The Arminian Magazine: Getting Acquainted With Arminius, Part 2 (by John S. Knox)

In the years preceding the Declaration of Sentiments’ creation, Arminius frequently defended his position as a minister and theologian in the Reformed church and as a supporter of Calvin. His Declaration is the summary compilation of that defensive effort against the Supralapsarians and high Calvinists. As such, each section of the Declaration will be inspected as to its topic(s), thesis statement, and supportive assertions.

The Declaration consists of ten chapters on a variety of topics, but Arminius did not dwell equally in consideration on each of them. With clear purposes in mind, he gave appropriate attention to the aspects of doctrine crucial for a better awareness of his position, and in order to obtain a fuller understanding of the relationship between humanity and God. As such, he hoped his presentation would serve a dual purpose in his endeavors for biblical truth and in his defense of Supralapsarian charges.

SECTION I – “ON PREDESTINATION”

This is by far the most complex part of the Declaration. Nearly 15,000 words long, this exposition has three purposes. First, Arminius describes the Supralapsarian understanding of predestination and explains how it is harmful and wrong. Second, he presents other views of predestination with their finer points of understanding and benefit. Lastly, Arminius presents his own views on predestination.

Arminius’ depiction of the Supralapsarian understanding regarding this topic is unflattering, to say the least. He begins his examination with a blunt statement of dismissal of their assertion that God has predestined some to salvation and others to damnation. He points out the fact that it is a belief “… espoused by those [Supralapsarians] who assume the very highest ground of this Predestination.” So begins his condemnation of their extremist doctrinal interpretation of Calvin and the Bible.

He then goes on to detail their arguments and later provides the grounds for his rejection of these theological opinions. The main reasons for his denunciation of the Supralapsarian position are: (1) “it is not the foundation of Christianity, of Salvation, or of its certainty,” (2) it “comprises within it neither the whole nor any part of the Gospel,” and (3) it “was never admitted, decreed, or approved in any Council, either general or particular, for the first six hundred years after Christ.” Supplementing this, he adds, it “neither agrees nor corresponds with the Harmony of those Confessions which were printed and published together in one Volume at Geneva, in the name of the Reformed and Protestant Churches,” it is “repugnant to the Nature of God,” it is “opposed to the Act of Creation,” it is “injurious to the Glory of God,” it is “hurtful to the salvation of men,” and it “is in open hostility to the Ministry of the Gospel.”

Apparently, Arminius has little trouble pointing out the defects of the Supralapsarian approach to predestination. He backs up each of these criticisms with proof of their flawed foundations. This long list is a testament to his personal disdain for the doctrine promoted by these high Calvinists.

Arminius then goes on to describe two other incorrect ways of conceptualizing predestination other than that of the Supralapsarians. First, God irreversibly decided in eternity,

to make (according to his own good pleasure,) the smaller portion out of the general mass of mankind partakers of his grace and glory, to the praise of his own glorious grace. But according to his pleasure he also passed by the greater portion of men, and left them in their own nature, which is incapable of every thing supernatural, [or beyond itself,] and did not communicate to them that saving and supernatural grace by which their nature, (if it still retained its integrity,) might be strengthened, or by which, if it were corrupted, it might be restored – for a demonstration of his own liberty. Yet after God had made these men sinners and guilty of death, he punished them with death eternal–for a demonstration of his own justice.

The crux of this complex passage is the suggestion that Arminius finds no logic or love in God predestining some people to salvation and others to damnation whether it is before or after the Fall of Adam–both seem incongruous considering God’s expressed plan in Scripture for humanity.

Arminius rejects this understanding because it makes God the author of sin, which he cannot and will not affirm. Furthermore, this concept suggests an understanding of predestination that is “a palpable and absurd self-contradiction.” It does not fit into any logical understanding of the nature of humanity nor does it accommodate God’s biblical plan of redemption.

Arminius describes a third understanding of predestination in which, “God acts without the least consideration of repentance and faith in those whom he elects, or of impenitence and unbelief in those whom he reprobates.” Arminius condemns this third understanding of predestination because it suggests that God does not care about the moral behavior or authentic faith of His followers-a concept not found in Scripture. This concept conflicts with the image of the God of justice accepted by early church fathers. God carefully judges the world and all its inhabitants, suggesting that He would not arbitrarily send certain people to heaven and hell, regardless of their good or bad faith in Him.

Finally, Arminius presents his own understanding of predestination. Rather than the lengthy exercise used earlier to invalidate the Supralapsarian view, Arminius offers a short and concise argument for his beliefs in this matter. He points to four decrees of God as evidence for his standpoint.

First, God “decreed to appoint his Son, Jesus Christ, for a Mediator, Redeemer, Savior, Priest and King, who might destroy sin by his own death, might by his obedience obtain the salvation which had been lost, and might communicate it by his own virtue.” Jesus Christ is the ultimate sin offering used to appropriate the complete salvation of all humanity. Second, God “decreed to receive into favor those who repent and believe, and, in Christ, for his sake and through Him, to effect the salvation of such penitents and Believers as persevered to the end.” Remaining in a sinful state only leads to death and to eternal damnation, but turning from sin leads to personal salvation. Third, “God decreed to administer in a sufficient and efficacious manner the means which were necessary for repentance and faith.” The resources for finding one’s salvation are always available to everyone because God is ultimately wise, merciful, and just. Fourth,

He knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.

This is not the same as ordaining some to salvation and others to perdition. Rather, it is a supernatural ability to see into all possibilities of humanity and the future. It speaks of the power of God, which, conveniently, Arminius discusses in the next section in his Declaration. Predestination was perhaps the most serious misjudgment of the Supralapsarians according to Arminius, but his high Calvinist peers also embraced other extreme distortions of biblical interpretation and application, dangerously manifest in their rigid doctrinal positions not explicitly found nor supported in Holy Scriptures.

From: The Arminian Magazine, Issue 1. Spring 2011. Volume 29

The Arminian Magazine: Getting Acquainted with Arminius, Part 1 (by John S. Knox)

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.

From: The Arminian Magazine Issue 2. Fall 2010. Volume 28