“There lived in Holland a man whom they who did not know could not sufficiently esteem, whom they who did not esteem had never sufficiently known.”
-Bertius’ funeral oration for James Arminius, Oct. 22, 1609
Perhaps the greatest irony of modern, Christian, theological discourse is the fact James Arminius, whose name makes up part of what is undoubtedly the most well-known theological controversy of the day (the “Calvinist-Arminian debate”), should be so widely ignored and neglected. John Wesley once commented that nobody should rail against Arminius who has not read his writings. Common decency would make us agree with this. Even given the fact that the term “Arminian” has, whether rightly or wrongly, come to refer to a certain set of negations (i.e., a system opposed to Calvinistic predestinarian thought) and not, strictly speaking, to the ideas of the historical figure of Arminius, it is still bewildering that almost nobody seems to have read the man himself.
His writings do exist (they are readily available from Baker Book House) and anybody interested in the whole discussion should certainly secure and read them. However, given the complexity of his thought and given the almost certain surprise that any reader of his theology will feel when he does not find in Arminius what is commonly assumed to be present there, it is perhaps most wise for us to consult a good biography first.
Without question, Carl Bang’s biography of the 16-17th century pastor and University of Leiden theology professor is the place to start. This is for two reason. First, it is the only biography available! Secondly, however, it is an utterly superb, engrossing and thorough read and I dare say that it would take a work of untold skill to match it.
Calvinists and Arminians alike will find Bang’s Arminius too fascinating to put down. It is at once a story of incomparable bravery and unbelievable tragedy. Any fair-minded person on either side of the debate will admit that James Arminius was an able, balanced and overall gentle man of great mind and skill. And any fair-minded person will have to admit that his story is one of suprising sadness.
Arminius suffered greatly at the hands of his oppressors (namely, Gamorus and Plancius) and constantly had to battle misunderstanding, neglect, controversy and persecution. He was not perfect, and his theology is not without its flaws, but his writings on the subject of predestination and the will are infinitely superior to the vast majority of material on the subject being put forth today.
Arminius died at a fairly young age of tuberculosis. Even during his life his writings were neglected by his enemies. It is no less the case today. I have personally made it a habit of asking anybody who comments on Arminian theology how much of Arminius they have read. The replies are stupefying in their evasiveness. If the controversy is ever to be elevated once again to new heights of intelligent dialogue then the spirit and tone, if not the arguments, of Arminius will simply have to be pursued again. If this does not happen, and if the great injustice which I feel still exists against Arminius remains, we will forever be doomed to understanding only half of the problem.