Arminius may never have had a tranquil day
in his life. He was born in the Dutch town of Oudewater the year his father died. His
mother and siblings perished there fifteen years later when Spanish forces massacred its
Cared for and subsidized by relatives, Armininus studied at the
University of Leiden, gaining recognition as a star in the theological firmament. Church
officials, however, deemed the twenty-one year old, aspiring pastor too young for the
Undeterred, Arminius continued his education in Geneva, speaking
daily with Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor in the Reformation city. By rearranging
Calvin's emphases Beza largely retained the content of Calvin's theology while largely
distorting its spirit. Whereas Calvin, for instance, had spoken of the grandeur of God and
the majesty of God but not of the "sovereignty" of God, Beza thrust into the
centre of his thought a sovereignty that seemed indistinguishable from the arbitrary
assertion of naked power. And where Calvin had concentrated on our life in Christ, with
predestination merely the means whereby sin-deadened people come to be "in
Christ", Beza made predestination a controlling principle.
Arminius was appointed pastor in Amsterdam upon returning from
further studies in Italy. The Sunday the twenty-eight year old began his ministry there he
mounted the pulpit with his cap on his head -- the cap being the symbol of freedom -- and
removed it only when he invoked God at the commencement of the service. He knew that those
whom the Son makes free submit to no one except the One who has restored their freedom.
The people of the city relished his theology, since it reflected the convictions of Dutch
people whose thinking concerning the gospel had fermented quietly for at least two
Since it was a reformed pastor's custom to preach through a book
of the bible, Arminius began with Romans. Three years later he was up to chapter 7.
Controversy erupted when he maintained that the "wretched man" spoken of there
was the pre-Christian person, not the regenerate believer, as Beza insisted. When his
theological enemies pronounced him heterodox, Arminius replied, "I believe that our
salvation rests on Christ alone and that we obtain faith for the forgiveness of sins and
the recovering of life only through the grace of the Holy Spirit." Now they accused
him of "Pelagianism", the heretical notion that the Fall has affected humankind
so slightly that we can will ourselves, unaided, into fellowship with God. The
charge of Socinianism (unitarianism) followed. Arminius countered that he had always
affirmed the deity of the Son.
Concerning Romans 7 Arminius maintianed:
His position with respect to the "wretched man" is a
viewpoint that has been defended throughout the church's history and has never been deemed
No heresy, including Pelagianism, can be derived from it;
The viewpoint of modern theologians (e.g., Beza) that Romans 7
speaks of the Christian is an opinion none of the church fathers held, including
Augustine, the church father dearest to the Calvinists;
To say that Romans 7 describes the Christian is to slight the
grace of God (grace appears impotent in the face of sin) and to foster wanton behaviour
(even the regenerate can't help doing the evil they don't want to do.)
In all of this Arminius maintained, with the universal church,
that free will is found only in the regenerate, in those whom God has freed to know and
obey him. Unbelievers remain in bondage to sin.
A few months later Arminius was expounding Romans 9. An opponent
accused him of preaching that unrepentant sinners are condemned only on account of their
sin. In other words, they aren't condemned on account of a hidden decree of God enacted before
they were born and therefore before they could have sinned. The same fellow denounced him
for declaring that while good works don't merit God's pardon, the pardoned should do all
the good they can.
In his detailed examination and closely reasoned exposition of
Romans 9, Arminius articulated a doctrine of grace that recognizes the humanness of the
beneficiaries of grace and that honours them as human agents, God's covenant-partners made
in his image. Arminius protested any notion that even sinful humans are entities like
sticks and stones to be manipulated mechanically. Concerning Romans 9 he upheld the
The question that his opponents said predestination answered,
namely, "Why do some individuals believe when others don't?", is neither asked
nor answered in the chapter;
Romans 9 doesn't discuss individuals but rather classes of
people: those who affirm righteousness by faith (i.e., through intimacy with the Righteous
"elder brother"), and those who seek to merit God's recognition. God
"predestines" to salvation all who believe in Jesus Christ.
To speak of the predestination of individuals to eternal blessing
or curse before they have been created (and therefore before they could have sinned) is to
render God arbitrary, even monstrous;
To postulate both a hidden and a revealed will in God is to
falsify the New Testament's insistence that Jesus Christ is God's entire will now
God's command and God's promise are co-extensive. God doesn't
command all to believe while visiting only some with faith-quickening mercy.
Even as the controversy raged in Amsterdam, the University of
Leiden, a centre of Renaissance Humanism and the hub of Dutch language and culture,
recognized Arminius' brilliance, installing him as rector (president) in 1603.
Among the intellectually exhilarating now, he wasn't among the
theologically sympathetic. Within a year he was dragged into a public dispute on
predestination. Again he stated and defended his position, having refined it even more
profoundly. Celebrated in the university, Arminius was savaged in the church by
ultra-Calvinist refugees from France whose spirit was alien to the Christian convictions
native to Holland. Opposition to him approached hysteria. Slanderous foes, knowing of his
student-trip to Italy, lied that he had kissed the pope's slipper and was
"infected" by the Jesuits.
Relief came only as the pulmonary tuberculosis that had left him
coughing for months galloped ahead. He died surrounded by his wife Lijsbet and his nine
surviving children, the youngest only thirteen months. Lijsbet would live on the
clergy-widow's pension that grateful Amsterdam officials had promised her years earlier
the day the family had moved to Leiden.
Admittedly, Arminius had not spoken the last word on either
Romans 7 or 9 (or on the notion that philosophy is the necessary foundation to theology.)
Still, he never deserved the abuse heaped on him. He had said he wanted only "to
inquire with all earnestness in the Holy Scriptures for divine truth
for the purpose
of winning some souls to Christ, that I might be a sweet savour to him."