Jacob Arminius and the Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 4


By John A. Aloisi. Reproduced from DBSJ 21 (2016) with permission. This installment continues the study of Original Sin Itself, and follows a look at the defitions of Original Sin held by Augustine and Aquinus. Read the series.

Calvin’s Definition of Original Sin

John Calvin (1509–1564) unquestionably stands as one of the brightest figures in the Protestant Reformation. In March 1536, Calvin’s famed Institutes of the Christian Religion was published, and its appearance set a high standard for future Reformed theologians to follow.

It has been demonstrated that Arminius owned a copy of Calvin’s Institutes, and his esteem for Calvin is well known.62 In May 1607, Arminius wrote to his friend Burgomaster Sebastian Egbertsz, praising Calvin’s commentaries and indicating his respect for the Institutes:

After the reading of Scripture, which I strenuously inculcate, and more than any other…I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read, whom I extol… For I affirm that in the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable, and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the writings of the Fathers so much so that I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above others, above most, indeed, above all…. His Institutes, so far as respects Commonplaces [loci communes], I give out to be read after the Catechism as a more extended explanation. But here I add—with discrimination, as the writings of all men ought to be read.63

Arminius appears to have had a sincere respect for the revered leader of the Reformation in Switzerland.64 However, Calvin and Arminius differed significantly on the issue of original sin. Calvin defined original sin as “a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh.’”65

While Arminius emphasized the fact that mankind lost something when Adam fell, Calvin saw original sin as much more than a mere privation of holiness. To Calvin original sin involves a genuine corruption of man’s nature and is, in fact, the source of all wickedness.66

Calvin taught that because of original sin every person is born totally depraved and under the righteous condemnation of God. Original sin renders all mankind genuinely guilty before God. He stated,

By this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God, to whom nothing is acceptable but righteousness, innocence, and purity. And this is not liability for another’s transgression. For, since it is said that we became subject to God’s judgment through Adam’s sin, we are to understand it not as if we, guiltless and undeserving, bore the guilt of his offense but in the sense that, since we through his transgression have become entangled in the curse, he is said to have made us guilty. Yet not only has punishment fallen upon us from Adam, but a contagion imparted by him resides in us, which justly deserves punishment.67

Calvin taught that original sin affects the entire race and that it pervades the total person. Original sin is not confined to an individual’s flesh or mind; it has overturned the whole man. He wrote,

For this reason, I have said that all parts of the soul were possessed by sin after Adam deserted the fountain of righteousness. For not only did a lower appetite seduce him, but unspeakable impiety occupied the very citadel of his mind, and pride penetrated to the depths of his heart. Thus it is pointless and foolish to restrict the corruption that arises thence only to what are called the impulses of the senses…Paul removes all doubt when he teaches that corruption subsists not in one part only, but that none of the soul remains pure or untouched by that mortal disease. For in his discussion of a corrupt nature Paul not only condemns the inordinate impulses of the appetites that are seen, but especiall8y contends the mind is given over to blindness and the heart to depravity.68

So Calvin did not confine original sin to deprivation of original righteousness.69 To him, it involved a pervasive corruption of the entire person. Original sin is corruption and depravity, and it causes all mankind to be born guilty before God.

Arminius agreed with Calvin, against Pelagius, that “all who are born in the ordinary way from Adam, contract from him original sin and the penalty of death eternal.”70 Like Calvin, he believed that original sin extends to the entire human race as a punishment of Adam’s sin. Arminius was not at all comfortable, on the other hand, identifying original sin with actual corruption or guilt.

Arminius’s Definition of Original Sin

During his lifetime, Arminius was accused by many of teaching Pelagianism.71 However, Arminius vehemently denied such charges and referred to Pelagianism as a heresy.72 Nevertheless, this charge has been often repeated and can still be heard today.73

Pelagius denied that there is any such thing as original sin. Instead, he taught that people are born innocent and only sin by following bad examples. People are sinners, then, because they imitate those who came before them, who in turn ultimately imitate Adam’s first offense.74 As Hoeksema explained, according to Pelagianism,

the human nature is never depraved, the heart is never corrupt, the will is never in bondage; sin remains a matter of the act only; the will, therefore, must always be free to choose in favor of good or evil. The nature may be weakened by the sinful deed once performed, by the temptation to which one has yielded; the will may be hampered by an evil environment, so that it would be easier for it to yield to the seductions of evil than to that which is good, but it always remains free: man is inherently good.75

Although Arminius has been identified with Pelagianism, his position is actually quite distinct from Pelagius’s theory of sin.76

At times, Arminius made assertions that can sound quite Calvinistic. He described man’s will, subsequent to the Fall, as not only wounded or weakened but also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost.77 Arminius explained man’s fallen condition in detail when he wrote,

(1) The mind of man, in this state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God.

(2) To the darkness of the mind succeeds the perverseness of the affections and of the heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil.

(3) Exactly correspondent to this darkness of the mind, and perverseness of the heart, is [impotentia] the utter weakness of all the powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil.

(4) To these let the consideration of the whole of the life of man who is [constituti] placed under sin, be added, of which the Scriptures exhibit to us the most luminous description; and it will be evident, that nothing can be spoken more truly concerning man in this state, than that he is altogether dead in sin.78

These statements almost sound like they could have been taken from Calvin’s Institutes, yet they come from Arminius’s Public Disputations. This is not to say that Arminius was a Calvinist. Still, it must be confessed that Arminius was not a true Pelagian either.79

Unlike Calvin, Arminius taught that original sin itself does not render mankind guilty.80 Because he saw original sin as part of the punishment for Adam’s sin, he was unwilling to regard it as something that could cause people to be worthy of condemnation.

Arminius furthermore taught that original sin is primarily, if not exclusively, the privation of original righteousness. He wrote,

Must some contrary quality, beside [carentiam] the absence of original righteousness, be constituted as another part of original sin? though [sic] we think it much more probable, that this absence of original righteousness, only, is original sin itself, as being that which alone is sufficient to commit and produce any actual sins whatsoever.81

In his view, original sin means that the human race lost something original holiness—not that mankind was plunged into corruption or gained a depraved nature.


62 Apparently Arminius owned both the 1536 and 1559 editions of the Institutes along with nearly all of Calvin’s commentaries (Auction Catalogue, 3, 4, 5, 12, 17, cited in Muller, “Scholastic Tradition,” 265, n. 10). The 1559 edition of the Institutes is a considerably larger work than Calvin’s first effort, and it is regarded as the definitive edition encompassing Calvin’s settled conclusions.

63 Philip van Limborch and Christian Hartsoeker, eds., Praestantium ac eruditorum virorum epistolae ecclesiasticae et theologicae, 3rd ed. (Amsterdam: n.p., 1704), no. 101, quoted in Bangs, Arminius, 287, 289.

64 Clarke suggests that “Arminius would presumably have been astonished if he had known that his name was soon to become, and to remain, synonymous with opposition to Calvinism in general” (F. Stuart Clarke, “Arminius’s Understanding of Calvin,” Evangelical Quarterly 54 [January–March 1982]: 26).

65 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:251 [2.1.8]. Calvin also taught that “we are so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God” (ibid.).

66 Calvin wrote, “For our nature is not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle” (ibid., 1:252 [2.1.8]).

67 Ibid., 1:251 (2.1.8).

68 Ibid., 1:252–53 (2.1.9).

69 Calvin specifically addressed “those who have defined original sin as ‘the lack of the original righteousness, which ought to reside in us.’” He believed that “although they comprehend in this definition the whole meaning of the term, have still not expressed effectively enough its power and energy” (ibid., 1:252 [2.1.8]).

70 Writings, 2:390.

71 Brandt, Life of Arminius, 89; Bangs, Arminius, 140–41; Stanglin and McCall, Jacob Arminius, 157–64.

72 Writings, 1:323, 2:390–94, 472.

73 Harrison, Beginnings of Arminianism, 58; Mark Herzer, “Arminianism Exposed: Part One,” CRN Journal 12 (Summer 2001): 4.

74 Peter Movlin, The Anatomy of Arminianisme. or the Opening of the Controversies Lately Handled in the Low-Countryes, Concerning the Doctrine of Providence, of Predestination, of the Death of Christ, of Nature and Grace (London: n.p., 1620), 54; Wiggers, Historical Presentation, 83–88. Pelagianism was condemned at several early church councils including the Sixteenth Council of Carthage (418) and the Council of Ephesus (431).

75 Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge. An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1970–1972), 1:152.

76 Arminius has also been charged with semi-Pelagianism, a view that affirms original sin but denies that it prevents man from approaching God. According to this modified form of Pelagianism, man can come to God completely apart from grace. Semi-Pelagian teachings were condemned by the Council of Orange in 529. The actual term semi-Pelagianism was first introduced in the debates between Dominicans and the Jesuit Luis de Molina during the late sixteenth century. The Dominicans accused Molina of following a “semi-Pelagian” tradition that they traced to the fifth century (Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, s.v. “Semi-Pelagianism,” by Conrad Leyser, 761–62). Furthermore, Dekker and Muller have argued that Arminius was significantly influenced by the ideas of Molina (Eef Dekker, “Was Arminius a Molinist?” Sixteenth Century Journal 27 [Spring–Fall 1996]: 337; Muller, God, Creation, and Providence, 29, 43). However, Arminius’s views do not really fit the description of semi-Pelagianism. Reymond more accurately, though somewhat awkwardly, identifies Arminius’s position as “semi-semi-Pelagianism” (Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998], 469).

77 Writings, 1:526; see also Boer, God’s Twofold Love, 188.

78 Writings, 1:526–28. Concerning some of Arminius’s more Calvinistic statements, Bangs commented, “Some Calvinists, finding that his writings do not produce the heresies they expected, have charged him with teaching secret heresy, unpublished. Many Arminians, finding him too Calvinistic, have written him off as a transitional thinker, a ‘forerunner’” (Arminius, 18).

79 Some scholars believe that even many of those identified as early “semiPelagians” explicitly rejected the work of Pelagius (Augustine Through the Ages, s.v. “Semi-Pelagianism,” 762).

80 Writings, 1:382.

81 Ibid., 2:79. See also 1:486.


Very helpful section. Footnote 76 is enlightening. I was trying to get to the beginnings of Pelagianism a while back, and was surprised how difficult it was to piece the story together from anything close to primary sources. Aloisi has access to better books.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

I agree with Aaron that Footnote 76 is particularly enlightening. I was taught that both Roman Catholicism and Arminianism were both semi-Pelagian. Arminius was closer to Calvin than I would have imagined.

"The Midrash Detective"

There should be an annual Sympathy for Arminius Day. … not Calvinist enough for the Calvinists, not Arminian enough for the Arminians. In some cases, not Arminian enough for the Calvinists.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Would Wesley,with his view of prevenient grace, be a true semi-pelagian (in a practical sense)?

How did Wesley differ from Arminius?

"The Midrash Detective"

Robert Reymond is funny. Semi-semi indeed. It’s because he couldn’t bear to call him what he was, semi-Augustinian.

On semi-Augustinian, the question seems like asking if a puggle is semi-beagle or semi-poodle. It’s probably fair to say there are different kinds of “semi-palagian,” but the most passionately-rejected form in church history was pretty different from what Arminius seems to have taught. That said, “semi-Augustinian” seems fair to me!

Ed, on Wesley, there’s a bit on that later in the article. It’s not on the question of Original Sin specifically, though. It has more to do with God’s response to the condition of Original Sin. Here’s a piece of it…

So Arminius saw this sufficient grace as more a matter of justice than the will or pleasure of God. Wiley, a Nazarene theologian, explained this concept and contrasted Arminius’s view with that of John Wesley. Wiley wrote,


Arminius regarded the ability bestowed upon our depraved nature which enabled it to cooperate with God, as flowing from the justice of God, without which man could not be held accountable for his sins. Wesley on the other hand, regarded this ability as solely a matter of grace, an ability conferred through the free gift of prevenient grace, given to all men as a first benefit of the universal atonement made by Christ for all men.

It would seem that Arminius’s theory of sufficient grace means that the bestowment of grace is no longer a matter of grace. God essentially “owes” people sufficient grace to enable them to overcome their inclination toward sin and turn to Christ. Because God cannot require of people things that they are unable to do, he must give them enabling or sufficient grace.

According to Arminius, God gives enabling grace to every person. However, this grace is not necessarily effectual.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Thank you Aaron for giving me a preview of things to come! I obviously didn’t know the series was going to address this!

I am appreciative.

"The Midrash Detective"