A Latin expression known as ad fontes translates, literally, “to the fountains,” interpreted as “to the sources,” a command to read primary sources. Dr. Mark A. Ellis, a Calvinist pastor of a Calvinistic Baptist church, was challenged by a friend to read the works of Arminius. He remarks: “Having been taught [by other Calvinists that] he was both Socinian and Pelagian, I was surprised how Calvinist his affirmations sounded about trinitarianism, Scripture, original sin and the necessity of grace.”1
Yes, reading the actual words of Arminius and the Remonstrants will enlighten any Calvinist who has been told either overt lies or severe misrepresentations regarding the theology of the Reformed Arminians of the late sixteenth, early seventeenth century.
Dr. Ellis confesses that this enlightenment “led to a broader study of those who shared Arminius’ theology, with special emphasis on his protégé, Simon Episcopius (1583-1643), the primary author” of The Arminian Confession of 1621, which Dr. Ellis both translated and edited, and who graciously granted me permission to host that Confession on this site.2 The Arminian Confession is intended as “a concise, easily understandable statement of their faith and a corrective to what they viewed as the misrepresentations published in the Acts of the Synod of Dort.”3 Ellis encourages his Calvinist colleagues to read this Arminian Confession, so as to dispel “common misrepresentations, such as [that] the Arminians were Socinians, an accusation the Arminians’ opponents brought against them from the beginning of the conflict.”4 The Socinian charge is an outrageous and scandalous lie, one of which Calvinist Abraham Kuyper attempted to convince his readers.
Dr. Ellis is correct, in that both Arminius and the Remonstrants aptly refuted the Socinian heresy. Hence the Calvinists of Dordt sought solely to demean, defraud, and entirely smear the godly, scholarly, and orthodox theology of the Remonstrants by misrepresenting and even lying about their beliefs. This is but one valid reason why the conclusions of the Synod of Dordt has absolutely no bearing on the Church universal whatsoever for judging the theology of Arminius and the Remonstrants as being heretical.
A much more common charge against Arminianism, however, is that of both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism (to say nothing of it leading back to Rome). Ellis insists, “The Confession gives ample evidence that the Remonstrants [and, of course, Arminius himself] did not hold to Pelagius’ theology.”5 While the Pelagian charge never did genuinely fasten itself to Arminianism — at least not among those in credible scholarly circles — the charge of semi-Pelagianism has been a challenge in need of eradication. Dr. Ellis comments:
Again, if one allows history to define labels, neither Arminius nor the Remonstrants were semi-Pelagian. They made this plain in the original Remonstrance of 1610, and repeated the same in the Confession (17.6). They stressed “that the grace of God is the beginning, progress and completion of all good, so that not even a regenerate man himself can, without this preceding, or preventing, exciting, following and cooperating grace, think, will, or finish any good thing to be saved, much lest resist any attractions and temptations to evil.” They differed with their opponents not over the necessity of grace, but in their belief that a person can “despise and reject the grace of God and resist its operation. …”6
He further states, “In the end, one wonders why those who look to Geneva would need to resort to fabricating or extrapolating their differences with the Remonstrants,” an excellent question that has yet to be answered. He continues: “The Remonstrant rejections of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance, together with the unique doctrines they affirmed in the Confession (such as multiple definitions of election) are per se reasons enough to declare that they represented an alien theological development”7 from a Calvinistic framework.
In other words, the Calvinists maintained a wealth of theological ammunition with which to launch against the Remonstrants. Why did they feel a need to overtly misrepresent and even lie about Arminian beliefs? Perhaps this speaks volumes more about motive and character than it does theological opposition.
Ellis encourages “non-Arminian”-types to take up and read this Confession, also, because they may “find ideas they appreciate,” such as “the Remonstrant emphasis on repentance, that it is a requirement for salvation, that it precedes faith and that the biblical authors understood that when Scripture mentions ‘faith’ alone it included the idea of repentance.”8 The Remonstrants also challenged Reformed scholasticism, which method tended toward a speculative theology, rather than the practical theology of the early Arminians.
Dr. Ellis notes that Simon Episcopius, the primary author of the Confession, removed himself further from Reformed scholasticism than even Arminius. “He pointedly refused to comment on some subjects, such as details about angels, which he viewed as ‘scholastic innovations.'”9 He continues:
We find in the Confession a corollary to the rejection of Reformed scholasticism, the Remonstrant insistence that all true theology was entirely practical and not speculative or theoretical. Whatever the modern equivocations over the meaning of “speculative theology,” for Episcopius it signified theology which was derived from reason rather than from Scripture and served to satisfy theological curiosity rather than promote the worship of God. … This emphasis on theology as a practical science became one of the hallmarks of Remonstrant theology.10
Arminians today are grateful to Dr. Mark A. Ellis for his work in translating The Arminian Confession of 1621 into English, as well as for his candor regarding certain Calvinistic over-reactions and misrepresentations to the theology of Arminius and the Remonstrants. He simply asks other Calvinists to do what he himself has done: not rely on second- or third-hand information, but ad fontes, return to reading the primary source material of Arminius and the Remonstrants.
1 The Arminian Confession of 1621, “Introduction,” trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), v.
6 Ibid., vi.
8 Ibid., vii.
10 Ibid., vii-viii.