Written by Paul Lucas
Starting in the early 16th century, a fundamental division became evident in the protestant Church which continues to this day. The debate officially began when the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) ardently rejected Arminianism. Like many councils and synods throughout Church history, however, this formal doctrinal rejection neither ended the debate nor extinguished the convictions of the rejected.
Colloquially described as the Free Will debate, this issue continues to cause division in the Church, and has made its way into skeptical and critical minds of modern philosophers. In an effort to provide answers and defend the rationality of the Christian message, apologists such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig have contributed to the general defense of free will in a philosophical sense; simultaneously arguing in support of a theological free will. Today, the nature of free will, if it exists, is hotly debated in both religious and areligious contexts. This deeply philosophical discourse is fueled by the original theological debate of free will vs. divine sovereignty.
The Arminian and Calvinist theologies, like most things, did not arbitrarily and randomly appear in the 17th century. Rather, it was the result of the evolution of Christian Theology over a thousand years. These two schools of thought are largely, if not completely, centered around soteriology. To properly understand the concept of biblical salvation, one must first understand the necessity for salvation, as discussing the means of salvation presupposes a need for salvation. It is of no dispute that humanity is in need of salvation from their sins. Naturally, it follows to ask where this sin came from. It is obvious that the Fall in Genesis 3 is the primal sin, and every human thereafter is also convicted of sin. The reality of humanity’s condemnation is obvious, however the means of this condemnation is the central debate. From the beginning, theologians have attempted to resolve this foundational issue of the relationship between Adam’s sin and everyone else’s condemnation/sin. The doctrine of original sin is foundational to soteriology, and has developed over time from a simple question of origins to opposing, complex theologies of free will and sovereignty; as evidenced in the early disputes concerning original sin and disagreements about Cyprian’s infant baptism which led to increasingly differing opinions of sin nature in Augustine and Pelagius, both of which are primitive manifestations of Calvinism and Arminianism, respectively.
Original Sin in the Early Church
The early Church made obvious attempts to explain the origins of humanity’s sin. There were some simplistic conceptions of this concept early, but Tertullian developed it fuller than others of his time. He believed that, because we were born of the root of Adam, we inherit his sin. As he states, “We have indeed borne the image of the earthy, by our sharing in his transgression, by our participation in his death, by our banishment from Paradise.” Here, he attempts to describe the nature of the relationship between humanity and Adam. He affirmed that Adam’s sin has corrupted the very origins of mankind. Thus, the condemnation of humanity originates directly and exclusively with Adam.
This concept was taken a step further when Cyprian expressed his belief in infant baptism. This practice was necessary, he surmised, because children are born sinners, and are not condemned because of a sin they committed themselves.
…an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins— that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.
It is clear that Cyprian adheres to Tertullian’s original sin concept, and has made an effort to pragmatically apply it to church practices.
It is important to note that not every early theologian agreed with Tertullian and Cyprian’s view of original sin. Gregory of Nazianzus contradicted both Cyprian’s view of infant baptism and his belief in original sin simultaneously by saying that “[those who have not sinned] will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge, as unsealed and yet not wicked”. Here, he makes his belief clear that one is not rightly condemned if he had not sinned for himself, which contradicts the views of Cyprian and Tertullian, among others.
Here, a slight division becomes evident. Unfortunately, there is no middle ground in this type of inquiry. In short, humanity is either condemned directly because of Adam or because of our own sin. To attempt to alleviate this, one could posit that both actually happen. Doing so, however, merely takes the problem back a step. The deciding factor in this issue lies with sin at the moment of birth. If one says that a newborn child is condemned to Hell before he even thinks his first thought, then the original sin logically must lie with another (such as Adam). Contrarily, if one says that a newborn child is not condemned to Hell until he commits his first sin, then the condemnation is derived from individual action. Put another way, if an infant were to die at the precise second he emerges from the womb, his soul undoubtedly goes somewhere. Cyprus, if he is logically consistent, posits that the child will be in Hell; whereas Gregory of Nazianzus posits he will not. There is no room for compromise. As such, the possibility for theological division exponentially increases, and the foundation of future struggles was lain.
Divisional Doctrinal Development
Until this point, the differences in opinion concerning original sin have been relatively slight; especially compared to the massive division caused by other doctrines, such as Christology and the Trinity, in the Early Church era. This is due to the issue of original sin allowing a certain amount of unity in the fact that both sides recognized the existence of sin and the inherent need of all people to be saved from it. Because it is efficaciously unrelated to Salvation directly, there was little need for opposing theologians to be divisive in their teachings concerning original sin. Even in this unifying truth, however, there still lies division.
Based heavily on the idea that sin is derived from individual action rather than the sin of Adam, Pelagius conceives his theology of sin. Little is known of his actual cited influences, but his views seem to be an extension of an individual sin theology. Given that each man sins on his own, thus individually and personally condemning himself, it follows that human action holds some weight in his eternal destination. Pelagius uses this as a foundation to support his belief in human action as a God-given attribute to humanity. In other words, God created humans with the capacity to follow Him. Thus, it is the responsibility of the human to choose to follow God’s commands.
Pelagius was also motivated by the cultural influence of Rome. It is no secret that the city of Rome, even when under Christian influence, was a center of moral corruption. Pelagius likely saw this, and challenged the Augustinian idea of grace and sin nature on that basis. In the face of moral corruption, it is reasonable for him to assume that Grace cannot be the only acting entity in proper action; given that Grace was given to all of the morally corrupt, yet they remain corrupted. From this, he surmised his belief that human action is a crucial part of correcting sin. Therefore, his theology could partially be derived from this realization. However plausible this may be, this cannot be explicitly confirmed due to a lack of extant writings from Pelagius himself.
Because few writings of Pelagius still exist, his views must be extrapolated from the works of Augustine. Based on these writings, Pelagius believed in “three faculties, by which he says God’s commandments are fulfilled,—capacity, volition, and action”. He continues by describing, “capacity” as “which a man is able to be righteous”, “volition” as “which he wills to be righteous”, and “action” as “which he actually is righteous”. Each of these things are given to humans in accordance to the will of God. There is a major implication of this line of thought: It puts more emphasis on the action of humanity rather than God, which creates a foundation for the development of a free-will-based theology. Pelagius did not reject the authority of God or the sovereignty of God in any way. Rather, he claimed it to be God’s Will that humans make their own decisions.
Augustine, on the other hand, made it painfully obvious that he did not agree with Pelagius on these points. In short, Augustine believed the reverse of what Pelagius believed on almost every issue addressed in his work. Concerning the same issue as above, Augustine posits that Pelagius’ theology eliminates the need for God at all. Further, he argues that his “faculties” contradict the Apostle Paul:
And that they might be sure that it was not simply in their being able to work (for this they had already received in nature and in teaching), but in their actual working, that they were divinely assisted, the apostle does not say to them, “For it is God that worketh in you to be able,” as if they already possessed volition and operation among their own resources, without requiring His assistance in respect of these two; but he says, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to perform of His own good pleasure;” or, as the reading runs in other copies, especially the Greek, “both to will and to operate.” Consider, now, whether the apostle did not thus long before foresee by the Holy Ghost that there would arise adversaries of the grace of God; and did not therefore declare that God works within us those two very things, even “willing” and “operating,” which this man so determined to be our own, as if they were in no wise assisted by the help of divine grace.
This is a concise form of the entirety of Augustine’s argument against Pelagius. He believes that Pelagianism ignores the role of God in humanity’s effort to refrain from sin. He even goes as far as accusing Pelagius of contradicting Scripture itself. In short, Augustine places a higher value on the role of God than in the action of humanity.
Connecting the Concepts
The Pelagian controversy, when trimmed to its basic concepts, is summarized as a disagreement on the role of humanity in turning from their sin. This fundamental issue is the dividing point between two opposing modern theologies, known as Calvinism and Arminianism.
As previously stated, the Calvin-Arminian controversy was introduced by the Synods of Dordt in the early 17th century; which was a critical response to the Arminian Five Articles of Remonstrance (1610). Specifically concerning original sin, the Canon of Dordt explicitly taught in favor of the Augustinian view of human sin. In a section entitled “The Rejection of Errors”, the Canons directly contradict the Pelagian view by rejecting the errors of those, “That teach it cannot well be avouched, that original sin of itself is sufficient for condemning of all humankind, or for the deserving of temporal and eternal punishment”. This is evidence both that Pelagianism still existed in some form and that it was officially rejected by Reformed theology.
The Canons were directly responding to the Arminian view that, according to the first article of the Remonstrance, “God has immutably decreed, from eternity, to save those men who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe in Jesus Christ, and by the same grace persevere in the obedience of faith to the end”. This supports the Pelagian view of human action determining the ultimate freedom from sin. Although God elected who will be saved from the beginning, Arminians believe this was done based on His knowledge of who would believe. Therefore, the primal action in repentance of sin is performed by man and his eventual action, not predetermined by God.
These conflicting theologies are the ends to a long strain of differences throughout history. The differences began as slight disputes, and grew further apart over time. Thus, it seems this descent was a slippery slope with two sides, and they are summarized thusly.
The Calvinist Slope begins with the belief in mankind’s condemnation being derived from Adam. Adopting this belief is simultaneously dissolves the connection between human action and original sin that Arminianism relies on. This is an implicit process of accepting human inaction. That is, accepting the underlying truth that one’s destiny is outside his ability to affect it. It follows logically, then, that humans are first sinners by nature (not action), and their nature (not action) condemns them. If they are condemned without action, then it seems reasonable to posit that they are saved without action, as well. Since these facts make it obvious that the human condition seemingly renders human action so useless, as men are condemned regardless and need Christ regardless, it makes sense to accept concepts such as total depravity, unconditional election, and relying completely on God’s sovereignty – all of which are Calvinist doctrines.
The Arminian Slope begins with the belief that each individual’s sin condemns them. This belief, at its core, places a clear emphasis on the role of the individual in their condemnation. In this, the Arminian implicitly accepts an elevated view human action in general. If humans are condemned because of their sin, then it seems reasonable to assume that humans also have a role in their salvation, as well. From this, Pelagius likely derives his arguments. If one agrees with Pelagius, it makes sense that they would also believe that God saves people based on their willingness to be saved, and that our perseverance in the faith is a co-equal effort; ordained to be so by the Will of God. These things, in turn, contribute to the concept of free will, which is held by Arminians.
The Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate is one of the many modern theological issues that cause division in the Church. However, this divisiveness is not as modern as it may appear. Since the time of Cyprian, there were differing opinions concerning the nature of original sin. These deceitfully small differences eventually led to the creation of two opposite theologies in Calvinism and Arminianism.
Augustine. On the Grace of Christ. Accessed February 13, 2017, www.ccel.org.
Allison, Gregg R. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2013.
Cyprian. Letter 58. Accessed February 14, 2017, www.newadvent.org.
Gregory of Nazianzus. “On Holy Baptism.” Oration 40:23. Accessed February 14, 2017, newadvent.org.
“Rejection of Errors.” Canons of Dordt. Accessed February 14, 2017. esv.org/resources/creeds-and-catechisms/
Schaff, Philip. Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. “The Remonstrance.” Accessed February 13, 2017. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.ix.iii.v.html
Tertullian. On the Resurrection of the Flesh. Accessed February 13, 2017. www.earlychristianwritings.com.