Jacob Arminius and the Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 3


From DBSJ 21 (2016). Republished with permission. By John A. Aloisi. Read the series.

Original Sin Itself

Adam’s first sin was a point of no return for the entire human race. Ever since that initial act of rebellion, all mankind has been born with the taint of original sin.33

The Transmission of Original Sin

Arminius said very little about the transmission of original sin from one generation to the next. The effects of Adam’s sin rest upon all his descendants because they were in his loins, but Arminius did not speculate about how original sin is actually transmitted. He wrote, “The discussion, whether original sin be propagated by the soul or by the body, appears to us to be useless; and therefore the other, whether or not the soul be through traduction, seems also scarcely to be necessary to this matter.”34 Although he did not propose a theory about how original sin is transmitted, Arminius did teach that it has been passed on to all mankind.35

The Nature of Original Sin

According to Arminius, original sin is a punishment for Adam’s first transgression. As a result of Adam’s sin, God’s anger was excited against Adam and a punishment was meted out. He wrote, “It may admit of discussion, whether God could be angry on account of original sin which was born with us, since it seemed to be inflicted on us by God as a punishment of the actual sin which had been committed by Adam and by us in Him.”36 This punishment extends to the entire human race. Because original sin is a punishment or a just consequence of Adam’s sin, Arminius believed it would not be proper for God to punish people for it. If God were to punish people for original sin, he would essentially be punishing them for being the recipients of his punishment.37

Although infants are born with original sin, the sin of Adam is not imputed to them. Arminius saw the imputation of foreign sin as extremely unjust. He held that if God were to impute Adam’s sin to infants before they could possibly sin by their own choice, God would be treating them much more severely than he has dealt with the fallen angels.38

Arminius, of course, did not develop his position on original sin in a historical vacuum. He built on the work of others and endeavored to refine their theories about original sin. Arminius owned numerous works by the church fathers,39 and he demonstrated a definite familiarity with the works of various scholastic writers.40 Concerning the doctrine of original sin, Arminius stood particularly on the shoulders of three men who lived in different eras and wrote at some length on the topic, namely, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin.

Augustine’s Definition of Original Sin

Augustine (354–430) was one of the most important early voices to speak out in defense of the doctrine of original sin.41 His discussions of original sin were written primarily in response to the heretical teachings of Pelagius. Pelagius denied that there is any such thing as original sin and claimed that people are born completely innocent.42 This is so because, according to Pelagius, souls are created by an immediate act of God.43 While he admitted that all people sin, he denied that they inherit a sinful nature.44 Rather, they appear to have a sin nature due to the fact that they have developed a habit of sinning. This habit of sinning can make them look as if they are dominated by sin when in reality they are not.45

On the contrary, argued Augustine, people sin because they are born with original sin. The corruption that followed Adam’s sin has been passed on to all his descendants. Original sin necessarily involves a positive corruption of human nature.46 Augustine explained that God

created man with such a nature that the members of the race should not have died, had not the two first (of whom the one was created out of nothing, and the other out of him) merited this by their disobedience; for by them so great a sin was committed, that by it the human nature was altered for the worse, and was transmitted also to their posterity, liable to sin and subject to death.47

Augustine taught that while original sin is a punishment of Adam’s sin, people are still culpable for the original sin that they inherit.48 Therefore, no one is born in a state of innocence.

Arminius did not follow Augustine’s view of original sin as involving corruption of the human nature. However, he was quite familiar with Augustine’s understanding of original sin. In his extended discussion with Francis Junius, Arminius quoted Augustine in support of his own theory that original sin consists of privation:

Augustine, (De Trinitate, lib. 14, cap. 16,) says, “Man, by sinning, lost righteousness and true holiness, on which account, this image became deformed and discolored; he receives them again when he is reformed and renewed.” Again, (De civit. Dei, lib. 14, cap. 11,) he affirms that “free-will was lost.” To conclude this part of the discussion, I ask what were those spiritual qualities, which were renewed or lost, if not the knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness.49

While Augustine certainly taught that Adam’s sin resulted in a loss of original holiness that was then transmitted to the entire race, Augustine also argued that original sin left mankind completely corrupt and with an active bent toward evil.50 To Augustine, original sin must involve inherited concupiscence and guilt.51

Although Arminius had an understanding of Augustine’s view of original sin, he did not fully agree with Augustine’s description of original sin. Like Augustine, he taught that original sin involves a privation of original righteousness, but he rejected Augustine’s theory that original sin also includes positive corruption.

Aquinas’s Definition of Original Sin

During his relatively brief career, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) produced nearly one hundred works, the most significant of which is his Summa Theologica.52 Although Aquinas did not place as much emphasis on original sin as Augustine, he stands as an important figure in the development of the doctrine because of the dominating influence his ideas commanded over the next few centuries.

Arminius owned copies of Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles and his Summa Theologica.53 Furthermore, what is more important is the fact that he clearly assimilated and built upon the work of Aquinas.

Somewhat interestingly, in his Examination of Perkin’s Pamphlet, Arminius argued,

I very much wish that you would cite Scripture for the confirmation of your sentiments and the overthrow of those allegations. The writings of the Schoolmen, ought not to have weight and authority, especially among us; for our Doctors of Theology with one voice affirm of them, “that they have changed true Theology into Philosophy, and the art of wrangling, and that they endeavor to establish their opinions, by the authority, not so much of the Sacred Scriptures, as of Aristotle.”54

Arminius, however, did not follow his own advice. As Shepherd has pointed out, “Aquinas is the most frequently quoted thinker in Arminius’s works, and the only scholastic whom he names as an influence.”55 Just how strongly Arminius was influenced by Aquinas is described by Muller:

The arguments and models employed by Arminius in con-structing his theological system…reveal a far deeper reading of Aquinas than can be inferred from the citations. Indeed, Arminius seems to have based much of his thought on a close reading not merely of one but of both summas.56

Following Augustine, Aquinas taught that original sin involves an aptitude for concupiscence. This aptitude can rightly be called a habit.57 In a certain sense, Aquinas was willing to identify original sin as a habit or even an inordinate disposition to sin. However, he did not see this habit as a positive force that inclines an individual’s will to act in a sinful manner.58 Instead, it is a condition of man’s nature due to the privation of original justice.

According to Aquinas, original sin can be largely described as a privation of original justice. Drawing an analogy, Aquinas wrote,

As bodily sickness is partly a privation, in so far as it denotes the destruction of the equilibrium of health, and partly something positive…so too original sin denotes the privation of original justice, and besides this the inordinate disposition of the parts of the soul. Consequently it is not a pure privation, but a corrupt habit.59

To Aquinas, original sin is a “corrupt habit” which results from the privation of original justice. Yet, he did not want to attribute to original sin any kind of direct causative influence. Rather, original sin only indirectly leads to actual sins through the removal of an obstacle, namely original justice.60 Aquinas saw original sin as the privation of original justice that leaves man in a state of disharmony. In this state of disharmony, man’s mind is freed from subjection to God. It is deprived of the original justice or harmony with which man was created. Nevertheless, although Aquinas saw man as deprived, he stopped short of declaring that mankind is actually depraved.

Aquinas’s emphasis on privation of original justice is a theme that Arminius picked up and refined in his formulation of the doctrine of original sin.61 Arminius did not speak of original sin as a habit or a disposition, but he frequently described it in terms of privation.

(Next: Calvin’s definition of original sin, Arminius’ definition of original sin.)


33 As Bangs has correctly noted, Arminius generally avoided using the term original sin (Bangs, Arminius, 339). Unfortunately, this habit makes it difficult, at times, to discern exactly what he believed about original sin.

34 Writings, 2:79.

35 Arminius explained why original sin has passed to the entire race: “Because the condition of the covenant into which God entered with our first parents was this, that, if they continued in the favor and grace of God by an observance of this command and of others, the gifts conferred on them should be transmitted to their posterity, by the same divine grace which they had, themselves, received; but that, if by disobedience they rendered themselves unworthy of those blessings, their posterity, likewise, [carerent] should not possess them, and should be [obnoxii] liable to the contrary evils…. This was the reason why all men, who were to be propagated from them in a natural way, became obnoxious to death temporal and death eternal, and [vacui] devoid of this gift of the Holy Spirit or original righteousness. This punishment usually receives the appellation of ‘a privation of the image of God,’ and ‘original sin’” (ibid., 2:78–79).

36 Ibid., 1:374–5.

37 Arminius argued, “For, in that case, the progress would be infinite, if God, angry on account of the actual sin of Adam, were to punish us with this original sin; were He again to be angry with us for this original sin, and inflict on us another punishment; and, for a similar cause were He a third time to be angry on account of that second punishment which had been inflicted, guilt and punishment thus mutually and frequently succeeding each other, without the intervention of any actual sin” (ibid., 1:375).

38 Ibid., 1:319.

39 The Auction Catalogue of the Library of J. Arminius, a facsimile edition with an introduction by C. O. Bangs (Utrecht: HES Publishers, 1985), 3–4, cited in Richard A. Muller, “Arminius and the Scholastic Tradition,” Calvin Theological Journal 24 (November 1989): 265, n. 12.

40 Muller, “Scholastic Tradition,” 264–66.

41 Parker identified Augustine as the first to formulate a systematic doctrine of original sin (D. Parker, “Original Sin: A Study in Evangelical Theory,” Evangelical Quarterly 61 [January 1989]: 52).

42 G. F. Wiggers, An Historical Presentation of Augustinism and Pelagianism From the Original Sources, trans. Ralph Emerson (Andover, NY: Gould, Newman & Saxton, 1840), 83–88.

43 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., s.v. “Pelagius, Pelagianism,” by B. L. Shelley, 897.

44 In his commentary on Romans, Pelagius reasoned that if Adam’s sin affected those who were not sinners, then Christ’s righteousness assists those who are not believers (Theodore de Bruyn, trans., Pelagius’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993], 94). See also Augustine, “On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin,” trans. P. Holmes, in Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, 2 vols., ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1948), 1:635.

45 Wiggers, Historical Presentation, 87.

46 Ibid., 88.

47 Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Random House, 1950), 441 (14.1).

48 Wiggers, Historical Presentation, 88.

49 Writings, 3:125. Ellis offers a brief discussion of how Arminius appealed to Augustine against his Calvinist opponents on several occasions (Mark A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius’ Doctrine of Original Sin [New York: Peter Lang, 2006], 72).

50 Wiggers noted, “According to Augustine’s theory, therefore, the nature of man, both in a physical and a moral view, is totally corrupted by Adam’s sin. In the last respect, it is so deeply corrupted, that he can do no otherwise than sin. This inherited corruption, or original sin, is such a quality of the nature of man, that in his natural state, he can will and do evil only” (Historical Presentation, 98).

51 Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, s.v. “Original Sin,” by Paul Rigby, 608–9. Admittedly, there has been significant debate over the proper interpretation of some of Augustine’s statements about original sin. This article mentions only the aspects of his thought that are fairly well established.

52 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., s.v. “Thomas Aquinas,” by N. L. Geisler, 1197.

53 Auction Catalogue, 3, 4, 5, 7, cited in Muller, “Scholastic Tradition,” 266, n. 15. Arminius owned the 1585 Antwerp edition of Summa Theologica, published by Christopher Plantin (Muller, “Scholastic Tradition,” 267).

54 Writings, 3:383. The full title of Arminius’s work is An Examination of the Treatise of William Perkins Concerning the Order and Mode of Predestination. This review, written by Arminius in 1602, is an extended critique of a Calvinistic pamphlet written by William Perkins of Christ’s College, Cambridge. Many consider this document to be Arminius’s most important work.

55 Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, s.v. “Jacobus Arminius,” by Victor Shepherd, 20.

56 “Scholastic Tradition,” 268. E.g., Aquinas frequently spoke of four causes: efficient, final, formal, and material. Arminius likewise described the origin of sin in very similar categories (Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas. An Evangelical Appraisal [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991], 155; Writings, 481–84). See also Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius. Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 37–43.

57 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, in Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 2 vols., ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945), 2:673 (82.1).

58 Aquinas suggested that original sin is neither an infused habit nor an acquired habit. Instead, “it is an inborn habit due to our corrupt origin” (ibid., 2:674 [82.1]).

59 Ibid., 2:674 (82.1).

60 Ibid. According to Aquinas, original justice hindered inordinate actions. When original justice was removed, mankind lost the principle that prevented him from sinful movements.

61 Leon O. Hynson, “Original Sin as Privation: An Inquiry into a Theology of Sin and Sanctification,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (Fall 1987): 68.


I have read with interest all three sections so far. Keep ‘em coming!

It is good to see exactly where Arminius is coming from.

"The Midrash Detective"

I am also enjoying the series. As I noted before in comment to Part 2, I thought Arminius was “off” in considering privation a punishment. Here in Part 3, I see how that idea then affected his view of original sin in a way that I also believe is “off” (though given his view about original sin, I see the logic of his conclusion that he draws; it is his premise that I think is at fault):

According to Arminius, original sin is a punishment for Adam’s first transgression…. Because original sin is a punishment or a just consequence of Adam’s sin, Arminius believed it would not be proper for God to punish people for it. If God were to punish people for original sin, he would essentially be punishing them for being the recipients of his punishment.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16