On the Depravity of Man (Part 3): Historical Positions: Arminian & Calvinist

by Jeremy Peters

What Have Been the Historical Positions?

Having looked at the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian views in part 2, in this post, Jeremy Peters will review the Arminian & Wesleyan, and Augustinian & Calvinist views.

Arminian and Wesleyan

The position known as “Arminian,” has its roots in the teaching of sixteenth century theologian Jacob Arminius. He believed that indeed Adam’s sin brought corruption into the entire human race.[1] He went further than the semi-Pelagian view, in that he believed mankind had no disposition towards good remaining at all. He wrote, “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.”[2] This made man’s salvation completely dependent on the grace of God. Still, Arminius believed that mankind is not in a hopeless state, since God bestows “prevenient grace” upon everyone.[3] Which is a grace that gives the ability to think, will, and do good. Therefore, in one sense he believed that man was totally depraved, because his nature was so corrupted by the Fall that he no longer had the ability to think, will, or do good. But, in another sense he rejected the thought that anyone was left in a state of total depravity.

Another major proponent of this position was John Wesley, the eighteenth century British theologian and evangelist. He agreed with Arminius that God had granted prevenient grace to all mankind, removing the inability to think, will, and do good. He wrote, “Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. Everyone has, sooner or later, good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root, or produce any considerable fruit…So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.”[4] This prevenient grace that is universally bestowed upon every person, gives the first inclination towards good, so that doing good still depends on God’s grace. But, the responsibility, and the ability, to do good rests on and within every individual.[5]

The contemporary Arminian Roger Olson, calls prevenient grace the “linchpin” in Arminian theology.[6] It is the doctrinal key to holding both the total corruption of mankind at the Fall, and the genuine ability for anyone to repent and believe the gospel. Olson explains:

“For Arminians of the nineteenth century, Christ’s death not only resolved the guilt issue of original sin, so Adam’s sin is not imputed to every child born, but it also mitigated the corruption of inherited depravity. From the cross flowed into humanity a power of spiritual death as to excite in them various degrees or religious feelings, and enabling them to seek the face of God, to turn at his rebuke, and, by improving that grace, to repent and believe the gospel. Christ’s life and death, provided a free gift to all humanity…This common (not universal) Arminian doctrine of universal prevenient grace means that because of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit no human being is actually in a state of absolute darkness and depravity. Because of original sin, helplessness to do good is the natural state of humanity, but because of the work of Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit universally no human being actually exists in that natural state.”[7]

Therefore, the Arminian position on the extent of man’s corruption has to be thought of as twofold: first, the extent of man’s corruption in sin was total; second, any experience of such corruption is nullified by prevenient grace. This view is found in many evangelical groups today.

Augustinian and Calvinist

The final position to be considered in this paper is one predominantly associated with St. Augustine of the fourth century, and John Calvin of the sixteenth century, in the Reformation. Augustine believed that Adam and Eve were created as magnificent persons, with the ability and freedom of will to think, desire, and do good.[8] But, they were not perfect. They were able not to sin, but not incapable of sin.[9] At the Fall, mankind inherited such a sinful nature that they became slaves to sin, and were no longer able not to sin.[10] To put it another way, Augustine believed that fallen humanity is not able to think, will, or do good––they are totally depraved of any inclination towards good.[11] The natural man is utterly hopeless, and dependent upon a sovereign work of divine grace to create in them a new heart, with new thoughts, desires, and abilities to do good.[12] A grace that is not bestowed universally, to remove total depravity.

John Calvin also developed a similar position on the extent of man’s fall into sin. He insisted that not only was man’s bodily appetites influenced by the sin of Adam, but his entire nature inherited a sinful inclination.[13] He opposed both the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian views of the sinfulness of man, and argued that there was no good-will remaining in the recesses of man’s being.[14] He believed that the human will and reason are so corrupted by sin, that no person has true freedom from the bondage to sin. He stated that, “The whole man is overwhelmed––as a deluge––from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed to sin.”[15] Therefore, the extent of man’s fall into sin, is such that mankind is totally depraved––apart from the grace of God, every aspect of every single person is enslaved to sin.

[1] Arminius had a full-fledged doctrine of “original sin,” in which he saw man inheriting both the sinful nature and guilt of Adam’s sin. In Adam, all of mankind sinned and is condemned. Jacob Arminius, Apology against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles, articles 13–14, in James Arminius, The Works of Jacob Arminius, vol. 1, trans. by James Nichols (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2006), 318–19.

[2] Jacob Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments, 3, in Arminius, Works of Jacob Arminius, vol. 1, 252.

[3] The term “prevenient grace” was developed by Augustine in the 4th century, based on Psalm 59:9, where God’s mercy is said to “go before” sinful man. But, Arminius applied it in a new way. God undid the condemnation of original sin, and returned man to a neutral state, with the inherent ability to think, will, and do good. Considering the flow of his thought, it seems as though there is a logical progression, but not chronological. There is a sense in which man’s nature is deprived of any ability to do good, then enabled by the grace of God. But, there is no sense in which this is experienced in time. Since that grace is given to everyone, no one really comes into this world without having that ability to be good. Arminius, Apology, 13–14, in Arminius, Works of Jacob Arminius, vol. 1, 318.

[4] John Wesley, “Salvation,” in Robert W. Burtner and Robert E. Chiles, A Compend of Wesley’s Theology (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), 148–49.

[5] Ibid., 147–50.

[6] Roger E. Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. In identifying prevenient grace as the “linchpin,” he is demonstrating how Arminians hold to the doctrine of total depravity, then also hold that every person has the free ability to repent and believe the gospel. It’s a defense of salvation by grace alone, as well as “free will.” The discussion on “free will” is front and center in the Arminian-Calvinist debate, but is not the primary concern here. Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 178.

[7] Olson, Arminian Theology, 153–54.

[8] Augustine believed that though mankind was created with a bent towards good, they were not free from the trappings of evil. The temptation in the Garden of Eden brought out something in man that took precedence over being obedient to God. Augustine rooted original sin in the pride of man; the love of self, which discarded the intentions of glorifying God. Augustine, The City of God, 14.11–13, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 1st ser., vol. 2, 271–73.

[9] Augustine made this distinction central in his view of original sin. Man was created with a nature that was able not to sin, but not with a nature that was not to be able to sin. This is the difference he made between being created “very good” and perfect. It was a difference between man and God. Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, cc. 33–34, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 1st ser., vol. 5, 485.

[10] Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, 30, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 1st ser., vol. 3, 247.

[11] “Human nature was in his person [Adam’s] vitiated and altered to such an extent that he suffered in his members the warring of disobedient lust, and became subject to the necessity of dying. And what he himself had become by sin and punishment, such he passed down to those whom he generated.” He did not mean to say that people no longer have a free will, in the sense of being able to make choices. Rather, he meant that whenever people use their free will, they choose sin. Their will is completely bent towards sin. Ibid. 247–48.

[12] Augustine believed that the sovereign grace of God is bestowed only upon God’s elect, and effectually transforms a sinner into a saint. His understanding of grace was that it was an effective divine power, that necessarily transformed the entire person. “This sin they no longer serve who are not in the first condition, as Adam, free; but are freed by the grace of God through the second Adam, and by that deliverance have that free will which enables them to serve God, not that by which they may be made captive by the devil. From being made free from sin they have become the servants of righteousness, in which they will stand till the end, by the gift to them of perseverance from Him who foreknew them, and predestinated them, and called them according to His purpose, and justified them, and glorified them, since He has even already formed those things that are to come which He promised concerning them.” Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, c. 35, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Roberts, 1st ser., vol. 5, 486–87.

[13] Allison, Historical Theology, 355

[14] “All parts of the soul were possessed by sin after Adam deserted the fountain of righteousness. For not only did a lower appetite seduce him, but unspeakable impiety occupied the very citadel of his mind, and pride penetrated to the depths of his heart.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 252.

[15] Ibid., 253.


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