When Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was studying at the Geneva Academy in the 1570s, the religious loyalties of Europe had already split in different directions.
Germany was going through reforms started by Martin Luther. In England, the Anglican church had come into its own. And in Switzerland, Protestants were practicing the doctrines of French theologian John Calvin.
Jacobus Arminius was studying under Calvin's son-in-law and successor, Theodore Beza. As Arminius got deeper into his work, he began to question Calvin's doctrines of predestination and perseverance. Rather than defend his position in the birthplace of Calvinism, however, Arminius moved to Basel.
In 1588, the government of Amsterdam, Holland, Arminius' native country, called him home and appointed him preacher of the Dutch Reformed church there.
Arminius Develops His Theology
Arminius, whose Dutch birth name was Jacob Harmenszoon, took the Latin name Jacobus Arminius, from a first century German leader who opposed the Roman empire. He married Lijsbet Reael in 1590, an aristocrat who guided him into the circle of Amsterdam's most influential people.
He spent 15 years in Amsterdam. Over that time, his studies led him to expound on Romans chapters 7 and 9. Arminius believed that instead of being unconditionally chosen for salvation by God, as Calvin taught, people chose salvation of their own free will. Arminius thought God elected only those whom he foreknew would choose him.
His other major disagreement was over losing one's salvation. Calvin stated that once God started a work (such as an individual's salvation), God would see it through successfully until the task was completed. Arminius, on the other hand, believed people could use their free will to turn away from God--in other words, forfeit their salvation.
In 1603, Arminius received another call, to teach at the university at Leyden. Two theology professors had died, and he was asked to fill a vacancy. When he launched into public lectures on predestination, the lines were drawn.
Students at the school split into two camps, some supporting Arminius and others backing his opponent, theologian Franciscus Gomarus. Ministers in Leyden also chose sides.
Arminius Goes to Court
The Calvinists in Holland wanted to call a general synod to resolve the dispute, but the government would not allow it. Instead, a liberal politician arranged in 1608 for both men to defend their views before the Dutch Supreme Court.
The court's verdict amounted to a tie. It ruled that neither side's views caused any essential change in a person's salvation; therefore, the two theologians should acknowledge each other's right to hold their stance.
Gomarus would not have it. A year later, he and Arminius again prepared to square off for new negotiations. First there were oral arguments, then written arguments. In October, 1609, the Calvinists thought they had won the issue when Arminius' health failed and he died. But Arminius' supporters refused to give up. The next year they published a document titled the Remonstrantiae (Remonstrance), defining his views in five articles.
Arminius' Teachings Spread
Arminius presented his beliefs in a book called Disputationes, some of which was published during his lifetime and the balance after his death. Along with the Remonstrantiae, these writings provided later theologians with clearly articulated positions of Arminius and his followers.
Today, nearly 500 years after Arminius' death, many Calvinists consider him a heretic. They equate his doctrines with those of Pelagius, a fifth century Roman Catholic monk who taught that humans are born without original sin and can choose God through their free will. Pelagianism was condemned as heresy by several church councils, both Roman Catholic and Protestant.
Some people feel that modern evangelicals are leaning more toward Arminianism, especially in their approach to evangelism and calling unbelievers to "make a decision for Christ" or to "receive Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior", which seems to be an act of the will. Strict Calvinists insist on God's sovereignty in every step of salvation. While the debate may never be settled, both sides can point to Bible passages to support their positions.