THE NATURE OF ATONEMENT IN THE THEOLOGY OF JACOBUS ARMINIUS
J. Matthew Pinson
Jacobus Arminius is one of the best known and least studied theologians in the history of Christianity. His writings have been neglected by Calvinists and Arminians alike. Calvinists have disliked him because of his opposition to scholastic predestinarian theology. Most Arminians have neglected him because what little they have read of him reminds them more of Calvinism than they like. Arminius scholar Carl Bangs is correct when he says that most modern treatments of Arminius assume a deﬁnition of Arminianism that does not come from Arminius. Bangs states that most interpreters of Arminianism
begin with a preconception of what Arminius should be expected to say, then look in his published works, and do not ﬁnd exactly what they are looking for. They show impatience and disappointment with his Calvinism, and shift the inquiry into some later period when Arminianism turns out to be what they are looking for—a non-Calvinistic, synergistic, and perhaps semi-Pelagian system.
This is the approach many scholars have taken toward Arminius regarding his doctrine of atonement. For example, the Calvinist scholar Robert L. Reymond has said that the Arminian theory of atonement is the governmental theory, which “denies that Christ’s death was intended to pay the penalty for sin.” He claims that the governmental theory’s “germinal teachings are in Arminius.” Similarly, well-known Wesleyan-Arminian scholar James K. Grider states: “A spillover from Calvinism into Arminianism has occurred
in recent decades. Thus many Arminians whose theology is not very precise say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet such a view is foreign to Arminianism.”
Recent scholars have taken one of two positions on the soteriology of Jacobus Arminius. One group says that his theology was a development of the Dutch Reformed theology of his day, while the other says that it was a departure from those Reformed categories. Scholars such as Carl Bangs and John Mark Hicks fall into the ﬁrst category, while Richard Muller is a recent example of scholars who ﬁt the second.
This article is representative of the ﬁrst perspective. It argues that Arminius’s concept of the nature of atonement was consistent with the theology of atonement that characterized Reformed theology in the seventeenth century. This conclusion is not surprising, given Arminius’s description of himself as a Reformed theologian and his repeated afﬁrmation of the Belgic Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism. He made this clear in a letter to the Palatine Ambassador, Hippolytus a Collibus, in 1608: “I conﬁdently declare that I have never taught anything, either in the church or in the university, which contravenes the sacred writings that ought to be with us the sole rule of thinking and of speaking, or which is opposed to the Belgic Confession or to the Heidelberg Catechism, that are our stricter formularies of consent.” Given the dearth of scholarship on Arminius’s theology of atonement and the current debates on the nature of atonement in the evangelical community, an understanding of Arminius’s doctrine of atonement provides fresh and valuable insight.
Read the full published article here.