The Flacian Fallacy

This is part five of a series of twelve newsletter articles written by Rev. Neil L. Carlson for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rev. Carlson is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Zion Lutheran Church in Sidney and Chappell, Nebraska.

As was the problem with the early Church fathers, so was the problem with The Reformation fathers. In an effort to combat one heresy, it was and still is somewhat common to go too far in the other direction and fall into heresy on the other side. Matthias Flacius was a Genesio-Lutheran and fought faithfully against the synergists who denied the effects of original sin, but sadly went too far with his understanding of original sin and departed from scriptural teaching himself.

Flacius taught “by original sin ‘the substance of man is destroyed’; after the fall original sin is the substance of man; man’s nature is identical with sin; in conversion a new substance is created by God.”[1] This is incorrect because God made man in His image (Gen 1:26), out of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7), and no place in Scripture speaks of man losing his substance. Man did lose the image of God, to what degree is debatable, but never does man’s substance change. To this Luther taught, “sin and sinning are the disposition and nature of corrupt man.”[2] Again, God created man in His image, that is, without corruption. The substance of man is good; sin corrupted the nature but did not change the substance. God’s creation is good and was ruined in The Fall, but not changed in substance. The trees are still trees; the fish are still fish, and man is still man. The effect of The Fall is that trees now get disease and die; fish now die; and man, in his sinful nature, dies.

To add further false doctrine to his name, when challenged on this issue Flacius said, “Original sin is not an accident.”[3] This statement opened Flacius up to the charges of Manichaeism, which was a heresy put down in the days of Ambrose and Augustine. In Persia, a man named Mani took elements from all the religions around him – Christianity, Gnosticism, Eastern religions – and formed a dualistic religion.[4] Dualism has two gods: one good and one evil. Flacius was accused of this by saying “original sin was not an accident” as if God engaged in battle with the devil and used man as a pawn in this epic war. In Manichaeism, original sin is not an accident where God’s children revolted against Him, but where one god evil in substance has children evil in substance. If original sin is not an accident, then there must be two gods, each controlling the world in an effort to defeat the other. “Flacius made the devil a creator of substance.”[5] Whereas, if original sin is an accident, then there is one God who is good who created a good world, which was destroyed by sin. The accident of original sin shows that Satan’s power is limited and evil is not equal with God.

Over time and many writings and discussions, Flacius was able to prove he was not a Manichaen. In time, it became “apparent that Flacius did not deviate from the common concept of original sin, but from the concepts of substance and accident, but that here, too, he was uncertain, inasmuch as he employed the terms.”[6] After being banished for this teaching, Flacius then conceded to a certain degree and was willing to change the word “substance” to “essential powers”.[7]

Because of this controversy with Flacius, the Formula of Concord condemns Manichaeism in Article I on original sin.

“It is incumbent upon us to maintain and preserve this doctrine in such a way that we fall neither into Pelagian nor into Manichaean errors. For this reason, we shall briefly enumerate the contrary doctrines which are rejected and condemned in our churches.

17 1. First, in opposition to both old and new Pelagians, we condemn and reject as false the opinion and doctrine that original sin is only an obligation resulting from someone else’s action without any corruption of our own nature.

18 2. Again, that the sinful wicked desires are not sin but concreated and essential attributes of man’s nature.

19 3. Or that the above-mentioned lack and damage allegedly are not really and truly such a sin in the sight of God that apart from Christ every person on that account is necessarily a child of wrath and of damnation and is in the kingdom and under the dominion of Satan.

20 4. We likewise reject and condemn the following and related Pelagian errors: That human nature even after the Fall is incorrupt and, especially, that in spiritual matters it is good, pure, and in its natural powers perfect.

21 5. Or that original sin is only a simple, insignificant, external spot or blemish, merely splashed on, or a corruption only of certain accidental elements in human nature, in spite of which and beneath which human nature has and retains its goodness and powers also in spiritual matters.

22 6. Or that original sin is not a deprivation or absence of man’s spiritual good powers, but only an external impediment to them, just as garlic juice smeared on a magnet does not destroy the magnet’s natural power but only impedes it; or that the spots spoken of can easily be washed off, like a smudge of dirt from one’s face or paint from the wall.”[8]

Though Flacian teaching is not currently a problem in the Lutheran Church, its refutation gives us a better understanding of original sin and also warns us of the danger inherent when fighting other fallacies. We must be on guard to teach what Scripture teaches and not go too far when refuting false teaching in the Church. Be warned, going too far is just as dangerous as not going far enough when it comes to false doctrine.


[1] F. Bente. Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions. St. Louis; Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 336.

[2] Bente, 338.

[3] Bente, 336.


[5] Bente, 348.

[6] Bente, 344.

[7] Bente, 345.

[8]Tappert, Theodore G.: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959, S. 511

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