Differentiating Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism

Perhaps a little-known fact about classical Arminianism is that the tradition agrees with classical Calvinism regarding the concept of Total Depravity and Total Inability.1 This doctrine is a key component in Reformed theology, held by Luther, Calvin and Arminius. Calvinist scholar R.C. Sproul confesses: "The language of Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Calvin is scarcely stronger than that of Arminius."2 This conclusion is founded upon the writings of Arminius himself, who insists in no uncertain terms, that the Free Will of fallen mortals is not only "imprisoned, destroyed, and lost," but that all the powers of so-called free will are also "debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace," as such possess "no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace."3 Here we discover not only total depravity but also total inability.

For the Reformed, though the Gospel is an essential and necessary instrument leading to one trusting in Christ for salvation, merely hearing the Gospel does not ipso facto grant enabling grace to the individual. Arminius writes: "our will is not free from the first fall; that is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through His Spirit."4 Again, Dr. Sproul concludes, "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."5 (emphasis added) The key emphasis here is "moral inability or impotence." Hence Calvinist critics of Reformed Arminian theology are in error to argue that the system promotes notions of fallen mortals retaining some semblance of goodness, or righteousness, in freely responding to the call of God unto salvation.

For example, Dr. Sproul quotes J.I. Packer to the effect, "Is our salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man's utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all."6 Packer, and other Calvinists who make such statements, are, clearly, ignorant of Dutch Arminian history. Arminius' followers, the Remonstrants, boldly declare: "Through this transgression [of rebellion] man [i.e., Adam] was made liable to eternal death and multiple miseries from the power of the divine threat and was striped of that primeval happiness which he received in creation."7 Was there a universal effect to this rebellion?
Because Adam was the stock and root of the whole human race, he therefore involved and implicated not only himself, but also all his posterity (as if they were contained in his loins and went forth from him by natural generation) in the same death and misery with himself, so that all men without any discrimination, only our Lord Jesus Christ excepted, are by this one sin of Adam deprived of that primeval happiness, and destitute of true righteousness necessary for achieving eternal life, and consequently are now born subject to that eternal death . . . and manifold miseries.8
They name this doctrine "original sin" and confess that the remedy for this condition is due to the grace of "the most kind God, in His beloved Son Jesus Christ, just as a second and new Adam."9 Regarding the effects of sin on the human will, respecting faith in Christ, they clearly confess, in their Remonstrance of 1610, that each man and each woman, universally, "could not [i.e., does not possess the capability to] obtain saving faith of himself, or by the strength of his own free will, but stood in need of God's grace, through Christ, to be made the subject of its power." In their Opinions of the Remonstrants, of 1618, their views on this subject remain fully intact:
Man does not have saving faith of himself, nor out of the powers of his free will, since in the state of sin he is able of himself and by himself neither to think, will, or do any good (which would indeed to be saving good, the most prominent of which is saving faith). It is necessary therefore that by God in Christ through His Holy Spirit he be regenerated and renewed in intellect, affections, will, and in all his powers, so that he might be able to understand, reflect upon, will and carry out the good things which pertain to salvation.
Arminius uses similar language regarding regeneration,10 as a means whereby fallen sinners are enlightened by an inward work of the Holy Spirit, and by use of this term he and they simply mean prevenient, sufficient, enabling grace. We know this to be historically factual due to this explicit statement from Arminius: "Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken, and consisting of the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification of the new man; as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, open declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith."11 For more on Calvin's view on the subject, see the post, "Calvin on Faith Preceding Regeneration." Arminius believes he is faithfully following Calvin on this topic. The Remonstrants faithfully follow Arminius.

What is semi-Pelagianism? This view, at least with regard to free will and the fall of humanity, holds that a person retains the capability of trusting in Christ by a freedom of the will granted to him or her by God. If such a one will seek the Lord, then the Lord will bring His saving grace to that soul. Encapsulated well within the second verse of the hymn, "The Savior is Waiting," is a semi-Pelagian and synergistic understanding of free will and salvation: "If you'll take one step toward the Savior, my friend / You'll find His arms open wide." Notice who must take the initiative here: If you will take one step toward the Savior. Arminianism insists that a person is not capable of "taking one step toward the Savior." The Holy Spirit must take all necessary steps.

In the Southern Baptist church, in which I was raised, I heard a Deacon pray: "Lord, we know that if there were 100 steps to reach You, You would take the 99 steps toward us, asking only for us to take the first step." Well, I cannot say "Amen" to that prayer, as I find it semi-Pelagian and unbiblical. If this is one's notion of free will and salvation, then understand clearly that this is not Arminian theology, but semi-Pelagianism proper. When I was attending the college at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, North Carolina, a professor asked my opinion of a statement that was prevalent on the campus and in certain Southern Baptist circles: "The SBC has an Arminian problem." I replied: "The SBC does not have an Arminian problem. The SBC has a semi-Pelagian problem." There still exists, to this very day, a grave misunderstanding of historic Arminian theology. Arminianism entirely rejects semi-Pelagianism.

Let me add a qualification. Some, who reject Arminianism not merely on the grounds of the doctrine of conditional perseverance -- the concept that one could forfeit salvation -- but on the grounds of denying the doctrines of Total Depravity and Total Inability, may refer to a need of the grace of God for someone to believe in Christ. This referred-to grace is at times named "the Gospel." In other words, what a person needs in order to trust in Christ is not some special inner work of the Holy Spirit (since fallen mortals are not in bondage to sin or the sin nature), whereby He sets one free from her bondage to sin in order to freely trust in Christ, as Arminianism teaches; but this "grace" arrives in the form of the Gospel: all one needs is to hear the Gospel in order to freely choose Christ (and they are able for the task -- they are not specially enabled by the Spirit for the task, as Arminians insist, but are inherently able, as semi-Pelagians insist).



Again, while we believe in the necessity of the preached Gospel, we also believe that, without an inner work of the Holy Spirit, that person will continue to reject that Gospel due to an inherent incapability. That such persons deny this inherent incapability necessarily renders them to the category of semi-Pelagianism: that a person has the innate ability to respond to the voice or call of God unto salvation as presented in the Gospel. No other work is required.

Often this is the view espoused by Southern Baptist ("non-Calvinist") Traditionalists. The reason why Southern Baptist Traditionalists (and other non-Calvinists) cannot be named Arminians finds little cause to the notion of conditional perseverance -- especially since many self-professed Arminians, even members of the Society of Evangelical Arminians, assume that title for themselves and hold to eternal security. The real reason why Southern Baptist Traditionalists cannot be named Arminians is due to their semi-Pelagianism. Any view that espouses an innate or inherent ability of fallen sinners responding to God by their free will is semi-Pelagian. Arminians reject semi-Pelagianism, affirm Total Depravity, with its corollary Total Inability, as well as the necessity for an inner work of the Holy Spirit, and the doctrine of Original Sin.12

The doctrine of Total Depravity and Total Inability, as expounded by Arminius and the Remonstrants, is the historic and orthodox teaching of Arminianism. To deny the spiritual inabilities of fallen mortals is to deny a key component of Arminian theology. Arminianism, then, is not semi-Pelagianism. As a matter of historical fact, Arminius addressed the concern whether semi-Pelagianism can be admitted as true Christian teaching, yet concluded that a concept may be "accounted as Semi-Pelagianism which does not depart from the truth of Christian doctrine."13 But he realizes that even believers seem to be drawn toward using titles as a means of dividing the Body of Christ rather than properly categorizing certain beliefs.

By addressing the question of semi-Pelagianism, he sets himself apart from that system, and aligns himself within the broadly-defined Reformed tradition. Arminianism is not semi-Pelagian; those who insist otherwise do so either in ignorance or by intentional misrepresentation. Nor is Arminius or modern Arminians suggesting that semi-Pelagianism, in one form or another, is damnably heretical -- genuine regenerate and godly believers may espouse semi-Pelagianism, in one form or another, and remain redeemed followers of Christ just like Arminians and Calvinists. Is Arminianism, then, semi-Augustinian?

Arminius relies heavily upon St Augustine (354-430), as did Luther, and as did Calvin. His use of Augustine, however, is from Augustine's earlier writings, prior to his theological-revolutionary experience with Pelagius, which forever shaped the future of theology proper not only for the medieval Church but also for Luther and Calvin. Dr. Aza Goudriaan underscores the fact that "Arminius's reception of Augustine included on the one hand positive references to 'what was said by Augustine in a beautiful way,' and on the other hand more aggressive formulations, such as 'Where is your acumen, Augustine' and 'We do not rely upon his authority.'"14 Arminius' Doctoral Thesis was an exegetical presentation of Romans 7: "Arminius favored Greek patristic literature and did not hold Augustine in high regard."15 Yet he quoted Augustine often: "Arminius was convinced that the early Augustine was on his side."16 (emphasis added)

So, to suggest that Arminianism is semi-Augustinian, that requires one to accept the concept based solely on an early Augustine -- an early Augustine with whom Augustine himself came to differ. Still, on the matter of free will and the fall of humanity, Arminius remains constant with a later Augustinian view. He receives the doctrine of original sin, as maintained by Augustine and the Reformers, and even to a totally-depraved, totally-incapacitated view of the sinner, in bondage to sin due to that fall. On this issue, Arminianism can be suggestive toward a semi-Augustinian view, as long as one understands that, with reference to unconditional election unto salvation of only some, limited atonement in intent, irresistible grace -- whereby God grants this grace, allegedly, solely to the unconditionally elect -- and that a person cannot forfeit the salvation granted to him or her, on these issues Arminianism is neither Augustinian (which is outlined and expounded today in the form of Calvinism), nor semi-Augustinian.

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1 We differ from the Calvinist view with regard to a solution framed within the context of regeneration preceding faith; as well as a rejection of the language of "corpse" regarding sinners being "dead in sins"; for, while a corpse cannot receive Christ as Lord and Savior, neither can a corpse reject Christ as Lord and Savior. The language of "corpse" does not help us to better understand the fallen nature as does the reality of sinners being separated from a right relationship to God (cf. Isa. 59:2; Luke 15:24, 32; Eph. 2:12).

2 R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 126.

3 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:192. Arminius continues: "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 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. . . ." (2:192-93) (emphases original)

4 Ibid., 2:194.

5 Sproul, 128.

6 Ibid., 24.

7 The Arminian Confession of 1621, trans. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005). 64-65.

8 Ibid., 65.

9 Ibid.

10 "Free Will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without Grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word 'Grace,' I mean by it that which is the Grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration." Arminius, Works, 2:700.

11 Ibid., 2:498.

12 Take note of the doctrine of Total Depravity as found on the website of the Society of Evangelical Arminians: "Humanity was created in the image of God, good and upright, but fell from its original sinless state through willful disobedience, leaving humanity in the state of total depravity, sinful, separated from God, and under the sentence of divine condemnation (Rom 3:23; 6:23; Eph 2:1-3). Total depravity does not mean that human beings are as bad as they could be, but that sin impacts every part of a person's being and that people now have a sinful nature with a natural inclination toward sin.

"Human beings are fundamentally corrupt at heart. As Scripture tells us, 'The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick' (Jer 17:9; cf. Gen 6:5; Matt 19:17; Luke 11:13). Indeed, human beings are spiritually dead in sins (Eph 2:1-3; Col 2:13) and are slaves to sin (Rom 6:17-20). The Apostle Paul even says, 'I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh' (Rom 7:18). Elsewhere he testifies, 'as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one"' (Rom 3:10-12; cf. Rom 1:18-32; Eph 4:17-22).

"In their natural state, human beings are hostile toward God and cannot submit to his Law nor please him (Rom 8:7-8). Thus, human beings are not able to think, will, nor do anything good in and of themselves. We are unable do anything that merits favor from God and we cannot do anything to save ourselves from the judgment and condemnation of God that we deserve for our sin. We cannot even believe the gospel on our own (John 6:44). If anyone is to be saved, God must take the initiative." (link) (emphases added)

13 Ibid., 2:56-57.

14 Aza Goudriaan, "'Augustine Asleep?' or 'Augustine Awake?' Jacob Arminius's Reception of Augustine," in Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe: Jacobus Arminius (1559/60-1609), eds. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin, and Marijke Tolsma (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 52.

15 Ibid., 56.

16 Ibid.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.