Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians

In 1606, three years prior to his death from tuberculosis, Arminius resigned his position in the office of Rector Magnificus [University Dean] at Leyden, and, as was the custom, granted an address, "On Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians" -- an address, admits Arminius himself, highly approved by some, "while it is a copious source of blame and grief to others."1

In the introductory remarks, we read, "At that period the great body of the Calvinistic Clergy of Holland were desirous of obtaining leave from the States General to hold a National Synod: They pressed the adoption of this measure the more earnestly, because, knowing themselves to be the stronger party, they hoped to obtain, in an assembly composed almost exclusively of Calvinists, a condemnation of the tenets of their [Arminian] opponents."2 The Calvinists were denied a Synod at that time; but Prince Maurice would secure their wishes by 1618 at the deleterious Synod of Dort.

Though Calvinists had maligned Arminius' good name -- though they had misrepresented and lied about his theology -- still he sought to reconcile the parties of the Calvinists and the Arminians (a fact that speaks volumes about his godly character and integrity), insisting that both adhered to Reformed theology, both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and opposed all who stood against the great Protestant Reformation; namely, the Papists, as they were called, or Roman Catholics.

As humble and conciliatory as was Arminius in character, regarding this particular address he boldly and confidently comments, "If anyone has anything to allege against me or my sentiments, I challenge him to bring forward his allegations at the approaching Synod."3 Most historians are convinced that, had Arminius survived his bout with tuberculosis, there either would have been no Synod of Dort or the outcome would have been far different. Arminius writes the following, heavily edited address (it could span toward a hundred pages).

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Never since the first entrance of sin into the world have there been any ages so happy as not to be disturbed by the occurrence of some evil or other; and, on the contrary, there has been no age so embittered with calamities, as not to have had a sweet admixture of some good, by the presence of the divine benevolence renewed towards mankind. The experience of all ages bears witness to the truth of this observation; and it is taught by the individual history of every nation.

If, from a diligent consideration of these different histories and a comparison between them, any person should think fit to draw a parallel of the blessings and of the calamities which have either occurred at one and the same period, or which have succeeded each other, he would in reality be enabled to contemplate, as in a mirror of the greatest clearness and brilliancy, how the Benignity of God has at all times contended with his Just Severity, and what a conflict the Goodness of The Deity has always maintained with the Perversity of men. Of this a fair specimen is afforded to us in the passing events of our own age, within that part of Christendom with which we are more immediately acquainted.

To demonstrate this, I do not deem it necessary to recount all the Evils which have rushed, like an overwhelming inundation, upon the century which has been just completed: for their infinity would render such an attempt difficult and almost impossible. Neither do I think it necessary to enumerate, in a particular manner, the Blessings which those evils have been somewhat mitigated. To confirm this truth, it will be abundantly sufficient to mention one very remarkable Blessing, and one Evil of great magnitude and directly opposed to that blessing. This Blessing is that the Divine clemency irradiates our part of the world by the illustrious light of His sacred truth, and enlightens it with the knowledge of true religion, or Christianity.

The Evil opposed to it is that either human ignorance or human perversity deteriorates and corrupts the clear light of this Divine truth, by aspersing and beclouding it with the blackest errors; creates separation and division among those who have devoted themselves exclusively to the service of religion; and severs them into parties, and even into shreds of parties, in direct contradiction to the nature and genius of Christianity, whose Author is called the "Prince of peace," its doctrine "the Gospel of peace," and its professors "the Sons of peace." The very foundation of it is an act of pacification concluded between God and men, and ratified by the blood of the Prince of peace. The precepts inculcated in each of its pages are concerning peace and concord; its fruits are "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit;" and its end is peace and eternal tranquility.

But although the light from this torch of truth, which is diffused through the Christian world, affords no small refreshment to my mind; and although a view of that clearer light which shines among the Churches that profess to have been Reformed from Popery, is most exhilarating; yet I cannot dissemble the intense grief which I feel at my heart on account of that religious discord which has been festering like a gangrene, and pervading the whole of Christianity: Unhappily, its devastations have not terminated. In this unfeigned feeling of deep regret, I think, all those who love Christ and His Church, will partake with me; unless they possess hearts of greater hardness than Parian marble, and bowels secured from compassionate attacks by a rigidity stronger than that of the oak, and by defenses more impregnable than those of triple brass.

This is the cause which has incited me to offer a few remarks on religious dissensions in the Christian world; for, according to that common proverb, "Whenever a man feels any pain, his hand is almost spontaneously moved to the part affected." This, therefore, is the subject which I propose to introduce to the notice of the present celebrated assembly, in which the province has been awarded to me, of delivering an oration at this Academic Festival, according to an established and laudable custom. I shall confine myself to three particulars: In the first place, I will give a dissertation on This Discord Itself and The Evils Which Spring From It. I will then show its Causes [not included here]; and, lastly, its Remedies.


The first particular includes within itself the Necessity of removing such a great evil; and the last prescribes the Manner in which it may be removed, to which the middle particular materially contributes. The union of the whole together explains and justifies the nature of the design which I have now undertaken.

I humbly pray and entreat the God of peace, that He will, by His Spirit of truth and peace, be present with me while engaged in speaking; and that He will govern my mind and direct my tongue, that I may utter such things as may be pleasing to Him and salutary to the Church of Christ, for the glory of His name and our mutual instruction. I likewise prefer a request to you, my very famous and accomplished hearers, that you will deign to grant me your favorable attention, while I glance at each of these particular, with much brevity, and discharge the office of a director to you rather than that of an orator, lest I trespass on your patience.

I. Union is a great good: it is indeed the chief good and therefore the only one, whether we separately consider each thing of which it is composed, or more of them contained together by a certain social tie or relation between themselves. For all things together, and each thing separately, are what they are by that very thing by which they are one; and, by this union, they are preserved in what they really are. And, if they have need and are capable of further perfection, they are, by the same union, still more strengthened, increased, and perfected, until they attain to the utmost boundary prescribed to them by nature or by grace, or by God the Author of both grace and nature.

Of such certainty is this truth that even the blessedness of God consists in that union by which He is ONE and always present with Himself, and having all things belonging to Him present together with him. Nothing, therefore, can be more agreeable or desirable than Union, whether viewed in reference to single things or to the whole together; nothing can be more noxious and detestable than Dissension, by which all things begin at first to decline from their own condition, are afterwards diminished by degrees, and, at length, perish.

[. . .]

(i.) The first is, that by this battering-ram of dissensions, the foundations of Divine Providence, which constitute the basis of all Religion, experience a violent concussion.

[. . .]

Secondly. All these evils proceed from religious dissension when its operation is efficacious on the Mind. Most sincerely do I wish that it would remain there, content itself with displaying its insolence in the hall of the mind where discord has its proper abode, and would not attack the Affections of the Heart. But, vain is my wish! For so extensively does it pervade the heart and subdue all its affections, that it abuses at pleasure the slaves that act as assistants.

[. . .]

But, dismissing all these violent medicines that are of a bad character and import, I proceed to notice such as are holy, true and saving; these I distribute into preparatives and aphaeretics or removers, of this dissension.

1. To the class of preparatives belong,
(1.) in the first place, Prayers and Supplications to God, that we may obtain a knowledge of the truth, and that the peace of the Church may be preserved: and these religious acts are to be performed, at the special command of the magistrates, with fasting, and in dust and ashes, with seriousness, in faith, and with assiduity. These services, when thus performed, cannot fail of being efficacious; because they are done according to the ordinance of God, whose command it is, that "we pray for the peace of Jerusalem," (Psalms 122:6,) and according to the promise of Christ, who has graciously engaged that "the Spirit of truth shall be given to those who ask him." (Luke 11:13.)

(2.) Let a serious amendment of life and a conscientious course of conduct be added: For, without these, all our prayers are rendered ineffectual, because they are displeasing to God, on the ground, that "he who misemploys that portion of knowledge which he possesses, becomes, by his own act, unworthy of all further communications and increase of knowledge." This is in accordance with that saying of Christ: "Unto every one that hath, shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away from him." (Luke 19:26.)
[. . .]

Thus at length shall it come to pass, that, being anointed with spiritual delights we shall sing together in jubilant strains, that most pleasant Song of Degrees, "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity," etc. And, from a sight of the orderly walk and peaceable conduct of the faithful in the house of God, filled with the hopes of consummating these acts of pacification in heaven, we may conclude in these words of the Apostle, "And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy upon the Israel of God." (Galatians 6:16.) Mercy, therefore, and Peace, be upon the Israel of God. I have concluded.4

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Oration V. On Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:435.

2 Ibid., 1:434.

3 Ibid., 1:435.

4 Ibid., 1:434-541.

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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.