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The Arminian Controversy


Up until 1525 those who turned to the Protestant faith in the Netherlands were followers of Luther. From 1525 to 1540 the Anabaptists gained a strong foothold through the influence of Menno Simons. From 1540 on the Calvinists grew in number. By 1560 the majority of Protestants were Reformed with a few Anabaptists and even fewer Lutherans.


Our main concern is with the theological developments that occurred. At a national synod in 1571 a Presbyterian form of church government was adopted and the Belgic Confession of Faith affirmed. Along with the Heidelberg Catechism (both Calvinistic documents), it became the theological standard for the Reformed church in Holland. In 1575 the University of Leyden was founded and became a center for Calvinistic studies. The controversy that erupted in Holland is largely wrapped up in the career of one man.


A. The Life of Jacob Harmenszoon (Jacobus/James Arminius) (1559-1609) and the Course of the Arminian Conflict


1. Early Life and Education - Arminius' father died within a year of his birth and his mother, his brothers and sisters, and virtually all his relatives, were massacred in a raid on his home town of Oudewater in 1575. He enrolled as a student of liberal arts at the University of Leyden in 1576 and concluded his studies in 1581. He went to study in Geneva and enrolled at the Academy on Jan. 1, 1582 (Beza, Calvin's successor, was now 62). In 1583 he went to Basel, but returned to Geneva in 1584 and remained there until 1586. In a letter of recommendation, Beza praises Arminius:


"To sum up, then, in a few words: let it be known to you that from the time Arminius returned to us from Basel, his life and learning both have so approved themselves to us, that we hope the best of him in every respect, if he steadily persists in the same course, which, by the blessing of God, we doubt not he will; for, among other endowments, God has gifted him with an apt intellect both as respects the apprehension and the discrimination of things. If this henceforward be regulated by piety, which he appears assiduously to cultivate, it cannot but happen that this power of intellect, when consolidated by mature age and experience, will be productive of the richest fruits. Such is our opinion of Arminius --- a young man, unquestionably, so far as we are able to judge, most worthy of your kindness and liberality" (Letter of June 3, 1585, from Beza to Amsterdam).


Needless to say, Beza wrote this before becoming aware of Arminius' radical opposition to the doctrines which Beza held dear.


2. The Period of Controversy (1587-1609) - He became pastor of a church in Amsterdam in 1587 and remained such until 1603. In 1588 be began preaching through Malachi and Romans. [N..B. Rom. 9:13 - "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated" is a citation from Mal. 1:2-3. Arminius said that he was always fascinated and bewildered by that text.] In 1591, when Arminius reached Romans 7, controversy erupted. Some contend that until now Arminius had embraced Beza's high Calvinism. Bangs contends otherwise and insists that Arminius came to Amsterdam with his theology already "Arminian":


"All this evidence points to one conclusion: namely, that Arminius was not in agreement with Beza's doctrine of predestination when he undertook his ministry at Amsterdam; indeed, he probably never had agreed with it" (Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, 141).


a. First Stage (1591-1593) - During this period Arminius defended his view of Rom. 7, contending that Paul spoke there as an unregenerate man. He believed that otherwise Christians would be encouraged to sin and would lack an incentive to holiness.


b. Second Stage (1593-1598) - When Arminius reached Rom. 9 the controversy broke out in full force. He interpreted Jacob and Esau as types of classes of people, the former of those who seek righteousness by faith and the latter of those who seek it by works. Individual salvation through divine election is not in view.


c. Third Stage (1598-1602) - Here Arminius engages in controversy with the English Puritan theologian, William Perkins (1558-1602), publishing a response to Perkins' treatise on predestination.


d. Fourth Stage (1603-1609) - Arminius was appointed to the prestigious position of professor of theology at the University of Leyden and taught there for six years, during which he waged theological war with Francis Gomarus (1563-1641), perhaps the most outspoken Calvinist in all of Europe. This controversy continued unabated until Arminius died of tuberculosis in 1609.


B. The Theology of Arminius


1. Arminius on Free Will


"In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatsoever except such as are excited by divine grace. For Christ has said, 'Without me ye can do nothing'" (Writings, I:526).


Although this sounds Calvinistic, Arminius also posits the notion of preventing, exciting, prevenient grace, by which is meant a work of the Holy Spirit in all men by which faith is made possible. Thus the question becomes, "Is grace irresistible?" Arminius says no:


"For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, 'is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?' That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace, (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions or operations as any man ever did), but it relates solely to the mode of operation, whether it be irresistible or not. With respect to which, I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered" (Writings, I:253-54).


2. Arminius on Sanctification - Arminius did not, as some contend, embrace the Pelagian doctrine of perfection from sin in this life. However, he never wholly repudiated the possibility either: "But while I never asserted that a believer could perfectly keep the precepts of Christ in this life, I never denied it, but always left it as a matter which has still to be decided" (Writings, I:256).


3. Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation - He affirmed that one may have present assurance of present salvation (I:255; I:384-85). However, he denied that one can have present assurance of final salvation. If there is no present assurance of final salvation, it is because there is the possibility of falling from grace.


4. Arminius on Perseverance - In his work against Perkins he seems to say a believer could fall, but later spoke with more reserve. At the end of that work he writes:


"In the beginning of faith in Christ and conversion to God the believer becomes a living member of Christ; and, if persevering in the faith of Christ, and keeping a conscience void of offence, remains a living member. But if it happens that this member grows slothful, is not careful over itself, gives place to sin, by little and little it becomes half-dead; and so at length, proceeding still further, dies altogether and ceases to be a member" (III:470).


Yet in his Declaration of Sentiments he says that he never taught "that a true believer can either totally or finally fall away from the faith, and perish" (I:254). He tries to evade the issue by distinguishing between the elect and believers. One may be among the latter but not the former, since the elect always persevere.


5. Arminius on Justification - Arminius followed Luther and Calvin in affirming forensic justification by faith alone. Justification is that


"by which a man, who is a sinner, yet a believer, being placed before the throne of grace which is erected in Christ Jesus the Propitiation, is accounted and pronounced by God, the just and merciful Judge, righteous and worthy of the reward of righteousness, not in himself but in Christ, of grace, according to the gospel" (I:598-99).


6. Arminius on Election and Predestination - He divides the elective decree of God into 4 categories or kinds. There is first the election of Christ, in the sense that he is appointed to be the Savior of sinners. Second, there is the decree to save those who repent and believe and to leave the unrepentant and unbelieving in their sin. The third decree is that by which God determines to provide the sufficient means through which all are enabled to believe, if they will. The fourth decree is the most crucial one:


"To these succeeds the fourth decree, by which 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 preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described 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" (I:248).


Therefore, according to Arminius, election is conditional, being based on God's foresight of faith, a faith which all are enabled to exercise through the bestowal of prevenient grace.


C. The Rise of Arminianism and the Synod of Dort


1. The Five Points of Arminianism: The Remonstrance of 1610 - Following the death of Arminius, more than forty of his followers met on January 14, 1610, in the city of Gouda under the leadership of Uytenbogaert. They subscribed to the Remonstrance, a petition to be sent to the political authorities setting forth their case. Aside from various political issues, the document articulated five points of theological conviction.


2. The Five Points of Calvinism: The Synod of Dort - In response to the declarations of the Arminians a group of Reformed men issued the Counter-Remonstrance in 1611, a point-by-point refutation of the Remonstrance of 1610 (actually there were seven doctrinal points in the Counter-Remonstrance).


In the years that followed, there was a great deal of political activity. At one point the Arminians held power, but under the leadership of Maurice (son of William of Orange), the Calvinists gained the upper hand. In 1618 he ordered the leading Arminians to be arrested and jailed pending the outcome of a national synod. The synod convened on Nov. 13, 1618, and lasted until May 9, 1619. It was attended by more than one hundred delegates, including men from England, Scotland, France, and Switzerland. For each of the 5 points of the Remonstrance the Calvinists affirmed 5 counter points. They comprise what we now know as the Canons of Dort which, along with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, became the basis for Dutch Calvinism.


3. The Conflict after Dort - Approximately two-hundred leading Arminians were deposed from ministry in both church and state and some eighty were either exiled or imprisoned (among whom was Hugo Grotius [1583-1645]). This lasted until around 1625, when Maurice died. They continued to have a major influence under the leadership of such men as Simon Episcopius (1583-1643), Limborch (1633-1712), Curcellaeus (d. 11659), and Hugo Grotius.


The theological assertions of Arminius and the Remonstrance have been adopted in part or in whole by such as John and Charles Wesley (and Methodism in general), Charles Finney, classical Pentecostal denominations (such as the Assemblies of God), the Nazarenes, Free-Will Baptists, etc.