By George Mitrovich
Barbara Brown Taylor, a priest of the Episcopal Church and a gifted preacher and writer, sent me an email saying she had gone on a walk one afternoon near her Georgia home when I came to mind. She said she wondered, “How’s my Arminian friend?” I was pleased to receive her note. It’s nice to be thought of, especially by someone I admire as greatly as Barbara.
A few years back she was in San Diego to speak to a national convention of Puritans, more than 2,000 of them (no, really, Puritans). I had the privilege of having lunch with Barbara and during our time together I brought up James Arminius, the Dutch theologian and ultimate contra- Calvinist. I have a habit of doing that, of asking others if they know Arminius.
For 400 years Arminius has been overlooked in Western history. Am I alone in thinking that? No, but the number of those who share that view, weighed against Martin Luther and John Calvin, is small. But, in this context, numbers do not impress me. I am confident of the debt owed by the West to Arminius, who dared to declare, despite the fierceness of his Calvinist foes, that God loves every man, not an elect few. That belief would shake the foundations of both church and state in the Netherlands and, in time, would impact the life of John Wesley, who in turn as a priest in the Church of England would begin a spiritual and social revolution resulting in sweeping changes in English society. As Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “The Wesleyan Revival saved England from the blood bath that engulfed the French.”
John Wesley’s remarkable leadership would also bring about the Methodist Church in America, whose origins in 1784 at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, would give rise to the nation’s most important Protestant denomination—and in all of this the influence of James Arminius cannot be overstated (although understated it remains).
There are 11 million websites about John Calvin on Google, 98,000 for Arminius. When the 400th anniversary of Arminius’ birth took place (1559) it was barely noted, but during the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth (July 10, 1509), he was remembered worldwide. In America, for good or ill, you cannot escape Calvin—and his influence has been hugely consequential.
As the historian Richard Hooker put it: “Perhaps even more so than Martin Luther, Calvin created the patterns and thought that would dominate Western culture throughout the modern period. American culture, in particular, is thoroughly Calvinist in some form or another; at the heart of the way Americans think and act, you’ll find this fierce and imposing reformer.”
All of which I note to report I finally read Dr. Carl Bangs’ magisterial study, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Abingdon, 1971), an engrossing read of 380 pages (bibliography and index included). It’s embarrassing to think how long the book sat on my shelf. Occasionally I would take it down and read chapters here or there, but never the whole of it, until now. True, I’ve read many articles about Arminius, but never the definitive study of his life—as Dr. Bangs’ book assuredly is.
It is not an easy read, but how could it be? The time Dr. Bangs was writing about differs dramatically from ours, as much as horse-drawn carriages differ from Stealth bombers. (If you read it, forget about trying to pronounce Dutch names, it will only slow you down. Unless, of course, Cornelis Cornelisz Heemskerck, rolls easily off your tongue.)
During Arminius’ life, the people of the Netherlands were focused on the war against Spain and the establishment of trade with the East Indies, but a theological conflict between the followers of Calvin and those of Arminius also drew their attention, for it threatened the nation’s stability. The States General repeatedly sought to broker peace between the disputants, but to no avail. It beggars the mind of modernity that a nation’s well-being might depend upon resolving theological differences, that such matters were referred to the civil authorities and not the church, but it did—and by such a clash the distinction between past and present is measured. (In this I may err, since theology drives the abortion/gay marriage debate, but for me it doesn’t rise to the same level.)
Dr. Bangs introduced me to a Latin phrase, Libertas Voluntatia, which means the liberty of the will. It is a phrase that shall mark my days, as it marked Arminius’.
From the time I became a Christian in my mid-teens under the preaching and influence of Nicholas A. Hull at University Avenue Church of the Nazarene in San Diego, Arminius has loomed large in my life. Reverend Hull, an FDR Democrat from Arkansas, would say to the men in his congregation that to be a “Christian you should vote Democrat and carry a pocketknife.” (I think he was teasing about the pocketknife.) The Nazarenes, unlike most Methodists of my experience, were seriously Arminian/Wesleyan in their theology, and members were expected to know what it meant to be an “Arminian.” (That judgment is a reflection on the fact that I am a United Methodist in the Western Jurisdiction of our church, one overwhelmingly liberal in theology.)
Whether that emphasis among Nazarenes remains true I can’t say, because I’ve been a Methodist for 48 years, but in terms of the theological influences in my life the Nazarenes, by virtue of their fidelity to Arminius, win out.
The great theological divide between denominations today is not over free will and predestination, but between liberal and conservative theology. People join churches for many reasons, but despite a renewed interest in Calvinism, it is unlikely either Calvin of Geneva or Arminius of Leiden factor in their decision. The church world some of us knew growing up is largely over (thanks be to God).
To cite but one example of how Protestantism is different today, I referenced Mt. Pleasant Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, a large independent evangelical church. I’ve read their “What we believe” statement. It consists of seven faith affirmations consisting of 174 words, including Scripture references. By contrast the writings of Arminius alone fill three volumes, and it was not uncommon for him to write 200-page letters in Latin to affirm a theological point. Which is why Bruce Gordon, professor of Reformation history at Yale Divinity School, tells us in his new biography of Calvin, that to understand a time 500 or 400 years distant calls for the suspension of “modern sensibilities.” No doubt.
I gave a talk recently on John Calvin to the Koinonia adult Bible class at San Diego’s First United Methodist Church, where I am a member. I did my due diligence, as I wanted to be fair to Calvin.
I read part of Dr. Gordon’s biography, which has been critically acclaimed. I read critiques of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin’s magnum opus. I read The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (adopted in 1563), which in Article 17 endorses predestination (reflecting Calvin’s curious hold on the Anglicans). I read again about the Synod of Dort, which occurred in 1618-19, and whose delegates, from church and state, ruled for Calvin and against Arminius, resulting in a pogrom against Arminius’ followers, including clergy and citizens who were banned by the States General—from both church and civil employment. But it didn’t end there, as some were executed for their heresy for sharing Arminius’ belief that when Christ died on the cross he died for all.
Most notable among those tried for the crime of “heresy” was van Oldenbarnevelt, who for 33 years had faithfully served Holland as the state’s Grand Pensionary, but was beheaded at The Hague for his Arminian sympathies. Still others were hounded from the Netherlands and found refuge across the English Channel in Lincolnshire County—where on June 28, 1703,
John Wesley was born (the juxtaposition of which is critical).
If the responsibility of someone “teaching” an adult Sunday school class is to enlighten his or her hearers, to broaden their knowledge, I’m afraid in this instance I failed. I simply got too caught up in too many synods and confessions and controversies. I sought fairness in outlining Calvin’s life, but this whole history is complicated, and some have given their lives in study to unravel its complexities, as Dr. Bangs did with Arminius.
The greater man
Nothing that I read, either from John Calvin or about John Calvin, including Dr. Gordon’s mostly sympathetic biography, changed my mind on the merits of Arminius vs. Calvin. To the contrary, I came away more certain than ever that James Arminius was by far the greater man—and, because one’s humanity toward one’s fellow humans matters greatly to me, that Arminius was by far a better person than Calvin. There was about Calvin an arrogance that found its greatest manifestation in his theological certainty (you decide which preceded which, arrogance before certainty or certainty before arrogance?). His habits of life demanded of others conformity of thought and contrasted dramatically with Arminius’ gentleness of spirit and acceptance of others.
I concede in advance that it may be unfair to say that Calvin’s only display of humanity and tolerance was allowing his congregants in Geneva to sing during night services (Calvin believed music had no place in the church). But, in a spirit of Christian charity, I should allow that his arrogance and certainties were God’s doing and therefore we should hold God accountable for Calvin being Calvin not Calvin for being Calvin. Why? By Calvin’s own reasoning God predestined all things and thus Calvin was in consequence innocent of his actions and helpless to do otherwise (so he gets a pass on his role in the burning of Michael Servetus at the stake).
If Calvin was right, then all that’s transpired since Adam’s transgression is God’s doing. Think of all the terrible acts committed by humans against humans, from Auschwitz to Afghanistan; of all the terrible acts of nature, from Pompey to Katrina, and tell me how God gets a pass if Calvin is right? This goes to the fundamentals of Calvin’s theology, which places God as first cause and thereby the causation of all things—both good and ill.
Arminius believed Calvin was wrong and that God’s love is all encompassing. You may deconstruct John 3:16 any way you choose, but in the end it either affirms what it says or it doesn’t; either Jesus died on the cross for all or he didn’t; either he came to save the world or Calvary was a hoax. Even Jacques Derrida, the late great French deconstructionist, could not have interpreted John 3:16 otherwise. (It should be noted, however, that one of the major disputes between Arminius and the Calvinists, was over Romans 7, not John 3:16.)
Sovereignty of God
Am I saying then that those who embrace Calvin, who hold tightly to his doctrine of predestination, who count themselves eternally saved and others eternally dammed, have believed a lie? No. They believe and believe sincerely, as did Calvin, but they like him believe in error. I do not judge them harshly for their beliefs. Their state of grace is wholly God’s and they are by Arminius’ reckoning no less worthy of God’s love in Christ than we. The contrary edicts of Calvin are not true, but ultimately they are inconsequential because our one shared certainty, whether Arminian or Calvinist, is the sovereignty of God, and by his decree all else is secondary, including the most overly wrought and expansive of theological disputations—and such disputations were dominant in the world of ideas for 1,000 years and more (there was a reason why theology is known as the “Queen of the sciences”).
But to concede the last point is not to overlook what I deem, in the context of history, the damning consequences of Calvinism. It goes to the very core of why Arminius’ belief in free will (Libertas Voluntatia) and Calvin’s denial of it reverberates down the years. The former affirms liberty and God’s free grace and the latter rejects such sentiments—not in part but the whole thereof.
If those anxious as to their state of grace under Calvin’s teachings wondered if they fit in God’s plan, those in places of authority had the benefit of knowing they ruled by God’s will. How reassuring to kings and queens, to princes and magistrates, to lords and ladies of the realm, to bishops and vicars, that they had God’s favor. And if that was true, so too then was the opposite equally true. If you were numbered among the masses whose sole reason for existence was to bow your knee before your betters and serve their needs while denying your own, then that too was God’s will.
How comforting to believe that while you dined in splendor and others fought for scraps from your table, that it was all God’s doing. How liberating to know whatever the fate of others it is not your fate. How reassuring to believe God had worked it out before the foundation of the world—and you were the beneficiary of his favor.
The gifted preacher
James Arminius (the Latinized name of Jakob Harmenszoon) was born in 1569 in Oudewater, the Netherlands. In his early life, he experienced more than his share of hardship, beginning with his father’s death, when James was but an infant. His mother struggled mightily to raise and care for her children. While a student in Germany, Arminius lost his mother and siblings, who were murdered in 1575, when the Spaniards overran Oudewater, massacred its inhabitants, and destroyed the town.
Even as a child, many saw Arminius as possessing extraordinary intelligence. After completing his studies, he entered the ministry and would later become Amsterdam’s favorite and most gifted preacher. He would close out his life a highly respected and affectionately revered member of the theological faculty at Leiden, where his academic colleagues elected him Rector Magnificus in 1605.
He was highly respected and revered, that is, save for his fierce Calvinist critics, who were unrelenting in their attacks and continued to savage his reputation beyond the grave. They said he was a papist and in league with the Jesuits. They said he did not believe in the Trinity. But those were merely attacks upon his theology and church sentiments. The attacks upon his person and character were infinitely more outrageous and no less baseless in their lies. Why? For one reason and one alone—because Arminius believed contrary to Calvin.
It should be here noted that Arminius himself held a very high view of John Calvin. Of the Genevan, Arminius would write: “For I affirm that in the interpretation of Scriptures Calvin is incomparable, and that his commentaries are more to be valued than anything handed down to us in the writings of the Fathers—so much so that I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above others, above most, indeed, above all.”
In this instance, as in many others, we see Arminius’ soul and character at work, the ability to rise above even the most profound theological differences and to otherwise “concede” to Calvin his due. This entry by Dr. Bangs speaks to Arminius’ deeply admirable traits of character, of his transcendent decency and caring for others.
Remembering a giant
James Arminius died on October 19, 1609 in the university town of Leiden. His funeral took place three days later in the Pieterskerk across the way from his home and near the university. At the service were his grieving admirers, friends, and family (Lijsbet Reael Arminius bore her husband many children, nine of whom survived childbirth and were living when their father passed).
Later that day in the Great Auditorium of the university, Petrus Bertius delivered the principal eulogy before faculty, students, curators, and burgomasters from The Hague, as well as friends and relatives from Amsterdam and Oudewater, who had journeyed to pay tribute to their greatest son. Of Arminius, Bertius would say near the end of his eulogy:
“There lived in Holland a man / whom they who did not know / could not sufficiently esteem / whom they who did not esteem / had never sufficiently known.”
Bertius then closed with the words from John’s Gospel, “Beloved, let us love one another.”
As I endeavor to understand my life, to account for my views, both as a person of faith and as a person who believes in a citizen’s duty to practice the ethic of civic engagement and to recognize the equality of every person, I do with gratitude allow that James Arminius, a man who lived more than 400 years ago, has immensely influenced my life and thinking—in ways beyond my accounting.
As a Christian and a Methodist, I cannot forget that absent Arminius the life and great deeds done by John Wesley would never have evolved as they did—and England and America would surely have been the lesser for it. This is an incontrovertible fact of our shared histories and the ignorance of it by secularists and non-believers in both Britain and America neither alters, changes, nor diminishes its undeniable truth.
George Mitrovich, a member of First United Methodist Church in San Diego and active in Wesleyan renewal efforts, is president of The City Club of San Diego and The Denver Forum, two leading American public forums.