Jacob Arminius: A Brief Introduction

"There lived in Holland a man, whom they that did not know him could not sufficiently esteem; whom they who did not esteem him had never sufficiently known,"1 says Peter Bertius (1565-1629), friend to a younger Arminius, at his funeral, 19 October 1609. When many think of Arminius, they tend to think of such notions as Free Will, or that one can lose or forfeit salvation. That is unfortunate, since Arminius does not champion the cause of Free Will, nor is he the Advocate and Defender proper for the doctrine of Apostasy (though he most certainly does question and challenge the theory of necessary perseverance).

His name, Latinized, is Jacobus Arminius (also known as Jacob, or the English derivative James). The Latinizing of one's name is a traditional custom for men during this era. He chooses the Latinzed name Arminius after the first-century Germanic chieftain remembered for his resistance of the Romans, which is paramount given his experience with the Roman Catholic Spaniards who pillage and ransack his hometown, slaying nearly his entire family in one day.

His birth name is Jakob Harmenszoon, named after his father Herman Jacobszoon (thus Hermannsen, lit., Herman's son) who dies before he is born, leaving his mother, Angelica, a young widow with many children for which to care. He is born 10 October 1559 in a small Holland village called Oudewater (pronounced Ooo-de-vah-ter). There is confusion over the exact year-date of his birth due to a lack of city records, and for that there is sufficient reason (already briefly mentioned).

In 1559, Oudewater is under Spanish control and dominated still by Roman Catholics. After the death of his father, a local holy and pious priest named Theodore Aemilius, sympathetic toward Protestants, acts in loco parentis, taking Arminius into his care. He feeds him, clothes him, and gives him an outstanding education in Utrecht. Though studies are long (from early morning until seven in the evening), Latin and Greek being taught to young boys during this time, he is grateful to God for His providence in using His servant, Aemilius.

In 1575, he matriculates at the University of Marburg, founded by Philip of Hese in 1527, by the guidance of Philip Melanchthon (successor to Martin Luther). However, he has barely settled in when he receives news in August of that same year that the Spanish Roman Catholics have ransacked his hometown of Oudewater, killing nearly everyone, including his entire family. After about two weeks of intense grieving, he returns home for one last glimpse, though it is in ruins, or he will die in the attempt.

Distraught and perplexed, he bids farewell to his hometown, and his family massacred by the Spaniards, making his return trip on foot, approximately 250 miles. He continues living in Marburg for another year before matriculating at the University of Leiden (founded by John Calvin). While at university, Arminius shows himself to be an exceptional student. Bertius recalls not only professor Lambert Danaeus praising his intellect, but that, if any of the students "had a particular theme or essay to compose, or a speech to recite, the first step which we took in it was to ask for Arminius. If any friendly discussion arose among us, the decision of which required the sound judgment of a Palaemon [a Greek god or hero], we went in search of Arminius, who was always consulted."2 His brilliant mind is obvious early on.



While at Leiden, he is mentored by Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza. Arminius has the utmost respect for both Beza and the writings of Calvin. As a matter of fact, he notes that, next to the study of the Scriptures which he earnestly inculcates, he exhorts his pupils to peruse Calvin's Commentaries, which he extols in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch Professor); for he affirms that Calvin excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers . . . but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.3 To admit any higher view of Calvin would be overt idolatry; to admit any lesser view would demean the intellect of Calvin as a Shining Light of the Reformation. Arminius does not consider himself the anti-Calvin, the anti-Calvinist, nor the anti-Reformed.

Arminius is the first graduate of the University of Leiden, educated in theology, Latin, Greek, the Church fathers, and the logic both of Aristotle and of Peter Ramus. His doctoral Thesis is that, at Romans 7:14-25, Paul is referring to an unregenerate man and not of the regenerate child of God (as is supposed by many Reformed theologians during this time). His genius is praised even by his detractors. Beza, in a letter written to the Rev. Martin Lydius in 1583, a professor who belongs to the Church of Amsterdam (where Arminius later becomes pastor for fifteen years), writes:
To describe all in a few words, be pleased to take notice that from the period when Arminius returned from Basil to us at Geneva, both his acquirements in learning and his manner of life have been so approved by us that we form the highest hopes respecting him, if he proceed in the same course as that which he is now pursuing, and in which, we think, by the favour of God, he will continue. For the Lord has conferred on him, among other endowments, a happy genius for clearly perceiving the nature of things and forming a correct judgment upon them, which, if it be hereafter brought under the governance of piety, of which he shows himself most studious, will undoubtedly cause his powerful genius, after it has been matured by years and confirmed by his acquaintance with things, to produce a rich and most abundant harvest. These are our sentiments concerning Arminius, a young man, as far as we have been able to form a judgment of him, in no respect unworthy of your benevolence and liberality.4
The comment which follows the footnote whence this recommendation originates indicates that Beza is unaware of what would become of Arminius' pending theological and scriptural system, "which would gradually overturn all those frightful theories of fate and restricted grace that Beza had laboured to invent and perfect, with a zeal second only to that of Calvin."5 Nevertheless, Beza's formed opinion of Arminius is objective, sincere and unclouded by any fear of Arminius' theological development in the future. Not until he begins preaching through Romans 9, however, does he find himself at odds with a few of his high-Calvinist colleagues. Still, he is praised by both friends and foes for his godliness and humility.

Peter Heylin (1599-1662), an "English ecclesiastic and author of many polemical, historical, political and theological tracts" (Wikipedia), writes of Arminius' great learning and piety: "he stands commended for a man of an unblameable life, sound doctrine, and fair behaviour."6 Whatever one may conclude regarding Arminius' theology and soteriology, what cannot be denied is his mild and godly manner, and his love for and devotion to Christ Jesus and His Church. Arminian scholar Philip Limborch (1633-1712), too, testifies that "Arminius was a pious and godly man, prudent, candid, mild and placid [calm, peaceful, gentle and self-possesed], and most studious to preserve the peace of the Church."7 Finally, Kaspar Brandt gives us some physical as well as moral characteristics of Arminius:
It now remains that we subjoin a brief sketch of Arminius, descriptive at once of his person and his mind. In bodily stature he did not exceed the medium size. His eyes were black and sparkling, indicating acuteness of mind and genius. His countenance was serene. His bodily temperament was sanguineous [cheerful, optimistic]; his limbs well compacted, and at the prime of life, somewhat robust. His voice was slender, indeed, but sweet, musical, and sharp. He was eloquent in an admirable degree: if any subject was to be embellished, if any discussed, it was done with distinctness; the pronunciation and intonation of voice being thoroughly adapted to the sense.

As respects his general bearing, he was courteous and affable towards all, respectful to superiors, hospitable, cheerful, and no way disinclined among his friends to harmless sallies of wit, by way of mental relaxation; but in all that constitutes the man of gravity, the Christian, and the consummate teacher of the church, as far as human infirmity could permit, he was second to none. He adored with profound veneration the supreme and ever-blessed God; and never allowed a day to pass without pious meditation, and perusal of the Sacred Scriptures, making a commencement with fervid prayers; and in order to make the greater progress in the cultivation of piety, and the truth, he occasionally followed up these prayers with fasting.

He wished to be, rather than to appear pious; and regarded nothing as of greater moment than to regulate all his actions, not by the opinion of others, but by the dictate of a pure conscience; and to confirm by his own example the truth of his own maxim, in which he pre-eminently delighted: "Bona Conscientia Paradisus" -- "A Good Conscience is a Paradise."8
The rest of Brandt's description and record is an inspiring read. The year 1609 lends itself to both sadness and joy. Arminius, sadly, leaves his wife, Elizabeth, and their nine children to the Provider of us all, and joyously joins his Lord and Savior, along with the three children born to him and "Lizzy," who die in infancy shortly after their baptism. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria which most commonly affects the lungs and causes one to waste away. On 19 October 1609, Arminius meets the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, no doubt bowed at His feet in adoration, as will all of God's redeemed, and praises the God of Grace, Mercy, Love and Justice for saving in and through Christ such a sinner as he.

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1 Kaspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D. D., trans. John Guthrie (Charleston, SC: BiblioLife, LLC, 2009), 300.

2 Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 47-49.

3 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (1907-10; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952-53), 8:280.

4 The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:24-25.

5 Ibid., 1:25.

6 Ibid., lii.

7 Ibid., liii.

8 Brandt, 301-303.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.