Meet James Arminius (2)

Was James Arminius a heretic? To many of us this may seem to be an utterly foolish and unnecessary question. Perhaps it seems to be a question like, “Is ice cold?” or, “Is fire hot?” In other words, for a Reformed man this is not even a question which needs asking. For a Reformed man it is a fundamental presupposition.

However, the Editor of The Banner (Oct. 6, 1985, pp. 6, 7) tries to present Arminius in a favorable light and to persuade his readers that Arminius was not a heretic or, at least, not nearly such an evil man and such a bad heretic as he is sometimes presented as being. We have already examined the matter of the character and conduct of James Arminius in our November 15 editorial. It remains now to examine this second matter: was Arminius a heretic?

Editor Kuyvenhoven has the following to say on this subject:

. . . In many areas the independent Bible student Arminius was at odds with his speculative teacher, Beza. In many instances I am inclined to side with Arminius and not with Beza. Today most Reformed thinkers agree with Arminius that election and reprobation do not originate in God in the same manner; and we would warmly support Arminius’s emphasis that we may not think of our election apart from Christ. Arminius is probably right in saying that the “I” of

Romans 7

who cannot escape the tyranny of evil is not the believer who is in Christ, free from the law of sin and death and empowered by the Spirit to do what is right. Arminius also says many things about

Romans 9

with which we would now agree. But his views of God’s grace and human freedom are ultimately unacceptable.

Later in the same editorial Editor Kuyvenhoven quotes with approval from a review of Carl Bangs’s book on Arminius by the Rev. Leonard Verduin, a review which appeared in The Banner in 1973:

. . . In a Banner review of the book . . . Verduin agrees with Bangs that “what we now call Calvinism was a second phase of the reform” in the Netherlands; “there was a native theology from very early times . . . not so one-sidedly pardon-oriented as was the later theology imported from the South . . . [and] not as obsessed with the concept of predestination either.” Verduin seems to say that the theology that finally prevailed at the Synod of Dordt, ten years after the death of Arminius, signified a narrowing of Holland’s theological stream. In that sense Arminius’s claims that he stayed within the Reformed tradition may be correct, though I am not so sure he had Calvin and Augustine on his side.

A few more paragraphs of Verduin’s 1973 review are worth repeating:

“If there are still people around who live with the caricature that Arminius was an arch-heretic, a Pelagian, a man who shied away from the idea that salvation is by grace and by grace alone, these must read this book. A man who prays on his deathbed, as did this man: ‘O thou great Shepherd who . . . brought again from the dead, Jesus, my Lord and Savior, be present with me, a sheep of thine that is weak and afflicted. O thou God of my salvation, render my soul fit for the heavenly kingdom and prepare my body for the resurrection!’—such a man cannot be the bad man a certain tradition has made him out to be.

“If there are still people to be found who think Arminius got a square deal at the hands of the “orthodoxy” of his times, these too must read this book . . . .

“If there are still people on the scene who think of the Synod of Dordt as an altogether holy moment in the annals of Christ’s church, . . . let such persons by all means also read this study . . . .”

Now, first of all, let me clear away some rubbish about a supposed difference between Calvin and Beza (Calvin’s successor in the Academy in Geneva) and about a so-called second phase of the reformation in the Netherlands. These myths are abroad in Reformed circles. They are used especially to attack the Reformed view of predestination. And they are used to deceive the simple, as though Calvin had a different view of predestination—and especially of reprobation—than did Beza. And these myths gradually gain credence through repetition. They are then used to uphold Arminius and to condemn the doctrine of the Canons as a “narrowing of Holland’s theological stream.” Over against this, it should be stressed:

1) That there was no fundamental difference between Calvin and Beza. Theodore Beza was Calvin’s own handpicked successor at Geneva’s Academy. He was also the author of a sympathetic biography of John Calvin. And before Calvin’s death, the two were genial co-workers. Certainly, there were differences between the two, just as they were two different personalities. But fundamental differences of doctrine, particularly with respect to predestination and more especially with respect to reprobation, there were not.

2) The same is true with respect to the notion of a second phase of the reformation and an alleged narrowing of Holland’s theological stream. This is a myth! Was there development? By all means! But, in the first place, the development was exactly in the line of the Reformation; it was not divergence, but development. In the second place, such development of the truth took place as it so frequently has taken place in church history, namely, in the way of controversy—in this instance, the Arminian controversy. In the third place, this development was by no means limited to the Netherlands, though its focus was there. Do not forget that every Reformed denomination of that day was represented at Dordt. And all the foreign delegations as well as the Dutch delegates were signatories of the Canons.

3) It is intellectually dishonest of supposedly Reformed scholars to belittle Dordt and the Canons of Dordt and Beza’s theology and forevermore to be praising Arminius and his theology and to be viewing him sympathetically. I can understand that an avowed Arminian might do this, but I cannot understand that a man who claims to be Reformed does it. And it is detrimental to any Reformed church. If there is anything that a Reformed church does not need nowadays—and this is true especially of the Christian Reformed Church—it is the promotion of Arminius and Arminianism.

But was Arminius a heretic?

Taking the term heretic in the strictly technical sense: No!

In the strict sense of the word, of course, a heretic is one who has been found guilty of heresy by an ecclesiastical assembly, first of all. In the second place, a heretic is one who refuses to recant his heresy when he has been found guilty. And, in the third place, a heretic is deposed and expelled from the church because of persistence in heresy.

Plainly, in this sense James Arminius was not a heretic. He was never deposed and expelled from the ministry in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Why not? He did not live long enough. He died in 1609, ten years before the Synod of Dordt completed its work and deposed and expelled multitudes of his disciples as heretics. And when he died, he was technically in good standing in the Reformed Churches, for the simple reason that up to that time no ecclesiastical assembly had put him and his views on trial.

Nevertheless, James Arminius was a heretic in the sense that he was the father of the heretical doctrines which were exposed and condemned at the Synod of Dordt and the teacher and spiritual father of many of the men who were condemned and deposed at Dordt. Concerning this, just a few words.

In the first place, it would not be difficult at all to prove this from the writings of James Arminius, and to do so at length. We have made reference to this in another connection with respect to Arminius’s view ofRomans 7 and his denial that Romans 7 is speaking of the sanctified Christian. It is interesting to note in this connection, that implicit in his view of Romans 7 was also a denial of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith. At one of the conferences referred to in our first editorial on this subject, Gomarus placed Arminius’s heretical view of justification as No. 1 on the docket of those items which were to be discussed and debated. Interesting this is, because, while the doctrine of justification as such did not become the subject of debate and a confessional declaration at the Synod of Dordt, it was nevertheless surely involved, just as it was involved in the Semi-Pelagian doctrine from which the church was liberated in the Reformation.

In the second place, the clearest proof of heresy is in the Five Points of the Remonstrance, adopted schismatically by the Arminian party in the year 1610, the year following the death of James Arminius. Where did those points come from? Did they drop out of the blue? Of course not! They were formulated by the Arminian party under the leadership of the bosom friend of Arminius, Johannes Uitenboogaert. In the Remonstrance you behold the fruit of the underhanded work of James Arminius. No one can deny this. And what was the fruit? This, without quoting the Five Points in full: 1) Conditional election and reprobation. 2) General atonement. 3) The denial of total depravity. 4) The doctrine of resistible grace. 5) The questioning (without forthright denial) of the perseverance of the saints. These doctrines have officially been declared to be the embodiment of the Pelagian heresy in our Canons. It is unbecoming for any Reformed man to deny, as do the Revs. Verduin and Kuyvenhoven, that Arminius was an arch-heretic, a Pelagian. Our fathers accused the Arminians of bringing up the error of Pelagius again out of hell!

In the third place, just a few words about the Rev. Verduin’s reference to the dying prayer of Arminius. My first word is that I will not judge Arminius’s prayer; but neither can Verduin. Only God can do that. In the second place, the question is not what Arminius may have prayed—many a heretic can have pious words. The question is: what did Arminius teach? In other words, demonstrate that his teachings were not heretical. In the third place, one must be very careful to discern heresy, because heretics come with cunning craftiness and lie in wait to deceive (asEphesians 4 puts it). I can quote you words from the Five Points of the Arminians to which any Reformed man can and does subscribe. Here are two examples: 1. “. . . this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good.” 2. “. . . all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ.” But read these statements in their context of Point 4 of the Remonstrance, and they are heretical.

Was Arminius a heretic? Unequivocally, YES; and a dangerous one!