Arminius on the Human Condition

Determining what’s wrong with people is arguably the most important job of physicians. But the task of diagnostics goes far beyond what shows up in lab results. It is a theological task as well.

One of the most important areas of any theologian’s thought is their anthropology. In particular, what perspective they adopt concerning the fall, sin, and the human condition is paramount for knowing whether their theology is biblically faithful. Their views on these matters will also inform the shape the rest of their theology takes.

One theologian whose views on the human condition are often misunderstood are those of James Arminius. A few common misconceptions follow:

(1) “Because Arminians believe human beings exercise their will in coming to Christ, they believe sin doesn’t run very deep.”

(2) “Arminians are semi-Pelagian at best since they are overly optimistic about human beings’ ability to do what is right on their own.”

(3) “Arminians believe that humans can come to Christ on their own, apart from any spiritual work within.”

Even a cursory study of Arminius reveals each of these to be incorrect. Therefore, in light of these and other misconceptions, I will summarize Arminius’ views on sin and the human condition in this essay. This will pave the way for his view of prevenient grace, the topic that Jesse Owens will explore in the Forum’s next essay.

What’s Wrong?

Assessing what makes human beings tick is a formidable task. In recent years theologians have tried to incorporate findings from others fields of study to better understand what drives human thought and action. Consider the following assessment of the human nervous system from psychologist Warren Brown of Fuller Seminary:

Given 100 billion neurons each with an average of around 3,000 connections, each human being has something like 100 trillion…synaptic switches….What laws and influences are at work within the brain to select and establish particular conscious states from such a vast array of possibilities? Next, consider the infinite variety of possibilities of environmental and sociocultural influences within the life history of an individual. When you couple this physical and environmental complexity with the difficulty of a creature trapped in space and time comprehending the mind of the Creator and his relationship with humankind, the problem of comprehending human nature appears, at the very least, formidable [1].

Brown is right to call our attention to human persons’ complexity. But an Arminian account of humanity helps us make sense of the biblical data.

Before the fall, Scripture describes man as being free from sin, guilt, and depravity. Arminius explains: “In the state of Primitive Innocence, man had a mind endued with a clear understanding of heavenly light and truth concerning God, and his works and will…He had a heart imbued with ‘righteousness and true holiness’” [2]. It is this same righteousness and true holiness which is being renewed in light of salvation (cf. Eph. 4:24). In other words, the broken condition of sinful human beings can only be restored in Christ.

Despite the frequent attempts to attribute an untainted will to Arminian thought, Arminius surprises us. Regarding man’s fallen state, he states, “[T]he free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost” [3]. This surprises many because some have often thought that only Lutheran and Calvinist accounts of sin show the full range of sin’s impact. In other words, some accounts of sin limit the scope of its impact to one dimension of the human self, whether desires, the will, or mere actions.

However, Arminius was very Augustinian in his outlook. He was fond of quoting Augustine’s exposition of John 15:5:

Christ does not say, without me ye can do but little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any arduous thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete anything; but without me ye can do Nothing [4].

Despite these strongly Reformed sentiments, an objection may arise. Occasionally an individual’s views on one matter may prove to be inconsistent with other views. For example, a theologian’s commitment to Scripture’s authority may be contradicted by his/her dependence on reason or experience. In Arminius’ case, one may think that he is merely paying lip service to biblical texts without allowing his views of human ability to be consistent with his views of the fall or original sin. Yet Arminius was committed to a historic, orthodox conception of these important matters.

Arminius was not bashful about answering the question, “What’s wrong with people?” He devotes considerable attention to sin and the fall in his Works. His scriptural exegesis is seamless. This is what reveals how different he was from his later followers. Arminius believed man was deprived of the ability to will the good. It wasn’t mere lack of knowledge, as some later Remonstrants would say. No, Arminius couldn’t be clearer:

In his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good [5].

This understanding was consistent with Arminius’ conviction that total depravity, spiritual death, and guilt and condemnation passed to all men from Adam [6]. It is clear then that this oft-neglected theologian was consistent with his key predecessors. While Arminius would differ with others about ancillary questions, he firmly believed that sin originated in the free exercise of the will of human beings—whose freedom God had given.

This spiritual situation leaves man in quite a spiritual quandary. It even influenced Arminius’ way of articulating the ongoing battle with sin that believers wage.

The Struggle Within

While Forum contributor Jeremy Craft will later probe Arminius’ views of sanctification, it is important to consider momentarily the broader context of his views on the human condition.

Arminius was notable among the Protestant and Reformed tradition because he believed that Romans 7 described the experience of an unregenerate person. Though many in Arminius’ day saw this as describing a regenerate person, Arminius maintained that this could not be the case. It is on this very point that his emphasis on both sin’s pervasive nature and God’s enabling, powerful grace are in tension, though consistent.

Arminius was adamant about the depth of sin and the progressive nature of sanctification. Pointing to passages like Romans 6:6 and 2 Corinthians 4:16, he argued that believers can “neither perform any good thing without great resistance and violent struggles, nor abstain from the commission of evil” [7]. The Dutch reformer of course believed the Spirit’s indwelling plays a crucial role in the good works of sanctified Christians. He notes that any perseverance in the good that Christians engage in is “not from ourselves, but from God through the Holy Spirit” [8]. However, the examples of Moses, Aaron, Barnabas, Peter, and David were all sufficient for him to conclude that the Holy Spirit’s works of illumination, regeneration, renovation, and confirmation were all gradual and not instantaneous.

Help from Above

Naturally the relevance of such an overview is easily countenanced. It isn’t just a project for new students to the works of James Arminius. It is especially needful for those happy to attribute an uncharitable moniker to Arminius. This is an invitation to engage with Arminius, in which they will not only find food-for-thought, but also a congenial companion in understanding the Scriptures.

Without question, it is theologically and pastorally appropriate to understand how Arminius’ views of sin, guilty, and the human condition flow into other doctrines. Though this essay only taps the surface, it is another piece of the puzzle that paves the way for one of Arminius’ most important emphases: prevenient grace, which we’ll address next week.

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[1] Warren S. Brown, “Conclusion: Reconciling Scientific and Biblical Portraits of Human Nature,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul?  Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, eds. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 227-228.

[2] John D. Wagner, ed. Arminius Speaks: Essential Writings on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of God (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 3-4.

[5] Arminius, “A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius,” Works, 1: 659-660.

[6] Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, and Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 152. Picirilli helpfully summarizes this point in his landmark book.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid., 6-7. Arminius drew this conclusion on the basis of such texts: Philippians 1:6: “he which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ”; 1 Peter 1:5: “we are kept by the power of God through faith”; 1 Peter 5:10: “’The God of grace’ will make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.”

Author: Jackson Watts

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  1. Society of Evangelical Arminians | Jesse Owens, “Arminius and the Doctrine of Prevenient Grace” - […] his recent essay, Jackson Watts reminds us that Arminius wholly affirmed the human will’s complete depravity and […]

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