pertains to the elect, or is the gift of Election.’ You will allow me to deny this, and to ask for the proof, while I plead the cause of those whose sentiment you here oppose. Election is made in Christ. But no one is elected in Christ, unless he is a believer.” For Arminius, election is not the unconditional predestination of individuals but the selection of a class of people conditioned on belief. Arminius equivocates on the question of the origin of faith in believers: “Whether the grace, which is offered to man, may be also received by him by the aid of grace, which is common to him with others who reject the same, or by grace peculiar to him, is perhaps in controversy.” Surely, it is more than a little curious that a Reformed theologian at the beginning of the seventeenth century is uncertain about the origin of faith.

Professor In Leiden (1603–1609)

In 1603, two of the three chairs in theology at Leiden University were open. Franciscus Junius and Lucas Trelcatius the Elder had died of the plague. The trustees of the university appointed Lucas Trelcatius the Younger to replace his father and Arminius to replace Junius. Some of the Calvinist clergy objected strongly to the appointment of Arminius. The issue was resolved when all sides agreed to have Gomarus, the surviving professor of theology at Leiden, interview Arminius and make a recommendation. Gomarus conducted the interview and declared himself satisfied with the orthodoxy of Arminius and supported granting him a doctoral degree. Gomarus was key to maintaining peace between Arminius and some of his critics. Why would Gomarus conclude that Arminius was an orthodox Reformed theologian? There are only a limited number of answers to that question:

  1. Gomarus did not ask adequate questions of Arminius,
  2. Arminius did not give honest or complete answers to the questions,
  3. Arminius changed his mind on some issues after the interview, or
  4. some combination of the three preceding answers.

In light of what we have seen in Arminius’ earlier writings, some combination of numbers one and two is most likely. Here again we do not have a case of noble Arminius, but a case where at least some Calvinists treated him well.

Notorious Disputations (1604–1605)

A particularly notable and often quoted episode at Leiden in an eighteen-month period from February 1604 to August 1605 reveals serious misunderstandings promoted by many historians about the relationships between Arminius and Gomarus. The three members of the theological faculty at the University of Leiden—Franciscus Gomarus, Lucas Trelcatius the Younger, and Jacobus Arminius—regularly wrote theses on key theological topics and then supervised, as a central part of the students’ theological education, public debates or disputations on those theses. The topics followed a regular systematic theological order, with each professor taking turns in order. The theses usually ran to about five to seven printed pages. On February 7, 1604, in the regular order of topics, Arminius presided over disputation on predestination. On October 31, 1604, Gomarus departed from the regular order of topics to lead his own disputation on predestination. Arminius’ public disputation “On Divine Predestination” is relatively brief and straightforward, fifteen theses in just over four printed pages. Gomarus’ thirty-two theses on predestination later in the year run to about twelve pages, longer than usual. In his “Chronology” near the beginning of his biography, Bangs wrote of 1604: “Arminius presents theses on predestination. Gomarus counter-attacks.” In the text, Bangs elaborates on Gomarus’ action: “It was not until October 31, 1604, that the theological battle in Leiden began in earnest. Gomarus touched it off by holding a public disputation on predestination, out of turn and not part of the established schedule. He began with an ‘acrimonious preface,’ according to Brandt, excusing his speaking out of turn on the grounds that error was abroad— no direct mention of Arminius, but the message was plain.” Bangs is clearly depending on the Remonstrant historian Gerard Brandt, who had written, about seventy years after the event, that Gomarus had acted “out of his turn, and contrary to the method that had been before agreed upon.” Brandt, in turn, seems dependent on Stephen de Courcelles, a Remonstrant theologian who edited and published Arminius’ Examination of the Theses of Dr. F. Gomarus Respecting Predestination for the first time in 1645. In his preface, de Courcelles wrote of Arminius:

Let not any one think, then, that he entered upon that contest of his own free choice; but he was drawn into it, contrary to his intention, by the necessity of defending himself. For he perceived that the Theses which he here refutes were not composed by Gomarus, according to the safe usage of the University, in order to exercise the Candidates of Theology, but were written out of order, to provoke him, whom he knew to be of the opposite opinion. Wherefore Arminius thought it a matter of duty not to leave Divine truth undefended, of which he was a Doctor and Minister.

No evidence exists for Brandt’s claim that Gomarus wrote an “acrimonious preface” to his theses, not even in de Courcelles’ preface.

The claim of Brandt is still repeated by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall: “One of the renowned treatises of Arminius actually, arose from the public disputation of his colleague, Gomarus, who composed his theses on predestination in opposition to Arminius on 31 October 1604.” Elsewhere, Stanglin wrote:

Disputation number 30 in the cycle, which happened to be on predestination, fell to Arminius on 7 February 1604. Gomarus did not approve of what was said in the disputation, for he responded on 31 October 1604 with his own public disputation on predestination. Gomarus’s move to publish theses on a topic that had just been covered eight months earlier in the curriculum was viewed as insulting, for he did it “out of turn, and contrary to the method that had been before agreed upon.” [Again citing G. Brandt.] The very next day, Arminius wrote a letter to Jan Uytenbogaert, his close friend and ministerial colleague, calling Gomarus offensissimus. That Arminius took Gomarus’s disputation as a polemical refutation of his own is demonstrated by the fact that Arminius responded directly to Gomarus’s disputation point by point in writing.

At first glance, all of this evidence seems very straightforward, but it begins to unravel because of Stanglin’s own thorough work on the public disputations. Stanglin shows that the claim of Brandt that Gomarus had acted contrary to the method agreed upon was not true:

The other type of public practice disputation was outside of the planned order (extra ordinem) of the repetitio. In contrast to the repetitio disputations, which moved in order through the series of connected theological topics (ex ordine), these disputations dealt with so-called quaelibet material, that is, a randomly chosen subject that held no connection with the material being handled at the time. These random disputations—which have medieval antecedents in the quodlibetal questions handled by Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham, among others—were held at Leiden University about twice a month at an ad hoc assembly Since working through the complete repetitio would take at least one year or as many as three years, and a professor or student might not otherwise have the opportunity to handle a certain topic in this public setting, the professors, perhaps in collaboration with students, often took advantage of this ability to propose topics out of the usual repetitio order. . . . Moreover, these randomly proposed disputations gave professors an opportunity to deal with any topic that arose in their own reading or interaction with one another. Gomarus’s 1604 disputation on predestination, as a response to Arminius’s disputation on the same topic, is a clear example of this type. These disputations generally were known by titles other than disputatio. Rather, their most common designation was theses theologicae.

According to Stanglin’s own analysis, Gomarus had not done anything unusual in 1604 by proposing his own theses on predestination.

More than that, the action itself does not show that he was reacting to or criticizing Arminius. Indeed, according to Stanglin, Gomarus apparently later stated that he had not disagreed with Arminius’ theses on predestination: “In Gomarus’s Bedencken, published late in 1609 in response to Petrus Bertius’s funeral oration, Gomarus again points to the late 1603 disputation on justification, claiming that Arminius had then taught purely (suyverlick) on this doctrine. He goes on to claim that he had suspended his judgment of Arminius until his 1605 disputation on free choice (Disp. Pub. XI).” Even as disagreements became public later, Gomarus insisted that his great concern with Arminius was not on predestination (and not in 1604), but the ways in which his teaching would undermine the Protestant doctrine of justification. What are we to make, then, of Arminius’ reaction to Gomarus’ theses that Gomarus was most offensive? Apparently, at the time Arminius expressed his offense, he only knew what Uytenbogaert had told him. The fact that Arminius took offense does not prove that Gomarus meant to offend or even that he had actually done anything offensive. In all likelihood, Arminius took offense not to the action of Gomarus in presenting theses but to the content of those theses. Of course, Arminius may have mistakenly thought that Gomarus was attacking him when that was not Gomarus’ intention.

What we know with certainty is that Arminius immediately set to work on a detailed, lengthy analysis and refutation of Gomarus’ theses. Apparently, Arminius completed this work late in 1604 or early in 1605. Arminius’ preface to this work seems to imply that he intends this work to be published: “You will not take it amiss, most illustrious Gomarus, if I weigh, according to the Scriptures, those Theses which you composed not so long ago, and propounded for public disputation, and if I state candidly and modestly what I find wanting in them. Solemnly and in God’s presence I protest that I take up this task, not from a desire of contention, but from an earnest wish to inquire into and search out the truth.” The conclusions he reached on the teaching of Gomarus, however, are virulent indeed and are perhaps the reason he decided not to publish them. Of Gomarus’ teaching on predestination, Arminius wrote:

I, however, freely and openly affirm, that it seems to me to follow certainly from those Theses, that God is the author of sin; nor this alone, but also that God really sins, nay, that God alone sins: whence it necessarily follows that sin is not sin, because God cannot sin. But I, forsooth, am certain in my own conscience, from the word of God and of His Christ, that this doctrine is false and profane, in no manner contrary to the kingdom of Satan, but very well adapted for establishing and confirming it. For which reason also, since all that is false traces its prime origin from that kingdom, I should not hesitate to affirm that this doctrine has crept into the hearts of good men by the subtlety and craft of Satan; and that they, on their side (though unaware of it, and with other intentions), have accomplished for the kingdom of darkness a work not sufficiently to be repented of. Yet I trust that the good God has pardoned them this very thing, as having done it in ignorance, and as being prepared to submit to those who may teach them better things.

The charges here are extremely serious, but the quotation seems to have two disingenuous elements. First, at the very end of the treatise, the suggestion of some mitigation of Gomarus’ responsibility because he wrote in ignorance does not seem sincere. Gomarus was a professor of theology, and his conclusions on predestination surely cannot be attributed to ignorance. Second, Arminius writes that he is making his conclusion about Gomarus “openly,” but there was nothing open about it. (Stanglin, in the quotation above, similarly writes that Arminius “responded directly” to Gomarus.) Arminius did not publish this work in his own lifetime and made no public statement about these convictions until 1608 in his Declaration of Sentiments.

The extreme nature of Arminius’ reaction to Gomarus leads to another question about his integrity. Within a few months of completing his Examination, in response to an inquiry from the Classis of Dordrecht about controversies at Leiden, on August 10, 1605, Arminius signed a public statement along with this fellow theology professors, Franciscus Gomarus and Lucas Trelcatius, which declared “that among themselves, that is, among the Professors of the Faculty of Theology, no difference existed that could be considered as in the least affecting the fundamentals of doctrine.” Was Arminius being honest? It is hard to see how Arminius could have written what he did in his Examination and then could claim that he agreed with Gomarus on the fundamentals of doctrine. Surely, teaching that makes God the author of sin is a fundamental doctrine.

On the other hand, we must ask if Gomarus was honest in suggesting that he had no trouble with Arminius or his teaching in 1604. While Gomarus wanted to teach somewhat differently on predestination in 1604, had Arminius in his 1604 disputation on predestination said anything that would have seriously offended Gomarus? Arminius wrote in thesis 2, “Predestination therefore, as it regards the thing itself, is the Decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which He resolved within himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt, and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of his own glorious grace, believers on whom He had decreed to bestow faith (Eph. i; Rom. ix.).” Further, he wrote in thesis 7, “But we give the name of ‘Believers,’ not to those who would be such by their own merits or strength, but to those who by the gratuitous and peculiar kindness of God [erant credituri] would believe in Christ.” These statements of Arminius as far as they go represent views completely compatible with Calvin’s teaching on predestination and would not have offended Gomarus. He does not raise in these theses his concerns about the origin of sin or the source of faith.
The evidence shows that Gomarus did nothing unusual or offensive in presenting theses on predestination in 1604. His supralapsarian views did greatly offend Arminius, who responded with vicious criticism of Gomarus’ teaching, which he kept private while publicly claiming agreement with Gomarus on basic doctrines. It is Arminius who seems bitter and rather dishonest in this period, not Gomarus. If the positive Arminius narrative falls apart on close examination of this one key piece of evidence, the whole narrative begins to unravel.

Free Will

In July 1605, Arminius conducted a public disputation titled “On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers.” While the theses of the disputation themselves were not controversial, controversy soon swirled around him. Bangs explains this:

Two days later, in a letter to Adrian Borrius, he reveals his thinking on these questions. “I transmit you my theses on free will, which I have composed in this [guarded manner], because I thought that they would thus conduce to peace. I have advanced nothing which I consider at all allied to a falsity. But I have been silent upon some truths which I might have published, for I know that it is one thing to be silent respecting a truth and another to utter a falsehood, the latter of which is never lawful to do, while the former is occasionally, nay very often, expedient.” Those hostile and those sympathetic to Arminius have divided on the ethical question.

Stanglin addresses the ethics of this situation: “What Arminius wrote to his friend about the caution he took in the public disputation on free choice was apparently said publicly at the disputation itself, for Gomarus was aware of the statement. Whatever Arminius meant by withholding some opinion at the disputation on free choice, his decision not to declare everything was no secret, but acknowledged openly.” If Stanglin was right, then Arminius was not duplicitous, as many have thought, but was provocative. Surely, Gomarus would have wondered and worried about what his other unspoken opinions were. Gomarus’ doubts about Arminius were growing.

Rectoral Address

Early in 1605, Arminius was elected by his colleagues to serve a one-year term as Rector Magnificus of the university. As was the custom at the end of his term, on February 8, 1606, he delivered a rectoral address. His was titled “On Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians.” This oration is very illuminating and seems to be intentionally controversial.

The address begins with a very strong statement about the value of religious union, using some curious examples:

But, to close this part of my discourse, the very summit and conclusion of all the evils which arise from religious discord, is, the destruction of the very religion about which all the controversy has been raised. Of this a very mournful example is exhibited to us in certain extensive dominions and large kingdoms, the inhabitants of which were formerly among the most flourishing professors of the Christian Religion: but the present inhabitants of those countries have unchristianized themselves by embracing Mahomedanism, a system which derived its origin, and had its chief means of increase, from the dissensions which arose between the Jews and the Christians, and from the disputes into which the Orthodox entered with the Sabellians, the Arians, the Nestorians, the Eutychians, and the Monothelites.

Is he just saying that these controversies weakened Christianity, or in light of his strong statements against dissension, is he suggesting that these controversies should not have taken place? Surely, he must mean the former, but he is strangely unclear.

In speaking of the harmful effects of controversy on the confidence of common people in Christian religion, he declared:

When the people perceive that there is scarcely any article of Christian doctrine concerning which there are not different and even contradictory opinions; that one party calls that ‘horrid blasphemy’ which another party has laid down as “a complete summary of the truth”; that those points which some professors consider the perfection of piety, receive from others the contumelious appellation of “cursed idolatry”; and that controversies of this description are objects of warm discussion between men of learning, respectability, experience and great renown, they begin then to indulge in the imagination, that they may esteem the principles of religion alike obscure and uncertain.

The words “cursed idolatry” are cited from Heidelberg Catechism 80 and there refer to the character of the Roman Catholic Mass. Again, is Arminius just showing the danger of disagreements, or is he equating the fault of the Roman Catholic and Reformed parties in the religious divisions?

While Arminius does not take sides in any of the dissensions that he uses as examples or ever say that some disagreements are necessary and cannot be negotiated away, he does at last turn to the situation in the Netherlands: “It is my special wish, that there may now be among us a similar cessation from the asperities of religious warfare, and that both parties would abstain from writings full of bitterness, from sermons remarkable only for the invectives which they contain, and from the unchristian practice of mutual anathematizing and execration.” Again, he does not specify the nature of the theological issues between the parties. It is striking that he refers to two parties, apparently seeing the division in terms of what would later be known as the Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants, or Arminians and Calvinists. Later, however, he refers to “all the parties that disagree.”

If he did change his theology in a way that contradicted the Belgic Confession, was he under no moral obligation to report this to the church?

The great suggestion of Arminius to create unity is the meeting of a synod: “That remedy is, an orderly and free convention of the parties that differ from each other Let the members deliberate, consult, and determine what the word of God declares concerning the matters in controversy, and afterwards let them by common consent promulge and declare the result to the Churches.” Remarkably, this synod does not seem to be part of the regular order of the particular, provincial, or national synods of the Dutch Reformed Church. Indeed, the institutional church does not seem to figure in Arminius’ efforts to heal disagreements, no doubt because he knew how little influence he had in the church.

Arminius proposes a strongly Erastian solution: “The Chief Magistrates, who profess the Christian religion, will summon and convene this Synod, in virtue of the Supreme official authority with which they are divinely invested, and according to the practice that formerly prevailed in the Jewish Church, and that was afterwards adopted by the Christian Church and continued nearly to the nine hundredth year after the birth of Christ, until the Roman Pontiff began through tyranny to arrogate the authority to himself.” (Is Arminius here implicitly equating the Calvinist opposition to Erastianism with the Roman tyranny?) He even suggests that the magistrates preside over the synod: “For the sake of order, moderation, and good government, and to avoid confusion, it will be necessary to have presidents subordinate to Christ Jesus. It is my sincere wish that the magistrates would themselves undertake that office in the Council; and this might be obtained from them as a favour.” He may be thinking of Constantine at the Council of Nicaea or of Luther’s great reforming treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, but he must have known that his suggestion would anger most of his fellow Reformed ministers.

His most astounding recommendation for the synod was that it should function with only the Bible as its authority and that all delegates “be absolved from all other oaths directly or indirectly contrary to this [supreme allegiance to the divine word] by which they have been bound either to churches or their confessions, schools and their masters, or even to princes themselves (except in matters of their proper jurisdiction).” The synod would not be bound, as the church was, by the confession and catechism. While Arminius always insisted that he did not teach anything contrary to the confessional standards of the church, he must have known how inflammatory his recommendation would be.

Only five weeks after Arminius’ address, the States General of the United Provinces granted permission for the meeting of a national synod, but its only mandate was to revise the confession and catechism. The large Calvinist majority in the church was unwilling to meet in a synod with such a mandate, and this synod never met.

An intriguing question seems not to have been posed by the Arminian scholars: Since Arminius had so many connections through his wife’s family to regents in Holland, had one of them encouraged Arminius to make this suggestion? This call for a synod that was not bound to the church’s confession and catechism seems much more confrontational than anything else that Arminius had done publicly as a professor at Leiden. Had he been assured of support and help from the Erastian regents in bringing about this result? Regardless of whether there is any extant evidence to answer this question, we must recognize the sharply confrontational nature of his action.

Other Issues

Arminius often claimed to agree with the confessional standards, and perhaps he never publicly taught contrary to them. His call for a synod, however, reinforced the suspicions of many ministers that he was trying to change the established theological commitments of the church. It is useful here to show that he clearly disagreed with the teaching of the confession and catechism, not only on predestination, but on a number of other issues. On original sin, Stanglin and McCall summarize Arminius’ views: “To put the matter briefly, for Arminius, the claim that original sin is primarily a deprivation of original righteousness is accompanied by the claim that original sin does not make one liable to further punishment.” This position stands in contrast to Belgic Confession article 15: “We believe that through the disobedience of Adam original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature and a hereditary disease, wherewith even infants in their mother’s womb are infected, and which produces in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof, and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.”

On faith as trust, again Stanglin and McCall summarize: “For Arminius, the problem lies first with the Reformed conviction that saving faith includes not only knowledge and assent, but also fiducia, or confident assurance. In other words, assurance is, by definition, thought to be a necessary component of saving faith. Arminius contested this assertion that led Christians to despair. Instead, he distinguished assurance (fiducia) from faith (fides), declaring that assurance follows as the ordinary result of saving faith, but is not necessarily simultaneous with faith.” But the Heidelberg Catechism teaches: “What is true faith? True faith is not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (Q&A 21).

On faith and justification, John Valero Fesko has done a careful study showing that Arminius taught that faith itself is imputed for righteousness, which is seriously at odds with the standard Reformed understanding that faith is the instrument by which the righteousness of Christ is received. Fesko quotes Arminius: “If I understand at all, I think this is the meaning of the phrase, God accounts faith for righteousness: And thus justification is ascribed to faith, not because it accepts, but because it is accepted.” As Fesko notes, Arminius’ understanding of faith stands against the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism 61: “Why do you say that you are righteous by faith alone? Not because I please God by virtue of the worthiness of my faith, but because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ alone are my righteousness before God, and because I can accept it and make it mine in no other way then by faith alone.”

On the possibility of Christian moral perfection, Stanglin and McCall write: “Although he admits that it is strictly possible for the regenerate to fulfill the moral law perfectly in this life, Arminius does not leave the impression that such perfection actually happens often, if at all.” But the Heidelberg Catechism teaches: “But can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly? No; but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q&A 114). It is surely not surprising that Arminius might have wanted changes to the confession and catechism.

Trelcatius and the Divinity of Christ

In 1606, a theology student challenged Arminius about his teaching on an aspect of the divinity of Christ, specifically on whether Christ was autotheos (God from Himself ). The student accused Arminius of disagreeing with Trelcatius on this point. Muller commented on this dispute: “In the ensuing debate, Arminius’ interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity differed pointedly from that of his Reformed colleagues in the university. Arminius held that the Son’s begottenness pertained not only to his person but also to his divinity. Thus, while Trelcatius and the Reformed viewed only the Trinitarian relation, begottenness, as generated, so that the second person of the Trinity could be said to have his sonship by generation but to have his essence of himself, Arminius argued that Christ had both his sonship and his divinity or essence by generation.” The views of Arminius, rather than those of Trelcatius, seem to be the innovative ones. Again, as Muller argues: “Arminius’ grounding of the economic subordination of the Son to the antecedent will of the Father in the concept of a generated deitas or divine essential is foreign not only to the Reformed and Lutheran views of Trinity but also to the views of all the great medieval doctors.”

Muller seems to understand the concerns of Arminius’ Calvinist critics: “Arminius’ patristic scholarship left something to be desired—and the resemblance of his polemical statements to those of [Valentin] Gentile eventually convinced his Reformed opponents that he tended toward an anti-trinitarian, subordinationistic, and even Arian view of God.” Stanglin and McCall defend Arminius’ Trinitarian orthodoxy but acknowledge Trinitarian problems in the later history of the movement: “It is clear that Arminius intends nothing short of a defense of the full divinity of the Son, but it is just as clear (from the resultant history) that the theology of many later Arminians tended toward subordinationism.”

Arminius was apparently annoyed with Trelcatius on this matter but did not speak directly to him about it, perhaps because he did not respect the intellect of Trelcatius. Once again, we see Arminius adopting controversial views and confronting his colleagues and students with them. Here he is the innovator and troublemaker.

Rumors

One of the very real problems Arminius faced in the last years of his life was the circulation of rumors about his beliefs and teaching. Many false charges flew in many directions, and Arminius was not the only one misrepresented. Nevertheless, Arminius was often at the center of various charges, and the fact that he had not published anything no doubt fueled them.
One recurring charge is summarized by Gerard Brandt in this way: “Among the things reported of him at that time [1608], and which have been since often repeated, was, that he advised his Pupils or Scholars to read the books of the Jesuits and of Koornhert, and spoke contemptibly of those of Calvin.” In September 1608, Arminius wrote to a burgomaster in Amsterdam, Sebastian Egberts, to deny these charges vigorously. He declared that he commended the works of Calvin to his students and then stated: “That this has been my advice, I can prove by numberless witnesses; whereas they cannot produce one whom I have counseled to read the Jesuits or Koornhert’s books: let them show but one only, and the falsity will appear. Thus stories, or rather fables, arise from a single nothing.”

Today, we are perhaps surprised that the reading of theological opponents would be controversial. No doubt, some Calvinists were unfairly trying to build a case against Arminius that he was serving the interests of the Roman Catholic Church. The long war with Spain might have made the books of Spanish Jesuits such as Suarez and Molina particularly controversial. We can see that Arminius regarded the charges as sufficiently serious that he denied them absolutely.

One student, however, did testify very clearly against Arminius on this point. Caspar Sibelius, a student at Leiden from 1608 to 1609, declared: “I observed, among a number of fellow students enrolled in the private theological class of doctor Arminius, many things that, had I been ignorant, might easily have led me into dark and abominable errors. For in that class we were utterly drawn away from reading the works and treatises of Calvin, Beza, Zanchi, Martyr, Ursinus, Piscator, Perkins, and other learned and valuable theologians of the church of Christ, we were commanded to examine only holy scripture, but equally so the writings of Socinus, Acontius, Castellio, Thomas Aquinas, Molina, Suarez and other enemies of grace were commended to us.” Whether the rumors or charges were true, the situation in the university and in the broader church and society had become so serious that the civil government concluded that it must take action.

The Declaration of Sentiments

In the midst of growing controversy, Arminius was asked to present his views in person to the rather sympathetic states of Holland in The Hague on October 30, 1608. Arminius read this statement, known as The Declaration of Sentiments, in Dutch to the assembly. After his death, it was translated into Latin and published.

The first part of the Declaration is historical, explaining why Arminius had often been unwilling to enter into discussions with various groups of ministers to state and defend his views. The second part is theological, analyzing and rejecting various Calvinist views of predestination and then presenting on his own views on predestination and a number of related issues.

In the course of his Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius refers twice to several controversial ministers in the Reformed Church in the United Provinces: Caspar Coolhaes, Herman Herberts, Cornelius Wiggerts, and Tako Sybrants. As we have already seen, Coolhaes was deposed and excommunicated in 1582, and Wiggerts was suspended in 1593 and deposed in 1596. Herberts was suspended by the church in 1591 but was kept in office by the magistrates. Sybrants, while long opposed by the Calvinist clergy, survived in his post through the protection of the magistrates.

Arminius’ first appeal to these ministers in the historical section of the Declaration was in Erastian terms, as he explained why he had not cooperated in a conference in 1605 with ministers from Holland: “I wish the brethren would remember this fact, that although every one of our ministers is subject as a member to the jurisdiction of the particular Synod to which he belongs, yet not one of them has hitherto dared to engage in a conference without the advice and permission of the magistrates under whom he is placed.” He then appeals to the four ministers as examples of this requirement of the involvement of the magistrates.

His second appeal is under his theological arguments, specifically: “XX. Lastly. This doctrine of Predestination has been rejected both in former times and in our own days, by the greater part of the professors of Christianity.” He develops this statement: “1. But, omitting all mention of the periods that occurred in former ages, facts themselves declare, that the Lutherans and Anabaptist churches, as well as that of Rome, account this to be an erroneous doctrine. 2. However highly Luther and Melanchthon might at the very commencement of the Reformation have approved of this doctrine, they afterwards deserted it.” In these comments, Arminius shows that he is not a very good historian of doctrine with regard either to the Roman church or to Luther.

He continues with the situation in the Netherlands:

  1. Besides, by many of the inhabitants of these our own provinces this doctrine is accounted a grievance of such a nature, as to cause several of them to affirm, that on account of it they neither can nor will have any communion with our Church: Others of them have united themselves with our Churches, but not without entering a protest, “that they cannot possibly give their consent to this doctrine.” But, on account of this kind of Predestination, our Churches have been deserted by not a few individuals, who formerly held the same opinions as ourselves: Others also have threatened to depart from us, unless they be fully assured that the Church holds no opinion of this description. 6. Lastly. Of all the difficulties and controversies which have arisen in these our Churches since the time of the Reformation, there is none that has not had its origin in this doctrine, or that has not at least been mixed with it. What I have here said will be found true, if we bring to our recollection the controversies that existed at Leyden in the affair of Koolhaes, at Gouda in that of Herman Herberts, at Horn with respect to Cornelius Wiggertson, and at Mendenblick in the affair of Tako Sybrants. This consideration was not among the last of those motives which induced me to give my more diligent attention to this head of doctrine, and endeavour to prevent our Churches from suffering any detriment from it; because, from it, the Papists have derived much of their increase. _ Such a doctrine of predestination, he argues, has caused trouble wherever it has gone.

These arguments would not have impressed the Calvinists, who would have responded that the character of the church is defined by its doctrinal standards, not by its critics, and that the church sought to discipline the four men.

Arminius’ concluding rejection of supralapsarianism is very sharp. As Bangs noted, “Arminius now comes out fighting. No longer is he content to say merely that many views should be tolerated in the church; he finds this position intolerable.” Arminius writes: “This doctrine completely subverts THE FOUNDATION OF RELIGION IN GENERAL, and of the Christian Religion in particular.” These words echo his evaluation of the teaching of Gomarus on predestination in his “Examination” in 1605. They again raise the question of Arminius’ honesty when he argued that he had no fundamental disagreements with Gomarus in 1605.

After the lengthy rejection of Calvinist views of predestination, Arminius presents the clearest and fullest statement of his own views on predestination that we have from his own pen. Still, this statement in four propositions is not long or detailed. As Bangs wrote: “It is surprisingly brief.”

The first proposition refers to Christ: “I. The FIRST absolute decree of God concerning the salvation of sinful man, is that by which he decreed to appoint his Son Jesus Christ for a Mediator, Redeemer, Saviour, Priest and King, who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue.” Here Arminius articulates his insistence that Christ is the foundation of election against the standard Reformed teaching that Christ is the executor of election and the foundation of salvation. (The Reformed, of course, always said that the eternal Son in the councils of eternity with the Father and the Spirit was the foundation of election.)

The second proposition makes clear his conviction that God does not unconditionally elect individuals, but elects those who meet the condition of faith: “II. The SECOND precise and absolute decree of God, is that in which he decreed to receive into favour those who repent and believe, and, in Christ, for HIS sake and through HIM, to effect the salvation of such penitents and believers as persevered to the end; but to leave in sin and under wrath all impenitent persons and unbelievers, and to damn them as aliens from Christ.”

In the third proposition, Arminius writes of the means by which God makes faith available to sinners. Then, in the fourth proposition, he presents his views on how a sinner actually comes to faith: “IV. To these succeeds the FOURTH decree, by which God decreed 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, according to the before-described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.” Here Arminius is using middle knowledge and presenting his views honestly and straightforwardly. But his candor here highlights the limits, and perhaps even deceit, of his 1604 theses on predestination.

In twenty brief points, Arminius defends his propositions. He concludes his twentieth point with these words about his teaching on predestination: “It cannot afford any person just cause for expressing his aversion to it; nor can it give any pretext for contention in the Christian Church.” Such a statement in the midst of all the controversy in the church is at very best disingenuous. Is he appealing to the desire of the magistrates for order? As some of his arguments show a serious misreading of history, here he seems seriously to misread the contemporary situation in the church. He has attacked various Reformed doctrines, and he claims not to understand the reaction he is facing. Here again, we do not see the moderate Arminius but rather Arminius the “dogged controversialist.”

Conclusion

The evidence we have examined shows conclusively that the four key contentions of Bangs that undergird his positive picture of Arminius are wrong. Arminius was not part of an older, Erasmian Reformed current in the church. Such a current did not exist. Arminius was not surrounded by a pervasive supralapsarianism among the orthodox Calvinists. Arminius did most likely change his theology of predestination from Calvinist to non-Calvinist around 1590. And Arminius, far from being unfairly attacked again and again by Calvinists, was usually the initiator of controversy.

Arminius experienced controversy in Geneva, Amsterdam, and Leiden with a variety of people over philosophy, ecclesiology, exegesis, and theology. Is it credible that it was always someone else who caused the trouble? Or is it more likely that Arminius was something of a troublemaker? Surely, he knew that Beza and others were Aristotelians before he went to Geneva. Surely, he knew the contents of the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism to which the church subscribed in Amsterdam. Surely, he knew that the majority of ministers in the Netherlands opposed the Erastianism that he embraced in 1591. Surely, he knew Calvin’s exegesis of Romans 7 and 9, followed by most all the Reformed, before he preached a very different understanding of those texts. He certainly knew the theological commitments of Gomarus and Trelcatius at Leiden on free will and predestination before he went there. Yet, somehow a number of historians have accepted that whenever Calvinists objected to Arminius’ challenge to the established positions of the Reformed churches, they were the ones causing trouble. No one forced him to subscribe or to become a pastor or professor.

He was likely more than a controversialist, however. He was likely a dissembler who abused the good will and efforts of the Calvinists to maintain peace with him in the church. If he never changed his theology, then was he honest with Beza, who gave him a letter of recommendation? Was he honest with the classis in 1588 when he was examined for ordination? Was he honest with Gomarus in their conversation in 1603, which led to Gomarus’ recommending him for the appointment to teach at Leiden? Was he honest with Gomarus, Trelcatius, and the churches in 1605 when together the three of them assured the churches that they were united theologically? If he did change his theology in a way that contradicted the Belgic Confession, was he under no moral obligation to report this to the church?

Arminius knew that he was part of a small minority of ministers in the church who wanted to change its doctrines by allying themselves with the power of the magistrates. He was not more confrontational than some others in the church. He was a bright and creative theologian. But he had no right to reject theological views that he had pledged to uphold. He had a right to promote his views. Neither he nor his supporters can contend that those who disagreed with him—the majority of the ministers—were wrong to promote their views. Arminius should be evaluated in the same way as all his contemporaries, not as an obviously morally superior figure. Perhaps, after all, Abraham Kuyper best epitomized Arminius when he called him a “crafty fox.”