The Confession and Catechism Support Arminianism

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What should occur if the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism supports not supralapsarian Calvinism but Arminius’s theology? Both works have always been viewed as Calvinistic, with the assumption that the inherent predestinatory language opposes Reformed Arminianism. In truth, even the more explicit statements regarding election unto salvation in the Confession and Catechism supports Arminius’s doctrine of election. A national synod was not called prior to Arminius’s death in 1609, so we will never know what might have been.

What we do know is that some supralapsarian Calvinists (such as Franciscus Gomarus) instigated calumny regarding Arminius’s teachings, to the degree that his name became synonymous with Socinianism (denial of the Trinity and divinity of Christ), Roman Catholicism (works-oriented salvation), Semi-Pelagianism (a denial of Total Depravity and Total Inability) — all of which were nothing more than overt lies. Arminius once exclaimed:

I assert that these good men [note he called his theological opponents “these good men”] neither comprehend our sentiments, know the phrases which we employ, nor, in order to know them, do they understand the meaning of those phrases. In consequence of this, it is no matter of surprise that they err greatly from the truth when they enunciate our sentiments in their words, or when they affix other (that is, their own) significations to our words.1

Arminius scholar Carl Bangs writes the following.

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The Belgic Confession, Article 14, states that man “has willfully submitted himself to sin and thereby to death and the curse.” Arminius could appeal to this in support of his contention that sin is not necessitated by a divine decree, and he did so in 1608 [a year before his death, October 1609]. The same article speaks of false teaching about free will, “seeing that man is nothing but a slave of sin and has no receptivity or ability unless it is given him from heaven.” Arminius could agree.

Article 16 deals with election. . . . Arminius has not contradicted this article, but his writings do raise a question of interpretation. What is the referent of “those whom he . . . has . . . chosen”? The answer Arminius has given is that they are believers. If that interpretation be granted, he has no quarrel with the Confession.

The Heidelberg Catechism has even less about predestination, but Question 20 and 54 are to the point:

20. Q. Will all men then be saved through Christ as they were lost through Adam?

A. No, only all those who by an upright faith are incorporated into him and accept all his benefits.

54. Q. What do we believe about the universal Christian Church?

A. That the Son of God has gathered, protected, and preserved for himself from the beginning of the world to the end, out of the whole human family, through his Spirit and Word, a community chosen to eternal life, in unity of the true faith, and that therefore I am and shall eternally remain a living member thereof.

Question 20 seems to be well accommodated to Arminius’ thesis that salvation is willed for the class of believers. Question 54 permits the interpretation and makes no specification of the mode of election. The question about Arminius’ theology and the two formulas may well take another turn: not, Could the statements be stretched to accommodate Arminius’ views? but, Could they be stretched to accommodate his opponents’ views?

It was, indeed, this second question which disturbed the upholders of the older and milder Dutch theology. Should not the confessions be revised to remove the ambiguities under which the supralapsarians took cover? In defense of this position it can be said again that the formulas were written before the issue of supralapsarianism had been raised [it being such a novel theory in and unsubstantiated by Church history], just as Calvin himself gives no clear answer as to whether he is a supra- or [infralapsarian].

I conclude that Arminius felt himself to be in essential agreement with the Confession and the Catechism, that he made no attack on them, but that he was nevertheless not entirely pleased with them because of their ambiguity.2

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1 James Arminius, “Article XVI.,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:17.

2 Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1991), 223-24.