Edward H. Dewart, “The Life & Theology of Arminius” (1875)

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We deem, it, therefore, not inappropriate, in this first number of our METHODIST MAGAZINE—a part of whose mission will be to expound and defend our Scriptural, Arminian theology—by a brief notice of the life and theological views of Arminius, to introduce to the notice of Canadian Methodists one who has so largely influenced Methodist theological thought, and whose godly life so beautifully illustrated the truths of his teaching.

-Rev. E. H. Dewart, editor, The Canadian Methodist Magazine

Below is the very first article in the premiere issue of The Canadian Methodist Magazine, January, 1875, written by the first editor, Rev. Edward Hartley Dewart (bold mine):




IN the year 1560, fourteen years after the immortal Luther had yielded up his brave spirit to God; forty-three years after he had begun the great Protestant Reformation, which broke asunder the fetters of centuries, and shed the light of divine truth upon thousands darkened and enslaved by Romish superstition; and four years before the death of the stern Reformer of Geneva, who has given his name to a severe but, compact system of theology–in the pleasant little town of Oudewater, in the province of Utrecht, in Holland, a child was born, whose future expositions of Scripture doctrine were destined to influence the currents of theological thought for all time; and who shall be held in honoured remembrance as long as clear and powerful intellect, extensive and sound scholarship, consistent and devout piety, and rare force and massiveness of character, united in one person, can command the esteem and admiration of men. For beyond all question, JAMES ARMINIUS was one of the world’s truly great men–

“One of the few, the immortal names,

That were not born to die.”

“He being dead yet speaketh.” Like one of those tarnished paintings of the old masters, which, when the encrustations of time have been removed, shines forth with pristine beauty, the character and work of Arminius, after the lapse of three centuries, have risen out of the obscuring mists of theological prejudice and bitterness, in fair and stately proportions, furnishing another remarkable example of men to whom after generations have awarded the just fame which was denied them by the narrow bigotry of their own times.

No subject has greater claims upon the studious attention of thoughtful minds, than, the life-work and teaching of the men who have moulded the thought and action of the world. No desire to exalt piety by depreciating intellect should lead us to disparage the endowments, with which God has enriched those whose genius vindicates their right to kingship in the different provinces of the world of mind. Great men are God’s precious gifts to a world that sadly needs them. Eminent Theologians, Philosophers, and Reformers, whose labours are in the sphere of mind and moral truth, are far more truly benefactors of the race, than those whose inventions and discoveries have lightened labour, and bestowed upon their fellow-men more palpable benefits. Great thinkers and workers, in the sphere of political, social, and religious reform, are the leaders who, through many a Red Sea of opposition and reproach, have led the fainting and vacillating hosts of humanity into goodly possessions, which, they could not have won without such leadership. They are discoverers, who find out truths long hidden from common sight; inventors who enrich us with new methods of work, more conducive to success; captains, who organize and lead men to victory. As the best army requires a skilful general to direct its movements, so the moral and mental forces of the world need organizers and leaders, to render them powerful for good and permanent in their results. They lift up the standard of rebellion against mental serfdom, and teach men the value and dignity of freedom of thought.

Such great souls deserve to be held in everlasting remembrance. For as certainly as we owe political liberty to the heroic defenders of national independence, who shed their blood upon the battlefield resisting the tyranny of oppressors, we owe our intellectual and religious freedom to those who, in spite of danger and death, bravely uttered their unfaltering protest against the dominant errors and canonized fallacies of their times. Their noble deeds and words reflect light upon the path of life for those who come after them. Thinking over their inspiring thoughts, looking out upon the problems of being through their unscaled eyes, coming into sympathetic contact with their noble spirits, and feeling the power of the motives which impelled them onward in their high career, our narrow misconceptions are corrected, and we are lifted out of ourselves into a higher plane of being, than without their influence we could ever have attained. Without the leadership of Luther and Melanchthon, the light of the Reformation might have been quenched in Germany, as it was in France. Without the organizing genius of John Wesley, Methodism in England might have been only a temporary revival, followed by a reaction, that would have overwhelmed with a tide of ungodliness the ground which had been for a time rescued from the surging sea of sin. But there is a right and a wrong use we may make of the great men of past times. It is right to, honour their work, to avail ourselves of their studies and researches, to copy their spirit and practice the virtues that made their lives sublime. It is wrong to accept their decisions with unquestioning faith, or render them a slavish homage, that tends to dwarf our intellectual manhood, and prevent needed reform and progress.

Though it is commonly known that the teaching of Methodist Theology respecting Predestination, the Freedom of the Will, and Universal Redemption, is in harmony with that of the great Dutch Theologian, it is not so generally known that nearly all the doctrines which have special prominence in Wesleyan Theology were held by Arminius. In his “Declaration of Sentiments,” as in most of his writings, he is defending himself against charges of false doctrine; his language is, therefore, guarded, as he desires to show that he is in harmony with the creed of the Reformed Churches of Holland, and to give his opponents no advantage against him. Yet, he clearly states his belief, that it is the privilege of believers to have the assurance of Adoption, “by the testimony of God’s Spirit witnessing together with their conscience.” He was charged with holding that Christians may live without sin; and his idea of Christian Perfection is substantially the same as Wesley’s. He is more guarded against formally rejecting the certain Final Perseverance of believers. But he frankly confessed that the possîbility of falling from a state of grace appeared to him to be taught in the Word of God; he stated that he had [1] taught “it was possible for believers finally to decline and fall away from faith and salvation;” and his definition of what he means by the Perseverance of the Saints is in perfect, agreement with the uniform teaching of the Methodist pulpit and our standard theologians.

We deem, it, therefore, not inappropriate, in this first number of our METHODIST MAGAZINE—a part of whose mission will be to expound and defend our Scriptural, Arminian theology—by a brief notice of the life and theological views of Arminius, to introduce to the notice of Canadian Methodists one who has so largely influenced Methodist theological thought, and whose godly life so beautifully illustrated the truths of his teaching. It is strange, while there have been so, many able expounders and defenders of the sentiments of Arminius, that, until a comparatively recent date, his complete theological works were not published in English. ln 1825, James Nichols, a practical English printer, thoroughly versed in the Calvinistic controversy of Holland, translated and published one volume of his writings. This was followed by a second in 1828, with a promise that the work would be completed by a third volume. In 1843 a life of Arminius, with copious extracts from his writings, was prepared by Dr. Bangs, whose name is so well known in Canada, and published by the Harpers of New York. In 1853, the Rev. W. R. Bagnall, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, having translated the third volume, and revised the volumes translated by Nichols, published, in three large volumes, the complete works of Arminius, with a brief biography. We know not whether these volumes (to which we are mainly indebted in the preparation of this article) ever went through a second edition. Though not constituting a systematic treatise on divinity, they discuss all the leading questions of Christian Theology, and present a rich treasury of instructive expositions of the doctrinal teaching of Holy Scripture.

But although his noble character, his fruitful life, and the rational and scriptural system of theology, which has become the special heritage of Methodists, invest his life with an interest that should ever be sufficient to preserve it from the dust and mildew of forgetfulness, it must be confessed that Arminius is little more than a name, without a history or character, to the great majority of those who believe and maintain those views of divine truth of which he was the most eminent expounder. Several causes have tended to produce this state of things. He lived at a period comparatively distant from the living present, which mainly absorbs the thoughts of men; and he lived in a generation removed out of the “fierce light” which beat upon the first leaders of the Reformation. He was a great thinker, rather than a great leader or organizer of institutions. He was a native of a “foreign country,” and wrote not in our English tongue. His style also has too much of the scholastic method of that day to be popular with modern readers; although it is far more simple and scriptural than that of most of his contemporaries. Above all, the intolerant hostility of the dominant Calvinistic party of his times misrepresented his opinions, and clouded his just fame by disparagement and slanderous allegations. And this wrong has been perpetuated, from generation to generation, by theologians who take their views of Arminius from the false representations of his bitter opponents. Even to the present day, he is represented as a Pelagian, who denied the doctrines of grace; and the term Arminianism is still used by some Calvinian writers as synonymous with the denial of Human Depravity and Justification by Faith. So far from this being true, it is evident, from his early education, and his desire to preserve harmony in the church of which he was a minister, that, like Wesley and the early Methodists, he sometimes “leaned too much towards Calvinism.” 

Still further from the truth is it to, speak of this eminent divine, as if he were the author and inventor of the doctrines which he held. They are the doctrines of the Scriptures and of the primitive Christian Church, in harmony with sound reason; though never before so fully expounded and defended as by Arminius, in his refutation of the unscriptural fatalism of Calvin. Arminius cannot justly be held responsible for the erroneous views of many who have been called by his name in his own country. He is often incorrectly spoken of as the founder of a sect, which flourished for a while, and then declined into insignificance. But he was not really the founder of any sect at all, though many of the Dutch Protestant churches accepted his doctrines; and were distinguished by his name, even when they had departed from his principles.

His influence on the world is that of the independent thinker and teacher of truth, and cannot be measured by those who are now known by his name. So far from his influence having declined and passed away, his views are steadily gaining ground throughout the Christian world, and never were so potent as to-day. Not only are his principles of theology accepted by the largest Protestant communion in the world, but those who are the natural heirs of the system he opposed are so gradually approaching his scheme of doctrine, that were he to appear among us now, even modern Presbyterianism could scarcely whisper a breath of complaint against his religious opinions, that were deemed false and heretical by the disciples of Calvin and Beza, who, in their intolerant zeal for their creed, treated him so, unjustly.

At the time of the birth of Arminius, the mighty impulse which the Reformation had given to free religious enquiry had not yet died away. Religious questions were still the great questions of the day. Even national alliances and wars were governed more by religious than by purely political considerations. The Protestant feeling and sturdy independence of the people of Holland were largely stimulated and developed, by their heroic resistance to the oppressive and intolerant tyranny of papal Spain. Hence, the impulses acting on the society around him, as well as the severe struggle to which he was subjected, by the death of his father, while he was yet an infant, aided in bringing out his native force of intellect and character. His widowed mother, to whose sole care he, with a brother and sister, was left, was a woman of deep and earnest piety, whose spirit impressed itself upon the character of her gifted son. The family name was Herman, but, following a common custom, he adopted the name of Arminius, a celebrated leader of the Germans in the first century. [2]

Though bereft of the instruction and support of his father, Providence opened up his way, and raised him up friends. Theodore Emilius, though a Roman Catholic, had a great reputation for piety and erudition. He had learned enough of the Protestant faith to see and forsake some, at least, of the errors of Popery. Prompted by the kindness of his heart, and by admiration of the natural gifts of the poor fatherless boy, he took upon himself the expense of his education, and watched over his religious, as well as his literary training, with the greatest kindness and assiduity. Arminius made rapid progress in knowledge; and there is good ground to believe that, in his boyhood, he was truly converted to God; and thus laid the foundation of that life of devout piety, which was his highest distinction, and the key to his character. Before he was fifteen, his kind friend Emilius died, and left him once more to battle alone with unfriendly fortune. But God raised him up another friend. Snellius, a native of Oudewater, who was himself a man of learning, and who had been residing in Marpurg in Hessia, to avoid the persecuting tyranny of the Spaniards, being on a visit to his native town, was so favourably impressed with young Arminius, that he invited him to return with him, and study at the University of Marpurg. The invitation was accepted thankfully. He went to Marpurg and entered the University, being then fifteen years of age. He had been there only a short time, when he heard the terrible news that his native town had  been sacked and burned by the Spanish army, which had butchered all the inhabitants. He at once started for Oudewater, in deep anxiety about his friends; and probably with some faint hope that they had not all perished. But he found, to his unspeakable grief, that his mother, brother, and sister, and all his relatives had been massacred by the barbarous Spaniards. With a crushed and bleeding heart he returned to Marpurg, walking all the way.

The same year the University of Leyden was founded by William I., Prince of Orange. As soon as Arminius knew that it was open for students, he returned and entered it. Here he prosecuted his studies, preparatory for the ministry, for six years, with the greatest success. He left the University at the age of twenty-two, strongly recommended by the faculty to the authorities of the city of Amsterdam. They at once assumed the expense of completing his education; and he, on his part, pledged himself to devote the remainder of his life, after his ordination, to the service of the city. He went at once to study at Geneva, being attracted thither chiefly by the fame of Beza, who had succeeded Calvin, as the chief expounder of the most extreme type of high Calvinism. Here his defence of the logic of Ramus, against that, of Aristotle, gave such offence to some of the professors, that he was compelled to leave Geneva for the University of Basle, where he continued his studies for a year, giving at the same time lectures in theology. Such was the estimation in which he was held, that he was offered the degree of Doctor in Divinity by the University; but he modestly declined it, on account of his youth. He returned to Geneva, prosecuted his studies in divinity there for three years longer, and secured the admiration and friendship of the learned Beza. During this period he offered no objection to the Calvinistic system of theology; but accepted it, as the only Scriptural and orthodox view of human redemption. But it gives weight to his later rejection of these tenets, that he must have been perfectly familiar with the strongest arguments of the master minds who maintained that system of doctrine, now known as Calvinism. His rejection was the intelligent repudiation of the Calvinian system, by one who had thoroughly studied it.

After leaving Geneva, in company with several of his countrymen, he visited Italy and Rome. A strong motive in taking this journey was a desire to hear Zabarella, then famous as a Professor of Philosophy in Padua. During this visit he had an opportunity of examining for himself the workings of Popery at its fountain head, and no doubt, as in the case of Luther, this confirmed and deepened his antagonism to the corruptions of Romanism. In 1588 he was licensed to preach, and, after a short probation, was ordained to the pastorate of the Dutch Church in Amsterdam; where for the next thirteen years he continued to exercise his ministry, with eminent success and great popularity, especially with the laity.

In 1589 a circumstance occurred which deeply affected his whole future life. A pious Reformer, named Coornhert, had published an able pamphlet containing forcible arguments against Calvin’s theory of Predestination, Justification, and the killing of heretics, being a report of a discussion between Coornhert and two Calvinist ministers of Delft. Some time after, the Delft ministers published a reply; in which instead of defending the supralapsarian scheme of Calvin and Beza, which Coornhert had assailed, they maintained the lower or sublapsarian view; and rejected the theory of Calvin. This kind of reply was unsatisfactory to the disciples of Calvin and Beza, who thought it should be answered. It is a tribute to the reputation of Arinius that, about the same time, he was urged by Professor Martin Lydius to defend his former teacher Beza; and requested, by the ecclesiastical senate of Amsterdam, to refute the alleged errors of Coornhert. He at once undertook the task. An examination of the controversy, at first led him to favour the moderate, rather than the high Calvinistic view. But a full and impartial study of the Holy Scriptures, the early Christian Fathers, and the writings of the Protestant Reformers, led him to reject the Predestination of Calvin, as contrary both to Scripture and reason. At first, for the sake of peace in the Church, he was very guarded in the expression of his views; but feeling that such a course was inconsistent with his duty as a professed teacher of religious truth, he began in his discourses, as occasion required, to expound the doctrines of the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his enlarged views of the Divine economy in the salvation of sinners. From this time forward, while his views gained many adherents among the thoughtful and unbiassed, he was regarded by the ultra-Calvinists as a teacher of heresy, and bitterly opposed and traduced. Most distorted and unwarranted representations of his sentiments were circulated, with a view to injure his reputation and influence. But, though feeling deeply the injustice of these assaults, he calmly prosecuted the work of his ministry, avoiding rather than courting controversy.

In 1590 he was married to Elizabeth Real, the daughter of a worthy judge and senator of Amsterdam. Their domestic life was eminently happy. They had seven sons and two daughters, who all died in early youth, except Lawrence, who became a merchant of Amsterdam, and Daniel, who was an eminent physician.

About the close of 1602, the death of Francis Junius, Professor of Divinity at Leyden, called the attention of the curators of the University to Arminius, as the most suitable person to fill the vacant position. This appointment was strenuously opposed by the authorities of Amsterdam, who wished to retain his services in their city, and also by Gomarus, the chief professor at Leyden, and many ultra-Calvinist ministers, who strongly disliked his anti-Calvinistic opinions. But after protracted negotiation, and a fuller explanation of his views by Arminius, the opposition was withdrawn, and he was installed at Leyden as Professor of Divinity. On receiving the degree of Doctor in Divinity from the University, he delivered a masterly discourse on the Priesthood of Christ. The selection of a theme, so close to the heart of the Gospel, evinced the devout and practical bent of his mind; while the manner in which he expounded this great subject amply vindicated his fitness for the important position to which he had been appointed. On assuming the duties off his new position, he found that the students of theology were largely devoting themselves to the study of the knotty, metaphysical speculations of the schoolmen, rather than to the great central verities of Christianity. He at once directed his efforts to correct this evil; and to bring them back to the direct and devout, study of the Word of God; as the fountain of truth.

These efforts, and his known opposition to Calvinistic Predestination, provoked the hostility of Gomarus and those of similar views; and made Arminius the object of many bitter attacks, and false accusations; which, however, he bore with great equanimity. He did not publicly defend himself till 1608, when he vindicated himself in a letter to Hyppolytus; in an “Apology against thirty-one defamatory articles;” and by his noble and convincing, “Declaration of Sentiments.” The delivery of this elaborate and unanswerable discourse, before a full assembly off the States of Holland, convened at the Hague, may be regarded as the culminating event of the public life of Arminius. The occasion was imposing. He had for his auditors the chief men of his country, which then held a foremost place among the free and enlightened nations of the world. The questions discussed were the grandest and most important with which a human mind can grapple. The manner in which he expounded and defended his views of Divine truth was worthy of the occasion; and effectually confuted the accusations of his enemies, and for ever vindicated the clearness of his intellect, and the Scriptural soundness of his theological opinions. Though touching briefly upon several points respecting, which he had been misrepresented, he dwelt mainly on objections to the theory of Predestination maintained by Calvin and Beza. His refutation of this theory, which had secured the allegiance of so many minds, was complete, irresistible, and overwhelming. He did not confine himself to a few leading arguments. He swept over the whole ground, piling up such an array of crushing objections, that all which has been since written on that theme has been, of necessity, little more than an amplification of his arguments and objections. In addition to arguments against Calvinism, based on its antagonism to the Holy Scriptures, to the Gospel salvation, to the attributes of God, to the nature of man, to the nature of eternal life, to the nature of Divine grace, and to the nature and properties of sin; and objections based upon its being injurious to the glory of God, dishonourable to Christ, hurtful to the salvation of men, and in open hostility to the ministry of the Gospel, he shows conclusively that this doctrine was never admitted, decreed, or approved in any Council, either general or particular, for the first 600 years after Christ; that none of the Doctors or Fathers of the early Church, who are regarded as standard authorities, held it; and that it did not agree with the harmony of the Confessions that had been published at Geneva, in the name of the Reformed Churches. It is difficult to see how any mind, open to the force of argument, could duly weigh the objections stated in this declaration of Arminius, and yet hold the dogmas which he so trenchantly refuted.

Early in the following year, a disease, brought on by unremitting labour and study, became extremely severe and prostrating. There can be no doubt, that the pain inflicted by the bitter attacks of his intolerant persecutors greatly aggravated his disease, and hastened his death. Though in great weakness and suffering, for some months he continued to lecture and perform other duties. On the 25th of July, 1609, he held a public disputation on “The vocation of men to salvation” which was his last public effort. He rapidly grew worse. Yet, in acute physical pain, he manifested no abatement of his usual cheerfulness and entire acquiescence with the will of God, till on the 19th of October, at the age of forty-nine years, while surrounded by praying friends, his truth-loving and devout spirit escaped from the jarring strife of earth to the peace and harmony of heaven. In the words of one of his biographers: “He was distinguished among men, for the virtue and amiability of his private, domestic and social character; among Christians, for his charity towards those who differed from him in opinion; among preachers, for his zeal, eloquence and success; and among divines, for his acute, yet enlarged and comprehensive views of theology, his skill in argument, and his candour and courtesy in controversy.”

This high eulogy he justly merited. It is impossible to read his polemical discourses, which were often written in reply to what he considered to be severe and unjust attacks, without admiring the uniform Christian courtesy with which he discusses the questions at issue. No angry retorts, nor acrimonious expressions disfigure the calm and cogent presentation of his views. Not less admirable is the modesty with which he gives his judgment on the questions he discusses. Though he had, during his whole life, applied his great talents to the study of sacred subjects, he humbly speaks of himself as a learner, willing to be taught, even by those against whom he contended in argument. While regarding with due respect the conclusions of the great men of other times, he called no man master. In his “Reasons for the Revision of the Dutch Confession aud the Heidelberg Catechism,” then the theological standards of the Protestant churches of Holland, he pointed out clearly and wisely, the danger of putting any human authority, however venerated, on a level with the word of God.

In his views of the right of freedom of opinion, and in liberality towards those whom he thought in error, he was far in advance of his times; and even in our times, but few have risen to his standard of charity and tolerance. Indeed, in his later years, he was not so much the mere advocate of a system of doctrine, as the champion of liberty of conscience and worship. Not that he was latitudinarian in doctrine, or held his own convictions of truth lighty. But in the distinction which he recognized, between truths that are essential to salvation and those that are not, he saw the ground for a comprehensive union between all who love our Lord Jesus Chtrist in sincerity, in spite of differences on non-essential points. This recognition of the right of freedom of conscience specially distinguished the Arminians of that day from the Calvinists. Shortly after the death of Arminius, the States of Holland, acting by the advice of that noble Arminian statesman, John of Barneveldt, whose memory Motley, the historian, has recently so amply vindicated, issued an edict of full toleration to both parties, and prohibited the continuance of public controversy. The Calvinists refused to submit, and the strife became so furious,

that the Arminians found it necessary to protect themselves from personal violence by appointing a safeguard of militia-men. Like the Puritans of New England, the Calvinists of Holland, while protesting fiercely against the attempts of Rome to violate their consciences, had no idea of allowing liberty of conscience to those who did not accept their dogmas. But we should not too severely denounce those who persecuted the Arminians as heretics, unless we have learned to practise greater charity and toleration towards those whose theological opinions differ from ours.

As we glance back along the ages, though saddened by the bigotry and bitterness with which even those who named the name of Christ were sometimes arrayed against each other, we are cheered by catching glimpses of the many noble and heroic souls which rise above the darkness like divinely appointed sentinels, keeping watch over the welfare of a world that never knew their worth. To this immortal brotherhood belongs Arminius. The fogs of prejudice and intolerance, which so long obscured his just renown, are passing away forever.

“Though round its base the rolling clouds are spread,

Eternal sunshine settles on its head.”

You can read this and later issues online here: The Canadian Methodist Magazine

A few notes:

[1] This should say Arminius said he “never” taught a true believer can fall away. See “The Perseverance of the Saints” in his Declaration of Sentiments.

[2] On choosing “Arminius” as his name, W. Stephen Gunter makes an interesting note: “His choice to use ‘Arminius’ was an explicitly polemical act. The original Arminius had been a first century Germanic chieftain who valiantly resisted the Romans—certainty an inspiring person a for a young student whose family had been massacred by the soldiers of ‘Rome’”. (Arminius and His Declaration of SentimentsPage 13). Arminius certainly had no sympathy for Rome.