From the time he entered the pastoral ministry, James Arminius (c. 1559–1609) was a controversial figure but he was also a minister in good standing in the Reformed Churches. Despite the intense controversy that his views and teaching generated, views that fractured the church, that nearly ignited a civil war in the Netherlands, that split a university, and that ultimately led to the convocation of the greatest international synod in the history of the Reformed churches, the Synod of Dort (1618–19), Arminius remained and died a minister in good standing in the Reformed churches. Partly this was a fluke. Arminius died in 1609 and the Synod did not conclude for a decade later. At the time of his death there was great controversy but there was not unanimity as to what Arminius was actually teaching. This was intentional. Arminius was intentionally vague, even to the point of being deceptive. Despite the fact that he rejected significant aspects of established Reformed teaching, despite the fact the seemed bent on leading the Reformed churches away from the gospel and back to a form of medieval moralism and synergism, despite the fact the he called into question the teaching of the Reformed confessions, despite the fact that it was he, and not his opponents, who was elevated to Rector of the University of Leiden, and despite the fact that it was Gormarus (and not Arminius) who left the University, Arminius whined incessantly about the hardships he allegedly suffered at the hands of the evil orthodox.
Remarkably, despite these facts, the theme, that like their founder, the Remonstrants (Arminians) are beleaguered and oppressed, remains the narrative of the Arminians. If you doubt me then you clearly have never read anything that Roger Olson has written—often in the glossy pages of Christianity Today and from the his perch in an endowed chair in a major, private research university.
The Reformed churches did not see Arminius as a victim nor did they naively accept his protestations that he believed the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. There was too much evidence to the contrary. They did not accept his assertions because they paid attention to what he had actually said about Romans chapter 7, about Romans chapter 9, about nature, regeneration, grace, faith, and perseverance. It was not as if they gave him no hearing. There were at conferences with Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641) and the conferences with the Remonstrants after Arminius’ death.
Finally, having heard Arminius and his followers for two decades, the churches met at Dort and issued a judgment. In the preface to their rulings (canons) on the Remonstrant crisis, Synod declared:
This Church has been attacked, first secretly and then publicly, by Jacobus Arminius and his followers (bearing the name of Remonstrants). They did this by means of various old and new errors. These flourishing churches, being persistently disturbed by offensive disputes and schisms, have been brought into such grave peril that they were in danger of being consumed by a dreadful fire of discord.
As the preface notes, even though the churches
laboured most diligently and with great patience to persuade the main advocates of these teachings (who had been summoned to appear) that they would fully explain their sentiments regarding the well-known Five Heads of Doctrine along with the arguments for them. However, they rejected the judgments of the Synod and refused to answer the points in question in an equitable fashion. No admonitions of the Synod, nor resolutions of the honorable deputies of the States General, nor even the illustrious members of the States General themselves could make progress with them. At that point, the Synod was compelled to follow another course.
Having examined “the writings, confessions, and declarations regarding the aforesaid Five Heads of Doctrine” synod issued the rules or canons. They rejected the errors of the Remonstrants categorically and declared that the Remonstrants had brought “again out of hell the Pelagian error” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3).
All this is context and preface in order to ask NAPARC ruling elders to consider this question: In light of the judgment of the Synod of Dort, had you the opportunity, would you allow James Arminius into your pulpit? After all, he died in good standing with the Reformed churches. After all, he professed adherence to the Reformed confessions. Of course not! Why not? Because you know, despite Arminius’ protestations, that he was not actually a minister of the Word as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches. You know that he was disingenuous, that it’s not possible to reconcile what Arminius actually believed and taught with what the Word of God says.
If that is the case, then, what if you had the opportunity to allow a modern-day Arminius into your pulpit, would you do it? What if he was well-regarded by many as a social conservative and as a witty and articulate defender of the faith against a rising tide of neo-atheism? it does seem as if the foundations of the culture and civil society are collapsing and that the faith is under intense public assault.
As you seek to answer this question consider another. The heart of the Roman Empire was sacked in 410. Their world was literally crumbling before their eyes. The British monk Pelagius was known for his strong adherence to Christian morality. He was also well-known for his denial of the doctrine of original sin, depravity, and what we today call the doctrines of grace. Should the churches of North Africa have overlooked his doctrinal errors and should they have invited him to speak to their congregations? As a matter of history, they did not. They prosecuted his errors in the courts of the church most vigorously and condemned his teaching repeatedly. Indeed, the entire catholic church (Ephesus, 431 etc) condemned his doctrine.
Arminius lived during a time a great social and cultural upheaval. The Reformed churches might well have said to themselves that the cultural and social issues they faced were too great to worry about doctrinal fine points. Indeed, there were powerful voices, some of whom protected Arminius from his critics in Amsterdam and in Leiden, who favored doctrinal latitudinarianism, who thought that Arminius had some good and useful things to say. We may be thankful, however, that the churches did not take this view.
If these examples are instructive, then we may wonder about the wisdom of NAPARC congregations inviting to their pulpit a modern-day Arminius, a minister who leads a movement, which has many points of contact with the theology of Arminius—that is a form of “covenantal Arminianism“—that has been considered and rejected by the Reformed churches. Yes, our modern-day Arminius affirms the Westminster Confession, but he also signed the Joint Federal Vision Statement, published in 2007. Despite the fact that the URCs, the, RCUS, the PCA, the RPCNA have all officially adopted statements condemning the Federal Vision theology, our latter day Arminius is impenitent.
About this particular leading Federal Visionist, the study committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has written:
“Underlying all the preceding theological positions of FV that we have herein examined is a doctrine of the church in which ecclesiology threatens to swallow soteriology and a vibrant sacramentalism threatens to turn into sacerdotalism. Foundational to FV ecclesiology is a tendency in FV to deny the inner/outer aspects of the covenant along with the visible/invisible aspects of the church. These tendencies will need to be addressed elsewhere (and are more fully treated, e.g., in the forthcoming analysis of the FV by Guy Waters), especially since ecclesiology has assumed the all-consuming role that it has for many in FV. To be sure, much FV ecclesiological and sacramental theorizing goes beyond what we are able to consider: the impact of FV ecclesiology on its doctrine of justification. While the Committee may differ with various strands of FV ecclesiology on this or that point, what is relevant in this critique is how FV ecclesiology affects the FV doctrine of justification. Given that focus, we now turn to examine some FV teaching on the sacraments and their efficacy, seeking to gauge its impact on the doctrine of justification.
Wilson on the sacraments writes, for instance:
Raise your hand if you knew that the Westminster Confession of Faith taught baptismal regeneration…. Baptism means that the one baptized has a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, the one baptized has been grafted into Christ, he has the sign and seal of regeneration, forgiveness of sins and the obligation to walk in newness of life.
Wilson’s language of “baptismal regeneration” is, at best, confusing, since the Reformed have not historically used this language to refer to baptism.313 One may have a high view of baptism and its efficacy without believing that the outward act of baptism itself is to be described as regenerative.314 No small part of Wilson’s problem here, we observe, lies perhaps in what he fails to say. In Wilson’s writing about sacramental efficacy one does not find a reference to WCF 14.1 on saving faith. WCF 14.1 teaches that “the grace of faith” that enables the elect to believe “is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word”; and that this grace of faith “is increased and strengthened” by the Word, sacraments and prayer (emphasis). The Word brings about faith and faith is then increased by the Word, sacraments, and prayer. This is the order set forth in our Standards. WLC 155 and WSC 89 support this contention, asserting that the Spirit of God makes the reading and especially the preaching of the Word “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.” Nowhere does the Confession or Catechisms ascribe this work of convincing and converting sinners to the sacraments. It is “especially the preaching” of the Word that produces, by the Spirit’s ministration, saving faith. Anytime saving faith is in view, or at stake, so is the doctrine of justification, inasmuch as faith is a gift of God whereby He enables us to apprehend Him. Thus we would maintain that there is a distinction between the ministry of the Word and the administration of the sacraments that many of the FV promoters seem to be missing. (pp. 78-79)
The social crisis we face is real. The empirical evidence is too strong to deny that Christianity is being intentionally marginalized in the culture. The moral law of God revealed in nature and in Scripture is being publicly flouted in a way never seen before in the life of this republic. We live in a time when, despite the abundant and prima facie evidence preserved in high-def video recordings, our leaders look straight into the camera and tell us that they didn’t say what we know they said (apparently “period” now means “comma”). That isn’t the question. The question is how confessional Reformed churches should respond and whether it is healthful for elders to permit into their pulpits the proponents of gross doctrinal error. It is hard to see how allowing a wolf into the pulpit will be for the safety and well-being of the sheep.
Let’s take a lesson from Petrus Plancius (1562–1622), who first opposed Arminius in Amsterdam when few others wanted to hear about it but who was vindicated by the Synod of Dort. Let’s learn from our fathers at Dort. Despite the social crisis they faced, they stood their posts and upheld the gospel because they knew that it was of no benefit to society generally for the church to send an uncertain sound on the article of the standing and falling of the church.
We should also take a lesson from the Old Princeton church historian, Samuel Miller (1769–1850). He noted in 1841 that, having re-admitted the Remonstrants to pulpits after Maurtitz’ death in 1625, it was not long before rationalism spread throughout the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. If, having rejected the Federal Vision doctrine, the NAPARC churches admit impenitent Federal Visionists to their pulpits, how can they expect things to go differently? By the early 19th century the Reformed in the Netherlands were vitiated with rationalism such that there had to be a separation (Afscheiding) in 1834. Let us not engage in magical thinking. It can happen to us too.