From Dordt to Today (2): The Development of the Reformed Faith-Jacobus Arminius

The history of the Church of Christ here on earth is the history of men.

Foremost in the controversy that raged in the defense of the Reformed faith over-against the heresy of Arminianism appears the figure of Jacobus Arminius. He more than any other is associated with the error that was condemned by the national Synod of Dordt.

This does not mean that he appeared as an isolated individual on the stage of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and that he single-handedly threatened the existence of Calvinism in the Low Countries. There were others like him.

When the Calvinistic Reformation came to the Netherlands, there were many priests and monks who left the Romish Church and were given ministerial status in the Reformed Church. Some of these were good men who broke with Rome under deep convictions of the truth. Many were evil men who, with wet fingers held high in the ecclesiastical winds that blew, saw that the power of Rome was broken in the Netherlands. They were determined to abandon a sinking ship. For personal reasons, they came to the side of the Reformation. But they carried with them the errors of Rome — the doctrine of work righteousness and the heresy of semi-pelagianism. They proved fertile soil for the seeds of Arminianism.

Besides there were leaders in the Church (Coornhert, for example) who opposed the doctrine of predestination and who wanted only a very general creed such as the Apostolic Confession to serve as the confessional basis of the Church.

It was Arminius though who united all the erring elements in the Church into one party which became a power to reckon with in the defense of the faith.
Arminius was born in the town of Oudewater in 1560. Very early in life he was left fatherless; but two Reformed ministers sponsored his education in the Academy of Leiden. Finishing his education here at the age of 21, he was sent to study in the University of Geneva, sponsored by a merchant’s guild from Amsterdam. The University of Geneva was famous throughout the continent of Europe as the center of Reformed studies. It was founded by John Calvin himself, and was, after the death of Calvin, under the administration of Theodore Beza, a staunch defender of Calvin’s views.

It was at Geneva that Arminius met Uitenbogaert who became his close friend and who was destined to play such a large role in the Arminian struggle back in the Netherlands. We shall meet him again.

After a brief trip to Italy, Arminius returned to Geneva for a short time, then came back to his homeland where he passed his classical examination and was admitted to the ministry of the gospel by unanimous vote.

Under the wise and inscrutable providence of God, three events took place which soon brought the views of Arminius into the open.

The first of these events really served to strengthen Arminius in heretical views that he had begun to develop already while in Geneva. Coornhert had engaged for some time in agitation against the doctrine of election, and Arminius was asked to refute these views for the benefit of the churches. In his studies, which he made prior to his refutation he came to the conclusion that he was unable to refute the views of Coornhert because he was himself becoming more and more convinced that they were true. This startling fact he did not make public.

The second of these events was the fruit of the preaching of Arminius in his congregation in Amsterdam. He was busy with a series of sermons on the book of Romans. From the beginning of the book, his heretical views occasionally cropped up; but it was emphatically in his sermons on Romans 9 that his congregation noticed his denial of the Reformed and Scriptural view of sovereign predestination. His congregation was alarmed. And especially his fellow minister, Pancius, opposed his views and combatted the evil doctrines he was developing.

The third of these events is very strange. In the midst of all the troubles in Amsterdam, Arminius was appointed professor of theology in the University of Leiden. How it was ever possible for Reformed men to agree to the appointment of this man who was under suspicion in Amsterdam remains partly a mystery.

However, there were two factors that had bearing on the matter. On the one hand, the university was not under the control of the Church, but rather under the control of the State. The relation between the Church and the State was (and is today) different in the Netherlands than it is in our own country. Strictly speaking, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were not a “State Church.” Nevertheless, the State did have a certain amount of control over the Church. The Reformed Churches existed under the favor and blessing of the State; the State supported the Church financially; and the State had much to say about such questions of Church polity as the calling of ministers, the appointment of professors, the convening of broader ecclesiastical assemblies, etc. At the time when (and up to the time of the meeting of the Synod of Dordt) the State was in the hands of men who favored Arminianism, or, at least, did not think the entire matter of Arminius’ heresy was sufficiently important to create trouble about it in the Church.

The result was that Arminius was appointed with the blessing of the State.

On the other hand, Arminius himself was a very crafty man. While he was teaching his views whenever the opportunity presented itself, he was also covering up his views and staunchly insisting that he was indeed Reformed. He succeeded for the most part in quieting the fears of those who did not trust him.

And so, the heretic from Amsterdam gained the important chair of theology in the University of Leiden. The year was 1602.

It is not difficult to imagine what a splendid opportunity this furnished Arminius for the spreading of his views throughout the Church. There is no more strategic place to influence others than a school. Here were instructed the ministers of the gospel, the teachers of the schools, the leaders of the Church. Here in the classroom of theology came those who were to carry on the defense of the faith in the years ahead. Here Arminius made good use of his opportunities and his position to spread the leaven of heresy throughout the Church.

He had one strong and tireless opponent. Gomarus was his name. He also taught in the University. And this staunch and outspoken man never ceased to combat the evil which Arminius developed and taught. But Arminius had the protection and blessing of the State that favored him. He had a way that left others with the impression that he was earnestly seeking the truth. He again and again persuaded the authorities (when he was called on the carpet for his views) that there was no cause for alarm. And his disciples went forth thoroughly imbibed with his views to preach and teach them over the whole land.

If he could not with safety teach his views in the University, he retired to the seclusion of his home. Here he gathered select groups of his students to discuss with them what he believed. Here he used his charming ways to make them into his ardent defenders.

In 1609 Arminius became sick and died.

But his cause continued. Especially his good friend Uitenbogaert carried on the heresies which Arminius developed. And a party was organized within the Reformed Churches called the Remonstrants, and dedicated to the cause of establishing the heresy of Arminianism as the official doctrine of the Church.

It is difficult to write an obituary of Arminius — except that there have always been many like him in the history of the Church.

Arminius was a brilliant scholar, a thoroughly educated man, a student who pursued his studies even in the parsonage. He was a man of pleasing personality, not difficult to get along with, easily making friends, refined in manners, elegant in appearance, a popular teacher who could make a lasting impression on the minds and hearts of his students. He was a gifted preacher, a good pastor, easily insuring the favor of those to whom he ministered. Especially this was true if we compare him with Gomarus — his opponent in the University. Gomarus was everything that Arminius was not. He was a stern man, not given to smiling, often crude and gruff, holding people at arm’s length, not easy to know, difficult to “come close to,” not always able to hold his temper. When he opposed Arminius, his voice thundered with wrath, his language was the language of a man who was solely interested in the truth without any concern for what people thought of him or what the reactions would be in the minds of his audience. Yet he was fearless and unbending, wholly dedicated to the cause of the Church of Christ.

Besides, Arminius was crafty. He could play with words, speak out of both sides of his mouth, promote his views with subtlety and in an all but unnoticed way. He always tried to leave the impression that he stood for the Reformed faith and on the basis of the Reformed Confessions, while all the time he carried his views in his pocket. He tried to smuggle his heresy into the Church under the guise of developing the Reformed faith. He tried to lull the people into spiritual slumber the better to feed them the poison of his errors. He worked under the table, behind people’s backs, dealing in treachery and deceit to accomplish his ends.

And thus, it is with many a heretic. They are not satisfied with merely defending their views and, if they are found not to be in harmony with the views of the Church to which they belong, to leave for other places. They are always insistent on dragging with them as many people as they can, making every effort to destroy the Church before finally they are cast out. This had happened before when Pelagius fought with Augustine in the history of the early Church. This has happened since the time of Dordt. This will happen again. And the reason is that behind heresy is the devil who uses heresy to try, if possible, to destroy the Church of Christ.

Arminius was dead. But his view’s continued to plague the Church. The split was widening; the battle lines were sharpening; the entire Church was thrown into turmoil; something had to be done.

“We believe, maintain and faithfully teach that the Father begot the Word, that is the only-begotten Son who is the Wisdom by which all things were created. He is one as the Father is one, eternal as the Father is eternal, and, equally with the Father, is supremely good. The Holy Spirit is, likewise, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, consubstantial and co-eternal with both. And this whole is a Trinity because of the individuality of the Persons and, yet, a single God because of indivisible divinity and a single Almighty because of indivisible omnipotence. Yet, when we ask concerning each Person individually, the answer must be that each one is God and each is Almighty; and when we inquire concerning the three together, the reply must be that there are not three Gods or three Almighties, but a single God Almighty. Such is the indivisible unity in the Three and such is the way it should be stated.”
— St. Augustine