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Heroes of Faith: Jacob Arminius

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

Jacob Arminius was born on October 10, 1560, in Oudewater, Utrecht, the Netherlands, in the Holy Roman Empire. The name we know is the Anglicized version of his real name, Jakob Hermanzoon (or Jakob Herman). Jacob was orphaned while still young and never knew his father and mother. His father, an artificer of weapons, died, leaving the young boy and his siblings to his widow. His mother died during the Spanish siege and massacre at Oudewater in July–August 1575, when more than half of the town’s population was slaughtered and pillaged by Spanish troops.

Young Jacob was adopted by Theodore Aemillius, a protestant priest who moved to Utrecht and enrolled the young boy in school there. After Theodore’s death, at the age of 15, Jacob met Rudoph Sneillus, a mathematician who came from his hometown of Oudewater. Together they moved to Marburg to study at Leiden University, where Jacob later taught. While at Leiden University, Jacob enrolled in the study of liberal arts, which led him to study theology and the Scriptures.

During Jacob’s education, his primary theological teachers were renowned scholars steeped in the doctrines of John Calvin. Jacob is recorded to have believed their overemphasis on Calvinist doctrine made God into “a tyrant and an executioner.” His education afforded him the chance to study other theological reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and some from Anabaptist groups. All of these, and other great minds, influenced Jacob Arminius to develop deeper questions that would later shake the foundations of Calvinist doctrine.

After moving to Geneva, Jacob met Lijsbet Laurensdochtor Reael, a wealthy merchant’s daughter, and they married sometime in 1590. The two had 12 children together, three of whom died in infancy. They had ten sons: Harmen, Peiter, Jan, Laurens (died in infancy), Laurens, Willem, and Daniel. Two other sons died in infancy and are not recorded in public records. They also had two daughters: Engelte and Geertruyd.

Arminius began his first pastorate in Amsterdam in 1587 and was ordained later in 1588. He was known as a good preacher and faithful pastor. During this time, he was asked to respond to strong Calvinist doctrines dealing with God’s unconditional election of some men to be saved and others to be damned based on absolutely no evidence or response by the individual themselves. However, biographers note that Jacob was so divided over the issue, he asked to have more time for prayer and study before responding.

During his ministry, he taught through many of the scriptures in Romans and taught that it was through grace and Christian renewal (regeneration) that one was saved and that humans did not have to live in bondage to sin. He taught that the Holy Spirit convicts one of sin, and this conviction could spur one (by free will) towards repentance and salvation. He was rebuffed by many ridged Calvinists who accused him of teaching heresy (Pelagianism). Arminius was astonished that he was not allowed to interpret the scripture according to his conscience and study.

Later, as he continued to preach from Romans, he focused on “justification by faith,” expressed by Paul in Romans 9. This position was opposed to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election and predestination views held by other pastors in his region. It is recorded that he “gradually developed opinions on grace, predestination, and free will that were inconsistent with the doctrines of the…teachers of Calvin.”

On February 7, 1604, a fiery dispute took place between several theologians and Arminius. According to historians, Arminius pointed to the scriptures to defend his positions, and the Calvinists pointed to early Calvinist leaders. After the event, anonymous letters were circulated, identifying 31 different doctrines held by Arminius that were suggested to be heresy. Upon receiving a copy of the letters, Jacob Arminius asked for permission to respond to the charges. In court, Arminius was allowed to respond to the charges, and his accuser, Franciscus Gomarus, a faculty member and Calvinist, was allowed to speak.

Arminius remained a professor until his natural death. He remained in theological conflict with Gomarus and further resulted in theological splits within Calvinism. Though he attempted to reform Calvinism from within, the differences were too stark and developed into a separate movement that bore his name, Arminianism. The movement, based on Jacob’s life and work, opposed the Calvinist views of predestination (unconditional election), the limited atonement of Jesus’ death (only available for only the elect), and irresistible grace (human lack of free will). In short, these Arminianists were opposed to the T.U.L.I.P. doctrines listed in the previous article.

John Calvin taught that humanity was totally deprived of any good measure whatsoever. This meant for Calvinist that humanity was hopeless to respond to Christ’s offer of salvation; therefore, he was only by predestination that one was elected to be saved (and others were not.) Jacob Arminius taught that a prevenient grace had been conferred upon all by the Holy Spirit, and this grace is “sufficient for belief, despite our sinful corruption, and thus (sufficient) for salvation.” In other words, we are sinful but capable of making at least one good choice to respond to Christ’s offer of salvation. However, this does not suggest one is saved by any type of work, but only by God’s offer of grace through Jesus Christ and instilled in each one by the Holy Spirit.

Later, even after much persecution by Calvinists, Arminius’ views continued to be taught and accepted by students and pastors throughout the Netherlands and other parts of the protestant regions. The Methodist movement founder, John Wesley, embraced Arminian theology and established it as the center points of Methodist doctrine. Though many other denominations have widely accepted these Arminian views, particularly in America, they are the foundational doctrines of the Free Will Baptist denomination.

Arminius, Jacob (1853b). Nichols, James; Bagnall, WR (eds.). The Works of James Arminius, DD, Formerly Professor of Divinity in the University of Leyden. II. Buffalo, NY: Derby, Miller, & Orton.

Forlines, F. Leroy (2011). Classical Arminianism: The Theology of Salvation. Nashville: Randall House.

Bangs, Carl (1986). The Works of James Arminius. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Post-Reformation Digital Library. Jacob Arminius.

**Here you can view Arminius’ original works (as written in Dutch, Latin, and German.) It is interesting to view these digitized documents, even if you can’t read them. There are many other documents and works by hundreds of reformers, theologians, and other scholars.

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