Religious Tolerance an Arminian and Dutch Distinctive

An Arminian distinctive often overlooked when scholars are engaging Arminian theology is the matter of religious toleration and its corollary religious freedom. When requested by the University of Leiden to investigate Anabaptist claims, and to refute them openly and rebuke adherents, Arminius delays the process for nearly a decade, to the dismay of his overseers and Reformed colleagues, though he gently visits with Anabaptists in their homes and begs them to return to the Reformed church.1 Arminius' passion for the Reformed church is obvious, but he refuses to persecute dissenters, as he knows all too well the harsh reality of being persecuted by one's theological peers. As harshly and dogmatically as the Calvinists are treated by the Roman Catholics, they return that favor on Arminius and the Remonstrants. Relentlessly, the Calvinists insist that the Church settle their disputes, but the States will not, initially, approve.2

Before Arminius and the Remonstrants begin their plea for religious freedom, or toleration, in Holland, we know of the Dutch theologian Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert, pleading for the same. By way of brief introduction, Coornhert is "a Dutch notary, artist, poet, playwright, translator, and controversialist who defended the freedom of conscience and toleration."3 Freedom of conscience is a very Reformed manner of thinking, stemming from the great Reformer himself, Martin Luther. Coornhert's history parallels that of Arminius, during the height of the career of the former, and just at the beginning of the latter. Coornhert collides with reformer John Calvin, the latter calling the anti-Calvinist Coornhert such names as "yokel," "drunkard," "scatterbrain," "mad dog," "pig," "wild beast," "baboon" and "ass."4 This is, of course, the classic and threatened ad hominem of Calvin. Before Arminius' name becomes a byword, among certain seventeenth-century Calvinists, Coornhert's name is already a tragic and loathsome sixteenth-century epithet.

Coornhert, of course, is linked to anti-Calvin and anti-Calvinist Sebastian Castellio, who critiques Calvin's involvement with the very controversial burning of the Unitarian heretic Michael Servetus. But Coornhert is "the main conduit for the transmission of Castellio's thoughts to the circle around Arminius."5 Coornhert is viewed as the sole or primary forerunner to both Arminius and the Remonstrants with regard to the plea for religious freedom or toleration in Holland.6 Yet, we remember well that Arminius is called upon by his mentor, John Calvin's successor Theodore Beza, to refute Coornhert's works; but, instead, he concludes that Coornhert's theology is correct. This move does not make for religious toleration among the Calvinists toward Arminius.

For the early Arminians, note especially Arminius' colleague Johannes Uytenbogært, the distinctive of Holland itself is to be one of religious toleration and freedom. Uytenbogært even names "the Revolt against Spain as a fight for the pure Gospel and for freedom of conscience,"7 for the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Roman Catholics have but one agenda: complete and utter assimilation. Sadly, the Calvinists follow this deplorable worldview, and begin to persecute the Arminians mercilessly. Dr. Benjamin J. Kaplan aptly reminds his readers:
To these two causes, he [Uytenbogært] suggested, the Dutch had been devoted since the beginning of the Reformation and so remained -- especially Hollanders who, "whatever their persuasion (excepting the Roman [i.e., Roman Catholic] and Genevan [i.e., Calvinist] heretic-hunters and -burners, and those who support them), do not like the burning of books under any circumstances." Of course, no one needed reminding who the most outspoken champions of religious tolerance were in contemporary Holland. In effect, [Uytenbogært] was claiming the Dutch character to be inherently Remonstrant in its religious sensibility.8
One may understandably ask, Why? "Why is religious tolerance and religious freedom so important to the Arminians and Arminian theology?" The answer, though two-fold, is quite simple, actually: 1) Arminius and the Remonstrants understand the place of hermeneutics in theological systems; and 2) Arminius and the Remonstrants are not threatened by the presence or rise of Calvinism either in the Church, among theologians, or among the laypeople. Yet, at the same time, the Dutch-historic "popularity of Erasmus in the Netherlands implied that the Remonstrant faith had the sympathy of the Dutch people and the religious tolerance by which it survived their support."9 This, the Calvinists cannot tolerate, but, being threatened, seek to undermine and conquer the "five-headed-monster" known as Arminianism (their own words).

Even though, through political savvy alone, the Calvinists win the day at the Synod of Dordt, in 1619, a twist of fate prevails as, gradually, the Arminians are admitted back into their homeland, from which they are exiled after the travesty of Dordt, and Arminianism begins to flourish.10 Of course, the most devastating upset is when Calvin's own Geneva later begins to prefer Arminius to that form of teaching deriving from Calvin, as well as Beza. The Dutch people perceive Arminian theology as a character of tolerance, "confident in human free will [i.e., God had not predetermined what we think, say, and do as in Calvinism], and inclined to view sermon-on-the-mount ethics as the essence of Christianity."11 On the other hand, Calvinists and Calvinism are perceived as "a belief system imposed by foreigners [notably Geneva] on the Dutch people which 'disrupted and disturbed the natural, genuinely Netherlandish development of the Christian spirit here.'"12

While the Netherlands is conceptually the birthplace of what becomes known as TULIP theology, or Calvinism, the philosophical-theological system garners the theological upperhand only for a brief historical period. Arminian theology dominates Calvinism in Holland eventually as the laypeople claim Arminius and the early Remonstrants like Simon Episcopius (successor to Arminius), Uytenbogært, and Hugo Grotius as promoting the theology of the people.

Arminianism flourishes not merely because of its biblical nature, and I, of course, realize the subjective nature of using the term "biblical" here; but people are not bullied, manipulated, and pressured into adhering to this theology, as is the case with Calvinism by its teachers: the people, when given the freedom to choose a biblical theology, choose Arminianism; not because they fear being heterodox if they reject Arminianism, since Arminians never pressure laypeople to adopt the system, lest they be considered heretics; but because the people are free to choose this biblical expression. God, after all, has given them the privilege and responsibility of freedom of choice.


1 Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 167.

2 Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century: Part One, 1609-1648 (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1961), 48.

3 Gerrit Voogt, Constraint on Trial: Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2000), 1.

4 Ibid., 15. "Coornhert maintained that the congregations that believed and professed the doctrines of Calvin could not be true churches: to prove this thesis he reprobated in a masterly and popular manner their peculiar [and, from an historical perspective, historically novel] views of Predestination, Justification, and killing heretics." See The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1:59.

5 Ibid., 62.

6 Ibid., 235.

7 Benjamin J. Kaplan, "'Dutch' Religious Tolerance: Celebration and Revision," in Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age, ed. R. Po-Chia Hsia and H.F.K. Van Nierop (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 14.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 15.

10 The silver lining of the Synod of Dordt begins to appear when the Arminians are allowed, upon the death of Prince Maurice, to enter again into their Dutch homeland. Here Arminian theology begins to flourish. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall rightly note: "Interestingly, even some Christians who are committed to Reformed ecclesial bodies [e.g., Dr. Alvin Plantinga] will admit that the theology of Arminius should have been retained as a legitimate theological option and perhaps is theologically superior to the conclusions put forth by Dordt." (emphasis added) We agree entirely. See Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 197.

11 Kaplan, 19.

12 Ibid.


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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.