James Arminius: The Theologian


This article is part of a series on James Arminius.

Appointment to Professor of Theology at Leiden

Upon the passing of Junius and Trelcatius, an immediate search for replacements began. Arminius’ was considered from the first. Harrison declares, “The curators of the university would have Arminius and no one else. They did not want to appoint a foreigner and there was no candidate at home with claims that in any way equalled those of Arminius.”1 The Calvinists were infuriated. But the curators resolutely pursued their desired man and finally won. Arminius’ appointment continued “the policy of maintaining balance in the faculty between the two theological tendencies in the Dutch churches.”2

When everything had been cleared with the Amsterdam burgomasters, Arminius was appointed to the professorship. He was examined for the Doctor’s degree and excelled in every way. In a letter written in September, 1603, he stated that his motive for receiving the appointment was “to do public service in the Gospel of Christ, and to exhibit that Gospel as powerfully and plainly as possible before those who are destined, in their time to propagate it to others.”3

Harrison comments that “The aim of theology was for him the union of God and man  to the salvation of the one and the glory of the other, which reveals the practical and evangelical temper of his teaching.”4

None the less

Earnest high Calvinists felt that the foundations of the faith were being sapped by the subtle, persistent and careful arguments of Arminius. Although they could not corner him they were sure that the minds of the younger men in the ministry were being corrupted.5

A new opponent arose–Gomarus the senior Divinity professor–fueled by the contentious Plancius of Amsterdam!

Controversy with Gomarus

We have noted that high Calvinism was imported into the Netherlands. The older Dutch reformers favored less emphasis on Sovereign Grace and emphasized the responsibility of the individual to ethical piety.6 But the newer ministers having been trained in Geneva under Calvin’s decretum horibile7 and Beza’s even sterner supralapsarianism were gaining in strength. Bangs points out that Perkins of England, Plancius of Amsterdam, and Franciscus Gomarus of Leiden “retained a position more logical, more rigorous than Calvin’s.”8 It was inevitable that heated disagreement should develop. Arminius was the man of the hour, the focal point around which all the forces of both sides gathered.

It must be re-emphasized that Arminius’ “concern with the errors of Calvinism was deeply practical as well as intellectual. He saw clearly the morally unhinging possibilities of a determinism that relieved men of freedom and hence released men from responsibility.”9 He feared that some would fall into a foolish confidence that they were unconditionally safe while others would completely despair. Arminius warned, “These two–despair and carnal security– are the greatest evils to be avoided in the whole of religion.”10

The dissension between Arminius and Gomarus grew. Gomarus seemed determined to crush Arminius and his views. Soon students were choosing sides, ministers were preaching on the issues, people in the marketplace were energetically and at times vehemently dividing. The debate seemed endless. John Milton sarcastically depicted certain damned souls:

Others sat on a Hill retir’d
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate,
Fix’t Fate, free Will, Foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.11

He had tired of the ceaseless debate among Calvinists.

In spite of his disagreement, Arminius had great respect for Calvin and Beza.12 But he qualifies his indebtedness to them by saying,

They may deserve well of the Church, and yet be entangled in some error: and the illustrious restorers of the Church perhaps did not spy out everything with which the Church was deformed, and perchance themselves built a super structure of some errors on a true foundation….”13

Plancius and Gomarus would have canonized the writings of Calvin and Beza. Not so, with Arminius. As Bangs observed, “Insistence upon the sole authority of Scripture prevented Arminius …from ascribing to Calvin the kind of ultimate authority allowed him by the Leiden professor, Franciscus Gomarus.”14

The Calvinists kept up a constant protest. Rumors flew. But Arminius did not defend himself. Guyer comments, “Not once during all these days of gathering strife and bitter wrangling did Arminius appear before the curators to plead his own cause.”15 Brandt had remarked, “He was never flustered, never angry, never discouraged but left all in the hands of Providence.”16

By contrast, Gomarus “manifested a very narrow and bitter spirit.”17 Before a hearing of a civil court, Gomarus was able to sustain no serious charges (he admitted he had neither read nor heard Arminius himself), but quibbled until the court dismissed the case in disgust. The court reported to the States-General that their points of difference were not fundamental. But Gomarus protested openly that “with the opinions which [Arminius] professed, he durst not appear in the presence of his Maker,”18 and that unless some measure of prevention were instituted the whole country would erupt in civil strife. A layman having observed the whole affair commented that he had rather stand before God with the sentiments of Arminius than the love of Gomarus!19

By contrast, Atkinson observes

There is something dramatic and exciting about the mildness of Arminius: for it is the mildness of a lamb among wolves. In the midst of hard and rigorous men, he was ever ‘the amiable, pacific, and learned Arminius,’ yet not without a quiet and almost fierce intellectual and spiritual strength which suggests the wrath of the lamb….it is almost impossible to find in his writings a touch of malice. In his latest disputations, one does have the sense that he is raising his voice slightly, but nowhere does he retaliate in kind to his foes…20

In 1605, while Arminius was Rector for the year, the theology faculty had signed an agreement that the conflict had been resolved, but the struggle continued and even intensified. Eventually any disturbance in the country was blamed in some remote way on Arminius!

In this, the Second Arminian Controversy, there was a distinct difference in mood. In the first round, Arminius had been among friends. This time the Calvinists had gained the upper hand in Amsterdam. Plancius was making maps and money for the Dutch East India Company. The rigid Calvinist Reynier Pauw was a large investor in the company and a powerful force in politics. “The theology of Arminius had undergone no significant change since 1592, but the theological, economic, political, and ecclesiastical settings were vastly different.”21 And predestination had become sacrosanct by the need to defend it against Bellarmine, the Jesuit theologian who had been commissioned to re-unite the Dutch church with Rome.

Answers to Nine Questions

A series of questions had been presented to the curators with the request that all of the faculty be required to declare their views on each. The curators resented the intrusion and they adamantly refused. These questions later fell into Arminius’ hands, whereupon he wrote a full response.

Arminius’ Theology

Hoenderdaal stresses that “for Arminius theology is a practical study….[He] strongly emphasized the connection between theology and the worship and service of God…. In all the works of Arminius this practical, and at the same time devout, form of theology is evident.”22 Arminius also “maintained that the doctrines which he held and taught were not his own, but those of the Scriptures which the fathers taught for the first four hundred years.”23 “Predestination has been the recurring theme of this entire story.”24

Just what did Arminius believe. Professor Hoenderdaal puts it concisely.

God’s freedom comes first. God gives faith. Man can resist this faith. Whoever accepts faith, whoever is illuminated by the Holy Ghost and accepts faith, will be chosen. Believers are the true elect.25

Before giving his views on predestination, Arminius summarizes what Beza had taught concerning the order of the decrees.

  1. “God by an eternal and immutable decree has predestined, from among men (whom he did not consider as being then created, much less as fallen,) certain individuals to everlasting life, and others to eternal destruction, without regard whatever to righteousness or sin….”
  2. “God has pre-ordained certain determinate means which pertain to its execution….” (viz. Election and Reprobation).
  3. In order to accomplish this, God decreed “the creation of man in the upright state… the permission of the fall of Adam…[and] the loss or removal of original righteousness… and a being concluded under sin and condemnation.”
  4. God had to create man righteous, and decree that he sin in order to have individuals on whom to show His justice or mercy.
  5. The means for the execution of the decree of election are pre-ordained.
  6. These are only fully given to the elect.
  7. The means for the execution of the decree of reprobation are also decreed–desertion in sin.
  8. The reprobate who attain to maturity are hardened.
  9. “The elect are necessarily saved, it being impossible for them to perish–and…the reprobate are necessarily damned, it being impossible for them to be saved..”26

Arminius guns down the supralapsarian position with twenty carefully aimed reasons. Then he offers an alternative-sublapsarianism and decimates that position. Finally, he reveals his position.

  1. God decreed to appoint his Son for a Savior.
  2. He decreed to save “those who repent and believe…but to leave in sin…all impenitent persons and unbelievers, and to damn them as aliens from Christ.
  3. He decreed “to administer in a sufficient and efficacious manner the means which were necessary for faith and repentance.” Elsewhere he stresses a universal proffer.
  4. God decreed to save particular persons, whom he foresaw would believe and persevere.27

He follows this explanation with twenty reasons in its favor. Arminius is often charged with Pelagianism but even Alan P. F. Sell admits on the fourth decree, “It is not easy to read Pelagianism into this!”28

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop declares, “Arminius’ teaching was an ethical criticism of the supralapsarian concept of predestination. The implications of this system tend to relax moral integrity.”29

In a short article in Herald of Holiness, Bangs recapitulates Arminius’ theology.

  1. Predestination means believers are saved.
  2. The call to salvation and the promise of grace are coextensive.
  3. Salvation is God’s work, but man’s free act of faith appropriates it.
  4. Grace can be resisted.
  5. It is possible for one to fall from grace if he stops believing.
  6. One may have an assurance of present salvation.
  7. It is graciously possible for the believer to continue in faithful obedience to God. (It remained for Wesley to develop this).30

Godbey concludes that Bangs has demonstrated “that Arminius, a  faithful minister of the Reformed church, never abandoned the doctrines of predestination and justification by faith.”31



  1. Harrison, Arminianism, p.24.
  2. Bangs, Arminius, p.239.
  3. Letter quoted in Guyer, James Arminius, p.89.
  4. Harrison, Arminianism, p.27.
  5. Ibid., p.28.
  6. “Calvin did not gain ready concurrence or ultimate unanimity on predestination even among those who accepted his leadership in other matters….the most consistent resistance came from German-speaking cantons….Even in Geneva, however there was highly-placed resistance to high predestination doctrines.” (Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation” Church History 30 [June 1961]: 158).
  7. Calvin, Institutes, Book III, xxiii, 7 “The decree, I admit, is dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree.”
  8. Bangs, Arminius, p.213.
  9. Atkinson, “The Achievement of Arminius.” Religion in Life 19 (1950): 421.
  10. Ibid., p.426.
  11. John Milton, The Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 1:40. Quoted by J.C. Godbey, “Arminius and Predestination,” (Review of Arminius by C. Bangs), Journal of Religion 53 (October 1973):492.
  12. In a letter dated May 3, 1607, Arminius wrote, “…after the reading of Scripture, which I strenuously inculcate… I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read, whom I extol in higher terms than Helmichius himself….For I affirm that in the interpretation of Scriptures, Calvin is incomparable, and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the writings of the Fathers….His Institutes…1 give out to be read after the Catechism (i.e. of Heidelberg)….But here I add–with discrimination, as the writings of all men ought to be read.” (Quoted in F. Stuart Clark, “Arminius’ Understanding of Calvin,” Evangelical Quarterly 54 [January-March]: 26-27). Notice the guarded tones when he mentions the Institutes.
  13. In the “Examination of Gomarus,” published in English only in the London edition of The Works of James Arminius (London, 1875), 111:656. Cited in Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” p.163.
  14. Carl Bangs, “Arminius; An Anniversary Report,” Christianity Today  5 (October 10, 1960):18.
  15. Guyer, James Arminius, p.86.
  16. Quoted in Guyer, James Arminius, p.86.
  17. W. R. Bagnall, “A Sketch of the Life of James Arminius,” Arminius, Writings, 1:14.
  18. Arminius, Writings, 1:194.
  19. Bangs, Arminius, p.299.
  20. Atkinson, “Achievement of Arminius,” p.421. He also notes a general and dangerous narrowness evidenced by a pastor of that period saying, “We ought to entertain fears about all things, even about those which seem to be safe and secure.” (Ibid., p.420).
  21. Bangs, “Dutch Theology,” p.479.
  22. G. J. Hoenderdaal, “The Life and Thought of Jacobus Arminius,” Religion in Life 29(1960):542.
  23. H. Orton Wiley, “The Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Arminius,” Herald of Holiness, October 5, 1960, p. 5.
  24. Bangs, Arminius, p.350. Cited with approval by Clark, “Arminius’ Understanding of Calvin,” p.29.
  25. Hoenderdaal, “Life and Thought of Arminius,” p.544.
  26. Arminius, Writings, 1:211-215.
  27. Ibid., 1:247-248.
  28. Alan P. F. Sell, The Great Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982),p.11.
  29. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology (Kansas City,MO:Beacon Hill, 1967), p.57.
  30. Carl Bangs, “Basic Principles of Arminianism,” Herald of Holiness October 5, 1960, p.6.
  31. Godbey, “Arminius and Predestination,” p. 496.