In this excerpt from Saving the Reformation, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey examines Jacob Arminius and the Calvinists who opposed his teaching.
Early in his ministerial work in Amsterdam, Arminius decided to preach on Romans and Malachi, pursuing interests he had had at least since his time in Basel. His preaching was a very detailed study of the text. He found himself in trouble for his preaching on Romans 7 in 1591 and on Romans 9 in 1593. In his sermons on Romans 7, he rejected the standard Reformed interpretation that originated with Calvin and argued instead that Paul’s presentation of internal struggles reflects the problems of an unregenerate person rather than a regenerate Christian. In his sermons on Romans 9, he rejected the standard Reformed uses of this text to support unconditional election.
On Romans 9, according to Bangs, Arminius acknowledged that he had taken a different interpretation from the standard Reformed one, but he insisted that he agreed with the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism.
He reiterated his assent to the Confession and Catechism, offering only one scruple—over the interpretation but not the words of the sixteenth article of the Belgic Confession. It is the article on “eternal election,” which affirms that God delivers and preserves “all whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable council, of mere goodness hath elected in Jesus Christ our Lord.” His scruple was this: Does the “all” refer to believers, or is it an arbitrary decree to bestow faith? He accepted the first interpretation and rejected the latter. The terms of the article, however, he accepted. The consistory found Arminius’ statement acceptable and declared the matter closed, urging fraternal fellowship until such a time as a general synod should determine the proper interpretation of the article.
Bangs is dependent for this account on Caspar Brandt, an early eighteenth-century Remonstrant historian. There is no independent sixteenth-century record of such a consistorial decision. However exactly the trouble was cleared up, several points are clear: the controversy was sparked by Arminius, who knew that he was challenging the received Calvinist point of view and that the Calvinist majority of the consistory was willing to find a way to keep the peace with Arminius. Is this a case of a moderate Arminius being unfairly attacked by Calvinists or a case of a provocative, even troublemaking Arminius with whom Calvinists found a way of working?
Although Arminius did not publish any of what he wrote during his years as a pastor in Amsterdam, he did write several works of importance. First, we have his study of Romans 9. In 1596, Gellius Snecanus, a minister in Friesland, published a study on Romans 9. His position was very similar to what Arminius says he preached in Amsterdam in 1593, and apparently Arminius composed his own treatise on Romans 9 in 1596 as a response to Snecanus.
Near the beginning of his treatise, titled “A Brief Analysis of the Ninth Chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” Arminius writes:
For, when I saw that you had remarked, in the Apostle’s scope and treatment of the principal arguments, just what, not so very long before, I had set forth publicly to the people committed to my care, in explaining the same chapter, I was greatly strengthened in that view I freely confess that that part [of Scripture] always seemed to be enveloped in the deepest shade, and most difficult of explanation, until the light shed upon it in this way dispersed the darkness, and gave my understanding a clear view of the place lit up by its brilliance.
This interesting bit of autobiography seems to imply that Arminius for some time before he preached in 1593 had not accepted the standard Reformed interpretations of Romans 9 and had been in a quandary as to its meaning. This comment is consistent with the idea that sometime between 1589 and 1591 Arminius began to change his views on predestination, since Romans 9 is one of the central texts on that doctrine.
In most of his writings on predestination, his central objection to any doctrine of unconditional predestination is that for him it makes God the author of sin. Significantly, here in this first treatise, he does not explicitly raise this issue. Still, he does raise related issues: he says that one cannot be a sinner if one has not sinned freely. He also criticized Beza:
If any one simply says that God has the power of making man a vessel to dishonour and wrath, he will do the greatest injustice to God, and will contradict clear Scripture. Wherefore Beza himself does not dare to say that simply, but that those things are to be understood of the decree, which He does not execute till after man, having become a sinner, has made himself deserving of wrath. But he so subjoins the execution to the decree as to suspend the proximate cause of the execution on the decree itself; which comes to just the same thing as if he had said simply, that God determined to make some men vessels [to dishonour, others vessels] to honour; some vessels of wrath, others vessels of mercy; and, that He might do this, to make all men sinners primarily, that He might afterwards actually make some, by justice, vessels of wrath and dishonour, others, by mercy vessels of mercy and honour.
In this criticism of Beza he certainly implies that Beza makes God the author of sin.