James Arminius: The Student


This article is part of a series on James Arminius.

Utrecht and Marburg

We have already noted Arminius’ extraordinary diligence in his studies. He proved to be worth the investment that others placed in him. At Utrecht and Marburg, he had gained an excellent footing in the world of academic pursuit. He mastered Greek and Latin before he was sixteen. Most likely, he also exercised his mind in “dialectic, rhetoric, mathematics and physics.”1 He was tutored by Rudolphus Snellius and ultimately enrolled at Marburg.


The university at Leiden had been established to provide “a firm foundation and support for the freedom and good lawful government of the country, not only in religious matters but also in those pertaining to the general civic welfare….”2 Casper Coolhaes, the man already styled “the forerunner of Arminius,” gave the dedicatory address and began the lectures in theology. He represented the older Netherlands Reformation “with its biblical piety, its irenic spirit, its distaste for extremism in either theology or church renewal, and its urbane, oligarchic exercise of power.” Before long, opposition arose. Pieter Corneliszoon and Johannes Hallius, fellow ministers in Leiden raised controversy. They “represented a confessional and Geneva-oriented dogmatics, high Calvinism with its doctrine of predestination, rigid church discipline, the authority of the consistory, classic, and synod, and intolerance of dissent.”3

This was the atmosphere of tension that existed when Arminius was studying at Leiden. Later, he and Plancius would have their rounds over the same issues in Amsterdam. This was a root of dissension in the Dutch Reformed Church. Predestination was not yet the leading issue; the authority of the magistrates held the focus. But both issues were boiling.

Coolhaes was eventually put out of the ministry and excommunicated in 1582. He operated a distillery in order to make a living. Arminius had been introduced to the dramatic forces that were to play so stongly in his own later years.

For six years, Arminius absorbed the wisdom of the Leiden masters, enthusiastically garnering and examining every thing offered. Brandt says, “Arminius soon made such proficiency that he far outstripped his fellow students…. There were scarcely a field of study or department of the arts which he did not bound over with eager and joyous impulse.” Guyer editorializes, “Arminius was a man head and shoulders above the men of his day.”4

It is not surprising, then, that Arminius came to the attention of the Amsterdam burgomasters. Years earlier the Merchants’ Guild had set aside a large capital fund “for the care and maintenance of old, impoverished, or disabled and needy guild brothers and sisters or for other godly and worthy purposes.”5 The burgomasters and the clergy of Amsterdam recommended Arminius to this guild as a potential future leader in the Dutch Reformed church. The Merchants’ Guild agreed to underwrite Arminius’ education at Geneva, provided that he consent to serve the church in Amsterdam, or receive their permission before accepting any other offer. It was a yoke, to be sure, but that was the only route to further educational development. Is it presumptious to think that Arminius’ submission to the Amsterdam burgomasters exemplifies his doctrine of church and state?


Already, Geneva was regarded as “the chief Reformed university in Europe.”6 Guyer comments,

In those days Geneva was the objective point of every ambitious scholar. It was the center of the Reformed Church. The University stood at the head, and was known throughout Christendom. The University was the heart of Calvinism.7

Theodore Beza had succeeded Calvin in the leadership of both church and city at Geneva. In a time of great distress, he had called for fasting and prayer, and the city had been spared. The perpetrators of the massacre of St. Bartholomew had threatened to expunge Geneva from the face of God’s earth. “Geneva,” they said, “is a mine of heresy, and it must be wiped out.” It was the resolute confidence of Beza that led the people to cast themselves on the mercy of God, and the threatened bloodshed never occurred. Beza was a giant in his day, worthy to be compared with John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Albert Barnes, and Charles G. Finney.8

Theodore Beza’s chief contribution was his austere supralapsarian theology.9 This was an extreme extrapolation from Calvin’s theology. Calvin had stressed predestination, sometimes softening it by mention of man’s free will, at other times doggedly declaring that God has determined all that will happen. Beza categorically insists on a Divine Sovereignty that not only foreknew but decreed that man should sin. Bangs perceptively comments, “It is characteristic of Beza to take a position of Calvin’s, fasten on a difficult facet of it, and throw it into stark, isolated prominence where it can be only accepted or rejected, but not softened.”10 Concerning Beza’s extreme, dogmatic emphasis that the unregenerate can have no stir of desiring righteousness and that even the elect can never attain beyond the experience of Romans 7:14-25 until they reach heaven, Bangs remarks, “The interpretation is in the tradition of Calvin, but Calvin does not put the matter quite so baldly.”11

To look ahead, “it was the insistence on the details of his system as essential to Reformed orthodoxy which had a great deal to do with the precipitation of the so-called Arminian controversy.”12

Some have interpreted Arminius’ attendance at Geneva and especially the letter Beza wrote later, recommending him to the ministry at Amsterdam, to mean that Arminius held the supralapsarian position. But it is well established that “Beza was prone to a rather unexpected tolerance with Dutch students who disagreed with him over predestination.”13 Arminius had high respect for Beza, so that Guyer is not far off in saying, “Arminius sat and learned [at Beza’s feet]; sat, listened, wondered, and admired. He loved Beza. He reverenced him. I almost said, he worshipped him.”14

One other influence from Geneva that should not be overlooked is a professor of theology, Charles Perrot. He was somewhat critical of Beza’s extreme doctrine of grace and plead for tolerance in theological issues.

At Marburg and under the tutelage of Rudolphus Snellius, Arminius had assimilated the logical system of Petrus Ramus. The Geneva Academy was committed to the Aristotelian system with its tight-knit syllogisms.15 The Ramist logic with its binary analysis had more emphasis on the practical. Ramus had defined theology as “the science of living well.” “Scholastic minutiae [were] to be set aside in favor of a plain theology as a basis for action.”16 Arminius met resentment for his Ramist tendencies at Geneva, and for a while he studied at the university in Basel.


A.W.Harrison specifies that the transfer was made “because he was heterodox not in theology but in logic.”17 He excelled there, as usual. He even gave lectures on Ramist logic, and the faculty was so impressed they offered to confer upon him the Doctor of Divinity degree. Arminius declined, saying he was too young.18

Arminius returned to Geneva and studied there until the spring of 1586. One of his classmates was Johannes Uitenbogaert. They had studied together at Utrecht and at Geneva the brotherhood was renewed. They became life-long friends. Later Uitenbogaert became the court preacher at the Hague and was an invaluable ally of Arminius.

Padua and Rome

His studies completed in Geneva, Arminius and Adrian Junius, a law student from Dordrecht, decided to tour Italy. Guyer observes:

His thirst for knowledge was insatiable. His mind was never at rest. His very soul panted for the water-brooks of wisdom and knowledge. And now that he had completed his studies in the chief university of the Calvinistic world, he longed to go to Italy and sit at the feet of the illustrious teacher Zarabella, of Padua, who was at the time the foremost lecturer in the world on the principles of Aristotle’s system of philosophy.”19

Zarabella was critical of Aristotle, but Roman Catholicism and much of Protestantism held to Aristotle’s system. Arminius listened carefully to the discriminating insights of Zarabella. It is impossible to ascertain how much the visit to Padua had to do with his departure from Beza’s theology, but one can hardly agree with those who would scandalously insinuate that his visit to Padua and Rome caused the change. Arminius had evidenced his dissent before this.

Arminius and his friend did visit Rome. “They saw the Pope from a great distance in a large crowd; they did not see Bellarmine.”20 Later Arminius often said, “I saw at Rome a mystery of iniquity more foul than I had ever heard mentioned.”21

But the excursion had its disadvantages. Rumor preceeded him. He returned to Geneva for a short time and then to Amsterdam to report for service in the fall of 1587. Immediately, he was called to account. Critics charged that he had conferred with the Jesuit theologian, Bellarmine, and that he had kissed the Pope’s slipper. Arminius satisfactorily defended his motives and the Amsterdam burgomasters, as well as the consistory, held no objections. Arminius was extended a call to minister in Amsterdam.



  1. Bangs, Arminius, p. 35.
  2. Letter from William of Orange to the States of Holland and West Friesland. Cited in H.C. Rogge, Caspar Janszoon Coolhaes, I: 45-46 which is quoted in Bangs, Arminius, p. 45
  3. Bangs, Arminius, p.54.
  4. Guyer, James Arminius, pp. 27-28.
  5. Handvesten … der Stad Amsterdam, Part 5, bk.1,3 (p.1178). Quoted in Bangs, Arminius, p.65.
  6. McCulloh, ed., Man’s Faith and Freedom, p.12.
  7. Guyer, James Arminius, p.29.
  8. Ibid. pp.39-41.
  9. The actual terms supralapsarian, infralapsarian, and sublapsarian were not used before the Synod of Dort.
  10. Bangs, Arminius, p.68.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” Church History, p.161.
  14. Guyer, James Arminius, p.42.
  15. Ramus had once applied to teach at Geneva. Beza replied first that there were no vacancies, but also that the Academy was determined “to follow the position of Aristotle, without deviating a line, be it in logic or in the rest of our studies.” A tone of good will prevails in the response. Letter is quoted in Charles Waddington, Ramus, sa Vie  ses Ecrits et ses Opinions (Paris: Librarie de Ch. Meyreuls et Ce, Editeurs, 1855), p.229-230. This is cited in Bangs, Arminius, p.61.
  16. Bangs, Arminius, p.62.
  17. A. W. Harrison, Arminianism (London: Duckworth, 1937),p.14.
  18. McCulloh, ed. Man’s Faith and Freedom, p. 13.
  19. Guyer, James Arminius, p. 61.
  20. Bangs, Arminius, p.79.
  21. Guyer, James Arminius, p.62.