When I was asked to write on why Arminians (like me) should celebrate the Reformation, the answer that jumped to mind was “Because Arminius himself did.” The staunchly Protestant Arminius saw himself as Reformed to the day he died. He always remained true to, and in good standing with, the Reformed Church, subscribing and publicly committing himself to the Belgic Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism over and over again.
Arminius’s theology, like many Dutch Reformed theologians before the Synod of Dort (1618–19), was similar to much 16th-century Lutheran theology—especially that of Melanchthon, who was highly esteemed as a Reformation giant. Yet Arminius eagerly cited and commended the writings of John Calvin, despite his disagreement with the reformer on predestination and the resistibility of grace, which he didn’t see as the core of Calvin’s theology. Wrote Arminius:
In the interpretation of the Scriptures, Calvin is incomparable. His Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the writings of the Fathers. . . . I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above others, above most, indeed, above all.
I hope more modern-day Arminians will become ‘Reformed Arminians,’ and get on board with the Reformational theology of Jacobus Arminius.
Arminius was an ardent Protestant whose desire was to reform the church—in its theology, practices, and worship—according to the Scriptures, moving the church away from medieval Roman Catholicism. His writings are shot through with the magisterial Reformation’s commitments.
This rings clear in Arminius’s thoughts on the five solas of the Reformation.
Arminius agreed wholeheartedly with the Reformers on the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture. For him, Scripture is the only authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice. Like Calvin, however, Arminius never intended sola Scriptura to mean the Christian tradition of exegesis can be discounted (nuda Scriptura). He simply believed the church must have scriptural warrant for its doctrine and practice.
In his disputation “On the Sufficiency and Perfection of the Holy Scriptures,” Arminius wrote:
No subject can be mentioned, by the sole knowledge or the worship of which the church ought to bedeck herself with increased honour and dignity . . . [which] is not comprehended in the Holy Scriptures. Neither can any attribute be produced agreeing with any subject of this kind, which it is necessary for the church to know about that subject, or for her to perform to it . . . which the Scriptures do not attribute to that subject.
Arminius differed from post-Dortian Reformed theology on how one comes to be in a state of grace (predestination and resistible grace). Yet like the Melanchthonian Lutheran theologians and many pre-Dort Reformed theologians with solid Reformed credentials, he robustly agreed with Calvin and Beza on what it means to be in a state of grace. He fervently affirmed sola gratia, believing God’s grace alone is needed for humans to desire the things of God.
Arminius taught that humans are characterized only by “utter weakness of all the powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil.” The human mind, heart, and will are submerged under—and dead—in sin. Arminius’s views even led Moses Stuart to remark, “The most thorough advocate of total depravity will scarcely venture to go farther in regard to man in his unregenerate state than . . . Arminius goes.”
So Arminius explains that, because “the free will of man toward the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and (nuatum) weakened, but . . . also (captivatum) imprisoned, destroyed, and lost,” the only thing that can make one desire God is grace alone. The will is not merely “debilitated and useless” without grace, “but it has no powers whatever except such are excited by divine grace.”
This led Arminius to say we “must maintain the greatest possible distance from Pelagianism.” Arminius’s sola gratia views mark him off from many later Arminians who proudly claimed synergism; the Arminius scholar Carl Bangs even asserted, “Arminius was a monergist.” In this way he was like the Melanchthonian Lutherans, who, although called “synergists” by their enemies, disdained the epithet.
Arminius also loved the Reformation doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone through faith alone. His own doctrine of justification, he said, is “not so different from [Calvin’s] as to prevent my signing my name to the positions he takes in Book III of his Institutes. To these opinions, I am prepared to state my full approval at any time.”
Like the Reformers, though unlike most later Arminians, justification for Arminius was both forensic and imputative in nature. As Arminius put it,
In his obedience and righteousness, Christ is also the material cause of our justification, so far as God bestows Christ on us for righteousness, and imputes his righteousness and obedience to us.
Moreover, Arminius wrote in his letter to Hippolytus à Collibus that God “reckons” Christ’s righteousness “to have been performed for us.” And in his Declaration of Sentiments, he remarked: “I believe sinners are accounted righteous solely by the obedience of Christ . . . as if they had perfectly fulfilled the law.”
In his writings Arminius also zealously defended the Reformation teaching on solus Christus—Christ alone. At the heart of Arminius’s theological system was the threefold mediatorial office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, in which he is the only mediator between God and man.
Central to Arminius’s theology was the priestly office of Christ, which entailed the full Reformation doctrine of the penal-substitutionary atonement of Christ for the sins of humanity as well as his mediation or intercession before the Father for the sins of believers. Christ offered himself as an expiatory or propitiatory sacrifice, which, Arminius says, was necessary to appease God’s justice. This offering constitutes the satisfaction or payment to divine justice for redemption from sin, guilt, and wrath.
Christ’s mediatorial office is his alone and cannot be administered by anyone else—whether Mary, the saints, priests, or the pope. Christ is “mediator and the head of his church, so that the church can pay this honor to no one except him, without incurring the crime of idolatry.” Thus “the papists, who adore Mary, the angels, or holy men, and who invoke them as . . . intercessors through their own merits, are guilty of the crime of idolatry.”
Soli Deo Gloria
Because Scripture alone is sufficient for the church’s doctrine and practice, and because we are saved by grace alone through faith alone by the mediatorial work of Christ alone, Arminius concludes, God alone should receive the glory. Some critics of Arminianism say it is man-centered, placing more emphasis on human freedom and God’s love than on God’s glory and holiness. That is no doubt true for many later Arminians, but not for Arminius, and not for all Arminians.
Arminius said God is glorified when his justice and mercy are on full display. God has a “twofold love”: he loves his justice, and he loves human beings. Thus he is merciful to them in offering a way of salvation while still upholding the rigorous demands of his justice. For Arminius, the only thing God loves more than his creatures is his justice. This twofold love gives God ultimate glory.
Indeed, the entire end or purpose of the church, Arminius explains, is the glory of God. The church’s blessedness through union with Christ results in “the glory of God, who united the church to himself.”
Arminius’s theology was centered and fixed firmly on the glory of God alone, the end for which God redeems fallen sinners.
Reformed and Arminian
So why should Arminians like me celebrate the Reformation? Because Arminius did. While he disagreed with some of the reformers on how the gospel takes hold on people’s lives, he was zealously Protestant in his articulation of what the gospel is and in his desire to reform God’s church according to God’s Word.
That is why the five solas of the Reformation come through again and again in his teaching. I hope more modern-day Arminians will become “Reformed Arminians,” and get on board with the Reformational theology of Jacobus Arminius.
- Meet a Reformed Arminian (interview with Matthew Pinson)