Happy Birthday James Arminius

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Today, 449 years ago, on October 10, 1559, Jacobus Arminius was born. At least, this is the date given by most critical scholars. Donald M. Lake wrote an excellent article entitled, “Jacob Arminius’ Contribution to a Theology of Grace,” in the book Grace Unlimited, edited by Clark Pinnock. The following is a small excerpt from that article, in honor of Arminius’ birthday.

“Few leaders in the Christian Church have been more neglected than this 16th century theologian and pastor . . . In the light of two recent studies on Arminius and his contribution to theology and after a reexamination of his major writings, I want to suggest that his importance for Christians living in the last half of the 20th century lies in three major areas.

“First, he was a theologian who lived out his faith in the day-to-day struggles of the church. Second, his faith and theology led him to participate in, rather than withdraw from, the socio-political issues of his own day. And finally, his personal life, marked as it was with personal tragedy, misunderstanding and controversy, provides a model for every Christian, and especially for the theologian and professor of theology . . .

“Like us, Arminius lived in one of the most turbulent eras of history! The old order was collapsing and a new one was being shaped. The issues were complex, the stakes were high, and the intensity of the struggle is illustrated by the slaughter, confusion and conflict of The Thirty Years War fought between 1618 and 1648.

“Jacobus Arminius was born about 1559 [some say 1560] and died in 1609, but the issues he raised far outlived him. And the controversy surrounding his teachings helped to bring about the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619. The fact that The Thirty Years War begins as the Synod of Dort concludes is less than coincidental . . .

“Humanism and secularism certainly are the major characteristics of our age; however, I would challenge the conclusion that Arminius and his views are directly responsible. On the other hand, the doctrinal rigidity of Protestant Scholasticism had indeed spent its force by the beginning of the 17th century, and it was soon to be challenged on every side . . .

“During [the] years as pastor, Arminius’ pulpit ministry centered on the book of Romans. Although other biblical books from both Testaments occasionally attracted his attention and he sometimes deviated from this basic epistle to devote his attention to some pertinent theme, it was however from these expository sermons on Romans that he began to develop a modified Calvinistic view on such matters as predestination and the nature of the human condition. And it was as a result of his preaching on Romans 7 and 9 that his real troubles began in Amsterdam, troubles that would follow him to his deathbed.

“But preaching was only one of his many activities during those fifteen years in Amsterdam. We have records of his visitations with the sick and the erring as well as his performances at holy matrimony. On one occasion during the bubonic plague of 1601 when an estimated 20,000 persons in Amsterdam died, he endangered his own life by entering an afflicted household in order to give a drink of water to each of its inhabitants!

“Arminius seems always to have been at the center of controversy, but the reasons are not always clear. His writings reveal so little of his personality and he speaks so seldom about himself that one is tempted to think that the reasons lie somewhere other than his personality.

“On the basis of the cogency of his arguments, we may rightly assume, I think, that his concern for truth led him to question all. Nothing was so sacred that one should not reexamine the basis upon which it was founded. While others were content perhaps to buy the commonly accepted interpretations of the day, Arminius always begins at the beginning.

“His analysis of Romans 7 and 9, for example, are not only exegetical and logical but also historical. He calls every major theologian and church father to testify in his behalf! I am convinced that it was this aspect of Arminius’ methodology that irritated his [Calvinist] co-laborers.”1

Calvinist defender Richard A. Muller noted, “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.”2

This neglected theologian left a legacy that still burns brightest among not semi-Pelagians who have misunderstood his intent, but those who ardently and jealously defend and agree with his Reformed sentiments, as they bear forth a testimony to the utter truthfulness of Scripture and honor our great God and Savior, through His Son Jesus Christ, and by the power of His Holy Spirit.

1 Donald M. Lake, “Jacob Arminius’ Contribution to a Theology of Grace,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 225-227.

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