This article is part of a series on James Arminius.
Arminius “began conducting the evening service in the Old Church on Sunday, February 7, 1588 as a proponent, a preacher on trial.”1 On August 27, 1588, he was ordained, having been examined and found acceptable able by the consistory.2 Bertius later recalled the enthusiastic reception he received from the people in Amsterdam.
This flattering reception ought to excite no wonder; for—I speak before those who knew him well,— there was in him a certain incredible gravity softened down by a cheerful amenity; his voice was rather weak, yet sweet, harmonious and piercing…. He disdained to employ any rhetorical flourishes, and made no use of the honeyed sweets collected for this purpose from the Greeks.”3
Later his biographer, Casper Brandt, described his preaching.
His discourses were masculine and erudite; everything he uttered breathed the theologian–not raw and common-place, but superior, acute, cultivated, and replete with solid acquisitions both in human and sacred literature. This made him such a favorite both with the high and the low, that in a short time he attracted toward himself the ears and the hearts of all classes alike. In the general admiration of his talents, some styled him,’a file of truth’; others, ‘a whetstone of intellect’; others, ‘a pruning-knife for rank-growing errors’; and, indeed, on the subject of religion and sacred study, it seemed as if scarcely anything was known which Arminius did not know.4
“Even Professor Stuart, of Andover, a polished, eminent and conservative scholar, does not hesitate to call Arminius the most learned man of his day.’5
He carefully wrote out his sermons and filed them for future reference. Much of what he used later at the university had been developed during his ministry at Amsterdam.
Theologically, Arminius was no Calvinist when he assumed pastoral duties in Amsterdam.6 This began to evidence itself in his ministry. Dirck Coornhert, the Dutch humanist, had argued against Beza’s supralapsarian dogma.7 In 1589 or 1591, two ministers from Delft ventured an answer to Coornhert’s attack, but they constructed a sublapsarian response. Arminius was asked to defend his mentor’s supralapsarianism.
From this point, there seems to be confusion of details. Bertius began a story that many have followed. He explained that Arminius, in an attempt to refute the sublapsarian answer, was first troubled about his own views and finally,
while he was thus harrassing and fatiguing himself, he was conquered by the force of truth, and, at first, became a convert to the very opinions which he had been requested to combat and refute. But he afterwards disapproved of them, as promulgated by the brethren of Delft, because he did not think the doctrine contained in them to be correct according to the scriptures.8
Bertius further explains that Arminius eventually adopted a position similar to that of Melanchthon and Nicholas Hemmingius, the Danish Lutheran theologian.
Bangs contradicts most other writers with his carefully researched thesis that Arminius had never adopted a supralapsarian position. He cites a letter written to Grynaeus, a professor at Basel as well as Arminius’ own preaching on Romans 7 in 1591. He concludes,
Finally there is some negative evidence, or significant arguments from silence, respecting Bertius’ story of a theological transition in 1591. First there is no clear evidence that Arminius had ever accepted Beza’s doctrine of predestination and its concomitants. Second, he makes no point of having undergone atheological transition. He constantly portrays himself as teaching an ancient position in the church and one widely held even among the Reformed pastors in the Low Countries. He sees his opponents as innovators, not himself.
What he had learned from his early teachers, what had been widely held in the Dutch churches in the earlier decades, suddenly became controversial, and he was in the middle of the turmoil.9
Romans 7 and 9
Arminius was preaching through the book of Romans. By 1591 he had reached chapter seven. The question gripped him, Was this descriptive of the regenerate life or of the unregenerate? The Calvinists taught the former. But did this not demean the power of God in salvation? If one took the latter position, did this not militate against the doctrine of total depravity–man’s inability to do any thing to bring his own salvation.
Professor Hoenderdaal comments, “it seems that Arminius did not have the proper feeling for the Lutheran paradox, simul Justus et peccator; that is that a man can be righteous and a sinner at one and the same time. Indeed, his distinction between unregenerate and regenerate man is far too rigorous.”10 One is moved to question whether Hoenderdaal is indeed an Arminian in doctrine! If there is not a qualitative, ethical difference between the saved and the unsaved, where is the power of the Gospel? Arminius took his stand that Romans 7:14-25 depicts the unregenerate.
The apostle in this passage is treating neither about himself, such as he then was, nor about a man living under grace; but he has transferred to himself the person of a man placed under the law.11
The fray had begun, but when Arminius preached on chapter nine, open warfare broke loose. Gellius Snecanus, a minister in West Friesland, had written a commentary on the chapter, in which he took a similar view to that of Arminius. As soon as Arminius read it, he wrote an analysis of the chapter and sent it to Snecanus with appreciatory remarks for Snecanus’ commentary. Arminius bares his heart:
I candidly confess that this chapter has always seemed to me to be involved in the greatest obscurity, I cannot easily describe, most excellent sir, with how much delight I was affected by reading and seriously considering your commentary on the ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. For when I saw that your idea of the scope of the Apostle, and of the use of his principle arguments, was the same as I had recently presented to my congregation, in explaining the same chapter, I was greatly confirmed in that opinion, both because I have great confidence in your judgment, and because I found proofs in the arguments, which you advanced….I candidly confess that this chapter has always seemed to me to be involved in the greatest obscurity, and its explanation has appeared most difficult, until light, introduced in this way, dispelled the shades, and placed the subject, illustrated by its own clearness, before my mind, so as to be plainly understood.12
He proceeds to explain that the scope of Romans 9 is the same as the scope of the whole book:
That the Gospel, not the law, is the power of God unto salvation, not to him that worketh, but to him that believeth, since in the Gospel the righteousness of God is manifested in the obtainment of salvation by faith in Christ.13
Paul was refuting the objection of the Jews. They had protested:
- If most of the Jews are rejected, the Word of God must fail;
- But it cannot be that the Word of God should fail;
- Therefore most of the Jews are not rejected.
Paul denied that the failure of the Jews implies the failure of the Word of God because, “They are not all Israel which are of Israel.” Those who seek righteousness by the law are rejected; those who seek it by faith are saved. “God placed the condition of the covenant of grace, not in
a perfect obedience to the law, as previously, but in faith in Christ.”14
Arminius’ theology was in diametric opposition to the favourite dogmas of the growing Calvinistic party in the Netherlands.
Let us turn to a more pleasant aspect of his life. On Sunday, September 16, Arminius married Lijsbet Laurensdochter, daughter of Laurens Jacobszoon Reael, a wealthy merchant of Amsterdam. The marriage seems to have been made in heaven, though very few personal insights into their love and life together are open to us. Bangs speaks of “the home to which the young minister could come for domestic solace after battling the crosscurrents of civic, ecclesiastical, and theological life.”15 Bangs notes:
By 1590 Arminius, the orphan from Oudewater, was no longer an isolated individual lacking in supportive relationships and dependent on charity. By his call to the Amsterdam ministry and by his marriage to Lijsbet, he was caught up in an extended network of professional, political, economic, and family relationships which extended into every corner of the leading families of Amsterdam. More than once these relationships were to function in his favor in the turbulent years which lay ahead.16
Twelve children were born in the course of time, but with the high infant mortality of that day many died very young.
Controversy with Plancius (1591-1593)
Adolph Bedsole has remarked, “Every preacher needs a Jezebel and a Judas on his trail.”17 Christ had His cross, John had his Patmos, Peter had his night in jail, and John Bunyan spent years in jail. Well, Arminius had Plancius! And later Gomarus! Harrison says Plancius was “one of the best-known ministers of Holland.”18 Bangs portrays him as
seven years older than Arminius, a bearded, hunchback, fighting Calvinist who wore a tight skull cap. He was forceful and many were to feel his force. He was perhaps the first to try to propagate the doctrine of predestination in the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland. His biographer, J. Keuning, says that until Plancius went north, the preaching there was based more on Bible than dogma, more on piety than theology, with no trace of the doctrine of predestination to be found.19
Plancius raised such an issue in the consistory that it eventually gained the attention of the burgomasters. It will be remembered that several of the leading men of Amsterdam were very favorable to Arminius. “When the case was taken to Town Hall, Bre’r Rabbit was in the briar patch.”20 Several of the burgomasters were quite tolerant in religious matters. In fact, they had on occasion defended even Catholics and Anabaptists from harm! They urged that “the ministers would diligently apply themselves henceforth to the cultivation of peace and harmony… and avoid giving anyone occasion by their declamatory statements, to suspect that some serious contentions were fostered among them.”21 Bangs observes, “This was clearly a vindication of Arminius and a rebuke to Plancius, for only Plancius had made any accusations.”22
Later in a face-to-face confrontation before the consistory on May 27, 1593, Plancius’ allegations were reduced to three. Arminius very calmly answered all three. The consistory accepted his explanations and considered the matter settled. Bangs calls this the First Arminian Controversy.23
The Plague (1601-1602)
Arminius’ pastoral labors excelled in compassion, but nowhere did his personal warmth evidence itself as in his ministry during the bubonic plague. Prayer was offered and thanksgiving was made that not one of the “councilmen, judges, treasurers, prefects of orphans, ministers of the Word, elders, deacons, poor-relief superintendents, school rectors or teachers”24 had perished. Of course, we now understand that the plague was carried by the common sewer rat and the upper class would not be exposed as would the poorer people who lived in water-level cellars.
Arminius ministered tenderly even going into a house in the slum district where a family was dying. No one else would enter to give them water so he bought water and took it in himself. The plague and all the suffering and death made Arminius very sober. He was concerned not so much for himself as for his family, should he die. He also had reservations about his unpublished manuscripts. He knew they included material that would be controversial if published. He finally decided to will them to his friend, Uitenbogaert in the event of death. It would be up to him to dispose of them as he wished.
The plague did take two men, professors at Leiden, Francis Junius and Luke Trelcatius. The events that followed changed Arminius’ life. He was thrust into the center of national life in a way that he probably never desired.
Before we take up that chain of events let us consider one more writing from the Amsterdam years.
“The Examination of Perkins’ Pamphlet”
William Perkins, “perhaps the first important English theologian since the Reformation,”25 was a professor in Cambridge University. His strong predestinarian teachings prevailed for a time in Cambridge, but in the 1590’s controversy broke out. Peter Baro, a professor of divinity took issue with him. In 1595, a student of Baro’s was denied the B.D. degree for not agreeing with Perkin’s views. Baro was eventually dismissed. In a letter to Hemmingius, the Danish theologian, dated April 1, 1596, he expressed opinions on predestination almost identical to Arminius’ Declaration of Sentiments of 1608. Arminius was not alone!
Perkins produced a book De praedestinationis mode et ordine in 1598. It was republished in Basel in 1599. When Arminius read it he set about to write an answer. Perkins died in 1602 before Arminius’ answer was finished. The reply exceeds 240 pages in Nichols and Bagnall’s English translation! Bangs calls it “the basic document of Arminianism.”26
Arminius begins, after a short introduction by questioning Perkins’ definitions of terms.27 In part one, he proceeds to comment on four allegations commonly asserted against Perkins’ view of predestination.28 Perkins’ had listed these and defended his teaching. Arminius examines them point by point.
- That only a few are elect.
- That God ordained men to hell-fire.
- That all things have been decreed by God, as the Stoics believed.
- That the greatest part of the human race are left without Christ and without saving grace.
Perkins had endeavoured to extricate himself from these allegations, but Arminius skilfully weaves a web of logic and scripture to prove his point.
Part two involves an examination of the view Perkins had set out to disprove. Arminius corrects Perkins’ statements of the supposed opponents. He then affirms:
- “God wills that all men should be saved, if they believe, and be condemned if they do not believe.”29
- God “has determined to save believers by grace; that is by a mild and gentle suasion, convenient or adapted to their free will, not by an omnipotent action or motion, which would be subject neither to their will, nor to their ability either of resistance or of will.”30 Similarly, reprobation does not impinge on free will.
Arminius scrutinizes ten more points and gives his own answers. It is a closely reasoned treatise.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.113.
- Ibid., p.114.
- Peter Bertius, “Funeral.” Quoted in Bangs, Arminius, p.114.
- Guyer, James Arminius, p. 64.
- Ibid., p.65.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.78. Bangs cites F. J. Los, a modern Calvinist, as holding the same position.
- Bangs says that Bertius implies 1591 while Brandt dates the events in 1589 (Bangs, Arminius, p.138).
- Bertius, “Funeral Oration” Works of James Arminius, 1: 30. Quoted in Bangs, Arminius, p. 139.
- Bangs, Arminius, p. 141.
- McCulloh, ed., Man’s Faith and Freedom, p.17.
- James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, 3 vols., trans. James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956),11:221.
- Arminius, Writings, 111:527-528.
- Ibid., 111:537.
- Bangs, Arminius, pp. 136-137.
- Ibid., p.132.
- Adolf Bedsole, The Pastor in Profile (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), p.114.
- Harrison, Arminianism, p.17.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.119. Cites J. Keuning, Petrus Plancius: theoloog en Geograaf, p.7.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.145.
- Caspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, (Amsterdam, 1724; English translation, Nashville, 1857), p.81. Quoted in Bangs, “Dutch Theology” Church History 39:473.
- Bangs, “Dutch Theology” p.473.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.145.
- Ibid. p.172.
- Ibid., p.207.
- Ibid., p.209.
- Arminius, Writings, 111:290-373.
- Ibid., pp. 374-474.
- Ibid., p. 477.
- Ibid., p. 479.