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Jacobus Arminius


 (from Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, Inter-Varsity Press)

Jacobus Arminius


Arminius, Jacobus (c.1559-1609), Dutch Remonstrant Reformer, was born Jacob Harmenszoon in Oudewater near Utrecht. His middle-class family was devastated when his father, a maker of kitchen utensils, died during Arminius’ infancy and his mother, together with all his siblings, were slain during his adolescence in the Spanish massacre of Oudewater in 1575. Thereafter family friends raised him. Like most classically trained humanist scholars of his era, he eventually Latinized his name, recalling the “Arminius” who had been a 1st century Germanic leader noted for his resistance to the Romans.

In 1574 he began his studies at Leiden, venue for a tradition reaching back into the pre-Reformation ferment of the North Netherlands. The atmosphere included a biblically-informed piety, a sacramentarianism that viewed medieval sacraments as largely superstitious, and a humanist perspective that identified Roman Catholic corruption of the church. It would be anachronistic to speak of this movement as (proto-)Lutheran or Zwinglian, as these latter descriptions entail a doctrinal specificity that was not operative in what had flowed from the 14th and 15th centuries. Studies followed at Geneva, Basel, and Geneva again, culminating, after years of leadership in city, church and university, in a doctorate from Leiden in 1603.

Leiden accommodated the older reform as well as the precise Calvinism that Reformed refugees had brought with them. The ensuing conflict was less concerned with predestination (albeit never far from the surface) than with the relation of Calvinist consistory (an ecclesiastical court in Reformed churchmanship) and the city (reflecting the less doctrinally exact, humanist-informed piety indigenous to the Low Countries.) The consistory, for instance, in the spirit of Calvinist rigour, opposed observing Christian festivals (e.g., Christmas and Easter) that happened not to fall on Sundays.

Financed by Amsterdam merchants, Arminius began studying under Beza at Geneva on New Year’s Day, 1582. Beza, Calvin’s 62-year old successor, was venerated in Reformed constituencies everywhere. By rearranging Calvin’s emphases Beza largely retained the major tenets of Calvin’s theology while significantly altering its spirit. While 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 was to appear to Remonstrants indistinguishable from the arbitrary assertion of naked power. And where Calvin had focussed on the believer’s life or participation in Christ, with predestination merely the means whereby sin-deadened people come to be “in Christ”, Beza made predestination a controlling principle. Calvin’s emphasis on the living person of “Christ clothed with his gospel” gave way to assorted decrees and a preoccupation with their respective priority.

Having been graduated from Geneva, Arminius studied next at Basel, and then at Geneva once more. A trip to Italy in 1587 found him accused of compromising himself with Roman Catholic potentates and also of having “lost his [Calvinist] faith” through exposure to Jesuits.

Upon returning to Amsterdam he was ordained pastor to the “Old Church”, the focal point of church life in the city. In 1590 he married Lijsbet Reael, an aristocrat who thereafter ensured that he orbited among the most influential merchants and leaders of the city. Like all the Magisterial Reformers before him, Arminius would remain a pastor for virtually all of his working life, spending 15 years in the Amsterdam pulpit and six in the Leiden. (It is interesting to note his conviction that exercising the pastoral office, rather than theological wrangling, facilitates the holiness of the minister.) From 1603 until his death in 1609 he was professor of theology in Leiden, where he was also elected Rector (president) of the university even as a theological minority opposed him. In Leiden he gathered up the fruit of his writing in behalf of earlier controversies and in 1608 published his most mature work, Declaration of Sentiments.

While the notions pertaining to the name “Arminius” are commonly thought to suggest exclusive rejection of all things Calvin, his appreciation of Calvin’s Commentaries is noteworthy. They occupy, he said, second place only to Scripture: “I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read…. For I affirm that in the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable, and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed to us in the writings of the Fathers — so much so that I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above others, above most, indeed, above all.”

His preaching through Romans became the occasion of a theological controversy that he was never to escape. His first opponents were humanists who denied original sin. Uncompromisingly he replied to them, “I believe that our salvation rests on Christ alone and that we obtain faith for the forgiveness of sins and the renewing of life only through the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Opposition arose next from the Calvinists who differed from him on his insistence that Romans 7 describes the pre-Christian. Immediately he was accused of Pelagianism, Socinianism (unitarianism) and non-compliance with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. Not trusting the Calvinist clergy of the church courts, he defended himself on charges of doctrinal deviation only in the presence of civic officials whom he recognized as his assessors. They acquitted him.

Differing from Gomarus, his principal opponent in his latter days as professor in Leiden, he continued to claim that the “wretched man” of Romans 7 is not the apostle speaking autobiographically but is rather the unbeliever. He added in support:

– this viewpoint has been defended through 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 a viewpoint that none of the Church Fathers upheld — including Augustine, the 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 cannot help doing the evil they do not want to do).

– the pre-regenerate person can possess an awareness of sin.

In his detailed exposition of Romans 9, another major area of protracted controversy, Arminius articulated a doctrine of grace that recognizes the irreducible humanness of the beneficiaries of grace and that unfailingly honours then as human agents, certainly not synergistic contributors to their salvation and therefore co-authors of it, yet just as certainly God’s covenant-partners made in God’s image. The “co-operation” implied in his understanding of faith as covenant-dialogue recalls the Patristic subtleties around the Fathers’ repudiation of co-redemption and their affirmation of gratia operans/co-operans. Arminius protested any suggestion that even sinful humans are entities like sticks and stones to be manipulated mechanically. Fallen humans, admittedly “dead in trespasses and sins”, are nonetheless fallen humans, and as graced by God, “response-able” and therefore “response-ible”. This notion underlies Arminius’ distinction between the act of believing as belonging to grace and the ability to believe as belonging to nature.

Concerning Romans 9 Arminius insisted

– the question that his opponents said predestination answered, namely, “Why do some individuals believe and others do not when all alike are dead coram Deo?”, is neither asked nor answered in the chapter;

– the chapter does not discuss individuals but rather classes of people: those who affirm righteousness by faith in the Righteous One and those who seek to merit God’s recognition;

– to speak of the predestination of individuals before they have been created, and therefore to speak of the reprobation of individuals before they could have sinned, is to render God monstrous;

– to postulate both a hidden and a revealed will of God is to falsify the New Testament’s declaration that in Jesus Christ (whom everyone admits to be God’s revealed will) “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily;” (Col. 2:9 RSV)

– God’s command and God’s promise are co-extensive. It is not the case that God commands all to repent and believe but visits only some with the mercy that quickens both repentance and faith. God does not predestine who will or will not believe; rather God predestines to salvation in Christ all who believe in Christ;

– the position of Beza and his supporters can only mean that God is deemed to be the author of sin. (Cardinal Bellarmine agreed with Arminius, adding that the high Calvinist position rendered God the only sinner.) This notion undercuts human culpability and renders God’s judgement pointless.

Arminius’ chief writing during his pastorate in Amsterdam, Examination of Perkins’ Pamphlet, has often been judged his single best contribution to theological discussion. Perkins (1558-1602), the major spokesperson for English high Calvinism, maintained as a strong supralapsarian that creation and fall are (merely) the means whereby the decree of election or reprobation is implemented. Arminius’ arguments here are those found throughout his works. However, their exposition is more detailed and more nuanced in the Examination than anywhere else. Most pointedly Arminius insists that grace is the love of God meeting humankind as sinful; grace is not a synonym for “decree” or “will” or “sovereignty”; i.e., grace is God’s love addressing humans in their depravity rather than “affecting” them as creatures without reference to their sin.

While Perkins maintained that Christ died only for the elect, the parameters of the atonement being identical with the parameters of faith, Arminius countered that Christ had died (and thereby gained salvation) for all, but only some are saved; i.e., the cross is sufficient for all but effectual only in believers. Arminius’ distinction here reflected his convictions concerning the bondage of the will. He insisted that the will of fallen humans was “bound” in that of itself it can will only its depravity. He insisted too, however, that the fallen will is never merely “of itself”; grace attends all fallen creatures, with the result that the graced will is enabled to affirm or endorse the grace that has elevated it beyond mere (fallen) nature. The graced will is “free” in that it is the non-coerced act of a genuine human agent. In other words, the graced will does not contribute to its salvation yet necessarily concurs in it, or else it is not a human creature that is saved.

Consonant with his understanding of the free will, Arminius eschewed the notion of the Christian life as the “state” of grace (and therefore static), preferring to understand it as dynamic: graced concurrence acknowledges and appropriates greater grace in an upward spiral that also finds the believer advancing in godliness through greater immersion in grace. Whereas Perkins had denounced this position as Pelagian, Arminius maintained that Pelagianism predicated the will’s response to grace entirely of nature or partially of nature (in the case of semi-Pelagianism), whereas the will’s response to grace is grace-wrought without being grace-wrenched. A concomitant of his position is that believers can “make shipwreck” of faith. Yet they need not fear doing so, paradoxically, in that the gift of grace (and therefore of faith) includes a gift of filial fear that renders believers non-presumptuous and non-cavalier but ever spiritually vigilant and therein “kept” by the power of God.

While those who esteem Arminius frequently do so on account of his views concerning predestination, he must not be thought to be a one-issue thinker. Unlike the 1st and 2nd generation Magisterial Reformers, Arminius is a scholastic evincing immense affinities with the scholastic “family” whether Roman Catholic and predestinarian (Banez and Baius), Roman Catholic and non-predestinarian (Suarez and Molina), Protestant and predestinarian (Junius and Gomarus) or Protestant and non-predestinarian (his successors, Episcopius and Limborch). While the non-predestinarian, biblical humanism of the older North Netherlands is found in Arminius, it does not typify him. Rather he is indebted to late medieval and Renaissance Aristotelianism.

Like all scholastics Arminius has a metaphysical concern foreign to the earlier Reformers, and unlike the latter, a debt to Thomas Aquinas. In fact Aquinas is the most frequently quoted thinker in Arminius’ works, and the only scholastic whom he names as an ingredient. Certainly not a Jesuit, Arminius nonetheless preferred the Jesuit reading of Aquinas to the Dominican reading with its Augustinian cast of Thomas.

None of this is to suggest that Arminius is crypto-Roman Catholic. Still, he stands squarely in a tradition indebted to Thomistic metaphysics and Aristotelian logic (despite an appreciation for the bifurcationist logic of Ramus). Protestants typically are unaware that these features characterize the theologies of the 17th century.

Whereas the Reformed schools differed markedly on the issue of supra- or infralapsarianism, Arminius differed from both with respect to his understanding of God’s will and foreknowledge. Here he owed much to Molina’s scientia media: God foreknows future contingencies without thereby determining them. Molina furnished him with a matrix that included God’s foreknowledge, the efficacy of grace, and a freedom of the will that is genuine rather than seeming. In short, Arminius adopted the Jesuit-Thomistic tradition of scientia media that denied divine determination yet preserved the infinitude of the divine intellect and the scope of human freedom.

Arminius’ life unfolded amidst relentless conflict. Denied external tranquility, he was never distracted from the practical, non-speculative understanding of theology he absorbed from his reading of the medieval Duns Scotus, and credibly stated that his sole ambition was “to inquire in the Holy Scriptures for divine truth…for the purpose of winning some souls for Christ.”

Dr Victor Shepherd
Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies
Tyndale Seminary
July 2001