Thursday, July 1, 2010

Why Classical Arminianism Is Not Semi-Pelagianism

“We face a dilemma. On the one hand, when a person responds to the gospel, we understand that it is because of a work of grace in his heart. But what about those who do not believe? Did God choose not to do a similar work in them? If God simply passes over them, then it seems difficult to affirm that He really desired their salvation...Historically, this is what is known as Calvinism’s ‘problem of the well-meant offer’...On the other hand, we can solve the above dilemma by holding that exercising faith is the necessary condition for receiving redemption...this would mean that genuinely available to all hearers of the good news...[however] if I freely believe, but my neighbor freely does not, does not this imply that somehow I was nobler than my neighbor? historically Calvinism has struggled with the issue of the ‘well-meant offer’ while Arminianism has had to deal with THE SPECTER OF SEMI-PELAGIANISM” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, pages 101-102).

I’ve often spent time showing the problems in the systems of Molinism and Calvinism. But today, I’m gonna do a little “defensive apologetics”---meaning, I’m gonna have to defend the theological system I love so much, Classical Arminianism, from the charge of semi-Pelagianism. I don’t believe that Dr. Keathley is here pinning such a label on Classical Arminians...but it is a serious charge with Calvinists, as he states in his book. In fact, I’ve got two friends of mine who seem to make that charge about my theological system (Classical Arminianism) all the time---that my view is semi-Pelagian at best and a heresy at worst. And the sad thing is that I’m NOT EVEN JOKING!!!

Roger Olson responds to such a charge in his work, “Arminian Theology”:

“Synergism is any theological belief in free human participation in salvation. Its heretical forms in Christian theology are Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. The former denies original sin and elevates natural and moral human ability to live spiritually fulfilled lives. THE LATTER EMBRACES A MODIFIED VERSION OF ORIGINAL SIN BUT BELIEVES THAT HUMANS HAVE THE ABILITY, EVEN IN THEIR NATURAL OR FALLEN STATE, TO INITIATE SALVATION BY EXERCISING A GOOD WILL TOWARD GOD. When conservative theologians declare that synergism is a heresy, THEY ARE USUALLY REFERRING TO THESE TWO PELAGIAN FORMS OF SYNERGISM. CLASSICAL ARMINIANS AGREE. This is a major theme of this book. Contrary to confused critics, Classical Arminianism is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian!” (Roger Olson, “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, pages 17-18).

Canon 5 posed by the Council of Carthage (418) regarding Pelagianism:

“If any man says that the grace of justification was given us in order that we might the more easily fulfill that which we are bound to do by the power of free will, so that we could, even without grace, only not so easily, fulfill the Divine commands, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA” (

It seems evident from this Canon by the Council of Carthage that Pelagianism advocated the idea of natural human ability to fulfill the divine law, “even without grace.”

What does “semi-Pelagianism” advocate?

According to “,” we have the following definition of semi-Pelagianism:

“a moderated form of Pelagianism, taught that man has retained the ability to seek God in and of himself apart from any movement of God's grace. Pelagianism denied any real effect of original sin on human nature. Semi-Pelagianism, admitted that man's nature was "injured" by original sin, but maintained that man still has free will and the ability to cooperate with God's grace in the salvation process.”

In semi-Pelagianism, man’s will was affected by the fall, but he still possesses the ability to initiate his own salvation. Arminius totally opposed Pelagius’ writing:

“We have just seen that the article of the Pelagian heresy which is by no means either the last or the least, is that in which it is asserted that A MAN IS ABLE THROUGH HIS OWN FREE WILL, AS BEING OF ITSELF SUFFICIENT FOR HIM, TO FULFILL THE PRECEPT OF GOD, IF HE BE ONLY INSTRUCTED IN THE DOCTRINE OF THE LAW, SO AS TO BE CAPABLE OF KNOWING WHAT HE OUGHT TO PERFORM AND WHAT TO OMIT.
It appears that this dogma is not only firmly refuted, but that it is also plucked up as if by the roots and extirpated, according to the very design and purpose of the apostle, by means of this chapter, when it is understood as referring to a man under the law. This is apparent from the opposition of the dogma to the context of the apostle. The former says, "Man, instructed by the teaching of the law, is capable, by the powers of his free will alone, to overcome sin and to obey the law of God." But the apostle declares that this cannot be effected by the powers of free will and of the law. he says, "sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace," (Rom. vi, 14,) from which it is manifest that, if they were under the law, sin would have the dominion over them -- a consequence upon which he treats more copiously in the seventh chapter. PELAGIUS SAYS, "MAN IS ABLE, WITHOUT THE GRACE OF CHRIST, AND INSTRUCTED SOLELY BY THE TEACHING OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THE GOOD WHICH HE WILLS, THROUGH HIS FREE WILL, AND TO OMIT THE EVIL WHICH HE DOES NOT WILL;" but the apostle declares that this man "consents indeed to the law that it is good, but that to perform what is good he finds not in himself; he omits the good which he wills, and he performs the evil which he wills not." Therefore, the doctrine of the apostle is, independently of its consequence, directly repugnant to the Pelagian dogma, and this, indeed, from the scope and end which the apostle had, in the same chapter, proposed to himself.”
(James Arminius, Works, “Dissertation of the Seventh Chapter of Romans, Part III.”)

Pelagius states here that man can believe of his own natural will; but this is what Arminius had to say about the will without grace:

“In this state, THE FREE WILL OF MAN TOWARDS THE TRUE GOOD IS NOT ONLY WOUNDED, MAIMED, INFIRM, BENT, AND WEAKENED; BUT IT IS ALSO IMPRISONED, DESTROYED, AND LOST. AND ITS POWERS ARE NOT ONLY DEBILITATED AND USELESS UNLESS THEY BE ASSISTED BY GRACE, BUT IT HAS NO POWERS WHATEVER EXCEPT SUCH AS ARE EXCITED BY DIVINE GRACE. For Christ has said, "Without me ye can do nothing." St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: "Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing” (James Arminius, Works: “On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers,” Disputation 11).

In the words of Arminius, without grace, the will persists in its fallen, sinful, and rebellious state against God. Only when grace enters the picture is the will freed from its bondage to sin and can then make an honest decision regarding whether to accept or reject Christ as Lord and Savior.

Arminius opposed Pelagius. But does Arminius’ own theology deserve the label “semi-Pelagian”? No, not at all. Read these words:

“Arminius rejected this teaching [Pelagianism], AND SO DO ALL OF HIS FAITHFUL FOLLOWERS. Semi-Pelagianism was condemned by the Second Council of Orange in AD 529 because it affirmed human ability to exercise a good will toward God apart from special assistance of divine grace; it places the initiative in salvation on the human side, but Scripture places it on the divine side. Arminius also rejected semi-Pelagianism, as have all of his faithful followers. ARMINIANS CONSIDER BOTH PELAGIANISM AND SEMI-PELAGIANISM HERESIES...fairness and honesty demand that critics of Arminianism at least admit that Classical Arminians, including Arminius himself, do not teach what Pelagius taught or what the semi-Pelagians (e.g., John Cassian) taught” (Roger Olson, “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, page 81).

I agree with Roger Olson. Non-Arminian theologians should be theologically honest in their assessment of Arminius and his stance against Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. How can we as theologians defend a God who does not lie (Titus 1:2) if we intend to lie against fellow believing theologians (including ones who have passed from this life)?

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