The Controversial Jacobus Arminius

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What typically denominates an individual as controversial is not necessarily the truth which he or she promotes but the manner in which one argues against an established dogma. The reason why Arminius was so controversial in his time was because the truth which he proclaimed was at variance with an established form of Calvinism in Holland. John Calvin was not controversial due to the “hard truth” which he proclaimed. Nearly everyone within his theological circle (Reformed) agreed with his teachings. What kind of controversy could possibly be caused by someone whose teachings are nearly unanimously agreed upon by a majority of people?

James Arminius, on the other hand, resisted the Calvinism of his day and this stirred up quite a bit of controversy. If, as Mark Talbot admits, “any time you clearly speak Christian truth, you will necessarily arouse opposition”, then there can be no wonder as to why Arminius was baptized in controversy. Roger Olson remarks: “Readers should remember that Arminius was under tremendous assault and was extremely frustrated; during his career as a theologian virtually all of his time was devoted to responding to accusations and charges of heresy. And the rhetoric of the Calvinists . . . was no less harsh.”1

Those who resisted Arminius were Supralapsarian Calvinists such as Franciscus Gomarus. Arminius responds to the Supralapsarians:

      1. The first opinion, which I reject, but which is espoused by those . . . who assume the very highest ground of this. The opinion of those who take the highest ground on this point, as it is generally contained in their writings, is to this effect:

(1) God by an eternal and immutable decree has predestinated [think Unconditional Election], from among men (whom He did not consider as being then created, much less as being fallen), certain individuals to everlasting life, and others to eternal destruction, without any regard whatever to righteousness or sin, to obedience or disobedience, but purely of His own good pleasure, to demonstrate the glory of His justice and mercy; or (as others assert), to demonstrate His saving grace, wisdom and free uncontrollable power.2

Supralapsarians such as Arminius’s mentor, John Calvin’s successor and son-in-law, Theodore Beza (and modern day Calvinists such as John Piper) insisted that God’s first decree was to elect and reprobate. Subsequently, He then decreed to create human beings in order to effect the first decree. Arminius could abide no hint of an alleged secret decree of God, whereby He unconditionally chose to save a few individuals, reprobating the majority of humankind. The following are reasons for his intolerance of such a doctrine:

      1. It is not the foundation of Christianity:

        (1) For this Predestination [think Unconditional Election] is not that decree of God by which Christ is appointed by God to be the Savior, the Head, and the Foundation of those who will be made heir of salvation. Yet that decree is the only foundation of Christianity.

(2) For the doctrine of this Predestination is not that doctrine by which, through faith, we as lively stones are built up into Christ, the only corner stone, and are inserted into Him as the members of the body are joined to their head.

2. It is not the foundation of Salvation:

        (1) For this Predestination is not that decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ Jesus on which alone our salvation rests and depends.

(2) The doctrine of this Predestination is not the foundation of Salvation: for it is not “the power of God to salvation to every one that believeth” [Rom. 1:16]: because through it “the righteousness of God” is not “revealed from faith to faith” [cf. Rom. 1:17].

3. Nor is it the foundation of the certainty of salvation: For that is dependent upon this decree, “they who believe, shall be saved”: I believe, therefore, I shall be saved. But the doctrine of Predestination embraces within itself neither the first nor the second member of the syllogism.

This is likewise confessed by some persons in these words: “we do not wish to state that the knowledge of this [Predestination] is the foundation of Christianity or of salvation, or that it is necessary to salvation in the same manner as the doctrine of the Gospel,” etc.3

Contrast that latter statement with Spurgeon’s inaccurate assessment that Calvinism is the Gospel. It is quite clear that Jesus is the Gospel. Even John Piper has noted that God is the Gospel. Thus neither Calvinism nor Arminianism is the Gospel proper. These theological systems are merely the presentation of the Gospel. Arminius boldly claims:

      This doctrine of Predestination [i.e. Unconditional Election] comprises within it neither the whole nor any part of the Gospel. For, according to the tenor of the discourses delivered by John and Christ, as they are described to us by the Evangelist, and according to the doctrine of the Apostles and Christ after His ascension, the Gospel consists partly of an injunction to repent and believe, and partly of a promise to bestow forgiveness of sins, the grace of the Spirit, and life eternal. But this Predestination belongs neither to the injunction to repent and believe, nor to the annexed promise. Nay, this doctrine does not even teach what kind of men in general God has predestinated [i.e. believers], which is properly the doctrine of the Gospel; but it embraces within itself a certain mystery, which is known only to God, who is the Predestinater, and in which mystery are comprehended what particular persons and how many he has decreed to save and to condemn.

From these premises I draw a further conclusion, that this doctrine of Predestination is not necessary to salvation, either as an object of knowledge, belief, hope, or performance. A Confession to this effect has been made by a certain learned man, in the theses which he has proposed for discussion on this subject, in the following words: “Wherefore the gospel cannot be simply termed the book or the revelation of Predestination, but only in a relative sense. Because it does not absolutely denote either the matter of the number or the form; that is, it neither declares how many persons in particular, nor (with a few exceptions) who they are, but only the description of them in general, whom God has predestinated.”4

The University of Leiden, where Arminius was professor, was inundated with Infra- and Supralapsarian Calvinists. However, Arminius thought that these forms of Calvinism were not being true to Augustinianism proper, and he longed to set the record straight. Hence, controversy ensued. He highly regarded John Calvin, stating, “Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers . . . but with discrimination, like the writings of all men.”5

Arminius was not the anti-Calvin. As a matter of fact, Olson notes:

      Arminius always considered himself Reformed and in the line of the great Swiss and French Reformers Zwingli, Calvin and Bucer. He studied under Calvin’s successor Beza in Geneva and was given a letter of recommendation by him to the Reformed church of Amsterdam [where he was pastor for fifteen years]. It seems highly unlikely that the chief pastor of Geneva and principle of its Reformed academy would not know the theological inclinations of one of his star pupils. . . .

Arminius always thought of himself as Reformed in a broad sense. To his way of thinking high Calvinism [supralapsarianism] was just one branch of Reformed theology; he belonged to another. That did not make him less Reformed. [Carl] Bangs disagrees with [Calvinist] Richard Miller, who argues that Arminius and his theology represent a radical departure from Reformed thought. For Bangs, Arminius and his theology represent a variety of Reformed thought, even if it is outside the mainstream. Arminianism is a correction of Reformed theology rather than a departure from it. “Arminius stands firmly in the tradition of Reformed theology in insisting that salvation is by grace alone and that human ability or merit must be excluded as a cause of salvation. It is faith in Christ alone that places a sinner in the company of the elect.” The correction lies in Arminius’s rejection of strict monergism, which many have come to equate with Reformed theology itself.6

Though buffeted on all sides by various Calvinists, Arminius was certainly tenacious, which only stirred further controversy with his theological opponents. Never was he reticent or timid in declaring what he thought to be clear, biblical teaching, and never would he back down from his theological opponents. And yet he did so in such a mild, calm (i.e. godly) manner, that if someone resorted to ad hominem the argument against his character would be immediately dismissed. He was known by all for his unblemished disposition and character. Though his theology was controversial to Supralapsarian Calvinists, his temperament was not ~ he was praised even by his opponents for his genial posture.

1 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 102.

2 Robert F. Lay, Readings in Historical Theology: Primary Sources of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2009), 262.

3 Ibid., 265-66.

4 Ibid., 266.

5 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (1907-10; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952-53), 8:280.

6 Olson, 48-49.