Arminius the Presbyterian

Unlike his colleague Hugo Grotius, who considered himself a son of the ecclesiologically episcopal Church of England, insisting even that the Church of England is "the likeliest to last of any church this day in being,"1 Arminius, himself being prominently and firmly planted in the Reformed tradition, was, ecclesiologically, a Presbyterian. This may appear strange to the sensibilities of some, since Presbyterianism is typically affiliated with Calvinism doctrinally, and is rarely viewed by many believers as a title for the manner in which that church body is governed. But Arminius was a son of the Reformed tradition in Holland, of the mid-to-late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which was primarily Presbyterian ecclesiologically.

To call Arminius an anti-Roman Catholic is not at all off the mark. Hence those opponents of his era who accuse him of secretly working for the cause of the papists2 is not merely ludicrous but overtly insulting and nothing shy of calumny. After all, Arminius names the office of Pope "the adulterer and pimp of the Church, the false prophet, the destroyer and subverter of the Church, the enemy of God and the Anti-christ, the wicked and perverse servant, who neither discharges the duties of a [proper] Bishop, nor is worthy to bear the name."3 Calvinist scholar and theologian Richard A. Muller confesses that Arminius is "certainly not a crypto-Catholic or a Jesuit sympathizer."4

But the office of Pope -- the office of a false church5 -- is not the only reason why Arminius rejects the episcopacy: he does not believe in apostolic succession. For Arminius, only the Reformed churches are "those congregations professing the Christian Faith which disavow every species of Presidency [one who presides over] whatever assumed by the Roman Pontiff, and profess to believe in and to perform acts of worship to God and Christ."6 This church did not secede from the one, true Church, what would become known as the Roman Catholic Church; the Romish church seceded from the one, holy and apostolic Church.7 Arminius notes that "the commencement of this variation" from the Church of Rome may
be dated from the days of Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, [Johannes] Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin, when many congregations of men in various parts of Europe began, at first secretly, but afterwards openly, to recede from the Roman Pontiff. The Reformed ... confess and lament that they were themselves in conjunction with the modern church of Rome, guilty of a defection from ... the purity of the Apostolic and the Roman faith, which the Apostle Paul commended in the ancient church of Rome that existed in his days.8
Regardless, this seceded Church of Rome claims to be founded upon the apostle Peter, and that its successive popes are in an authoritative line as Bishop or Vicar of the Catholic or Universal Church. Arminius argues that "St Peter was himself constituted an apostle of Christ, after the same constitution as that by which Christ is said to have appointed [all other] Apostles. Therefore the rest of the apostles were not constituted by St Peter [to fulfill his office as Vicar and Bishop or Pope of Christ's Church]."9

Arminius continues, arguing that even St Paul himself, "when he says that he obtained his apostleship 'neither of men nor by man'" is proof-positive that he was not ordained by Peter to that office. Also, he reminds us that Peter was reprehended by Paul on one occasion (Gal. 2:14). "Therefore he was not a suitable person to receive in charge the administration of the whole church."10 Moreover, Sts James, Peter, and John are "all placed by the apostle Paul as equal in degrees; nay, and as being accounted columns [pillars] by the churches, with no difference among them."11

Nor does Arminius believe in a vicar, a representative of Christ on earth, in any sense of the concept -- a notion which separates him not only from Rome (the episcopal Roman Catholic Church) but also from Canterbury (the episcopal Church of England, or Anglicanism). Jesus alone is the Vicar of God;12 and "no one can, according to this relation, be vicar or substitute to Him; neither the apostle Peter, nor any Roman Pontiff. Nay, Christ can have no one among men as His vicar, according to the external administration of the church; and, what is still more, He cannot have a Universal Minister who is less than the name of a Vicar."13 In other words, only Christ is worthy to be Head of His Church.

According to Marianne Wolfe, Presbyterian polity comprises a corporate decision-making process, which is never individual (from one primary leader). "Decisions concerning the welfare of the church and all matters of theology and mission are made in governing bodies led by 'moderators' and composed of elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament sitting in parity."14 But though Presbyterianism rejects the Episcopal form of church government, it also rejects the notion of Congregationalism, but yields its authority and decision-making to its elected council of elders. To this notion Arminius concurs.

In his Disputation, "On Councils," he notes that an ecclesiastical council is "an assembly of men gathered together in the name of God, consulting and defining or settling, according to the word of God, about those things which pertain to religion and the good of the church, for the glory of God and the salvation of the church."15 Curiously, however, this elder-led assembly is conceived by him as "an assembly of men; for, 'Let a woman keep silence in the church, unless she has an extraordinary and divine call.'"16 (emphasis added) One will be hard-pressed to find an abundance of witnesses from the Reformed tradition allowing a woman to be called as an elder in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Arminius' Presbyterianism is most evident in the following: "The object about which this council [of elders] will be engaged is the things appertaining to religion and to the good of the church as such. These are comprised under two chief heads -- the Primary, comprehending the doctrine itself of faith, hope and charity -- and the Secondary, the order and polity of the church."17 Yet he is careful to denote that the body of elders is
not absolute, but dependent on the authority of God: For this reason, no one is simply bound to assent to those things which have been decreed in a council, unless those persons be present as members who cannot err [which is an impossibility], and who have the undoubted marks and testimonies of the Holy Spirit to this fact. But every one may, nay he is bound, to examine by the word of God those things which have been concluded in the council; and if he finds them to be agreeable to the Divine word, then he may approve of them; but if they are not, then he may express his disapprobation. [emphasis added]

Yet he must be cautious not easily to reject that which has been determined by the unanimous consent of so many pious and learned men [on the board of elders]; but he ought diligently to consider whether it has the Scriptures pronouncing in favor of it with sufficient clearness; and when this is the case, he may yield his assent in the Lord to their unanimous agreement.18
Believing in the legitimacy of the board of elders, he insists that "the authority of any council is greater than that of any man who is present at such council, even that of the Roman Pontiff; to whom we ascribe no other right in any council than that which we give to any [other] Bishop."19 This mode of church polity was practiced faithfully in Arminius' Reformed church in Rotterdam. Carl Bangs notes:
In the Old Church, where Arminius served probably most often, the old pulpit was still in use in his time. Around it were benches for the consistory, including the deacons and also the ministers who were attending but not preaching. The church officials [board of elders] thus both set an example to the congregation and kept an eye on the proceedings, lest something unacceptable should happen. Not the least of their functions was that of passing judgment on the sermons. A deviation from sound doctrine would become an item for business the next Thursday when the consistory had its weekly meeting.20
This board of elders acted as an accountability council not only for the members of a congregation but also for the other pastors and elders. Arminius concludes: "The Government of the church is used for this end, that, in the whole church, all things may be done decently, in order, and to edification; and that each of its members may be kept in their duty, the loiters may be incited, the weak confirmed, those who have wandered out of the way brought back, the contumacious [disobedient] punished, and the penitents received."21 He is emphatic that ministering in Christ's church is a serious vocation, calls for testing of the vocation, and includes an examination as well as "a public inauguration, by prayers and the laying on of hands, and also by previous fasting."22

The primary efficient motivation supporting one's vocation "is God and Christ, and the Spirit of both as conducting the cause of Christ in the church; on which cause the whole authority of the vocation depends." The "essential form" of this vocation "is that all things may be done according to the rule prescribed in the word of God."23 Thus concludes the ecclesiology of our Presbyterian elder and pastor, Jacob Arminius.


1 Hugo Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Religion, ed. John le Clerc (Edinburgh: Thomas Turnbull, 1819), 303.

2 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991), 29.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XXI. On the Roman Pontiff, and the Principal Titles Which are Attributed to Him, in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:265.

4 Muller, 29.

5 Works, 2:444-45.

6 Ibid., 2:275.

7 Ibid., 2:275, 280-82.

8 Ibid., 2:281.

9 Ibid., 2:251.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 2:267.

13 Ibid., 2:417. Arminius states: "The Roman Pontiff is not the head of the church; and because he boasts himself of being that head, the name of 'Anti-christ' on this account most deservedly belongs to him." (2:418)

14 Marianne L. Wolfe, "Polity," in Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 283.

15 Works, 2:428.

16 Ibid., 2:429.

17 Ibid., 2:429-30.

18 Ibid., 2:431.

19 Ibid.

20 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1971), 125-26.

21 Works, 2:433.

22 Ibid., 2:434.

23 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.