Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Semi-Pelagianism?

Calvinist scholars cannot seem to make up their minds as to whether or not Arminius and hence Arminianism is semi-Pelagian in nature. In the fifth point of his review of  Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall's Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, Oxford University Press, 2012, Westminster Seminary professor W. Robert Godfrey took the liberty to erroneously conclude: "Arminius is semi-Pelagian, but towards the Augustinian end of that spectrum" (link) -- a concession that some Internet Calvinists were all too eager to broadcast and promote, even though this suggestion by Dr. Godfrey was not at all the main point of his review. 

Indeed, how one defines semi-Pelagianism will be the ultra-determinate factor in arriving at an answer to this particular question regarding Arminius' theology. John Hendryx, of Monergism, defines Semi-Pelagianism: "While not denying the necessity of Grace for salvation, Semi-Pelagianism maintains that the first steps towards the Christian life are ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later." (link) Does Hendryx, no friend to Arminianism, suggest a similar definition with regard to Arminianism? "In contrast to semi-pelagianism, Arminianism teaches that the first steps of grace are taken by God. This teaching derives from the Remonstrance of 1610, a codification of the teachings of Jacob Arminius (1559-1609)." (emphases added) (link) So, when properly defined, Arminianism is not tantamount to semi-Pelagianism, as Dr. Godfrey insists. 

Long is the tradition among Calvinists to impose upon Arminianism a definite and manifest semi-Pelagianism. One might wonder why call the teachings of Arminius and the Remonstrants "Arminianism" if it is merely "semi-Pelagianism": naming the theology after Arminius seems rather gratuitous, does it not? Any cursory reading of Arminius' "On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers" will conclude that he was no semi-Pelagian. 

Semi-Pelagianism's core belief is in the natural ability of a human being to boldly and initially approach God in one's own time without the preliminary and necessary element of the proactive grace of God in Christ through the Spirit. This notion, however, did not include any corollary statement about a later rejection of God's grace (i.e., that one can later reject the faith and be lost). This additional and mistaken caveat is why Dr. Robert Godfrey (and perhaps other Calvinists) thinks of Arminius and the Remonstrants' theology as inherently semi-Pelagian. 

In other words, if any theological position holds that a person can, by her own freedom, reject her initial faith in Christ, then that position is semi-Pelagian in nature, according to this specious definition of semi-Pelagianism. But I wonder how willing some Calvinist scholars are to hold this position. Since the majority of early Church fathers believed that one could reject the faith subsequent to her choosing to believe, that would render Christian orthodoxy as being semi-Pelagian in nature; that is, if we strictly maintain caveats offered by Godfrey et al

In such a definition, then, the entirety of early Church tradition was semi-Pelagian, and that includes the consensus of fathers who condemned semi-Pelagianism at the Second Council of Orange, 529 CE -- a council, by the way, that espoused baptismal regeneration (link), at least in liturgical language, an idea that many evangelical traditions reject and oppose, including Calvinist ones; which also, though anachronistically, condemned and anathematized supralapsarian Calvinism,1 which would render supralapsarian Calvinists like John Piper and David Engelsma overt heretics.

Is Arminius' theology, and hence Arminianism, semi-Pelagian? The answer is no, clearly, as long as one is properly defining semi-Pelagianism. Rightly framing and defining a particular theological position is paramount if one is to begin making accusations and equating it with either questionable or heretical positions. 

For example, were one to define Calvinism in a strictly supralapsarian manner, then we could, according to Christian orthodoxy, anathematize Calvinism altogether. But we understand that the errors of supralapsarian Calvinism do not properly frame Calvinism; and that supralapsarians like Calvin's successor Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Francis Gomarus (1563-1641), to say nothing of later Calvinists like hyper-Calvinist John Gill (1697-1771), were always the minority position within their own broadly-contextualized party (someone might insist that there are as many Calvinisms as there are Calvinists, historically and at present).


We are not blind to the rhetorical device of "attaching Arminius's name to that of a famous heretic (in this case, Pelagius) in order to discredit his teaching."2 Many Calvinists have been guilty of this treachery or dishonesty for four centuries now. In a sense, then, we Arminians are quite used to it. But this does not mean that we will stand by idly allowing such ideas and practices to go unchallenged.

Careful to distance his own teachings from semi-Pelagianism, as properly defined, Arminius opened for discussion a question as to whether semi-Pelagianism could even be called Christian. Certainly, if someone maintained the error of semi-Pelagianism, God could still grace that person, having been ignorant of the biblical truths as found in classical Arminianism3 (and yes, God can even grace a person guilty of the heresy of supralapsarian Calvinism, like Francis Gomarus -- or Theodore Beza and John Piper for that matter).  

Arminius noted that, when "a departure is once made from the Truth, the descent towards falsehood becomes more and more rapid."4 Pelagianism was an obvious heresy to most in Christendom. But what if one invented "half, quarter, three quarters, four fifths-Pelagianism, and so upwards"? Arminius recognized two overt, historically heretical extremes: Pelagianism, which denied the necessity for grace, and Manichæism, an eastern cosmogony which denied any semblance of free will (which some Calvinists do, too). 

Arminius then appealed to Augustine, who refuted both errors, yet Arminius admitted: "For this reason it has happened that, for the sake of confirming their different opinions, St. Augustine's words, when writing against the Manichees, have been frequently quoted by the Pelagians; and those which he wrote against the Pelagians, have been quoted by the Manichees."5 Again, we detect the use of rhetoric in order to forge a smear campaign among opponents. Arminius writes:
But I wish us all to abstain from odious names of this description, as they are employed without producing any benefit. For he who is accused will either deny that his sentiments are the same as those of Pelagius; or, if he acknowledges the existence of similarity, he will say that Pelagius was wrongly condemned by the Church. It would be better then to omit these epithets, and to confer solely about the matter itself; unless, approaching to the opinion of the Papists, we hold that what has once been determined by the Church cannot be drawn into controversy.6 
If you noted that Arminius did not directly or explicitly answer the question set before him regarding the consequences of holding to semi-Pelagianism then you noted correctly. However, he did once confess that a discussion may prove worthy "whether Semi-Pelagianism is not real Christianity";7 by which he means that even semi-Pelagians can be counted as true Christians, even though they err disgracefully and egregiously, as do supra- and infralapsarian Calvinists. All these theological errors, namely those of Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, supra- and infralapsarian Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism betray, rather ignorantly so, the grace of God: the former two, that the proactive grace of God is not as necessary as Arminians insist; and the three latter, that the grace of God is perverted and tantamount to the pure power and irresistible will of God. 

Arminianism is not the mid position between semi-Pelagianism and Calvinism any more than Calvinism is the mid position between Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism. Arminianism is merely the orthodox theology of the early Church,8 though anachronistically so; while Pelagianism, Augustinianism, semi-Pelagianism, Calvinism (both supra- and infralapsarianism) and hyper-Calvinism are all errors that drifted theologically and philosophically from an already-established, already-received Christian orthodoxy and tradition. Arminius' theology was a recovery of early Church orthodoxy, from which Arminius' Calvinist colleagues and opponents had strayed and erred, due to the erroneous theology of one lone Church father: the father of Roman Catholicism, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

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1 To the Twenty-Five Canons given at the Second Council of Orange, three declarations were appended: "1. That by the grace of baptism all baptized persons can, if they will, be saved [which is neither Augustinian nor Calvinistic in nature]. 2. That if any hold that God has predestinated any to damnation [e.g., supralapsarian Calvinism], they are to be anathematized. 3. That God begins in us all good by His grace, thereby leading men to faith and baptism, and that, after baptism, by the aid of His grace, we can do His will." See Edward Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010), 416. He comments: "These propositions of the Council of Orange, coming immediately after canons against Semi-Pelagianism and exaggerated notions of free will, express as nearly as possible a belief in Ecclesiastical Election (i.e., [corporate] election to the church and to baptismal privileges), but reject the peculiar doctrines of St. Augustine." (all emphases added)

2 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 161. 

3 This is purely a rhetorical device, suggesting that Arminianism is biblical and all other theological traditions and positions are not biblical. When pressed on the issue, I, of course, do think that Arminianism is biblical; but I also realize that such a confession is not objective, and that when people, and particularly Calvinists, insist that their theology is "biblical," or "merely what the Bible teaches," the most they can confess (or that anyone can confess) is that their theology is what they believe to be biblical, or what they think the Bible teaches. The sad reality of naïve realism is a tragic epidemic among so many evangelical Christians. 

4 Jacob Arminius, "Article XXX. It May admit of Discussion, whether Semi-Pelagianism is not real Christianity," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:56-57. 

5 Ibid., 2:57. 

6 Ibid. 

7 Ibid., 2:56.

8 Dr. Ken Keathley writes, "What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy." See Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

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.