Attitudes toward the Pope according to Luther and Arminius

There are approximately fifty-four years between the height of Martin Luther's career and that of Jacob Arminius; and, within a few years more than one generation of the Reformation, the attitude toward the office of Pope within the theology of Luther and Arminius differs -- initially. Luther, in the mind of the average Protestant, is perceived as the anti-Pope. But his aim is to reform the Church, not to destroy it, not to form a new Church. While Calvinists attempt to convince people that Arminius and his theology leads back to Rome, Arminius excoriates the office of Pope, and the doctrines of Rome. His aim is to advance the Reformed Protestant church.

Twenty-six years prior to his death, three years after he nails his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, Luther writes three treatises regarding reforming the Church. 18 August 1520 he publishes To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he states his opinion that the Pope should not assume authority over the State and secular rulers, but only the Church. He also denounces the notion that the Pope is the infallible interpreter of Scripture, exposes the corruption within the Roman Curia (those who govern the Church), and promotes his concept of the priesthood of the believer. 6 October 1520 he addresses the entire sacramental system -- not its use, nor its validity, but the manner in which the Church manipulates the populace through the sacramental system. He calls for reform from among the Curia.

But by 12 October 1520, he is asked to write a conciliatory letter to the Pope, so as not to appear an enemy of the Church, an instigator of division, or a usurper. In this open letter to the Pope, named The Freedom of the Christian, his tone and rhetoric are respectful, as though he admires the Father (Pope, Papa, refers to Father) of the Church, believing that the Pope is unaware of the corruption of the Roman Curia:
I have truly despised your see, the Roman Curia, which, however, neither you nor anyone else can deny is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which, as far as I can see, is characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness. I have been thoroughly incensed over the fact that good Christians are mocked in your name and under the cloak of the Roman church.1
He further states: "I have always been sorry, most excellent Leo, that you were made pope in these times, for you are worthy of being pope in better days."2 He even names Pope Leo X as his own: "Now you see, my Father Leo, how and why I have so violently attacked that pestilential see. So far have I been from raving against your person that I even hoped I might gain your favor and save you if I should make a strong and stinging assault upon that prison, that veritable hell of yours."3 But this laudable attitude and devotion toward Pope Leo soon experiences its own reformation.


The Pope is not swayed by Luther but views him as a boar in the Garden of God. A Papal Bull is published against reformer Martin Luther -- a Papal Bull being a particular sort of letter(s) wherein is contained orders regarding property or persons, the Bull referring to the seal located at the bottom, placed for authentication. The Decet Romanum Pontificem (lit. "It Benefits the Roman Pontiff"), dated 3 January 1521, excommunicates Martin Luther from the Roman Church. Luther is stunned by this act, even suspecting that his arch-nemesis Johann Eck is the author, and that Pope Leo X is innocent in the matter. He states as much in his Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist. However, if the Papal Bull is authentic, he explicitly insists that the Seat of the Pope, the Seat of the Antichrist, is possessed by Satan.

At the mention of the Seat of the Pope and the Anti-christ, as well as Satan himself, we turn our attention to post-Reformation theologian Jacob Arminius (1559-1609). Arminius writes his own The Freedom of the Christian in his Disputation XX. "On Christian Liberty," stating, "Christian Liberty is that state of the fullness of grace and truth in which believers are placed by God, through Christ, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit: It consists partly of a deliverance from both the real and the economic bondage of sin and the law, and partly of adoption into the right of the sons of God, and of the mission of the Spirit of the Son into their hearts."4 This freedom maintains as its end purpose to "the Praise of the glorious Grace of God in Christ, and the eternal salvation of believers."5 Does the Roman Church offer this freedom?

According to Arminius, the Pope and his false Church imprisons people in bondage, especially when the Pope: "arrogates to himself a power over others, which by no right belongs to him;" "obtrudes many false dogmas to be believed as true, and unnecessary things as absolutely necessary;" by "excommunications and brute fulminations [verbal attacks of denunciation];" or when he causes divisions "between princes, republics and magistrates, and their subjects."6 The Reformed Church offers the believer freedom in Christ, freedom from an abusive and oppressive Roman Curia and her Pope, and a freedom to think differently -- that is, until late sixteenth-century Calvinists in Holland became as dogmatic and oppressive as the Romanists.


For Arminius, the Office or Seat of the Pope innately renders the actual person who is Pope as "the adulterer and pimp of the Church, the false prophet, the destroyer and subverter of the Church, the enemy of God and the Antichrist, the wicked and perverse servant, who neither discharges the duties of a Bishop, nor is worthy to bear the name."7 Arminius then expounds upon each name granted, demonstrating how very appropriate is each title, due primarily to the fact that Jesus alone is the Husband of the Church universal, since He willingly laid down His life for her, to wash her of her sins and to create for God a perfect Bride; Jesus alone is Head of His Church: He "inspires life, sensation, and motion into the church by the efficacy of the Spirit (Gal. 2:20)." Jesus alone is her Foundation and Chief Cornerstone.8

Jesus alone is the Vicar of the triune God, who "administers all things in heaven and on earth in the name, at the command, and by the authority of God."9 This Vicar "cannot be less than Divine" and, hence, offers definitive proof why the Pope cannot be the Vicar of Christ without committing overt blasphemy. Arminius concludes: "Since therefore the Roman Pontiff either attributes these most honourable titles of Christ to himself, or willingly suffers them to be ascribed to him; and since he evinces no tokens of his displeasure at this ascription of them; it follows that he puts himself in the place of Christ, and is supremely opposed to Him."10 This is not good.

What, then, of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church? The guilt and charge of adultery is granted to such: the Pope "practices spiritual adultery with the church, and she [the Church] with him."11 The people under her grip are not free Christians in Christ. Acknowledging the Pope as Head of that Church contributes "not so much to preserve unity in the church, and to restrain the license of thinking, speaking and teaching differently on the chief articles of religion, as to take away necessary liberty and that which is agreeable to the word of God, and to introduce a real tyranny."12 For Arminius, the Reformed churches do not depart from the true Church -- the Church of Rome -- but the Church of Rome departs from the true Church.13

Arminius, in his Disputation XXII. "The Case of All the Protestant or Reformed Churches, with Respect to Their Alleged Secession," concludes that the Reformed churches "very properly refuse to profess communion of faith and worship with that of Rome because they are afraid to involve or entangle themselves in the guilt of such great wickedness, lest they should bring down upon their heads the blood of so many thousands of the Saints and of the faithful Martyrs of Christ, who have borne testimony to the word of the Lord."14 What is obvious from even a cursory reading of Arminius is that he is no crypto-Catholic or Roman Catholic sympathizer.15


1 Martin Luther, "The Freedom of the Christian," in Three Treatises from the American Edition of Luther's Works, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 268.

2 Ibid., 269.

3 Ibid.

4 Jacob Arminius, "Disputation XX. On Christian Liberty," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:259.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 2:272.

7 Ibid., 2:265.

8 Ibid., 2:265-66.

9 Ibid., 2:267.

10 Ibid., 2:269.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 2:274.

13 Ibid., 2:274-89.

14 Ibid., 2:289.

15 Calvinist theologian Richard A. Muller confesses that "Arminius was certainly not a crypto-Catholic or a Jesuit sympathizer." See God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 29.


My photo

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.