Monday, October 19, 2009

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609)

Arminius and his Arminianism

In what must be one of the great ironies of church history, Jacob Arminius shares an anniversary year with John Calvin. The Genevan Reformer was born 500 years ago on 10th July 1509. Arminius, who did so much to question Calvin’s theology of sovereign grace died 400 years ago today, on 19th October 1609. Like Calvin, he is one of the few figures in Christian history to have lent his name to an “ism”. His teachings, popularly labelled Arminianism have spread far and wide and influenced many. Even evangelicals have not been immune to his views. During the Evangelical Revival in the 18th century, George Whitefield famously fell out with John Wesley over the latter’s Arminianism. In this article we will look at the man behind the “ism” and consider how Jacob Arminius became an “Arminian”. Most importantly we need to ask whether Arminianism stands up to the test of Scripture.

Early life

Jacob Arminius was born in Oudewater, southern Holland in 1560. His father died when he was an infant, but wealthy friends of the family provided for Jacob’s education. He studied at the Universities of Marburg and Leiden before being sent to Geneva, where he sat at the feet of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in the city. Arminius was a diligent scholar and his work impressed his teachers, including Beza.

But student life is not for ever and in 1588 Arminius was invited to return to Holland as one of the pastors of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam. In 1590 he married Elizabeth Reael, daughter of an Amsterdam Magistrate with whom he was to have nine children. The doctrinal basis of the Dutch Reformed Church was the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, both solidly Calvinistic documents. In 1603, Arminius was appointed Professor of Divinity in his old almer mater, the University of Leiden. But it soon became evident that his theology was not in accordance with Reformed orthodoxy. His ideas on predestination proved especially controversial. Arminius rooted election in God’s foreknowledge of which sinners would believe in Christ.

The origin of his ideas

It used to be thought that Arminius’ problems with the Reformed doctrine of predestination began when he was asked to refute the unorthodox views of Dirck Coonhert, an opponent of Calvinistic theology. But this account has been challenged by more recent scholarship (See God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, Richard A. Muller, Baker, 1991). To understand Arminius properly we need to set him in his proper historical context.

In the early 17th century orthodox Reformed theologians began to draw heavily on the resources of medieval scholastic theology. They looked to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and others as they sought to develop a more systematic approach to theology. Scholasticism offered a sophisticated theological method that came with its own ready made technical arguments and special terms. All this was very handy for discussing the finer points of Reformed theology. Arminius would have received a thorough grounding in the scholastics during his student years.

In looking back to scholasticism, the orthodox Reformed were following in the footsteps of John Calvin himself. Calvin rejected the wilder speculative excesses of the scholastic theologians. But he used their arguments and terminology when it suited his purpose. Like Calvin, later Reformation leaders found Aquinas especially helpful. He emphasised the sovereignty of divine grace in salvation, harking back to the teachings of Augustine of Hippo. The orthodox Reformed were not only familiar with the older scholastic tradition, they also engaged with the leading Roman Catholic theologians of the day. Some in the Roman Catholic Church were beginning to question the Augustinian thread in Aquinas’ teaching. Amongst the critics was Luis de Molina, an early Jesuit theologian. Molina tried to reconcile the sovereignty of God with human freedom. He posited a theory of “middle knowledge”, where God’s knowledge of future events is dependent on the free actions of human beings.

The influence of Molina can be traced in Arminius’ thinking on the relationship between God and humanity. He too spoke in terms of “middle knowledge”. The Leiden professor taught that God has placed limits upon himself so that human beings may act with freedom. This obviously poses a problem for the Reformed doctrine of predestination, which insists that God has sovreignly willed whatever comes to pass. Election is not based on God foreseeing which human beings would freely choose to be saved. Rather, God has graciously elected some sinners to life and salvation in Christ in accordance with the good pleasure of his will.


Alarm bells soon began to ring when Arminius’ ideas on predestination were made public through his teaching at Leiden. Some insisted that he should be called to justify his views in a specially convened synod. Arminius refused, arguing that his teaching was in accordance with the Reformed Confessions. He may have sincerely believed this to be the case, as have several of his followers, but he was mistaken. The Belgic Confession states,

Article 16: The Doctrine of Election

"We believe that-- all Adam's descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of the first man-- God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just. He is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel, has elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. He is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves."

Arminius’ position is quite different.

"God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preceding grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere." (Works Of Jacob Arminius, Volume 1 - here).

Note that Arminius ascribes election to the grace of God. This grace is sufficient to save whoever will believe, but it does not effect salvation in those whom God has chosen. Election is simply a matter of God foreknowing who would avail themselves of the offer of redemption. This teaching subtly undermines the Reformation insistence that salvation is by grace alone. If by virtue of universal grace all sinners theoretically have the ability to choose to be saved, then why do not all sinners in fact choose to be saved? In the end it must come down to an element of human choice. Some choose to avail themselves of salvation in Christ, but others do not. For all that is said about this choice being grace-enabled, this is not an effective grace that actually saves, but merely a grace that facilitates the sinner’s choice to believe. Arminianism is a form of Semi-Pelagianism, which teaches that man must co-operate with God’s grace in order to be saved.

This questions the New Testament’s verdict that the unbeliever is dead in trespasses and sins and is therefore unable to choose to be reconciled to God. According to the Bible grace is both sufficient and effective, 2 Timothy 1:8-10. When Scripture speaks of the foreknowledge of God it does not mean that God simply looked into the future to see who would choose to be saved. Consider what Paul says in Romans 8:29-30. By “foreknew” Paul means something like “fore-loved”. God loved certain sinners and predestined them to be conformed to the image of his Son. He takes the initiative throughout the processes of salvation. God calls, justifies, and glorifies his chosen people. This does not mean that he forces salvation upon unwilling human beings. Rather, the Father sets us free to believe in Christ and be saved by the power of the Holy Spirit.


After long resisting an open discussion of his views, Arminius finally agreed to a conference at The Hague where his teaching could be properly examined. But he fell ill and died on 19th October 1609. His Arminianism did not die with him. In 1610 a group of Dutch divines sympathetic to Arminius’ theology issued the Remonstrant Articles, which may be summarised,

1. Predestination is conditional on God foreknowing who would believe.
2. Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved.
3. Human beings are sinners and cannot believe apart from the grace of God.
4. Saving grace may be resisted.
5. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints needs to be investigated further.

Many have found Arminius’ theology appealing. After all it is flattering to think that we can make at least some small contribution to our salvation. The anti-Puritan Archbishop Laud and his followers held to Arminian doctrine. John Wesley had his Arminian leanings. Huge sectors of evangelicalism are in fact Arminian. That is what lies behind the crusade-type evangelism, where sinners are urged to “decide for Christ". Arminianism is a distortion of the gospel. It has had a baleful effect upon the theology and mission of the church. Jacob Arminius was a learned and able theologian, yet we must reject his teaching because it robs the triune God of his glory in salvation. In a future post I hope to say something about the Synod of Dort, which was called in 1618 to give the definitive Reformed response to the Remonstrants’ Arminian views - see here.
* An edited version of this article was published in October's Evangelical Times.


Dave Belcher said...

Hello. Thanks for the post. I think there are certain points in this matter that require more caution. First of all, when we make the move from "Arminius" to "Arminianism" we must be very careful. Especially insofar as the latter term took hold as a description of what was taking place in England during this time (especially at Cambridge in the last decade of the sixteenth century), it is important to recognize that the "Arminianism" in England developed separately from the "Arminianism" that developed in the Netherlands and West Friesland. It is an improper attribution in the former case, even if it so incredibly resembles the latter (as it does). Care is needed in this particular area of history. There is more to be said here (especially of the close relationship of England and Holland in this time), but that would be outside the scope of this forum. It is also important, however, to pay close attention to continuities and especially discontinuities between Arminius's teachings and his followers (esp. Episcopius and van Limborch -- the latter having grand influence over certain "modern" strands of thought).

It is also important that we pay greater care to Arminius's teaching insofar as he has been read for so long outside of the late medieval and scholastic context you are correctly pointing us to. Although, I wonder if the "older" reading of Arminius does not get smuggled back in a bit even in what you are attempting here. The Reformers did not merely "look back" to the scholastics, but were born from out of that context, and even when Luther and Calvin so heavily denounced "the scholastics," they yet drew on them heavily, and later followers much more explicitly (with many fewer denouncements). This is significant for Arminius's case because we cannot fully understand what he is doing, with predestination for instance, when he is ripped from that context -- which is the lifeblood of his work alongside deep exegesis of Scripture. Predestination is not merely "foreknowledge of faith" but the "application" of Christ's merits earned in cross and resurrection to believers -- now, yes, foreknowledge of who will believe is "taken into account" here, but predestination is not the foreknowledge itself, but its application to persons, and thus "Christ is the ground of predestination" for Arminius (Stanglin offers a helpful account of Arminius's understanding of the ordering of the fundamenta in relation to other Reformed theologians at Leiden)...this was a big point Arminius wished to drive home against Gomarus, and is a very significant conclusion of Arminius's deep "creation theology" (as Muller correctly argues) -- that is, predestination is always related to a particular created order (Aquinas looms large). The significant point to be addressed is how the "modified Thomism" of Suarez and Molina come into play here, where Arminius is departing from them, borrowing from them, etc.

So, I really just think that more care has to be given to this "Reformer." I am not certain that the conclusions you come to are incorrect, though. I actually think that the "older" reading of Arminius can still have some merit once placed within his scholastic context and indebtedness. On the other hand, once a deep investigation of Arminius's scholasticism is accounted for, certain older views will necessarily be revised I think as well.

Sorry for this beast of a comment. I've been breathing Arminius for some time now and can't help but speak up when I see someone else is giving him attention he deserves! Thanks again for the post. Peace.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks Dave. The article was written for a popular Evangelical newspaper rather than a scholarly journal so I had to omit a lot of detailed argumentation. 1500 words max only gave me enough space for a rough sketch of Aminius' theological development.

Dave Belcher said...

Thanks for the response. Forgive me if I seemed off-putting or at all harsh. I appreciate your garnering interest in Arminius via this article, and think that for that particular context this is a very helpful introduction that nevertheless rightly warns of the danger of Arminius's and his followers' teaching. Thanks once again for the post and the engagement. Peace.

Reformation said...

"Fire when ready, Gridley." Famous U.S.Navy saying by Admiral Farragut prior to commencement of conflict. Let the Church Militant be peacemakers, to wit, the disarming of Arminians, defenders of Arminians, including any Reformed who go soft on Wesley. When the Arminians lay down their arms, we'll have peace.