Essay / On This Day

Arminius the Calvinist

Today (October 10) is the birthday of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), the Dutch theologian whose given name was Jakob Harmenszoon. If he had been American, we’d have called him Jimmy Harmenson. But he wrote theology in Latin, and for some reason it has been the latinized version of his name that caught on. We don’t call John Calvin Caluinus, but we do call Jakob Harmenszoon Arminius. He’s become “one-name famous” like Bono, and he’s famous for not being Calvinist.

Choose this day: Are you Calvinist or Arminian? As theological systems go, it makes perfect sense to draw a clear line between the Reformed theology that is popularly summarized in the five points of TULIP on the one hand, and the dissent from those five doctrines on the other hand. There is a constellation of “the doctrines of grace” that make you Reformed if you embrace them, and something else if you don’t. The most useful label associated with that “something else” is Arminian.

But what about Jimmy Harmenson Arminius himself? Theologians and historians of an Arminian theological persuasion have often pointed out that he was a pastor in the Reformed church of the Netherlands, that he subscribed to numerous Reformed doctrinal statements (including the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession), and a teacher in a Reformed seminary. Those things add up to the conclusion, they say, that Arminius was in fact a Reformed theologian. He wasn’t Roman Catholic, after all, or Lutheran, or Baptist. Since there were no other churchly options in the late sixteenth century, he clearly belongs in the Reformed category, as everybody connected to his teaching or pastoral ministry would have told you. Everybody except his opponents, that is, who would press the point that Arminius was working awfully hard to create enough room inside of the Reformed tradition that a theologian could reject 4 or 5 important points and still be called “Reformed.”

Arminius a Calvinist? What’s next, Luther a Catholic, Laud a Puritan, Ratzinger an Anglican, and D.A. Carson Emergent? That way lies madness.

But the fact is, for historical purposes, it’s actually a pretty difficult question, and we have to be careful when talking about the actual, historical Arminius. Richard Muller took up this whole complicated question in a recent article in the Westminster Theological Journal, entitled Arminius and the Reformed Tradition (WJT 70 (2008): 19-48). His essay is (as readers of Muller would expect) comprehensive and nuanced, and is likely to be the last word on the subject.

Speaking of lat words, here is how Muller wraps up his consideration of the question:

In conclusion, was Arminius Reformed? The answer remains mixed: in terms of his theological training, churchly allegiance, pastoral charge, and by stated subscription to confessional standards, namely the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, he was Reformed. Certainly, also, he was Reformed in the generic or colloquial sense of being of the Protestant rather than of the Roman faith. By documentable theological conviction, however, he placed himself outside the Reformed understanding of the confessions of the Dutch Reformed churches, as it had been established in earlier debates both in the Netherlands and elsewhere. He was not schismatic nor was he a vociferous opponent of the confessions. Rather, he sought revision, namely, a revision that would render the documents broader in definition and consistently less specific on controverted points of doctrine. Given that his own teachings on predestination were neither fully published until the year before his death nor condemned by synodical decision until a decade later, there is a rather technical sense belonging to church order in which one can argue that Arminius was Reformed, albeit dissident, until the day he died.

Most of the complexity arises from the fact that Arminius was theologically on the move, and died in the middle of his transition to a clearer position. He was in fact trying to open up enough space to be “non-Calvinist” (as we would say today) in the Reformed church. The majority of the Reformed theologians judged that to be a re-definition of what it meant to be Reformed, and the dividing line was drawn more clearly. Muller goes on:

His significance is not to be denied, and it rests, in large part, on the fact that despite its numerous points of correspondence both with the Reformed theology of his time and with the teachings of his colleagues at Leiden, in several crucial points concerning predestination and the ordo salutis Arminius’s theology was not confessionally Reformed.

Arminius Reformed? Muller ends up saying yes and no in the two paragraphs quoted above. But his emphasis falls on the no, because “Reformed” has to mean something, as Arminius’ opponents in his own time kept pointing out. Muller tries to operate as a historian rather than as a systematic theologian, so he refuses to appeal to something like “the essence of Reformed theology” in order to get a normative judgment. He thinks it’s possible to say “Arminius was not Reformed” in purely sixteenth-century terms.

The statement that Arminius’s theology was not Reformed is hardly a retrospective theological judgment based on the Canons of Dort. It rests on the confessional and theological standards of Arminius’s own lifetime juxtaposed with his own clear theological preferences. It was, moreover, the conclusion drawn by a large number of his colleagues and other contemporaries who had themselves subscribed to the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism—and who neither viewed the documents as ambiguous nor were satisfied by Arminius’s own arguments and explanations.

We may be living and thinking downstream from the alternatives that Arminius himself helped establish, but that doesn’t mean we have to try to fit him into categories that were only defined with real clarity later. The argument that Arminius was Calvinist has been around for a while, but Muller seems to have clinched the argument pretty well.

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