Today is the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest theologians and Christian thinkers in history, Jacobus Arminius (aka Jakob Harmenszoon). He died October 19, 1609 after a fruitful ministry. Unlike other theologians of the time, he spent 2/3 of his ministry in the church as a pastor. He was unquestionably a pastor's pastor.
His early life was tragic. His father most likely died before he was born. As a young man, he enrolled in the University of Marburg under Martin Luther's successor, Philipp Melanchthon. Shortly after beginning, however, his home village was destroyed and his family was killed. "Theodore Aemilius, a clergyman, distinguished for piety and learning, then resided at Utrecht, and, becoming acquainted with the circumstances of the family, he charged himself with the education of the child."1
Later, Arminius attended the college founded by John Calvin, the University of Leiden where he was mentored by Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza. "He remained there six years, occupying the highest place in the estimation of his instructors, and of his fellow students."2 Because of his amazing mind, he was offered a doctorate very quickly, but turned it down because he did not think he was old enough for it at that time.
On August 11, 1588, Arminius was ordained to preach at the Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam. For more than a decade, he was the pastor of this church, and it was in this time he abandoned the Calvinistic teachings and adopted the theology which would come to bear his name.
At first, for the sake of peace, he was very guarded in his expressions, and avoided special reference to the subject, but soon, becoming satisfied that such a course was inconsistent with his duty as a professed teacher of religion, he began modestly to testify his dissent from the received errors, especially in his occasional discourses on such passages of Scripture as obviously required an interpretation in accordance with his enlarged views of the Divine economy in the salvation of sinners. This became a settled practice with him in 1590.3
In 1590, he married Elizabeth Real, the daughter of Judge Laurence Jacobson Real, who was famous for promoting Protestantism. They had twelve children, three of whom died as infants.4
Occasionally, he would clash with strongly Calvinistic preachers in the area. When he expounded Romans 7 and then Romans 9, he was met with significant backlash.
In 1602, Francis Junius, Professor of Divinity at Leiden, died. The university immediately sought out Arminius to fill his spot. This was met with considerable opposition from some of his opponents. Nonetheless, he obtained his Doctorate in July of 1603 and immediately "began to discharge the functions of Professor of Divinity."5
To his dismay, Arminius found that his students were deficient in their study of the Bible. All of their attention had been focused on the theological debates of the time instead of their study of the scripture. He immediately tried to reverse this trend and directed his students to devote more time to the study of scripture. This and his views on predestination were cause for many to try to create controversy surrounding him. He did not respond to any attacks until 1608.
[H]e vindicated himself in three different ways; first, in a letter to Hippolytus, a Collibus, Ambassador to the United Provinces from the Elector Palatine; secondly, in an "apology against thirty-one articles, etc," which, though written in 1608, was not published till the following year; and lastly, in his noble "Declaration of Sentiments," delivered on the thirtieth of October, 1608, before the States in a full assembly at the Hague.6
1609 was Arminius' final year before going home to the Lord Jesus. Because of the mounting controversies, he got sick with tuberculosis. He gave his final public disputation on "the vocation of men to salvation."
The excitement caused by some circumstances connected with that disputation, produced a violent paroxysm of his disease, from which he never recovered. He remained in acute physical pain, but with no abatement of his usual cheerfulness, and with entire acquiescence in the will of God, till the nineteenth of October, 1609. On that day, about noon, in the words of Bertius, "with his eyes lifted up to heaven, amidst the earnest prayers of those present, he calmly rendered up his spirit unto God, while each of the spectators exclaimed, ‘0 my soul, let me die the death of the righteous.’"7
1 Wesley Center Online, A Sketch of the Life of James Arminius, http://wesley.nnu.edu/arminianism/Arminius/a.htm, (October 13, 2009)
4 The Expository Times, Vol. 83, No. 2, 64 (1971)