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Jacobus Arminius (1560 – 1609)


Jacobus Arminius


Arminius may never have had a tranquil day in his life. He was born in the Dutch town of Oudewater the year his father died. His mother and siblings perished there fifteen years later when Spanish forces massacred its inhabitants.

Cared for and subsidized by relatives, Armininus studied at the University of Leiden, gaining recognition as a star in the theological firmament. Church officials, however, deemed the twenty-one year old, aspiring pastor too young for the office.

Undeterred, Arminius continued his education in Geneva, speaking daily with Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in the Reformation city. By rearranging Calvin’s emphases Beza largely retained the content of Calvin’s theology while largely distorting its spirit. Whereas Calvin, for instance, had spoken of the grandeur of God and the majesty of God but not of the “sovereignty” of God, Beza thrust into the centre of his thought a sovereignty that seemed indistinguishable from the arbitrary assertion of naked power. And where Calvin had concentrated on our life in Christ, with predestination merely the means whereby sin-deadened people come to be “in Christ”, Beza made predestination a controlling principle.

Arminius was appointed pastor in Amsterdam upon returning from further studies in Italy. The Sunday the twenty-eight year old began his ministry there he mounted the pulpit with his cap on his head — the cap being the symbol of freedom — and removed it only when he invoked God at the commencement of the service. He knew that those whom the Son makes free submit to no one except the One who has restored their freedom. The people of the city relished his theology, since it reflected the convictions of Dutch people whose thinking concerning the gospel had fermented quietly for at least two centuries.

Since it was a reformed pastor’s custom to preach through a book of the bible, Arminius began with Romans. Three years later he was up to chapter 7. Controversy erupted when he maintained that the “wretched man” spoken of there was the pre-Christian person, not the regenerate believer, as Beza insisted. When his theological enemies pronounced him heterodox, Arminius replied, “I believe that our salvation rests on Christ alone and that we obtain faith for the forgiveness of sins and the recovering of life only through the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Now they accused him of “Pelagianism”, the heretical notion that the Fall has affected humankind so slightly that we can will ourselves, unaided, into fellowship with God. The charge of Socinianism (unitarianism) followed. Arminius countered that he had always affirmed the deity of the Son.

Concerning Romans 7 Arminius maintianed:

His position with respect to the “wretched man” is a viewpoint that has been defended throughout the church’s history and has never been deemed heretical;

No heresy, including Pelagianism, can be derived from it;

The viewpoint of modern theologians (e.g., Beza) that Romans 7 speaks of the Christian is an opinion none of the church fathers held, including Augustine, the church father dearest to the Calvinists;

To say that Romans 7 describes the Christian is to slight the grace of God (grace appears impotent in the face of sin) and to foster wanton behaviour (even the regenerate can’t help doing the evil they don’t want to do.)

In all of this Arminius maintained, with the universal church, that free will is found only in the regenerate, in those whom God has freed to know and obey him. Unbelievers remain in bondage to sin.

A few months later Arminius was expounding Romans 9. An opponent accused him of preaching that unrepentant sinners are condemned only on account of their sin. In other words, they aren’t condemned on account of a hidden decree of God enacted before they were born and therefore before they could have sinned. The same fellow denounced him for declaring that while good works don’t merit God’s pardon, the pardoned should do all the good they can.

In his detailed examination and closely reasoned exposition of Romans 9, Arminius articulated a doctrine of grace that recognizes the humanness of the beneficiaries of grace and that honours them as human agents, God’s covenant-partners made in his image. Arminius protested any notion that even sinful humans are entities like sticks and stones to be manipulated mechanically. Concerning Romans 9 he upheld the following:

The question that his opponents said predestination answered, namely, “Why do some individuals believe when others don’t?”, is neither asked nor answered in the chapter;

Romans 9 doesn’t discuss individuals but rather classes of people: those who affirm righteousness by faith (i.e., through intimacy with the Righteous “elder brother”), and those who seek to merit God’s recognition. God “predestines” to salvation all who believe in Jesus Christ.

To speak of the predestination of individuals to eternal blessing or curse before they have been created (and therefore before they could have sinned) is to render God arbitrary, even monstrous;

To postulate both a hidden and a revealed will in God is to falsify the New Testament’s insistence that Jesus Christ is God’s entire will now revealed.

God’s command and God’s promise are co-extensive. God doesn’t command all to believe while visiting only some with faith-quickening mercy.

Even as the controversy raged in Amsterdam, the University of Leiden, a centre of Renaissance Humanism and the hub of Dutch language and culture, recognized Arminius’ brilliance, installing him as rector (president) in 1603.

Among the intellectually exhilarating now, he wasn’t among the theologically sympathetic. Within a year he was dragged into a public dispute on predestination. Again he stated and defended his position, having refined it even more profoundly. Celebrated in the university, Arminius was savaged in the church by ultra-Calvinist refugees from France whose spirit was alien to the Christian convictions native to Holland. Opposition to him approached hysteria. Slanderous foes, knowing of his student-trip to Italy, lied that he had kissed the pope’s slipper and was “infected” by the Jesuits.

Relief came only as the pulmonary tuberculosis that had left him coughing for months galloped ahead. He died surrounded by his wife Lijsbet and his nine surviving children, the youngest only thirteen months. Lijsbet would live on the clergy-widow’s pension that grateful Amsterdam officials had promised her years earlier the day the family had moved to Leiden.

Admittedly, Arminius had not spoken the last word on either Romans 7 or 9 (or on the notion that philosophy is the necessary foundation to theology.) Still, he never deserved the abuse heaped on him. He had said he wanted only “to inquire with all earnestness in the Holy Scriptures for divine truth…for the purpose of winning some souls to Christ, that I might be a sweet savour to him.”

Victor Shepherd
August 2000