In this excerpt from Saving the Reformation, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey examines Jacob Arminius and the Calvinists who opposed his teaching.
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.”1 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.”2 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:
- Gomarus did not ask adequate questions of Arminius,
- Arminius did not give honest or complete answers to the questions,
- Arminius changed his mind on some issues after the interview, or
- 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.3 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.”4 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.”5 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.”6 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.7
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.”8 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.9
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.10
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).”11 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.12 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.13 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.”14 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.15
- Arminius, Writings, 3:489. ↩︎
- Arminius, Writings, 3:481; also, “But, is there, then, a two-fold Election on the part of God? Certainly, if that is Election, by which God chooses to righteousness and life, that must be different, by which He chooses some to faith, if indeed he does choose some to faith: which, indeed, I will not now discuss, because it is my purpose only to answer your arguments. . . . That true and saving faith may be totally and finally lost, I should not at once dare to say: though many of the fathers frequently seem to affirm this” (3:490f.). ↩︎
- “On Divine Predestination,” is just over four pages in Arminius, Works, 2:226–30. ↩︎
- Bangs, 15. ↩︎
- Bangs, 263. ↩︎
- Gerard Brandt, The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transactions in and about the Low-Countries (London: T. Wood, 1720–23), 2:31, cited in Stanglin, Assurance, 31. Brandt was originally published in Dutch in four volumes, 1671–1704. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:523. ↩︎
- Stanglin and McCall, 38. ↩︎
- Stanglin, Assurance, 26. ↩︎
- Stanglin, Disputations, 17–18. ↩︎
- Stanglin, Disputations, 66. ↩︎
- G.P. van Itterzon, Franciscus Gomarus (’s-Gravenhage: Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1930), 123, 178; P.J. Wijminga, Festus Hommius (Leiden, Netherlands: D. Donner, 1899), 68. ↩︎
- Arminius, “Examination of the Theses of Dr. F. Gomarus Respecting Predestination,” in Works, 3:526–658. ↩
- Arminius, Works, 3:526. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:657–58. ↩︎