It is with this introduction of the life of Jacob Arminius that we will begin a series of articles which take a look at the error of Arminianism. We begin with a brief overview of his life, mentioning mainly the facts of dates, names, places, and highlighting a few events. From there, Lord willing, we hope to examine some of his teachings and the doctrines of those who carried on his cause after his death. Finally, it is our intention to show how Arminianism is alive and well today, the various ways it creeps into the church, and how it is combated. With this in mind, we begin with a look at the life of Jacob Arminius. Jacobus Arminius was born in 1559 or 1560 in Oudewater, Holland, a town on the river Ijssel, not far from the city of Utrecht. His birth name was Jacob Harmenszoon, or Herman’s son. His mother was Engeltje Jacobsdr, or Jacob’s daughter, from Dordrecht. His father was Harmen Jacobszoon.
Arminius’ father was a messemaker (knifemaker), and likely a wapensmid (armorer) by trade. Jacob never knew his father because Harmen died either before his birth or shortly there after. The widow Engeltje had to raise Arminius along with at least two other children.
At the time of Arminius’ birth, Oudewater was under Spanish control and was Roman Catholic in faith. Being without a father, a priest with Protestant sympathies by the name of Theodore Aemilius, took an interest in the bright young boy. He became involved in young Jacob’s life and saw to it that he received an education. Arminius, as a young teenager went to a school in Utrecht. While he studied there, Aemilius died, leaving him stranded in Utrecht.
However, he caught the eye of Rudolphus Snellius, a professor from the University of Marburg, who happened to be visiting Utrecht. He noticed the ability and need of the teenager. He took him back to Marburg and enrolled him in the university there in 1575. Shortly after his enrollment at Marburg, his native town of Oudewater was destroyed by the Spanish. Killed in the massacre were his mother, all of his siblings, and many of his relatives. Jacob made the trip to Oudewater to see what had taken place when the city was yet under Spanish control. The town was liberated the following year. After this visit he returned to Marburg where he studied for another year. It was sometime during the years of his studies that he Latinized his name to Jacobus Arminius, as scholars did at that time. Arminius was a first-century Germanic chieftain who resisted the Romans.
On October 23, 1576, Arminius enrolled at the newly founded University of Leiden, awarded to the city for its staunch resistance to the Spanish enemy. He was the 12th student enrolled at the university. Mathematics, logic, theology, and Hebrew were all a part of his studies at Leiden. He finished his studies at Leiden in 1581 at the age of 22 years. Being too young for pastoral labors, Arminius was encouraged by his friends to continue his studies. It is at this time that he gained the attention of the authorities and clergy of Amsterdam. It is through this connection, that Arminius made an arrangement with the Merchants’ Guild of Amsterdam. Arminius signed an agreement to devote his life, after his studies, to the service of the church of Amsterdam. In return, his education would be funded by the Merchant’s Guild.
Arminius chose to continue his studies in Geneva, at the academy established there by John Calvin in 1559. The academy was now under the leadership of 62 year old Theodore Beza. Arminius registered at the academy on January 1, 1582. He studied there for a short time until tensions mounted between him and the authorities and a professor. In the summer of 1583 Arminius left to study in Basel. After spending a year in Basel, he returned to Geneva in the summer of 1584, and returned to his studies at the academy. When the burgomasters (the top civil authorities in the city) of Amsterdam inquired about Arminius’ progress in his studies and his behavior, Beza responded with a letter, part of which read,
To sum up all, then, in a few words: let it be known to you that from the time Arminius returned to us from Basel, his life and learning both have so approved themselves to us, that we hope the best of him in every respect, if he steadily persist in the same course, which by the blessing of God, we doubt not he will; for, among other endowments, God has gifted him with an apt intellect both as respects the apprehension and the discrimination of things. If this henceforward be regulated by piety, which he appears assiduously to cultivate, it cannot but happen that this power of intellect, when consolidated by mature age and experience, will be productive of the richest fruits. Such is our opinion of Arminius – a young man, unquestionably, so far as we are able to judge, most worthy of your kindness and liberality.
Arminius continued to receive financial support from Amsterdam and continued his studies at Geneva until 1586. After completing his studies, Arminius and a friend took a trip to Italy. They even visited Rome and saw the Pope from a great distance a way. Arminius then returned to Geneva for a few months and then reported to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1587.
Shortly after his return, Arminius was examined by the Classis of Amsterdam and became a candidate for the ministry. He visited the Amsterdam consistory and informed them that he was ready to serve the church of Amsterdam. He began preaching at evening services on February 7, 1588, as a proponent, or preacher on trial. He preached as a proponent into the summer.
On August 11, 1588, he was presented with his call and he was ordained on August 27. Arminius was now one of five ministers to serve the growing church of Amsterdam. He began preaching series of sermons on the books of Malachi and Romans. His series on Romans did not end until 1601.
In September of 1590, Arminius was married to Lijsbet, the daughter of a wealthy Amsterdam family. Once again, Arminius had family friendships and social activity, something that had been taken from him when his family and most of his relatives had been killed 15 years earlier. In July, the following year, their first son Harmen (named after Arminius’ father) was born. He died less that a month later. In those days, it was the custom to baptize babies in the church a day after they were born, no matter the season. No doubt this practice probably contributed to the premature death of some infants.
By the year 1591, Arminius reached chapter 7 in his preaching on Romans. It was his exposition of the last half of the chapter that upset some of his fellow ministers. Arminius argued that the man of Romans 7:15-25 was unregenerated. In other words, he taught that that unregenerated man has the spiritual ability to fight against his sins and actually delights in the law of God. For good reason this upset the Calvinists among his peers.
In early 1592 his views on predestination became a matter of discussion in the consistory. Evidently, his preaching had created strife among the ministers to the point where the burgomasters had to admonish them to be at peace among themselves. Some of the ministers where in favor of his views, while others, especially Plancius, were vehemently opposed to them. This admonition from the burgomasters, who were more interested in church unity than orthodoxy, brought peace for a while.
By 1593, Arminius was preaching on Romans 9. Again, some of his views were called into question. Many in the congregation began to complain about his preaching. It was evident that two parties were beginning to form in the church of Amsterdam. There were the Calvinists led by the minister Plancius, and there were the sympathizers of Arminius. Once again the matter was discussed by the consistory. And once again, everything was smoothed over so that both parties involved were able to live peaceably.
Next time, Lord willing, we will continue our look at the life of Arminius, finishing his life in Amsterdam and then moving on to his years in Leiden.
Facts about the life of Arminius have been taken from the book Arminius, A Study in the Dutch Reformation, by Carl Bangs. Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1985.