BEN: Why was Arminius accused of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism if in fact he was clear that prevenient grace comes to a person purely by unmerited divine initiative?
KEITH: This controversy is inherent in the Protestant Reformation itself. To the degree that the magisterial Reformation was a reaction to a perceived works-based salvation, energized by the central insight of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, there was a corresponding degree of worry about anything that seemed to leave room for human merit in salvation. This is evident in Luther’s famous debate with Erasmus on free will, and similar controversies continued to plague the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches throughout the early modern period. It was in such contexts during the mid-sixteenth century that the words “synergist” and “semi-Pelagian” were first used. Protestants who would dare suggest that a person had a say in salvation, even if they rejected the idea of works of merit and ascribed the initiative to God, were accused of being semi-Pelagians and Jesuit sympathizers, which, by the way, also came with dangerous political connotations.
Arminius was well aware of the venerable tradition of associating one’s contemporary opponents with an already-condemned heresy of the past, and thereby discrediting them. The accusation of (semi-)Pelagianism played well in a Reformed context where strict Augustinian, absolute predestination was the norm.
Christian heresy may be characterized as an overemphasis in one direction toward a certain truth to the exclusion of another truth. With this in mind, it is true that Arminius acknowledged libertarian freedom and the freedom to reject divine grace, and it is thus trivially true that he was closer on the spectrum than his Reformed opponents were to Pelagius. That’s fine. These same views also put Arminius closer to the vast majority of Christian thinkers before him.
Arminius clearly affirmed that the beginning of faith (initium fidei) lies with God, not with the human believer. This is the chief criterion that distinguishes his view from what is commonly taken to be semi-Pelagianism.
BEN: In his exegesis of Rom. 7.14-25 Arminius takes the ‘I’ to refer to an unregenerate person who has received ‘first (i.e. prevenient) grace’ and is struggling with the law and the bondage to sin. Does Arminius clarify anywhere whether he thinks God gives prevenient grace to all fallen persons, or only to those whom God foreknows will respond positively to the initiative of prevenient grace? If the answer to the previous question is the latter view, then would it be fair to say that Arminius, unlike Wesley, thinks prevenient grace is given not at birth but at point at beginning of the process of the conversion of the individual?
KEITH: Arminius’ theology as a whole implies that prevenient, sufficient grace is available to all universally. But he never specifies when and how prevenient grace comes. Is this grace simply the liberation of the fallen and bound will, enabling a person to receive the gift of faith? Or is it that every individual is offered prevenient grace in a hypothetical, counterfactual set of circumstances, and that God knows the response of each individual by way of his middle knowledge? Arminius does not clearly say, so it’s hard to determine to what degree he would agree with Wesley on this matter.
[Link to original post at Ben Witherington’s blog]