All Around Us

Comment on James Arminius 

In the October 10 issue of Christianity Today, there appears an article entitled “Arminius: An Anniversary Report.” The author of this article is Carl Bangs, an associate professor of Religion and Philosophy at Olivet Nazarene College in Kankakee, Illinois. He tells his readers that the occasion for this article is the fact that October 10, 1960 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of James Arminius (1560-1609). 

Arminianism is undoubtedly the chief enemy which the Church of Christ confronts today. This error has determined more than any other the lines of the battle for the truth ever since Arminius began to propagate his views in the Netherlands our history as Protestant Reformed Churches is a history marked by the battles against Arminianism in various forms and applied to various aspects of the truth of God’s Word. No other error has made such inroads into the confession of the Church—especially the Church which stands in the historical tradition of John Calvin and the reformation, of Geneva. And indeed, the Church which is determined to stand only on the basis of the truth of Scripture and the Confessions will be called to oppose this error time and time again. 

The fact of the matter is, however, that although Arminianism has severely afflicted the Church world, and has had its insidious influences even in Reformed Churches, these churches still claim to fly under the Reformed and Calvinistic banner. They maintain their Arminianism under the pretense of the Reformed faith, and hold to the views of James Arminius while claiming to represent Calvin: They fail to see, or if seeing, fail to admit, that the Reformed faith has no place in it for the views of Arminius; and insist that while—adopting the views of this seventeenth century heretic, they are still Reformed. 

For these reasons, this article by Prof. Bangs is, of interest. It presents what is evidently the position of the greater part of the Church world. That is, it presents an attempt to prove that Arminianistic and Calvinism are not at all mutually exclusive.

The article points out first of all that Arminius was a

“Dutch theologian whose name has been given to the Protestant theological tradition of Arminianism. It is appropriate that attention be given again to this late voice of the Reformation whose influence has been so great and about whom so little study has been done . . . . 

“Born in South Holland of simple people, orphaned at an early age, and raised by pious Reformed guardians, he was educated at Marburg, Leiden, Basel, and Geneva, his teacher in Geneva being Theodore Beza, the celebrated successor of Calvin. He was a brilliant student and later distinguished himself as pastor for 15 years of the Reformed churches of Amsterdam. He spent the final six years of his life as professor of theology at Leiden. During his pastoral and professorial years he became engaged in the controversy which gave rise to Arminianism.”

Some of the general view of Arminius are briefly discussed by the author. He is described as one who “always regarded himself as a Reformed thinker,” who “opposed the exclusive claims of the Roman church by appeal to the sole authority of the Scriptures,” “professed allegiance to the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, the only Reformed symbols with any sort of binding authorities in the Low Countries at that time,” who “had a high regard for the exegetical work of Calvin,” but whose “insistence upon the sole authority of Scripture prevented (him) from ascribing to Calvin the kind of ultimate authority allowed him by the Leiden professor, Francis Gomarus. Gomarus had tried, unsuccessfully, to make Beza’s extreme predestinarian reading mandatory in the Dutch churches.” 

In treating the thought and beliefs of Arminius, Prof. Bangs first of all tries to show that Arminius and Calvin were agreed on “the doctrine of the inability of man as sinner to save himself, with salvation made possible by grace alone.” It is no doubt true that Arminius spoke of the total inability of the natural man to save himself and to believe without grace. And it is also true that those churches who today have adopted the Arminian position also speak of the necessity of divine grace. But this is again merely evidence both in Arminius and in the Reformed churches that such theology is always “double-track” and that the ship of Arminianism sails under a Reformed flag. Arminianism also rejects man’s total inability and, the consequent doctrine of salvation by grace alone. This is demonstrated especially by what Prof. Bangs writes concerning Arminius’ views of predestination.

“Calvin and his disciples had used the biblical figures of election and predestination to express the truth of sola gratis (by grace alone, H.H.) and to combat the Roman doctrine of works. Theological literature often gives the impression that Arminius simply ‘denied predestination.’ It was his well-grounded fear that Beza, and Gomarus, the supralapsarian interpreters of Calvin, were in danger of divorcing the doctrine from Christology and making Christ the mere instrument or means of carrying out a prior, abstract decree. Arminius sought to state the doctrine in the light of Scripture and in integral relation to Christology . . . . 

“The ‘first decree,’ then for Arminius, was that by which God appointed His Son Jesus Christ . . . who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue; Christ is thus not merely the agent but the very foundation of election. The second decree was to receive into favor sinners who are ‘in Christ’ by repentance and faith, and the third had to do with ‘sufficient and efficacious’ means of grace. The final decree was the election of particular individuals on the basis of the divine foreknowledge of their faith and perseverance.”

In commenting upon this view with which Bangs does not completely agree, he notes that Arminius “retained the position that this makes man responsible for his own believing,” and that “Arminius built his doctrine of election on the notion of foreseen faith, and thereby made man’s decision the cause or concurring cause of salvation (man electing God).” Although Prof. Bangs goes’ on to say that Arminius put this idea of conditional election in a position subordinate to “the appointing (or electing) of Jesus Christ.” 

Prof. Bangs obviously does not agree with the position of Gomarus, the staunch and able defender of Calvin’s view of predestination; nor does he subscribe fully to Arminius’ position of conditional election. Although he does not say exactly what he does believe, it seems as if he is closer to Arminius than to Gomarus and Beza, and seeks only some minor modifications of Arminius’ views. 

From the above position of Arminius, according to the author, several corollaries follow which Arminius also adopted:

“Free will, for instance, is bound in the sinner and needs liberation; yet it actually concurs in this liberation. Grace, moreover, is not an irresistible force. There is the possibility of falling from grace, although Arminius pointed out that properly speaking” it is impossible for a believer to fall from grace, but that if may be possible for a believer to cease believing . . . . . Finally, Arminius showed a concern for the problems of assurance and holiness. He held to a necessary assurance of present salvation on the basis of faith, but to no present assurance of final salvation.”

After making a few brief remarks concerning the development of Arminianism in various post-Reformation denominations, the author concludes with the remarks:

“Although much has taken place in theology in the intervening centuries, there are many Christians today whose religious thinking has been molded by the Arminian tradition. They would do well to examine the careful work done by the founder of that tradition, and they will find there firm support for resisting an easy-going, culture-Protestantism which confuses man’s work with God’s. And those who call themselves Calvinists will discover that it is too simple to dismiss Arminius as a Pelagian who did not see clearly the issue of sola gratia. They may find themselves closer to him than they had supposed.”

Prof. Bangs forgets that the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619) representing the entire Reformed Church world of that century, and the flower of the reformation, condemned the views of Arminius and his disciples as being both thoroughly anti-Scriptural and Pelagian. It is true that the supralapsarianism of Beza and Gomarus did not prevail on the Synod of Dordrecht, but the position that was finally adopted in the Canons I was nevertheless soundly Reformed and Scriptural and was signed by all the delegates of all the churches both of the Netherlands and of foreign countries. We may be grateful for the triumph of the Reformed faith on the Synod of Dordrecht. Would that the Canons were still the bulwark of the Reformed faith that they were on that faithful Synod! 

The American Clergy and the Basic Truths 

Christianity Today published the results of a survey of Protestant clergy to determine their basic beliefs. The results are broken down into denominations and cover several more issues than we have room to mention, but are of some interest to us. Christianity Todayconcludes from the entire survey that in America there is a slow moving away from liberalism to conservatism and that “the essentially conservative bent of the Protestant clergy is seldom reflected in theological surveys of our time, which center their interest in the changing tides of liberal and neo-orthodox theologians.” 

Concerning the doctrine of Holy Scripture, Christianity Today reports that “while 93% of all ministers interviewed hold that the Bible is the authoritative rule of life and faith, and classify this as an essential doctrine, 33% (26% being liberal or neo-orthodox) dismiss as unessential the view that the Bible was verbally inspired in the original writings.” Concerning other basic doctrines, “18% reject the virgin birth of Christ; 17%, the vicarious, substitutionary atonement; and 11%, Christ’s historical, literal resurrection (neo-orthodox ministers being less prone than liberal ministers to question the importance of this doctrine).” 

“Some 89% of the Protestant ministers interviewed think it essential to teach and preach the unique deity of Christ as the Son of God; the others do not.” 

Other interesting facts: “. . . Only 27% consider it ‘very important’ to work for organic church unity.” Concerning the doctrine of the literal return or “second coming” of Christ, “It was held essential by 32% of the Methodists; Baptists were highest with 83% and Lutherans with 78%; Episcopalians voted 48% and Presbyterians 46%. Only 25% of liberal and 26% of neo-orthodox clergy thought the doctrine significant.” 

The Reformed Church in France 

Under the title “Recalling the Struggle,” the following article appears in the October 7 issue of The Banner:

“The heroic struggle of the early Protestant Church to maintain its existence over against ecclesiastical tyranny was recalled in France last month, when 15,000 Protestants gathered in southern France to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Protestant Church in that area. At the same time the spiritual heirs of these early Reformed believers honored the memory of a notable leader in the commemoration of the death of Antoine Court, who labored tirelessly and perilously to revive the French Protestant Church in southern France when it was all but overcome by the violence of persecution.

“The Reformed Church in France has won in history the name of the Martyr Church, because of the extent of the persecutions it suffered, and the great price paid in human lives for its Reformed confession. Except for a period of nominal religious freedom following de issuing of the Edict of Names in 1598, during which time the Huguenot Church enjoyed a measure of liberty in the face of strong Catholic opposition, the Reformed group maintained itself only through heroic struggle and suffering. 

“The importance of recalling these two centuries of struggle was well and concisely put by one of the church leaders at the September observance, as quoted in Time, ‘. . . our ancestors paid a great price for our faith and freedom. We must never allow it to be forgotten.’ 

“Perhaps the fact that Protestants in France are still a small minority group, one million out of a population of 43 million, helps to keep the memo of the struggle alive. One of the weaknesses of our religious life would seem to stem from our failure to keep: alive the memory of the price that has been paid for the heritage that we possess. That is one of the perils of the religious freedom that we enjoy.” 

“The heroic struggle of the early Protestant Church to maintain its existence over against ecclesiastical tyranny was recalled in France last month, when 15,000 Protestants gathered in southern France to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Protestant Church in that area. At the same time the spiritual heirs of these early Reformed believers honored the memory of a notable leader in the commemoration of the death of Antoine Court, who labored tirelessly and perilously to revive the French Protestant Church in southern France when it was all but overcome by the violence of persecution.

“The Reformed Church in France has won in history the name of the Martyr Church, because of the extent of the persecutions it suffered, and the great price paid in human lives for its Reformed confession. Except for a period of nominal religious freedom following de issuing of the Edict of Names in 1598, during which time the Huguenot Church enjoyed a measure of liberty in the face of strong Catholic opposition, the Reformed group maintained itself only through heroic struggle and suffering. 

“The importance of recalling these two centuries of struggle was well and concisely put by one of the church leaders at the September observance, as quoted in Time, ‘. . . our ancestors paid a great price for our faith and freedom. We must never allow it to be forgotten.’ 

“Perhaps the fact that Protestants in France are still a small minority group, one million out of a population of 43 million, helps to keep the memo of the struggle alive. One of the weaknesses of our religious life would seem to stem from our failure to keep: alive the memory of the price that has been paid for the heritage that we possess. That is one of the perils of the religious freedom that we enjoy.”

—H. Hanko