Jacob Arminius and the Dutch Reformed Confession and Catechism

As stated in the previous post, Arminius senses ambiguity in some statements regarding predestination in both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, and thinks that the issue should be addressed by his Calvinist colleagues. As a Confessional, Covenantal and Reformed thinker, Arminius affirms both Reformed statements of the Dutch-Reformed faith as being, in nature, orthodoxically Christian. He, in no viable sense whatsoever, denies the doctrine of predestination -- that God has chosen to save only some people. After all, he rejects the theory of Universalism, and recognizes that God will not ultimately save all. Whom has God chosen to save? God saves only the one who will, by grace, believe in the risen Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:21)

The question regarding predestination (or election), especially among the Reformed, is: Does God unconditionally elect to save some, refusing to grace and save others, based upon an eternal decree? Calvin and his followers answer yes and Arminius and his followers answer no. At the mention by Arminius of considering amending certain phrases within the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, particular Calvinists become not merely irritated or aggravated, but overtly enraged. Peter Plancius, for example, who is later exposed as an unfortunate liar, from the pulpit rages against Arminius, calling him such names as Coornhertian (semi-Pelagian libertine), neo-Pelagian, and worse than Pelagius himself.1 Even to rational minds among the Calvinists, Plancius appears to be irrational, and quite out of his mind.2 Plancius is not alone:
Others, too, after his example, either incensed by an inveterate hatred against Arminius, or impelled by the sort of pious solicitude with which they embraced the received doctrine, began to agitate before the people, in the vernacular tongue, those questions which had furnished themes of more subtle disputation in the benches of the Academy: and this they did with egregious departures from the truth, and with minds as little as possible attuned to the work of meekly edifying the Christian people. Some assiduously impressed it upon the promiscuous multitude that the doctrine of the Belgic Confession, sealed with the blood of many martyrs, was being called in question; others that a motley religion was in the course of being drawn up, and that it was in contemplation to introduce a system of libertinism.3
These reactions extend beyond mere alarmist and conspiratorial. One would imagine, by the over-reactions among the Dutch Calvinists, that Arminius seeks to revise the Belgic statements of faith in order to promote Unitarianism, Pelagianism proper, and a denial of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. What are Arminius' concerns of certain phrases in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism? Are they really so very radical theologically -- even for the late sixteenth- early seventeenth-century Reformed thinker, clergy, and professor? Not even in the slightest.

The panic of the Calvinist is unwarranted. Carl Bangs writes: "The Augsburg Confession has been revised, and the Swiss and French churches have 'enriched their confessions with one entirely new article' only 'two or three years past.' The Belgic Confession itself had been revised."4 That the Calvinists become so very nervous about this incident is telling: the notion of semper reformanda (Reformed and always reforming) is rejected, as is, implicitly, the doctrine sola scriptura (Scripture alone), while a new, fundamentalist, strictly Calvinistic dogma is introduced.

Asking for a National Synod, Arminius longs for his colleagues to consider pairing down the Belgic Confession, while leaving intact the Heidelberg Catechism -- that is, as long people maintain "liberty of explanation" regarding the Catechism, otherwise revision is necessary.5 The Belgic Confession is a primary concern for Arminius: this Confession can have removed from its content the "explanations, [scriptural] proofs, digressions, redundancies, amplifications, and explanations," in order for it to possess fewer articles, be less open to suspicion, and relate more appropriately-biblically to what must be held to for orthodoxy and for salvation.

In particular, at Article 14 of the Belgic Confession, we read that the fallen mortal "has willfully submitted himself to sin and thereby to death and the curse." Arminius assumes an interpretation here that no one is necessitated to sin by God's divine decree.6 At Article 16, regarding election or predestination, Arminius merely asks concerning "the referent of 'those whom he [God] ... has ... chosen'?" The full Article reads:
We believe that -- all Adam's descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of the first man -- God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just. He is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel, has elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. He is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves. (emphasis added)
The contentious phrase "elected and chosen" is a redundancy in translation, given that the word elect refers to making a choice. The phrase may as well be read "elected and elected" or "chosen and chosen." As is, the phrase is a distinction without a difference, but there is a reason.



Carl Bangs translates the Dutch phrase as "foreseen [wtuersien: modernday Dutch voorzien is to foresee or something foreseen] and chosen in Jesus Christ." The reading of this Article that we possess today is a convenient translation and publication from the Calvinists of the Synod of Dordt.7 Gone is any semblance of God electing to save anyone via those foreseen in Jesus Christ. The answer granted to Arminius is that the referents are believers in Jesus Christ -- the very notion that Arminius and Reformed Arminians advance as biblical soteriology! God has chosen, or elected, to save believers in Jesus Christ. (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20) God does not, by an antecedent will, regenerate and elect to save unbelievers. (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13)

Regarding the Heidelberg Catechism, at Q&A 54, Arminius wonders whether his Calvinist colleagues, most especially the infralapsarian Calvinists, can actually adopt the position as stated:
Q. What do you believe concerning the holy catholic Christian church?

A. I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life. And I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it. (emphasis added)
Startled by Arminius' assertion that some infralapsarian Calvinists may not be able to reconcile the answer to this question with their theology, he asks whether or not "the confessions [should] be revised to remove the ambiguities under which the supralapsarians took cover."8 The supralapsarian can rejoice in this answer because the eternal destiny of an individual is grounded in an action "from the beginning of the world," rather than "in light of," or "in view of," the fall, as in infralapsarian theory, and out of that fallen race to predestine future believers in Jesus Christ. Lest we forget that some supralapsarian Calvinists maintain sharp disagreements with infralapsarian Calvinists, call to mind that supralapsarian Calvinist Francis Gomarus, by far Arminius' most virulent opponent, challenges an infralapsarian to a duel over the extent of the atonement during a session of the infamous Synod of Dordt.9 Even the Calvinists cannot agree among themselves on soteriological issues. How can they expect others to agree with them?

Understanding the intent of Arminius regarding revision of these two phrases -- one in the Belgic Confession, if necessary, and one in the Heidelberg Catechism -- one can hardly substantiate the unwarranted near-nervous-breakdown of Plancius and his ilk, as though Arminius intends to undermine Reformed theology, or subvert the Faith. If the National Synod decides that statements remain as is, or should be agreeably reworded, an attempt is made on his part at being faithful to both semper reformanda and sola scriptura. His Calvinist counterparts, however, are far more interested in defending sola creedo, an unyielding allegiance to a Calvinist-interpreted creed.

__________

1 Kaspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D.D. (London: Ward & Co., 1856), 188.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 314.

5 Ibid., 315.

6 Ibid., 223.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 224.

9 Tensions are high when supralapsarian Franciscus Gomarus, Arminius' chiefest opponent, challenges infralapsarian Matthias Martinius to a duel over the matter of the extent of the atonement: "ego hanc rem in me recipio [I, in this situation, regain myself, states Gomarus], and therewithal casts his Glove ... and requires the Synod to grant them [him and Martinius] a Duel ... Martinius who goes in aequipace [i.e., is equally endowed] with Gomarus in Learning, a little before him for his Discretion, easily [considers] this affront, and after some few words of course, by the wisdom of the Praeses [Mineral (Wisdom) Stones] matters seemed to be a little pacified, and so according to the custom, the Synod with Prayer concluded. Zeal and Devotion had not so well allayed Gomarus his choler [temper], but immediately after Prayers he renewed his Challenge [to a duel] and required Combat with Martinius again; but they parted for that night without blowes." [sic] See W. Robert Godfrey, "Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dort," in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1619-1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 243.

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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.