Arminius the Gadfly

A gadfly is a "persistent irritating critic; a nuisance." (link) The late Anglican priest John R.W. Stott comments that the Church needs gadflies to "sting and harry us into action for change," even though gadflies are difficult to live with, and they tend to have difficulties with the so-called watchdogs within Christian ranks.1 Too often, he confesses, the gadflies sting the watchdogs while the watchdogs attempt to consume and eradicate the gadflies. This is certainly the case within the post-Reformed church of John Calvin's (1509-1564) successor Theodore Beza (1519-1605) in Geneva -- even more so with Francis Gomarus (1563-1641) in Holland, and those who oppose his supralapsarian Calvinism.

The Reformed mantra semper reformanda -- i.e., the Church is always reforming, coined in 1674 by Dutch Calvinist Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620-1677) -- is lost on Calvinists, whether we consider the Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or those of today. Once Protestants are reformed from the Roman Catholic tradition, and once confessions and catechisms are constructed outlining Calvinistic dogma, semper reformanda becomes a concept of a by-gone era. This is especially true after the Synod of Dordt debacle.

But even prior to this kangaroo court, composed of and convened by Calvinists whose sole agenda is to eradicate semper reformanda and any doctrine(s) not of their own credo, including those of non-Calvinistic Lutherans -- those who actually inaugurated the Reformation -- the collective mindset among Calvinists becomes, "We shall reform to this point and no farther." (Admittedly, however, I empahtize with Calvinists on this matter. See my conclusion.) An excellent example for support of this thesis is the following quote from the pen of Johannes Bogerman (1576-1637), Moderator of the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), complaining about Arminius' request, in 1607 at the Hague, that ministers be freed from having to devote themselves to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism and strictly to the Word of God (all emphases original except where noted):
But it appeared to us a most absurd project. We confessed, indeed, that sentence was to be pronounced according to the word of God; but that, since it is unbecoming both in a Christian and in a Minister to be without faith [emphasis added], it is impossible without it to enter into any investigation or to form a right judgment. We consider that to be the true doctrine of faith which those writings [the Catechism and Confession] have delivered from the word of God. Since a believer therefore is never liberated from the word of God, he is never free from the doctrine delivered in it, which we believe to be contained in those writings.2
Note the admission that I emphasized, "to be without faith," maintains explicit reference to "the word of God," stated prior. This is more clearly shown by the original emphases: for the Calvinists of Arminius' day, as well as our own, the "true doctrine of [the Christian] faith" is contained within the Calvinistic confessions. Therefore to question these writings is to question the word of God. In case the immediate problem is unclear: Calvinists equate their doctrines with the authority and inspiration of the very Word of God, thus rendering their writings and theology ipso facto inspired of God, a conclusion we find not only deceptive (self-deceptive) but also idolatrous. Enter Jacob Arminius.



Arminius is Beza's sharp and bright student, a young man in his prime whom Beza praises, with the hope of him becoming a brilliant Reformed theologian. When the Rev. Martin Lydius (1539-1601), of the Old Reformed Church of Amsterdam, decides to inquire of Arminius, he turns to Beza, who explains that Arminius' learning and manner of life is "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." Beza recognizes that 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."3 The date is 3 June 1583.

The vote from the presbytery is unanimous and Arminius, upon completing his doctoral studies at Geneva, is called to the Old Reformed Church of Amsterdam -- Presbyterian: yes, Arminius is a Presbyterian -- as one of its pastors 5 October 1587, though he does not begin his pastoral duties until 7 February 1588, as he settles business throughout the months of November, December, and January.4 Three years into his pastorate he encounters his first crisis when he is asked to defend his mentor Beza from the writings in a pamphlet by two infralapsarians: Corneliszoon and Donteklok.

Arminius, when assessing the pamphlet, decides ultimately that he cannot defend his mentor's supralapsarian Calvinism, yet cannot adopt wholesale the arguments presented by the authors, and thus concludes with a via media approach -- he espouses the position maintained by Martin Luther's (1483-1546) Reformed successor Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and the Danish Lutheran theologian Nicholas Hemingius (1513-1600).5 Arminius concludes, in a letter to Johannes Jacobus Grynaeus (1540-1617), "I believe that our salvation rests on Christ alone and that we obtain faith for the forgiveness of sins and the renewing of life only through the grace of the Holy spirit." This position is not semi-Pelagian, not supralapsarian Calvinism, but neither is it infralapsarian Calvinism.6 Bangs writes: "The mood of the letter is one of surprise that such subtleties should be raised and that one or another position should be upheld as the one true doctrine."7

From this moment, until his death, Arminius becomes the gadfly of not only mainline (infralapsarian) Calvinism but also high (supralapsarian) Calvinism -- the thorn in the side of the Calvinist watchdogs whose perceptual spiritual gift appears to be the hunt for and eradication of those they conceptualize as heretics. The sting of Arminius' constant attempts at reforming Calvinistic dogma is visualized by Calvinists as a threat that must be stopped and eradicated at all costs, including not only the option and rhetorical avenue of calumny, but also overt lies8 regarding Arminius' Reformed theology. Stott, above, is right: Too often the gadflies sting the watchdogs while the watchdogs attempt to consume and eradicate the gadflies. In the following post we discover the motive for Arminius' theology.

But let me add this confession of empathy for Calvinists in conclusion. I applaud the Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for standing their theological ground and fighting the Arminians tenaciously for the doctrines they deem to be biblical. We should, each one of us, mimic their faithfulness to the Word of God as well as their love for the Word of God. I applaud modern-day Calvinists for the same. I, too, am no fan of those who vie for "reforming" the Arminian (and Anglican) theology I deem as biblical. Calvinists have every right to establish what constitutes being Calvinist, not Reformed, but Calvinist.

The only exception I add is this: While we are right to confront and challenge doctrines we suppose are in error, we are not right to insist that our doctrines are, in any unqualified sense, on par with the authority and inspiration of God's Word. In doing so, we betray humility, and commit idolatry. As strongly as we believe our doctrines to be based on Scripture, we cannot assume a purely objective stance, and demand that our doctrines in fact are the nonpartisan doctrines of God's Word and the Christian faith. From all I have read, from the history of Arminius and the Remonstrants, this view I espouse is the historic theological Arminian view. In essence, no matter our dogma, we must be willing to admit that we could be wrong on some of the non-essential matters of our Faith.

__________

1 John Stott, Balanced Christianity, expanded edition (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2014), 37.

2 "A Brief Account of the Synod of Dort, Taken Out of the Letters of Mr. Hales and Mr. Balcanqual, Written from Dort, to the Rt. Hon. Sir D. Carleton, Lord Ambassador Then at the Hague," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:564.

3 Works, 1:25.

4 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 110-12.

5 Ibid., 138-39.

6 Ibid., 140.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 111-13.

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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.