James Arminius On the Stage of Time

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“There lived in Holland a man, whom they that did not know him could not sufficiently esteem; whom they who did not esteem him had never sufficiently known,”1 said Peter Bertius (1565-1629), friend to Arminius in his youth, at the funeral of James Arminius, October 1609. When most people think of James Arminius, they tend to think of free will or the notion that one can lose his or her salvation. That is unfortunate, since Arminius did not champion the cause of free will, nor was he the poster-child for the doctrine of Apostasy.

John Calvin’s successor and son-in-law, Theodore Beza (1519-1605), in a letter written to the Rev. Martin Lydius in 1583, a professor who belonged to the Church of Amsterdam (where Arminius would later become pastor for fifteen years), writes:

    To describe all in a few words, be pleased to take notice that from the period when Arminius returned from Basil to us at Geneva, both his acquirements in learning and his manner of life have been so approved by us that we form the highest hopes respecting him, if he proceed in the same course as that which he is now pursuing, and in which, we think, by the favour of God, he will continue.

    For the Lord has conferred on him, among other endowments, a happy genius for clearly perceiving the nature of things and forming a correct judgment upon them, which, if it be hereafter brought under the governance of piety, of which he shows himself most studious, will undoubtedly cause his powerful genius, after it has been matured by years and confirmed by his acquaintance with things, to produce a rich and most abundant harvest. These are our sentiments concerning Arminius, a young man, as far as we have been able to form a judgment of him, in no respect unworthy of your benevolence and liberality.2

The comment which follows the footnote whence this recommendation comes indicates that Beza was unaware of what would become of Arminius’s pending theological and scriptural system, “which would gradually overturn all those frightful theories of fate and restricted grace that Beza had laboured to invent and perfect, with a zeal second only to that of Calvin.”3 Nevertheless, Beza’s formed opinion of Arminius was objective, sincere and unclouded by any fear of Arminius’s theological development in the future.

While at university, Arminius showed himself to be an exceptional student. Bertius recalled not only professor Lambert Danaeus praising his intellect, but that, if any of the students “had a particular theme or essay to compose, or a speech to recite, the first step which we took in it was to ask for Arminius. If any friendly discussion arose among us, the decision of which required the sound judgment of a Palaemon [a Greek god or hero], we went in search of Arminius, who was always consulted.”4

A person’s character is verified not only from one’s friends and relatives, but especially from one’s opponents. English doctor and writer John Aikin (1747-1822) writes the following regarding Arminius’s character:

    The personal character of Arminius was irreproachable; and he attracted the esteem and applause of his very enemies by his amiable manners, his candid spirit, his diffidence and modesty, and his inflexible integrity. He was a friend to universal toleration, and established it as a fundamental principle, that Christians are accountable to God alone for their religious sentiments, and that no individual can be justly punished by the magistrate for erroneous opinions, while he conducts himself as a virtuous and obedient subject, and makes no attempts to disturb the peace and order of civil society.5

Moral character alone, however, does not necessarily form or demonstrate a godly person, for there are people whose character is moral outwardly or socially but who are not inwardly godly in the biblical sense. One’s devotion to God through Jesus Christ speaks volumes regarding one’s godliness. Peter Heylin (1599-1662), an “English ecclesiastic and author of many polemical, historical, political and theological tracts” (Wikipedia), writes of Arminius’s great learning and piety: “he stands commended for a man of an unblameable life, sound doctrine, and fair behaviour” (author’s emphases).6 Arminian scholar Philip Limborch (1633-1712) testifies that “Arminius was a pious and godly man, prudent, candid, mild and placid, and most studious to preserve the peace of the Church.”7 Whatever one may conclude regarding Arminius’s theology and soteriology, what cannot be denied is his mild and godly manner, and his love for and devotion to Christ Jesus and His Church.

Arminius was one of the pastors of the Old Reformed Church of Amsterdam. Attesting to his mild manner is evidence from his interactions with Anabaptists, whom the Reformed Churches counted as heretics. While Luther and Zwingli drowned Anabaptist heretics (which style of execution was ironic, since Anabaptists believed in baptism by immersion or pouring), Arminius did not pursue so-called heretics in this manner. History records that the Anabaptists were “having considerable success in drawing off members of the Reformed churches,” writes Carl Bangs, so “action against them was deemed necessary. The minutes of the consistory show that Arminius remonstrated with individual Anabaptists in their homes, urging them to return to the Reformed Church.”8

Arminius’s life and conduct represented what the apostle Paul commanded of Timothy: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12 NRSV). Arminius also experienced the words of the apostle Peter: “For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish” (1 Pet. 2:15 NRSV). In our admiration of Arminius, we are merely giving “honor to whom honor is due” (Rom. 13:7 NRSV).

Finally, Kaspar Brandt gives us some physical as well as moral characteristics of Arminius:

    It now remains that we subjoin a brief sketch of Arminius, descriptive at once of his person and his mind. In bodily stature he did not exceed the medium size. His eyes were black and sparkling, indicating acuteness of mind and genius. His countenance was serene. His bodily temperament was sanguineous [cheerful, optimistic]; his limbs well compacted, and at the prime of life, somewhat robust.

    His voice was slender, indeed, but sweet, musical, and sharp. He was eloquent in an admirable degree: if any subject was to be embellished, if any discussed, it was done with distinctness; the pronunciation and intonation of voice being thoroughly adapted to the sense.

    As respects his general bearing, he was courteous and affable towards all, respectful to superiors, hospitable, cheerful, and no way disinclined among his friends to harmless sallies of wit, by way of mental relaxation; but in all that constitutes the man of gravity, the Christian, and the consummate teacher of the church, as far as human infirmity could permit, he was second to none. He adored with profound veneration the supreme and ever-blessed God; and never allowed a day to pass without pious meditation, and perusal of the Sacred Scriptures, making a commencement with fervid prayers; and in order to make the greater progress in the cultivation of piety, and the truth, he occasionally followed up these prayers with fasting.

    He wished to be, rather than to appear pious; and regarded nothing as of greater moment than to regulate all his actions, not by the opinion of others, but by the dictate of a pure conscience; and to confirm by his own example the truth of his own maxim, in which he pre-eminently delighted: “Bona Conscientia Paradisus” — “A Good Conscience is a Paradise.”9

The rest of Brandt’s description and record is an inspiring read. May the Lord be praised for a life which He blessed, and a soul which He alone saved.

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1 Kaspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D. D., trans. John Guthrie (Charleston, SC: BiblioLife, LLC, 2009), 300.

2 The Works of Arminius, three volumes, London edition, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:24-25.

3 Ibid., 1:25.

4 Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1991), 47-49.

5 Works of Arminius, 1:xxxvii.

6 Ibid., lii.

7 Ibid., liii.

8 Bangs, 166-67.

9 Brandt, 301-303.