In this excerpt from Saving the Reformation, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey examines Jacob Arminius and the Calvinists who opposed his teaching.
Arminius often claimed to agree with the confessional standards, and perhaps he never publicly taught contrary to them. His call for a synod, however, reinforced the suspicions of many ministers that he was trying to change the established theological commitments of the church. It is useful here to show that he clearly disagreed with the teaching of the confession and catechism, not only on predestination, but on a number of other issues. On original sin, Stanglin and McCall summarize Arminius’ views: “To put the matter briefly, for Arminius, the claim that original sin is primarily a deprivation of original righteousness is accompanied by the claim that original sin does not make one liable to further punishment.”1 This position stands in contrast to Belgic Confession article 15: “We believe that through the disobedience of Adam original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature and a hereditary disease, wherewith even infants in their mother’s womb are infected, and which produces in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof, and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.”
On faith as trust, again Stanglin and McCall summarize: “For Arminius, the problem lies first with the Reformed conviction that saving faith includes not only knowledge and assent, but also fiducia, or confident assurance. In other words, assurance is, by definition, thought to be a necessary component of saving faith. Arminius contested this assertion that led Christians to despair. Instead, he distinguished assurance (fiducia) from faith (fides), declaring that assurance follows as the ordinary result of saving faith, but is not necessarily simultaneous with faith.”2 But the Heidelberg Catechism teaches: “What is true faith? True faith is not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (Q&A 21).
On faith and justification, John Valero Fesko has done a careful study showing that Arminius taught that faith itself is imputed for righteousness, which is seriously at odds with the standard Reformed understanding that faith is the instrument by which the righteousness of Christ is received. Fesko quotes Arminius: “If I understand at all, I think this is the meaning of the phrase, God accounts faith for righteousness: And thus justification is ascribed to faith, not because it accepts, but because it is accepted.”3 As Fesko notes, Arminius’ understanding of faith stands against the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism 61: “Why do you say that you are righteous by faith alone? Not because I please God by virtue of the worthiness of my faith, but because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ alone are my righteousness before God, and because I can accept it and make it mine in no other way then by faith alone.”4
On the possibility of Christian moral perfection, Stanglin and McCall write: “Although he admits that it is strictly possible for the regenerate to fulfill the moral law perfectly in this life, Arminius does not leave the impression that such perfection actually happens often, if at all.”5 But the Heidelberg Catechism teaches: “But can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly? No; but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q&A 114). It is surely not surprising that Arminius might have wanted changes to the confession and catechism.
Trelcatius and the Divinity of Christ
In 1606, a theology student challenged Arminius about his teaching on an aspect of the divinity of Christ, specifically on whether Christ was autotheos (God from Himself ). The student accused Arminius of disagreeing with Trelcatius on this point. Muller commented on this dispute: “In the ensuing debate, Arminius’ interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity differed pointedly from that of his Reformed colleagues in the university. Arminius held that the Son’s begottenness pertained not only to his person but also to his divinity. Thus, while Trelcatius and the Reformed viewed only the Trinitarian relation, begottenness, as generated, so that the second person of the Trinity could be said to have his sonship by generation but to have his essence of himself, Arminius argued that Christ had both his sonship and his divinity or essence by generation.”6 The views of Arminius, rather than those of Trelcatius, seem to be the innovative ones. Again, as Muller argues: “Arminius’ grounding of the economic subordination of the Son to the antecedent will of the Father in the concept of a generated deitas or divine essential is foreign not only to the Reformed and Lutheran views of Trinity but also to the views of all the great medieval doctors.”7
Muller seems to understand the concerns of Arminius’ Calvinist critics: “Arminius’ patristic scholarship left something to be desired—and the resemblance of his polemical statements to those of [Valentin] Gentile eventually convinced his Reformed opponents that he tended toward an anti-trinitarian, subordinationistic, and even Arian view of God.”8 Stanglin and McCall defend Arminius’ Trinitarian orthodoxy but acknowledge Trinitarian problems in the later history of the movement: “It is clear that Arminius intends nothing short of a defense of the full divinity of the Son, but it is just as clear (from the resultant history) that the theology of many later Arminians tended toward subordinationism.”9
Arminius was apparently annoyed with Trelcatius on this matter but did not speak directly to him about it, perhaps because he did not respect the intellect of Trelcatius.10 Once again, we see Arminius adopting controversial views and confronting his colleagues and students with them. Here he is the innovator and troublemaker.
One of the very real problems Arminius faced in the last years of his life was the circulation of rumors about his beliefs and teaching. Many false charges flew in many directions, and Arminius was not the only one misrepresented. Nevertheless, Arminius was often at the center of various charges, and the fact that he had not published anything no doubt fueled them.
One recurring charge is summarized by Gerard Brandt in this way: “Among the things reported of him at that time , and which have been since often repeated, was, that he advised his Pupils or Scholars to read the books of the Jesuits and of Koornhert, and spoke contemptibly of those of Calvin.”11 In September 1608, Arminius wrote to a burgomaster in Amsterdam, Sebastian Egberts, to deny these charges vigorously. He declared that he commended the works of Calvin to his students and then stated: “That this has been my advice, I can prove by numberless witnesses; whereas they cannot produce one whom I have counseled to read the Jesuits or Koornhert’s books: let them show but one only, and the falsity will appear. Thus stories, or rather fables, arise from a single nothing.”12
Today, we are perhaps surprised that the reading of theological opponents would be controversial. No doubt, some Calvinists were unfairly trying to build a case against Arminius that he was serving the interests of the Roman Catholic Church. The long war with Spain might have made the books of Spanish Jesuits such as Suarez and Molina particularly controversial. We can see that Arminius regarded the charges as sufficiently serious that he denied them absolutely.
One student, however, did testify very clearly against Arminius on this point. Caspar Sibelius, a student at Leiden from 1608 to 1609, declared: “I observed, among a number of fellow students enrolled in the private theological class of doctor Arminius, many things that, had I been ignorant, might easily have led me into dark and abominable errors. For in that class we were utterly drawn away from reading the works and treatises of Calvin, Beza, Zanchi, Martyr, Ursinus, Piscator, Perkins, and other learned and valuable theologians of the church of Christ, we were commanded to examine only holy scripture, but equally so the writings of Socinus, Acontius, Castellio, Thomas Aquinas, Molina, Suarez and other enemies of grace were commended to us.”13 Whether the rumors or charges were true, the situation in the university and in the broader church and society had become so serious that the civil government concluded that it must take action.
The Declaration of Sentiments
In the midst of growing controversy, Arminius was asked to present his views in person to the rather sympathetic states of Holland in The Hague on October 30, 1608. Arminius read this statement, known as The Declaration of Sentiments, in Dutch to the assembly. After his death, it was translated into Latin and published.
The first part of the Declaration is historical, explaining why Arminius had often been unwilling to enter into discussions with various groups of ministers to state and defend his views. The second part is theological, analyzing and rejecting various Calvinist views of predestination and then presenting on his own views on predestination and a number of related issues.
In the course of his Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius refers twice to several controversial ministers in the Reformed Church in the United Provinces: Caspar Coolhaes, Herman Herberts, Cornelius Wiggerts, and Tako Sybrants. As we have already seen, Coolhaes was deposed and excommunicated in 1582, and Wiggerts was suspended in 1593 and deposed in 1596. Herberts was suspended by the church in 1591 but was kept in office by the magistrates. Sybrants, while long opposed by the Calvinist clergy, survived in his post through the protection of the magistrates.
Arminius’ first appeal to these ministers in the historical section of the Declaration was in Erastian terms, as he explained why he had not cooperated in a conference in 1605 with ministers from Holland: “I wish the brethren would remember this fact, that although every one of our ministers is subject as a member to the jurisdiction of the particular Synod to which he belongs, yet not one of them has hitherto dared to engage in a conference without the advice and permission of the magistrates under whom he is placed.”14 He then appeals to the four ministers as examples of this requirement of the involvement of the magistrates.
His second appeal is under his theological arguments, specifically: “XX. Lastly. This doctrine of Predestination has been rejected both in former times and in our own days, by the greater part of the professors of Christianity.”15 He develops this statement: “1. But, omitting all mention of the periods that occurred in former ages, facts themselves declare, that the Lutherans and Anabaptist churches, as well as that of Rome, account this to be an erroneous doctrine. 2. However highly Luther and Melanchthon might at the very commencement of the Reformation have approved of this doctrine, they afterwards deserted it.”16 In these comments, Arminius shows that he is not a very good historian of doctrine with regard either to the Roman church or to Luther.
He continues with the situation in the Netherlands:
4. Besides, by many of the inhabitants of these our own provinces this doctrine is accounted a grievance of such a nature, as to cause several of them to affirm, that on account of it they neither can nor will have any communion with our Church: Others of them have united themselves with our Churches, but not without entering a protest, “that they cannot possibly give their consent to this doctrine.” But, on account of this kind of Predestination, our Churches have been deserted by not a few individuals, who formerly held the same opinions as ourselves: Others also have threatened to depart from us, unless they be fully assured that the Church holds no opinion of this description. 6. Lastly. Of all the difficulties and controversies which have arisen in these our Churches since the time of the Reformation, there is none that has not had its origin in this doctrine, or that has not at least been mixed with it. What I have here said will be found true, if we bring to our recollection the controversies that existed at Leyden in the affair of Koolhaes, at Gouda in that of Herman Herberts, at Horn with respect to Cornelius Wiggertson, and at Mendenblick in the affair of Tako Sybrants. This consideration was not among the last of those motives which induced me to give my more diligent attention to this head of doctrine, and endeavour to prevent our Churches from suffering any detriment from it; because, from it, the Papists have derived much of their increase.17
Such a doctrine of predestination, he argues, has caused trouble wherever it has gone.
These arguments would not have impressed the Calvinists, who would have responded that the character of the church is defined by its doctrinal standards, not by its critics, and that the church sought to discipline the four men.
Arminius’ concluding rejection of supralapsarianism is very sharp. As Bangs noted, “Arminius now comes out fighting. No longer is he content to say merely that many views should be tolerated in the church; he finds this position intolerable.”18 Arminius writes: “This doctrine completely subverts THE FOUNDATION OF RELIGION IN GENERAL, and of the Christian Religion in particular.”19 These words echo his evaluation of the teaching of Gomarus on predestination in his “Examination” in 1605. They again raise the question of Arminius’ honesty when he argued that he had no fundamental disagreements with Gomarus in 1605.
After the lengthy rejection of Calvinist views of predestination, Arminius presents the clearest and fullest statement of his own views on predestination that we have from his own pen. Still, this statement in four propositions is not long or detailed. As Bangs wrote: “It is surprisingly brief.”20
The first proposition refers to Christ: “I. The FIRST absolute decree of God concerning the salvation of sinful man, is that by which he decreed to appoint his Son Jesus Christ for a Mediator, Redeemer, Saviour, Priest and King, who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue.”21 Here Arminius articulates his insistence that Christ is the foundation of election against the standard Reformed teaching that Christ is the executor of election and the foundation of salvation. (The Reformed, of course, always said that the eternal Son in the councils of eternity with the Father and the Spirit was the foundation of election.)
The second proposition makes clear his conviction that God does not unconditionally elect individuals, but elects those who meet the condition of faith: “II. The SECOND precise and absolute decree of God, is that in which he decreed to receive into favour those who repent and believe, and, in Christ, for HIS sake and through HIM, to effect the salvation of such penitents and believers as persevered to the end; but to leave in sin and under wrath all impenitent persons and unbelievers, and to damn them as aliens from Christ.”22
In the third proposition, Arminius writes of the means by which God makes faith available to sinners. Then, in the fourth proposition, he presents his views on how a sinner actually comes to faith: “IV. To these succeeds the FOURTH decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing [i.e., prevenient] grace, believe, and through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before-described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.”23 Here Arminius is using middle knowledge and presenting his views honestly and straightforwardly. But his candor here highlights the limits, and perhaps even deceit, of his 1604 theses on predestination.
In twenty brief points, Arminius defends his propositions. He concludes his twentieth point with these words about his teaching on predestination: “It cannot afford any person just cause for expressing his aversion to it; nor can it give any pretext for contention in the Christian Church.”24 Such a statement in the midst of all the controversy in the church is at very best disingenuous. Is he appealing to the desire of the magistrates for order? As some of his arguments show a serious misreading of history, here he seems seriously to misread the contemporary situation in the church. He has attacked various Reformed doctrines, and he claims not to understand the reaction he is facing. Here again, we do not see the moderate Arminius but rather Arminius the “dogged controversialist.”
The evidence we have examined shows conclusively that the four key contentions of Bangs that undergird his positive picture of Arminius are wrong. Arminius was not part of an older, Erasmian Reformed current in the church. Such a current did not exist. Arminius was not surrounded by a pervasive supralapsarianism among the orthodox Calvinists. Arminius did most likely change his theology of predestination from Calvinist to non-Calvinist around 1590. And Arminius, far from being unfairly attacked again and again by Calvinists, was usually the initiator of controversy.
Arminius experienced controversy in Geneva, Amsterdam, and Leiden with a variety of people over philosophy, ecclesiology, exegesis, and theology. Is it credible that it was always someone else who caused the trouble? Or is it more likely that Arminius was something of a troublemaker? Surely, he knew that Beza and others were Aristotelians before he went to Geneva. Surely, he knew the contents of the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism to which the church subscribed in Amsterdam. Surely, he knew that the majority of ministers in the Netherlands opposed the Erastianism that he embraced in 1591. Surely, he knew Calvin’s exegesis of Romans 7 and 9, followed by most all the Reformed, before he preached a very different understanding of those texts. He certainly knew the theological commitments of Gomarus and Trelcatius at Leiden on free will and predestination before he went there. Yet, somehow a number of historians have accepted that whenever Calvinists objected to Arminius’ challenge to the established positions of the Reformed churches, they were the ones causing trouble. No one forced him to subscribe or to become a pastor or professor.
He was likely more than a controversialist, however. He was likely a dissembler who abused the good will and efforts of the Calvinists to maintain peace with him in the church. If he never changed his theology, then was he honest with Beza, who gave him a letter of recommendation? Was he honest with the classis in 1588 when he was examined for ordination? Was he honest with Gomarus in their conversation in 1603, which led to Gomarus’ recommending him for the appointment to teach at Leiden? Was he honest with Gomarus, Trelcatius, and the churches in 1605 when together the three of them assured the churches that they were united theologically? If he did change his theology in a way that contradicted the Belgic Confession, was he under no moral obligation to report this to the church?
Arminius knew that he was part of a small minority of ministers in the church who wanted to change its doctrines by allying themselves with the power of the magistrates. He was not more confrontational than some others in the church. He was a bright and creative theologian. But he had no right to reject theological views that he had pledged to uphold. He had a right to promote his views. Neither he nor his supporters can contend that those who disagreed with him—the majority of the ministers—were wrong to promote their views. Arminius should be evaluated in the same way as all his contemporaries, not as an obviously morally superior figure. Perhaps, after all, Abraham Kuyper best epitomized Arminius when he called him a “crafty fox.”25
- Stanglin and McCall, 149. ↩︎
- Stanglin and McCall, 177f. ↩︎
- John Valero Fesko, “Arminius on Justification, Reformed or Protestant,” in Church History and Religious Culture 94 (2014), 7. ↩
- Fesko, 11. ↩︎
- Stanglin and McCall, 172. ↩︎
- Muller, “Christological Problem,” 152. ↩︎
- Muller, “Christological Problem,” 160. ↩︎
- Muller, “Christological Problem,” 153f. ↩︎
- Stanglin and McCall, 90. ↩︎
- Stanglin, Assurance, 30f. ↩︎
- Brandt, 2:51. ↩︎
- Brandt, 2:52. ↩︎
- Cited in Muller, God, Creation, and Providence, 27f. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:601. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:639, emphasis original. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:640–42. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:643f, emphasis original. ↩︎
- Bangs, 309. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:634, emphasis original. ↩︎
- Bangs, 312. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:653, emphasis original. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:653, emphasis original. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:653–54, emphasis original. ↩︎
- Arminius, Works, 1:656. ↩︎
- Cited by Stanglin and McCall, 8. ↩︎