The term “Semi-Pelagian” is often bandied about by laymen as a summary term that is descriptive of those persons who follow in the Arminian and Wesleyan theological traditions. AA. Hodge defined the term, stating:
Semi-Pelagianism admits that divine grace is necessary to enable a sinner to return unto God and live, yet holds that, from the nature of the human will, man may first spontaneously, of himself, desire and attempt to choose and obey God. They deny the necessity of prevenient but admit the necessity of cooperative grace and conceive regeneration as the product of this cooperative grace (Regeneration, A.A. Hodge).
Calvinist Theologians Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, addressing the contemporary practice of labeling Arminian and Wesleyan theology Semi-Pelagian, write:
The Arminians of the seventeenth century, however, held that the human will has been so corrupted by sin that a person cannot seek grace without the enablement of grace. They therefore affirmed the necessity and priority of grace in redemption. Grace must go before a person’s response to the gospel. This suggests that Arminianism is closer to Semi-Augustinianism than it is to Semi-Pelagianism or Pelagianism. The word Pelagian as a description of Arminians—or Roman Catholics for that matter—does them an injustice because it associates them with a theological tradition that is truly heretical (Why I Am Not An Arminian, p. 39).
Consider that with the following quote from the book Why I Am Not A Calvinist, p. 67:
- Robert Chiles has shown that contemporary Arminians’ underestimation of sin represents a shocking erosion from classical Arminian convictions, especially as taught by John Wesley. For his part, Wesley affirmed the dreadful effects of the Fall in the strongest terms, agreeing fervently with his Calvinist contemporaries that sinners, left to themselves, stand utterly hopeless and helpless before God. Yet in the generations succeeding Wesley, and especially in American Methodism, the pendulum swung from Wesley’s emphasis on free grace to an emphasis on free will, with an accompanying tendency to consider free will a natural human possession.
Although popular in contemporary circles to fail to discuss the necessity of grace to act preveniently before any good may be exercised by the individual in preference to discussing free will, no Arminian or Wesleyan systematic theology written makes the omission. With very few exceptions formal Arminian and Wesleyan follow the seventeenth-century tradition of emphasizing the necessity of grace before any liberty of any kind is manifested. As such, we should refrain from labeling Arminians and Wesleyans as Semi-Pelagian even if the laity fails to articulate their view as well as their theologians.
The bottom line is that labeling all Arminians and Wesleyans as Semi-Pelagian is wrong because formal Arminian and Wesleyan theology requires God to provide grace to the person before any good can be brought to fruition be it kindness in thought and action or repentance and faith. Furthermore, calling Arminians and Wesleyans Semi-Pelagian registers as an insult against their person because it associates their beliefs with the truly heretical beliefs of Pelagianism.