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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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. 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.