A little over fifty years ago, Carl Bangs lamented that Jacob Arminius (1559/60–1609) had been consistently misunderstood and misrepresented by both friend and foe alike (Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” Church History 30 : 155–56). Some thirty years later, Richard Muller identified Arminius as “one of the most neglected of the major Protestant theologians” (Muller, God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, ix). And as recently as 1999, Roger Olson described Arminius as “one of the most unfairly neglected and grossly misunderstood theologians in the story of Christian theology” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 455). Apparently, Arminius has received a bad rap of some four centuries’ duration.
In the past ten years or so, however, the study of Arminius has been making a bit of a comeback. A number of substantial works on his life and thought have been published by people who have been largely in sympathy with his theology. One of the most helpful works in this regard has been W. Stephen Gunter’s book Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments (Baylor Univ. Press, 2012). Gunter’s work is particularly significant in that it provides the first English translation of Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments made directly from the Dutch text. Arminius’s Declaration was originally produced in response to accusations that had been lodged against him and was delivered orally by Arminius before the States of Holland at The Hague on October 30, 1608. In this document, Arminius mentions a number of important theological topics, but the bulk of the work is spent discussing his understanding of predestination which was especially under attack at that time. Here’s one of his most significant statements about predestination in the Declaration:
This decree [to save or condemn certain persons] has its foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe, and through his subsequent sustaining grace would persevere in the faith. Likewise, in divine foreknowledge, God knew those who would not believe and persevere (Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments, 135).
If one wants to correctly understand Arminius and avoid the charges made by Bangs, Olson, and others, reading Arminius himself is essential,* and Gunter’s work is a good place to begin. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the main contours of Arminius’s theological distinctives, he was a significant theologian whose heirs have been many, and for that reason, he is worth understanding.
*I say this not out of sympathy with Arminius’s major theological contributions (with which I largely disagree) but simply because it is true.