The Obscure Legend of Jacob Arminius

In the introduction to their book, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, Drs. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall address the historical fact that Arminius, as a writing theologian, is neglected, granting two very well-received explanations, including the facts that Arminius is a pastor first, prior to becoming a professor and a writer; as well that his writings are primarily academic, in the scholastic tradition, and not intended necessarily for the general public, as opposed to the popular widespread writings of the likes of Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Other Protestant scholastics share this same publishing hardship with Arminius, notably Calvinists William Perkins and Francis Junius, two brilliant and well-received Reformed theologians. Even Calvin's successor, Arminius' mentor, Theodore Beza is largely neglected by both admirers and detractors of the Calvinistic movement, though neither Beza, Junius, Perkins nor Arminius are thereby deemed unworthy of proper inquiry and examination. The writings of each of these men deserve our attention in their own historical, scholastic, and intellectual perspectives.

But I would like to offer a third reason why Arminius is not more prolific of a writer during his professorship: he is obliged to answer his theological opponents regarding misrepresentations of his teachings, calumnies against his godly character, and overt lies spread about his theology (as noted in the following post). There can be no wonder why he lacks the time and energy for writing lengthy theological discourse when he is daily questioned and harassed concerning the topics of election or predestination, free will, and the operation of God's grace. Our authors write the following regarding Arminius' proper place in the Reformed tradition.

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The reputation of the Dutch theologian Jacob Harmenszoon (1559-1609) -- who would later follow academic custom and latinize his name to Arminius (after the German chieftain who defeated Varus's legions in A.D. 9) -- has been established on his status as the most renowned of the so-called anti-Calvinists. He is remembered primarily as an opponent of the predestination taught by John Calvin (1509-1564) and as a proponent of free will -- such is the extent of popular familiarity with Arminius. Since Arminius's brand of Protestant theology is often portrayed as the alternative to Calvin's, one's personal fondness for Arminius is often inversely proportional to one's fondness for Calvin.

Arminius, therefore, is a famous figure in many popular-level discussions, being idolized as a hero and derided as a heretic. He has been the object of veneration and vitriol, and, in both cases, he has often been misunderstood, misrepresented, and misjudged (and misspelled). In his own day, and in the four centuries since his death, the name "Arminius" has been a lightning rod for controversy.

And this is the reputation that is dominant among those who have heard of Arminius. Yet, there are surely even more Christians who have never heard of Arminius. Not only are "Arminius" and "Arminianism" not household words for most Protestants, neither are they part of the vocabulary of most churches and some seminaries. For a theologian who inspired a distinct trajectory within Protestantism and whose name became synonymous with this movement, the neglect is surprising. The death of scholarly attention given to Arminius has become the subject of a common lament, even to the present day [and even among some Calvinists, e.g., Richard A. Muller].

The importance of Arminius will become clear in the course of this book. For now, though, why has there been such misunderstanding and neglect of this figure? In addition to all kinds of cultural and religious reasons, including a general lack of historical perspective and a declining interest in doctrine, two reasons may be mentioned. One reason for the neglect has to do with the nature of his writings.

First of all, compared with other theological luminaries, he did not write much. It is true that the first Latin edition of his collected works contains 966 (mostly) double-columned pages, and that there are many other works not published in that collection. His works, however, pale in comparison to the voluminous output of, say, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin. Although he was by all accounts a talented theologian with a gifted intellect, Arminius was not primarily a writer. He was a minister and teacher who had little ambition for writing, and he was a professor for only the last six years of his relatively short life.

In addition, what Arminius did write tended to have a narrow scope. Most of his writings are of an apologetic-polemical nature, or they are simply trying to seek the truth in conversation with an interlocutor. In any case, they were not written for general publication. There were also documents he wrote for academic use -- namely, orations and disputations; disputations were the only documents printed during his lifetime. Though he had vague intentions of doing so, he did not write a systematic theology. Neither did he publish any full commentaries on Scripture.



His writings, therefore, are not as pastoral and constructive as they are academic and controversial. He has no clear magnum opus, nothing as defiant as Luther's Bondage of the Will or as celebrated and far-reaching as Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion [unless, of course, one takes into consideration his Declaration of Sentiments, a very lengthy refutation of supralapsarianism]. To a degree, this neglect plagues most other Protestant scholastics as well, and for similar reasons. As a group, the Protestant scholastics -- that is, the theologians who followed the reformers and systematized Protestant theology -- are neither known nor read for their novelty, humor, or witticisms.

Despite the neglect of Arminius, the dissemination of his thought throughout the European Continent, Great Britain, and North America, along with the appeal of his ideas in current Protestant evangelical spheres (whether rightly understood or misunderstood), continues to be the subject of both scholarly and popular discussion. The range of the impact of Arminianism has arguably equaled, if not surpassed, the influence of any other Protestant system of thought. But it is, in many ways, an anonymous impact, which leads to the second reason for the neglect of Arminius.

Although there seem to be so many Arminians, nevertheless no one owns Arminius. First of all, not all who are Arminians know that they are, and, thus, most of these anonymous Arminians do not answer to that name. Few denominations, and few members within them, have a consciousness of their Arminian heritage.

Moreover, those groups who do claim Arminius as a theological forebear have, for various reasons, failed to inspire serious study of the reformer. The [remaining] Remonstrants, the theological descendants of Arminius in The Netherlands, are small and decreasing in number and have minimal influence outside their homeland. Their present theological tendencies owe more to later Remonstrants than to Arminius.

In the Anglo-American world, Methodists and other Wesleyan churches acknowledge their affinities with Arminian theology. When they engage in historical work, however, these groups have typically devoted their energy and resources to John Wesley (1703-1791) and subsequent Methodists. Other Protestant evangelical groups, whose theology is essentially and tacitly Arminian, simply see themselves as going back to the Bible, though it is read through an Arminian lens.

Still other Christians reject the label of Arminian and self-identify as Calvinist or Reformed, yet they are, unwittingly, actually Arminian in their beliefs. Otherwise informed Christians remain ignorant about Arminianism. Unlike the case for Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, there is no learned society or seminary that bears the name of Arminius, no study group or center devoted to researching his legacy, and no systematic attempt to publish and translate his works.

In 1963, while reviewing a collection of essays on Arminianism, Carl Bangs concluded his article with these words: "Arminianism still needs a critical confrontation with its founder." In other words, as the varieties of Arminianism have been acknowledged and explored, yet so many Christians still have a vague and perhaps conflicting sense of what it means to be Arminian, it is time to investigate Arminius himself and to improve on the situation just described.

Much has been written since Bangs penned those words nearly half a century ago. Bangs's own biography of Arminius has been followed by numerous specialized studies of the Dutchman's theology. There has yet to appear, however, an overview of Arminius's thought, one that is conversant with the whole range of scholarly discussion on Arminius and at the same time is accessible to the general reader. This is the goal of the present book. If progress is made toward this lofty goal, then this book will help dispel some of the ignorance about Arminius, enabling a wider audience to grasp both the complex thoughts expressed in his writings, as well as the new insights provided by recent scholarship. It is our hope that this examination will help Arminians and non-Arminians alike come to grips with Arminius.

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Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3-6.

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.