On October 30, 1608, Jacobus Arminius presented his Declaration of Sentiments to the assembly of the States of Holland and West Friesland in the Binnenhof in the Hague. Having trained in Geneva under John Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, and having further studied and honed his theology at the University of Leyden, Arminius thoroughly presented his theological views both orally and in written form. He spoke in his native Dutch language to an assembly of his peers and religious authorities with the hopes of avoiding a theological rift in Holland while at the same time removing a long-standing conflict with the supralapsarian faction warring against him. They taught that God decreed election and reprobation prior to the creation of mankind. Thus, the reprobate are damned before sin ever entered the world. The other Calvinist position was termed infralapsarianism and they held that God predestined the elect and reprobate after the Fall. Thus, the debate was whether God was glorified in creation or in judgment.
Declaration of Sentiments is a sophisticated, passionate appeal to reason, scripture, and community. With each chapter, Arminius not only seeks to demonstrate the error of the attacks on him, but also to point out how and why reconciliation can take place through a careful examination of various precepts of Christian thought. A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius contains ten chapters demonstrating the author’s understanding of the predestination of humanity, the providence of God, the freedom of human will, the grace of God, the perseverance of Christians and their assurance of salvation, the possibility of perfection and holiness in the life of the believer, Jesus Christ’s divine nature and his part in the justification of humanity before God, and finally, Arminius’ own suggested revision of the Dutch confession and Heidelberg Catechism. With each chapter, Arminius carefully builds a defense of both his own Christian character and his biblical interpretation by pointing out what he considers to be important errors of hypocritical judgment and shallow hermeneutics in his adversaries.
The chief goal of this exposition will be to analyze Arminius’ defense of himself and his theology in his Declaration of Sentiments against a high Calvinist understanding of theology. In The Story of Christian Theology, Roger Olsen remarks, “Without doubt or debate, Arminius is one of the most unfairly neglected and grossly misunderstood theologians in the story of Christian theology.”
Like the Catholics before them, the Supralapsarians had so rigidly formulated what it meant to be a Christian that all other interpretations were deemed totally unacceptable. Concerning this harsh judgment placed on Arminius and his followers, Justo Gonzalez remarks, “But the main purpose of the gathering [Synod of Dort] was the condemnation of Arminianism, necessary in order to end the strife that was dividing the Netherlands and to secure the support of other Reformed churches.”
Arminius observed that several Dutch church leaders claimed to be pure Calvinists when, in fact, they often went far beyond Calvin in their conclusions. They also presented interpretations that were based more on logic and reason than on Scripture. Arminius argued that Supralapsarianism was found neither in early Church creeds, nor in the confessional statements of the Reformed and Protestant Churches.
In Geneva, Arminius became well versed in the high Calvinist ways of Beza and his fellow Supralapsarians. Despite their “indoctrination” of the young scholar, Arminius nevertheless found much of Beza’s conclusions on Calvinist thought and doctrine to be spurious and unacceptable. This eventually would cause a great deal of consternation on the part of the advocates of high Calvinism, but it did not keep Arminius from obtaining a ministerial position.
In 1587, Arminius moved to Amsterdam and began the protocol of meetings, oral examinations, and trial-preaching necessary before becoming ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Despite some tense moments, Arminius was finally admitted as minister of the Church in Amsterdam in 1588.
Immediately after beginning his official position, he was called upon to contest and disprove the “liberal” views of theologian Dirck Koornhert. Koornhert was a lay theologian who first had been secretary of State and then later worked on a Dutch translation of Erasmus’ Latin New Testament. He also had publicly challenged the rigid Supralapsarian understanding of predestination and promoted a more tolerant, humanist understanding of doctrine. Arminius’ superiors hoped he would champion the views of Beza; instead, he ended up agreeing with Koornhert’s interpretation of Scripture at least concerning predestination.
Arminius was accused of several heresies, from Pelagianism to Arianism to Socinianism, a Reformation-era heresy that denied Christ’s deity, substitutionary atonement, and God’s foreknowledge and foreordination. According to his critics, Arminius was Pelagian because of his disagreement with the irresistibility of the Holy Spirit and was Socinian because he doubted that God would elect anyone to damnation.
Drawing upon his personal talent for scholarship, Arminius employed reason and authority to defend his positions. Furthermore, he put a low priority on the doctrinal statements of his theological peers that seemed beyond scriptural confirmation because, as maintained by A. W. Harrison,
his theology was Biblical. He allowed no rival authority in the realm of faith. The views of the fathers and the decrees of the Church Councils were important; the fundamental axioms and intuitions of the human mind were very potent; but at the best their authority was secondary, while that of the Scriptures was all in all.
With the devastating outbreak of the Plague in 1602 and the deaths of two professors, Arminius had an opportunity thrust upon him to teach at the University of Leyden. Despite being invited by the board of governors at the University to apply, four men also employed there (Gomarus, Cuchlinus, Plancius, Hommius) fought against his joining the faculty at Leyden. Fortunately for Arminius, the governors of the University felt that Gomarus and his fellow objectors had little proof for substantiating their concerns. Once Arminius had acceptably answered all their questions without giving them suitable reasons for rejection, they concluded to ask him to accept the professorship at Leyden. This bothered his critics immensely and only initiated further attacks against him.
In 1603, Arminius had his first official debate with Franciscus Gomarus at The Hague. Gomarus again accused him of Pelagianism and of being pro-Catholic, allegations against which Arminius once more successfully defended himself. This would be the beginning of a long and bitter struggle between the two men and their respective theological positions, culminating in creation of the Declaration of Sentiments in 1608.
The Declaration is not especially long (originally 70 pages), nor is it overly verbose. As such, Arminius had a very clear purpose in creating it. It was written first as a defense against high Calvinist attacks and second as a message of biblical truth according to Arminius. Standing before a mixed assembly of advocates, friends, hostile and fearful lords, theologians, and ministers, Arminius sought not only to defend himself against his attackers, but hoped also to enlighten and calm his peers and judges, alike. He was not merely attempting to vanquish his enemies; he also hoped to save them from theological misconceptions that he considered to be “in contradiction either to the Word of God, or the Confession of the Belgic Churches.” Thus, in his presentation, he devotes ten chapters toward this pursuit of clear, biblically sound thinking.
Arminius begins his treatise with an explanation of his presence before the assembly. It is in these few pages that the reader encounters his expressed frustration and his account of the suffering that he has experienced in the years leading up to what Carl Bangs calls the Dutch “inquisition.” He recounts the attacks against him, both overt and surreptitious, as well as the manipulation of facts and numerous personal petty challenges made by his colleagues – all unjust and unnecessary in his opinion.
He pleas for fairness from his judges as to whether or not he has actually perverted the truth of Scripture and doctrine. He assures them that he will accept their punishment if they reject his Declaration of Sentiments and the theological understandings it presents. However, he also hopes they will acquit him and come to his aid if they find his beliefs in keeping with the Confession and the Bible.
As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest complaints from Gomarus and his Supralapsarian Amsterdam camp was that Arminius had rejected God’s doctrine of predestination of both saint and sinner as taught by Calvin. Arminius had long struggled against the doctrine of supralapsarianism. He knew it was the cornerstone of his opponents’ argument against him and was their “primary item of contention.”
Arminius does not skirt the issue of predestination nor does he avoid the controversial topics tossed at him earlier by Gomarus in their debates. Instead, he confidently and carefully presents his views on predestination, first elaborating his supralapsarian opponents’ arguments which are “both false and impertinent, and at an utter disagreement with each other.” Then, when he has finished critically challenging their supralapsarian suppositions, Arminius presents his own views, calling on Scripture, the Confession, and logic for support. He perceives the misjudgments of his opponents to be an extreme distortion of interpretation, manifested by their making doctrinal decisions not explicitly found or supported in Scripture.
Arminius concludes his Declaration of Sentiments with an acknowledgment of submission to the assembly’s authority and power. The heart of this statement is his reiteration that his goals have always been the reconciliation with his brothers in Christ and the promotion of a healthy understanding of the plan of God.