ARMINIUS 400: The Legacy of Jacob Arminius

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The apostle Paul instructs us to render to all what is due them: honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 12:7). This day, October 19, 2009, we honor the life of Jacob Arminius, who died four hundred years ago. This third-generation Reformer was a gift to God’s Church ~ respected by many, even by his theological opponents. What follows is a little recorded history of the year prior to Arminius’s death, and testimonies concerning Arminius’s life, legacy and godliness.

First, a little history is in order. It would appear as though God, nine years before Arminius’s death, was preparing his successor, as He had done with Theodore Beza respecting John Calvin. Carl Bangs records:

      A new name appears in the story at about this time. On the day before Arminius gave his address to the States of Holland, he wrote a letter to Rem Bisschop, a merchant in Amsterdam. Bisschop (c. 1571-1625) was an Amsterdam merchant who had long been disaffected with clergy such as Plancius and had been a friend of Arminius. He was from a noteworthy family. His parents . . . were among the early Reformed laymen in Amsterdam. His brother Jan was a merchant.

A younger brother Simon (1583-1644) had shown signs of unusual intelligence, and a way was sought for him to enter the Latin school in Amsterdam. His father . . . did not have the means, but his older brother, Rem, already a successful merchant, and a former burgomaster, Cornelius Benningh, provided the money.

At the urging of the ministers Cuchlinus and Arminius, and against the initial opposition of his parents, Simon was sent to the University of Leiden as an alumnus of Amsterdam, as Arminius had been before. He studied there the prescribed six years, from 1600 to 1606, concluding his work with a thesis written for Snellius on the question, “Is the study of philosophy necessary for the theological candidate?” After 1606 he remained at Leiden to study theology under Arminius and Gomarus. The city fathers of Gouda . . . desired the young man for their minister, and clearance was received from Amsterdam. It was in the Synod of South Holland, however, that the move was blocked. From this circumstance alone it is evident that Simon had become a disciple of Arminius.

As a scholar he had, according to the custom of the times, latinized his name. He is known to history as Simon Episcopius, upon whom the theological mantle of Arminius fell, the first Remonstrant professor of theology . . .

[After a debate between a Jesuit and Arminius . . .] Borrius . . . reported some alarming news about Arminius. After the disputation he went to Oudewater [his birth place] to get some rest and try to regain his health. That evening he had a “most serious paroxism” and relapsed into even worse health. “I am much afraid that this most excellent light will be taken away from us before the time . . . Let us importunately apply to (God) in ardent prayer, and add fasting to our supplications, that God may at least not so speedily deprive us of his presence.”

Episcopius immediately wrote a long letter to his dying teacher and friend. He is profuse in his professions of esteem and affection, regrets that Arminius’ illness is not only worse but is aggravated by the attacks of his enemies. He tells of his own experiences in Franeker during the past month and a half. It is a fascinating tale. The whole town was awaiting his arrival, his renown as a student having gone before. Although Arminius had advised him not to get involved in public disputations on predestination, he had found it impossible not to yield to the entreaties of the students, and he had tackled the great Professor Sibrandus Lubbertus. Lubbertus had later said that “Arminius himself could not more accurately, or more forcibly, have presented his arguments and proofs than he had done.”

Lubbertus, he reported, was, unlike Gomarus, both cordial and straightforward. But he was not so sharp in controversy. He “stood before an opponent with a species of stupid simplicity which exposed him to every dart that was aimed at him.” . . . Episcopius heard in Franeker about the deteriorating condition of Arminius, and he hurried back to Leiden to be with him. He spent many hours by the bedside, but at the end of September, being told that Arminius might linger a long time yet, he returned to Franeker. The symptoms were sinister: fever, cough, swelling of the abdomen, difficult breathing, indigestion, insomnia, and gout or arthritis. There were intestinal pains in the ilium and the colon and impaired vision of the left eye.This quasi-medical description is from the funeral oration of Petrus Bertius, but the doctors themselves of that day wouldn’t be much more precise.

Bertius tells some miserable stories about the behavior of Arminius’ enemies during the final illness. His affliction was seen by some as an apt fulfillment of Zechariah 11:17 and 14:12. The first passage reads: “Woe to my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword smite his arm and his right eye! Let his arm be wholly withered, his right eye utterly blinded!” Never mind the left eye [Arminius’ right eye was fine]. And they played equally miserable games of anagrams, both sides, scrambling the letters of a name to determine the man’s character. James Nichols suggests that this bad habit was left over from the earlier Reformation game of scrambling the Pope’s names or titles to get the beastly number 666. IACOBUS ARMINIUS [Jacobus Arminius] became VANI ORBIS AMICUS, a friend of this vain world. Supporters, adding an H for Harmensz. [Arminius’ Dutch last name, lit. Harmenszoon], made HABUI CURAM SIONIS, I have had a care for Sion.

Arminius maintained his dignity. He was clear in his mind, cheerful in his temper. He was in pain, but he was concerned for the needs of his family, preparing Lijsbet [his wife, Elizabeth] as best he could for his departure by trusting “in the God of the widow.” He testified to his friends of his hope in Christ. He often prayed aloud.1

Arminius’s successor, Simon Episcopius, said of his mentor:

      Arminius, that servant of Christ, in order to approve himself before God, chose to endure the hatred and contradiction of all mankind, rather than to violate his conscience. He held out to the whole Christian world the ensign of peace and concord, and he wished a commencement to be made in the Reformed Churches. Being a man of prudence and mild in spirit, he perceived that those Churches were distracted and separated from each other in many ways, and that in these days neither measure nor end was observed in making secessions; that endeavours were therefore to be used to induce the contending parties to lay aside animosity, and to sing a funeral song over their unnecessary enmities and quarrels; that every exertion was then to be employed, to take an accurate account of such doctrines as are absolutely necessary and each party to confine itself within those limits; that, with regard to all the rest, whatever was capable of being tolerated, or did not hinder salvation, should receive toleration; that the rule of Prudence and Charity alone is sufficient for this purpose; and that, without these, continual strife and hatred must be perpetuated, which would cause the tears of the Church afresh to flow.

2

It is interesting at how many Calvinists have historically spoken so highly of Arminius’s godly character and intellectual stature. For the sake of brevity, I will list only a few:

      “A man of pleasing personality, refined in manners and appearance. A brilliant scholar.” -Homer Hoeksema

“A most worthy man and undoubtedly a very earnest believer.” -Arthur C. Custance

“Arminius, in regard to talents, to learning, to eloquence, and to general exemplariness of moral deportment, is undoubtedly worthy of high praise.” -Samuel Miller

“James Arminius was the rightful restorer of the doctrine as it flowed from the lips of the impetuous Peter, the beloved John, the sweet-spirited James, the Polished, and all the apostles and early church fathers.” -George L. Curtiss

“He appeared to me to be a man who truly feared God, of the deepest erudition, uncommonly well-versed in theological controversies, and powerful in the Scriptures.” -Matthias Martinius3

Laurence M. Vance states that

      ignorance of Arminius is so pervasive that even non-Calvinists regularly misrepresent him. But the widespread ignorance that exists about Arminius is perhaps greatest among those who have demeaned him the most: Calvinists. Most Calvinists have neither read his Works nor studied the age in which he lived. They have been content to perpetuate ad nauseam the caricature of the man who remains an enigma to most Christians.

4

Calvinist Richard A. Muller has noted something similar:

      The theology of Jacob Arminius has been neglected both by his admirers and by his detractors. The restrictive conception of Aminius’ theology as a counter to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, indeed, as an exegetical theology posed against a predestinarian metaphysic, has led to an interpretation of Arminius as a theologian of one doctrine somehow abstracted from his proper context in intellectual history.

5

Certainly, Arminians over the past four hundred years have been grateful for Arminius’s ministry in the Netherlands. We admire his integrity, and are part of the legacy of his theology. We commend him to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to the honor and glory of our great God and Savior. Arminius was still sharp in mind, though weak in deed, to the very last. At the close of his life he writes:

      Above all, I commend my soul, on its departure out of the body, into the hands of God, who is its Creator and faithful Savior; before whom also I testify that I have walked with simplicity and sincerity and in all good conscience in my office and vocation; that I have guarded with the greatest solicitude and care against advancing or teaching anything which, after a diligent search into the Scriptures, I had not found exactly to agree with those sacred records; and that all the doctrines advanced by me have been such as might conduce to the propagation and increase of the truth of the Christian religion, of the true worship of God, of general piety, and of a holy conversation among men, such as might contribute, according to the word of God, to a state of tranquility and peace well befitting the Christian name; and that from these benefits I have excluded the Papacy, with which no unity of faith, no bond of piety or of Christian peace can be preserved.

6

Arminius was buried on Thursday, October 22, 1609 across from his home. He was survived by his wife and nine remaining children: Engheltien, Harmen, Pieter, Jan, Laurens, Jacob, Willem, Daniel and Geertruyd (he had twelve in all, three of which died in infancy: Harmen, Harmen, and Laurens). Arminius’s friend, Petrus Bertius, delivered the funeral oration at the request of friends and the University. Mourners included his supralapsarian opponent Franciscus Gomarus, as well as the burgomasters of Holland, friends from The Hague, and friends and relatives from Amsterdam and Oudewater. Bertius concluded: “There lived in Holland a man whom they who did not know could not sufficiently esteem, whom they who did not esteem had never sufficiently known. Beloved, let us love one another.”7

1 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1971), 317-331.

2 The Works of Arminius, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 3:xlvi.

3 Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola, FL: Vance Publications, 2002), 117.

4 Ibid.

5 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 269.

6 Bangs, 330.

7 Ibid., 331.