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In this excerpt from Saving the Reformation, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey examines Jacob Arminius and the Calvinists who opposed his teaching.

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The charges here are extremely serious, but the quotation seems to have two disingenuous elements. First, at the very end of the treatise, the suggestion of some mitigation of Gomarus’ responsibility because he wrote in ignorance does not seem sincere. Gomarus was a professor of theology, and his conclusions on predestination surely cannot be attributed to ignorance. Second, Arminius writes that he is making his conclusion about Gomarus “openly,” but there was nothing open about it. (Stanglin, in the quotation above, similarly writes that Arminius “responded directly” to Gomarus.) Arminius did not publish this work in his own lifetime and made no public statement about these convictions until 1608 in his Declaration of Sentiments.

The extreme nature of Arminius’ reaction to Gomarus leads to another question about his integrity. Within a few months of completing his Examination, in response to an inquiry from the Classis of Dordrecht about controversies at Leiden, on August 10, 1605, Arminius signed a public statement along with this fellow theology professors, Franciscus Gomarus and Lucas Trelcatius, which declared “that among themselves, that is, among the Professors of the Faculty of Theology, no difference existed that could be considered as in the least affecting the fundamentals of doctrine.”1 Was Arminius being honest? It is hard to see how Arminius could have written what he did in his Examination and then could claim that he agreed with Gomarus on the fundamentals of doctrine. Surely, teaching that makes God the author of sin is a fundamental doctrine.

On the other hand, we must ask if Gomarus was honest in suggesting that he had no trouble with Arminius or his teaching in 1604. While Gomarus wanted to teach somewhat differently on predestination in 1604, had Arminius in his 1604 disputation on predestination said anything that would have seriously offended Gomarus? Arminius wrote in thesis 2, “Predestination therefore, as it regards the thing itself, is the Decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which He resolved within himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt, and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of his own glorious grace, believers on whom He had decreed to bestow faith (Eph. i; Rom. ix.).”2 Further, he wrote in thesis 7, “But we give the name of ‘Believers,’ not to those who would be such by their own merits or strength, but to those who by the gratuitous and peculiar kindness of God [erant credituri] would believe in Christ.”3 These statements of Arminius as far as they go represent views completely compatible with Calvin’s teaching on predestination and would not have offended Gomarus. He does not raise in these theses his concerns about the origin of sin or the source of faith.

The evidence shows that Gomarus did nothing unusual or offensive in presenting theses on predestination in 1604. His supralapsarian views did greatly offend Arminius, who responded with vicious criticism of Gomarus’ teaching, which he kept private while publicly claiming agreement with Gomarus on basic doctrines. It is Arminius who seems bitter and rather dishonest in this period, not Gomarus. If the positive Arminius narrative falls apart on close examination of this one key piece of evidence, the whole narrative begins to unravel.

Free Will

In July 1605, Arminius conducted a public disputation titled “On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers.” While the theses of the disputation themselves were not controversial, controversy soon swirled around him. Bangs explains this:

Two days later, in a letter to Adrian Borrius, he reveals his thinking on these questions. “I transmit you my theses on free will, which I have composed in this [guarded manner], because I thought that they would thus conduce to peace. I have advanced nothing which I consider at all allied to a falsity. But I have been silent upon some truths which I might have published, for I know that it is one thing to be silent respecting a truth and another to utter a falsehood, the latter of which is never lawful to do, while the former is occasionally, nay very often, expedient.” Those hostile and those sympathetic to Arminius have divided on the ethical question.4

Stanglin addresses the ethics of this situation: “What Arminius wrote to his friend about the caution he took in the public disputation on free choice was apparently said publicly at the disputation itself, for Gomarus was aware of the statement. Whatever Arminius meant by withholding some opinion at the disputation on free choice, his decision not to declare everything was no secret, but acknowledged openly.”5 If Stanglin was right, then Arminius was not duplicitous, as many have thought, but was provocative. Surely, Gomarus would have wondered and worried about what his other unspoken opinions were. Gomarus’ doubts about Arminius were growing.

Rectoral Address

Early in 1605, Arminius was elected by his colleagues to serve a one-year term as Rector Magnificus of the university.6 As was the custom at the end of his term, on February 8, 1606, he delivered a rectoral address. His was titled “On Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians.” This oration is very illuminating and seems to be intentionally controversial.

The address begins with a very strong statement about the value of religious union, using some curious examples:

But, to close this part of my discourse, the very summit and conclusion of all the evils which arise from religious discord, is, the destruction of the very religion about which all the controversy has been raised. Of this a very mournful example is exhibited to us in certain extensive dominions and large kingdoms, the inhabitants of which were formerly among the most flourishing professors of the Christian Religion: but the present inhabitants of those countries have unchristianized themselves by embracing Mahomedanism, a system which derived its origin, and had its chief means of increase, from the dissensions which arose between the Jews and the Christians, and from the disputes into which the Orthodox entered with the Sabellians, the Arians, the Nestorians, the Eutychians, and the Monothelites.7

Is he just saying that these controversies weakened Christianity, or in light of his strong statements against dissension, is he suggesting that these controversies should not have taken place? Surely, he must mean the former, but he is strangely unclear.

Regardless of whether there is any extant evidence to answer this question, we must recognize the sharply confrontational nature of his action.

In speaking of the harmful effects of controversy on the confidence of common people in Christian religion, he declared:

When the people perceive that there is scarcely any article of Christian doctrine concerning which there are not different and even contradictory opinions; that one party calls that ‘horrid blasphemy’ which another party has laid down as “a complete summary of the truth”; that those points which some professors consider the perfection of piety, receive from others the contumelious appellation of “cursed idolatry”; and that controversies of this description are objects of warm discussion between men of learning, respectability, experience and great renown, they begin then to indulge in the imagination, that they may esteem the principles of religion alike obscure and uncertain.8

The words “cursed idolatry” are cited from Heidelberg Catechism 80 and there refer to the character of the Roman Catholic Mass. Again, is Arminius just showing the danger of disagreements, or is he equating the fault of the Roman Catholic and Reformed parties in the religious divisions?

While Arminius does not take sides in any of the dissensions that he uses as examples or ever say that some disagreements are necessary and cannot be negotiated away, he does at last turn to the situation in the Netherlands: “It is my special wish, that there may now be among us a similar cessation from the asperities of religious warfare, and that both parties would abstain from writings full of bitterness, from sermons remarkable only for the invectives which they contain, and from the unchristian practice of mutual anathematizing and execration.”9 Again, he does not specify the nature of the theological issues between the parties. It is striking that he refers to two parties, apparently seeing the division in terms of what would later be known as the Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants, or Arminians and Calvinists. Later, however, he refers to “all the parties that disagree.”10

The great suggestion of Arminius to create unity is the meeting of a synod: “That remedy is, an orderly and free convention of the parties that differ from each other Let the members deliberate, consult, and determine what the word of God declares concerning the matters in controversy, and afterwards let them by common consent promulge and declare the result to the Churches.”11 Remarkably, this synod does not seem to be part of the regular order of the particular, provincial, or national synods of the Dutch Reformed Church. Indeed, the institutional church does not seem to figure in Arminius’ efforts to heal disagreements, no doubt because he knew how little influence he had in the church.

Arminius proposes a strongly Erastian solution: “The Chief Magistrates, who profess the Christian religion, will summon and convene this Synod, in virtue of the Supreme official authority with which they are divinely invested, and according to the practice that formerly prevailed in the Jewish Church, and that was afterwards adopted by the Christian Church and continued nearly to the nine hundredth year after the birth of Christ, until the Roman Pontiff began through tyranny to arrogate the authority to himself.”12 (Is Arminius here implicitly equating the Calvinist opposition to Erastianism with the Roman tyranny?) He even suggests that the magistrates preside over the synod: “For the sake of order, moderation, and good government, and to avoid confusion, it will be necessary to have presidents subordinate to Christ Jesus. It is my sincere wish that the magistrates would themselves undertake that office in the Council; and this might be obtained from them as a favour.”13 He may be thinking of Constantine at the Council of Nicaea or of Luther’s great reforming treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, but he must have known that his suggestion would anger most of his fellow Reformed ministers.

His most astounding recommendation for the synod was that it should function with only the Bible as its authority and that all delegates “be absolved from all other oaths directly or indirectly contrary to this [supreme allegiance to the divine word] by which they have been bound either to churches or their confessions, schools and their masters, or even to princes themselves (except in matters of their proper jurisdiction).”14 The synod would not be bound, as the church was, by the confession and catechism. While Arminius always insisted that he did not teach anything contrary to the confessional standards of the church,15 he must have known how inflammatory his recommendation would be.

Only five weeks after Arminius’ address, the States General of the United Provinces granted permission for the meeting of a national synod, but its only mandate was to revise the confession and catechism.16 The large Calvinist majority in the church was unwilling to meet in a synod with such a mandate, and this synod never met.

An intriguing question seems not to have been posed by the Arminian scholars: Since Arminius had so many connections through his wife’s family to regents in Holland, had one of them encouraged Arminius to make this suggestion? This call for a synod that was not bound to the church’s confession and catechism seems much more confrontational than anything else that Arminius had done publicly as a professor at Leiden. Had he been assured of support and help from the Erastian regents in bringing about this result? Regardless of whether there is any extant evidence to answer this question, we must recognize the sharply confrontational nature of his action.

 

  1. Arminius, Works, 1:39. ↩︎
  2. Arminius, “Disputation XV, On Divine Predestination,” thesis 2, in Works, 2:226. ↩︎
  3. Arminius, “Disputation XV,” thesis 7, in Works, 2:228. ↩︎
  4. Bangs, 269. ↩︎
  5. Stanglin, Disputations, 92. ↩︎
  6. Stanglin and McCall commented, “Arminius’ election to this position reflects the broad and deep respect he so quickly commanded among the faculty outside of his college” (32f.). They do not discuss, however, how many on a relatively small faculty served a one-year term.
  7. Arminius, Works, 1:452f. ↩︎
  8. Arminius, Works, 1:441f. ↩︎
  9. Arminius, Works, 1:472f. ↩︎
  10. Arminius, Works, 1:486. ↩︎
  11. Arminius, Works, 1:473. ↩︎
  12. Arminius, Works, 1:473ff. ↩︎
  13. Arminius, Works, 1:506. ↩︎
  14. Cited in Bangs, 278. ↩︎
  15. E.g., Bangs, 268; Stanglin and McCall, 137. ↩︎
  16. Bangs, 280. ↩︎

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