Arminius Would Have Made a Good Baptist

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What do I mean by suggesting that Arminius would have made a good Baptist? This is a curious thought, in light of Arminius’ opposition to the Anabaptists of his day, as well as his own arguments for pædobaptism.1 Noted Arminius scholar Carl Bangs informs us that Arminius was not keen on pursuing “all so-called heretics,” as is demonstrated in his reaction to the Anabaptists, who, throughout Holland, actually preferred to be called Mennonites. These defiants of both the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions were “having considerable success in drawing off members of the Reformed churches, and action against them was deemed necessary.” Enter Reformed pastor-theologian Arminius.

Bangs continues: “The minutes of the consistory show that Arminius remonstrated [protested] with individual Anabaptists in their homes, urging them to return to the Reformed Church.”2 While the likes of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and others were drowning Anabaptists for their heresy of believer’s baptism, Arminius chose a different path, that of reason and grace. Arminius’ refutation of the Anabaptist heresy continued for quite some many months, until he was called upon by certain delegates to gather and publish arguments against the Anabaptists “for the instruction of ‘the weak.'”3 This process lasted nearly six years — Arminius was dragging his feet in completing the project being distracted greatly by writing refutations against “false papal teaching.”4

At this time, however, his duties as professor, as well as some of his own views coming into question by some, caused him to further delay the project. Still one year later, the delegates realized that Arminius was not going to complete the task. Exasperated, the delegates refer the project to a future national synod, and one which never materialized. But there was more at stake here for Arminius concerning the Anabaptists:

The controversy with the Anabaptists was now being fought over two issues. One was the old one of the nature of baptism and the church. [Arminius was, clearly, Reformed on the issue of pædobaptism.] The other was the questions of grace, predestination, and free will. There are Anabaptist writings from the time on these subjects which show that Arminius would have been reluctant to make a blanket condemnation of all that they were teaching.5

In short: by procrastinating the Baptist refutation project, he was buying himself some time, since much of his own soteriology resembled that of the early Baptists. Hans de Ries (1553-1638), a former Calvinist, became one of the most significant ministers among the Mennonite faction known as the Waterlanders. His confessions of faith, especially regarding God’s foreknowledge and grace and faith and free will, reflected Arminius’ own sentiments on such issues — the very same issues against which the Calvinists firmly took their stand. Arminius was “sympathetic to the Anabaptist point of view, and Anabaptists were commonly in attendance on his preaching.”6

Though Arminius believed that the early Baptists (Anabaptists, Mennonites) held to erroneous views regarding baptism and the church, he found himself unable to write against them, but instead began to write against their Reformed critics.7 But, if any, in what such ways would Arminius have made a good Baptist? His views of salvation clearly reflect those of the early Baptists. But one can maintain such views without being strictly Baptist or Baptistic. Yet I think there are at least two other significant concepts with which Arminius firmly agrees along with Baptists: the sacraments and religious freedom.

Arminius’ views of the sacraments are, like those of Baptists, simple: he notes only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and defines a sacrament as — again, as do Baptists — a “sacred and visible sign or token and seal instituted by God, by which … He ratifies to His covenant-people the gracious promise proposed in His word, and binds them, on the other hand, to the performance of their duty. Therefore no other promises are proposed to us by these signs than those which are manifested in the word.”8 These signs “cause something else to occur to the thoughts,” which “affect not only the mind, but likewise the heart itself.”9 Yet they do not do so automatically.

The sacraments are signs created by God (water, bread, wine), which substances are used as visible signifiers to “the exhibition of the thing signified through the authority and the will of Him who institutes it.”10 The water in baptism does not automatically save the recipient, for instance, but God saves by grace through faith in Christ, and the sacrament of baptism is merely what signifies the promise of God given to the individual; and also, as a visible sign, strengthens the faith of the recipient of God’s grace.11 Even regarding the Lord’s Supper, this sacrament is intentioned as a memorial, and not in a transubstantiatory motif nor is conceived of as including Christ’s real presence:

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the New Testament immediately instituted by Christ for the use of the church to the end of time: In which, by the legitimate external distribution, taking, and enjoyment of bread and wine, the Lord’s death is announced, and the inward receiving and enjoyment of the body and blood of Christ are signified; and that most intimate and close union or fellowship, by which we are joined to Christ our Head, is sealed and confirmed on account of the institution of Christ, and the [similarity in] relation of the sign to the thing signified. But by this believers profess their gratitude and obligation to God, communion among themselves, and a marked difference from all other persons.12

The goal of the Eucharist is two-fold: that our faith “should be more and more strengthened towards the promise of grace which has been given by God, and concerning the truth and certainty of our being ingrafted into Christ,” as well as that, “as believers may, by the remembrance of the death of Christ, testify their gratitude and obligation to God,” i.e., that believers “may cultivate charity among themselves” and that “by this mark … be distinguished from unbelievers.”13 Zwingli took a similar (Baptistic) approach to the Lord’s Supper as being memorial in nature.

Moreover, as Baptists have pleaded for religious freedom throughout their history, so, too, did Arminius and the Remonstrants. Dutch theologian and supralapsarian Calvinist Francis Gomarus (1563-1641) strongly opposed Arminius’ theology, even calling into question his legitimacy to teach theology at Leiden. Tension was already unhealthily fervent between Holland and England due to tension in shipping trade between the Netherlands and Spain, to say nothing of internal civil unrest.14 Then arose the outbreak of a fervent theological debate between the Calvinists and the Arminians in Holland.

Arminius sought the State to consider revising, or merely reconsider the wording of certain ambiguous phrases in the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563),15 which outraged the Calvinists, Gomarus chief among them. When Arminius died, that contentious Calvinistic spirit did not wane, but instead worsened. The Remonstrants persisted to obtain from the State protection. Pieter Geyl explains:

The States’ first and instinctive reaction could not fail to be in favour of granting that protection. Here was a dispute among theologians, difficult for laymen to comprehend even in an age infatuated with theology, but the least theologically-inclined regent could predict the result of leaving the Church to deal with it on her own. The Remonstrants would be expelled, doctrine defined in exact [Calvinistic] terms, and an even more arrogant supervision exercised over the orthodoxy of the authorities and of their proceedings.16

This prophetic sentiment is exactly what history evinces. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. What the Remonstrants called for was religious toleration and freedom. Does this fact not, then, appear as an appeal, at least in principle, for “freedom of religion” and “the First Amendment rights,” which have been, allegedly, “distinctively associated with Baptists”? Are the Remonstrants not, then, affirming the allegedly “Baptistic” spirit for both freedom of religion and First Amendment rights?

I think history proves wrong the thesis that Arminius and the Remonstrants rigidly perpetuated the State-Church tradition of Geneva. The Arminians were more than willing to recognize the viability of Calvinistic theology within the Church. They were not trying to overthrow Calvinism, insisting that the State only recognize Arminian theology as orthodoxy in toto, though that is exactly what the Calvinists were vying for. (The Arminians were the original “bridge builders” among dissenting Calvinists, not Calvinists by far. Calvinists were the ones trying to burn those bridges.) Theologically, soteriologically, and somewhat ecclesiologically Arminius would have made a very good Baptist.


1 Cf. Jacob Arminius, “Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation LXIII. On Baptism and Pædobaptism,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:440-42.

2 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1985), 167.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 168.

5 Ibid., 169.

6 Ibid., 170.

7 Ibid., 171.

8 Works, 2:435.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 2:436.

11 Ibid. “The sacraments of the New Testament have not the ratio [reason, premise] of sacraments beyond that very use for the sake of which they were instituted, nor do they profit those who use them without faith and repentance.” (2:440)

12 Ibid., 2:442.

13 Ibid., 2:443.

14 Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century: Part One, 1609-1648 (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1961), 41.

15 Bangs, 222-27.

16 Geyl, 46.