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James Arminius: A Sketch of His Life - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

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The life of the arch-heretic of the Christian church responsible for reviving the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism.

This sketch is both from my own studies and a compilation of data from the various translations of Arminius’ works that I own. Each one had its own unique preface. I have submitted my own historical account elsewhere, but have weaved that in with a mixture here. This would be a brief sketch of his life, but also more of a shuffling of the cards of his varied biographical sketches taken from those works. It is also worthy to note that these sketches are somewhat “positive” about this man. To have a more detailed view of Arminius’ life and character, see this article.

James Arminius was born in Oudewater, a small town near Utrecht in Holland, in the year 1560. (This is the traditional date of his birth.) He was the youngest of the children of Harmen Jacobszoon. His parents were respectable persons of the middle rank in life, his father being a smith by trade. His family name was Herman, or, according to some, Harmen. His name as it appears as James Arminius is the latinized version of his own translation of his name. Being named Jacobus Harmenszoon, the Dutch shortened version remained as Harmensz, or Jacobus Harmensz. When translated into Latin, we derive his name as James Arminius. Some have confused his name as Jacobus Arminius, but Arminius himself never translated his name in that fashion – mixing the Dutch and Latin derivations.

While Arminius was yet an infant, or even more likely that before he was born, his father died, and he, with a brother and sister, was left to the care of his widowed mother. Theodore Aemilius, a clergyman, distinguished for piety and learning, then resided at Utrecht, and, becoming acquainted with the circumstances of the family, he charged himself with the education of the child. (His Dutch name seems to come from the records of the town at that time – Heer Dirck) While taking up the responsibility of Arminius’ education, he first spoke with him in a tavern where the child was a servant. Surprised by his quick wit, and intelligible speech, he decided to help the widow with the education of Jacobus. With this excellent man Arminius resided till his fifteenth year, when death deprived him of his patron. During this period he exhibited traits of uncommon genius, and was thoroughly taught in the elements of science, and particularly in the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages. He was led to dedicate himself to the service of God, and became, though so young, exemplary for piety. About this time, Rudolph Snellius, (His name was originally Ruldophus Schnellius.) a native of Oudewater, then residing at Marpurg in Hessia, to which place he had retired from the tyranny of the Spaniards, and highly reputed for his learning, especially in mathematics and languages, visited his native land. Becoming acquainted with and interested in his young townsman, he invited him to go to Marpurg under his own patronage. Arminius accordingly accompanied him thither, but had been engaged in his studies at the University only a short time when the mournful intelligence reached him that his native town had been destroyed by the Spanish army. He returned to Holland, and found his worst fears realized in the information that his mother, brother and sister were among the victims of the indiscriminate slaughter, which had ensued on the capture of the town. He retraced his steps sadly to Marpurg, performing the whole journey on foot.

During the same year, 1575, the new Dutch University at Leyden was formed, under the auspices of William I, Prince of Orange. As soon as Arminius learned that the new institution had been opened for the admission of students, he at once prepared to return to Holland, and soon entered as a student at Leyden. He remained there six years. At the expiration of that period, in his twenty-second year, he was recommended to the municipal authorities of Amsterdam as a young man of the largest promise for future usefulness, and as especially worthy of their patronage. They at once assumed the expense of the completion of his academic studies, while Arminius, on his part, gave into their hands a written bond, by which he pledged himself to devote the remainder of his life, after his admission to holy orders, to the service of the church in that city, and to engage in no other work and in no other place without the special sanction of the Burgomasters. He immediately went to Geneva in 1582, being attracted thither chiefly by the reputation of the celebrated Beza, who was then lecturing in that University. He remained there, however, but a short time, having given offense to some of the professors by defending Ramus and his system of dialectics in opposition to that of Aristotle. He now repaired to the University of Basle, and resided there a year, during a part of which, as was customary for undergraduates who had made the greatest proficiency, he delivered lectures on theological subjects out of the ordinary college course. By these and other exhibitions of his erudition, he acquired such reputation that, on the eve of his departure from Basle, the faculty of Theology in that University tendered him the title and degree of Doctor. This he modestly declined, alleging, as a reason, his youth. He was a very charismatic figure and attracted many.

The feeling, which had been excited against him, in the University of Geneva, on account of his adherence to the philosophy of Ramus, and of his disorderliness, having, to a considerable degree, subsided, he now returned to that University, and remained there three years, engaged in the study of divinity. About the end of this period, several of his young countrymen, who had also been pursuing their studies at Geneva, departed on a tour through Italy, and Arminius determined to make a similar excursion. He was particularly inclined to this by a desire to hear James Zabarella, at that time highly distinguished as Professor of Philosophy in the University of Padua. He remained at Padua a short time, and also visited Rome and some other places in Italy. This tour was of considerable advantage to him, as it afforded him an opportunity to become acquainted, by personal observation, with “the mystery of iniquity” and may account for the zeal and strenuousness with which he afterwards opposed many of the doctrines and assumptions of the papacy. It was, however, temporarily to his disadvantage as he incurred the displeasure of his patrons, the Senate of Amsterdam. This displeasure probably originated in, it was certainly increased by the efforts of certain mischievous persons, who grievously misrepresented his motives and conduct in visiting Italy, and it was readily removed by the statements of Arminius on his return to Holland, which occurred in the autumn of 1587.

In the beginning of the following year, after an examination before the Amsterdam Classis, he was licensed to preach, and by the request of the authorities of the church, he began his public ministry in that city. Be mindful, the authorities of the church were the state at this time, and the state was less than “Calvinistic” to a great extent. His efforts in the pulpit were received with so much favor, that he was unanimously called to the pastorate of the Dutch church in Amsterdam, and was ordained on the eleventh of August, 1588.

Circumstances occurred during the next year, which, in their result, exerted much influence on the doctrinal views of Arminius, and led, in the end, to his adoption of the system which bears his name. Coornhert, a deeply pious man, and one who had rendered important services to his country and the Reformation at the risk of his life, had in the year 1578, in a discussion with two Calvinistic ministers of Delft, in a masterly and popular manner, assailed the peculiar views of Calvin on Predestination, Justification, and the punishment of heretics by death. He afterwards published his views and advocated a theory substantially the same with that afterwards known as the Arminian theory, though some of his phraseology was not sufficiently guarded. His pamphlet was answered in 1589, by the ministers of Delft, but instead of defending the Supralapsarianism view of Calvin and Beza, which had been Coornhert’s particular object of attack, they presented and defended the lower or sublapsarian views, and assailed the theory of Calvin and Beza. The pamphlet of the Delft ministers was transmitted by Martin Lydius, professor at Franeker, to Arminius, with the request that he would defend his former preceptor. At the same time, the ecclesiastical senate of Amsterdam requested him to expose and refute the errors of Coornhert. He at once commenced the work, but on accurately weighing the arguments in favor of the Supralapsarianism and sublapsarian views, he was at first inclined, instead of refuting, to embrace the latter. Continuing his researches, he betook himself to the most diligent study of the Scriptures, and carefully compared with them the writings of the early Fathers, and of later divines. The result of this investigation was his adoption of the particular theory of Predestination which bears his name. At first, for the sake of peace, he was very guarded in his expressions, and avoided special reference to the subject, but soon, becoming satisfied that such a course was inconsistent with his duty as a professed teacher of religion, he began modestly to testify his dissent from orthodox Christianity, especially in his occasional discourses on such passages of Scripture as obviously required an interpretation in accordance with his enlarged views of the Divine economy in the salvation of sinners. This became a settled practice with him in 1590.

Having been settled more than two years in the ministry at Amsterdam, he was united in marriage to a young lady of great accomplishments and eminent piety, to whom, for some time previously, he had paid his addresses. Her name was Elizabeth Real. Her father, Laurence Jacobson Real, was a judge and senator of Amsterdam, whose name is immortalized in the Dutch annals of that period, for the decided part which he took in promoting the Reformation in the Low Countries, often, during the Spanish tyranny, at the risk of his property and life. With this lady, to whom he was married on the sixteenth of September, 1590, Arminius enjoyed uninterrupted and enviable domestic felicity. Their children were seven sons and two daughters, all of whom died in the flower of their youth, except Laurence, who became a merchant in Amsterdam, and Daniel, who gained the highest reputation in the profession of medicine. Three of the children died in infancy.

The next thirteen years of Arminius’ life, were spent in the ministry at Amsterdam, with great popularity, especially with the laity. His occasional presentation of views different from those of ministers around him, who were, almost without exception, strongly Calvinistic, sometimes brought him into serious collision with them. In 1591, he expounded the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and in 1593, the ninth chapter of the same epistle. In these expositions, he presented the views which are contained in his treatises on those chapters embraced his works, and on each of these occasions, considerable excitement was produced against him. His interpretation of the seventh chapter, in particular, was then, and frequently afterwards, during his life, opposed with great acrimony. About the end of 1602, the death of Francis Junius, a Calvinist stronghold, Professor of Divinity at Leyden, occurred. The attention of the Curators of the University was immediately directed to Arminius, strangely enough, as the person most suitable to fill the vacant chair. The invitation, which was accordingly extended to him, met the most strenuous opposition from the authorities of Amsterdam, at whose disposal, as has been stated, Arminius had, in youth, placed his services for life. Their acquiescence in his transfer to Leyden was finally obtained through the special intercession of Uytenbogardt, the celebrated minister at the Hague, of N. Cromhoutius, of the Supreme Court of Holland, and of the Stadtholder himself, Maurice, Prince of Orange. Many of the Calvinistic ministers protested violently against the call, to a position of so much importance, of one, whose sentiments, on what they considered vital points, were so heterodox as they deemed those of Arminius. In this, they were joined by Francis Gomarus, the Professor at Leyden. This man, at that time and subsequently during the life of Arminius, as well as after his death, in the religious contests which ensued between the Remonstrants and Contra-Remonstrants, manifested a stronghold for Christian orthodoxy against Arminius.

Having received the degree of Doctor of Divinity for the University of Leyden on the eleventh of July, 1603, he at once began to discharge the functions of Professor of Divinity. He soon discovered that the students in theology were involved in the intricate controversies and knotty questions of the schoolmen, rather than devoted to the study of the Scriptures. He endeavored at once to correct this evil, and to recall them to the Bible, as the fountain of truth. In doing so, though he had agreed to adhere to the Belgic confession, he continually slipped theologically deviant views in papers to his students after class. These efforts, and the fact that his views on Predestination were unpalatable to many, furnished opportunity and a motive to accuse him of an attempt to introduce innovations. Injurious, though true, reports were spread, and means were used to injure his reputation with the government and the churches. Arminius endured these attacks. He did so by remaining silent, which demonstrated their truthfulness all the more. He did not publicly defend himself till 1608, when he vindicated himself in three different ways; first, in a letter to Hippolytus, a Collibus, Ambassador to the United Provinces from the Elector Palatine; secondly, in an “apology against thirty-one articles, etc,” which, though written in 1608, was not published till the following year; and lastly, in his “Declaration of Sentiments,” delivered on the thirtieth of October, 1608, before the States in a full assembly at the Hague. Early in the following year, a bilious disorder, contracted by unremitting labor and study, and continued sitting, and to which, without doubt, the disquietude and grief produced in his mind by his opponents contributed much, became so violent that he was hardly able to leave his bed; but for some months, at intervals, though with great difficulty, he continued his lectures and attended to other duties of his professorship, until the twenty-fifth of July, when he held a public disputation on “the vocation of men to salvation,” which was the last of his labors in the University. The excitement caused by some circumstances connected with that disputation, produced a violent paroxysm of his disease, from which he never recovered. He remained in acute physical pain, but with no abatement of his usual cheerfulness, and with entire acquiescence in the will of God, till the nineteenth of October, 1609. On that day, about noon, in the words of Bertius, “with his eyes lifted up to heaven, amidst the earnest prayers of those present, he calmly rendered up his spirit unto God, while each of the spectators exclaimed, ‘O my soul, let me die the death of the righteous.’”

Thus lived, and so, at the age of forty-nine years, died James Arminius.

Taken from The Works of James Arminius, Volume 1, by Ages Software, The Works of Arminius, by Baker, The Synod of Dort, by Scott and other misc. writings.

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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