From DBSJ 21 (2016). Republished with permission.
by John A. Aloisi1
As one writer has noted, most theologians regard Jacob Arminius (c. 1560–1609) either as a hero or a heretic.2 Arminius is generally either vilified as an enemy or embraced as a friend; few theologians seem to view him from a neutral posture.3 This tendency toward polarization is not without cause. Arminius stands among a limited number of figures in church history who have lent their names to a major theological school of thought. Furthermore, the debate between Arminianism and Calvinism has never wanted voices on either side. Yet, despite the familiarity of his name, Arminius’s thought is frequently misunderstood, or at very least, is little understood by many.4
The term Arminianism is a slippery one. Many people who are in basic agreement with Arminius’s views about predestination, humanity’s condition, and God’s role in salvation reject the label Arminian. On the other hand, at times Calvinists have had the tendency to apply the term to anything short of what John Calvin (1509–1564) himself taught. Unfortunately, the labels Arminian and Arminianism are used inconsistently and at times get thrown around carelessly. Perhaps this is the case because few people are familiar with what Arminius actually taught.
In light of the significant role Arminius has played in church history, relatively little has been written about his life. During the twentieth century, only one noteworthy biography of Arminius was published in English.5 Since the turn of the century, a few more have been added to this number, but compared to Calvin or even Theodore Beza (1519–1605), Arminius’s thought has received significantly less attention.6 The fact that the term Arminianism has been used to describe a very diverse set of movements has done nothing to improve the situation with regard to understanding Arminius and his views. Since the time of Arminius’s death, many different groups and individuals have been identified as Arminian. As Bangs has pointed out,
The label of Arminianism has been applied to and often accepted by such diverse entities as the politics of William Laud, seventeenth century Anglican theology from high churchmanship to moderate Puritanism, the communal experiment at Little Gidding, the empiricism of John Locke, Latitudinarianism, the rational supernaturalism of Hugo Grotius and the early Remonstrants, early Unitarianism in England, the evangelicalism of the Wesleys, and the revivalism of the American frontier. In our time the term means for some the crowning of Reformation theology; for others it points merely to an anachronistic sub-species of fundamentalism; and for still others it means an easy-going American culture-Protestantism.7
As a result, Arminius has frequently been granted credit for views he never espoused. Bangs has correctly noted,
Most accounts of Arminius commit a technical error in linking him exclusively with the Remonstrants and other movements known as Arminian and, by an implication involving the post hoc fallacy, making him responsible for ideas and movements quite foreign to his intentions.8
Perhaps adding to the confusion is the fact that Arminius did not always express his own ideas in clear, straightforward language. He frequently stated his opinions in exceptionally cautious terms.9 This is no doubt due to the accusations of heresy that were being lodged against him on a regular basis during much of his career. For this reason, most discussions of Arminianism deal little with the writings of the man whose name characterizes the movement. Much work still remains to be done on the doctrinal views that were actually taught by Arminius himself.
The account of Arminius’s life and immediate influence is an interesting paragraph in church history. After being orphaned as a teenager, Arminius was favored by a number of benefactors who enabled him to receive a thorough education at some of the finest academies in Europe.10 Arminius had the opportunity to study under men of no little stature, several of whom were strongly Calvinistic.11 Nevertheless, Arminius ended up being the figure most often associated with opposition to Calvinism. A detailed account of Arminius’s theological pilgrimage is not possible here. However, the historical context in which he lived and developed will be noted when important to an understanding of his views.
The purpose of this article is to examine Arminius’s view of original sin. Although Arminian scholars have set forth their own theories about original sin, relatively little has been written about what Arminius taught concerning this important doctrine. This article will focus on explaining Arminius’s theology of original sin by looking first at what he wrote about Adam’s first sin. Then, it will be helpful to examine what Arminius taught about original sin itself and original sin’s relationship to actual sin. Finally, this article will consider Arminius’s understanding of original sin and the justice of God.
1 Dr. Aloisi is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI.
2 Charles M. Cameron, “Arminius—Hero or Heretic?” Evangelical Quarterly 64 (July 1992): 213.
3 A. W. Harrison described Arminius this way: “Zealously loved by his friends, mistrusted by his opponents because of his subtlety, his was a name for the falling and rising of many in Israel” (The Beginnings of Arminianism to the Synod of Dort [London: University of London Press, 1926], 130).
4 Cameron lamented, “Arminius is a largely misunderstood theologian…frequently assessed according to superficial hearsay” (“Arminius,” 213). Similarly, Carl Bangs wrote, “To many…he is an enigma” (Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998], 18).
5 Prior to the twenty-first century, only three major biographies of Arminius had been published: Caspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D.D., trans. John Guthrie (Nashville: E. Stevenson & F. A. Owen, 1857) [This work was originally written in Latin in 1725.]; J. H. Maronier, Jacobus Arminius: een Biographie (Amsterdam: Y. Rogge, 1905) [This work was written in Dutch and has never been translated into English.]; and Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (repr. of 1971 ed., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998). Of the three, Bangs’s work is by far the definitive treatment.
6 A few of the most helpful recent works on Arminius include the following: William den Boer, God’s Twofold Love: The Theology of Jacob Arminius (1559–1609), trans. Albert Gootjes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010); W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012); Keith D. Stanglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603–1609 (Leiden: Brill, 2007); and Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
7 Carl Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” Church History 30 (1961): 155.
8 Ibid., 156.
9 As Augustus Hopkins Strong noted, “The expressions of Arminius himself are so guarded that Moses Stuart (Bib. Repos., 1831) found it possible to construct an argument to prove that Arminius was not an Arminian” (Systematic Theology, 3 vols. in 1 [Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press: 1907], 602).
10 Bangs, Arminius, 43–80; Stanglin and McCall, Jacob Arminius, 26–28.
11 Beza particularly, under whom Arminius sat at Geneva, was a strict Calvinist. Although some have speculated that Arminius temporarily adopted a firmly Calvinistic viewpoint during his years as a student, there is little evidence to favor such a theory (Bangs, Arminius, 71–75).