Jacob Arminius and the Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 6

By John A. Aloisi. Reproduced from DBSJ 21 (2016) with permission. This installment continues Consideration of Original Sin and the Justice of God and concludes. Read the series.

The Providence of God

The providence of God] may be defined the solicitous, everywhere powerful, and continued [intuitus] inspection and oversight of God, according to which he exercises a general care over the whole world, and over each of the creatures and their actions and passions, in a manner that is befitting himself, and suitable for his creatures, for their benefit.106

So Arminius defined the providence of God. Perhaps especially important is the fact that he spoke about God’s providence as “everywhere powerful” but did not indicate that God’s providence is actually all-powerful. He also referred to God’s providence being exercised in a manner that is “suitable for his creatures.” This statement seems to point out the direction that Arminius’s understanding of providence will take. In this brief definition, Arminius’s picture of God’s providence seems to be shaped by the creation rather than the will of the Creator.

According to Arminius, God has a twofold right over his rational creature. The first right belongs to God through creation, and the second through contract.107 If the creature sins against this twofold right, “he gives to God, his Lord, King and Father, the right of treating him as a sinning creature, and of inflicting on him due punishment; and this is a third right, which rests on the wicked act of the creature against God.”108

In Arminius’s view, God cannot do whatever he pleases. God essentially is in the position of one who must respond to the actions of his creatures. Arminius held that people must of their own free will choose to commit actual sins before God can regard them with displeasure. He argued,

Man is indeed as “clay in the hands of the potter,” but it does not follow from this that God can justly make of that clay whatever it might be possible for Him to make by an act of His omnipotence. He can reduce to nothing the clay formed by Himself and made man,—for this belongs to Him by supreme right: but He can not hate the same clay, or be angry with it, or condemn it forever, unless that lump has become sinful by its own fault, and been made a lump of corruption.109

Because Arminius did not believe that original sin makes people guilty before God, he taught that God can only condemn a person who has chosen to become sinful by committing actual sin.

Muller has correctly noted that the theme of creation plays a significant role in Arminius’s theology.110 Arminius seems to have viewed God’s decision to create rational creatures with free will as an act of divine self-limitation. As Muller explained,

Arminius assumes that creatures have a certain integrity and independence as causal agents. Whereas he recognizes that all finite things are contingent and, therefore, in need of divine ontological support, he defines that support in such a way as to leave the will of the creature free and, indeed, independent of divine willing….

Understood in this way, the doctrine of creation has an almost principal status in Arminius’ theology.111

To Arminius, now that God has created rational beings with the ability to make spontaneous choices, he may place impediments in their way and may exercise some degree of influence. However, God ultimately cannot interfere with the creature’s right to make free choices. For God to genuinely interfere with the free will of another rational being would be inconsistent with the created order of things.112

The Grace of God

Arminius held that people are born with original sin, that is, a lack of original righteousness. They are also born with a propensity to transgress God’s law. They tend toward that which God has forbidden. This propensity does not produce a necessity to sin, but it does leave mankind inclined to sin. Therefore, man’s fallen condition could be described, by Arminius, as one where the powers of man’s will are “useless unless they be assisted by grace.” For man’s free will “has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.”113

Arminius taught that apart from grace fallen man would never come to God of his own accord. He also believed that humans are helplessly prone to disobey God apart from grace. Yet, he recognized that God commands people to submit to his authority by obeying his law, and Arminius firmly believed that God cannot justly require of people what is not in their power to do.114 For this reason, God must grant to humans grace that will enable them to please God. Arminius reasoned, “If, indeed, sufficient grace should be withheld, they, who do not believe and are not converted, are deservedly excused, for the reason that, without it, they could neither believe nor be converted.”115 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.116

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.117

According to Arminius, God gives enabling grace to every person. However, this grace is not necessarily effectual. Although God in his justice gives people the opportunity to accept his grace, they may choose to reject it through their free will. Arminius asserted, “It always remains within the power of free will to reject grace bestowed, and to refuse subsequent grace; because grace is not an omnipotent action of God, which cannot be resisted by man’s free will.”118 In order for a person to be saved, then, his own fallen free will must choose to cooperate with the sufficient grace that God supplies. In the final analysis, sinful people choose whether they want God’s grace or not. This is so because, in Arminius’s system, they have a free will with which God may not justly interfere. To Arminius, God is only just if sinful people have the final say in their eternal destiny.

Conclusion

Arminius stands as a pivotal figure in the history of Christianity, and Arminius’s understanding of original sin is one of the keys to interpreting his theology. His view of original sin builds upon the writings of earlier theologians, including Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin.

Arminius saw Adam’s first sin as the source of original sin which has since been passed on to his descendants through natural means. All people are now born with the taint of original sin. Arminius understood original sin as primarily the privation of the original holiness that Adam possessed prior to the Fall. When Adam sinned, he destined his descendants to enter the world without the original righteousness he once enjoyed. According to Arminius, original sin itself does not render people guilty before their Creator. Because sin consists in action, people become guilty only when they commit actual sin.

In Arminius’s view, God frequently hinders sin, but he ultimately cannot prevent it by interfering with a rational creature’s free will. Due to the creation order, people possess a free will that is essentially beyond the interference of God.

God in his justice must give enabling grace to every person. If God did not give sufficient grace to people, he could not justly hold them accountable for their sins. This grace enables people to obey God’s demands, but it cannot effectually do anything because people can always resist it. As Arminius saw it, people must of their own free will choose to accept God’s grace. God cannot force rational creatures to do anything against their free will.

Although this article is not meant to be a critique of Arminius’s theology, it has endeavored to lay some groundwork for a more critical analysis of Arminius’s view of original sin. His understanding of original sin represents a significant departure from traditional Reformed theology, and it could be argued a departure from biblical teaching on original sin as well.

Notes

106 Ibid., 2:68.

107 Ibid., 2:67.

108 Ibid., 2:68.

109 Ibid., 3:366.

110 Richard A. Muller, “God, Predestination, and the Integrity of the Created Order: A Note on Patterns in Arminius’ Theology,” in Later Calvinism: International Perspectives, ed. W. Fred Graham (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1994), 438–41.

111 Ibid., 439. Muller traces Arminius’s understanding of creation to “his acceptance of a Thomistic conception of creation as an emanation of the divine potency for being and of the existence of the created order by participation in the goodness of divine being” (440). Arminius saw the “impelling cause” of creation as “the goodness of God, according to which he is [affectus] inclined to communicate his good” (Writings, 2:54).

112 Writings, 3:302.

113 Ibid., 1:526.

114 Ibid., 2:66.

115 Ibid., 3:336.

116 H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, 3 vols. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, n.d.), 2:108.

117 Arminius did not use the term prevenient grace, but his concept of enabling or sufficient grace is in effect the same idea.

118 Writings, 3:509.

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