The Arminian Reaction

The matter with which we were last occupied in my previous article is the open breach between Arminius and Gomarus. As was stated, the report of this rupture spread far and wide. The complaint arose that in Leyden old heresies in a new dress were being brought forth. The reference was, of course, to Arminius.

As we saw, the classis of Dordrecht was stirred to action; and likewise, finally, the Synod of Rotterdam (Aug. 30, 1605). As was stated, this synod decided to request the curators of the school to require of Arminius and the rest of the professors that they unreservedly declare themselves regarding the disputed points. As we saw, too, the curators refused to cooperate and advised a national synod for the settling of the difficulties. It was generally agreed that this was the only way out. But, as was stated, it was not until 1618—thus 13 years later—that the government could be induced to consent to the calling of such a synod. In the meantime the struggle continued. Let us now get on with our story.

It was Arminius by whom the next step was taken. He informed the States General that he was ready for a friendly conference with the brethren—definitely Gomarus—to be held under the auspices of his government. The conference was held in the Hague in 1609. The first to receive opportunity to speak his mind was Arminius. The unrest in the churches puzzled him. He could not understand why he was not being trusted. Never, never had he taught anything derogatory to the Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism either in public or privately. He did have a few objections, but instead of revealing them he assailed Gomarus’ views regarding election and reprobation. To his mind and way of thinking these views were simply abominable. His objections to the Confessions he hoped to reveal on the national synod at the opportune time. He concluded with affirming that he was thoroughly orthodox, meaning to say that in all his instruction he strictly adhered to the officially adopted Confessions. This from a man who in his private correspondence and in his private lectures to his choice students was all along maintaining that the will of man is in no wise determined by the divine degree. But so it goes.

The following day Gomarus was given the floor. He stated his objections to the teaching of Arminius. The latter had contended that a man is justified not by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, but by the deeds of his very own faith. (Arminius solemnly affirmed that, holding as he did that “faith is reckoned to a man for righteousness” he was in complete agreement with the Confession. He promised, too, that in the event the churches, as assembled in synod, should find his formulation intolerable, either he would let it go or resign as professor. Third, he recited with avowed approval the substance of the answer to questions 60 and 61 of the Heidelberg Catechism. These were his very words: “I believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that I am righteous before God solely through an upright faith in Jesus Christ, so that without any merit of my own and by sheer grace God gives and imputes to me the perfect righteousness of Christ, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin; yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me, in so far as I embrace this benefit with a believing heart. That I am acceptable to God, not on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the righteousness of Christ, is my righteousness before God, and I can embrace and appropriate this righteousness not otherwise than by faith.”

For sooth, an excellent confession! Yet Arminius was again equivocating. He was anew evading the issue—an issue that he, himself, had created and thrown into the lap of the churches, namely whether the will, determination, to embrace the aforesaid benefit is of man or of God. Arminius affirmed the former. Had he been dealing honestly with his opponents, he would have declared: “In so far as I of my own free will embrace this benefit with a believing heart. . .”

The government officials now required that both professors draw up and submit to them a written statement setting forth their views regarding all the points in dispute. They do so, Gomarus in 31 and Arminius in 20 articles, and this concluded the conference.

The state officials examined these productions, and they reported to the States-General that, in so far as they were able to judge, the differences were of little account and could easily be overlooked if the parties to the dispute were only willing to practice tolerance. But Gomarus could not agree. He had the courage to declare that, according to his settled conviction, the views of his colleague, meaning Arminius, were of such a kind that he would not dare to appear with them before the judgment seat of God. The lame retort of Arminius was that he always had loved and promoted peace, had ever adhered to the Confession, and would continue so to do.

Gomarus’ evaluations of the views and instruction of his colleague could not well remain hidden. Becoming known, they made a tremendous impression. Especially provoking was Arminius’ pretention to orthodoxy in the face of his persistent refusal to state his views openly and without reserve. There were whisperings that he was a Jesuit. They said of him that he had secretly embraced Roman Catholicism. These accusations cut him to the quick, judging from his lamentations. To one of his friends he wrote: “Slander, the firstborn of the devil, sits in the seat of the truth. But God and time will unmask him. In the meantime the righteous suffer.” But the charges were essentially true. For like that of Rome, the doctrine of Arminius, regarding the points in dispute, was semi-pelagian. Small wonder, therefore, that he could write to one of his friends that he fully shared Rome’s extreme dislike of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. But openly he justified his reticence by saying that, should he reveal his true sentiments, his critics, being unsympathetic, would be certain to misconstrue his statements, and turn them against him.

Arminius’ friends again arranged for another conference for the settlement of the difficulties. Needless to say, when the conference ended, the two professors were as far apart as ever. Arminius, who for some time had been in failing health, returned to his home in Leyden, a sick man. The government now required of each of the professors another statement of their views. They did as requested. Arminius kept him to his task until he could go no longer. He was that spent and exhausted. His contemplated production was but half completed. But he sent what he had. It was his last deed. Shortly thereafter—October 19, 1609—he died at the age of 49 years.


To understand this struggle especially in its continuation we must have before us all the issues on which it concentrated.

  1. There was the doctrinal issue. Here the question was whether divine grace is resistible. Thus far we have been occupied with the aforesaid struggle solely as it turned on this question.

But there were other issues touching on the relation of the church and state and the right of the churches in this relation. Then there was also the question of the authority of the Confession.

The question of the authority that is, the binding power of the Confession—the 37 articles and the Heidelberg Catechism 

As was stated, by 1605 all the churches were insisting that the prevailing doctrinal differences necessitated the calling of a national synod. The States-General (by which is to be understood the Netherlands government) expressed itself as willing on one condition, namely, that the synod be authorized to “summarize”, that is, read again and approve the Confessions.

But the churches objected on the following grounds: A “summarizing” of the Confessions must needs imply: a) that the preceding synods had only tentatively adopted these documents; b) that they still could be changed; c) that the coming national synod would adopt them permanently.

Not that to the mind of the objectors the Confessions, like the Scriptures, are infallible. Their reasoning was this: the Confessions have been once and for all approved and adopted as the expression of what the churches believe to be the truth of God’s Scriptures. But only the Scriptures are infallible. Hence, if in the minds of any difficulties should arise respecting any section or expression of the Confession, such aggrieved ones certainly have the right and duty to reveal their sentiments to consistory, classis and synod. And then it is the duty of the synod to search the Scriptures earnestly and impartially if the point in dispute should be changed. But to authorize a “summarization” of the Confessions without any having first proved that they are in error is to condemn them unheard and without their being proved guilty; it is to free the signatories of these documents—ministers elders, and deacons—from their solemn promise and obligation to teach and faithfully defend the doctrine contained in them, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by public preaching or writing, and moreover not only to reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, but to refute and contradict these, and to exert themselves in keeping the churches free from such errors. In a word, to authorize such a “summarization’’ of the Confessions is to render everything uncertain and thereby to open the door to any and every heresy under the sun. Such was in substance the reasoning of the particular synod of Holland in 1605, thus four years before the passing of Arminius.

But the opposition was not really adverse to permanent adoption of the Confessions. What they were really after is simply the opportunity to change these documents into expressions of their own heretical beliefs, or to so revise them that they could no longer be quoted in condemnation of these beliefs. This once having been accomplished, they would allow and even clamor for their permanent approval and adoption. In a word, what the opposition wanted is to make room in the churches for their heresies.

But the government through its spokesman—Olden-barnevelt—spoke reassuring words. The churches should not place such emphasis on the term “summarization”. The purpose was not to change the Confessions, but simply to read them through once more and thereupon to affirm that they were not in need of revision. But the prime minister was not speaking the truth. The purpose was “revision of the Confessions’’ indeed. For not so long thereafter the government added a few more conditions to the one already laid down, namely the following:

  1. All gravamen, that is, charges, against the Confessions must first be submitted to the government;
  2. The government would call together the synod, and also designate its members;
  3. The synod would be preceded by a convention of ministers of the Gospel to be designated by the government. This assembly must prepare the matters to the liking of the government.

The churches strongly objected, but in their desire for a national synod they finally yielded. The convention was held in the month of May, 1607. Its agendum, supplied by the government, was constituted of eight points. The sixth of these is again revealing. It reads: “Whether the delegates to the national synod should not be obliged freely to speak their minds without considering themselves bound by anything but the Word of God”.

The real thrust of this point is clear. Should it be adopted the churches would be without a authoritative Confession during all the sessions of the Synod. The opposition, if in the majority on the synod, would then be at liberty to deal with the Confessions as they chose. The champions of the truth being in the majority on the convention, the point was rejected.

The last point touched on the matter of the revision of the Confessions. It was decided that no charges might be lodged against the Confessions on a whole, but only against definite phrases and expressions thereof.