A COMPARATIVE EXAMINATION OF SEMI-PELAGIANISM WITH THE TEACHINGS OF JAMES ARMINIUS

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Born Jacobus Harmenszoon (ca. 1559-1609),[1] James Arminius’s name has been associated with 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 salvation, even though Arminius never explicitly taught the doctrine; yet he certainly did question its possibility.[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 admitted 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 will be documented below, the beliefs of James Arminius and subsequent followers of his thought have little to nothing in common with semi-Pelagianism, and are justified in denying any yoke with that system.

To call any system “semi-Pelagian” means that it has overtones of Pelagianism, those teachings promoted by Pelagius (ca. 354-420). Pelagius’s friend, Caelestius, as Pohle has noted, encapsulated well the Pelagian system when he taught:

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 lending lip service to the grace of God in order for depraved humans to perform any good, still granted too much reliance upon human free will. Indicating its origins, Pohle noted 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.”[4]

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]

Misunderstanding Arminius’s view of preventing, or prevenient grace, many Calvinist pastors and theologians have bound Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism, refusing to distinguish between the two.

John MacArthur, for example, in a sermon on human depravity at a recent Together for the Gospel conference stated: “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 stated “essentially Arminian theology”?

Arminianism proper, though not necessarily deriving from James Arminius,[7] had its origins in the Reformation, which began with Luther and was carried on through Calvin. Its 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 will be evident below.

Calvinist Richard A. Muller noted: “The theology of Jacob Arminius has been neglected both by his admirers and by his detractors. The restrictive conception of Aminius’ 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]

It is highly doubtful that opponents of Arminianism have ever read Arminius in any context at all, let alone “his proper context in intellectual history.” To be fair, however, many modern, young Calvinists have neglected reading Calvin, let alone Arminius. Modern Christians have long ignored the writings of those who have gone before them. And rather than reading the primary writings themselves, the modern Christian, in the case of Arminianism, takes the short cut and relies on others with an agenda to produce calumny rather than truth. It is easier to tout the theological failures of someone like Charles Finney and have him represent Arminianism than it is to actually read Arminius. Yet, John Hammett writes that “a position deserves to be evaluated by its best models . . .”[9] And Arminianism deserves nothing less.

That God is sovereign is denied by very few Christians, though they will certainly argue over what are the implications 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]

To say that God is sovereign is to admit, according to Monergism.com, that “all things are under His rule and control, and that nothing happens in this Universe without His direction or permission.” [12] Arminians believe the same thing. John Piper said, “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 wrote, “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 Calvinists and Arminius are agreed over God’s sovereignty; or at least, they should be.

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]

This is where most Calvinists and Arminians part ways doctrinally. The former find no room for human freedom to any degree, and the latter find no room for meticulous determination, believing that such a doctrine charges God with causing or creating 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 said to be the poster child for free will. However, Arminians do not believe that a person possesses the free will to choose Christ Jesus as his Savior without the special aid of the 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 wrote, “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’s views on man’s depravity are far from the semi-Pelagianism so rampant in modern times and hold nothing in common with it on this matter. Sproul also rightly noted, “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.

It has become quite an astonishment to some that Arminianism is considered a theology of grace. Admittedly, the Calvinist will not agree with Arminius concerning prevenient grace because of his presupposition that the grace of regeneration must precede faith, despite Paul’s teaching to the contrary (cf. Col. 2:13).

Calvinist Francis Turretin wrote, “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 caste system would fall apart.

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 gain salvation.

Robert 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 in Arminius’s theology the grace of God was that aspect of the divine drawing wherein unregenerate persons had “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 believed such things because the Scriptures clearly give examples of those circumstances.

It should be duly noted, however, that in Arminius’s view, this grace from God was absolutely necessary if anyone was to be saved. He wrote, “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) had the following to say concerning 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) are not so strict 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, reformed Arminian is to attribute as much as possible to the particular 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 conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11).

Thus Arminius wrote: “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]

It has been established that Arminius and his followers believed in the sovereignty of God, man’s depravity, and salvation by grace 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.

Arminius never tired of insisting that salvation comes through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone. As Arminius stated, “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 man’s salvation is riddled throughout his teachings. Never was he reticent 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? Whom has God decreed to save? Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, stated, “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21 NASB, emphasis mine).

The idea that God desires the salvation of all people was not merely one tenet of the early Church, [28] it is stated thus in Scripture (Ezek. 18:30-32; 33:11; John 3:16-18;1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). It was the new doctrines of Augustinianism (and thus Calvinism) which gradually took hold in the Medieval church, that gave way to the eventual anathematizing of Arminianism in the seventeenth century, which had always been observed by early Church fathers. 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.”[29]

It is the opinion of this writer that James Arminius, if he were alive today, would utterly abhor the semi-Pelagianism that masquerades as Arminianism. He might also be confused as to how he became the antithesis of Calvin; especially as he himself claimed:

“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 mankind, 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.

[1] Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1971), 25-26.

[2] James Arminius, The Works of Arminius, Vol. I, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 741.

[3] Joseph Pohle, “Pelagius and Pelagianism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), found on http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11604a.htm, accessed 10/27/08.

[4] Joseph Pohle, “Semipelagianism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 13 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), found on http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13703a.htm, accessed 10/27/08.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John MacArthur, “The Sinner Neither Able nor Willing,” found on T4G, http://t4g.org/player/index.php?file=sgm.edgeboss.net/download/sgm/events/t4g08/t4g08-session3.mp3&image=video-mac.jpg, accessed 10/27/08.

[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 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991) 269.

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

[10] Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 115.

[11] Ibid., 116.

[12] Monergism, http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Gods-Attributes/The-Sovereignty-of-God/, accessed 12/01/08.

[13] Ibid.

[14] James Arminius, “On the Lordship or Dominion of God,” from The Works of Arminius, Vol. II, Disputation XXVII, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 365. Arminius added, “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.” 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, Vol. II, 192-193. He went on to write, “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 (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 (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 144.

[21] Arminius, Vol. II, 721. He also noted, “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,” from Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975), 28.

[25] Arminius, Vol. II, 52.

[26] Arminius, Vol. II, 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 Horton, “Evangelical Arminians,” from The White Horse Inn website, found on http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=776&var3=main, 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, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 574-584.

[29] Kenneth Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” from A Theology for the Church, 703.

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