In this excerpt from Saving the Reformation, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey examines Jacob Arminius and the Calvinists who opposed his teaching.
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.”1 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.2
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,3 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.”4 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.”5 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.”6 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.7
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.”8 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.”9 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.
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.”10 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.
- Bangs, 73. ↩︎
- Bangs, 66. ↩︎
- Bangs, 64f. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:22. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:27. ↩︎
- Bangs, 111. ↩︎
- Bangs, 112f., records and rejects the claim of the seventeenth-century Calvinist minister and historian Jacobus Triglandius that Arminius’ examination revealed theological problems that had to be resolved before his ordination. ↩︎
- Bangs, 110. ↩︎
- Cited in W. Robert Godfrey, “Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition,” in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, ed. David W. Hall (New York: University Press of America, 1995), 68. ↩︎
- Bangs, 132. ↩︎