Is Arminianism Semi-Pelagian?


In yesterday's post, I asked the question, "Is Arminianism Pelagian?" We found that the answer was clearly no, since Arminianism affirms two of the vital things that Pelagius denied: the effects of original sin and the necessity of grace for salvation. There is, however, a related charge that is sometimes brought, incorrectly, against Arminians. The charge is that Arminianism is Semi-Pelagian, even if it is not Pelagian. This charge is often brought because some who label themselves as Arminians have made statements implying that such is the case. However, those who make such statements are not being faithful to the theology of Arminius, the Remonstrants, or later Arminians such as John Wesley and Billy Graham. Those who incorrectly make these statements often do not realize that they are espousing a view that has been condemned as heretical. In this post, I want to briefly clear up any confusion as to whether or not Arminianism, properly understood, is actually Semi-Pelagianism in disguise. Before we can answer this question, however, we must understand the heresy known as Semi-Pelagianism, and have a grasp of what Arminian theology teaches.

The view that has come to be known as Semi-Pelagianism was held by a group of individuals after the death of Pelagius. Augustine and Pelagius debated the role of grace in salvation as well as the doctrine of original sin. Pelagianism was ultimately condemned as heretical, not just once, but twice. However, Augustine's view was endorsed in every way and, as we will see in a minute, part of Augustine's theology was condemned at the Second Council of Orange in 529 AD. In fact, it was this synod that helped define what has become known as the "Augustinian Synthesis." That is, since Augustine's views changed over time, what was orthodox in his views and what was not? With this as the background, we see that those who lived before the Second Council of Orange, but after the condemnation of Pelagianism were left to wrestle with the implications of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius. This resulted in some of them falling into the error known as Semi-Pelagianism.

It is often argued that the Semi-Pelagian theologians were trying to find a middle ground between Augustine and Pelagius. This is incredibly unlikely, given that many of them would have wanted to stay in fellowship with the Church, and appearing to compromise with a heretic would have likely thrown this into jeopardy. Rather, we should understand them as trying to wrestle with the implications of two views that, at this point in history, were fairly new in the way that they were articulated. Augustine's views on grace were tied closely to his views on predestination, implying even a double predestination at points. Pelagius rejected the necessity of grace for salvation altogether.

Semi-Pelagian thinking can best be summed up by the question from John Cassian in his work "Conference Thirteen." He asks,

"Does God have compassion upon us because we have shown the beginning of a good will, or does the beginning of a good will follow because God has had compassion upon us? For many believing each of these and asserting them more widely than is right are entangled in all kinds of opposite errors. For if we say that the beginning of free will is in our own power, what about Paul the persecutor, what about Matthew the publican, of whom the one was drawn to salvation while eager for bloodshed and the punishment of the innocent, the other for violence and rapine? But if we say that the beginning of our free will is always due to the inspiration of the grace of God, what about the faith of Zaccheus, or what are we to say of the goodness of the thief on the cross, who by their own desires brought violence to bear on the kingdom of heaven and so prevented the special leadings of their vocation? But if we attribute the performance of virtuous acts, and the execution of God's commands to our own will, how do we pray: "Strengthen, O God, what Thou hast wrought in us;" and "The work of our hands stablish Thou upon us"?"

It becomes clear, then, that Semi-Pelagianism is distinguished from Pelagianism in that it understands grace to be necessary for salvation. However, it also differs from Augustinianism in that it holds that mankind can make the first move toward God, even if God has to bring his grace the rest of the way. This is the equivalent of a pastor today who tells his congregation, "If you take the first step toward God, God will come the rest of the way to you." So a Semi-Pelagian is someone who believes that grace is necessary for salvation, but affirms that mankind can make the first move toward God out of their own free will. In short, Semi-Pelagianism denies that God's grace must move first before mankind can move toward God. Is this what Arminian theology teaches? Perhaps we should turn to the words of Jacob Arminius to find out. Arminius wrote, "about grace and free will, this is what I teach, about Scripture and orthodox consensus: the free will is unable to initiate or perfect any true and spiritual good without grace."[1] Arminius believed that we cannot, by free will alone, turn to God. Grace must move first and move us to God. Therefore, the theology of Arminius was not Semi-Pelagian.

I think that it is good to point out, in this post, that Augustine was also not completely vindicated in the end. Augustine's theology implied a view (and on occasion Augustine himself seemed to endorse the view) called double-predestination. That is, God arbitrarily chose some individuals before the foundation of the world in order to save them, predestining them for eternal life. The rest, God condemned to eternal punishment, with no opportunity for them to repent, by either passing them up or actively decreeing that they would be eternally punished. It was this extreme that was ultimately condemned. After the Canons of the Second Council of Orange of 529 AD, the statement of this synod closes as follows: "This too we believe, according to the Catholic faith, that when grace has been received by baptism, all baptized persons, by the help and co-operation of Christ, may and ought, if they wish to labor faithfully, accomplish all things which pertain to the salvation of the soul. But that any are by the Divine power predestined to evil, we not only do not believe, but if there are any who would believe such an evil doctrine, we altogether detest them and anathematize them."[2] Without naming Augustine, they condemned one of the tenets of Augustine's doctrine of predestination. I state this not as a swipe at Augustine. I believe that he has done a great service for Western Christianity in combatting multiple heresies. Instead, I say this because there are some today that seem to hold that, if you do not hold entirely to Augustine's theology, including that theology which was here condemned, then you must be some kind of heretic. This claim could be no further from the truth. Augustine got much right, but he also got some theology wrong. We should take what he got right and dismiss what he got wrong.

How does this relate to the present discussion? Because Arminian theology is Semi-Augustinian. Arminian theology has accepted Augustine where he got it right, particularly in the area of grace being necessary for salvation, grace as an interior work in the human heart and not merely an external act, and that mankind's will is in bondage to sin until God extends his grace to us. Arminian theology also recognizes that Augustine is human, and did get some things wrong, particularly the doctrine of double predestination that was condemned at the Second Council of Orange. The conclusion is clear: Arminian theology is far from Semi-Pelagian. The theology of some of today's "high Calvinists," however, borders on embracing Augustine's condemned views as well as his orthodox views.


[1] Works of Jacob Arminius, Volume 1:473

[2] F.H. Woods, "Canons of the Second Council of Orange." P. 47


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