Arminius in Historical Context

On this day, 19 October 1609, one of God's servants departed. We celebrate the life of Jacob Arminius within his post-Reformation context. Christians are oft implored to study and marvel at the history of the great tradition of their faith. Despite the imperfections of the Church through the ages, she has much to offer her students if only they will come and see. Typically, this learning comes at the feet of the greats -- Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Wesley. Yet often other distinct yet compelling voices are squelched through centuries of misunderstanding from adherents and opponents alike. Jacob Arminius is such a voice.

ARMINIUS IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT

"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 stated Peter Bertius at the funeral of Jacob Arminius, October 1609. Jacob Harmenszoon was born 10 October 1559, the son of a middle-class cutler in the small town of Oudewater. Latinized, his name is Jacobus Arminius.2 During his childhood, a local priest acts in loco parentis, taking Arminius into his care -- feeding and clothing him, and giving him an outstanding education in Utrecht.

In 1575, he matriculates at the University of Marburg under the guidance of Philip Melanchthon (Martin Luther's successor). While at university, Arminius shows himself to be an exceptional student. He is mentored by Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza, and he has the utmost respect for both Beza and the writings of Calvin.3 Educated in theology, Latin, Greek, the Church fathers, and the logic of both Aristotle and Peter Ramus -- the latter of whom insisted that the entire philosophy of the former was inaccurate -- he is the first graduate of the University of Leiden.

On 5 October 1587 in Holland, Arminius reports to the Classis of Amsterdam to be administered into the Dutch Church as a minister. Before becoming one of the pastors of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam, he is questioned "on the chief points of doctrine," and is required to sign the Belgic Confession.4 After fifteen years in the pastorate he receives tenure at the University of Leiden (1603-1609). During his years as a professor, he encounters high-Calvinists who disagree with some of his teachings, namely, conditional election,5 general atonement,6 and the resistibility of grace.7 He spends the remaining years of his life and career answering Calvinist critics who have no tolerance for any theological views other than their own. During this era, Anabaptists are causing contentions with their own radical Reformation regarding the proper mode of believer's baptism. Significantly, Thomas Helwys separates from John Smyth, who is persuaded by the Anabaptists; unlike Smyth, who does not believe in doctrines such as total depravity and original sin (as do Arminius and the Remonstrants),8 Helwys believes in these doctrines and advocates them strongly in his writings. 

Nonetheless, these first Baptists are broadly Arminian in nature. One would think that the Reformers' break from Rome would have aided in their toleration of other doctrines foreign to their own, but such is not the case -- they relentlessly persecute the Anabaptists, for example. These early Baptists, however, remain children of the Reformation, advocating salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone, to the glory of God alone. Their high view of Scripture is the foundation for their views of believer's baptism -- for which they also give their lives.

Meanwhile, in 1609 during the heated debates with Calvinists, Arminius contracts tuberculosis. In the strength and grace of God he answers his critics, as well as the States, for whom he was preparing a written work containing his doctrines. On his deathbed he writes to the States: "By God's grace I have persisted in it, and I am ready to appear with this conviction before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ the Son of God and Judge of the living and the dead. ... Out of my sickbed in Leiden, this 12th of September."9 He dies 19 October 1609.

ARMINIANISM AND ITS PROGENITORS

After his death, his followers, the Remonstrants (lit. those who protest), seek to carry on the work he leaves undone. They do this most evidently by promoting the Remonstrance of 1610, in which Arminian doctrine is sought to be tolerated in the State. Their voice is silenced in the years which lay ahead by Calvinists at the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), after which they are exiled. Arminius' successor, Simon Episcopius,  flees to France; Arminius' comrade Hugo Grotius is imprisoned, but escapes by the aid of his wife; and one Arminian patriot, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, is beheaded for "treason."

By 1625, religious toleration begins to flourish in Holland, and the Remonstrants return and begin teaching in universities throughout the state. Henceforth Arminianism flourishes. Philipp van Limborch, professor of theology at the Remonstrant Seminary, is by far one of the most famous Arminian scholars of his day, though his theology differs slightly from classical Arminianism. This is crucial to note as we see him, along with other early adherents of Arminianism, making revisions that will only obscure the original teachings of Arminius.

Arminian theology is not merely a local doctrine isolated in Holland; its effect is evinced throughout Europe and England. By far the most famous Arminians in history are John and Charles Wesley, the unintended progenitors of Methodism. The line of famous Wesleyan-Arminian ministers in the Wesleys' tradition includes John Fletcher, Thomas Coke, Adam Clarke, Richard Watson, John Miley, and William Burt Pope.

While the Wesleys' contribution to the larger body of Protestant hymnody, ministry, and theology are monumental, it is important to note that John Wesley differs from Arminius at significant points, despite being generally Arminian. For instance, he does not articulate a penal substitutionary atonement with the same clarity as does Arminius. As one Arminian theologian notes, "Wesley's theological originality makes him difficult to assess. Those who attempt, however, to pigeonhole Wesley ... fail to comprehend the complexity of his symbiotic absorption and amalgamation of the sources of his own intellectual history."10 In the end, Wesleyanism merits its own theological assessment apart from classical Arminianism.

ARMINIANISM IN CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVE

In the twentieth century, a popular brand of Arminianism in some form is largely assumed. Thus the recent Calvinist resurgence in evangelicalism is so noticeable because, broadly speaking, some form of Arminian thought is merely assumed. This is particularly evident in the Southern Baptist Convention. As Geoffrey Nutall is reminded of a subject to which he is exposed in college: "Since Wesley, we are all Arminians."11

This is a significant remark for several reasons, not least of which is the illogical move that most observers of historical theology make, even those at the popular level. They presume one of two views: (1) They assume that any theological system that is not Calvinism is Arminian; or (2) They assume a definition of Arminianism that is not consistent with the sixteenth century's Reformers' teaching. Indeed, such Calvinist pastors as Dr. John MacArthur and John Piper often make both moves. Though they frequently portray Arminianism negatively in their writings, they never once cite Arminius himself. This misrepresentation of Arminianism continues on, with little attention given to complex historical developments, and this to their discredit.

The contention of the Helwys Society remains that the essence of Arminianism is being clearly preserved in the Free Will Baptist tradition [in spite of its baptismal views], as theologians such as F. Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli continue to produce quality volumes even into retirement. Yet, undoubtedly, the looming question for believers with Reformed sensibilities, yet advocates of free grace, is "What is the future of Arminian theology?" In part, the aim of institutions such as the Helwys Society is to perpetuate and advocate this theological tradition, which precedes Arminius himself and finds its roots in some of the earliest Church fathers. To this end, may Arminius' distinct voice find its perfect pitch in the great choir of theologians through all ages.

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

2 There is a dispute over the date of his birth -- some suggesting 1560, others 1559. Many town records are destroyed in the massacre of Arminius' hometown, Oudewater, in 1575 by the Roman Catholic Spanish. Since Arminius' father dies in 1558, his wife already pregnant with Arminius their son, it seems that 1559 is the only viable option for accurately dating his birth. See Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1985), 25.

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

4 Bangs, 110.

5 Arminius notes that the doctrine of Election (or Predestination) is "the Decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which He resolved within Himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt, and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of His own glorious grace, believers on whom He had decreed to bestow faith." (Works, 2:226)

6 Arminius affirms that Christ died for all people, according to Scripture (e.g., John 1:29; 1 John 2:2 etc.), and that the atonement is available to all who will believe and trust in Christ Jesus, but that the atonement of Christ will not be automatically applied to everyone: "God has by a peremptory decree resolved that believers alone should be made partakers of this redemption." (Works, 2:9)

7 Because Scripture does not affirm irresistible grace (or that regeneration precedes faith, cf. Col. 2:13), Arminius maintains: "Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken, and consisting of the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification of the new man; as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, openly declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith." (Works, 2:498)

8 Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003), 190. Lee notes: "There are several similarities between Smyth's views and Arminian-Remonstrant views. However, this does not hold true in their respective views of original sin. Arminius is clear in his support of the passage of some measure of original sin. He does not support the Reformed view of original sin [especially with regard to God condemning unbaptized infants], but instead refers to original sin as the 'absence of original righteousness.' ... Smyth rejects any view that supports the passage of original sin, no matter the description of original sin. He states plainly, ['That original sin is an idle term, and that there is no such thing as men intend by the word']. He argues that no one is condemned because of someone else's sin."

9 Bangs, 328.

10 J. Matthew Pinson, "Atonement, Justification, and Apostasy in the Thought of John Wesley." Integrity 4 (2008): 73-92; See also Pinson's article: "Arminius's View of the Atonement," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (forthcoming).

11 Geoffrey F. Nuttall, "The Influence of Arminianism in England," in Man's Faith and Freedom: The Theological Influence of Jacobus Arminius, ed. Gerald O. McCulloh (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1962), 46.

[This article was featured on the Helwys Society Forum website, 25 October 2010, but has since been omitted. I am grateful to have retained the article, and to present it here for the reader.]