Arminian Teaching Regarding Original Sin

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by Roger E. Olson

One of the purposes of my blog is to clarify Arminian theology and distinguish classical Arminianism from the all-too-common misrepresentations of it by some Calvinists, Lutherans and (ironically!) self-styled Arminians. One point I have been trying to get across to readers (e.g., in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, as well as in my published dialogues with Reformed theologian Michael Horton) is that much of what gets called “Arminianism” in contemporary American church life is simply semi-Pelagianism. Through sloppy scholarship and sometimes sheer ignorance (and sadly, occasional blatant misrepresentation) the two have become confused in the minds of most people. The result is that many who are classical Arminians don’t want that label applied to them.

So, further along that line, classical Arminianism, as distinct from semi-Pelagianism and its popular folk religious expressions in contemporary American church life, does affirm original sin and total depravity. All one has to do to know this is read Arminius, The Arminian Confession of 1621 (written by Arminius’s successor Simon Episcopius), John Wesley, John Fletcher (Wesley’s most faithful theological interpreter during Wesley’s own lifetime), Richard Watson, William Burton Pope, Thomas O. Summers, John Miley, H. Orton Wiley, Ray Dunning, Kenneth Grider, Thomas Oden and any other faithful follower of the original teaching of Arminius. All affirm the bondage of the will to sin before and apart from supernatural, prevenient grace.

Sidebar: Some have questioned where prevenient grace is found in the Bible. One answer to that is – where is the Trinity found in the Bible? On almost every page (slight exaggeration)! It is a theological concept for a reality assumed in the Bible that only needed to be named and explicated once it was denied (by semi-Pelagians). Calvinists also believe in prevenient grace. The difference is that Arminians believe it is resistible. Arminians point to the many uses of “draw” in John and elsewhere as evidence of resistible, prevenient grace. Calvinists typically argue that the Greek word means “compel.” Arminians point to its use in John 12:32 (Jesus saying “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me.”) The same Greek word is used there as in the passages Calvinists point to as evidence of its irresistibility. If the Greek word must mean “compel,” as R. C. Sproul and other Calvinists claim, then in John 12 Jesus is affirming universalism. In any case, a theological concept does not have to be spelled out in Scripture in order to be Scriptural.

Contemporary Arminianism is of two minds about original sin and inherited guilt. All agree about total depravity – every aspect of human nature is corrupted by the fall and incapable of exercising a good will toward God apart from God’s supernatural, enabling grace. But some Arminians believe that children are born without any hint of Adamic guilt; inherited condemnation is not even acknowledged by them. This would be the case with most Baptist Arminians as well as most Reformed Baptists!

Other Arminians, including some Arminian Baptists, believe that racial guilt and condemnation is real but set aside by the atoning death of Christ. They base this on Romans 5. One interpretation of Romans 5 (especially verse 12, as it was rendered in Augustine’s faulty Latin translation) is that it teaches universal condemnation because of the first Adam’s sin. That such condemnation was set aside by Christ’s atoning death is justified (such as Arminians claim) by the parallelism in Romans 5 between the universality of the effects of the first Adam’s disobedience and the second Adam’s obedience. Without any doubt this is the doctrine espoused by church father Athanasius. All one has to do is read De Incarnatione to find it.

So, just as Calvinists don’t agree among themselves about everything (supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism is one example of Calvinist diversity) so Arminians don’t agree among themselves about everything. But, so far as I know, no Arminian makes this disagreement a test of fellowship. What all Arminians agree about is that in fact (de facto) condemnatory guilt that causes one to go to hell only attaches to presumptuous sinning which always occurs with the awakening of conscience (what Baptists call the “age of accountability,” which is not a specific age but a stage of moral and spiritual development). Thus, all Arminians deny that any children who die go to hell.

It is high Calvinists who have a problem with children. They don’t believe baptism saves; it parallels circumcision as a sign and seal of belonging in the covenant. So what assurance is there that a child who dies is not in hell? Some Calvinists say “there can be no such assurance.” Others say children of covenant parents are in the covenant until they are old enough to make their own decision for or against Christ. But what about children of non-covenant parents? Are all who die in infancy or childhood destined for hell? I know very few Calvinists who will say that. But why? If Adam’s guilt is imputed to all people without exception (except for Christ, of course) and not removed by Christ’s atonement, then surely some children who die go to hell. What argument could be given to deny it?

This is a hard pill to swallow, but it seems strict, high Calvinists must do just that. (And some I have asked do.) But most appeal to mystery and say “It is best to leave such cases to the mercy of God.” But wait! Why not say “It is best to leave such cases to the justice of God?” Why suddenly appeal to God’s mercy just because they are children? They are born guilty, condemned. Christ’s atoning death has not set that condemnation aside. What ground is there, within the Calvinist system, for asserting that God will have mercy on all children who die? That is the same, is it not, as claiming that all children who die are elect? But what are the biblical or theological warrants for such a claim within the Calvinist system?

In any case, inherited guilt and condemnation is not an item of ecumenical orthodoxy (as distinct from the orthodoxy of a particular branch of Christianity). Inherited corruption is. Inherited guilt and condemnation is virtually unheard of in theology before Augustine, who based it on a mistaken translation of Romans 5:12 in the Latin Bible he used.