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

Introduction

It is a surprising truth of history that oftentimes, in doctrinal controversy, the heretic is a nice man, while the defender of the faith is, from many points of view, a miserable character. Athanasius, vs. Arms: Arms the suave, diplomatic, likeable denier of Christ’s divinity; Athanasius the stubborn and implacable defender of the Nicene Creed. Cyril vs. Nestorius: Cyril the haughty and cruel defender of the unity of Christ’s natures in the one divine person; Nestorius the popular, gifted heretic who insisted that Christ had two persons. Augustine the crabby defender of the sovereignty of grace;Pelagius the urbane and witty defender of freedom of the will. Gottschalk the stem and unfriendly follower of Augustine who rotted in prison for his recalcitrance; Hincmar the learned and powerful archbishop of Rheims. And so the list could go on: Luther vs. Erasmus the humanist; Calvin vs. Bolsec the heretic; Knox vs. Mary Queen of the Scats. And those who know their history can find others, perhaps within their own particular denominational history.

So it was also with Gomarus. Even his friends found him obnoxious at times and barely tolerable. His opponent, Jacobus Arminius, popular with students and ministers, gracious, kind, tolerant, filled with concern for friend and foe alike, presents quite a contrast. But Arminius was the heretic, and Gomarus stood for the truth.

Why does God work this way in the history of the church? Why is the nice guy so often the enemy of the faith, while the old curmudgeon is the champion of the truth of God? I do not think that we can find a complete answer to this question. But part of it is that the truth is not popular, and defenders of the truth can sometimes become crabby because of the fierce and unrelenting attacks of opponents. Sometimes the deceit and double-tongued language of heretics who hide their heresy with honey-coated words can only be exposed by sharp and impolitic language. Sometimes the defense of the faith requires a stubborn man who will not budge no matter what the consequences; and he is presented by his enemies as being unreasonable and wickedly goat-like, so that the truth for which he fights may be maligned along with him. But always God uses weakest means to fulfill his will.

There is an important truth here—a truth to which few pay attention. So many are persuaded of their position by the character of the men involved: the nice guy has got to be right; the nasty fellow cannot possibly be correct. But the truth must be decided in another arena than the arena of personalities: it must be decided by the Scriptures alone, regardless of any personal likes and dislikes. Without excusing what is sometimes wicked conduct on the part of orthodox men, it is important that the church remember that the truth is determined by God’s Word alone. Gomarus, for all his shortcomings, was a champion of the Reformed faith.

Early life and education

The family into which Gomarus was born lived in Bruges, a city in the province of Flanders, which was then a part of the Lowlands, but is now a part of Belgium. Gomarus was the oldest in the family, born on January 30, 1563. He had two younger brothers and possibly a younger sister. Sometime before 1570, although probably after Gomarus’ birth, his family embraced the Reformed faith.

Gomarus began his studies in Bruges and at an early age learned Latin and Greek. But in 1577, because of the severity of the Spanish persecution in the Lowlands, the family sought refuge in Germany in the Palatinate. Because of the nearness of the family to the city of Strassburg, Gomarus was able to study there under Johann Sturm, a second-generation Reformer, in the city where Calvin had lived in the years of his exile from Geneva.

When Frederick, the Calvinist elector of the Palatinate died, his brother Louis (Ludwig) came to the electorate. He was a Lutheran and hated Calvinism passionately. He drove out of the University of Heidelberg all the Calvinist professors, including Ursinus and Olevianus, the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Some of these professors settled in Neustadt, and to Neustadt Gomarus went to study under Ursinus and Zanchius. His studies included Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and philosophy.

From 1582 to 1584 Gomarus broadened his education by a trip to England where he studied first in Oxford, then in Cambridge. In 1585 Louis died, and his brother, prince Casimir, became elector. He restored to the university in 1584 the professors from Heidelberg who were still living. Gomarus returned there for two years.

Ministry and professorship

Gomarus had received a wide and excellent education and had become an expert in languages, including Hebrew. But his education was first of all to be put to use in the pastoral ministry to which he also aspired. He became pastor of a Dutch congregation in Germany in Frankfort-on-the-Main. The church had been established by Marten Micronius and John a Lasco in 1555.2 Work here did not last very long. The church was dissolved because of Lutheran persecution. The Lutherans were always angry that Calvinism had taken hold in Germany, which they considered their own private preserve.

While in Frankfort-on-the-Main, Gomarus married Emerentia, a daughter of Gilles and sister of Abraham Muysenhol. They did not have long together: she died in childbirth with their first child in 1591 very shortly after they were married. Two years later Gomarus married again: a woman named Maria, a daughter of local nobility. He lived with her for many years.

Although the congregation in Frankfort-on-the-Main was dissolved and Gomarus left without a job, within a few months he was asked to become professor of theology in the University of Leyden.3 His reputation for wide learning and his devotion to orthodoxy were already well known.

While it is not known exactly what was Gomarus’ wage while in Leyden, the town records indicate that he was probably rather well off. He owned a house adjacent to the University. And the taxes in the city were leveled on the basis of the number of chimneys on the house. Gomarus was charged for 11 chimneys.

The early years in the University were probably some of the happiest in Gomarus’ life. He enjoyed his work, had opportunity to advance his studies, and found a congenial home where his colleagues were all one with him in the faith. His students respected him, also for his vast learning, and his work was beneficial for the churches.

All this changed in 1603. In that year, over the strong protests of Gomarus, Jacobus Harmsen, known as Jacob Arminius, was appointed professor of theology in the University to work with Gomarus in that faculty of learning. This proved to be the beginning of the trouble which finally resulted in a countrywide split in the Dutch Churches and was only resolved by the great Synod of Dort.

…to be continued.


1 Jerome Zanchius, an Italian who had been brought to the Calvinist faith, is the author of a book on predestination which is still read with appreciation by many who love this doctrine. 

2 Both were important second generation Reformers, the latter from Poland. a Lasco had served a refugee church in London, but had returned to the continent. He played a significant role, along with Peter Datheen, in the formation of the liturgy of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. 

3 Our readers will recall that the University of Leyden was a gift of William the Silent to that city in appreciation for their courageous resistance during the Spanish siege.