Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode, Jacob Arminius
Late in his career, John Wesley began publishing a journal he titled the Arminian Magazine. Named after the dutch pastor and theologian, Jacob Arminius. Wesley didn’t have a lot of other journals named after other people. In fact, for much of the history of Methodism, the doctrine of the church was described in hyphenated way as Wesleyan-Arminian. In our day, Arminianism is mostly used as a negative pejorative term by Calvinists against any non-Calvinists. If you don’t see predestination as something beautiful you must be an Arminian is the neo-Calvinist version of a Jeff Foxworthy joke. It is really funny if you are a Calvinist.
So who was Jacob Arminius? Why did Wesley name a magazine after him? And why do Calvinists despise him so?
As we saw in our last episode, early Reformed theology was not as monolithic as is sometimes portrayed. As Stephen Gunter points out, "what it meant to be Protestant during Arminius's you had nothing to do with disputes about the finer points of Reformed doctrine; it was about not being Roman Catholic. When Arminius was growing up, no more than 1 in 10 people in the Netherlands openly identified themselves as Protestant, for there was considerable ambivalence about leaving the Roman fold." (53)
Arminius was born Jacobus Harmenszoon on October 10 of 1559 in Oudewater in what would become the Netherlands. Jacobus Arminius was the Latin name he took upon entering college, a custom at the time. At the time of his birth, the Netherlands was ruled by the Habspurg Phillip II of Spain. Phillip was the son of Charles V, whom you should remember from our episode about the Counter-Reformation. The Netherlands was divided into 17 provinces and known in the empire as Les Pays de par deça, or the land over there. That is why, in English, they are referred to as Neither lands: Netherlands. This includes all of what is today the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, are a few parts of modern France and Germany.
In 1566, a revolt began around Calvinist iconoclasm called the Beeldenstorm. Protestants began to tear down icons and images of Jesus and Mary. Protestants were not in the majority but some local nobles, like William of Orange (ancestor of the future King of England bearing the same name), supported the iconoclasts and used the occasion to foment formal rebellion against the Hapsburgs. Open war would continue off and on until the Peace of Westphalia in 1654 which have led some to call the Dutch rebellion the 80 years war.
This context for Arminius's early life is essential because his whole life was filled with Revolution. The year after he died, in 1609, was the start of the 12 year truce, the longest period of peace in the conflict. Of course, to say the Netherlands was in a state of war was not to say that there were battles every day, but that two governments laid claim to the same land. Philip and his heirs saw it all as Hapsburg land, the Dutch did not see it that way and they began to develop systems of local government.
Oudewater, Arminius's birthplace, did not declare as Protestant (in defiance of the Hapsburgs), until 1574 when Jacob was in his teens. Arminius went to school, supported by his mother's family, and later studied in Leiden, Geneva, and Basel (with a short period in Padua). Theodore Beza was still living during Arminius's student years, although the faculty and city were not unified in support of Beza's more hardline positions on predestination, Carl Bangs, the eminient biographer of Arminius even called Geneva ironically "the seedbed of Dutch Arminianism".
A major intellectual influence at this time across Europe and with Arminius in particular was the logical writings of Peter Ramus. Ramus had written a critique of Aristotle that attempted to simplify logic by reducing the number of possible arguments and focus on the practical ends of an argument. Many of his future opponents in Amsterdam and Leiden were staunch Aristotelians which added to their discomfort around Arminius's doctrinal claims.
In 1587, Arminius returned to his homeland and after a short period, was approved and ordained as a pastor in Amsterdam. There were, at this time, five pastors who rotated assignments during the year.
Already in 1592, a complaint was made against Arminius that he was being Pelagian and not adhering to the Belgic Confession and to the Heidelberg Catechism, the two principal doctrinal guides for the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. This argument was brought before the weekly meeting of the Consistory of Amsterdam, a church council of sorts that ruled ecclesial affairs for the city. Though eventually ruling that no heresy had taken place, the conflict between Arminius and the stricter Reformed ministers and members of the consistory was not to end swiftly or smoothly.
The burgomasters were the civilian authority of the area. All of this was new and in flux due to the context of open revolt against the Hapsburgs. While Arminius is mostly known today for advocating free will over predestination, perhaps an even larger point of contention in his life was the relationship between church and state. William of Orange favored a broad interpretation of church authority which led to some independence for the burghers and a limitation to the authority of the consistory. William's younger brother, Maurice, who came to power in 1585, after William's death a year earlier, supported a more narrow interpretation of church authority which gave more authority to the consistory over all matters. We shall see the culmination of this in the Synod of Dort in 1618, but there is still a long way to go.
In 1603, Arminius received a position in Leiden at the University. Leiden had been freed from the Hapsburgs in 1574 by William of Orange and almost immediately the city decided to begin a Protestant University there, the first in the country. Thus, Arminius's appointment was eminent and influential in a fledgling country that saw fit to build schools amidst a war. In 1605, he was elected as the the Rector Magnificas, chief academic officer of the University. It was in that same year that the final round of charges were put forward against Arminius and the Theology and his theology. The dispute quickly became more than academic when Arminius was visited by ministers from all over the country.
The dispute concerned predestination and the divine foreknowledge of God with the more rigid Calvinists saying that Arminius is heretically preaching and teaching in contradictory ways to the Belgic Confession article 16 by using the language of contingency around election. Just like in 1592, Arminius responds directly to every charge, refuting them strongly enough that the governor’s of the University eventually see the matter settled.
Arminius never wrote against predestination (as some later Arminians would). Instead, he spoke and wrote that his accusers had distorted scripture in there attempts to hold true to a Bezan interpretation of the Belgic Confession.
Arminius, however, does not, and nor do his opponents. In 1606, as a way to end dispute, Arminius called for a national Synod convened by the magistrates and not the church leaders. He did so theologically, connecting the authority of the magistrates with divine mandate and, quote, "ancient Jewish practice, which was afterwards taken over by the Christian church and was continued nearly to the ninth century, until the Roman Pontiff began, through tyranny, to arrogate this authority to himself." (Gunter 81).
Arminius's position on this is known as Erastianism and it is impossible to disentangle issues of state authority from other theological concerns at the time. The Dutch republic was not even 50 years old and they were still in an active level of revolt with the threat of Hapsburg invasion being constant. They continually asked themselves: how should we govern ourselves? This is a question that is never separate from who God is and how are we to understand God’s sovereignty.
Calvin’s own view on Church government came as much from the Patriarch Jerome as the scriptures itself, as can be seen in his section on Ancient church governance in Book four of the Institutes of Christian Religion. As well, the last chapter of the entire institutes is dedicated to civil government
When we look to Arminius’s influence over Wesley, the major one is his advocacy for the free grace of God without limit and his intellectual defense of this position in the face of Calvinist rigidity around the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. Wesley saw in Arminius someone who advocated for the doctrine’s of original sin and justification by grace all the way down but who did not need the stark predestination view of later Calvinists.
The other major point of influence was in disposition. Arminius held up scripture over interpretations of Reformed creeds and saw in each dispute an opportunity to return to Scripture without systematic shorthand. Wesley did this as well. Wesley saw himself as a homo unius libri, a man of one book, and when issues arise he wishes to return to the book and dispute about the book, not a modern confession, not even the 39 Articles.
But don’t take my words for it. For our next episode, we are going to have a reading of a pamphlet by John Wesley titled “The Question, ‘What is an Arminian?’ Answered by a Lover of Free Grace,” next time on the History of Methodism.
Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012).
Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971).
Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion