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,1 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.2
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.3
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.4
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.5 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.6
In this criticism of Beza he certainly implies that Beza makes God the author of sin.
Here Arminius’ approach is not explicitly to attack or reject Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional predestination. Rather, he simply argues that Romans 9 does not support that doctrine, as Arminius says at the end of the analysis, “And thus I think I have shown that this passage of the Apostle does not serve to confirm that opinion which many suppose to rest on the foundation of this Chapter.”7 This approach, often taken in his writings, is aptly captured by Stanglin and McCall: “Arminius’s major treatises that deal with predestination give much more attention to what he opposes than to what he proposes.”8 Not positive Arminius, but Arminius the critic.
His second major work while a pastor was probably written in 1597,9 namely, his collected correspondence with Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) titled in the English translation Friendly Conference of James Arminius, the Illustrious Doctor of Sacred Theology, with Mr. Francis Junius, about Predestination, Carried on by Means of Letters (the title given to this work by the Arminians is strange, indeed, in that Junius was much better known and much more illustrious in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than Arminius). In this work, Arminius repeatedly raises the question of whether the doctrine of unconditional election made God the author of sin. Interestingly, he comments, “I should like, however, to be taught how the necessity of sin being done can depend on the ordination and decree of God otherwise than by the mode of cause whether efficient or deficient: which latter is reduced to an efficient, when the efficiency of the deficient is necessary to avoid sin. Beza himself confesses it to be incomprehensible how God can be free from blame, and man exposed to blame, if man has fallen by the ordination of God and necessarily.”10 Ironically, one might argue that Arminius seems to want a more rational or perhaps rationalistic theology than Beza did. Arminius certainly is adamant for a relatively unimportant minister in correspondence with a very distinguished professor:11 “For my assertion remains unshaken, that ‘God is made to be the author of sin, if He be said to have ordained that man should fall and become wicked, in order to open for Himself a way to declare His glory in that manner which He had already by an eternal decree appointed.’”12 This writing of Arminius is the first in which he explicitly raises the issue of God as the author of sin, which would remain his most serious objection to the doctrine of unconditional election. Junius, after quite a lengthy correspondence, put an end to it, while Bangs writes that Arminius eagerly wanted to continue it, for he was a “dogged controversialist.”13 No moderate Arminius here.
A third major writing of Arminius in his years as a pastor in Amsterdam was his An Examination of the Treatise of William Perkins concerning the Order and Mode of Predestination. Perkins, the great English Puritan, published his study of predestination in 1598. Arminius wrote his examination in 1602, the year in which Perkins died, and did not publish it. Near the beginning of his examination, Arminius writes: “I must diligently read [your work, Perkins,] . . . and see whether you . . . could remove, in that work, the difficulties which have long disquieted my mind.”14 This statement suggests that Arminius has not always clearly embraced conditional predestination and was at least formally uncertain. It surely shows that he is clearly aware of his problems with received Calvinism.
Arminius again shows that his great concern is with the issue of God as the author of sin. “If anyone . . . says that God has arranged this, as an occasion for Himself, by decreeing that man should fall, and by carrying forward that decree to its end or limit, we ask the proof of that assertion, which, in my judgment, he will be unable to give. For that sentiment is at variance with the justice of God, as it makes God the author of sin, and introduces an inevitable necessity for sin.”15 As usual, his response to Perkins is mostly a matter of rejecting Perkins’ arguments as unconvincing.
He does at one point offer his own positive definition of election in these terms:
“Election is the decree of God, by which, of Himself from eternity, He decreed to justify in (or through) Christ, believers, and to accept them unto eternal life to the praise of His glorious grace.” But you will say, “The faith is made dependent on the human will, and is not a gift of divine grace.” I deny that sequence, for there was no such statement in the definition. I acknowledge that the cause of faith was not expressed, but that was unnecessary. If anyone denies it, there may be added after “believers” the phrase “to whom he determined to give faith.” But we should observe whether, in our method of consideration, the decree, by which God determined to justify believers and adopt them as sons, is the same with that by which He determined to bestow faith on some, but to deny the same to others. This seems to me not very probable.16
- Bangs, 142–50. ↩︎
- Bangs, 149. ↩︎
- Bangs, 194. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:485. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:504. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:514. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:519; see also 496, 497, 505, 509, 510. ↩︎
- Stanglin and McCall, 134. ↩︎
- Bangs, 203. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:76. ↩︎
- Junius was professor in Heidelberg from 1584 to 1592, when he went to Leiden to teach until his death, although he was invited to teach in Geneva. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 3:87. ↩︎
- Bangs, 203. ↩︎
- James Arminius, Writings, trans. and ed. W.R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1977), 3:281. ↩︎
- Arminius, Writings, 3:297f. ↩︎
- Arminius, Writings, 3:311. ↩︎