Thomas Edward Dow, “The Evangelical Ecumenism of James Arminius”

, posted by SEA

This is the author’s doctoral dissertation completed for the University of Waterloo in 1980. The author’s abstract is included below. To access the dissertation, please click on the link: Thomas Edward Dow, “The Evangelical Ecumenism of James Arminius” (Ph.D. dissertation; University of Waterloo, 1980).

The author’s abstract:

The subject of ecumenism in the age of the Reformation has attracted the attention of historians only recently, and such works as J. T. McNeill’s Unitive Protestantism, and his History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517-1948, are among the relatively few works available on this theme. These books reveal, however, that ecumenism is a motif of Reformation historical thought which is worthy of consideration and research, for it is evident that there were influential Protestant thinkers who strove to preserve the unity of the Church and of the society of which they were a part, in spite of the fractionalism of their age.

One prominent and influential churchman who has not been studied from the perspective of his ecumenism is the Dutch theologian, James Arminius (1560-1609). Not only does Arminius deserve to be called a leading ecumenical thinker, but he perceived himself to be a part of a succession of evangelically oriented ecumenical moderates whom he believed to be the legitimate representatives of the best spirit of the Reformation. Arminius consciously and deliberately identified himself with the spirit and approach of Melanchthonian Lutheranism, which in turn possessed striking similarities to the ecumenical thought of Erasmus. The thesis can be defended, therefore, that James Arminius, Philip Melanchthon, and Desiderius Erasmus were close enough in spirit, ideology, motivation and ecumenical involvement to substantiate the claim that they belonged to a discernible and distinct stream of Christian thought and practice operative in the Reformation era, the stream which may be labelled Evangelical Ecumenism. Because of his reputation as an ecumenist, Martin Bucer of Strassbourg deserves recognition as belonging to the evangelical ecumenical tradition as well.

An analysis of the works of Arminius reveals the fact that he was determined to stress the evangelical essentials of Reformation theology and indeed of orthodox Christianity throughout the centuries. He refused to be drawn into discussions which were likely to produce dissensions and divisions, preferring to emphasize the beliefs held in common by Christians through the ages, as evidenced by their adherence to the creedal standards of the early Church and above all by the correspondence with the Scriptures. Arminius disclaimed any sympathy with doctrines which had been deemed heretical in the past and he denied that he had any interest in supporting theological novelty within the Dutch Reformed Church. In fact he asserted his conviction that some current trends in Dutch Calvinism, such as the emphasis being given to the doctrine of extreme predestinarianism, were in danger of producing just such innovativeness. If this were to transpire, Arminius felt that the Dutch Church would be cut off from the mainstream of evangelical Reformation thinking. To Arminius this would have been tragic. He therefore denounced these trends as unbiblical, unorthodox, unevangelical, and unecumenical. In so doing, he identified himself and the theology which he taught with the kind of moderate orthodox evangelicalism represented by Melanchthonian Lutheranism, and which he believed was the faith inherent in the major Protestant Confessions.

Carl Bangs has sought to identify Arminius with the tradition of Reformation Calvinism; it seems more accurate to stress Arminius’ affinity with Melanchthon and thus with a wider-than-Calvin Reformation thought-structure, which had its roots at least as far back as the moderate evangelical irenicism of Erasmus. The Bangs thesis is therefore modified, and the historical context of Arminianism enlarged. James Arminius deserves an honoured place in the history of the ecumenical movement. Moreover, he represents a tradition of Reformation thinking that was at once evangelical in conviction and genuinely ecumenical in outlook. This tradition, so prominently represented by Erasmus, Melanchthon, Martin Bucer of Strassbourg, and Arminius of Amsterdam, needs to be recognized and understood if one is to assess more adequately the history of sixteenth century Europe.