By Spencer D Gear PhD
(Jacob Arminius image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)
If you want to denigrate the theology of Arminians, associate them with some heretical or negative theology. Use a poisoning the well logical fallacy. Let’s explain this approach:
This sort of “reasoning” involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person. This “argument” has the following form:
1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person A is presented.
2. Therefore any claims person A makes will be false.
This sort of “reasoning” is obviously deceptive. The person making such an attack is hoping that the unfavorable information will bias listeners or readers against the person in question and hence that they will reject any claims he/she might make. However, merely presenting unfavorable information about a person (even if it is true) hardly counts as evidence against the claims he/she might make. This is especially clear when Poisoning the Well is looked at as a form of Ad Hominem in which the attack is made prior to the person even making the claim or claims. The following example clearly shows that this sort of “reasoning” is quite poor in trying to communicate accurately (The Nizkor Project 1991-2012, Fallacy: Poisoning the Well).
(image courtesy slideshare.net)
Now apply this to Arminian theology, following this procedure:
1. Associate a person’s Arminian theology (whether true or false) with some heretical or questionable theology like Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.
2. Therefore, the claims made by that person’s Arminian theology in relation to, say, salvation will be false.
R C Sproul Sr, an ardent and articulate Calvinistic teacher and advocate, did this when he stated:
If I am in the kingdom of God because I made the good response rather than the bad response, I have something of which to boast, namely the goodness by which I responded to the grace of God. I have never met an Arminian who would answer the question that I’ve just posed by saying, “Oh, the reason I’m a believer is because I’m better than my neighbor.” They would be loath to say that. However, though they reject this implication, the logic of semi-Pelagianism requires this conclusion. If indeed in the final analysis the reason I’m a Christian and someone else is not is that I made the proper response to God’s offer of salvation while somebody else rejected it, then by resistless logic I have indeed made the good response, and my neighbor has made the bad response.
What Reformed theology teaches is that it is true the believer makes the right response and the non-believer makes the wrong response. But the reason the believer makes the good response is because God in His sovereign election changes the disposition of the heart of the elect to effect a good response. I can take no credit for the response that I made for Christ. God not only initiated my salvation, He not only sowed the seed, but He made sure that that seed germinated in my heart by regenerating me by the power of the Holy Ghost. That regeneration is a necessary condition for the seed to take root and to flourish (Sproul 2009, emphasis added).
Thus, Sproul has used a poisoning the well logical fallacy to try to discredit a person’s Arminian theology of salvation. Logical fallacies are dangerous when used in preaching, teaching and in conversations because they engage in erroneous reasoning. They make reasonable communication difficult or impossible. What has Sproul done with his example? He has made an attack on Arminianism by associating it with semi-Pelagianism, hoping that this unfavourable association will cause listeners to the Arminian to be biased against his or her teaching. The hope is that people will reject the claims of the Arminian – particularly in relation to salvation – and accept Sproul’s Calvinism.
However, Sproul, in making this poisoning the well fallacy of associating Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism, has made a fundamental mistake. He has not dealt with the theology of salvation that the Arminian presents. Poisoning the well by Sproul is a vicious attack against an Arminian view of salvation (Soteriology), but without having to deal with the Arminian’s elements of salvation.
Before we get to explaining semi-Pelagianism, we need to ask….
(image of Pelagius courtesy Wikipedia)
A Pelagian is a follower of Pelagius (ca. AD 260-340) who was a British monk and theologian, described by Jerome as ‘weighed down with the porridge of the Scots’ (in Cairns 1981:137). He went to Rome about 400 and joined with Celestius to help formulate a view on how human beings can be saved. St Augustine of Hippo (ca. AD 354-430) would not participate. Pelagius reached the conclusion that he
was more willing to give the human will a place in the process of salvation. But Augustine had found his will helpless to extricate him from the morass of sin in which he found himself because of his sinful nature.
Pelagius believed that each man is created free as Adam was and that each man has the power to choose good or evil. Each soul is a separate creation of God and, therefore, uncontaminated by the sin of Adam. The universality of sin in the world is explained by the weakness of human flesh rather than by the corruption of the human will by original sin. Man does not inherit original sin from his first ancestors, although the sins of individuals of the past generation do weaken the flesh of the present generation do weaken the flesh of the present generation so that sins are committed unless the individual wills to cooperate with God in the process of salvation. The human will is free to cooperate with God in the attainment of holiness and can make use of such aids to grace as the Bible, reason, and the example of Christ. Because there is no original sin, infant baptism is not an essential element of salvation (Cairns 1981:137).
It would be expected that Augustine of Hippo would oppose such a view because he saw that it had these deficiencies: (a) It denied the grace of God by which ‘regeneration is exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit’; (b) it rejected the view that the sin of Adam as head of the human race bound all human beings in sin; (c) it was a refusal to acknowledge that human beings’ wills are entirely corrupted by the Fall, i.e. denial of total depravity; (d) rejection of the teaching that human beings’ wills are so corrupted by the Fall that they are unable to exercise the will in regard to salvation. Pelagius’ views were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 (Cairns 1981:137-138).
Church historian, Earle Cairns, claims that the Pelagian vs Augustinian issues have been a perennial problem for the Christian church. ‘Twentieth-century liberal thought is only a resurgence of the Pelagian idea that man can achieve salvation by cooperation with the divine will through his own efforts’ (Cairns 1981:138).
2.1 Pelagian beliefs
What were some of the beliefs of Pelagianism that have caused so much theological heartache throughout church history? They were exposed in Augustine’s writings, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians. These beliefs include:
(i.) Whether Adam had sinned, or had not sinned, he would have died.
(ii.) The sin of Adam was injurious to no one except to himself; and therefore,
(iii.) Little children do not contract original sin from Adam; neither will they perish from life eternal, if they depart out of the present life without the sacrament of baptism.
(iv.) Lust or concupiscence in man is a natural good; neither is there any thing in it of which man may be ashamed.
(v.) Through his free will, as per se, man is sufficient for himself, and is able to will what is good, and to fulfill or perfect that which he wills. Or even, for the merits of works, God bestows grace on every one.
(vi.) The life of the just or the righteous in this life has in it no sin whatsoever; and from these persons, the church of Christ in this state of mortality are completed, that it may be altogether without spot or wrinkle.
(vii.) Pelagius, being compelled to confess grace, says that it is a gift conferred in creation, is the preaching of the law, and the illumination of the mind, to know those things which are good and those which are evil, as well as the remission of sins if any one has sinned, excluding from this [definition of grace] love and the gift and assistance of the Holy Spirit, without which, he says, the good which is known may be performed, though he acknowledges that this grace has also been given for this purpose — that the thing may be the more easily done, which can indeed be otherwise done by the power of nature, but yet with greater difficulty (in Arminius 1977b:389).
Arminius set out to refute Pelagius and concluded:
(i.) Our opinion openly professes that sin is the only and sole meritorious cause of death, and that man would not have died, had he not sinned.
(ii.) By the commission of sin, Adam corrupted himself and all his posterity, and rendered them obnoxious to the wrath of God.
(iii.) All who are born in the ordinary way from Adam, contract from him original sin and the penalty of death eternal. Our opinion lays this down as the foundation of further explanation; for this original sin is called, in Romans 7, “the sin,” “the sin exceedingly sinful,” “the indwelling sin,” “the sin which is adjacent to a man, or present with him,” or “the evil which is present with a man and” the law in the members.”
(iv.) Our opinion openly declares that concupiscence, under which is also comprehended lust, is an evil.
(v.) The fifth of the enumerated Pelagian dogmas is professedly refuted by our opinion; for, in Romans 7, the apostle teaches, according to our opinion, that the natural man cannot will what is good, except he be under the law, and unless the legal spirit have produced this willing in him by the law; and though he wills what is good, yet it is by no means through free will, even though it be impelled and assisted by the law to be capable of performing that very thing. But it also teaches that the grace of Christ, that is, the gift of the Holy Spirit and of love, is absolutely necessary for this purpose, which grace is not bestowed according to merits, (which are nothing at all,) but is purely gratuitous.
(vi.) The sixth of the enumerated dogmas of Pelagius is neither taught nor refuted by our opinion, because it maintains that Romans 7 does not treat about the regenerate. But, in the mean time, the patrons and advocates of our opinion do not deny that what is said respecting the imperfection of believers in the present life, is true.
(vii.) The seventh of the enumerated dogmas of Pelagius is refuted by our opinion; for it not only grants, that good can with difficulty be done by the man who is under the law, and who is not yet placed under grace; but it also unreservedly denies that it is possible for such a man by any means to resist sin and to perform what is good (Arminius 1977b:390-391).
So the exposure of the heretical Pelagian view, which is not that of Classical, Reformed Arminianism, leads to the question …
Is a semi-Pelagian half a heretic since a Pelagian is a heretic? After all, in geometry a semi-circle is half a circle. See:
(Fan wave spectrum mosaic, courtesy openclipart)
An Arminian-leaning theologian, even though he didn’t want to be identified as Arminian, Henry Thiessen, put Arminius’ interpretation of the imputation of Adam’s sin in the semi-Pelagian camp. He asserted that the Arminian theory was that human beings were sick and ‘the evil tendency in man may be called sin; but it does not involve guilt or punishment. Certainly, mankind is not accounted guilty of Adam’s sin’ until people consciously and voluntarily appropriate these evil tendencies by acts of transgression. This is a position held by the Greek and Methodist churches according to Thiessen (Thiessen 1949:261).
I would add that the Arminian position was what I was taught in Assemblies of God Bible colleges in Australia, Canada (PAOC) and the USA. It was the view that was promoted at Ashland Theological Seminary (The Brethren Church), Ashland OH, when I was a student there in the early 1980s. So, Arminian theology is endorsed by other than Greek and Methodist churches.
Thiessen’s retort was that ‘according to the Scriptures, man sinned in Adam and is, therefore, guilty before he commits personal sin; that man’s sinful nature is due to his sin in Adam’ (Thiessen 1949:261). Is Thiessen correct about the Arminian imputation of Adam’s sin being semi-Pelagian? Arminian theologian, H Orton Wiley, expounded his Arminian position:
Not only are all men born under the penalty of death, as a consequence of Adam’s sin, but they are born with a depraved nature also, which in contradistinction to the legal aspect of penalty, is generally termed inbred sin or inherited depravity (Wiley 1952:98).
Now let’s check out the nature of semi-Pelagianism beliefs. Pelagians do not believe in original sin and consider they have the natural spiritual abilities to respond to God and live fulfilled lives. This is an heretical view, as is that of semi-Pelagianism which ‘believes that humans have the ability, even in their natural or fallen state, to initiate salvation by exercising a good will toward God’ (Olson 2006:17-18). It is Olson’s view that ‘the gospel preached and the doctrine of salvation taught in most evangelical pulpits and lecterns, and believed in most evangelical pews, is not classical Arminianism but semi-Pelagianism if not outright Pelagianism’ (Olson 2006:30). When I attended a Canadian Pentecostal Bible college in the mid-1970s, one of the lecturers told the students he did not believe in original sin. That placed him in the Pelagian camp. I did not know enough about Pelagians at that time to be able to confront him gently – with knowledge of that heretical position.
Wiley accurately defines semi-Pelagianism as a mediating position between Pelagianism and Augustinianism:
It held that there was sufficient power remaining in the depraved will to initiate or set in motion the beginnings of salvation but not enough to bring it to completion. This must be done by divine grace (Wiley 1952:2.103).
In an attempt to rectify the wrong view of equating classical Arminians with semi-Pelagians, Calvinistic theologians, Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, stated:
The Arminians of the seventeenth century … 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 (Peterson & Williams 2004:39).
4. Why the confusion of Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism?
Classical, Reformed Arminianism is not a version of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism. Mark Ellis, a Calvinist, translated and edited ‘The Arminian Confession of 1621’. In its introduction, he wrote, ‘If one allows history to define labels, neither Arminius nor the Remonstrants were semi-Pelagian’ (Ellis 2005:vi).
Olson has identified some issues that impact on this Calvinistic association of semi-Pelagianism with Arminianism.
Why do so many Calvinists insist on identifying Arminianism as Pelagian or semi-Pelagian? This puzzles Arminians because of the great lengths they have gone to distance their theology from those heresies. Perhaps critics believe that Arminianism leads to Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism as its good and necessary consequence. But if that is the case, it should be stated clearly. Fairness and honesty demand that critics of Arminianism at least admit that classical Arminians, including Arminius himself, do not teach what Pelagius taught or what the semi-Pelagians (e.g., John Cassian) taught.
Closely connected with the charge that Arminianism is semi-Pelagian if not Pelagian is the accusation that it departs from Protestant orthodoxy by abandoning or rejecting monergism. This was the line taken by Calvinist theologian and author Michael Horton in early issues of the magazine Modern Reformation, which he edits. In an infamous article attacking “evangelical Arminianism” as an oxymoron, Horton declares that “an evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic.” He claims that Arminius revived semi-Pelagianism and that “Arminians denied the Reformation belief that faith was a gift and that justification was a purely forensic (legal) declaration. For them, it included a moral change in the believer’s life and faith itself, a work of humans, was the basis for God’s declaration” (Olson 2006:81).
R C Sproul Sr.’s claim is that semi-Pelagianism ‘has always taught that without grace there is no salvation. But the grace that is considered in all semi-Pelagian and Arminian theories of salvation is not an efficacious grace. It is a grace that makes salvation possible, but not a grace that makes salvation certain’ (Sproul 2009). Really? That’s not what my research has discovered in examining the theology of Arminius and prevenient grace.
When R C Sproul was asked if Arminians were saved, he said, ‘Yes, barely. They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency’ (Sproul 1997:25).
(photo courtesy Baylor: George W Truett Theological Seminary)
Roger Olson, an Arminian, wrote:
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….
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)….
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 (Olson 2013).
In simple terms, a Pelagian pursues heretical teaching that denies original sin, elevates natural human ability to take the initiative to receive salvation and live the Christian life. Semi-Pelagianism also is an heretical doctrine that believes that fallen human beings, in their natural state, are capable of initiating salvation and exercising good will towards God. When conservative theologians declare synergism to be a heresy, they should be referring to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Arminians agree with those heretical designations (Olson 2006:17-18).
Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange in AD 529. A summary of the Council’s semi-Augustinian decisions is found in Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, vol 3, § 160). Olson, in another publication, confirmed that semi-Pelagianism is heresy and he ‘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)’ (Olson 2013).
By contrast, Arminius maintained the initiative in salvation was with God, so his view was contrary to Pelagian and semi-Pelagian theology. Let’s check out his views on these two heresies.
See the interview of Arminian theologian, Roger Olson, by Calvinist theologian, Michael Horton: ‘Arminian Theology: An Interview with Roger Olson’ (Modern Reformation, February 2007).
(image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)
In ‘An examination of the treatise of William Perkins’, Arminius dealt with the issues raised by Perkins and said, ‘The whole troop of Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians in the church itself do not know them’ (Arminius 1977c:289). Perkins was an English Calvinist who interacted with Arminius.
In addressing the false teaching of Pelagius, Arminius wrote of ‘the principal dogmas of the Pelagian heresy’. Of the seventh of Pelagius’ dogmas, Arminius wrote that it ‘is refuted by our opinion’. On further Pelagian theology, Arminius wrote that ‘our opinion is directly opposed to the Pelagian heresy’ (Arminius 1977b:389, 391, 397).
So it should be clear that Arminius should not be identified as a Pelagian as Arminian theology is markedly different to the heretical Pelagian doctrines because (a) All human beings are born sinful; they are born with original sin (Rom 5:12), and (b) salvation is not generated by human beings; it is from God (1 Cor 2:14; Eph 2:8-9) and needs God’s drawing power to experience it (John 6:44).
James Pedlar explains how Arminian theology is neither Pelagian nor Semi-Pelagian:
Semi-Pelagianism is a mediating position between Augustine and Pelagius which was proposed later. In Semi-Pelagianism, the initial step towards salvation is made by the unaided human free will. In other words, the human person is capable of deciding to turn to Christ in faith, without any divine assistance. After that initial step is made, the Semi-Pelagian position proposes divine grace is then poured out for the “increase of faith.” Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange in 529.
Again, any responsible account of Arminian soteriology will make it clear that Arminians are not Semi-Pelagian. Arminians do not believe that human beings decide to exercise faith in Christ by an unaided act of the will. On the contrary, they affirm that, without divine grace, the fallen human person is incapable of turning to God. Prevenient grace frees the person so that such a response is possible.
What is distinctive about the Arminian position (as opposed to monergistic Reformed accounts) is that God’s grace is resistible, meaning that we can refuse his gracious offer of salvation. However, that hardly means that our acceptance of that offer is some kind of Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian meritorious “work” (Pedlar 2012).
Pedlar, an assistant professor of Wesley Studies and Theology at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Canada, wrote to demonstrate that Arminian theology is neither Pelagian nor Semi-Pelagian.
In his brief exposition on ‘Grace and free will’, Arminius confirmed that the mind and affections of carnal human beings are obscure, dark, corrupt and unrestrained. This requires the special grace of God to enable human beings to experience God’s spiritual goodness. However, this grace must not do violence to the justice of God.
Concerning grace and free will, this is what I teach according to the Scriptures and orthodox consent: Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “grace,” I mean by it that which is the grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration. I affirm, therefore, that this grace is simply and absolutely necessary for the illumination of the mind, the due ordering of the affections, and the inclination of the will to that which is good. It is this grace which operates on the mind, the affections, and the will; which infuses good thoughts into the mind, inspires good desires into the actions, and bends the will to carry into execution good thoughts and good desires. This grace [praevenit] goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and co-operates lest we will in vain. It averts temptations, assists and grants succor in the midst of temptations, sustains man against the flesh, the world and Satan, and in this great contest grants to man the enjoyment of the victory. It raises up again those who are conquered and have fallen, establishes and supplies them with new strength, and renders them more cautious. This grace commences salvation, promotes it, and perfects and consummates it.
I confess that the mind [animalis] of a natural and carnal man is obscure and dark, that his affections are corrupt and inordinate, that his will is stubborn and disobedient, and that the man himself is dead in sins. And I add to this that teacher obtains my highest approbation who ascribes as much as possible to divine grace, provided he so pleads the cause of grace, as not to inflict an injury on the justice of God, and not to take away the free will to that which is evil.
I do not perceive what can be further required from me. Let it only be pointed out, and I will consent to give it, or I will shew that I ought not to give such an ascent. Therefore, neither do I perceive with what justice I can be calumniated on this point, since I have explained these my sentiments, with sufficient plainness, in the theses on free will which were publicly disputed in the university (Arminius 1997b:472-473).
Olson’s summary statement was that ‘Arminius’s synergism places all the initiative and ability in salvation on God’s side and acknowledges the human person’s complete inability to do anything whatever for salvation apart from the supernatural assisting grace of Christ’ (Olson 1999:471).
(photo R C Sproul Jr., courtesy Wikipedia)
R C Sproul Sr’s son, R C Sproul Jr, wrote:
My own earthly father [i.e. R C Sproul Sr] has been known to answer this question [i.e. Do Arminians go to heaven when they die?] this way – Arminians are Christians, barely. What he is getting at, one should not be surprised, is wisdom. First, the problem. Why would we even have to ask? The difficulty is two-fold. First, we are blessed with the atoning work of Christ when we repent for our sins, and trust in His finished work on our behalf. How much of our sin must we repent for? All of it. In the Arminian scheme there remains in man a part of him that is still righteous, that part out of which comes his ability to choose the good as it is offered in the gospel. The Arminian is not, according to his theology, fully repentant. Second, we must trust in the finished work of Christ alone. In the Arminian schema, he trusts a great deal in the finished work of Christ, but trusts some in his own ability to choose the good. If a man believes that God does 99% of the saving, and man 1%, then that man is not truly saved. The Galatian heresy is dealing with just this issue….
I would suggest that heaven is full of Calvinists who affirmed with great vigor sola fide, but who in the dark recesses of their hearts, subconsciously, believed that God was pleased with them because of their fervor for sola fide, or because of their fidelity in keeping their quiet times, or their passion for honoring the Sabbath. We are all Pelagians at heart, even those of us who are dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists….
The Arminian says at the same time and in the same relationship, “It’s all Jesus” and “It’s mostly Jesus and partly me.” They are inconsistent, self-contradictory. In the end, those who most fully believe it’s all Jesus will be with Him forever. Those who more fully believe it’s Jesus and them (sic) will hear Him say, “Depart from me I never knew you.” To put it another way, we are justified by trusting in the finished work of Christ alone, not by articulating a doctrine of justification by faith alone. We too, we Calvinists that is, make it into heaven by a happy inconsistency. That is, we all have error in our thinking. And every error contradicts what is true. Were we to adjust the true things we believed to make them consistent with the false things we believe, we would all end up in damnable heresy.
We have to affirm, at the same time, that Jesus came to save sinners, but not all sinners. He will save those sinners to whom His Spirit gives the gift of faith. That will include those who don’t know where the gift came from, as long as they actually have the gift. We ought also to remember that if we are right on this issue, if Calvinism is true and Arminianism false, we are right by the grace of God, not our own wisdom. What do we have that was not first given to us? (Sproul Jr 2012, emphasis added).
Could that kind of teaching have influenced what a prominent Arminian supporter experienced in a private appointment with a student on a college campus? The student said: ‘Professor Olson, I’m sorry to say this, but you’re not a Christian’. The context was an evangelical, liberal arts college that did not have ‘an official confessional position on Arminianism or Calvinism’. The denomination that controlled the college and seminary had Calvinists and Arminians in its ranks. When Olson asked the student why this was so, the reply to this author and Arminian professor was, “Because my pastor says Arminians aren’t Christians’. Olson stated that the pastor was a well-known Calvinist who later distanced himself from that statement (Olson 2006:9).
See the YouTube video, an interview with R C Sproul, on ‘Why are Western Reformed Christians so influenced by Arminian theology?’
R C Sproul Sr. again:
When I teach the doctrine of predestination I am often frustrated by those who obstinately refuse to submit to it. I want to scream, “Don’t you realize you are resisting the Word of God?” In these cases I am guilty of at least one of two possible sins. If my understanding of predestination is correct, then at best I am being impatient with people who are merely struggling as I once did, and at worst I am being arrogant and patronizing toward those who disagree with me.
If my understanding of predestination is not correct, then my sin is compounded, since I would be slandering the saints who by opposing my view are fighting for the angels. So the stakes are high for me in this matter.
The struggle about predestination is all the more confusing because the greatest minds in the history of the church have disagreed about it. Scholars and Christian leaders, past and present, have taken different stands. A brief glance at church history reveals that the debate over predestination is not between liberals and conservatives or between believers and unbelievers. It is a debate among believers, among godly and earnest Christians.
It may be helpful to see how the great teachers of the past line up on the question.
“Reformed” view Opposing views St. Augustine
St. Thomas Aquinas
Notice what Sproul Sr did? He falsely included Pelagius with the Arminian views when Arminius is a ‘Reformed’ view. In the ‘Reformed’ view he did not include the theologically liberal ‘Reformed’ scholars such as Paul Tillich (1886-1968), Karl Barth (1886-1968), Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976), Bishop James Pike (1913-1969), or Sir Lloyd Geering (b. 1918). Theologically liberal Arminians could include Charles Chauncy (1705-1787), Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), and Henry Ware Sr (1764-1845), as well as conservative Arminians who included Adam Clarke (1760-1832), Richard Watson (1781-1833), William Pope (1822-1903), John Miley (1813-1895), and H Orton Wiley (1877–1961).
The fact is that Classical Arminianism is a Reformed view. To his dying day, Arminius was a Dutch Reformed minister. At death he was ‘in good standing with the Dutch Reformed Church’, a Reformed denomination. Carl Bangs is a leading scholar of the life and theology of Arminius, being the author of Arminius: A study in the Dutch Reformation (Bangs 1985). Olson’s summary of Bangs’ view of the Dutch reformer was that
Arminius considered himself Reformed and in the line of the great Swiss and French Reformers Zwingli, Calvin and Bucer. He studied under Calvin’s successor Beza in Geneva and was given a letter of recommendation by him to the Reformed church of Amsterdam. It seems highly unlikely that the chief pastor of Geneva and principle (sic) of its Reformed academy would not know the theological inclinations of one of his star pupils (Olson 2006:48).
What is a Reformed Arminian in the twenty-first century? Such an Arminian follows the primary doctrines articulated by Arminius and the Remonstrance. Matthew Pinson explains:
Reformed Arminians take their cues from Arminius himself and thus diverge from the mainstream of subsequent Arminianism. They are Reformed in their understanding of sin, depravity, human inability, the nature of atonement, justification, sanctification and the Christian life. Reformed Arminians subscribe to the penal satisfaction understanding of atonement and justification by the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience to the believer. Thus, only by departing from Christ through unbelief—a decisive act of apostasy—can a Christian lose his or her salvation. Furthermore, they argue, apostasy is an irrevocable condition. These perspectives mark Reformed Arminians off from the mainstream of Arminian thought, since most Arminians disavow Reformed understandings of atonement, justification, and sanctification (Pinson 2002:15-16).
The battering of Arminianism continued from an eminent Calvinist:
(photo courtesy InterVarsity Press)
These quotes are from Packer (1958):
The “five points of Calvinism,” so-called, are simply the Calvinistic answer to a five-point manifesto (the Remonstrance) put out by certain ‘Belgic semi-Pelagians’ in the early seventeenth century. The theology which it contained (known to history as Arminianism) stemmed from two philosophical principles: first, that divine sovereignty is not compatible with human freedom, nor therefore with human responsibility; second, that ability limits obligation. (The charge of semi-Pelagianism was thus fully justified). From these principles, the Arminians drew two deductions: first, that since the Bible regards faith as a free and responsible human act, it cannot be caused by God, but is exercised independently of him; second, that since the Bible regards faith as obligatory on the part of all who hear the gospel, ability to believe must be universal…. Thus, Arminianism made man’s salvation depend ultimately on man himself, saving faith being viewed throughout as man’s own work and, because his own, not God’s in him.
The denials of an election that is conditional and of grace that is resistible are intended to safeguard the positive truth that it is God who saves. The real negations are those of Arminianism, which denies that election, redemption and calling are saving acts of God. Calvinism negates these negations order to assert the positive content of the gospel, for the positive purpose of strengthening faith and building up the church….
The Calvinist contends that the Arminian idea of election, redemption and calling as acts of God which do not save cuts at the very heart of their biblical meaning; that to say in the Arminian sense that God elects believers, and Christ died for all men, and the Spirit quickens those who receive the word, is really to say that in the biblical sense God elects nobody, and Christ died for nobody, and the Spirit quickens nobody. The matter at issue in this controversy, therefore, is the meaning to be given to these biblical terms, and to some others which are also soteriologically significant, such as the love of God, the covenant of grace, and the verb ‘save’ itself, with its synonyms. Arminians gloss them all in terms of the principle that salvation does not directly depend on any decree or act of God, but on man’s independent activity in believing. Calvinists maintain that this principle is itself unscriptural and irreligious, and that such glossing demonstrably perverts the sense of Scripture and undermines the gospel at every point where it is practiced. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Arminian controversy is about….
This is the one point of Calvinistic soteriology which the ‘five points’ are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; amen!…
Certainly, Arminianism is ‘natural’ in one sense, in that it represents a characteristic perversion of biblical teaching by the fallen mind of man, who even in salvation cannot bear to renounce the delusion of being master of his fate and captain of his soul. This perversion appeared before in the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of the patristic period and the later scholasticism, and has recurred since the seventeenth century both in Roman theology and, among Protestants, in various types of rationalistic liberalism and modern evangelical teaching; and no doubt it will always be with us. As long as the fallen human mind is what it is, the Arminian way of thinking will continue to be a natural type of mistake. But is not natural in any other sense. In fact, it is Calvinism that understands the Scriptures in their natural, one would have thought inescapable, meaning; Calvinism that keeps to what they actually say; Calvinism that insists on taking seriously the biblical assertions that God saves, and that he saves those whom he has chosen to save, and that he saves them by grace without works, so that no man may boast, and that Christ is given to them as a perfect Savior, and that their whole salvation flows to them from the cross, and that the work of redeeming them was finished on the cross. It is Calvinism that gives due honor to the cross….
Arminianism is an intellectual sin of infirmity, natural only in the sense in which all such sins are natural, even to the regenerate…. Arminian thinking is the Christian failing to be himself through the weakness of the flesh (emphases added).
So the eminent professor, J I Packer, has fallen for the Calvinistic trick of a poisoning the well fallacy by identifying Arminianism with heretical Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, a label which he claims is ‘fully justified’. It may be a position adopted today by many who call themselves Arminians, but it is not the teaching of James Arminius, his immediate followers, and that of Classical Reformed Arminianism. It is an heretical version that has crept into churches. However, let’s be clear. What Packer calls Arminianism is not Arminian at all but it is prostituted Arminianism, a heresy that must be called semi-Pelagianism, to the exclusion of Classical Arminianism.
(image courtesy remonstrancepodcast.com)
The Five Articles of Remonstrance (A W Harrison translation) dealt with:
Arminius said: ‘I can err but not be a heretic’.
This is a final word from Arminius himself concerning his teaching: ‘It is possible for me to err, but I am not willing to be a heretic’ (Arminius 1977b:475).
R C Sproul Sr associates Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism. He wrote: ‘I have never met an Arminian who would answer the question that I’ve just posed by saying, “Oh, the reason I’m a believer is because I’m better than my neighbor.” They would be loath to say that. However, though they reject this implication, the logic of semi-Pelagianism requires this conclusion’ (Sproul 2009).
Here he used a poisoning the well fallacy by associating the doctrine of salvation of heretical semi-Pelagianism with Arminianism.
In this article, I examined the doctrines of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism to show that Pelagians deny original sin and promote the view that each person has the ability to choose good or evil and thus to choose salvation. It was demonstrated how Arminius refuted the teachings of Pelagius.
Semi-Pelagians hold that human beings have sufficient human power in the depraved will to initiate salvation but divine grace is needed to bring it to completion.
Both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism were rejected by Arminius and his followers as heresy in the seventeenth century. Classical, Reformed Arminians contend that a person’s will is so corrupted by sin that it needs enabling, prevenient grace for redemption to take place. This grace comes prior to a person’s response to the Gospel. Arminianism is closer to semi-Augustinianism than semi-Pelagianism. It does an injustice to Arminians to place them in the same camp as heretical semi-Pelagians.
However, R C Sproul Sr claims the logic of semi-Pelagian Arminians means that they have made the ‘good response’ in accepting salvation in Christ. So, are Arminians Christian? Sproul Sr.’s response was, ‘Yes, barely. They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency’. His son, R C Sproul Jr went further than this conclusion: ‘In the Arminian schema, he trusts a great deal in the finished work of Christ, but trusts some in his own ability to choose the good. If a man believes that God does 99% of the saving, and man 1%, then that man is not truly saved’.
Arminius’ theology was that corrupt human beings need divine grace prior to redemption. He called this prevenient grace. See my articles to explain this grace:
J I Packer, an outstanding theologian in many areas of doctrine, was fallacious in his reasoning at this point. Similarly to the Sprouls, he used a poisoning the well fallacy by associating Arminians with semi-Pelagians when he wrote of the Remonstrance that was put out by certain ‘Belgic semi-Pelagians’. The Remonstrance manifesto by Arminians led to examination and pronouncements by Calvinists against the Remonstrance at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and the development of the summary TULIP doctrines of Calvinism.
Packer went further in committing a straw man fallacy by stating that Arminianism made a person’s salvation dependent ultimately on people themselves. He made the false accusation against Arminians that saving faith was ‘viewed throughout as man’s own work’. Arminius and Classical Reformed Arminians reject Packer’s caricature as false. His error is his wrong association of semi-Pelagianism with Arminianism and his failure to understand the doctrines of Classical, Reformed, Arminian soteriology.
Arminius understood that he could err but he was not a heretic. Some of the prominent Calvinists, quoted above, place Arminius in the heretical semi-Pelagian camp. The error Arminius made was that it was for later generations of theologians to examine his teaching. Sadly, some have concluded that he was an heretical semi-Pelagian. I place him in the orthodox, evangelical camp which regarded salvation as from the Lord. There was no salvation unless the Lord drew the person to salvation through prevenient grace, but that drawing could be resisted.
One of the difficulties faced in the contemporary evangelical church is that there is not enough preaching on this topic to gain clarity of understanding. So, as a result, many people in the pew seem to be semi-Pelagians in their practice of Christianity in thinking and behaviour with regard to salvation. It does raise the issue: Are these people saved if they are relying on self to initiate salvation.
I would find it encouraging and amazing to have a preacher expound these verses and their implications:
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Arminius, J 1977b The writings of James Arminius, vol 2 (online). Tr by J Nichols & W R Bagnall. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). Available at: Works of James Arminius, Vol. 2 – Christian Classics Ethereal Library (Accessed 11 December 2013).
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 Lifespan is from Cairns (1981:137).
 Lifespan is from Cairns (1981:146).
 At this point, Cairns acknowledged the assistance of Bettenson and Kidd for obtaining this information (Cairns 1981:483 n. 11)
 PAOC is the acronym for the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, the Assemblies of God equivalent in Canada.
 Olson stated that ‘monergism especially means that God is the sole determining agency in salvation. There is no cooperation between God and the person being saved that is not already determined by God working in the person through, for example, regenerating grace. Monergism is larger than Calvinism’. Olson uses ‘monergism to denote God’s all-determining will and power to the exclusion of the free human cooperation or resistance’ (Olson 2006:19, emphasis in original).
 Here Olson is quoting Horton (1992:18).
 This is citing Horton (1992:16).
 The book is Olson (2006).
 Synergism refers to ‘belief in divine-human cooperation in salvation’ and Olson uses it in the sense that ‘it merely means any belief in human responsibility and the ability to freely accept or reject the grace of salvation’ (Olson 2006:13, 14).
 Christian History (online), ‘Jacob Arminius: Irenic anti-Calvinist’. Available at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/jacob-arminius.html (Accessed 3 June 2016). After Arminius’s death in 1609, it was a group of Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians that composed The Remonstrance (see next endnote).
 ‘The Remonstrance was prepared by forty-three or so (the exact number is debated) Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians after Arminius’s death in 1609. It was presented in 1610 to a conference of church and state leaders at Gouda, Holland, to explain Arminian doctrine. It focuses mainly on issues of salvation and especially predestination’ (Olson 2006:31).
 The footnote at this point was, ‘John Owen, Works, X:6’.
 The A W Harrison translation of this link was not available at the time of writing this article (3 June 2016), hence this link to the Dennis Bratcher (ed) edition of The Remonstrance.
Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 March 2020.