written by Roger E. Olson, PhD
Many years ago, as I was emerging out of my fundamentalist-Pentecostal cocoon into the larger world of evangelicalism (during seminary studies at an evangelical Baptist seminary) I was helped by the writings and teaching of several leading Reformed evangelical theologians. James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and publisher of Eternity magazine, was one of them. Not only did I read his books and articles in Eternity; I also studied under him at seminary. He took a sabbatical from his pulpit to teach homiletics at my seminary—something nobody at that seminary seems to remember! But I still have the sermons I wrote for his class and his handwritten notes on them. (He gave them good marks.)
Another Reformed evangelical theologian who helped me was R. C. Sproul who wrote many articles for Eternity (a now defunct magazine I have discussed here before as especially helpful to me during my student years and the first publisher of my own writings—two book reviews written when I was still in seminary). Of course I knew Sproul was a Calvinist, but so were some of my close relatives. Back then there was no hostility between evangelical Arminians and evangelical Calvinists. While in seminary I served on staff of an independent Pentecostal-charismatic church that was thoroughly Arminian. We worked in close cooperation with Reformed churches on evangelistic and other endeavors. We sometimes joked with each other about our theological differences, but there was no sense from either side that one was “more Christian” or even “more evangelical” than the other.
While in seminary I found my interests focusing on Christian history and especially historical theology and I learned, among other things, that something called “semi-Pelagianism” is a heresy. The Second Council of Orange condemned it as such in 529. Even then, of course, I wondered why a Catholic synod of bishops held so much weight for Protestants, but I agreed that semi-Pelagianism is biblically in error as well as seriously out of step with both Catholic and Protestant traditions (even if many in both folds fall into it out of ignorance).
I think it was while reading Louis Berkhof’s systematic theology that I first encountered the idea that semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism might be lumped together. That was during seminary. But it wasn’t until I was in my doctoral studies that I first encountered a blatant identification of Arminianism as semi-Pelagianism. I was serving as youth minister and director of Christian education at a Presbyterian church and teaching an adult Sunday School class. Most of the people in the class had grown up Presbyterian. I chose to have them read and discuss Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie Jr.’s (that’s a man) Christian Doctrine—a fine one volume presentation of basic Christian doctrine from a Reformed perspective. There I ran into it—James Arminius used as the example of a semi-Pelagian view of election. I knew he was wrong about that and told the class, but they were hardly interested as none of them believed in election anyway! (This was a “northern Presbyterian church” in the deep South and most of the good folks were not Calvinists in spite of the Westminster Confession of Faith.)
When I began teaching theology at an evangelical Baptist college I used Guthrie’s book as a primary text in an introduction to doctrine course. It was so readable and full of good illustrations that I thought students would like it and I could correct his errors in my lectures—which I did. But every semester I became more annoyed at his use of Arminius as the example of semi-Pelagianism that I considered using some other textbook. Eventually someone edited Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology (three volumes to one) and I began using that. When I ran into Guthrie at a professional society meeting, I very respectfully confronted him about his error. He said I should write to him about it and he would consider changing it as he worked on a revision that was already in progress. I did that and the revision treated the subject somewhat better although not entirely to my satisfaction.
Throughout the 1990s I kept hearing rumblings about a new stirring of Calvinism among young evangelicals and I began to experience it among my students, many of whom were attending Bethlehem Baptist Church pastored by John Piper. I received the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine in 1992. It was dedicated to criticizing Arminian theology and many of the authors identified it as semi-Pelagian. I wrote a letter to the editor (Michael Horton) arguing that true Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism and he published it with a lengthy response. That began our now twenty-plus year conversation about this.
Sometime late in the 1990s I heard a taped talk by R. C. Sproul where he simply used “semi-Pelagianism” as a synonym for “Arminianism.” In that talk (I don’t know where it was given) he divided evangelicals into two camps—“Augustinians” and “semi-Pelagians.” He treated semi-Pelagianism as a legitimate evangelical option (in contrast to Pelagianism) while criticizing it for minimizing the sovereignty of God. I could tell that by “semi-Pelagianism” he meant Arminianism.
I began to formulate a plan to write a book about true, classical Arminian theology. Several publishers expressed interest in it and I went with my friends at InterVarsity Press. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities has been well-received both here in the U.S. and in other countries. It is being translated into Portugese for the Brazilian evangelical audience this year. I continue to receive e-mails from around the world thanking me for writing it—some of them from Calvinists who admit that reading it convinced them that Arminianism is not what they had thought.
In 2009 I wrote to Sproul and gently corrected his identification of Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism. I offered to send him the book if he would read it. I received his reply dated July 17, 2009. He addressed me as “Dear Roger.” He wrote that “I do not identify semi-Pelagianism with Arminianism, but as you indicate in your letter, that I see it as a variety of semi-Pelagianism. … All Arminians are semi-Pelagians in the sense that we have a relationship of genus and species.” He went on to explain that what “differentiates all forms of Augustinianism from all forms of semi-Pelagianism at bottom is the question of the efficacy of prevenient grace.” According to him, Arminianism is semi-Pelagian because it denies that grace is effectual.
I sent Sproul a signed copy of my book and asked for his response. In it I argue that “semi-Pelagianism” is more than denial of the efficacy of grace for salvation; it is the affirmation of the human initiative in salvation—which Arminians deny. I did not receive a response, so I don’t even know if he read the book. (I have given it to several Calvinist acquaintances and asked them to respond. Most did not.)
I am convinced that the identification of Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism has become a major polemical tool in the current resurgence of Calvinism among especially American (now spreading to other counties) young Christians. In other words, Sproul and other influential Calvinists present only two options: Calvinism and semi-Pelagianism and label the latter a denial of salvation by grace alone.
But what about Sproul’s definition of semi-Pelagianism? I can say quite confidently that he is wrong. “Semi-Pelagianism” is not any denial of effectual grace (i.e., what is commonly called “irresistible grace”). Every scholar of historical theology knows that “semi-Pelagianism” is a term for a particular view of grace and free will that emerged primarily in Gallic monasticism in the fifth century in response to Augustine’s strong emphasis on grace as irresistible for the elect.
According to historical theologian Rebecca Harden Weaver of Union Presbyterian Seminary (Virginia), whose book Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Mercer University Press, 1996) is the only English language monograph dedicated solely to semi-Pelagianism that I am aware of, “semi-Pelagianism” is tied inextricably to the teachings of Gallic monastic critics of Augustine and most importantly (prototypically) John Cassian. Cassian and certain other Gallic monks (“Masillians”) argued that although God may initiate salvation with grace, for many people the initiative is theirs toward God. That is, God waits to see the “exercise of a good will” before responding with grace. This is what was condemned (along with predestination to evil) at Orange in 529.
“Semi-Pelagianism,” then, is the view that “The beginning of faith may have its source in the human agent, although it will not always have its source there.” Furthermore, to compound Cassian’s non-Augustinian view of free will and human initiative in salvation, he taught that “The free will, even in its fallen condition, is not totally unable to will the good” and “the emphasis [of Cassian’s doctrine] falls on vigilance, unceasing struggle, in the attainment of salvation.”
This is the standard definition/description of semi-Pelagianism. But in some Reformed circles it has been broadened out to include any and every denial of the irresistible efficacy of grace (for the elect). That’s too broad and it departs from historical tradition in identifying what semi-Pelagianism is. That would be like me using “supralapsarian” to describe all denials of free will. I would be quickly challenged and corrected by especially infralapsarians like Sproul.
I was disappointed that Sproul did not respond to my book. He asked for a copy of it and I sent it with the intention that he would read it and respond. It’s been almost five years now. Perhaps life circumstances have prevented it, but I would like very much to know what other Calvinists who have misrepresented Arminianism in the same manner have to say about my book and its central argument that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism.
In the book I quote numerous Arminian theologians, from Arminius himself to Thomas Oden, to show that all classical Arminians believe that the initiative in salvation is God’s grace (prevenient grace) and that any good humans do, including the first exercise of a good will toward God, is so enabled by grace that there is no room for boasting.
Of course, even Calvinists who come to admit that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism will reject it. But my personal project in all this has not been to convert Calvinists to Arminianism; it has been to get them and Arminians to recognize what Arminianism really is in contrast to the widespread misinterpretations and misrepresentations of it.
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