This particular post will not be exhaustive, but it will act as an introduction to what will eventually become an episode on Arminianism. Why am I posting it then? Well, because the episode on Pelagianism and Semi-pelagianism has brought up claims that I want to address while it is fresh in the mind. What are the claims? “Arminianism is a new form of semi-pelagian” or “Arminianism is semi-pelagianism.”
It is first worth noting that I am not an Arminian, I am a 5-point Calvinist, and yet I have found myself defending Arminianism now against Calvinists, which is quite strange. I have been spending a decent amount of time now reading the works of Jacob Arminius, and John Wesley, and I actually just picked up (and will review) Olson’s book Arminian Theology. I have found that my theological camp has misunderstood, and misrepresented, Arminianism (not out of ill-intent I am sure) and has propagated such strawmen in book after book. I have to admit that I am guilty of the same thing both in the past and in my episode “Against Calvinism”. I may need to address some misconceptions that I had while recording the episode (though some are applicable to much of modern evangelicalism). This is all to say, this experience has been expanding my desire for more accurate representations of other theological camps.
How can I say with certainty that teachers have misrepresented Arminianism? Simple, I have read the primary sources! I, and some other Calvinist brothers that I shared Ariminian theology with, were a bit shocked by some of the quotations and beliefs of Arminianism. For example,
In this 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 it’s powers are not only debilitated and useless unless assisted by divine grace, but it has no power whatsoever unless excites by divine grace.Jacob Arminius
Not only that, but it becomes more bizarre when you learn that Jacob’s doctrine of providence, and the way he reasoned to it, is much like compatabilistic Calvinism. I won’t address that here, but later. Instead, I want to simply, but briefly, point out that Arminianism is not Semi-Pelagianism despite the claims of many, many, respectable Calvinists. First, semi-pelagianism is the belief that human can and must initiate salvation by exercising their good will towards God before God responds with saving grace. This resembles Gabriel Biel, the medieval scholastic theologian, if you remember Episode 110. Semi-Pelagianism was condemned as heresy, properly, at the Council of Orange in AD 529 as it ultimately denies total depravity and bondage of the will to sin. The consistent accusation is that Arminianism does the same, that is, that it denies total depravity and the bondage to the will and that man must act first to “choose” God and initiate salvation.
The problem is that Arminius agreed with Luther and Calvin on the human will and depravity! From him to Wesley (with some off shoots and exceptions – like every system) it was affirmed that Man could not do any spiritual good until grace freed the will from the bondage of sin and evil and gives it the ability to cooperate with grace. How does this freeing grace come about? Through prevenient grace (Calling, conviction, etc) which comes through the preaching of the Gospel. Arminius also affirmed that faith is a gift of God, and the biggest distinction at this point between Calvinism and Arminianism is whether or not the grace of God can be resisted. For Calvinism, grace is irresistible: those who are regenerated will come to God. In Arminianism, grace is resistible: man can either resist the grace of God and is damned or he cooperates and is saved. Synergism? Yes. Semi-Pelagian? No. Of course, there are many who then say that Arminius denies justification by faith, however, that too is an error that can be addressed later.
Arminius actually wrote against Pelagianism and Semi Pelagianism in the “Examination of Dr. Perkin’s Pamphlet on Predestination” (3:273) calling them ignorant of spiritual matters. Even in his doctrine, Arminius said that the human ability (the will) to cooperate with God’s grace was a gift from God because of total depravity, he says in “A declaration of the Sentiments”,
In his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of divine grace.Jacob Arminius, A Declaration of Sentiments, 1:659-60
Given that some Calvinists perceive sanctification to be synergistic in nature, this really should not be a problem for said Calvinists. While there are other questions that could be dealt with such as, what are free choices in the bible according to Arminius, this is what I wanted to stress today: Soteriologically, speaking, Arminius does not hold to the “free will” often attributed to him but rather holds to a will that is freed through the grace of God.
At this time some would respond with, “well that is what he believed, modern Arminians are semi-pelagian!” A couple of problems, or double standards, arise from this. If they are semi-pelagian, then they are not Arminian given what was demonstrated. The continuity between Arminius and Wesley prior to liberal theology taking ahold of nearly every theological system demonstrates that. Should we accept Modern Christianity as the norm for “Christianity”? I would think not. If definitions and classifications have meaning then we must be fair lest language becomes arbitrary. This also means we need to be more precise in our language. Most know that in various theological traditions, words need to be defined otherwise there is confusion.
It has also been said that a couple of Remonstrance (followers of Arminius) diverged and went to extremes, and to that I could ask, in what system has this not happened? Calvinists are quick to say that Hyper-Calvinism is not Calvinism (rightly so), and from there I must ask, why do we become hypocritical in our examination of Arminianism?
Another appeal is to authority, “well pastor x said this”, but is that the proper way to see what Arminians believe? Calvinists quite often charge Arminians with misrepresenting and misunderstanding Calvinists because they only listen to Arminians teach on Calvinists. If Arminian teachers are misrepresenting (or misunderstanding) Calvinists why can’t it be possible that our teachers have done the same? I’d say, we must apply the same standards. We all get things wrong, and many, many, times beliefs are passed down without any fact check. (This even happens in apologetic information that all people can agree on example in my review of this book here). So be the fact checker.
A last thought, though there are many more, is this: Calvinists tend to paint any non-Calvinist as an Arminian until proven otherwise. And even then the proof is hardly accepted unless one is a Molinist. Again I could appeal to the claim that Hyper Calvinists are Calvinists and we would all respond with, “that’s not true!” An interesting case is with Leighton Flowers, who does not like the terminology Arminian because he does not agree with Arminian theology on anthropology and the will (especially in regards to “prevenient grace”). Yet, many Calvinists call him a prime example of an Arminian. The question is, if he denies the label because of his beliefs and if his beliefs don’t line up with Arminianism than why do we ignore that? To me, it is similar to saying that he is a Calvinist, which is ridiculous. To get a closer look of this, I would recommend you look at his interactions with Olson (Classical Arminian) via Flower’s youtube channel and blog. This is all to say, do not impose a system (let alone a strawman version of said system) on another individual. Find out what they actually believe, and be careful to understand what they’re saying. Does that require work? Of course, but why would we be so lazy in such weighty matters?
As I noted, a lot could be said here, but I namely wanted to point out that Arminianism, in its truest definition, simply is not semi-pelagian. I have found myself grieved and a little frustrated at myself and others who have previously regurgitated such claims. I would recommend reading through the works of Arminius himself (which can be found online for free). I must also include, I have gained a great respect for him given the amount of stress he was under. Just as we all have been (especially Calvinists), Arminius and Arminianism has been misrepresented so much and attacked for things they do not believe (primarily the conflation of freedom of choices and the freedom of the will in soteriology). We should be able to empathize with that, I know I can!