Gomarus Learns from Arminius in Debate

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By far Arminius’ fiercest opponent was Francis Gomarus (1563-1641), a supralapsarian Calvinist whose intent at Leiden was to undermine and challenge Arminius’ broadly Reformed scholastic orthodoxy. Arminius was drawn into debate with Gomarus by obligation, in order to defend himself from the oft-times slanderous statements made both about his teachings and his character — none of which were actually true.

Arminius’ Examination of the Theses of Dr. Francis Gomarus respecting Predestination was not published during his lifetime. Stephen de Courcelles (b. 1586), a Calvinist who abandoned Calvinism to follow Arminius, also successor of professorship to Arminian-Remonstrant Simon Episcopius (1583-1643), is responsible for its publication. He writes:

But while I am awaiting the printer’s leisure, lo, Dr. Gomar’s [Francis Gomarus’] Works come out, which act as a spur to me, already bent in readiness for the course. For, when the editors in their Dedicatory Epistle boast, that he “therein with wondrous success makes head, not only against the Pope’s satellites, but also against that most pestilent Socinus, the most crafty innovators, the stupid and insane Anabaptists, the degenerate and pertinacious disciples of Luther;” meaning by the “innovators” the Remonstrants — a customary formula of speech with thoseveterators [“old stupids”]; I judged that it would also be agreeable for readers who are lovers of truth to know that Arminius formerly fought with Gomarus, with no less success than Gomarus had with the others.1

Arminius did not desire the debate, but Gomarus was foaming at the mouth to debate him, much like some Calvinists of our day. “For he [Arminius], of all men, was the most devoted lover of peace and concord.” Stephen continues: “and if that same desire had possessed Gomarus, perchance that sad schism which now vexes the Churches of confederate Belgium, would have been crushed in the very blade.”2 Odd, I think, how some Calvinists conclude that Arminius and his Remonstrant colleagues were the ones guilty of causing schism in the churches of Holland.

Donald Sinnema, for example, complains how, after the sudden death of Arminius to tuberculosis in 1609, the Remonstrants “would not cooperate” with the demands of the Calvinists to defend and publish their theology.3 This is what we refer to as dishonest scholarship. As a matter of historical truth, Calvinist scholar Mark A. Ellis notes, “The common criticism of Dortian Calvinists, that the Remonstrants were ‘uncooperative,’ sounds like censuring someone for not lying still at their own crucifixion.”4

The truth of the matter regarding the Synod of Dordt is summed up quite adequately by Dr. Ellis: The Calvinists “engineered a synod guaranteed to fulfill their purposes.”5 No, the historical truth of the matter is that the Calvinists could not allow for any broader definition of Reformed orthodoxy than that which was catechized in their minds from Calvin. They maintained an extremely narrow view of what being Reformed entailed, rendering the likes of Luther and his followers outside the Reformed tradition, which is odd beyond reasoning.

Yet, this truth alone is no indicator that the Calvinists were ignoring Arminius’ arguments in debate, as is obvious from Gomarus himself. Stephen de Courcelles reminds the reader that Gomarus’ Theses examined and refuted by Arminius are not found in Gomarus’ Works as presented to Arminius at an earlier date. For the editors of Gomarus’ later Works confess in their Preface that “they have followed the latest editions of the Disputations,”indicating that Gomarus had reworked some of his arguments. As a matter of fact, the primary reason Stephen sought to the publishing of Arminius’ Examination is due to the later edition of Gomarus’ Works. Should one read Arminius’ Examination, and then read Gomarus’ Works, one might think that Arminius was mistaken. This is not the case at all.

What Gomarus later changed, in his articles “Of God’s Eternal Decree,” and “Of Predestination,” is quite significant. Stephen writes: “For, having learnt from Arminius, he [Gomarus] not only dismissed that absurd opinion, that God’s decrees are God Himself [emhasis added], but also defended the contrary with all his might,”7 as did Arminius in his reply and challenge of Gomarus’ former opinion to the contrary. Gomarus’ former opinion — that God’s decrees are God Himself — is absolutely shocking. But is it not also telling? I think that it is indicative of how some Calvinists perceive the decrees of God, including the theory of unconditional election and, to a large measure, irresistible grace (with its corollary named the “sovereignty” of God — “sovereignty” as defined solely by Calvinists). Thus to challenge Calvinism is to challenge God. This attitude among many Calvinists borders on idolatry.

Moreover, Gomarus “recognised the existence of conditionated knowledge in God [as Arminius argued]; by the aid of which he removes from his doctrine that great absurdity — the making God the author of the first man’s sin [against which Arminius also argued], and by consequent of all the other sins which are supposed to flow necessarily therefrom.”One might suggest that Gomarus not only learned a thing or two from Arminius, but that even his hyper-supralapsarian Calvinism was tempered a bit by his engagement with Arminius on the subjects of divine election, God’s decrees, and the sovereignty of God.

Gomarus was humbled by Arminius in debate, but one would never believe that perception, having witnessed how Gomarus and his party treated the Remonstrants with contempt, all of which led to the tragic and embarrassment of the Calvinists, the historical Synod of Dordt (1618-19). Stephen concludes: “For in those points he did yield to Arminius, or rather to manifest Truth, by whose brilliancy his eyes were dazzled. And perhaps he might have yielded in more points, had he not been restrained by shame as to retracting what was written by himself.”9 Stephen de Courcelles makes an excellent point here.

When someone is shown his error, and the individual intuits that he actually has been in the wrong, the response is all-telling. Shall one respond with humility, admitting the mistake in judgment, or shall he continue defending his error to the death? Continuing from his quoted statement above, Stephen notes Gomarus’ silly notion regarding faith and justification, “Of this I am persuaded by that ‘frankness’ which I find him using in laying down … that ‘the faith by which we are justified is not the same action with the faith by which we believe that our sins have been remitted through Christ;’ or, that ‘it [faith] is not the confidence of the remission of sins having been received.'” Stephen continues:

For, how great danger herefrom threatens the decrees of the Synod of Dort, is easily perceived by those whose brains are not in their heels. Accordingly the entertaining that sentiment was formerly charged on the Remonstrants as a great fault, and was almost held as a crime, by the Wallachians in their Epistle to foreign Churches, and by the authors of the second Contra-Remonstrance.10

I find this historical information entirely relevant in light of Calvinist Mark Jones’ latest blunder at Reformation21, challenging the orthodoxy of Arminius’ views on the doctrine of justification. Jones needs to put away opponents of Arminius and actually read Arminius. That is good advice for anyone, actually, as even Francis Gomarus learned. Had Gomarus’ colleagues been less driven by an alarmist and over-reactionary agenda to silence Arminius, the Calvinist movement of Beza’s era could have truly been Reformed.

1 Stephen de Courcelles, “Preface of the Editor,” in Arminius’ “Examination of the Theses of Dr. Francis Gomarus respecting Predestination,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 3:522-23.
2 Ibid., 3:523.

3 Donald Sinnema, “The Canons of Dordt: From Judgment on Arminianism to Confessional Standard,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), ed. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 314, 317. This historical revisionism led me to discontinue reading Sinnema’s chapter. For defense of my rebuttal of Sinnema’s revisionist history see W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 192, footnote 2; Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 196-202; Peter Bertius, “An Oration on the Life and Death of That Reverend and Very Famous Man James Arminius, D.D.” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:78; Mark A. Ellis, “Introduction,” in The Arminian Confession of 1621(Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, Inc., 2005), ix.

4 Mark A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius’ Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 35.

5 Ibid.

6 Courcelles, in The Works of Arminius, 3:523.

7 Ibid., 3:524.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.