John Wesley observed that "to say, 'this man is an Arminian,' has the same effect on many hearers, as to say, 'This is a mad dog'" [Works, 10:358]. Richard Watson wrote that Arminius is accused of introducing corruptions into the Christian church, which he probably never thought of and which certainly have no place in his works [Theological Dictionary, p. 41].
Christopher Ness in An Antidote Against Arminianism, first published in 1700, called Arminianism "the last and greatest monster of the man of sin, the elixir of Anti-Christianism; the mystery of the mystery of iniquity, the spawn of Popery, and the varnished offspring of the old Pelagians."
In his commentary on Romans, Richard Haldane wrote, "It is hatred to the sovereignty of God that influences the Arminian."
Robert C. Harbach wrote, "Arminianism is that rejected error which has become the most insidiously devised heresy ever to lay claim to biblical support." Harbach complained that Calvinists are the most hated people in the universe because they alone stand for the truth. In contrast, he defines Arminianism as everything he rejected, including Universalism, Romanism, and Pelagianism.
Louis Berkhof frequently lumped Arminians and heretics, such as Pelagius or Socinian, together without distinguishing the beliefs of the Arminian position. This amounts to guilt by association. Grant Osborne wrote,
One of the tragedies of our current situation in evangelicalism is the emotive code-words or labels which we attach to certain positions and which enable us to automatically reject the totality of that position on the basis of the label. One of the worse of these 'code-words' is 'semi-Pelagian' which means automatically that the position is a-biblical, and that the data within need not be studied further. To many strong Calvinists any Wesleyan-Arminian position is automatically 'semi-Pelagian.
Arminius is sometimes blamed for almost leading the Reformation off course. Carl Bangs characterized this view as, "Calvinism came in, Arminius nearly ruined it, and the Synod of Dort restored it."
First, let us look at the man who has been so maligned and then look at his teachings which have been misrepresented. Jacob Hermansz was a Dutch theologian of the late sixteenth century. We know him by his Latin name, Jacobus Arminius. In 1582 James Arminius arrived in Geneva to study under Calvin's son-in-law, and successor, Theodore Beza. Beza had made the Calvinistic position more rigid and had taught supralapsarianism -- that the decrees of election and damnation came prior to the decree to create man.
The fact is that the early Dutch reformers were not Calvinists when they overthrew Catholicism in 1566. When James Arminius was installed as pastor in Amsterdam in 1587, Calvinism was not in control. Arminius had the reputation of being a brilliant preacher, a gifted Bible exegete, and a humble and dedicated Christian. His expositional preaching drew large crowds.
As the city was opened to trade, new merchants arrived bringing in Calvinism and only toward the end of his fifteen year tenure as pastor did Calvinism become strong enough to create problems for Arminius.
Two ministers from Delft had debated Dirck Coornhert, a Catholic humanist, and as a result felt it was necessary to modify Beza's rigid position. In 1589 they published a book which did so. As a former student of Beza, Arminius was asked to defend his teacher, although there is no evidence to suggest that Arminius had ever accepted the position of Beza. There had always been a diversity of opinion among Dutch theologians. However, the influx of Calvinistic teaching was growing.
Arminius faced a crisis of conscience and he responded with integrity. He concluded that supralapsarianism made God the author of sin. No one could refute his scholarship, but preachers began to openly attack him from the pulpit. His words were twisted out of context and his enemies tried to destroy his influence.
In 1603 Arminius moved to Leiden to become professor of theology at the university. He was considered the greatest scholar of his day and taught until his death in 1609. He was the first ever to receive the Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Leiden. Even at Leiden he was under attack from the Calvinist, Francis Gomarus. Finally, Arminius asked for a public hearing, but he died before the synod convened. He was about 49 when he died, and his death was probably hastened by the stress he was under.
After his death, 42 of his followers wrote their manifesto, the Remonstrance, in 1610. In 1618-9 the Synod of Dort was convened and adopted a high Calvinistic statement which included the supralapsarian position of Beza. Although it was Arminius who had called for an open forum, there were 130 Calvinists present and 13 Remonstrants who were prisoners of the state and were given no vote. "The Remonstrants were at a disadvantage from the very start, and were summoned as defendants. They were denied seats in the council, and were treated throughout as accused parties."
Simon Episcopius, the successor of Arminius, delivered a speech of two hour length, so logical and magnanimous that it moved many hearers to tears. Yet the Synod of Dort condemned Arminianism as heretical and as a result some 200 Remonstrant ministers were ousted from their pulpits. Some were banished and persecuted until 1625.
Arminianism reintroduced the spirit of tolerance to the Church. The early Arminians were well educated and held strong convictions, but they displayed a different spirit. They had no animosity toward those who disagreed with them; they only asked that their views be permitted to exist.
There were theologians in England who taught the essence of what Arminius taught before Arminius. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Arminianism held great influence within the Church of England. Over time, however, the Arminians became the more liberal party in the church. In seventeenth century England the Latitudinarians were considered Arminian. In the eighteenth century the term was associated with Socinianism. It was not until the Wesleyan Reformation that the pure doctrine of Arminius was restored and the tendencies of Pelagianism and Unitarianism removed. John Wesley published the first popular account of the life of Arminius in English and this came in the first issue of The Arminian Magazine in January, 1778.
Having looked at the life, the spirit, and the influence of Arminius, I conclude that we should hold him in the highest regard. John Fletcher concluded that among the theologians who endeavored to steer their doctrinal course between the Pelagian shelves and the Augustinian rock, "none is more famous, and none came nearer the truth than Arminius" [Works, 2:281]. But what about his doctrines which are misrepresented?