The Doctrine of Original Sin: Arminius vs. Episcopius

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The doctrine of original sin, to define the issue very simply, maintains that the effects of Adam and Eve’s sin, which is known as the first human sin, were passed ontologically (related to being or nature) to each human being born thereafter. This post is concerned with original sin in its Reformed context commensurate with the views of Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) and his successor, Simon Episcopius (1583-1643). This is not necessarily a defense of either view, nor does it take into consideration later views of Remonstrant theologian Philipp van Limborch (1633-1712), or those within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, or even those of Charles Finney (1792-1875).

We are reminded by Dr. F. Leroy Forlines that “the truest picture of sin does not always manifest itself in overt acts. Everyone has imagined committing sins that he has not committed. The same capacity that can imagine evil can commit evil.”1 Inherited sin, then, refers more to motive and capability rather than strict behavior. After all, thoughts precede actions, and not vice versa. Whence cometh evil thoughts?

For the Reformed community, stemming from the theology of St Augustine (354-430 CE), evil thoughts derive from the heart, as Jesus Himself admits: “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matt. 15:19) How does one’s heart produce this evil? Is the heart of a person born with “a clean slate,” as Pelagius argued, and only becomes evil when observing the evil actions of others, inspiring or influencing a person to mimic those actions?

But if the heart of a person is pure from birth, then why would the heart of that person desire to mimic the evil actions of others? Even more complicated, there appears to be an unavoidable regress here, stemming back to our original parents. If the heart of a person is born with “a clean slate,” and only becomes evil by observing the actions of adults, who have become depraved, and the hearts of those adults only became evil by observing the actions of previous adults, the problem leads us back to the first sin of our first parents no matter how desperately one tries to avoid it. This is especially the case when considering that no one except Christ, who was born not in the normal manner as is the rest of humanity, has been able to avoid sinning.

A better and even more complicated question is posed thusly: How did our first parents, in the state of original righteousness, desire to disobey the Lord and sin? (The same could be asked of Satan and his followers. In a perfect realm, in which God Himself existed, how did the desire to rebel against God originate in their minds?) For Arminius, the answer seems obvious. The legal covenant God formed with Adam and Eve “became typical in Reformed covenant, or federal, theology,” rendering Arminius to conclude that the breach of the covenant between God and our first parents

was caused by the free will and desire of humanity through the persuasion of Satan in the form of the serpent. By virtue of being created in the image of God and endued with righteousness and holiness, humanity “had both the obligation and the ability to resist” … the actual causes of sin.2

In other words, God cannot be blamed for the sin of anyone, since He neither decreed nor influenced anyone to disobey His covenant or commands. When demons and humans sin against God, He alone is utterly blameless,3 given that His emphatic desire, known to us via His moral attributes of holiness, righteousness and justice, is that people, by His grace, choose the good and proactively avoid, shun, and resist evil.

In Arminius’ Reformed scholastic4 (as opposed to humanist) theology,5 the sin of our first parents was an immediate and primary affront and offense to God: “From this violation of His law, God conceives just displeasure, which is the second Effect of sin.” Moreover, this first sin of disobedience 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 sin 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).6 (emphasis added)

He emphatically insists: “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 [deserving of] condemnation, and to temporal as well as to eternal death.” Also, all the posterity of Adam and Eve are “devoid of that original righteousness and holiness (Rom. 5:12, 18, 19). With these evils they would remain oppressed for ever, unless they were liberated by Christ Jesus; to whom be glory for ever.”7

From Arminius’ biblical perspective, because of the disobedience of our first parents, God subjected nature — the whole of creation without qualification — to futility, to entropy (Rom. 8:19, 20, 21; cf. Gen. 3:17-18), and so did He subject the posterity of our first parents (us) to the fallen nature of those parents.

Sin, even by experience, seems to have affected “every aspect of the individual: mind, heart, will, emotions, motives, actions, and nature (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:9-18) … As a descendant of Adam, every person enters the world as a sinner who then sins (Rom. 5:12-21).”8 Arminius claims that the “whole of this sin” is “common to the entire race;”9 and by “whole,” he is referring to guilt, as well as the actual sin.10

While Arminius deviated somewhat from Reformed scholasticism, his successor, Simon Episcopius, moved even further from scholastic methods; eventually he “deliberately and decisively rejected them in order to return to an earlier, rhetorical method more closely aligned with Erasmus and Calvin.”11 Episcopius was regarded as an apt successor to Arminius. He refuted Calvinistic errors, such as compatibilism, as well as the theory that God’s foreknowledge could be determinative.12

Regarding compatibilism, that people freely do what God has decreed they do, “Calvin wrote that, even if Adam fell because God ‘wished it to be done,’ nevertheless he fell freely, as proved by his sense of shame and guilt. Episcopius strongly disagreed … Episcopius argued that if an act arose necessarily from the decree, then God must also have provided for the implementation of the decree.”13 But, while Arminius argued for the direct and immediate effects of original sin, Episcopius remained silent:

He made no mention of corruption. This deviation is even more telling when we consider that Episcopius followed Arminius for the rest of the disputation. It is also here that we first encounter a direct statement that a believer could fall from faith and be eternally lost.14

Episcopius’ deviation from Arminius’ Reformed doctrine of original sin did not, however, deter him from insisting on the necessity of grace regarding salvation. Still, whereas Arminius believed that God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, Episcopius denies that such a covenant existed.15 While Arminius followed Calvin’s “three uses” of the Law, Episcopius “gave no separate treatment of the Law.”16 Episcopius believed that the Gospel was far superior to the Law, and that emphasizing what we might call “the supernatural quality of the Mosaic Law”17 (cf. Rom. 7:12) was detrimental in reaching people for Christ.

Another departure for Episcopius was his lack of granting theological disputations on election or predestination, calling, free will or prevenient grace.18 “All one needed to understand the Gospel of grace was that, although people are sinners, Christ provided forgiveness of sins, sanctification and eternal life for all who believe.”19

Significantly, however, Episcopius rejected Arminius’ Reformed notion that the imago Dei was in any sense lost or affected by the fall.20 This helps further explain his view that the “death” Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden was physical in nature (decay leading to final, inevitable, physical death) and not necessarily spiritual death (i.e., separation from a right relationship to God).21 For Arminius, physical death was merely the consequence of another, more significant and prior event: spiritual death.

For Arminius, people sin because there has been a change in their nature, in that they have fallen from their original righteousness and forfeited the privilege of the goodness of the Holy Spirit within them. For Episcopius, the image of God within human beings was unaffected, yet an “evil force in humanity … inevitably led people to sin against God. People were desperately in need of redemption from sin, misery and death, and completely unable to remedy themselves.”22 The end result is the same, that people still need redeeming from sin, even if, from Episcopius’ opinions, how people come to sin varied from Arminius and the Reformed tradition (original sin).

Incidentally, the early Remonstrants, eager to follow Arminius’ Reformed tradition, pressed Episcopius “to maintain conformity with Arminius.”23 This “pressing” is most evident in The Arminian Confession of 1621, penned by Episcopius himself, which, concerning the topic, On Sin and the Misery of Man, reiterates Arminius’ Reformed notion of original sin:

3. Through this transgression the man was made liable to eternal death and multiple miseries from the power of the divine threat and was stripped of that primeval happiness which he received in creation. Thus he was ejected from that most delightful garden (a type of the heavenly paradise) in which he otherwise happily conversed with God, and was perpetually barred from the tree of life, which was a symbol of blessed immortality.

4. Because Adam was the stock and root of the whole human race, he therefore involved and implicated not only himself, but also all his posterity (as if they were contained in his loins and went forth from him by natural generation) in the same death and misery with himself, so that all men without any discrimination, only our Lord Jesus Christ excepted, are by this one sin of Adam deprived of that primeval happiness, and destitute of true righteousness necessary for achieving eternal life, and consequently are now born subject to that eternal death of which we spoke, and manifold miseries.24

Lest we judge Episcopius too harshly, calling for anathema on views which reject a strict adherence to the doctrine of original sin, as defined and contextualized by the Reformed tradition, we do well to remind ourselves that Episcopius, though not faithful to Arminius’ Reformed tradition, was remaining faithful to a much earlier tradition — that of the early Greek fathers.25 While there are classical Arminians and classical Calvinists eager to exact wrath on any believer who rejects the doctrine of original sin (and/or original guilt), we had better reserve our judgment, allowing the Lord to grace our various and variant dogmas, hoping that we shall all receive mercy for the doctrinal areas in which we may be completely yet ignorantly in error.


1 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 20.

2 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford, 2013), 143.

3 Arminius argues: “But … the guilt of this [first] sin can by no means be transferred to God, either as an Efficient or as a Deficient Cause … For He neither perpetrated this crime through man, nor employed against man any action, either internal or external, by which He might incite him to sin.” See Jacob Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation VII. On the First Sin of the First Man,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:153.

4 Dr. Mark Ellis observes: “Scholasticism as a method of teaching and doing Christian theology developed in European universities at the end of the eleventh century, but its origins predated these developments. The content of Christian scholastic theology arose out of a synthesis of three sources: the philosophy of neo-Platonism, the theology of Augustine, and the efforts of Boethius (c. 470-524) to preserve the classical heritage of Aristotle and Plato.

“Marenbon demonstrated that numerous perennial questions in Christian theology, such as the perception of God as the unmoved mover, the question of future contingents, foreknowledge and free will, the nature of the human soul, the interplay between the intellect and the will, and whether necessity can be reconciled with free will, originated from Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy.

“Initially the scholastic task was merely explanatory. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), the founder of medieval scholasticism, described the role of philosophy as ‘faith seeking understanding’ (fides quærens intellectum). He used classical philosophy not to expand theology but explain what his Augustinian faith had already dictated. By the fourteenth-century, however, scholastics were asking whether logic could not also function deductively in order to enlarge theology beyond Scripture.” See Mark. A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius’ Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 7-8.

5 Like his mentor, Theodore Beza, Arminius was never questioned about his scholastic method; he, like Beza, could be “scholastic in his method of presenting theology in the academy and humanist in his preaching. Concerning his use of logic, like many Reformed theologians of his time, he was a noted Ramist.” Ellis, 12.

6 Arminius, Works, 2:156.

7 Ibid., 2:156-57.

8 The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 1547.

9 Arminius, Works, 2:156.

10 Stanglin and McCall, 145.

11 Ellis, 12.

12 Ibid., 106.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 107.

15 Ibid., 108.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 111.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 113.

21 Ibid., 115.

22 Ibid., 180.

23 Ibid.

24 The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 64-65.

25 Ellis, Simon Episcopius, 128.