Arminius was still relatively young (in his early twenties) when he began to speak out against Calvinism. He was especially perturbed by the Calvinist views on predestination and grace. At that time he was at the Geneva Academy, where he was a student under Theodore Beza, who was Calvin’s successor at the school. Arminius chose to leave the school quietly, partly in response to the fact that the authorities in Geneva had become angry about his defense of Peter Ramus, who was a French humanist. He left Geneva for Basel. In Basel he was offered a doctorate degree, which he declined because he was still young (approximately mid-twenties) and did not want to bring dishonor to that prestigious title.
Jacob Arminius was born in 1559 in Oudewater, Holland. At the time of Arminius’ birth, John Calvin was establishing an academy in Geneva, Switzerland for the purpose of spreading his theological ideas about predestination. It was also at about that same time that Guido de Brès wrote the first edition of the Belgic Confession. That confession later became of the standard doctrinal statement for Dutch Calvinists (an interesting observation due to the fact that Arminius himself was Dutch). Calvin’s ideas were spreading across Holland and eventually even reached the halls of power. By the time Arminius was 14, the Dutch king, William the Silent, was a Calvinist. The theological landscape across Europe continued to shift and by the time of Arminius’ death in 1609 his theology was also spreading rapidly across the theological scene.
The Life and Teachings of Jacob Arminius (1559-1609)
Jacob Arminius was a sixteenth-century theologian who name lives on in history through the theological system that bears his name. My interest in Arminius stems from the fact that I am personally an Arminian. As a student of the theological systems of Calvinism (named after John Calvin) and Arminianism, I am the lesser known of those two theologians. Mark Galli and Ted Olsen give Arminius the title “Irenic Anti-Calvinist” (in 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, p. 41). That perspective is interesting because they choose to identity Arminius with what he was against, rather than what he was for, although they do try to make him sound peaceful in the process. The systems of Arminianism and Calvinism are historic rivals in soteriological debates, and some interesting observations can be made as we travel back to the sixteenth century.
The Life and Teachings of John Wesley (1703-1791)
John Wesley is recognized as the founder of Methodism. The term “Wesleyan” is still seen today in the names of churches, colleges, and theological concepts; it reflects the legacy established by this eighteenth-century preacher.
In 1703 John Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Samuel and Susanna Wesley. His father was a rector in the Anglican Church. The young Wesley was educated at the Charterhouse in London, as well as Christ Church at Oxford, where he received his B.A. in 1724 and his M.A. in 1727. After graduation he joined his father at the parish in Wroot and was ordained to the ministry the following year. During his time at Oxford, Wesley was a serious student, with a keen interest in both logic and religion. However, it was not until 1725 that his “religious” conversion took place. That was a critical point in the young man’s life, as he was prompted to consider what direction he would go with his life. Through a number of important influences, including the encouragement of his mother and his reading of Thomas à Kempis, he decided that religion would be his life’s business.
Wesley’s decision to make religion his life business led to his ordination as a deacon in 1725 and then to joining his father in church work at Wroot. He was his father’s curate (a rector’s assistant) from 1727 to 1729, after which he returned to Oxford. At Oxford he took over the leadership of the “Holy Club,” a small group of students that had been organized by his brother Charles. That organization would later come to be called “Methodist,” picking up that name from their methodical approach to Bible study. They were also known for their strict self-denial, which included acts of charity. It was during that time at Oxford that both of the Wesley brothers came to be influenced by William Law, an English mystic. Wesley observed that at this point in his life he did not understand justification by faith, which led to his seeking justification through his own righteous works. It was also during this time that Wesley developed his views on Christian perfection, which later became recognized as a hallmark of the Methodist movement.
In 1735 Wesley left Oxford and traveled to Georgia as a missionary. His experience there was disastrous. Like his father, Wesley was a member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The Society invited Wesley to be a volunteer missionary to Georgia, a colony that had been recently founded by his father’s friend Colonel James Oglethorpe. He became a parish priest in Savannah, an office in which he served with some success. However, he also became enthralled with Sophey Hopkey, the niece of Georgia’s chief magistrate, Thomas Causton. His failed courtship of Sophey caused him to become critical of both Causton and Oglethorpe, and he believed them to be guilty of mismanagement. Causton brought together a grand jury that indicted Wesley on trumped-up charges, which indictment prompted him to leave Georgia in 1737. He had, however, helped to strengthen the congregation in Savannah. Therefore, his experience in Georgia was not entirely a failure despite his somewhat dishonorable departure.
After returning to England, Wesley experienced an evangelical conversion at a society meeting in London on May 24, 1738. That experience changed his life. He became convinced that the activities of the Methodist society could be empowered by grace and the Holy Spirit, working through faith in Jesus Christ. A revival started less than a year after Wesley’s conversion and continued until his death in 1791. That revival began his fifty-two year itinerant preaching ministry. During that ministry, Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons while averaging 4,000 miles of travel each year. However, Wesley can be distinguished from other evangelists in that he did more than just preach. A unique feature of his ministry was the formation of societies to assist in the strengthening of the people who were awakened and converted during the revival. Those societies moved across the Atlantic in the 1760s. The Methodist Societies remained essentially a lay movement. However, in both America and England the societies were largely influenced by the style and discipline of Wesley himself.
The Methodist movement continued to grow in America, particularly under the leadership of Francis Asbury, who had been appointed by Wesley to serve in America. The American Methodists wrote to Wesley in 1784 and asked for assistance due to their numerical growth. Wesley’s response was the ordination of a number of men who would establish an independent Methodist Church in America. Those men had Wesley’s authority to ordain itinerants. The itinerants had the authority to preach, but not to serve the sacraments, not even to the many Methodists who did not have access to the sacraments. The birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America can be traced to the Christmas Conference of 1784.
At the Christmas Conference Wesley appointed men to lead the American Methodist movement in America. It was also at that conference that a number of other church-related documents known as Wesley’s “General Plan” were approved. Included in those approved documents, which were used as the doctrinal basis of British Methodism, were Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, as well as his abridged versions of the Articles of Religion. Most modern Wesleyan traditions still retain at least a trace of the “General Plan.” In the aftermath of the Christmas Conference Wesley’s direct church authority began to decline. His theological and spiritual legacy could still be seen in Methodism, but the American Methodists began to reject his direct involvement in their affairs. Wesley was still loved by the American Methodists, but he was losing his ability to have a direct role in the church in America. Throughout the years, Wesley’s influence has still been apparent in Methodism. Some of the specific emphases that Wesley passed on include social justice, pietistic holiness, evangelism, and discipline.
In his theology Wesley emphasized justification by faith alone. Another emphasis of his was the pursuit of holiness, with the goal of that holiness being what he called “Christian perfection” (the belief that it is possible for the Christian to not sin). He believed strongly in the supernatural, while also appealing to Scripture, reason, and the church fathers to support his intellectual claims. Later in his life he also increasingly appealed to experience to support his arguments. Wesley valued liturgical prayer, Eucharistic devotion, and extemporaneous worship. The personal characteristics that made him an effective leader include his magnetism, his organizational abilities, and his capacity for self-discipline. Another interesting characteristic of Wesley is his emphasis on charitable giving. He had a distrust of the rich and was aware of the (often negative) effects that wealth can have on the spiritual life. In his mind, the only legitimate reason to pursue money was for the sake of being able to give to those in need.
There are many movements and denominations that trace their roots back to Wesley and could therefore be characterized as being in the Wesleyan tradition. The legacy of Wesley can be seen primarily in the various Methodist denominations, although traces of his legacy can also be seen in other groups, including the Holiness movement, the Pentecostal movement, and the Church of the Nazarene. The Wesleyan tradition has historically been Arminian, as was Wesley himself. Free will was an important aspect of Wesley’s theology, and is an aspect that separates Wesleyans from Calvinists. However, the primary distinction between Wesleyans and Calvinists can be seen in sanctification. Wesley’s issue with Calvinism stemmed from his belief that justification should lead to sanctification, and that faith should lead to works. The theology of Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition could be summarized as using justification by faith as the “gateway” to holiness or sanctification.
(This article was written by Frank Reed and originally posted here)
One of the most defining moments in Church History occurred in 1523 in Zurich, Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli had been studying and teaching the Bible with his students. The local authorities eventually realized that this Bible study was bringing division to the community. The whole religious world was Roman Catholic. The Bible study in Zurich was a challenge to the Catholic system.
Actually, the Catholic system had been challenged by Martin Luther in Germany since 1517. Now that challenge had spread to Switzerland. Zwingli, an excellent Bible scholar and priest in the Catholic Church in Zurich, was teaching a group of his students to study the Scriptures. His students would take that study more seriously than Zwingli ever imagined.
The students, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Simon Stumpf and others’ study of the Scripture led them to accept the Word of God at face value. They took the Bible study beyond the academic approach of their teacher. Their lives were changed. They began to challenge the current religious system of belief and practice. It only seemed logical to them that understanding of the Scripture would produce changes in lives. One of the changes they saw was the need for believers’ baptism. Infant baptism was the practice of the Catholic Church. These men believed that the Bible taught adult, believers’ baptism.
The authorities called for meetings where these differences could be discussed. The authorities wanted to control the changes to be made. At one of these meetings, Zwingli, instead of standing with his students, deferred to the authorities. He said, “my lords will decide” how to proceed with decisions about following the Scripture.
His students were dumbfounded. They were taken aback. How could their respected Bible teacher now defer to and allow authorities to decide about truths which they had learned from the Bible? When Zwingli said, “my lords will decide,” Simon Stumpf responded, “Master Ulrich, the Spirit of God has already decided!”
These young men were committed to following the Spirit of God in the face of what ever the authorities would do to them. Indeed Zwingli, their beloved teacher, had deserted them at a time when they desperately needed him. What would they do? Would they follow their teacher? Would they follow the authorities? Who or what was the authority? Their study of the Bible convinced them that God and His Word was the only authority that was safe to follow.
What authority is safe to follow? The only safe authority is the Scripture as studied under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This was the conviction of Zwingli’s students in 1523. This commitment was the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptist movement was the beginning of the Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish Church groups. This Anabaptist movement greatly influenced the beginning of the Brethren movement in 1708. Alexander Mack had similar convictions about the source of authority. He believed that the source of authority was the Scripture as understood by the leading of the Holy Spirit.
The question today is: what is our source of authority? Can we say that it is the Scripture as understood by the indwelling Holy Spirit? Or, have we replaced that conviction with something else? Has a system of authority replaced the ultimate Authority?
May the words of Zwingli’s students continue to be the conviction with which we approach the decisions of life – “The Spirit of God decides!”
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14, ESV)
One of the finest historical examples of a commitment to radical discipleship is the story of Dirk Willemsz. Dirk was a sixteenth-century Anabaptist who lived in Holland. According to the account in the Martyr’s Mirror, Dirk was imprisoned for his faith. He managed to escape, although he was pursued by a guard. As he fled, he came to a river that was covered with a thin layer of ice. Dirk made it across safely, but the guard fell through and would have soon drowned. Astonishingly, Dirk turned back and rescued his pursuer. The guard wanted to spare him for his act of love, but the burgomaster ordered that Dirk be returned to prison. In May of 1569 Dirk Willemsz was burned at the stake.
This engraving was created by Jan Luiken and was published in the Martyr’s Mirror.
“Two distinguishing marks of the early church were 1) Poverty and 2) Power.”