In what must be one of the great ironies of church history, Jacob Arminius shares an anniversary year with John Calvin. The Genevan Reformer was born 500 years ago on 10 July 1509. Arminius, who did so much to question Calvin’s theology of sovereign grace, died on 19 October 1609.
Like Calvin, Arminius is one of the few figures in Christian history to have lent his name to an ‘ism’. His teachings, popularly labelled Arminianism, have spread far and wide and influenced many.
Evangelicals have not been immune to his views. During the 18th century evangelical revival, George Whitefield famously fell out with John Wesley over the latter’s Arminianism.
In this article we will look at the man behind the ‘ism’ and consider how Jacob Arminius became an ‘Arminian’. More importantly, we will ask whether Arminianism stands up to the test of Scripture.
Jacob Arminius was born in Oudewater, southern Holland, in 1560. His father died when he was an infant, but wealthy friends of the family provided for Jacob’s education. He studied at the Universities of Marburg and Leiden before being sent to Geneva, where he sat at the feet of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in the city.
Arminius was a diligent scholar and his work impressed his teachers, including Beza. But student life is not for ever and in 1588 Arminius was invited to return to Holland as one of the pastors of the Reformed Church in Amsterdam. In 1590 he married Elizabeth Reael, daughter of an Amsterdam magistrate with whom he was to have nine children. The doctrinal standards of the Dutch Reformed Church were the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession, both solidly Calvinistic documents.
In 1603, Arminius was appointed professor of divinity in his alma mater, the University of Leiden. But it soon became evident that his theology was not fully orthodox. His ideas on predestination proved especially controversial. He rooted election in God’s foreknowledge of which sinners would believe in Christ.
It used to be thought that Arminius’ problems with the Reformed doctrine of predestination began when he was asked to refute the unorthodox views of Dirck Coonhert, an opponent of Calvinistic theology. But this account has been challenged by more recent scholarship (see God, creation and providence in the thought of Jacob Arminius, Richard A. Muller; Baker, 1991).
We need to see Arminius in context. In the early 17th century, Reformed theologians began to draw heavily on medieval scholastic theology. They looked to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and others to help develop a more systematic approach to theology.
Scholasticism offered a sophisticated theological method that came with its own ready-made technical arguments and special terms. All this was handy for discussing the finer points of theology. Arminius would have received a thorough grounding in the scholastics during his student years.
In looking back to scholasticism, the Reformed were following in the footsteps of John Calvin himself. Calvin rejected the wilder speculative excesses of the scholastics, but used their arguments and terminology when it suited his purpose.
Like Calvin, later Reformation leaders found Aquinas especially helpful. He emphasised the sovereignty of divine grace in salvation, harking back to the teachings of Augustine of Hippo. Reformed theologians were not only familiar with the older scholastic tradition, but also engaged with the leading Roman Catholic theologians of the day.
Some in the Catholic Church were already beginning to question the Augustinian thread in Aquinas’ teaching. Amongst its critics was Luis de Molina, an early Jesuit theologian. Molina tried to reconcile the sovereignty of God with human freedom. He posited a theory of ‘middle knowledge’, where God’s knowledge of future events is dependent on the free actions of human beings.
The influence of Molina can be traced in Arminius’ thinking on the relationship between God and humanity. Arminius too spoke in terms of ‘middle knowledge’. The Leiden professor taught that God has placed limits upon himself so that human beings may act with freedom.
This view obviously poses a problem for the Reformed doctrine of predestination, which insists that God has sovereignly willed whatever comes to pass. Election is not to be based merely on God foreseeing which human beings would freely choose to be saved. Rather, God actively elected some sinners to life and salvation in Christ in accordance with the good pleasure of his will.
Alarm bells soon began to ring when Arminius’ ideas on predestination were made public through his teaching at Leiden. Some insisted he should be called to justify his views in a specially convened synod.
Arminius refused, arguing that his teaching was in accordance with the Reformed confessions. He may have sincerely believed this to be the case, as have some of his followers, but he was mistaken.
The Belgic Confession states in Article 16 – on the doctrine of election – ‘We believe that … all Adam’s descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of the first man … God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just.
‘He is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel, has elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. He is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves’.
Arminius’ position was quite different from this. He stated: ‘God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preceding grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere’ (Works of Jacob Arminius, Volume 1; www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.iii.vi.i.html).
Note that Arminius does indeed ascribe election to the grace of God. This grace is sufficient to save whoever will believe, but it does not effect salvation through God’s active choice. Election is simply a matter of God foreknowing who would avail themselves of the offer of redemption.
This teaching subtly undermines the Reformation insistence that salvation is by grace alone. If, by virtue of universal grace, all sinners theoretically have the ability to choose to be saved, then why do not all sinners in fact choose to be saved?
In the end the answer to this must come down to human choice. Some choose to avail themselves of salvation in Christ, but others do not. For all that some say about this choice being grace-enabled, it is not really an effective grace that actually saves, but merely a ‘grace’ that facilitates the sinner’s choice to believe.
In other words, Arminianism is a form of semi-Pelagianism, which teaches that man must co-operate with God’s grace in order to be saved. The Arminian approach questions the New Testament’s verdict that the unbeliever is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) and, therefore, unable to choose to be reconciled to God. According to the Bible, grace is both sufficient and effective (2 Timothy 1:8-10).
When Scripture speaks of the foreknowledge of God, it does not mean that God simply looked into the future to see who would choose to be saved. Consider what Paul says in Romans 8:29-30, where ‘foreknew’ means something like ‘fore-loved’. God loved certain sinners and predestined them to be conformed to the image of his Son. He took the initiative throughout the processes of salvation.
God calls, justifies and glorifies his chosen people. This does not mean that he forces salvation upon unwilling human beings. Rather, the Father sets us free to believe in Christ and be saved by the power of the Holy Spirit.
After long resisting open discussion of his views, Arminius finally agreed to a conference at the Hague where his teaching could be properly examined. But he fell ill and died on 19 October 1609.
His Arminianism did not die with him. In 1610 a group of Dutch divines sympathetic to Arminius’ theology issued five Remonstrant Articles, which may be summarised:
1. Predestination is conditional on God foreknowing who would believe.
2. Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved.
3. Human beings are sinners and cannot believe apart from the grace of God.
4. Saving grace may be resisted.
5. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints needs to be investigated further.
Many have found Arminius’ theology appealing. After all, it is flattering to human nature to think that we can make at least some small contribution to our salvation. The anti-Puritan Archbishop Laud and his followers held to Arminian doctrine.
Huge sectors of contemporary evangelicalism are, in fact, Arminian. That is what lies behind the type of evangelism that places its emphasis on sinners ‘deciding for Christ’.
Arminianism is corrosive of the gospel. It has had a baleful effect upon the theology and mission of the church. Jacob Arminius was a learned and able theologian, yet we must reject his teaching because it robs the triune God of his glory in salvation.
Next month we will be examining the Synod of Dort, called in 1618 to respond to the Remonstrant Articles.