In this excerpt from Saving the Reformation, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey examines Jacob Arminius and the Calvinists who opposed his teaching.
. . . 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 (1603–9).
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 respect- ing 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.