Arminius' Covenantal Theology on Original Sin and Inherited Guilt

In the Garden of Eden, where two human beings are perceived as innocent and without sin, living out their lives with God -- talking with Him one-on-one and walking around with Him (cf. Gen. 1:27, 28, 29, 30; 2:15, 16, 17; 3:8, 9) -- Arminius believes that the two primary faculties of their being human are understanding and will, as the mortal is able to comprehend existence and truth, and is able to act by means of the will.1 By God, the mortal possesses an inclination toward good, wisdom, by which both understand supernatural truth and goodness and joy and righteousness, as well as maintain holiness.2 These attributes belong to these two creatures of God as the image of God.3 In this state, then, both mortals choose, willingly and not by necessity, to sin.

God prescribed obedience for the mortals (Gen. 1:28; 2:16, 17), these mortals were able to obey, and God demanded obedience so that "He might elicit from [them] voluntary and free obedience, which alone is grateful to Him," and thus this was God's will "to enter into a contract and covenant [agreement] with [them], by which God required obedience, and, on the other hand, promised a reward; to which He added the denunciation of a punishment, that the transaction might not seem to be entirely one between equals, and as if [both of them were] not completely bound to God."4 With this covenant established by God, to be kept by Adam and Eve, disobedience was always a possibility -- not a necessitated future reality but, nevertheless, a possibility.

This contingency is not to imply that God was without future knowledge of the fall into sin that Adam and Eve would willingly assume. What caused this disobedience? In scholastic method, Arminius outlines the fall by first denoting an efficient or efficacious cause -- i.e., the act directly producing a cause -- that being the individual "determining his [or her] will to that forbidden object, and applying his [or her] power or capability to do it."5 Yet, this act did not occur within a vacuum, since an external or instrumental cause is also applied to the will of the act by "the Devil, who, having accosted the woman ... employed false arguments for persuasion."6 There are other causes noted. But what cannot be assumed is that the first couple willed to disobey God because God had decreed their disobedience. The couple willed their own disobedience by the deceptive advice and persuasion of a lie uttered by the enemy of God.7 Adam and Eve, therefore, sinned "by ... free will, [their] own power proper motion being allowed by God, and ... persuaded by the Devil."8 Note that the deceptive ploy of the Devil did not directly cause them to disobey.

Just as significant as the cause of this tragedy are the effects. All of creation was subjected to entropy due to this fall. In other words, this horrendous disobedience did not affect the sinners alone, but affected all of creation. "For the creation was subjected to frustration [futility, NRSV], not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it." (Rom. 8:20 TNIV) The Greek word for "frustration," ματαιότης, refers to vanity, emptiness, instability, frailty, aimlessness. (link) But a similar effect was to occur in all of the offspring of this first couple.

For Arminius, the very first effect of this disobedience concerns not the mortals but God, "the offending of the Deity."9 We are too self-centered if we imagine that the first effect of the fall is what concerns us finite mortals. No! God has been offended, disregarded, disrespected. The secondary effect of this fall is guilt.10 "From the offending of the Deity arose His wrath on account of the violated commandment. In this violation occur three causes of just anger: (1.) The disparagement of His power or right. (2.) A denial of that towards which God had an inclination. (3.) A contempt of the Divine Will intimated by the command."11 What else could result from this disobedience but the promised reward for disobedience: punishment?

The couple understands sin for the first time, hides from God, and is thrust from the good Garden. "Besides this punishment, which was instantly inflicted, they rendered themselves liable to two other punishments; that is, to temporal death, which is the separation of the soul from the body; and to death eternal, which is the separation of the entire man from God his Chief Good."12 But there is more. For Arminius, and many of the Reformed tradition, the disobedience of the first parents warranted that "their posterity likewise should not possess [the blessings of God promised for obedience], and should be 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 [are] devoid of . . . original righteousness."13 This begs another question.

Are the offspring of Adam and Eve also guilty of their sin? Believers are divided on the answer. The writer to the Hebrews, regarding a law of propagation, states: "One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him." (Heb. 7:9, 10 NRSV, emphasis) Some imagine that the posterity of Adam and Eve are also guilty of their sin because they were "still in the loins of" Adam when the sin was committed -- the posterity of the first couple would have made the same decision as did their parents and are, thus, guilty of the sin. Arminius, in part, answers:
The whole of this sin, however, is not peculiar to our first parents, but is common to the entire race and to all their posterity, who, at the time when this was committed, were in their loins, and who have since descended from them by the natural mode of propagation, according to the primitive benediction: For in Adam "all have sinned." (Rom. 5:12) Wherefore, whatever punishment was brought down upon our first parents, has likewise pervaded and yet pursues all their posterity: So that all men "are by nature the children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), obnoxious to condemnation, and to temporal as well as to eternal death; they are also devoid of that original righteousness and holiness. (Rom. 5:12, 18, 19) With these evils they would remain oppressed forever, unless they were liberated by Christ Jesus; to whom be glory forever.14
Understanding Arminius on the notion of inherited guilt is somewhat complicated by our English translations of his works.15 Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall write: "Arminius believed that original sin is the poena (penalty, punishment) itself, which is preceded by the reatus (guilt) of Adam's actual sin, but original sin is not the guilt itself."16 (emphasis added) In an attempt to clear the matter, parsing the Latin-to-English translations of his works, our authors explain:
Whatever punishment came to the first sinners has come down to all people. All people are liable (reus) to eternal death, but it is not original sin per se that renders one liable to death. Original sin is the punishment for that liability, or guilt; it is the loss of original righteousness and holiness which then leads to actual sins. All agreed that original sin is punishment; but to add guilt to its definition would mean that God must again punish for guilt. If this were the case, according to Arminius, original sin would then result in punishment, and would therefore entail an infinite cycle of guilt and punishment, without any actual sins ever intervening, which he considered to be an absurdity.17 (emphasis added)
Though the offspring of Adam and Eve will not be held guilty for the sin committed by the first couple, the effects of their sin renders the nature and condition of the offspring as lacking original righteousness, and "a strong inclination to commit sin."18 Our authors write: "Whatever the motivation for sin may be, in view of this postlapsarian [post fall] enslavement to sin, Arminius emphasized the total inability of humans to turn to God on their own. The natural person does not will the good, indeed cannot will, think, or do the good."19 Hence the absolute necessity of the work of sufficient and enabling grace by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.


1 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XXVI. On the Creation of Man after the Image of God," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:362-63.

2 Ibid., 2:363.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 2:369.

5 Ibid., 2:371.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 2:373.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 2:374.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 2:375.

14 Ibid., 2:156-57.

15 "Arminius's specialized vocabulary in this context can be confusing, and the inconsistency of the existing English translations tends to make matters worse. Reus is translated variously as 'liable to,' 'guilty of,' and 'obnoxious to.' Reatus is generally translated consistently as 'guilt,' but Bagnall's American edition at least once changes it to 'penalty.' And culpa is translated sometimes as 'guilt,' other times as 'fault.'" Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford, 2012), 149.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 149-50.

18 Ibid., 150.

19 Ibid.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.