Arminius and the Remonstrants Plead for Religious Freedom

After the death of Jacob Arminius, 19 October 1609, his followers (known as the Remonstrants, lit. the Protesters) carried on the work which their predecessor had begun in Holland, calling for the State to comply with, tolerate, and protect Arminians and all others who espouse their beliefs from their religio-politico Calvinistic opponents; and for their theology to be considered viable in the Reformed tradition. After all, so thinks Arminius (and all who side with him), his theology is merely that of early Church consensus, and he is correct.

Some, however, have listed several reasons why they believe "non-Calvinists," namely Baptists, do not have to and should not subscribe to Arminianism (nor do they desire such nomenclature). Among the reasons is listed the following:
Arminius continued the state church in Amsterdam modeled after the state church in Geneva and other cities dominated by Calvinism, as the name "Magisterial Reformation" suggests. Freedom of religion and the First Amendment are distinctively associated with Baptists. (link
This summation is not entirely accurate. We know from history that, after the death of Arminius, the Remonstrants presented their Remonstrance of 1610 to "the assembly of the leading province, Holland, calling for a revision of the [Belgic] Confession of Faith, and demanding that church and state matters be kept completely separate."1 (emphasis added) Also, as noted by Dr. Mark Ellis, "The question of state control over Reformed churches fueled the Arminian conflict as much as predestination."2 But we must concede that Dr. Lemke is right about Anabaptists pleading for religious toleration and even freedom in Holland and throughout Europe prior to Arminius and the Remonstrants. But this fact of the Anabaptist plea for religious freedom only precedes Arminius and the Remonstrants historically, meaning, the era of the Anabaptists precedes the era of Arminius and his colleagues. But to suggest that Arminius "continued the state church in Amsterdam" is not as ironclad an argument as one might think.

Before Arminius and the Remonstrants began their plea for religious freedom or toleration in Holland we know of the Dutch theologian Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert pleading for the same. By way of brief introduction, Coornhert was "a Dutch notary, artist, poet, playwright, translator, and controversialist who defended the freedom of conscience and toleration."3 Freedom of conscience is a very Reformed way of thinking, stemming from the great Reformer himself, Martin Luther. Coornhert's history parallels that of Arminius, during the height of the career of the former, and just the beginning of the latter.

Coornhert collided with reformer John Calvin, the latter calling the anti-Calvinist Coornhert such names as "yokel," "drunkard," "scatterbrain," "mad dog," "pig," "wild beast," "baboon" and "ass."4 This is, of course, classic ad hominem. Before Arminius' name became a byword among certain seventeenth-century Calvinists, Coornhert's name was already a tragic and loathsome sixteenth-century epithet.

Coornhert, of course, was linked to anti-Calvin and anti-Calvinist Sebastian Castellio (1515-1563), who critiqued Calvin's involvement with the very controversial burning of the Unitarian heretic Michael Servetus. But "Coornhert was the main conduit for the transmission of Castellio's thoughts to the circle around Arminius."5 Coornhert is viewed as the sole or primary forerunner to both Arminius and the Remonstrants with regard to the plea for religious freedom or toleration in Holland.6 Yet, we remember well that Arminius was called upon by his mentor, John Calvin's successor Theodore Beza, to refute Coornhert's works; but, instead, he concluded that Coornhert's theology was correct. This move did not make for religious toleration among the Calvinists for Arminius.

Dutch theologian and supralapsarian Calvinist Francis Gomarus (1563-1641) strongly opposed Arminius' theology, even calling into question his legitimacy to teach theology at Leiden. Tension was already unhealthily fervent between Holland and England due to tension in shipping trade between the Netherlands and Spain, to say nothing of internal civil unrest.7 Then arose the outbreak of a fervent theological debate between the Calvinists and the Arminians in Holland. Arminius sought the State to consider revising, or merely reconsider the wording of certain phrases in the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563),8 which outraged the Calvinists, Gomarus chief among them. When Arminius died, the contentious spirit did not wane, but instead worsened. The Remonstrants persisted to obtain from the State protection. Pieter Geyl explains:
The States' first and instinctive reaction could not fail to be in favour of granting that protection. Here was a dispute among theologians, difficult for laymen to comprehend even in an age infatuated with theology, but the least theologically-inclined regent could predict the result of leaving the Church to deal with it on her own. The Remonstrants would be expelled, doctrine defined in exact [Calvinistic] terms, and an even more arrogant supervision exercised over the orthodoxy of the authorities and of their proceedings.9
This prophetic sentiment is exactly what history evinces. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. What the Remonstrants called for was religious toleration and freedom. Does this fact not, then, appear as an appeal, at least in principle, for "freedom of religion" and "the First Amendment rights," which are, allegedly, "distinctively associated with Baptists"? Are the Remonstrants not, then, affirming the allegedly "Baptistic" spirit for both freedom of religion and First Amendment rights? I think history proves wrong the thesis that Arminius and the Remonstrants rigidly perpetuated the State-Church tradition of Geneva. 

The Arminians were more than willing to recognize the viability of Calvinistic theology within the Church. They were not trying to overthrow Calvinism, insisting that the State only recognize Arminian theology as orthodoxy in toto, though that is exactly what the Calvinists were vying for. The Arminians were the original "bridge builders" among dissenting Calvinists, not Calvinists by far. Calvinists were the ones trying to burn those bridges.

In 1610, the Remonstrants presented their Remonstrance (i.e., protest). This protest was an act of disagreement the Arminians had with three main points of Calvinistic soteriology: Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace. The doctrine of Total Depravity and Total Inability was not a point of contention whatsoever. The conclusion of the doctrine of Perseverance, at least in 1610, was that it "must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds." At that time, they were merely suspending judgment.

By 1618, however, in the document The Opinions of the Remonstrants, they concluded that a true believer could forfeit his or her salvation by rejecting faith in Christ. This doctrine has been an Arminian staple ever since, especially among Wesleyan-Arminians. Again, Pieter Geyl informs us:
In 1610 the States of Holland actually granted the protection which the Remonstrants had demanded. The States admonished ministers to leave in peace those candidates at classis examinations who would not go beyond the five points of the Remonstrance, and at the same time to cease raking up in their sermons "those lofty and mysterious questions which are at present, God help it, all too much in dispute."10
For all who know their history, this favor would not be perpetually definitive for the Arminians. The Calvinists simply would not give up. As harshly and dogmatically as the Calvinists were treated by the Roman Catholics, they returned that favor on the Arminians. Relentlessly, dogmatically, the Calvinists insisted that the Church settle the dispute, but the States would not, initially,  approve.11 The States General continued to, even into 1612, grant the Arminians "municipal and other authorities to conduct themselves conformably with that Church settlement which the regents . . . had drafted in 1591. . . ."12 This did not, however, deter the Calvinists one iota, as is evident by the proceedings of the Synod of Dort only seven years later. 

1 A.C. Grayling, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius (New York: Walker & Company, 2005), 35.

2 Mark A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius' Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2008), 27.

3 Gerrit Voogt, Constraint on Trial: Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2000), 1.

4 Ibid., 15. "Coornhert maintained that the congregations that believed and professed the doctrines of Calvin could not be true churches: to prove this thesis he reprobated in a masterly and popular manner their peculiar [and, from an historical perspective, historically novel] views of Predestination, Justification, and killing heretics." See The Works of Arminius, trans. James and William Nichols, the London edition, three volumes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:59.

5 Ibid., 62.

6 Ibid., 235.

7 Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century: Part One, 1609-1648 (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1961), 41.

8 Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 222-27.

9 Geyl, 46. 

10 Ibid., 47. 

11 Ibid., 48. 

12 Ibid.


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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.