A heretic is usually known for his opposition to a confession of faith. Only rarely does a man find himself suspected of heresy when his public witness is orthodox. Such a man was the Dutch theologian James Arminius—suspected of heresy because of his demand for personal religious freedom.
This man, reputed to have been the founder of the theological system called Arminianism, was born and christened Jacob Harmens (or Harmensen) in Oudewater, Holland, in 1560.1 His relatively short life (died 1609) was immersed in academic culture. He demonstrated academic excellence at several prominent universities (Leiden, Geneva, Basel), before being appointed professor of theology at Leiden. In 1588 he became pastor of an influential Reformed church in Amsterdam. His pulpit oratory soon became renowned throughout Holland.
Shortly after this appointment, Arminius was urged to defend the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination against the attack of Dirck Coornhert, the former secretary to the tolerant Prince William of Orange (assassinated in 1584). Coornhert had the reputation of being an outspoken “libertine” who favored full religious freedom for all within the Dutch domain.2 Finding that he agreed with many of Coornhert’s views, Arminius chose not to respond.
He gave no intimation of this altered viewpoint until after 1590, when, while preaching on Romans 7, Arminius suggested there could be other Calvinistic interpretations of the Scriptures apart from those of Calvin’s immediate successors. This mere opinion threw doubt upon Arminius’ orthodoxy, and his Synodical magistrates ordered him to publicly reiterate his ordination vow that he would preach nothing contrary to either the Belgic Confession of 1561 or the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. Arminius cheerfully complied.
But shortly afterward, while discoursing on Romans 9, Arminius again aroused suspicion by suggesting that that chapter not be used in support of supralapsarian predestination.3 No proceedings followed, but Arminius voluntarily reiterated his statement of orthodox loyalty. By 1597, concerned over such controversy, Arminius sought resolution of his personal doubts through correspondence with the reviser of the Belgic Confession, Franciscus Junius, professor of theology at Leiden. Junius’ weak replies were hardly sufficient for Arminius, though he maintained dialogue until Junius died in 1602.
Ironically, notwithstanding the previous controversies, Arminius was selected to fill Junius’ vacany. This appointment emboldened him to declare his sentiments more openly in classroom lectures. Hearsay concerning his teaching aroused the concern of Franciscus Gomarus, a fellow professor, who in 1603 pressured him into a public disputation concerning Pelagianism4—the same heresy of which Arminius had been suspected during his pulpit lecture on Romans. To Gomarus’ surprise, Arminius supported the Augustinian refutation of Pelagian errors.
Gomarus, piqued by the result of the debate, suggested openly that Arminius’ classroom lecture charges Calvin and especially Beza with making God the author of sin. Arminius countered that Calvin and Beza were not infallible, and that anyone who disagreed with them should not summarily be regarded as unorthodox.
Having found an opening, Gomarus charged Arminius with conditioning the divine decrees upon man’s conduct, thereby vitiating grace—a clear contradiction of the Belgic Confession! This charge spread rapidly among the Calvinistic pulpits of Holland, causing such a stir that in June of 1605 a deputation was sent from the Synods of North and South Holland to inquire into the truth of the widespread rumors. The deputies claimed students who had studied under Arminius gave “unusual” replies to questions at their ordination hearing. When queried about the source of their strange answers, they indicated Arminius. The deputies requested a “friendly interview and conversation” about the issue. Arminius refused, since “such a course would inevitably subject me to frequent and almost incessant applications . . . , if anyone thought it needful to pester me in the manner whenever a student made use of a new or uncommon answer, and in excuse pretended to have learned it from me.”5
However, Arminius offered an alternative: Should a student’s answer ever be considered in opposition to the faith of the church, Arminius was “ready to travel at my own expense to any place where the brethren should appoint” to personally confront that student,6 upon whom the burden of orthodoxy would rightfully rest—not on Arminius.
But Francis Lansbergius, one of the deputies, continued to demand a declaration of sentiments from Arminius himself. Arminius replied that he was neither responsible to the deputies nor to their synods in this matter, and would not reply to any doctrinal questions unless specifically so ordered by his immediate superiors.
Arminius did offer the deputies a private discussion of his views on condition that nothing should be made public except that in which both parties were agreed. Since this procedure would defeat the purpose of the deputies’ mission, they declined the offer.
The controversy grew. On July 28, 1605, the Elders of the Church of Leiden requested a similar conference, with the additional stipulation that “other persons . . . equally concerned . . . [could] be summoned before the same ecclesiastical tribuna.”7
On November 9, 1605, the synodical deputies demanded another conference. But this time the matter was taken up with the curators of the University of Leiden rather than with Arminius. All professors of divinity were asked to respond to nine questions of doctrine. The curators refused, noting that, should anyone be taught “contrary to truth, . . . that person had it in his power to complain to a national synod.”8 Only after the failure of this mission was the matter revealed to Arminius.9
The matter then rested for a full year, but early in 1607 Arminius was once again approached by several deputies, who asked him to divulge his true views “confidentially.” Again he refused, claiming that his answers would be misinterpreted, for “in matters of this description, everyone was the most competent interpreter of his own meaning.”10 But Arminius did promise to make full disclosure at the national synod in August of 1609, “with no concealment of any area of which they might complain,” the national synod being the only forum “in which it was possible to explain these matters with . . . Propriety.”11
But two years was too long. Later in 1607 some ministers asked Arminius to divulge his views to them “in the fear of the Lord.”12 Arminius declined, stating that there was no cause to discuss anything. However, he did propose to one minister a public conference on the Articles of Religion, with the purpose of “establishing the truth . . . and refuting every species of falsehood.”13 Not wishing his own orthodoxy to come under question, the minister respectfully declined. At this, Arminius revealed that he had divulged views to individuals, but had halted the practice since what had been told in confidence generally became public knowledge within a short while.
In June of 1607, during the preparatory convention of the national synod, the states’ general requested a presentation of Arminius’ views in order to establish the correct agenda for debate. After Arminius’ refusal, contrived articles purportedly written by Arminius were circulated among the delegates. Arminius established that he had written them, and eventually proved that one present at the conference had composed them.14 The convention then attempted to entrap Arminius by asking him to state publicly with which portion of the false articles he agreed and with which he disagreed. Arminius responded that the convention did not originally meet for such a purpose, and therefore no response was necessary; furthermore, convention rules specifically charged it “not to enter into any conference concerning doctrine.”15 The issue had to be dropped.
Eventually, in a formal statement before the States of Holland in October, 1608, Arminius presented a strong defense of his refusals:
“I never furnished a cause to any man why he should require a declaration from me rather than from other people, by my having taught anything contrary to the word of God, or to the Confession and Catechism . . . I did not consider myself at liberty to consent . . . , lest I should, by that very act, and apparently through a consciousness of guilt, have confessed that I had taught something that was wrong or unlawful.”16
During this period two charges were being developed against Arminius: (1) he refused to declare his beliefs; and (2) he was trying to corrupt the Christian religion through false doctrines. Arminius replied, “If I do not openly profess my sentiments, from what can their injurious tendency be made evident?”17
It was then objected that Arminius revealed some beliefs while concealing others. Arminius replied that could it be shown that his “revealed” beliefs were opposed to the church standards, only then should they have grounds for suspecting his “secretly held doctrines” to be contrary; without such proof, such charges were absurd!18
Arminius admitted that he did hold some “peculiar views . . . on religious topics, which would not be finally settled until the life hereafter.” But he promised to reveal those views at the national assembly, “that . . . they may be considered together.”19
At the end of 1608 Arminius appeared conciliatory:
“I am prepared to confer . . . that we may either agree in our sentiments; or, if this result cannot be obtained by a conference, that we bear with each other . . . and what things they are of which we approve or disapprove, and that these points of difference are not of such a description as to forbid professors of the same religion to hold different sentiments about them.”20
Again he said:
“Some things are of such a nature as to render it unlawful for any man to feel a doubt concerning them, if he have any wish to be called by the name of Christian. But there are other things which are not of the same dignity, and about which [Christians] . . . have dissented from each other, without any breach of truth and Christian peace.”21
Should the national synod find him wrong in any particular, said Arminius, he would, “without reluctance, resign my situation, and give place to a man possessed of greater merit.”22
Following the settling of preliminary matters, the national synod of August 1609 finally turned to the case of Arminius. But a greater Providence intervened: Arminius, suffering from tuberculosis, died in the midst of his presentations on October 19, 1609. His incomplete declaration resulted in the Remonstrant schism by those who claimed to be his disciples. Enlarging upon whatever Arminius himself may have believed, they developed the system of theology now known as Arminianism.
1Biological details are from either W. R. Bagnall, “Life of James Arminius,” in The Works of James Arminius, 3 vols., trans. James Nichols (Buffalo: Derby, Miller and Orton, 1853), vol. 1, pp. 9-15; or from Roger Nicole, “James Arminius,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, ed. E. H. Palmer (Wilmington, Del.: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1964) , vol. 1, pp. 405-411.
2Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Reason Begins, The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), vol. Vll, p. 495.
3The doctrine that the decree of election and reprobation, expressing the ultimate purpose was to be accomplished, namely, the decree of man’s creation and the decree which permitted his fall.
4 Doctrine of Pelagius, a British monk who lived in Rome in the early part of the fifth century A.D. and who denied original sin and maintained the freedom of the will and its power to attain righteousness.
5James Arminius, “A Declaration of Sentiments,” Works, vol. 1, p. 195.
7Ibid., p. 198.
9Ibid., p. 199.
10Ibid., p. 200.
14Ibid., p. 201.
15Ibid., p. 203.
16Ibid., pp. 204-208.
17Ibid., p. 208.
18Ibid., p. 209.
19Ibid., p. 210.
20James Arminius, “An Apology . . . Against Certain Theological Articles,” Works, vol. 1, p. 376.
21Ibid., p. 376.
Author: Maurice A. Morrison
Maurice A. Morrison wrote this while living in Raleigh, North Carolina.