In our preceding article we remarked that it would be well to call attention to the Arminian controversy before setting forth the Reformed position as set forth in our Canons of Dordrecht. And we concluded this article with a quotation on Arminius and Arminianism from the New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia.
Dr. L.H. Wagenaar is the author of a book which is entitled, “Van Strijd en Overwinning,” or, if you will, “Of Conflict and Victory.” In this book he sets forth what is known as the Great Synod of 1618-1619 and the history that preceded it. In the early part of this book the author has two chapters which he devoted to men who prepared the way for Remonstrantism and who were the forerunners of this Arminian movement. Preceding these chapters is an introductory chapter in which Wagenaar presents a very brief resume of the history of the church, going back as far as the Arian controversy. Wagenaar stresses the heresy of Pelagianism, calling attention to the truth that this heresy of the free will of the sinner was also adopted by the Arminians. Pelagianism teaches that man is born as innocent and inexperienced, gifted with a free will that cannot be lost, but also subject to covetousness. Adam permitted himself to be led astray. However, every man is born as was Adam before the fall. Every man is born with the possibility to do either good or evil and with a free will. It is true that the will to do good becomes weaker in the measure that it chooses that which is evil, but it is also true that the sinner retains the power to choose the good at any given moment. Already before Christ there have been perfect and sinless people, such as Abel and Enoch. This Pelagianism, we know, was opposed by Augustine. Augustine maintained that the sinner is a slave of sin. The sinner’s will remains free in the sense that it is morally free. The sinner is never forced to commit sin. However, Augustine maintained that he also chooses iniquity and unrighteousness, and this corruption of the human nature is passed on in the line of generations, so that man always begets a sinner like unto himself. This church father rejected the Pelagian heresy that every man is born as Adam was before his fall, taught the utter depravity of the sinner.
How difficult it has been for the church of God throughout the ages to maintain this Augustinian doctrine of the utter depravity of the sinner! How true it is that the church has stood very briefly upon the mountain tops of the pure and unadulterated doctrine of the Word of God! How easy it has been, again and again, to fall back into the error of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism! Pelagianism was succeeded by semi-Pelagianism. The latter is worse than the former. Any compromise with the truth is always worse and more dangerous than an outright denial of the truth. Finally this entire controversy was terminated by the Synod of Orange in 529. This synod is especially known because of its consistent condemnation of semi-Pelagianism. It is for this reason that many historians have the impression that this synod represents a last victory for the Augustinian conception of predestination and sovereign grace. This, however, is not the case. What is true is that this synod left the impression that it was afraid of the strict Augustinian principles. Augustine’s doctrine was certainly not maintained by the synod. On the one hand, the synod maintained, rather inconsistently, the total incapability o$ the sinner to do any good, as over against the semi-Pelagians. But, on the other hand, it denied the infallible and irresistible operation of sovereign grace. As far as predestination is concerned, the synod declared that a predestination unto evil is to be condemned; in other words, it must have nothing of sovereign reprobation. And in the decisions of this synod of Orange there is to be found nothing concerning sovereign election and reprobation. And we know that the denial of sovereign reprobation must inevitably lead to the denial of the truth of sovereign election. And we also know that the Romish Church has followed in the footsteps of Pelagianism. This, we understand, must be borne in mind when dealing with the Arminian controversy in the early years of the seventeenth century.
Wagenaar quotes from men who prepared the way for Arminianism and were the forerunners of Arminius. And it is striking that these forerunners also believed in a common grace. From page 7 we quote the following, presenting the view of a certain Cassianus:
Originally man, as God’s image-bearer, was immortal, free and wise; but Adam fell and thereby brought mankind under the dominion of death and of the flesh. Original sin is an evil and a weakness: it is true that the will has been weakened to do good, but he remains free, and there are seeds of the good in every soul, so that, when grace invites, cooperation comes about. The grace of God can therefore not work irresistibly and God’s preordination is dependent upon His foreknowledge. God’s grace is not particular—to say this would be an abominable sacrilege! (“een te gruwelijke heiligschennis!”)—nay, it is completely common, universal.
Incidentally, all these quotations from Wagenaar’s “Of Conflict and Victory” are our translation from the Dutch language. You will notice, in this quotation, that Cassianus speaks of a conditional predestination, that God’s foreordination is dependent upon His foreknowledge. And then he emphasizes that the grace of God is not particular, but common and universal. He also writes that original sin is but an evil and a weakness; the will of the sinner always remains free in the sense that it continues able to choose the good as well as the evil. These heresies are inseparably connected. The one demands the other. If we believe in conditional predestination—the first of the five points of the Arminians—then we must also believe in universal atonement and that the sinner is not wholly and completely depraved. And is it not striking that these forerunners of the Arminian controversy maintained that the grace of God is not particular but common?
Wagenaar mentions among those who prepared the way for the heresy of Arminianism the names of Anastasius (Johannes Anastasius Veluanus) and Dirck Volkertszoon Coornhert. Concerning a book which the former had written, Wagenaar writes the following:
There is in this extremely popular book of instruction much good; however in regard to the matter of the “free will” Anastasius remained semipelagian and he did not hide his aversion to “predestination.” It is therefore not surprising that Wtenbogaert prized’ this book highly. In the light of the fact that this gripping and clearly written book of instruction had been published already six times before 1610 and again appeared in this year in ‘s Gravenhage, we may conclude that its influence could not have been slight and that it must have left its mark upon many. Insofar as that mark delineated an aversion against the doctrine of foreordination, set forth the idea of the free will and set forth that grace is common, one can certainly agree that the evasive pastor, who in these respects had remained Romish, has prepared the way for Remonstrantism; however, there is no mention in Anastasius of any peculiarly Netherland-Reformatory development of doctrine.
Notice, please, in this quotation, that Wagenaar, speaking of Anastasius’ aversion to the doctrine of “foreordination,” his emphasis upon the ‘sinner’s free will and his maintaining of the universality of grace, declares that Anastasius in these matters remained Roman Catholic.
Coornhert was another who prepared the way for the heresy of Arminianism. In fact, he was a man of great influence. He had great difficulty with the Scriptural truth of original sin, learned Latin-to be able to read the writings of Augustine, but was in love with Erasmus, the classics and Stoic philosophy. Of him we read that he gave expression to his hatred against the doctrine of predestination in a book in which he questioned whether the views of Calvin and Beza, with respect to the decrees of God are according to the Divine Scriptures. Coornhert was a furious opponent of Calvinism and he was surely another who prepared the way for the heresy of Arminius.
As forerunners of Arminius, the following are mentioned by Wagenaar: Coolhaas, Herberts, Wiggerts, Sybrandi and Venator. And it is striking that these forerunners have in common with those who prepared the way for this heretical movement that they were Romish who, although having broken with Rome, never did embrace unconditionally the rich and comforting doctrine of the Reformation.
Coolhaas was condemned by the National Synod at Middelburg in 1581 because he maintained that the Presbyterian form of church government was in error, and also because he denied man’s inability to do good and taught that the grace of God is common. He died in 1610. He did cause a tumult in the church of Leiden, but not as yet in the church of God in general. In distinction from the Arminians, the Calvinists favored the Presbyterian form of church government, believed that the church should govern its own affairs and without interference from the government.
Herberts, also originally Roman Catholic, had little love for the Heidelberg Catechism. Later, when called to appear before the General Synod of ‘s Gravenhage in 1586, he signed a confession of guilt, declared himself in favor of the Netherland Confession of Faith (the 37 Articles) and the Heidelberg Catechism, although he did have objections against Article 16 of the Netherland Confession, the article on Eternal Election, against the decree of reprobation, as did Coolhaas, and against Answer 114 of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the imperfections of the children of God. Wagenaar also calls our attention to the fact that Wtenbogaert, Arminius’ bosom friend, was Herbert’s defender.
A third forerunner of Arminianism, named by Wagenaar, is Comelis Wiggerts, an “author of great disturbances and agitation in the churches of Holland.” Of him we are told that he was deeply anti-Calvinist in his soul, and that he revealed his semi-pelagian sentiments in his preaching; he also took the liberty upon himself to make changes in the liturgy. Wiggerts was very popular in North Holland. There, in North Holland, were many respectable people of high social standing and who remained secretly Roman Catholic. They would have nothing to do with Calvinistic preaching. Among these this forerunner of Arminianism was very popular, and we are also informed by Wagenaar that he was supported by Wtenbogaert. Although he was synodically condemned, the magistrates or political parties “held his head above water,” and he continued to preach in a small congregation, also after he was excommunicated from the church in 1598. The magistrate remained his defender until his death in 1624. However, it was worthy of note that also this forerunner of the Arminian heresy was a bitter opponent of Calvinism and was defended by Wtenbogaert who played such an important role in the Arminian controversy after the death of Arminius in 1609. These men would have nothing to do with the truths of sovereign predestination and the utter inability of the sinner to do any good in the sight of the Lord.