Arminius and Semi-Pelagianism

The name James Arminius (1559-1609),1 has been associated with the ideologies of Socinianism, Pelagian- and semi-Pelagianism, Unitarianism, Roman Catholicism, and, most notably, with the doctrine of conditional perseverance. As a matter of fact, for better or worse, Arminianism has become synonymous with the notion that a person can lose his or her salvation, even though Arminius never explicitly taught the doctrine.2 Nothing, however, has been more puzzling to Arminians than the attempt of some to link Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism, as though there is no distinction between the two systems. Certainly, no one would equate hyper-Calvinism with Classical Calvinism, even if one admits that hyper-Calvinism's beliefs are merely the logical deductions of Classical Calvinism.

Still, as a distinction needs to be made for the cause of Classical Calvinism, so Arminianism deserves the same respect. As is attested below, the beliefs of James Arminius and subsequent followers of his thought have little to nothing in common with semi-Pelagianism, and they are justified in denying any yoke with that system. To call any system semi-Pelagian indicates that such has overtones of Pelagianism -- those teachings promoted by Pelagius (c. 354-420). Pelagius’s friend, Caelestius, as Joseph Pohle notes, encapsulates well the Pelagian system, which holds:

    1. Even if Adam had not sinned, he would have died.
    2. Adam's sin harmed only himself, not the human race.
    3. Children just born are in the same state as Adam before his fall.
    4. The whole human race neither dies through Adam's sin or death, nor rises again through the resurrection of Christ.
    5. The (Mosaic Law) is as good a guide to heaven as the Gospel.
    6. Even before the advent of Christ there were men who were without sin.3

Semi-Pelagianism, while suggesting the necessity of the grace of God in order for depraved humans to perform any good, still grants too much allowance and ability toward human free will. Indicating its origins, Pohle notes that "it was maintained at the General Council of Carthage in 418 as a principle of faith that Christian grace is absolutely necessary for the correct knowledge and performance of good, and that perfect sinlessness is impossible on earth even for the justified."Vitalis, however, a proponent of semi-Pelagian doctrines, demonstrates its link to Pelagianism by noting that "the beginning of faith springs from the free will of nature, and that the essence of 'prevenient grace' consists in the preaching of the Christian doctrine of salvation."5 Hence, all one needs for placing one's faith in Christ is to hear the gospel preached and no other work of the Spirit, no outside ability required.

Misunderstanding Arminius' view of prevenient grace, many Calvinist pastors and theologians have bound Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism, refusing to make a proper distinction. John MacArthur, for example, in a sermon on human depravity at a Together for the Gospel conference, states: 
The contemporary idea today is that there's some residual good left in the sinner. As this progression came from Pelagianism to semi-Pelagianism, and then came down to some contemporary Arminianism -- maybe got defined a little more carefully by Wesley, who was a sort of . . . messed-up Calvinist -- so that the sinner, unaided by the Holy Spirit, must make the first move. That's essentially Arminian theology: the sinner, unaided, must make the first move.6
But is MacArthur's assessment of Arminianism accurate? Has he carefully and accurately represented Arminius or Arminian theology? Is what he states "essentially Arminian theology"?

Arminianism proper, though not necessarily strictly deriving or originating from James Arminius,7 carries the Reformed tradition regarding the grace of God, which was advanced by Luther and was carried on through Calvin and his successors. The Reformed emphasis on God's sovereignty, man's depravity, and the need for God's grace in salvation was prominent in the writings of Arminius, which is evident below. Calvinist theologian Richard A. Muller notes: 
The theology of Jacob Arminius has been neglected both by his admirers and by his detractors. The restrictive conception of Arminius' theology as a counter to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, indeed, as an exegetical theology posed against a predestinarian metaphysic, has led to an interpretation of Arminius as a theologian of one doctrine somehow abstracted from his proper context in intellectual history.8
Most opponents of Arminianism have rarely read Arminius in any context at all, to say nothing of neglecting "his proper context in intellectual history." To be fair, however, many modern, "young, restless and Reformed" neo-Calvinists have neglected reading Calvin, to say nothing of Arminius! 

Modern Christians have long ignored the writings of those who have gone before them. Rather than reading primary writings themselves, the modern, neo-Calvinist, in the case of Arminianism, relies on the misrepresentations promoted by other Calvinists with an agenda to produce calumny rather than truth (e.g., John Owen, Augustus Toplady, Abraham Kuyper et al.). How much easier to tout the theological peculiarities of someone like Charles Finney and have him represent Arminianism than to actually read Arminius. Yet, as John Hammett writes, "a position deserves to be evaluated by its best models."9 Arminianism deserves nothing less.

That God is sovereign is denied by very few Christians; though they will certainly argue over what are the implications and qualifications of the term "sovereign." Roger Olson writes: 
A leading evangelical Calvinist theologian, writer and radio speaker told an audience that though Arminians claim to believe in divine sovereignty, when their claim is examined carefully very little of God's sovereignty remains. Calvinist pastor and theologian Edwin Palmer flatly says that "the Arminian denies the sovereignty of God." . . . Arminians are more than slightly puzzled by these Calvinist claims about Arminian theology. Have they read Arminius on God's providence? Have they read any classical Arminian literature on this subject, or are they simply using second-hand reports about Arminian theology?10
What could be the motive for such smear tactics? Olson comments, "Of course, when Calvinists say that Arminians do not believe in God's sovereignty, they undoubtedly are working with an a priori notion of sovereignty such that no concept but their own can possibly pass muster."11 Thus the dialogue is over before it ever began.

To say that God is sovereign is to admit that "all things are under His rule and control, and that nothing happens in this Universe without His direction or permission."12 Arminians believe such to be true. John Piper states, "It is not merely that God has the power and right to govern all things but that He does so always and without exception."13 Arminius agrees: "Through creation, dominion over all things which have been created by Himself belongs to God. It is therefore primary, being dependent on no other dominion or on that of no other person."14 Thus both Calvin and Calvinists, Arminius and Arminians, are agreed that God is sovereign.

However, to what degree does God govern His creatures? Olson asks, "Does God govern by meticulously determining the entire course of every life, including moral choices and actions? Or does God allow humans a realm of freedom of choice and then responds by drawing them into his perfect plan for history's consummation?"15 At such a junction is where most Calvinists and Arminians part ways doctrinally. The former find no viable room for genuine human freedom (i.e., contingency), and the latter find no viable room for meticulous determination, believing that such a doctrine charges God with causing or creating or being the author of sin and evil. Both views, however, differ greatly from the semi-Pelagian view of God's sovereignty, which states that God would not interfere with human free will.

Besides the notion of conditional perseverance, Arminianism is thought by many to be the bastion for teaching and valiantly defending the notion of what Augustus Toplady viciously charges as "the golden idol of free will." However, Arminians do not believe that a person possesses the free will to choose Christ Jesus as his or her Savior without the special aid or the enabling grace and conviction of the Holy Spirit. Arminius was emphatic that humanity's free will was not capable of doing the least bit of spiritual good where salvation was concerned. He writes:
In this [fallen] 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.16 
Calvinist R. C. Sproul responds:
Arminius not only affirms the bondage of the will, but insists that natural man, being dead in sin, exists in a state of moral inability or impotence. What more could an Augustinian or Calvinist hope for from a theologian? Arminius then declares that the only remedy for man's fallen condition is the gracious operation of God's Spirit. The will of man is not free to do any good unless it is made free or liberated by the Son of God through the Spirit of God.17
Arminius' views on humanity's depravity are far from the semi-Pelagianism so rampant in modern times and holds nothing in common with it on this matter. Sproul also rightly notes, "The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius."18 John MacArthur, then, has missed the mark where Arminianism is concerned. His statement, "That's essentially Arminian theology: the sinner, unaided, must make the first move," has been proven entirely false. Likewise anyone who advocates MacArthur's erroneous sentiments.

Arminianism is a theology of grace. Admittedly, the Calvinist will not agree with Arminius concerning prevenient grace because of his or her presupposition that the grace of regeneration must precede faith, despite Paul's teaching to the contrary (cf. Col. 2:13 ESV). Calvinist Francis Turretin, for example, writes, "Thus we strenuously deny that efficacious grace is resistible in this sense. . . . Nay, we maintain that efficacious grace so works in man that although he cannot help resisting from the beginning, still he can never resist it so far as to finally overcome it and hinder the work of conversion."19 Thus, for the Calvinist, God's grace cannot be resisted. If it could, then the Calvinist system would promote an inconsistency, especially with regard to unconditional election. For this reason most Calvinists insist that Arminians do not believe in grace but rely on works (some even alleging that faith in Christ is a work, contrary to Romans 4:4-5) in order to garner salvation. Robert E. Picirilli writes:
Some earlier Calvinists essentially equated regeneration and effectual calling, but that is not typical of Reformed theology in its more carefully developed forms. Some do suggest that "regeneration proper," in its strictest sense, is the implanting of divine life . . . while this effective calling is the completion of the work of regeneration in the broader sense and is thus equal to the "new birth" as the first, and conscious, manifestation of the life implanted in regeneration proper.20
    But Arminius' theology of the grace of God incorporates that aspect of the divine drawing wherein unregenerate persons have
    freedom of will, and a capability of resisting the Holy Spirit [cf. Acts 7:51], of rejecting the proffered grace of God [cf. 2 Cor. 6:1], of despising the counsel of God against themselves [cf. Luke 7:30], of refusing to accept the Gospel of grace [cf. Heb. 10:29], and of not opening to Him who knocks at the door of the heart [cf. Rev. 3:20].21 
    He believes such because the scriptures clearly and explicitly give examples of such. However, from Arminius' view, this grace from God is absolutely necessary if anyone is to be saved. He writes: "Sufficient grace must necessarily be laid down; yet this sufficient grace, through the fault of him to whom it is granted, does not [always] obtain its effect: Were the fact otherwise, the justice of God could not be defended in his condemning those who do not believe."22 The Remonstrants also (the subsequent followers of Arminius) state the following regarding grace:
    But that man may not just perform the commandments of God thus far explained, but also willingly want to perform them from the mind, God willed for his part to do everything necessary for effecting both in man, that is, he determined to confer such grace to sinful man by which he might be suitable and apt to render everything which is required of him in the gospel, and even more, to promise such good things to him, whose excellence and beauty might far exceed the capacity of human understanding, and that the desire and certain hope of this might kindle and inflame the will of man to render obedience in acts to him.23
      Some professing Arminians (who should properly fall in the semi-Pelagian category) do not hold to such a strict view concerning grace and free will. Vernon Grounds, for example, writes, "The universality of grace . . . means merely that God is at work in Jesus Christ and by his Holy Spirit sovereignly and sincerely . . . providing the potential of salvation for every human being."24 The goal of the Classical Arminian is to attribute as much as possible to the particular, enabling grace of God rather than a quasi-ethereal grace that operates in the heart and mind of individuals the world over apart from the preaching of the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 10:14) and the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). Thus Arminius writes:
      It is not our wish to do the least injury to Divine Grace, by taking from it any thing that belongs to it: But let my brethren take care, that they themselves neither inflict an injury on Divine Justice, by attributing that to it which it refuses; nor on Divine Grace, by transforming it into something else, which cannot be called grace. That I may in one word intimate what they must prove: such a transformation they effect when they represent "the sufficient and efficacious grace, which is necessary to salvation, to be irresistible," or as acting with such potency that it cannot be resisted by any free creature.25
        Arminius and his followers believe and trust in the sovereignty of God, attest to humanity's depravity, and salvation by grace through faith alone. Thus those who may call themselves "Arminian" bear the burden of proof in demonstrating how their theology is the same as his on these issues if at any point their doctrines appear convoluted or at variance. Arminius is never reticent in insisting that salvation comes through grace alone by faith alone in Christ Jesus alone to the glory of God alone. He states: 
        The Object of faith is not only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but likewise Christ Himself who is here constituted by God the author of salvation to those that obey Him. . . . The Author of faith is the Holy Spirit, whom the Son sends from the Father, as His Advocate and Substitute, who may manage His cause in the world and against it.26 
        This trinitarian aspect of humanity's salvation is riddled throughout the writings of Arminius. Never is he negligent in attributing salvation to the work and grace of the Godhead.27 Who shall be saved? That is the real point of contention between Arminians and Calvinists. Did God pre-select whom He would save? Or does He genuinely desire the salvation of all people (1 Tim. 2:4)? Whom has God decreed to save? Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, states: "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:21 ESV, emphasis added). The idea that God desires the salvation of all people is not merely one tenet of early Church orthodoxy;28 such is explicitly stated in Scripture (Ezek. 18:30-32; 33:11; John 3:16-18; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). 

        The novel doctrines of St Augustine are those which gradually found an unmovable place in the Medieval church (and thus, subsequently, Calvinism), all of which finally gave way to the eventual anathematizing at the Synod of Dort (1618-19) of Arminianism: the theological system which has, anachronistically, always been observed by the early Church fathers, a fact which Dr. Kenneth Keathley acknowledges: "What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy." 29 I am of the opinion that if James Arminius were alive today he would utterly abhor the semi-Pelagian tenets that sometimes masquerades as Arminianism. He might also be confused as to how he became the antithesis of Calvin; especially as he himself claims: 
        Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin's Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself [a Dutch divine, 1551-1608]; for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison . . . in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy. . . . His Institutes ought to be studied after the [Heidelberg] Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination . . . like the writings of all men.30
        Studying Arminius on the sovereignty and providence of God, the sinfulness and depravity of humanity, and the absolute necessity of the grace of God for salvation, leads the student to only one conclusion: the reason why he is called the Dutch Reformed theologian is because he is a product of the Lutheran-Calvinistic Reformation, and deserves to be viewed as such, not as Pelagian or semi-Pelagian.


        1 Many town records were destroyed when the Spanish Roman Catholics laid siege to Arminius' home town of Oudewater in 1575, killing his entire family. Thus the exact date of his birth has been debated as either 1559 or 1560. Carl Bangs, myself and others think 1559 is the appropriate date, given that his father seems to have died at some time in the year 1558 -- at least, his name does not appear on the Penny tax records, as it had in previous years, but rather the name of his widow. The same name appears in subsequent years as well. Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1971), 25-26.

        2 He states that "it is one thing to declare, that 'it is possible for the faithful to fall away from faith and salvation,' and it is another to say, that 'they do actually fall away.' . . . But at no period have I asserted 'that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation.'" However, I think had Arminius survived his battle with tuberculous that he would have concluded that some do actually fall away from both faith and salvation, as did the Remonstrants by 1618 (link). See James Arminius, "Apology against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:741.

        3 Joseph Pohle, "Pelagius and Pelagianism," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), (accessed 10/27/08).

        4 Joseph Pohle, "Semipelagianism," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 13 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), (accessed 10/27/08).

        5 Ibid.

        6 John MacArthur, "The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing," Together for the Gospel,, accessed 01/08/13.

        7 F. Stuart Clarke, The Ground of Election: Jacobus Arminius' Doctrine of the Work and Person of Christ (Waynesboro: Paternostor, 2006), 11-12.

        8 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 269.

        9 John S. Hammett, "Human Nature," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 377.

        10 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 115.

        11 Ibid., 116.

        13 Ibid.

        14 Arminius adds: "But the dominion of God is the right of the Creator, and his power over the creatures; according to which He has them as his own property, and can command and use them, and do about them whatever the relation of creation, and the equity which rests upon it, permit." (2:365) As Sovereign, God has the right to do with His creation as He sees fit, according to His holiness and purpose. This view of God's sovereignty is no less reformed than that of Calvin himself.

        15 Olson, 117.

        16 Arminius, 2:192-193. He adds: "The Mind of man, in this state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God: . . . To this Darkness of the Mind succeeds the Perverseness of the Affections and of the Heart, according to which it hates and has an aversion to that which is truly good and pleasing to God; but it loves and pursues what is evil. . . . Exactly correspondent to this Darkness of the Mind, and Perverseness of the Heart, is the utter Weakness of all the Powers to perform that which is truly good, and to omit the perpetration of that which is evil, in a due mode and from a due end and cause."

        17 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997), 128.

        18 Ibid., 126.

        19 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 1992-97), 2:547-48 (15.6.6-7).

        20 Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, and Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 144.

        21 Arminius, 2:721. He also notes, "Whomsoever God calls, He calls them seriously, with a will desirous of their repentance and salvation: Neither is there any volition of God about or concerning those whom He calls as being uniformly considered, that is either affirmatively or negatively contrary to this will."

        22 Ibid., 722.

        23 The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. and ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 105-106.

        24 Vernon C. Grounds, "God's Universal Salvific Grace," in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975), 28.

        25 Arminius, 2:52.

        26 Arminius, 2:400-401.

        27 Therefore, it is puzzling how Arminianism is charged with inevitably leading one to a Unitarian understanding of God. Calvinist Michael Horton, for example, writes, "Wherever Arminianism was adopted, Unitarianism followed, leading on to the bland liberalism of present mainline denominations." See Michael S. Horton, "Evangelical Arminians," The White Horse Inn, (accessed 12/01/08). Horton neglected to inform his readers that many "Presbyterian congregations in England during the eighteenth century became Unitarian." See Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 1999), 139. See also J. L. Neve, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. II (Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 31. Therefore, Calvinism in no wise guards a person from heresy.

        28 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 574-584.

        29 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, 703.

        30 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952-53), 8:280.


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        My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.