Arminius and the Structure of Society

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The following is part of James Luther Adams’ address presented at the Arminius Symposium in Holland, August 1960: “Arminius and the Structure of Society.”

Not as a total stranger does the citizen of Massachusetts visit Amsterdam, a seat of the old Dutch Republic. Not as a stranger does a member of Harvard University join in this celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Jacobus Arminius. Many are the spiritual children of the Dutch Republic and also of Arminius who have contributed to the heritage of Massachusetts and of America in both politics and religion. . . .

The attitude toward Arminianism which prevailed in New England in the seventeenth century, and even later, was expressed in a prayer on behalf of Harvard College which pleaded that the college might be “so tenacious of the truth that it shall be easier to find a wolf in England or a snake in Ireland than a Socinian or Arminian in Cambridge.” So far as Cambridge and Harvard were concerned, however, the petition was denied in the end. . . .

By this time, however, the term Arminian had become a loose label, a Kampfbegriff, not always having a strict connection with the Trinitarian theology of Arminius himself and sometimes implying a Pelagianism that Arminius would have repudiated.

Aside from these considerations, we should observe that Arminianism was a composite movement, composite in its historical antecedents and many faceted in its thrust in each of the countries in which it played a role. Indeed, the very openness of discussion which was initially promoted by Arminius and which has characterized the later developments gave to Arminianism its creative and dynamic tensions. . . .

Consider the variety of ingredients to be found in the antecedents of Armininaism and in the early development. From the outset Arminianism transcended the boundaries of Calvinism as delineated in Geneva. Not only the Dutch Lutherans (and Melanchthon also) were a part of the formative background; Arminianism also presupposed the experience of the sectarians, the practical discipleship, and the struggle for toleration among the Anabaptists and the Mennonites.

It presupposed also the spirit of Erasmus, “the philosophy of Christ,” an ethical teaching that claimed to be available to reasonable men everywhere, a teaching to be appropriated through free inquiry and through the cultivation of the mind. . . .

Subsequently, Arminianism in the various countries was to promote ideas we associate with the Enlightenment; and, later, it was to be adopted with one accent or another by Methodists, and still later by Congregationalists and Unitarians. From its outset, then, Arminianism had roots in the Renaissance and in the left wing as well as in the right wing of the Reformation.

It has been the genius of Arminianism to maintain the discussion between these perspectives and those of the Enlightenment and of the Evangelical Awakening and eventually between these perspectives and those of modern higher criticism and of the modern scientific outlook.

Accordingly, the essence of Arminianism is not easy to define, for it has entered into a variety of alliances. In general, it has promoted “a free and catholic spirit” that has cherished practical morality as a sign of the Christian way. This spirit is not to be grasped merely by listing doctrines that are the opposite of those set forth in the Articles of the Synod of Dort.

We can say that it was initially informed by some such gestalt [arrangement] of ideas as the following: the Christian must place his confidence in the sovereignty and the mercy of God; all that is worthy in human life depends upon his grace; salvation through Christ is available to all men; faith precedes election; yet the regenerate man derives from Christ the grace to respond to the offer of salvation; and from Christ he derives also Christian liberty. These doctrines, to be sure, come short of indicating adequately the complex of ideas and practices which has appeared under the rubric of Arminianism. . . .

We are now to consider broadly some of the social issues that have been the rallying points of the movement. Ideally, one should attempt systematically to relate the theological doctrines to these social issues. . . . In the course of the narrative we shall see ample cause for the view of Motley that the whole epic bespeaks a persistent hatred of despotism and a love for civil and religious liberty.

More specifically, we shall see that Arminianism has been a major force in the development of those principles of individuation (or differentiation) which belong to modern culture and a major force also in the development of that characteristic preference of a radically Protestant ethos ~ the preference for what is called freedom of association. Indeed, we shall see that in the history of Arminianism individual freedom and freedom of association are inseparable in principle, for they are mutually interdependent. . . .

In Holland the sword of brute force had already figured largely in theological controversy for several generations preceding the Synod of Dort. . . . So also, following the Synod of Dort, the Calvinists harried the Remonstrants out of the land. Although these Calvinists had themselves previously pleaded for religious liberty in face of Roman Catholic Spanish tyranny, and although they themselves had suffered persecution, they retained the policies of the church fanatical when their turn came to control the power.

In face of this heritage of coercion, Arminius and his associates a generation before the meeting of the Synod of Dort had tried, as was said of Erasmus, “to reform the Reformers and the Reformation itself.” They started a third Reformation.

We should not forget, however, that in attempting this reformation Arminius remained in certain fundamental respects a Calvinist. He retained the conviction of the sovereignty of God, the sense of man’s ultimate dependence upon God in Christ, the protest against the idolatry that gives to the creature the devotion that belongs to God alone, the strong moral passion, and the demand for social order.

At the same time he was vividly sensitive to the power of God which manifests itself in compassion and tenderness, to the power that gives a new liberty in the gospel. Arminius took seriously the promise, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” [John 12:32]. We may say that affection, attraction, or love, rather than will was the fundamental pathos of his life-view. . . .

Arminius favored not only freedom of discussion and sweet reasonableness on the basis of the broad fundamentals of Christian faith; he wished also that the synod would eschew idolatry in its attitude toward itself and its decisions. He held that even if the synod were to achieve unanimous decision, it should not impose it upon others by force, for it is possible that even with unanimous decision the synod might have “committed an error in judgment.” Such an error can appear in the realm of discipline as well as of doctrine.

Accordingly, a synod, he believed, should leave open the way for revision of its findings. . . . Arminius wanted a church free from bondage to itself. For Arminius the love of truth should under God liberate men from this bondage. As against those who would make Dutch Confession mandatory, the Arminians appealed to Scripture as the broader, sounder norm of faith.

As members of the Reformed movement, they were set against the idolatry of both the Roman Catholics and the high Calvinists who permitted their teachers and their confessions to separate them from direct examination of Scripture. . . . Without freedom of faith, Arminius asserts, the Reformation itself could not have come into being, and without it Reformation could become inured [accustomed] to error. . . .

But freedom of association, the freedom to form new and unhampered religious organization was not yet available ~ the freedom to organize independent differentiation. Before the appearance of Arminianism this freedom had been demanded in various branches of the left wing of the Reformation. After the Synod of Dort the next phase of development in Arminianism was the struggle to secure this sort of freedom of association, the struggle of a minority excluded from the territorial church. . . .

Following the Synod of Dort the Arminian clergy were banished from the United Provinces. Soon thereafter Uitenbogaert, formerly court preacher at The Hague, formed this scattered group of leaders into an association or society. These men from their places of exile secretly re-entered the country. Rallying the laity, they organized the Remonstrant-Reformed congregations. Uitenbogaert retained the idea of Arminius that the group should admit differences among themselves in matters not fundamental. Thus the Remonstrants distinguished themselves from the typical sectarian group. They became a nonconforming association that permitted a degree of nonconformity within itself. That is, it made room for innovation, self-criticism, differentiation within the group. . . .

It was Episcopius who markedly advanced the Remonstrant theory of associations. . . . Religion should be a matter of persuasion and choice, not of coercion. . . . To the Calvinists Episcopius suggested that they should not worry about the risks involved here. In their view the reprobates are already damned, and the elect cannot be corrupted. Curiously enough, the Calvinist Roger Williams of Rhode Island would presently also use precisely this argument to defend complete religious liberty. In the view of Episcopius intolerance exacts a great and insufferable tax. It stifles conscience, it prevents reform, it promotes hypocrisy, it even gives occasion for sedition. . . .

Nevertheless, viewed in the context of the Calvinism of his time and place, the outlook of Episcopius is impressive. He exposed clerical pretension, and he rejected coercion in religion. He emphasized the voluntary character of religion, liberty of conscience, and freedom of inquiry. He defended the rights of freedom of association even for heretics; indeed, he adumbrated the civil right of such freedom of association. These are views that much of the rest of Christendom have come to accept. . . .

Much that has been said here is summed up in a sentence of appreciation which comes from the pen of a contemporary Roman Catholic scholar, Friedrich Heer, who says in The Third Force, a recent book on European spiritual history:

    Everything that has accrued on Calvinist soil, from the seventeenth to the twentieth century of the Western world, in elements of freedom, of culture of the spirit, of peace, of tolerance, of political enlightenment, and that is much, very much, is unthinkable without the movement for freedom that set in with Arminius and his spiritual affinities. . . .

Our churches exist within this context. Indeed, in many ways they reflect the popular piety hidden within these bulwarks of territory and class ~ and, we might add, of race. In face of this situation we recall the word of Schleiermacher that the Reformation must continue. The Arminians continued the Reformation into a third reform.

James Luther Adams, “Arminius and the Structure of Society,” in Man’s Faith and Freedom: The Theological Influence of Jacobus Arminius, ed. Gerald O. McCulloh (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1962), 88-112.