Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Controversy With Arminius

It may surprise our readers somewhat that Gomarus fought hard against the appointment of Arminius as professor in theology. But this surprise will evaporate when we realize that Arminius was under strong suspicion for his views before he was considered for a professorship. After he completed his studies, Arminius became minister in the church of Amsterdam. It was not long after the beginning of his ministry that he began a series of sermons on the book of Romans. In connection with his treatment of Romans 7:14-25, Arminius took the position that Paul was describing in this passage his spiritual state prior to his conversion. One can readily recognize that this implies that Paul, before being converted, was able to will the good: “The good that I would….” And such a view was a denial of the total depravity of man.1

These views were challenged by Plancius, one of Arminius’ fellow ministers in Amsterdam. A controversy arose in the church there, which intensified when Arminius got around to preaching on Romans 9. It was in the middle of the controversy that the appointment came which Gomarus, aware of the controversy, opposed. But Arminius had powerful friends in the highest reaches of government and his appointment went through.

In the end, Gomarus agreed to the appointment. A conference was held, prior to the final approval of Arminius, sponsored by the States General of the Dutch government, between Gomarus and Arminius. The interpretation of Romans 7 was discussed, but Arminius so managed to hide his true beliefs that Gomarus was satisfied and approved the appointment. Gomarus later spoke of regretting that approval.

The controversy broke out again on February 7, 1604 when Arminius propounded various theses on the doctrine of predestination. ‘The sum of these theses can be found in the following quote from them.

Divine predestination is the decree of God in Christ by which he has decreed with himself from eternity to justify, adopt, and gift with eternal life, to the praise of his glorious grace, the faithful whom he has decreed to gift with faith. On the other hand, reprobation is the decree of the anger or severe will of God, by which he has determined from eternity, for the purpose of showing his anger and power, to condemn to eternal death, as placed out of union with Christ, the unbelieving who, by their own fault and the just judgment of God, are not to believe.2

It is my guess that the majority of our readers might be hard-pressed to find any fault with this statement of Arminius. The difficulty in finding its error is probably due in part to the fact that Arminius was capable of cloaking his error in a deceptive way to make it appear Reformed; but the difficulty in detecting what is wrong may also, sadly enough, be explained by the lack of theological sensitivity in today’s church.

At any rate, the problem lies in the fact that Arminius is teaching in this paragraph a conditional predestination: “[God] has decreed . . . to justify… the faithful . …” That is, God has decreed to justify those who have faith – which makes faith a condition to election. And: “Reprobation is the decree . . . of God . . . to condemn . . . the unbelieving. . . .” That is, also reprobation is a conditional decree, the condition of which is unbelief.

Gomarus attacked these statements, and the result was bitter and prolonged controversy. Arminius continued to present himself as a faithful defender of the Reformed faith, while attempting to cast Gomarus in the bad light of an enemy of true Calvinism. It is not hard to understand that Gomarus received a bad reputation for his opposition to Arminius. After all, the point seemed insignificant, as even the leaders in government were later to say. Why fight about it? And Arminius was such a nice man! He protested his innocence time and again and assured everyone that he was soundly Reformed and deeply committed to the confessions. How could Gomarus, that man who never smiled, be such a stubborn man?

The controversy swirled about for four years and finally engulfed the churches. In 1608 Gomarus and Arminius conducted a public debate before the Supreme Court of the Hague in an effort on the part of the government to resolve the problems. At the conclusion of the debate, Barneveldt, a friend of Arminius and head of the government, in a short address to the two combatants, declared that he thanked God that their contentions did not affect the fundamental articles of the Christian religion. To this Gomarus replied in characteristic fashion, “I would not appear before the throne of God with Arminius’ errors.”3 The Court judged the matters in dispute to be matters of little significance.

In further efforts to resolve the disagreements, a conference was arranged, at which Gomarus and Arminius were to submit papers outlining their respective positions on the doctrine of predestination. Each was given 250 guilders to cover the expense of preparing the papers. The conference was never held because Arminius died of what was probably tuberculosis in 1609.

It is not our purpose in this article to trace the history of the controversy any further than Gomarus’ involvement in it. As anyone with even a passing knowledge of the controversy knows, the issues were the great issues of salvation by sovereign grace alone vs. salvation based on the Works of man. Ten years after the death of Arminius the controversy was settled at the Synod of Dordrecht, where Gomarus Position was vindicated.

In 1611 Gomarus resigned from his position in the University of Leyden. The reason for his resignation is not known, but it may be that the controversy and the support of Arminius by the government wore beyond endurance the strength of the old warrior. At any rate, upon his resignation, he became pastor of a-Reformed congregation in Middleburg; where he also lectured in theology and Hebrew in the local University.

In 1614 he went to Saumur in France, where he became professor of theology.4 In 1618-1619 Gomarus was at the Synod of Dort along with other professor advisors. He took an active role in the Synod’s proceedings and was instrumental in the victory of the truth of Scripture on that great Synod meeting.

An interesting sidelight to Gomarus’ role at the Synod was his work on a committee to investigate the teachings of Maccovius. Maccovius also held strongly to the doctrine of sovereign predestination, but was charged with carrying the doctrine to such an extreme that he made God the author of sin. The Synod handed the case to government representatives who were unable to resolve the conflict. A committee was appointed to deal with the matter, on which committee Gomarus served. Later in the proceedings of the Synod, the committee reported that the-matter had been amicably resolved and Maccovius was cautioned not to make radical and biblically unwarranted statements. 5

After the Synod, Gomarus went to the University of Groningen, where he became professor of divinity and Hebrew. In 1633 he took part in the revision of the translation of the Bible, which work was done in Leyden. During these meetings he argued strenuously against including the Apocryphal books in the Bible, but was overruled.6 Here he stayed till his death on January 11, 1641.

Concluding remarks

There can be no question about it that Gomarus was a difficult man, hard to get along with, prone to extreme statements, sometimes violent in his opposition to Arminius and Arminianism. He never “beat around the bush.” He never left any doubt in anyone’s mind as to what he believed. He never worried about “stepping on people’s toes” or offending them if they were not heart and mind committed to the truth.

Sometimes descriptions of him are biased, and bitterness against his staunch defense of the faith pours out in diatribes against his personality. Thus one author can write:

[He] displayed a most violent, virulent, and intolerant spirit, and endeavored by various publications to excite the indignation of the States of Holland against his rival.7

But some of all this was true. Even Junius, later related to Gomarus through marriage, said:

That man pleases himself most wonderfully by his own remarks. He derives all his stock of knowledge from others; he brings forward nothing of his own: or, if at any time he varies from his usual practice, he is exceedingly infelicitous in those occasional changes.8

There is a story somewhere, whether true or apocryphal it is hard to say, that at the Synod of Dort, one elder was appointed to sit alongside Gomarus to tug him back into his seat when he leaped to his feet and rather too forcibly made a point.

In any case, Gomarus was a staunch defender of the faith. Perhaps it took a man such as he to stand against the growing tide of Arminianism. God’s providence prepared men who are “stubborn” about the right things. And if this seems to condone their sins, the fact is that, though it does not, God can, as the proverb has it, draw a straight line with a crooked stick. And sometimes only very strong language will do to put to flight the clever designs of heretics.

At the Synod of Dort Gomarus defended not only orthodoxy but supralapsarian orthodoxy. And, although his views in this respect did not prevail on the Synod, for the Canons are infralapsarian, his supralapsarianism was not condemned by the Synod and his defense of the faith was of inestimable service as the Synod struggled with the errors of Arminianism.

Gomarus cared about only one thing: the glory of God. Gomarus would allow only one book to determine his theology: the sacred Scriptures. In a sort of album in which he kept various letters, tokens of friendship, and something of a diary, he had written in Hebrew: “Thy (God’s) Word is Light.”

He was of the stripe of Calvin, Gottschalk, Augustine, and Athanasius. He was the forerunner of others to follow, of whom one has got to be Herman Hoeksema. We need not always approve of the way in which they did things (although we can take a long and hard look at ourselves in this respect), but we ought to thank God for them, for they were men of courage and conviction who fought for truth and right against all odds. To concentrate on their weaknesses and foibles, so as to condemn their defense of the faith, is to be unfaithful to the truth. To look beyond personalities and weigh all in the light of Scripture is to be faithful. To fight is the courage of faith. May God grant men like these to the church today—even if they sometimes have difficult personalities. The church needs more than nice men.

1 Strangely enough, this same view has recently been defended by some Reformed theologians such as Herman Ridderbos and Anthony Hoekema.

2 Quoted from Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock & Strong, III, 920. 

3 Ibid. 

4 The school in Saumur not very long after Dort became a hotbed of Amyraldism, a heresy not unlike the Arminian heresy. 

5 See Wagenaar’s excellent book on the Synod of Dart and its preceding history: Van Strijd en Overwinning. 

6 The translation was the one ordered by the Synod of Dort, which became known as theStatenvertaling, and which was to the Dutch what the KJV was (and is) to the English. 

7 Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. See also some of the characterizations of Carl Bangs in his book,Arminius. 

8 Quoted from Arminius, by Carl Bangs. It is to be hoped that Junius made these remarks in exasperation, and that he took a more favorable attitude towards Gomarus when he became a relative.