Understanding the Controversy of Former Supralapsarian Calvinist Arminius

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The title of this post is a bit controversial in itself: Was Arminius a supralapsarian Calvinist at one time? That is a possibility. I believe that he was a supralapsarian. At least twice in Arminius’ pastoral and theological career he is called upon to present a formal refutation of views that oppose the received Calvinist tradition: the first is definitive, which he does not complete; the second is quite telling, both personally and theologically, which he, again, does not complete. Let us first examine very briefly the latter case.The Anabaptist movement is growing, and Arminius is called upon to formulate a refutation of their errors, while he visits with Anabaptists in their homes and urges them to return to the Reformed church.1 As I argue elsewhere, Baptistic views inevitably relegate one as being non-Reformed — not within the broadly received Reformed tradition, whether Lutheran, Calvinist (and Presbyterian), or Anglican.2 Arminius, however, soon discovers a foreboding problem in formulating a refutation against the Anabaptists.

Not only is Arminius allied to converts of the Anabaptistic views,3 rendering the issue a personal one for Arminius, but some of the theological views of these early Baptists are also maintained by him, namely, conditional election, general atonement, and resistible grace. While he perpetuates the Reformed doctrine of pædobaptism, arguing against the heretical views of the Baptists, he finds himself unable to tread any further theologically; doing so also implicates his own cherished views — views that he knows full-well cause divisions within the Reformed church. He is willing to sign a contract not to discuss from the pulpit the controversial subjects of election and predestination.4 But if he writes a formal refutation of Anabaptistic views, his refuting credobaptism alone is found insufficient, incomplete. The last experience for which he longs is further division.

Aside from this issue, however, is one that many view as the commencement of all of Arminius’ troubles. Enter Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert (1522-1590), a freethinker who argues that the Reformed church is not reformed enough, and that the alleged Reformed notion of unconditional election is to be loathed by all Christians. Coornhert is challenged by two ministers of Delft in South Holland, Arent Corneliszoon and Reynier Donteklok, both infralapsarian Calvinists who challenge John Calvin and Theodore Beza’s supralapsarian Calvinism in a pamphlet entitled An Answer to Some of the Arguments Adduced by Beza and Calvin: From a Treatise concerning Predestination on the Ninth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Coornhert is taxed and charged with heresy, libertinism, and other such crimes of the State.5 The Delft ministers are called upon to refute Coornhert only after Arminius fails to do so because he is called upon by Martin Lydius (1539-1601), a pastor at the Old Reformed Church and professor at Franecker, to refute the Delft ministers for attacking the supralapsarianism of Beza, his mentor, and he accepts the challenge most willingly. What does the asking and the acceptance infer about Arminius?

Arminius biographer Carl Bangs, in his Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, remains unconvinced that Arminius ever was a supralapsarian:

First, there is no clear evidence that Arminius had ever accepted Beza’s doctrine of predestination and its concomitants. Second, he makes no point of having undergone a theological transition. He constantly portrays himself as teaching an ancient position in the church and one widely held even among the Reformed pastors in the Low Countries. He sees his opponents as innovators, not himself.6

However, even Bangs himself admits, “Why was he asked to write refutations of Coornhert and of the Delft ministers?”7 He proffers that Lydius, who requests Arminius to refute the infralapsarian position, is attempting to catch Arminius in an inconsistency. But Lydius is his friend, and supports Arminius, and is unlikely to behave in an underhanded manner. I think Bangs’ question infers that Lydius asks Arminius to defend Beza because Arminius holds to Beza’s supralapsarianism. As a matter of fact, I think this view is supported by Arminius himself, since he so very gladly accepts the challenge!8 Anyone who knows me personally, and understands my theology, will never ask me to defend any semblance of Calvinistic soteriology. Should we not expect the same regarding Lydius and Arminius? I think we have further evidence, however, demanding our attention.

In The Life of James Arminus, D.D., Kaspar Brandt underscores the historical fact that Martin Lydius is more than capable of responding to the infralapsarians and, indeed, even pledges to do so.9 Yet he most gladly prefers to put Arminius to the task, intending his refutation of the Delft ministers to also defeat Coornhert, like killing two birds with one stone.10 “To this proposal Arminius, in the first instance, did not greatly object, yea, and addressed himself to the task with the more alacrity [cheerful willingness, speed, eagerness] that he cherished such veneration for his reverend and aged preceptor [Beza], of whose lectures and arguments, to which he had recently listened, he retained a deep and lively recollection.”11 But there is even more evidence of Arminius’ then theological position.

Brandt records, as does Bangs himself, that Arminius, while investigating the claims of the infralapsarian ministers, and the longer he contemplates the issues against Calvin and Beza, the more difficult he finds holding to the supralapsarian position he is called upon to defend.12 If Arminius is being convinced of the infralapsarian position, and can no longer defend Beza’s supralapsarianism — the very position he is called upon to defend — then what else can we assume but that Arminius himself, as Beza’s student, also at one time held to the supralapsarian position? Interestingly enough, Arminius, at the conclusion of this study, rejects both infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. For Arminius, this is when trouble truly begins, for he now places himself more so in the camp of someone like Coornhert than either the Delft ministers or the followers of Calvin and Beza.

What does Arminius do? Does he complete the project first given him by Lydius? He does not, but cuts the project short, and commits himself to further study and also to his newfound relationship with Lijsbet (Elizabeth) Reael (Rëal). For the time being, Arminius “most wisely and rigidly on his guard against openly inpugning the generally received tenets concerning Divine Predestination,” for the sake of peace keeps to himself the many truths he holds, but which the rest differ from him in opinion, and yet he by no means holds himself so bound to their views that he cowers to speak his mind when engaging the Text and, thus, expressing his dissent from the pulpit.13 By 1591, while preaching through Romans, the matchstick of controversy is first lit.


1 Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 167.

2 Take for an example the following quote: “When many Separatists in Amsterdam were going over to the Mennonites, or to Baptist views, [Henry] Ainsworth [a Brownist] remained firm in his Reformed beliefs.” In other words, to be Baptistic, even if also Calvinistic, renders one outside the Reformed tradition. Ibid., 158.

3 Wilhem Dirckszoon Baerdesen (a loyal Catholic), whose wife and sister are converts to Anabaptism, is a staunch supporter of Arminius. Though persecuting others for their beliefs is beyond the pale of Arminius’ nature, certainly his close, personal connection with some Anabaptists sympathetically tempers his interactions with them. The same might be confessed regarding Coornhert, since Arminius’ wife’s uncle’s wife is the sister of the husband of a niece of Coornhert. See Bangs, 132.

4 Kaspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D.D., ed. John Guthrie (London: Ward & Co., 1854), 43-47.

5 Ibid., 35.

6 Bangs, 141. See also Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16, 29.

7 Bangs, 141.

8 Brandt, 37; see Bangs, 138-41.

9 Brandt, 36.

10 Ibid., 37.

11 Ibid. “To perform this task [of defending Beza and his supralapsarianism], Arminius was the more ready, from the circumstance of his having recently returned from Geneva, where he had fully imbibed the sentiments of his former master Beza.” Frederick Calder, Memoirs of Simon Episcopius (London: Hayward and Moore, 1838), 22.

12 Ibid. See also Bangs, 138.

13 Brandt, 39.