I have often wondered why so little has been said about Jacobus (or James) Arminius being listed along with other Reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Zwingli, Huss, Tyndale, or others. In fact, a list posted on Wikipedia does not even list James Arminius. Most standard Christian history books that I have read barely mentions Arminius and usually more as a polemic figure who criticized Calvin, which led to the infamous Synod of Dort, where Calvinism triumphed over Arminianism (in some minds once and for all).
However, I do not think of Arminius as a mere agitator of Calvinism. A reading of Arminius’s writings reveals a man who appreciated much of what Calvin wrote despite disagreeing with him. Arminius further reached his conclusions about the errors of Calvin’s theology by two means. First, Arminius read and studied from Calvin’s Institutes. He was quite familiar with Calvin’s theology and even studied under Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza. Arminius often quoted Calvin and encouraged his own theological students at the University of Leiden to read and study from the Institutes.
For me Arminius is in the great chain of reformers of the Protestant faith. Just as the seeds of the Reformation did not begin or end with Martin Luther and his nailing the 95 Theses on the castle church door at Wittenberg, so theology did not begin and end with John Calvin. Arminius read and studied the works of Calvin; and just as Calvin modified Augustine, Arminius challenged Calvin’s theology and modified it. I do not think that Arminius had in mind the creating of a new branch of theology that would be condemned as heresy following his death at the infamous synod of Dort.
In what ways did Arminius challenge and even expand Christian theology? He essentially did this in three ways:
1. First, Arminius challenged Calvin (and especially Beza) over divine unconditional election. Arminius did this as he was preaching through the book of Romans, when he came to chapters 9-11. While the sermons themselves are nonextant, we do know that Arminius challenged the popular Calvinist notion of unconditional election. Arminius taught that election was based on God’s foreknowledge of believers, and was by grace through faith. While Arminius affirmed the doctrine of total depravity, he believed that through Christ God enables mankind to either surrender to His grace and be saved (a freed will), or reject that grace.
2. Secondly, Arminius challenged Calvin and Calvinism over a limited atonement, arguing instead that the Scriptures taught a limitless atonement. Arminius affirmed that, on the cross Jesus died for our sins, but he also equally saw that Christ died for all of humanity and not just the elect (1 Timothy 2:1-6; 4:10; 1 John 2:1-2; etc.). Arminius relied upon Scripture, reason, and upon the early Church fathers. Arminius rightly saw that it was Augustine’s reaction to Pelagius that brought about Augustine’s emphasis on a limited atonement. Just as Martin Luther wrestled with Scripture over justification by faith, so James Arminius wrestled with Scripture over the doctrine of the atonement of Christ.
3. Arminius, lastly, challenged Calvinism over irresistible grace. If the doctrines of an unconditional election and limited atonement are not biblical, then it only stands to reason that God does not force people to believe, but rather He allows them to choose to follow Him in surrender to His salvation through His Son (Luke 9:23-25; 14:25-35).
Obviously, God knows all things because of His sovereignty, but He allows us to make free decisions based on His divine foreknowledge (Romans 8:29-30; 1 Peter 1:2). Arminius affirmed, as aforrmentioned, the doctrine of total depravity, but he rejected the Calvinist teaching that equated total depravity to being totally wicked and totally dead. Arminius believed that man was born in sin and he affirmed that Man was born depraved, but he believed that the grace of God given through Jesus Christ was so wonderful and so powerful that people were now free to either receive or reject the offer of eternal life through God’s Son (Luke 19:41-44; Acts 7:51; Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 6:1-3). Wesley would later modify Arminius’s teaching and named it prevenient grace (or divine enabling grace, would be closer to its meaning today).
Just as God raised up William Tyndale, Martin Luther, John Knox, John Calvin, and John Wesley – so He also raised up James Arminius. Not enough is said about this great man. The dark shadow of the Synod of Dort would cause people to fear the name Arminius, and his theology would become misconstrued by various attacks from Calvinist theologians down through the years. Arminius, and the theology that would bear his name, would soon be viewed as “man-centered theology” and “works salvation,” although none of this is true. Arminius’s name, while not viewed as evil as Pelagius’s, would often be viewed as a close cousin to Pelagius, if not brothers.
Sadly, the man-centered theology that so often today passes as Arminianism is nothing more than semi-Pelagianism. Unfortunately Calvinists sometimes insist that semi-Pelagianism is Arminianism taken to its natural ends. This error does not regard the clear writings of Arminius. I have often wished that Arminius would have lived long enough to write either a complete commentary on the Bible (as Calvin did), or publish his own systematic theology much like Calvin’s Institutes. This would have been a great blessing to the Church and would have been a great source of learning for both Arminians and Calvinists alike. This did not take place so we Arminians must glean insights from Arminius’s letters and a few sermons that we have taken from second hand accounts.
Arminius is indeed a great reformer of the faith and that is why this blog (and many others) have taken the name Reformed Arminians; because we believe that Arminius was in the line of the great Reformers, and that he was calling the Church of his day to reformation, just as Luther did in his day. We who are Arminians continue to hear that call even today, and we believe that what Arminius lived and died for is worth our lives as well. Truly, let us be thankful to God for this great man, James Arminius.