Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In writing on the subject of the life and teachings of Arminius, we turn to a heresy with which most, if not all, the readers of the Standard Bearer are familiar. The Arminian controversy took place in what is the fatherland of many of us; and the glorious triumph of Dordt is part of our own heritage as Reformed churches.
The Protestant Reformed Churches are by no means the only denomination that traces its spiritual lineage to the Synod of Dordt and that counts the Canons of Dordt as part of its creedal heritage. Many Reformed churches around the world do the same. Yet, if one would survey the ecclesiastical scene today, one would almost be driven to the conclusion that, though Dordt was a great victory in the battle of faith, Arminius the heretic won after all. Dordt won a battle; Arminius won the war.
One must not, however, look at the whole matter from a purely earthly viewpoint. The truth of it all does not lie open before our eyes. But faith, which is the substance of things not seen, confesses that God always preserves His church and the truth of His sovereign and particular grace.
Even though the material is familiar to many of us, it is good to study it all again.
The Reformation came to the Netherlands very soon after it began in Germany and Switzerland.
The Netherlands was part of a larger area known as “the Lowlands,” and comprising what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The entire area was under the rule of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who was, at the time of the Reformation in the Lowlands, a Spaniard named Charles V. The Lowlands were permitted a great deal of independence, to which they had become accustomed. In this country a strong mercantile and sea-faring class had developed and the Lowlands were more prosperous than any other country in continental Europe.
The Lutheran Reformation had been the first reformatory influence in the land, and the first martyrs of the Reformation were two men of Lutheran conviction who were burned at the stake, in memory of whose martyrdom Luther had written a hymn. But Calvinism had quickly followed, and Lutheranism all but disappeared.
A strong Reformed church had been established in the Lowlands, which held its first synod in 1571 in Emden, outside the borders of the Lowlands in Germany. This was necessary because Charles V, a Spaniard, was determined to drive the Reformation from the Lowlands. He began a period of persecution during which people suffered horribly and many of the Reformed faith were killed.
Subsequent synods had been held in Middleburg and Dordrecht, at which synods a church order had gradually been formulated and the Heidelberg Catechism and the Confession of Faith had been adopted as the confessional basis.
The church was, however, a state church—the same as in almost every other country in Europe. The result was that many in the church were not genuinely Reformed. Among these were several important leaders. Caspar Coolhaes was disciplined for teaching the free will of man and a general atonement of Christ. Dirk Coornhert was a humanist who opposed predestination. He had many supporters both in and out of government. John van Oldenbarneveld, the head of the government, favored a policy of religious and doctrinal freedom, which, in practice, meant that heretics were tolerated in the church.
Into this situation Jacob Harmsen, later to be known as Jacobus Arminius, was born and educated.
Arminius was born in Oudewater in 1560. His parents had been killed by the Spaniards and his education was supported by a guild in Amsterdam. He studied at the University of Leyden from 1575-1582. That university had been a gift from the government of the Netherlands to the city for its heroic resistance during the Spanish siege some years earlier.
At 22 years of age Arminius went to Geneva, sent there by the guild, to study under Beza. He was in this city for five years, heard Beza lecture on the book of Romans, and learned the system which is now called Calvinism. There is some evidence that he was already in trouble for his views and conduct in Geneva. Samuel Miller claims that already in these years Arminius began to disagree with the teachings of the Genevan reformers, particularly on the doctrine of predestination, and that he began to meet secretly with fellow students to propagate his views. In fact, it is possible that he was expelled by the Academy for his conduct.
Strange as it may seem, Arminius went from Geneva to Italy, where he visited Padua and Rome. No one seems to know why he went to the stronghold of Roman Catholicism, and what he did while there; but it certainly was strange conduct for one supposedly committed to the Reformation.
In 1587 Arminius returned to the Netherlands and, after licensure, was ordained minister of the church in Amsterdam. His colleague was Plancius, a staunch defender of the Reformed faith. It was not long before Arminius was in trouble for his views. Strangely (though perhaps deliberately), Arminius began a series of sermons on the book of Romans. In his exposition ofRomans 7:14ff. he said that Paul was speaking of himself here in his unconverted state. The implication of this was, of course, that Paul, prior to his regeneration and conversion, could will to do the good. When Arminius came toRomans 9 he proved to be no better. He openly denied reprobation.
At about this same time Dirk Coornhert also attacked the doctrine of predestination, and Arminius was asked to write a refutation of Coornhert’s error. Apparently the request came to him because his views were not widely known and his reputation for learning was recognized throughout the churches. Arminius never wrote this refutation, although he never informed anyone either that he did not intend to write it.
Trouble was brewing in Amsterdam, and Plancius was the leader of the opposition. But while the controversy was going on, Arminius received the appointment to the chair of theology at the University of Leyden, his alma mater. Arminius was actually second choice for the position. The appointment had originally been given to Vorstius, a German theologian of note. Vorstius was, however, a known Socinian, who denied the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. His appointment can be explained only by remembering that the universities were under the control of the government and the government was, generally speaking, opposed to the Reformed faith. The opposition to Vorstius was fierce. Perhaps the one point that changed the minds of the government officials and the curators in the school was a letter from James I in England. Although James himself was not in any sense interested in true religion, he had counselors who were, and England was an ally of the Netherlands in the war against Spain. At any rate, James objected to the appointment of Vorstius, and the government, concerned about keeping England as an ally, revoked the appointment and gave it instead to Arminius.
To the appointment of Arminius both Plancius and Gomarus objected, but they were overruled, and Arminius was installed. His installation, however, came only after he had assured the curators of the soundness of his views and had promised to abide by the creeds.
Perhaps the time has come to say a word about Gomarus. Details concerning the life of this remarkable man can be found in my book, Portraits of Faithful Saints.
Franciscus Gomarus was born in Bruges (what is now Belgium) in 1563. He was a refugee from the Palatinate who studied in Strassburg, Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg. In 1587 he became minister of the Reformed Church in Frankfurt, and in 1594 he was appointed to be theological professor in Leyden. He opposed the teachings of Arminius vigorously, attended the Synod of Dordt, and finally resigned from his post in Leyden and served as pastor of the church in Middleburg until his death in 1641. He may surely be called Arminius’ chief enemy.
Although Arminius had sealed his appointment with a promise not to propagate his views, this was a lie. Although he refrained from teaching his views in the classroom to keep them from becoming public, he taught them in private meetings in his home with select students whom he knew to be sympathetic to his position. These men were the future ministers in the Reformed churches, and the result was that the churches were filled with disciples of Arminius.
Within the university and throughout the churches, controversy was increasing, and disputes over the teachings of Arminius were threatening the unity of the church. Although conferences were called and pleas for a national synod to settle the matter were made to the authorities, no progress was made, chiefly because the government authorities, alone empowered to call a synod, were sympathetic to Arminius and favored toleration of dissenting views.
In the midst of it all, Arminius died. The date was October 19, 1609.
Arminius was everything Gomarus was not. Gomarus was outspoken, tactless, blunt to a fault, with no patience for the subtleties of those introducing into the church false doctrine, but profoundly committed to the Reformed faith. Arminius was of a meek and quiet spirit. He was an able scholar, well-educated, refined in manners and appearance. He was an effective instructor and capable of gaining a loyal and devoted following. Yet, he was something of a superficial thinker and lacked the depth of thought of his opponent Gomarus. He was a charismatic man to whom people were easily attracted, and he was noted for his camaraderie, especially with his students.
Nevertheless, all these favorable traits mean nothing in the light of his dishonesty. He was not a man of integrity. He knew that he was teaching ideas contrary to the Reformed faith. He knew that his views were contrary to the adopted confessions of the church. In spite of this, he attempted to introduce his views in secret and unethical ways. He clothed his views in seemingly Reformed terminology so as to deceive people. He taught his views in secret, even when he had promised not to do this. He lied without compunction, and was not afraid, hypocritically, to call on the name of God in defense of his abhorrent actions.
In short, he was what heretics frequently are. Rarely do heretics openly and boldly state their views within the church. One could wish that it were different. I often wonder why a man who deep down inside himself does not want the truth which a particular church confesses nevertheless refuses to state openly and frankly his disagreements with the doctrines of the church. Upon ordination he promises to do this very thing when he signs the Formula of Subscription. But he prefers to break his vow. Always insisting that he is in agreement with the doctrine of the church, he nevertheless teaches false doctrine in subtle and devious ways. In this way, he gains a following in the church, causes the church to be troubled no end by his heresies, and complains of injustice when he is condemned.
How much more honorable it would be for a minister, having come to the conclusion that the church was wrong in some part of its confession, to bring his views to the assemblies, have them judged by his peers, and abide by the decisions of his colleagues. If he was persuaded that his views were, after all, wrong, well and good. If he was still convinced that he was right and the churches wrong, he could and should, without rancor, leave that denomination to join a church more in keeping with his views.
There are, I think, especially two reasons why a man rarely does this. The first reason has to do with his own sinful nature. Heresy arises out of pride, intellectual pride more than anything else. In his pride a heretic does not want to admit his wrong, but wishes instead to persuade others of his position and gain a following of people sympathetic to him. A following enables him to justify his own error.
The second reason is that heresy has its origin in Satan’s evil plots to destroy the church. Satan knows better than anyone that the way to destroy the church of Christ is to rob the church of her confession of the truth. A church without the truth is a “synagogue of Satan.” But deceit is the order of the day if the ultimate goal is the destruction of the cause of Christ. Many must be persuaded that the lie is truth, that black is white, that error is confessional, and that wrong can be justified. Such persuasion requires deceitful tactics and a shameless lack of integrity.
So it was with Arminius. And so it has been in the history of the church.