Jacob Arminius for the Average Joe

Often historical information regarding sixteenth-century Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) is weighed down by theological jargon too complicated and uninteresting for the average Joe. Too much is assumed by the respective authors and too much is required of the average follower of Christ for one to acquire and retain knowledge of his life and thoughts -- while finger-pointing and specific-historical facts of various political agendas, of both classic Arminians and dissident Calvinists, disengage the reader, leaving him or her with enough historical and theological dissonance to render the person frustrated and, inevitably, disinterested altogether.

A former Church History professor, a Calvinist and a friend, challenged me to change that sad state of affairs by writing a piece on Arminius for the average reader, one who is less concerned with the politics and intricate details of various controversies and much more interested in how Arminius' values and teachings intersect with the early Church fathers, as well as, perhaps, their own beliefs. So this brief article will not contain footnotes, will not seek to defend Arminius' views with scriptural proof-texts, but give the reader a general overview of his life and thoughts.

Born Jakob Harmenszoon 10 October 1559 in Oudewater, Holland, the infant is named after his father Herman Jacobszoon (thus, in Dutch, Hermannsen, lit., Herman's son) who dies just before Arminius is born, leaving his mother, Angelica, a young widow with many children for which to care. He is left with a Jesuit, albeit Protestant sympathizer, who acts in the stead of a parent, caring for, clothing and educating young Jacob. In college he is educated at the University of Marburg in the tradition of Martin Luther's successor Philip Melanchthon. Later he is educated further by John Calvin's successor Theodore Beza. He later becomes a professor of theology and adopts a Latinized version of his name, Jacobus Arminius, the last name chosen for the first-century German leader who defeated a Roman army at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE.

Typically, yet mistakenly, Arminius is portrayed as the opponent and the opposite of Reformer John Calvin. But Arminius lauds the works of Calvin, greatly appreciates his mentor, Calvin's successor, Beza, yet states that their works should be regarded by us as the works of any human being, flawed at points and not without error -- Arminius realizes he is not without his own flaws. Arminius' name is also usually associated with the theological terms "free will" and "predestination," affirming the former and denying the latter. But Arminius is not the poster-boy for free will, he does not deny but affirms predestination, and seeks to bring about further reformation in the churches by emphasizing the teachings of the early Church fathers.

If this is getting too muddied already then let me communicate plainly. John Calvin and his followers teach that God decided from eternity past to save some people and not others based on God's own choice; meaning, there is no reason why He chooses to save some people and not others. Since we lost our ability to rightly use free will, and since we cannot choose to believe on Christ by use of that free will, then God must have chosen to save some and not others. This is why some people believe in Jesus and others remain in unbelief. God chooses who will believe and who will remain in unbelief, as He "gives" faith to some, the chosen, and not to the rest, the not-chosen. Arminius, his followers, and we Arminians all disagree with this teaching.

Arminius believes, with the early Church fathers, that God chooses to save those who believe in Jesus. (1 Cor. 1:21) Since we lost our ability to rightly use free will, and since we cannot choose to believe on Christ by use of that free will, then God must free our will in order for us to freely choose to believe in Jesus. This is why some people believe in Jesus and others remain in unbelief. Some freely choose to believe and others refuse to believe.

This view causes so much strife for Arminius that he is burdened day after day, week after week, explaining his views and answering criticisms by those who disagree with him. Some of his opponents are even making up lies about his teachings in order to create suspicion of him and his theology. Regardless, anyone who agrees with Arminius that God frees the will in order to promote one's freedom to believe in Jesus -- insisting that God does not save one person and not another merely because that is what He has chosen to do from eternity past -- is in the broad Arminian tradition. Those who disagree are considered in the Calvinist tradition.

For Arminius, theology should be practical, meaning that we should be able to live out our beliefs. Also, our beliefs about God should usher us into a rapturous passion to worship and honor God, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Our beliefs should not merely look good in black and white; theology serves as an instrument with which we worship God and live our lives in Christ from day to day and from year to year.

Arminius is a humble man, a calm and collective, pensive man -- one not easily angered but rather even-tempered and jovial. Though educated in fine institutions, and more than able to practice polemics (strong verbal attacks in debate or otherwise) against his opponents, he longs to mimic Jesus and His humility. He is far more interested in dialogue and debate than in demeaning his theological opponents with rhetoric and polemics. This is because he genuinely cares about people -- as any good pastor would.

As a pastor, he is selfless, caring and proactive. During an outbreak of the black death -- an outbreak of the plague -- he risks his own health in order to minister to victims. For years he is called upon to refute Anabaptists, even attempting to bring them back into the Reformed fold, but instead chooses to respect their freedom of religion (some views of which he himself holds). Freedom of religion is important to him and his colleagues. Though he is Presbyterian in the way he views church governance, he is Baptistic in the sense of cherishing religious freedom, yet Reformed in his Protestant theology and rigorously opposes Roman Catholic teaching.

He is convinced that the Bible is God's divinely-inspired, inerrant, and infallible word to humanity. He places Scripture above any creed of man, above any commentary of any leader, living or dead, and insists that all opinions both theological and otherwise be informed and measured by God's word. He is not politically motivated, but inspired by his confidence in God, His word and the Gospel -- the latter of which Arminius insists the Spirit of God uses in order to convince sinners of their need for a Savior.

Arminius is staunchly trinitarian in his theology, viewing the very salvation of humanity as comprising the activity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The love of the Father for sinners motivates Him to send His Son into the world to make atonement for anyone who will, by a proactive and enabling (prevenient) grace, believe on Him -- the Spirit being the instrument through which the Gospel comes to life in the heart and mind of the individual experiencing the grace of the triune God. This trinity also protects, provides for, and preserves the believer so that he or she does not will or choose to believe in Christ in vain. If God does not perform this work in the heart and mind then no one can be saved.

He is persuaded that God's character, as revealed in Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:3), is of utmost significance to the believer. Whatever is contrary to the nature of God in Christ must not be imposed on anyone to believe. He opposes any notion that God fixes (ordains, decrees) the eternities of every human being by His mere or bare unconditional decision -- either in heaven with God or in hell apart from God. The same is admitted regarding sin and evil: God does not fix (ordain, decree) that anyone sin or commit evil. Otherwise God would be the worst sinner in the known universe. God's justice demands that He not fix (ordain, decree) that a person commit sin or evil apart from the person's free will to choose the sin or evil.

Sadly, some opponents of Arminius believe him to be a monster, the ruination of the Reformation and Protestant theology. But the only way to maintain such a belief is to ignore history, refuse to actually read Arminius' own teachings, and perpetually be intent on anathematizing Arminian theology (calling Arminianism heretical, unChristian, and incompatible with Christianity). History itself demonstrates that Arminius' theology is the consistent theology of the early Church fathers from the first through the fourth centuries. This cannot be admitted of many of the views of the Calvinists.

In other words, the beliefs of the early Christians are the beliefs promoted by Arminius, especially on the controversial subjects of salvation, the atonement, and God's grace. God genuinely loves all and desires the salvation of all. Arminius' attempt at reforming the Reformed church fails as much as Luther's attempt at reforming the Catholic church fails: the Calvinists will not be reformed and adhere to the teachings of the early Church fathers prior to St Augustine. But what Arminius does accomplish is igniting believers to return to Scripture with the fathers for their orthodoxy. After his death in 1609, his followers are condemned by Calvinists, and thus begins the fire-spread of Arminian theology.

If this brief article sparks your interest in Arminius, or in Arminian theology, then I recommend the following books: