If a person were to enter a Methodist Church today, it is more than likely that many of the congregants would recognize and perhaps know a little bit of information about the founder of the Methodist movement – John Wesley. Additionally, some, but not all, may even be familiar with the names Charles Wesley or even George Whitefield, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury; all of whom were a part of the substantial growth of Methodism in both England and the United States during the latter part of the eighteenth century and early part of the nineteenth. However, even fewer people would recognize the name of Jacob Arminius. Perhaps, what would be surprising to many would be the realization that much of John Wesley’s theology originates with Arminius who lived two centuries prior to Wesley. For this reason, Methodists refer to their theology as Wesleyan-Arminian theology. One modern Reformed commentator has stated that Arminius was “one of a dozen or so theologians in the history of the Christian church who has given lasting direction to the theological tradition and who, as a result, has stamped his name upon a particular doctrinal or confessional viewpoint.”That said, it is especially ironic that Jacob Arminius is also “one of the most neglected of the major Protestant theologians.”This paper will show how Jacob Arminius set out to reform Reformed theology but instead ended up creating an entirely new trajectory within Christianity, which is manifested in the Methodist Church. This will be accomplished by first laying down a biographical foundation that will briefly cover Arminius’s upbringing and education. Afterwards, the paper will address the specific theological types of Calvinism of which Arminius challenged, which, then, will be followed by Arminius’s theology on predestination and free will. Lastly, the paper will conclude with a contemporary application on what Arminianism means for Christians today.
Background and Education
Before laying down Arminius’s biographical foundation, it is important to keep the following in mind. Arminius was born and raised in a region that was “struggling with its Roman Catholic heritage and the domination of Catholic Spain.”Throughout his upbringing, “the Netherlands was involved in a bloody and costly revolution that lasted for decades [and] on the religious front, Reformed theology was supplanting other brands of Protestantism as the dominant stream, and one in which he [Arminius] was to play a leading role.”Lastly, historians agree that for much of Arminius’s upbringing and early education the Reformed churches of the United Provinces were generically Protestant rather than rigidly Calvinistic.In other words, Arminius was accustomed to a type of reformed theology that had enough space for diverse opinions, especially regarding the specifics of salvation. This was the political and theological backdrop in which Arminius was raised.
Jacob Arminius was born in 1559 in a small town named Oudewater, which is in the province of South Holland. Interestingly, Arminius’s original name was Jacob Harmenszoom; however, he later followed the academic custom and latinized his name to Arminius (after the German chieftain who defeated Varus’s legions in A.D. 9).His father, Harmen Jacobsz is said to have died when Arminius was very young, with the year of Arminius’s birth being the most probable, which left Arminius’s mother, Elborch to raise him along with his several other siblings.In regard to Arminius’s family history, beyond his father and mother, much of it is a mystery. Apart from Elborch being Arminius’s mother, nothing is known about her today. However, historians do know that Jacob’s father was a weapons maker or armorer, which was an occupation that granted him some prominence throughout the town.
In regard to Arminius’s early education, there are two prominent people that can be credited. The first is Theodore Aemilius, a local priest who took personal responsibility for Jacob’s education by offering his financial support. At some point, the young Jacob went to live with Aemilius in the town of Utrecht, which was a short distance northeast of Oudewater. In Utrecht, it is believed that Jacob attended the St. Jerome School.Aemilius died sometime in late 1574 or early 1575, which left Jacob, who was still a young teenager, in need once more.
The second prominent person was Rudolphus Snellius (1546-1613), a scholar from the University of Marburg who met Arminius during a visit to Utrecht. Snellius was impressed with the adolescent’s potential so much that he invited Arminius back to Marburg and offered him a place at the university to continue his education.In the summer of 1575, Arminius made the journey from Utrecht to Marburg.
While in Marburg, Arminius received the news that the Spanish had invaded Oudewater. During the invasion, Arminius’s mother, siblings, and much of his extended family were killed in the massacre. Intriguingly, the effects of the massacre on Arminius are unknown and he does not provide any detail and their effect on him in his journal.That said, scholars have speculated that Arminius’s theology, in some manner, must have been influenced in light of this horrific theo-political event in his early life, which is why he was decidedly not a Roman Catholic.However, due to the fact that there is no recorded account on how the event influenced Arminius theologically, it is best to simply conclude that such an event must have influenced him in some way, but the question of how it specifically affected him remains an unknown.
After a short period of mourning, Arminius traveled back to Marburg and finished his studies. He then decided to further his education as a student of liberal arts at Leiden University in northern Netherlands, which was perceived as the Protestant competitor to the older Roman Catholic university in Leuven.Although Arminius entered into the liberal arts program, it did involve theological study. Arminius completed his education at Leiden in 1581, at which time he gained the financial support of the Burgomasters of Amsterdam for further theological training, which led him to Geneva where he studied under Calvin’s theological heir – Theodore Beza. Beza took Calvin’s theology “to a new and even more rigid level. In particular, he made predestination a theological focus of which Arminius would eventually oppose.”
While at Geneva, there were growing tensions between Arminius and Petrus Galesius, a professor in philosophy. Apparently, the two disputed over the matter of logic. Arminius argued for the positions of Petrus Ramus (Ramism) while Galesius defended Aristotelian logic.Regardless, the tension between the two led Arminius to leave Geneva and continue his education in Basel. However, Arminius returned to Geneva by October 1584 and completed his studies in 1586. After his studies, and to fulfill a prior commitment he made to the Burgomasters of Amsterdam in response for their financial support, Arminius served the Amsterdam church. In 1588, Arminius, at the age of twenty-nine, was ordained as the minister in the Old Church in Amsterdam. He served there for fifteen years. In 1590, Arminius married Lijsbet Reael and started a family shortly after.
Arminius and Reformed Theology
It is important to avoid the pitfall of presuming that all things Arminian are in opposition to Reformed theology. Although, once the common belief, one of the most reliable twentieth-century scholars of Arminianism, Carl Bangs, in Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, emphasizes that Arminius always considered himself Reformed and in the line of the great Swiss and French Reformers Zwingli, Calvin and Bucer.This means that there were several key theological elements where Arminianism and Calvinism were in harmony with each other. For example, Arminius insisted that “salvation is by grace alone and that human ability or merit must be excluded as a cause of salvation.”In this way, then, Arminius stood firm in the tradition of Reformed theology. However, the question isn’t necessarily on what segments of Calvinism Arminius was in harmony with rather it was the type(s) of Calvinism or Reform that Arminius considered himself in line or in opposition with.
The first-generation of Protestant Reformers were mainly Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, all of whom generally eschewed scholasticism and scholastic theology; however, the same cannot be said for those that followed in their footsteps.Rather than allow a comfortable amount of space for mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity in theology, the post-reformation Protestant thinkers (or Protestant scholastics) placed a greater emphasis on philosophy and logic in order to develop a comprehensive system of all truth.Much of their aim was to develop a rigid Protestant orthodoxy that could “repel all heresy, including attacks by skeptics and Roman Catholic critics.”Out of all the Protestant scholastics it is Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) who is perhaps the prime example of Protestant scholasticism. Within the history of theology, Beza is most known as the founder of an extreme type of Calvinist theology that eventually came to be known as supralapsarianism.
Supralapsarianism, which is not found explicitly in Calvin, is a set of ensuing decrees by God that precede God’s decree of creation.Olson provides the clearest explanation, “supralapsarianism is a certain way of ordering the divine decrees so that God’s decision and decree concerning predestination of humans to either heaven or hell precedes his decrees to create humans and allow them to fall.”The key-phrase in Olson’s explanation is predestination of humans to either heaven (elect) or hell (reprobate).Overall, the divine decrees point toward salvation or damnation. It is important to note, the term “humans” in the phrase refers to “individual” humans, which will be made clear when the paper examines Arminius’s doctrine on predestination. Regardless, the order of decrees within supralapsarianism are as follows:
- The decree to save (elect) some and reprobate others.
- The decree to create both the elect and the reprobate.
- The decree to permit the fall of both the elect and the reprobate.
- The decree to provide salvation only for the elect.
Notably, the above list represents Beza’s doctrine of predestination and it is the fountainhead of what many refer to as “high Calvinism.”Additionally, supralapsarianism was not the only proposed set of decrees and there were two other competing views known as infralapsarianism and sublapsarianism. In regard to these two alternatives, rather than place God’s decree to save some and reprobate others first (supralapsarianism) – both propose that (1) God first decreed to create human beings and then (2) God decreed to permit the fall.
At this point, and in order to move forward, what needs to be understood are the following: First, “that the fall of humanity and individual humans’ ultimate destinies in heaven or hell are predestined [foreordained] by God and not merely foreknown or foreseen.”Second, the glue that holds Beza’s (or even Calvin’s) doctrine of predestination together is the sovereignty of God, which is the main hallmark in Reformed theology. Calvin and his followers adhered to God’s meticulous providence in all of nature and in history. In other words, God is the ultimate cause of everything and absolutely nothing happens or can happen apart from God’s determination by his decree.This, of course, raises several issues such as human freedom in general and more specifically the ability for humans to choose freely apart from what God determines. Arminius, however, opposed all of the current positions on predestination and challenged reformed theology by putting forth his own understanding of what he believed Scripture teaches.
In order to avoid a lengthy discussion, and to get straight to the point, although Arminius studied under Theodore Beza during his time in Geneva, it is a folly to assume that Arminius assented to Beza’s doctrines of grace and predestination. Beza had a reputation for being rigid; however, he tolerated the presence of the faculty as well as the many students who disagreed with him on predestination.There is an assumption among historians that during Arminius’s service at the Amsterdam church he was a committed high Calvinist until he was asked to refute the teachings of a radical Reformer who rejected Calvinist teaching on predestination. According to this account, it was during his examinations that Arminius became convinced that the Calvinist’s view was wrong.Bangs, however, reveals that this assumption is unproven and unprovable and shows that “All [the] evidence points to one conclusion: namely, that Arminius was not in agreement with Beza’s doctrine of predestination when he undertook his ministry at Amsterdam; indeed, he probably never had agreed with it.”Interestingly, there are no accounts of Arminius directly opposing Beza rather his opposition came from Francis Gomarus (a colleague of Arminius) during his time as a professor at the University of Leiden in 1603.
Gomarus and Arminius clashed not on whether there is such a thing as predestination rather they debated the basis on which predestination takes place.Gomarus argued for the current Calvinistic doctrine, but emphasized that “faith itself is the result of predestination, so that before the foundation of the world the sovereign will of God decreed who would have faith and who would not.”Notably, Gomarus was arguing for supralapsarianism. In response, Arminius put forth his four decrees of God, which are written in his Declaration of Sentiments (1608):
First, God decreed to appoint Jesus Christ as the mediator to win salvation for man. Secondly, he decreed to accept and save all who would repent and believe in Jesus Christ and to reject impenitent unbelievers. Thirdly, God decreed to provide the means necessary for man to repent and believe. Finally, God decreed the salvation of certain specific individuals – because he foresaw that they would believe and persevere to the end.
For Arminius, the great decree is that God determined that Jesus Christ was to be the mediator and redeemer of humankind. This, of course, is God’s sovereign decree, which is not dependent on human response. However, “the divine decree having to do with the final destiny of each individual was based, not on the sovereign will of God, but rather on divine foreknowledge, by which God knew what each person’s response would be to the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ.”In other words, each individual possesses the God given freedom to choose or reject His gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. To be clear, in Calvinism God’s grace is irresistible whereas in Arminianism God’s grace is resistible.
In regard to the Arminius’s fourth divine decree, its foundations are in the foreknowledge of God, “by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through preventing [prevenient] grace, believe.”Prevenient grace is the grace of God that calls, convicts and enables.More specifically, it is the grace that comes before a person chooses or denies God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Here, it is important to emphasize that God’s prevenient grace extends to everyone to some degree and is necessary for fallen sinners.
Lastly, is in regard to Arminius’s interpretation of the elect. It was stated already that Reformed theology interpreted God’s elect (Romans 9) as applying to individuals. This ultimately means that God determined the saved or reprobate through a process of selection. However, Arminius understood the language of Paul in Romans 9 “as applying to classes or groups and not to individuals.”To Arminius, God decrees to save believers – all of them and likewise, for those who refuse God’s gift of salvation, God decrees them to damnation – all of them and not just individuals. Therefore, it is not through a process of selection for God rather it is the act of dealing with one class of people over the other: believers (elect) and non-believers (reprobate).
The clash between Arminius and Gomarus continued until Arminius’s death in 1609 of tuberculosis. Interestingly, the followers of Arminius are not known as Arminians, although that is generally acceptable. Rather, they are properly known as the Remonstrants – named after a document known as the “Remonstrance,” which summarized Arminius’s and their own opposition to rigid Calvinism in five points.Fortunately, Arminius’s teachings did not die with him. The Remonstrants were exiled for a time; however, they were gradually accepted back into Dutch life. Two centuries after the Arminian/predestination/supralapsarianism controversy – John Wesley became the most influential Arminian of all time.
Wesley was the original founder of the Methodist church, which had its beginnings during the Awakening that was sweeping across the Christian landscape during the eighteenth century. Notably, Wesley is not known for developing any great theological doctrines; however, it is known that he embraced all of Arminius’s doctrines set forth in this essay and more; such as Arminius’s belief that a person can lose their salvation even after being saved, which is simply an extension of a person’s free will.The point here is that Arminian theology is part of the backbone of the Methodist church, which is the reason why it is promoted as Wesleyan-Arminian theology as shown by Mildred Wynkoop in her book Wesleyan-Arminian Theology.
To summarize, Arminius challenged the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and even more so, he confronted the issues within supralapsarianism head on. Arminius’s doctrine of predestination involves both God’s sovereignty and human freedom. In His sovereignty God decreed that Jesus Christ was to be the mediator and redeemer of fallen humanity and regarding human freedom – it is through prevenient grace that fallen humanity can discover God and therefore freely choose whether to accept his gift of grace or deny it. Those who accept are part of the elect and those who deny Him are part of the reprobate. After Arminius’s death, his teachings lived on in his followers – the Remonstrants who were exiled but eventually allowed back into Dutch life. The most prominent Arminian of all; however, is John Wesley – who embraced Arminian theology, which is most evident in the Methodist church. Overall, Jacob Arminius set out to reform Reformed theology but instead ended up creating an entirely new trajectory within Christianity that continues today.
The issues presented in this paper are still prevalent within the church today with the Calvinists in one camp and the Methodists in the other. Regardless, it is of great importance that both sides recognize that the arguments surrounding predestination are purely Christian arguments and it can be safely assumed that it is not an argument found among unbelievers. That said, it is a significant issue that seems to have no resolve. However, this is no reason not to teach the doctrines of predestination from a denominational stand point, which has been the practice in some churches (probably more so among the Methodists and not the Reformed because of their strict adherence to God’s sovereignty and His meticulous providence). Nevertheless, the doctrines of predestination and free will are significant because they play a role in answering the many questions that God’s people may have regarding Scripture passages where the topic arises, some of which are: Rom. 11:7, Rom. 8:29; 8:33 and Eph. 1:11. In short, these will not be unimportant questions because they can influence a believer’s assurance and understanding in God. Therefore, pastors, teachers and leaders should shoulder the responsibility of educating the members on not just the doctrine of predestination but all other doctrines pertaining to the specific denomination. In doing so, a person will have a better understanding of the denomination they belong to and in addition, it will enable them – and dare I say – to freely decide for themselves.
FN (End notes)
. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 455.
. Olson, 460.
. Keith D. Stranglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 25.
. Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 48.
. Stranglin, Ibid., 3.
. Carl Bangs, Arminius: A study in the Dutch Reformation(Eugene, OR: WIPF and Stock, 1998), 25-6.
. Rustin E. Brian, Jacob Arminius: The Man from Oudewater(Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2015), 10
. Ibid., 11.
. Ibid., 12.
. Ibid., 14.
. Ibid., 15.
. Stranglin, 27.
. Brian, 17.
. Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 47-8.
. Ibid., 49.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 455.
. Ibid., 455-6.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 456.
. Bangs, 66.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 458.
. F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2011), 36.
. Bangs, 67.
. Forlines, 36.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 459.
. Ibid., 410.
. Bangs, 74-5.
. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 47.
. Ibid., 48.
. Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, 2nded. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 230.
. Anthony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 183.
. González, 230.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology,468.
. Ibid., 422.
. Ibid., 470.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 469.
. Ibid., 463.
. Ibid., 464.
. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology(Kansas City, KS: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), 64-69.
Bangs, Carl. Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998.
Brian, Rustin E. Jacob Arminius: The Man from Oudewater. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015.
Forlines, F. Leroy.Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. Edited by J. Matthew Pinson. Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2011.
González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, 2nded. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010.
Lane, Anthony. A Concise History of Christian Thought. Revised ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.
Olson, Roger E. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.
Stranglin, Keith D. and Thomas H. McCall. Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Wynkoop, Mildred B. Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology. Kansas City, KS: Beacon Hill Press, 1967.