Who was Arminius?

Who was Arminius?

The article below is different to my usual articles in that it is more technical and a bit longer (7 pages).
Most Christians’ (Calvinist and non-Calvinist) understanding of who Arminius was, and specifically what he believed, is shaped by a 400 year-old propaganda campaign which grossly distorts the truth.
So, I humbly submit this to those who may be interested in the truth about Arminius.
To my one or two Reformed friends; this is not a personal attack on you, or what you believe, and I trust you will receive this as part of my own genuine search for the truth.

A Review with Personal Comments on:
Arminius . A Study in the Dutch Reformation
. by Carl Bangs

1.     Introduction

This article is not a review or critique of the book as such. It is simply my perceptions of the book, but also my observations regarding Arminius and his theology, as compared to my own.

In my almost five decades of serving the Lord, I had never read anything substantial on Arminius and purposely avoided reading his theology as I wanted my doctrine to be based on  the Scriptures and not on that of any man. But, over the past year I began to recognize that my understanding (as of most other Christians) of Arminius and his doctrine was increasingly being shaped by the false image created by Calvinists. I felt it essential therefore, at this late stage, to find out as best as I could, who Arminius was and exactly what he believed. (See below for some of these false notions about Arminius and Arminians.)

My initial research indicated that this book by Bangs is the most complete and authoritative on the life and doctrine of Arminius. However, be warned; it is not an easy read. It is more of an academic thesis on Arminius and his doctrine, but also on the theological, ecclesiastical, economic, and political circumstances in the Netherlands in the late 16th and early 17th century in which Arminius lived and worked. The book is filled with endless details of names, family connections, and even the addresses where the various characters lived. A lot of this information simply clouds the central issues and slows reading down to a crawl. But, the book has been very helpful to understand the many outside factors that had an impact on Reformed theology, churches and universities in Holland at the time as well as the factors that ultimately led to the Remonstrance a year after Arminius’ death. It also is probably the most detailed and complete biography on every detail of Arminius’ short life of 50 years.

The book does outline Arminius’ doctrine and the evolution thereof, but I would have preferred to see a bit more detail on his views. However, it is understood that it is primarily a biography and history of the Arminius and the Dutch Reformation and not a detailed expose of his doctrine.

2.     Common Fallacious Ideas on Arminius.

Having made the statement above that Arminians and Calvinists alike have a mistaken idea of Arminius and his doctrines, I felt it necessary to quote a sample of the many such statements.

Arminius asserted “…that man is saved by good works as well as faith. He admitted that virtuous heathen might escape hell, and surmised that in the end all men would be saved” (Will and Arial Durant. The Story of Civilization. Vol 7. p459.). This statement does not contain a shred of truth – see below but the truth does not prevent many from bearing false witness that Arminius was a Universalist.

Arminius and his followers teach that “man was not totally depraved and could therefore co-operate with God in the spiritual regeneration.” (Lars Qualben. A History of the Christian Church. p351). This is clearly contradicted by Arminius – see the quote under “original sin” (below).

“According to the Pelagian conception regeneration is solely an act of the human will, and is practically identical with self-reformation. With some slight differences this is the view of modern liberal theology. A modification of this view is that of the Semi-Pelagian and Arminian…” (Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology p 473) “Berkhof frequently combines Arminianism with Semi-Pelagianism or Socinianism in his caricature of Arminius and Arminians. Since Pelagius and Socinian were heretics, this amounts to guilt by association.” (http://www.imarc.cc/esecurity/arminius.html#N_28_). None of these statements of Berkhof contain any truth whatsoever.

“Pragmatism’s ally is Arminianism, the theology that denies God’s sovereign election and affirms that man must decide on his own to trust or reject Christ. That places on the evangelist the burden of using technique that is clever enough, imaginative enough, or convincing enough to sway a person’s decision… to teach or imply that human technique can bring someone to Christ is contrary to Scripture” (John MacArthur. Our Sufficiency in Christ.” (p152). This is a spiteful and gross misrepresentation of Arminian teaching.

“Thus, Arminianism made man’s salvation depend ultimately on man himself, saving faith being viewed throughout as man’s own work and, because his own, not God’s in him.” (JI Packer. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. p128). Once again, this is just not the truth but a straw man argument by someone who needs to stoop to this level because his own argument is too weak to stand on its own.

“I agree with Packer and Johnston that Arminianism contains un-Christian elements in it and that their view of the relationship between faith and regeneration is fundamentally un-Christian. Is this error so egregious that it is fatal to salvation? People often ask if I believe Arminians are Christians? I usually answer, “Yes, barely.” They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency”. (RC Sproul. Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will. p25). Judging just by the spirit and attitude of Calvinists and Arminians, I would dare say, the opposite is true. Should an Arminian dare to say about Calvinists what Sproul said about Arminians, he would be hung, drawn and quartered. Yet, Calvinists make these statements every day.

One could fill a book with similar egregious statements propagated by Calvinists, and unfortunately, often believed by non-Calvinists. Dr Reasoner compiled an excellent list of similar statements and clear proof against them: http://www.imarc.cc/esecurity/arminius.html#N_28_

3.     Arminius was Thoroughly Reformed.

One of the aspects of Arminius that is often misunderstood is that he was thoroughly Reformed and was not an Evangelical or fundamentalist by modern standards. Even though his views on Predestination differed from the Calvinism of his day (and of today), he saw himself as a true disciple of Calvin. He was not Evangelical, nor was he Anabaptist and he certainly was not Lutheran. He rose within the Reformed church, studied at Reformed schools and topped off his education by studying in Geneva under Beza, Calvin’s disciple and successor. Beza highly commended Arminius for his piety and intellect in a testimonial to the church in Amsterdam (p111). At the conclusion of his studies he served as one (and the most popular) of the pastors of the leading Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam for 16 years before spending his final six years as professor of theology at the Reformed University of Leiden, his Alma Mater.

When he later differed from Beza on supralapsarianism (pp194, 273)(Supralapsarianism says that the decrees of election and damnation came prior to the decree to create man – thus denying God’s omniscience by saying he reasons and knows things sequentially, like man) , Arminius appealed to Calvin and Augustine for support. He did not see his views on predestination as being contrary to Calvinism, as we do today, but saw his views as the correct interpretation of Reformed doctrine. Not only did he appeal to Calvin and Augustine (p192) for support, but also to other Church Fathers such as Origen on the subjects of Subordinationism and eternal Generation (p282) as well as the creeds. He goes as far as to say about Calvin: “…I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above others, above most, indeed, above all” (p287).

He strongly defended Reformed doctrine against Catholicism, Lutheranism and the Anabaptists.

My assessment is that except for the doctrines around TULIP, Arminius was much closer to being a true Calvinist than either side of the argument gives him credit today.

4.     His Life and Testimony

Many spoke of Arminius’ piety and dedication to the things of God. His life was marked by holiness, righteousness and humility. Unlike Calvin and his disciples, Arminius always strove to exhibit a Christ-like spirit to friend and foe alike. While he was willing to pay the highest cost in order to stand by his convictions, he was not a rabble-rouser or trouble-maker. All his debates and writings are marked by real humility, a lack of argumentativeness and a willingness to be corrected and to resign his position if it could be shown from Scripture that he was mistaken (p298).

He certainly stands as a major contrast to his opponents’ lust for a fight and blood and their frequent use of lies, political power and manipulation to achieve their ends that had very little to do with doctrinal correctness. Often lay people sided with Arminius, even if they disagreed with his doctrine, because of the spirituality of his response and the brutality of the attacks of his enemies (p299). The vindictiveness, dishonesty and brutishness of Arminius’ opponents (more correctly enemies), seems to be a hallmark of Calvin and his followers  at Arminius’ time and subsequently.

While Arminius was steeped in the teachings of Calvin, the Creeds, and the Church Fathers, he also stood by the call to Sola Scriptura. Unlike his opponents, Arminius did not only pay lip service to the Scriptures, but he genuinely saw the Scriptures as the final authority in all matters and did not hesitate to call into question any personality and any tradition that could not be upheld by a clear exposition of the Scriptures. Thus it was the Bible, rather than his Reformed tradition, that shaped his views on predestination (but not in all doctrine).

5.     His Doctrine

It must be borne in mind that Arminius was not the “originator” of what would become known as “Arminianism”. He was one of several who had through a careful examination of Scripture come to the conclusion that Predestination is not taught in Scripture. It is not clear at what stage he had formed his views but it seems that from the beginning he had never fully accepted Beza’s view and that Arminius’ view was formed over a long time and then finally solidified as he taught through Romans (particularly chapters 7 and 9) during his occupation of the pulpit in Amsterdam (pp139-150).

Arminius died in 1609 before he could fully publish his theology on predestination. Some of his work was published after his death and was further refined by the Remonstrants (protesters) and finally published in the form of the Five Articles of Remonstrance, a year after his death. These five articles gave rise to the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 where the Remonstrants were put on trial. The Calvinistic churches condemned Arminius’ teachings as heresy and pronounced anathemas against those who teach them. It is interesting to note that the five points of Calvinism (also known by the acronym of “TULIP”), were developed as a counter to the Five Articles of Remonstrance and not the other way around as some mistakenly claim. As a result of Dort, the Remonstrants were evicted from their pulpits, imprisoned and some were executed. Those who were not imprisoned or executed had to flee for their lives. It seems likely that had he not died (probably of TB), when he did, he would have been executed after the synod of Dort.

One of the difficulties in coming to a clear understanding of Arminius’ views is the degree to which tradition has foisted on him developments in “Arminian theology”, that continued to evolve under the Remonstrants, Wesley and others.

Original Sin (Total Depravity)

Arminius very seldom used the term “original sin” and saw man’s state as being more one of “privation” than “depravation”. The difference between his view and that of his opponents on this issue was very small and largely semantic (in my humble opinion). He believed that Adam, through his sin, became subject to a “double death” and was deprived of the holiness and righteousness, which was a great part of the image of God in man. As a result of Adam’s sin, all men became guilty and “are by nature the children of wrath” (Ephesians 11:3). Each man is born with the sinful nature of Adam and as a result sins by nature. (pp336-340)

He said: “In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but is also imprisoned, destroyed and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatsoever except such as are excited by divine grace. For Christ has said, ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’” (p341).

Free Will and Grace

While Arminius says that man has a free will in other areas, his will is not free to accomplish spiritual good or to do anything that is meritorious. “All response of man to the divine vocation is the work of grace. The entire process of believing… is of grace. But one result of gracious renewal is the cooperating which man does in believing. When light was kindled… man… being made capable in Christ, cooperating (cooperans) now with God… This cooperation is not the means of renewal; it is the result of renewal. It is not a meritorious work.” (pp341-342 Emphasis mine). He thus plainly disavows synergism whereby salvation is a joint work between God and man. He is explicit that salvation and the process of salvation is all of God (p342).

Resistible Grace

The whole process of salvation is a work of God and man is so fallen that he cannot even choose salvation when it is offered to him. And while man does not have the will to choose salvation and the good, he does have the will to choose evil and to reject the call of God. “Grace is not a force; it is a Person, the Holy Spirit, and in personal relationships there cannot b the sheer overpowering of one person by another” (p343). Thus Grace can be resisted.

Justification

Man is not justified by believing (as many accuse Arminius of teaching), but man is justified because God imputes to man His righteousness. (p344).

Assurance

“Arminius felt that supralapsarianism led to either unwarranted security or unwarranted despair.” He tried to steer clear of these two errors and taught that “It is possible for him who believes in Jesus Christ to be certain and persuaded, and, if his heart condemn him not, he is now in reality assured, that he is a son of God and stands in the grace of Jesus Christ” (p348).

Perseverance

Arminius’ view on whether a believer can fall from grace progressed from his earlier to his later writings. But he is, at best, vague. He was certain that grace is sufficient and abundant to preserve the faithful through all trials and temptations for life everlasting. The clearest statement of the view at the time comes from the fifth Article of Remonstrance: “…but whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of neglecting grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full confidence of our mind.” (http://www.crivoice.org/creedremonstrants.html). Later developments of this teaching resulted in the view that “Salvation is conditioned on faith, therefore perseverance is also conditioned. Apostasy (turning from Christ) is only committed through a deliberate, willful rejection of Jesus and renunciation of saving faith. Such apostasy is irremediable.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arminianism). It must be stressed however that this is a later development and neither Arminius nor the Remonstrants had fully come to this conclusion. BUT looking at indirect statements of Arminius, it is my considered opinion that had he had the time to pursue this question to its conclusion, he would have come to the conclusion that Wesley and others came to that the believer could come to a point of apostatizing. For example on 1John 3:9 Arminius said: “…I shall take the word ‘remains’ as signifying indwelling, but not continued indwelling. As long as the seed remains in him, he does not sin unto death, but by degrees the seed may be taken out of his heart” (p218). He makes similar points regarding the parable of the sower and the vine and the branches in John15:3 (p218). In his declaration of Sentiments (1608 – a year before his death) he wrote: “I have never taught that a true believer can either totally or finally fall away from the faith and perish, yet I will not conceal that there are passages of Scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect.” (p313).

Predestination

In his Declaration of Sentiments (1608), Arminius defines his view on predestination, but he first outlines the parameters he had set for the establishing of the doctrine: “Predestination must be understood Christologically; it must be evangelical; it must not make God the author of sin; it must not make man the author of salvation; it must be scriptural, not speculative; and it must not depart from the historical teaching of the church.” (p350). I think that these criteria are as important in understanding his thinking as the conclusions he comes to. He manages to balance these criteria in his “four divine decrees” which he lists in a very specific order of importance:

  1. The election of Jesus Christ. The point of this decree is to make Christ the object of the Gospel and not man. He wrote: “The first precise and absolute decree of God for affecting salvation of sinful man is that he has determined to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, as Mediator, Redeemer, Savior, Priest, and King, to nullify sin by his death, to obtain the lost salvation through his obedience, and to communicate it by his power.” (p350).
  2. The election of the church. “The second precise and absolute decree of God is that he has determined graciously to receive in favor those who repent and believe, and, the same preserving, to effect (sic) their salvation in Christ, for Christs’ sake, and through Christ…” (p351). In this decree Arminius speaks of believers as a “class” and this is also the way he interprets Romans 9 (and other Scriptures): that God deals with classes (Israel, the church) as well as with individuals. Thus election is conditional on repentance and faith, but neither is a meritorious work.
  3. The appointment of means. “The third decree of God is that by which he has predetermined to administer the necessary, sufficient, and powerful means of repentance and faith…” (p352). “The means are ‘sufficient and powerful’. The preaching of the cross is a serious call… [Thus] the reprobate cannot be damned for disobedience to a call not made to them.” (p352). (He thus denies “irresistible grace”.)
  4. The election of individuals. “From this follows the fourth decree to save certain particular persons and to damn others, which decree rests upon the foreknowledge of God, by which he has known from eternity which persons should believe… through his preceding grace and which would persevere through subsequent grace, and also who should not believe and persevere.” (p352). The nature of God’s foreknowledge was one of the central issues in the dispute between Arminius and his enemies. Beza, and his followers, insisted that God’s foreknowledge was “causal” – it was based on God causing that he foreknew to come to pass. Arminius said that God’s foreknowledge was “contingent”, based on His knowledge how individuals and classes would respond, without causing that response. (pp 219; 253; 352-355).

6.     Why I am Not an Arminian.

I have been blessed to find in Arminius’ views on predestination a wonderful confirmation for my own views. I have also been encouraged to read about a man, at that time, who was not just a theologian, but one who lived and practiced his faith. However, I am not an Arminian and eschew the title for the following reasons:

  1. My views were never formed by, or based on, those of Arminius, but rather, on a study of the Scriptures and a study of the Reformed view. Yes, I had indeed studied the Reformed doctrine and became well acquainted with it, decades before studying the Arminian view! I therefore only own the label “Biblical Christian” and am not a disciple of Arminius.
  2. Arminius believed in, and practiced, paedobaptism and not believer’s baptism. He was well acquainted with the Anabaptist position on water baptism and was tasked by the church to write a rebuttal of Anabaptist doctrine. He avoided this assignment, not because he was in agreement with the Anabaptist view on baptism, which he opposed, but because the Anabaptists stood against the doctrine of predestination (pp166-171). I cannot be identified with someone who does not uphold such a fundamental doctrine as believer’s baptism.
  3. Arminius held to Subordinationism (that Jesus always was subordinate to the Father) and the concomitant theory of eternal generation. He freely quotes the heretic Origen on these theories in the absence of Biblical evidence for them. (p282). In my view they diminish the deity and eternality of Christ.
  4. Arminius, like other Calvinists of his day, saw the sacraments, as more than simply earthly elements signifying spiritual truths. He did not accept the Roman heresy of transubstantiation (the bread and wine are changed into the literal blood and body of Christ). Neither did he accept the Lutheran idea of consubstantiation (The “substance” of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain present). But, he did see the bread and wine as more than simply earthly tokens demonstrating heavenly truths. He saw them as having a spiritual and mystical power “…seals and pledges, which affect not only the mind, but likewise the heart itself” (p334).
  5. Arminius was very committed to the marriage of church and state. Not only did he see them as inextricably linked, but he saw the church as being subject to the secular leaders. “Arminius and the burgomasters [city councilors] stood together in affirming the right and duty of the magistracy to exercise oversight of the internal affairs of the church…” (p147). Not only did he perpetuate Calvin’s Genevan system, but went further than his opponents in giving power to secular authorities over the affairs of the church (whereas in Geneva it was the other way around). This is obviously not a system that has any Biblical basis and I certainly cannot countenance the usurpation of Christ’s supremacy over the church by secular leaders.
  6. While he stood vehemently on the supreme authority of Scripture and the idea of Sola Scriptura, he was also strongly influenced by some of the erroneous ideas of the Church Fathers, the Synods of the church and particularly by John Calvin. All the problems I highlighted above are a direct result of these influences and it saddens me greatly that he was not able to cast off the yoke of tradition and return fully to the Scriptures alone, as he had on the matter of predestination.

7.     Conclusion

In spite of Arminius falling short of a full revision of the dogmas of Calvinism, he still stands out as a great man for his courage, wisdom and humility. His influence has been a counter-balance to Calvinism’s predestination and he has impacted millions by his return to Scripture on this matter. After him, the Remonstrants, and later, the Wesleys and still later, 20th century Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism took up the baton. Sadly, in the last 40 years, we have seen an increasing abandonment of this Biblical doctrine and a return to the traditions of men. May the Lord give us more men who are committed to truth, no matter how unpopular truth may be, and no matter the cost of standing by the Scriptures alone.

Anton Bosch
Los Angeles
August 2017


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