Searching for the Historical Harmenzoon

Jacob Arminius

Understanding Jacob Arminius

by Thomas H. McCall
 
Millions of Christians today recognize the term Arminianism as a label for a theological position or movement. Many of these Christians are happy to own the label, while many others (especially with the recent rise of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement) reject it as something that is, at best, incoherent nonsense or, at worst, dangerous and damnable heresy that steals God’s glory and destroys the gospel. Surprisingly, however, many of these Christians—defenders and detractors alike—know very little about Arminius or his theology. Not surprisingly, misunderstanding abounds. His own theology has been largely neglected in scholarly research, and some older scholarship has tended to misread his theology (viewing him as “Arminius the heretic,” “Arminius the saintly hero,” “Arminius the anti-scholastic ‘biblical’ theologian,” or “Arminius the anti-predestinarian”). The time is ripe for careful historical research and a reconsideration of his theology.
 

A Theologian’s Life

Jacob Harmenzoon (later Latinized to “Jacobus Arminius”) was born sometime around 1559 in Oudewater, a small town in South Holland. He never knew his father (who had died around the time of his birth), and his early years were marked by turmoil and difficulty. He studied at Utrecht, then at Marburg—where he learned that the Spanish army had invaded his hometown and that his mother and much of his family had been killed. He continued his studies at Leiden and then at Geneva, where he was trained by John Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza. Highly recommended by Beza, in 1588 he returned to his homeland to minister in the Dutch Reformed Church as a pastor in Amsterdam. In 1590 he married Lijsbet Reael, and soon after they were blessed with children. When the plague came through the Netherlands (1601–1602), it ravaged the theological faculty of Leiden University. The university then came to Arminius and asked him to serve as professor of theology. At Leiden he became more heavily embroiled in theological controversy that had begun while he was a pastor (the most famous point of controversy remains the doctrine of predestination). Finally, in 1609 matters reached the point where a conference was called to further investigate. Arminius faced off against his colleague Franciscus Gomarus, but the onset (or return) of tuberculosis forced him to leave early. He returned to his home, set his house in order, prayed with his loved ones, and then passed from this life (19 October 1609) as a Reformed minister in good standing.
 

A Pastoral & Scholastic Protestant

Arminius was at once a biblical, scholastic, and pastoral theologian. With respect to the authority of Scripture, Arminius does not differ from his Reformed colleagues: the Bible is the “infallible word of God” that contains “all theological truth.” He was also deeply grounded in the Christian tradition, and his biblical commentaries and theological treatises are replete with citations from the fathers (including Tertullian, Origen, Hilary, Ambrose, Chrysostom, John of Damascus, and, above others, Augustine) and scholastic doctors (preeminently, Thomas Aquinas) of the church. Among Reformers and contemporaries, he engages not only with the works of Reformed theologians such as John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Heinrich Bullinger, Franciscus Junius, and William Perkins, but also with the theologies of Lutherans such as Philip Melanchthon and Niels Hemmingsen and Catholics such as Francisco Suarez and Luis de Molina. The scholastic character of his work is obvious in the style as well as in the rigorously logical character of his theological arguments (he even worked out a system of modal logic).

But the scholastic style of Arminius’s theology should not distract us from the intensely pastoral nature of his theology. His theology is worked out in conscious awareness of real—and very pressing—pastoral concerns. For instance, his teaching on the perseverance and assurance of the believer is strongly oriented around pastoral issues. For he was concerned that the “standard” Reformed accounts of his time led to either a false sense of security or a deep sense of utter despair. These two “fiery darts of Satan” are the two “pests of religion and of souls.” On one hand, he was very concerned that the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace produced a kind of carelessness in the Christian life when combined with a doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. After all, some of his people wondered, if I am among the elect and thus the recipient of this irresistible grace that guarantees salvation, then I can’t do anything to forfeit such salvation. So why should I be worried or concerned about the sin that remains in my life? On the other hand, Arminius also was deeply concerned about the opposite problem. When he visited people to offer comfort and pastoral care as they were dying from the plague, he found them in spiritual agony and despair. They were despairing because they believed the doctrines of unconditional election (and its corollary about reprobation or damnation), irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. They knew that if saving grace comes to a sinner, then it comes irresistibly. They also knew that if it comes, then it produces real change in the life of the sinner. But they were also aware of remaining sin in their lives—and aware as well of the Reformed doctrine of temporary faith (faith that is genuine and thus from God, but faith that is not lasting and thus not saving). Their awareness that they might be among those who have merely temporary faith (rather than final saving faith), when combined with their own sense of sin and realization of their own inability, produced deep despair in the lives of Arminius’ people. His pastoral concerns were real, and they were strong. For at just the point when his people most needed confidence and assurance, they were left to wonder if God had given them genuine but temporary faith rather than final and saving faith. In other words, Arminius was convinced that they were left to wonder about both their own spiritual state and about the character and nature of God.
 

A Theology of the Goodness of God and the Gospel of Grace

As a biblical, scholastic, and pastoral theologian, Arminius was deeply committed to the display of God’s glory. At the same time, however, he was a classical theist who was convinced that God’s glory and our good are not at odds. Concerning the glory of God, he was utterly insistent upon the reality and beauty of the sheer and unfathomable goodness of God. God “is the best; that is, he is the first and highest good and goodness itself, and he alone is good, as good as goodness itself, ready to communicate it as far as can be communicated; his great liberality is matched by the treasures he possesses… He is the greatest, and he alone is great.” Within the simplicity of the triune life (God has no “parts” or “pieces”), God is absolutely good, reliably good, and even necessarily good. Because God is good (and nothing else), we have assurance that creation is communication of goodness; it is God’s action to share his goodness so that creatures in his image may know and love him. Thus there can be no room for any doctrine of creation for damnation. Because God is goodness within the simplicity of his own life, there is no possibility of contradictory divine wills (whereby one will of God desires for the salvation of all but the other will of God decrees the damnation of creatures). Because God is good, we can be sure that God is not the author of sin; nor does he make sin inevitable or necessary for humans. Sin is whatever is against God; it is rebellion against God.

But sin is pervasive, and it is powerful. Although Arminius is sometimes castigated as a “Pelagian” (or “semi-Pelagian”), such a label is historically inaccurate, for he recognized the blinding and binding power of sin as well as the utter necessity of grace. As Arminius put it, “I ascribe to God’s grace the origin, the continuance, and the fulfillment of all good, even so far as the regenerate person himself, without this prevenient and stimulating, following and cooperating grace, can neither think, nor will, nor do good, nor also resist any evil temptation.” Following the Augustinian tradition of emphasis on the prevenience of grace, Arminius insisted that only God’s action can make salvation even possible—and only God can save. Following what he took to be the scriptural and traditional emphasis on the sufficiency of grace, Arminius taught that grace is sufficient for the salvation of all and indeed is intended for all by God (the tragic reality is that some people freely reject this grace, but they do so against God’s intention).

It is sufficient for our justification; it removes our guilt and makes us legally righteous. And it is sufficient as well for our sanctification, for by his grace God truly cleanses his people and makes them ready for heaven.
 

Conclusion

Arminius is a serious theologian—and he has been seriously overlooked. Whether or not one agrees with every point of his theology (or the exegesis or argumentation supporting it), and whether or not one agrees that the Reformed theologians at the Synod of Dordt (1619) were correct to place “Arminian” theology outside the boundaries of acceptable theology, Christians who retain interest in these debated issues would do well to understand the theology of Arminius better. Maybe a sharper understanding of the issues and the controversies will help all of us appreciate better those with whom we may disagree. Perhaps a better understanding of Arminius will help us all to see that one need not be “anti-Reformed” to be non-Reformed or that “Arminians” might not be a grave threat to Christian orthodoxy. Maybe it will remind us of the vast tracts of common ground held by Christians on various “sides” of these issues, of the need for mutual understanding, and of the importance of charity. Maybe it will remind us of the possibility that we might be mistaken—and that these issues might not be the most important theological matters. And perhaps it will even enable us to see better our own sinfulness—and at the same time the greatness and goodness of the triune God.

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Thomas H. McCall is associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School as well as the director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. His latest book (co-authored with Keith D. Stanglin) is Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford University Press, 2012).

{This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Trinity Magazine, pp. 12–15.}

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