Jacob Arminius' Confessional and Covenantal Reformed Context

To be considered Confessional is for a person or a group of people within a similar theological tradition -- e.g., Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian -- to adopt various historical creeds and confessional declarations. If a tradition insists that it has no creed but the Bible, as in many Baptistic, Quaker, and Pentecostal traditions, such are not considered Confessional. Donald K. McKim explains: "The people of God always paused at critical historical moments to summarize and declare who they are and what they most deeply believe. These high moments are remembered and passed on to succeeding generations to preserve the identity and vitality of the community."1 In most Confessional churches, at least one historical Creed of the Christian faith is recited by believers at some point during worship, and this preserves a theological identity with the saints of old.

Arminius is not only Confessional but also Covenantal. Covenant Theology, also known as Federal Theology, refers to "a theological approach depicting the divine-human relationship as covenantal,"2 meaning, an agreement between God and God's creatures. Often, Covenant Theology is perceived as contrary to the mid-nineteenth-century invention known as Dispensationalism, the latter vying for a seven-epochal perspective of history "based on a complex literal interpretation of the prophetic books of the Bible"3 that is Premillennial and Pretribulational with regard to the Rapture of the Church. Covenant Theology is Reformed in nature, viewing God's covenant with Israel as "a central theme of the Bible," and is also "a theme in patristic exegesis."4 Whereas Dispensationalism obliges its adherents to the notion of a literal millennial reign of Christ, Covenant Theology does not obligate its adherents to such a theory, as it views history as one continuous action of God, on behalf of God's people, from beginning to end.

In Covenant Theology, God's relationship to humanity can be viewed thusly, "God promised grace to Adam and the patriarchs, revealed 'types' of it in the law of Moses, and fully manifested it in Christ."5 Many attach the nasty epithet "Replacement Theology" to Covenant Theology, as though God "replaced" Israel with the Church, and no longer graces the ancient Jewish people. This is a misrepresentation of Covenant Theology. God graces both Jew and Gentile under the terms outlined in the Gospel: the Church does not replace Israel, per se, but the Church includes both Jews and Gentiles. God's work in the earth is no longer restricted via Israel but is broadened through a Jew-Gentile body of believers in Jesus Christ through whom God works in the earth by His Holy Spirit to all people.

This is the Reformed context in which Jacob Arminius operates. His Reformed church -- de Oude Kerk, the Old Reformed Church of Amsterdam, of which he is but one of several pastors -- is both Confessional and Covenantal. The standard Reformed confessions during this era are the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, both of which Arminius affirms, though, in his opinion, certain phrasing within both are too ambiguous.

Moreover, though, Arminius' firm beliefs that Scripture alone is of divine origin leads him to hold these confessions with less firm a grip than his Calvinist colleagues. The Church cannot bestow authority on Scripture the way it does with Creeds and Confessions: "Authority is derived from an author: but the church is not the author [of Scripture]; she is only the nurseling [the one who receives multiple benefits] of this word, being posterior to [i.e., coming after] it in cause, origin, and time."6 While human beings can author Creeds, and Confessions, only Creeds and Confessions can be admitted as being granted authoritative status by a Church. Scripture alone is divinely- and inherently-authoritative. Hence Creeds and Confessions can in no viable sense be conceived as on par with Scripture.

Imagine Arminius' surprise, then, when his Calvinist colleagues, those who claim to tenaciously hold to sola scriptura, balk at his inquiry of discussing rewording statements in both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. If "scripture alone" is our standard of faith, and creeds and confessions are merely human-constructed means of affirming, in summary fashion, what we believe Scripture teaches on various theological subjects, then why can these two Reformed statements not be amended?

That the Dutch Calvinists are unyielding on even considering rewording statements in both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism is telling: they betray sola scriptura by equating their confessions on the same par as divinely-revealed Scripture. Nevertheless, Arminius calls for a synod -- an ecclesiastical council or church officials that render decisions regarding the church, church order, or confessional statements -- and, though many are displeased, officials call for clergy, students, and professors to examine closely the words of the Confession and the Catechism in order to avoid the call for a revision proper. As to using confessions, and commentaries, Arminius seems rather enthusiastic:
But after the Holy Scriptures (the perusal of which I earnestly inculcate more than any other person, as the whole University as well as the consciences of my colleagues will testify), I exhort them [the students at Leiden] to read the Commentaries of Calvin, on whom I bestow higher praise than Helmichius ever did, as he confessed to me himself. For I tell them, that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture; and that his Commentaries ought to be held in greater estimation than all that is delivered to us in the writings of the Ancient Christian Fathers; So that, in a certain eminent Spirit of Prophecy, I give the preeminence to him beyond most others, indeed beyond them all.7
But Calvin is not his only recommendation: "I add, that, with regard to what belongs to [Philipp Melanchthon's] Common Places, his [Calvin's] Institutes must be read after the [Heidelberg] Catechism, as a more ample interpretation." He then adds this significant caveat: "But to all this I subjoin the remark that they must be perused with cautious choice, like all human compositions."8 Melanchthon is Martin Luther's successor, and he does not always agree with Luther's theological and soteriological views, and neither does he agree with Calvin. What holds sway in men like Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin and Arminius, though, is the primacy granted to the divinity and inherent authority of Scripture.

The dangerous idea of the Reformation is not unconditional election, irresistible grace, or perseverance of the saints. The dangerous idea of the Reformation is that Scripture is inherently divine and authoritative, that Scripture is given to us mortals for our benefit, whether salvific or otherwise, and that, supremely, Scripture can be read and interpreted by the reader, guided by the Holy Spirit, without the guide of the Church or a priest.

Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms maintain their rightful place within the Church and within the spiritual life of the believer. But Scripture alone belongs to God, is a gift of God to humanity, and cannot be amended. A Confession belonging to a particular denomination can be amended; a Catechism can be reworded; while we affirm the historical Creeds of the early Church. But only Scripture "contains all things necessary to be known for the salvation of the Church, and for the glory of God."9 Any Confessional and Covenantal believer worth her or his salt will rightly exalt the Word of God over and above any Confession.


1 Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1992), 89-90.

2 Ibid., 136.

3 Ibid., 105.

4 Ibid., 136.

5 Ibid.

6 Quoted in Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 260.

7 Jacob Arminius in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1:295.

8 Ibid., 1:295.

9 Arminius, "Disputation II. On the Sufficiency and Perfection of the Holy Scriptures in Opposition to Traditions," 2:102.


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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.