This article is part of a series on James Arminius.
Dutch National Affairs
We have been critiquing the soil from which Arminius’ theology grew. Guyer remarks, “In many respects Arminius lived in one of the most eventful periods of the world’s history”1 —between Luther’s reformation in 1517 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Amsterdam…was now the political capital of Protestantism as Geneva was its spiritual capital.”2
Uitenbogaert, Arminius’ friend from college days, had been promoted to court preacher at The Hague. Arminius had become a national figure. Guyer maintains that “no man was ever more truly Holland’s spokesman than Arminius. He knew the tenor of his countrymen better than the teachers and statesmen who were looking askance at the reformer.”3
Church and State
Predestination was not the only Calvinistic dogma the Dutch resisted. They also rejected the concept that the church was not to be under the control of the state. The Dutch ideal, and that of Arminius, was that “the state was obligated to maintain the opportunity for freedom of conscience.”4
Arminius taught that the magistrate was to govern the people in respect to both natural and spiritual life. “The care of religion has been committed by God to the chief magistrate more than to priests and to ecclesiastical persons.”5 He also ascribes to the magistrate the power to call and preside over synods and councils. The Calvinists could not stomach it.
This civil and lay interference with church affairs was resented by the Geneva elements. Thus the party lines began to emerge with the lay magistrates and the laity generally on one side and the high-Calvinist clergy on the other. The magistrates and laymen, supporting Erastianism, toleration, and mild views of predestination, saw in the other party the seeds of a new papacy in which the clergy could come to dominate the church and dictate its doctrines and policies. The clergy saw in the magistrates a threat to the presbyterian polity in which the church preserves its autonomy against the interference of the state.6
The Dutch were inclined to be very tolerant. Or maybe the spirit of toleration came first. Arminius quoted Tertullian as saying, “Nothing is less a religious business than to employ coercion about religion.”7 The historic Dutch toleration was to be challenged by the narrower Calvinists trying to squeeze everyone into the same theological form.
The Request for a National Synod
Arminius, then, had his finger on the pulse of the nation. In his Rectoral Oration in 1606 he had voiced “one final national plea for a degree of tolerance and inclusiveness in the church which would not be known in the lifetime of anyone present.”8 He cautions that religion may suffer the same fate as a young lady of whom Plutarch speaks. She “was addressed by a number of suitors; and when each of them found that she could not become entirely his own, they divided her body into parts, and thus not one of them obtained possession of her whole person.”9
Arminius himself was under attack, and there was great dissension. His prayer was, “Give peace, 0 Lord, to thy Israel; may there be peace within thy walls and prosperity in thy palaces.”10 Wiley comments,
The success of Arminius as a true reformer is to be found in his calm and patient manner. He hated schism. He was not a wrangling, contentious, and unscrupulous man as sometimes reported by his opponents. Headstrong men are never the best reformers.11
Arminius considered the best solution to be a national synod. There the question of revising the Belgic Confession, a very hot issue, could be decided upon, and hopefully it would be the occasion of quelling this tempest. He plead, wrote letters, and spoke of his hope for a national synod. Smaller meetings were convened but the national synod was put off.
Arminius’ desire for a synod illustrated his doctrine of church and state. If the civil ruler was a Christian he should preside; if not, the duty fell upon the church leaders. But the authority of such a council is limited. Their decision must be weighed against the Scripture. (The Bible should be placed in the chief seat). He had personally served under a local government all his life, and he wanted the state to provide a stable frame of reference in which the church could operate.12
In line with this doctrine of the primacy of the Scripture, Arminius and Uitenbogaert and others wanted to convene the synod in order to examine whether the Belgic Confession was in accord with the Scriptures. Harrison comments wryly, “The mere mention of revision of the symbols of the faith aroused excitement as though the Ark of the Covenant had been touched.”13 The Calvinists wished no revision; they wanted every minister to sign the Confession every year! To Arminius, this would be reminiscent of the Inquisition! He complained to Uitenbogaert that Gomarus and others wanted to canonize the Confession.
Arminius had no problem with the Confession and the Catechism. Godfrey explains,
Neither of these standards explicitly taught the limited or definite atonement. Both tended to discuss the work of Christ in terms of what He did “for us,” i.e. for the believers. Such expressions provided an implicit support for the doctrine of the definite atonement.14
Articles Twenty and Twenty-One of the Confession seemed to imply a limited atonement, but Question and Answer Thirty-Seven of the Catechism could be read as an endorsement of a general atonement.15 16 Arminius wanted to allow an open examination of the matter. The Calvinists wanted to force their narrow interpretations on the whole church.
It is wrong to assert that Arminius was innovating. Arminius thus is seen as one who articulates a position which he feels to be a valid Reformed theology of grace in harmony with the earliest sentiments of the Reformed churches in Switzerland and in Holland, in harmony with the accepted Dutch confessions, and only partly divergent from Calvin himself.17
Nevertheless he was under attack. He claimed that
I am assuredly dissimilar from heretics, who have either avoided ecclesiastical assemblies, or have managed matters so as to be able to confide in the number of their retainers, and to expect a certain victory.18
He was finally granted his hearing on October 30, 1608 before the States of Holland.
Declaration of Sentiments
We have already outlined parts of this document when we examined Arminius’ theology. In this great defense, Arminius spoke confidently. The former reticence was gone. This was the time to speak. Bangs commits himself:
I make bold to say that Arminius’ Declaration, while not without flaws, manifests a candor, a clarity, and a charity which are missing in Gomarus.19
Gomarus made his counter-attack on December 12, 1608, but the States were not impressed.
Illness and Death
On February 7, 1609 Arminius took seriously ill. The doctors were alarmed. In spite of his illness, the war raged. Pamphlets were printed, copies of his debates with Gomarus were published. All that year, Arminius suffered. In August, he and Gomarus were scheduled to meet at The Hague to review their doctrinal differences. Arminius became so ill that he had to return home. On September 12, he made a final statement about his theology, which he believed to be consonant with Scripture,
By God’s grace I have persisted in it, and I am ready to appear with this conviction before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ the Son of God and Judge of the living and the dead.20
His mind was clear and he retained his dignity to the end, praying aloud and testifying to those in the room. He was in pain but remained cheerful. He passed from this life to the next on October 19, 1609.
Peter Bertius offered the funeral oration, closing with
There lived in Holland a man whom they who did not know could not sufficiently esteem, whom they who did not esteem had never sufficiently known… Beloved, let us love one another.21
To know him was to love him!
- Guyer, James Arminius, p. 12.
- Harrison, Arminianism, p.15.
- Guyer, James Arminius, p.101.
- McCulloh, ed., Man’s Faith and Freedom, p.15. 11.
- Armlnius, Writings, 11:508.
- Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” p.159.
- Arminius, Writings, 1:189.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.275.
- Arminius, Writings, 1:161-162.
- Harrison, Arminianism, p.23.
- H. Orton Wiley, “The Four Hundredth Anniversary,” p.5.
- Cf. Arminius, Writings, 11:144-148.
- Harrison, Arminianism, p.33.
- W. Robert Godfrey, “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618,”
- Westminster Theological Journal 37 (Winter 1975):151.
- Ibid. The actual texts are included for examination.
- Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” p.164.
- Arminius, Writings, 11:477.
- Bangs, Arminius, p.320.
- Ibid., p.328.
- Bertius, “Funeral Oration” in Bangs, Arminius, p.331.