Why Arminian theology is neither Pelagian nor Semi-Pelagian

Critics sometimes charge that Arminian theology (including its Wesleyan articulation) is Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian.   The charge usually comes from those who are strict monergists, meaning that the believe salvation is effectually accomplished by God without the cooperation of the human person.   For the most strident monergists, any doctrine of salvation which is not monergistic ought to be labelled “Pelagian,” or “Semi-Pelagian,” or perhaps identified as the start of a slippery slope that leads to Pelagianism.  If you are looking for examples of writers to make this charge against Arminian theology, a good place to start is Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities

However, this charge can be easily dismissed by offering clear accounts of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

Several times in Augustine’s Confessions we find Augustine praying: “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will.” In this prayer, Augustine is admitting that he needs God’s grace in a radical way—not only to know what God commands, but also to do what God commands. He is saying that he cannot obey God in his own power; he needs divine assistance.

Pelagius disagreed with Augustine’s assertion that human beings were incapable of obeying God in their own strength. He thought this idea might lead people to avoid personal moral responsibility. So Pelagius taught that human beings have complete freedom of the will, meaning that we inherently possess the freedom to obey God in every situation. Therefore, he said, we do not need divine grace to overcome sin. For Pelagius, we are all inherently capable of pleasing God, and therefore we are all obligated to offer God perfect obedience.

In a nutshell, Pelagianism denies original sin, and claims that human nature has not been corrupted and humans are capable of choosing good and avoiding sin without any special divine aid.  In other words, human beings are capable of meriting salvation on their own without God’s grace.

Pelagius felt that Christians do receive grace from God, but the only kind of grace he felt that humans needed was the grace of illumination – knowing what God would have us to do. The only barrier to obedience would be our ignorance of God’s will. So the ten commandments, then, would be divine grace, offering us everything we need to live a life that is pleasing to God.

Augustine agreed that we need grace to illuminate our understanding, but disagreed that we have the inherent ability to obey. Sin has so infected and bound us that we are dependent upon grace for any good that we might do.

Salvation, then, in the Pelagian perspective comes through obedience; we are justified on the basis of our merits, which we gain through our obedience to God. Augustine taught that salvation comes through divine grace. Our only claim on salvation is the promise of grace through Christ. Even our good works are dependent upon grace, and therefore are not meritorious.  This is the basis for the classic doctrine of total depravity.

It is quite clear that Arminians are not Pelagian, because Arminans affirm the doctrines of original sin and total depravity.   Human salvation is completely dependent upon God’s grace, without which we would be helpless.  While Arminians do hold that God’s prevenient grace provides fallen humanity with a measure of freedom so that we can respond to God, this freedom is not an inherent human quality.  Rather, it is a gift of grace, without which we would be helpless.

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.”

21 thoughts on “Why Arminian theology is neither Pelagian nor Semi-Pelagian

  1. Hi James….
    Thanks for your helpful summary. I’ve always found it helpful to suggest that Arminians propose the idea of a “freed will” (i.e. freed by grace) as opposed to a “free will” (as you’ve described the Pelagian position above).
    However, what I find interesting is the assumption made in these discussions that Augustine got it right once and for all and any position to the contrary must be Pelagian (and hence heretical). I’m not convinced by that assumption. The ideas of “sin”, “fallenness” and “depravity” need to be reinterpreted in each generation. Certainly we use the wisdom of the past, including Augustine, and learn from the mistakes of the past, including Pelagius, but the realities of the 21st Century demand that we understand the problem of sin in ways that can be understood in our day and age. Simply appealing to Augustine uncritically is not enough, especially given our post-Darwin scientific world.
    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    • Hi Adam,

      There are certainly issues with Augustine’s approach to sin, though I think the overall instinct to protect the graciousness of salvation is an important insight and should be preserved.

      There are other ways to get there, besides the Augustinian approach – the Eastern tradition, of course, has never taken up Augustine’s ideas, and us Western Christians should always be mindful of the insights they can bring to the discussion.

      Probably the kind of people who would label any kind of departure from Augustine “Pelagian” are the same kind of people who would label Arminianism “Pelagian.” It’s a kind of heresy fear-mongering, I think, and using the Pelagian label (in a way that has little to do with the actual Pelagian heresy) as a discussion-stopper.

      I haven’t done a lot of work on this issue but I find the language of “brokenness” sometimes does a good job of communicating the reality of sin in a way that people today can understand. Do you have a preferred approach, or are you searching for one?


  2. “In a nutshell, Pelagianism denies original sin” — which is why it is way better than Arminianism. And, of course, Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism are compatible with theistic evolution because no literal Adam is necessary for any point of theology without original sin. The whole Peter Enns controversy averted.

  3. Don’t think you need to be a Pelagian in order to affirm theistic evolution, but I suppose that’s one way you could go. I suspect that many people who are open to evolutionary theory nevertheless want to preserve Augustine’s emphasis on the radical dependence of the human being on God’s grace.

      • Original sin is based on an over-literal interpretation of Romans 5. “Adam sinned and damned us all — Jesus died and saved us. Woohoo. WE weren’t involved at all. Neither our own sin damns us nor does our own obedience save us. Adam’s sin damns us, Jesus’ obedience saves us. Halleluyah!”

        Ok. So take away the literal Adam, and it all falls apart. You can try all you like to save original sin without a literal Adam. But its pure intellectual dishonesty, superstition, illogical and immoral flaptrap.

  4. You’re entitled to your opinion, but I know lots of people who would hold on to a modified version of original sin without a literal Adam, and they aren’t dishonest, superstitious, illogical, or immoral You’re shooting down a straw man version of the arguments.

  5. Hi James, I haven’t read Arminius or his followers in a while, but my memory is of being struck with Wesley’s improvement on them with his emphasis on prevenient grace. Is my memory serving me well? (PS Love the “Transformers” google ad on this page as you discuss grace!)

    • Hi Mark,

      Yes, I think that is about right, but I haven’t done a detailed study myself so I’m relying on what some of the Wesleyan literature has said. Arminius also emphasized radical dependence on grace but I believe Wesley had more to say about prevenient grace. Wesley’s view of total depravity was quite close to Calvin’s, and that meant that prevenient grace had to play a very significant role in his soteriology. This also meant that he had a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit, who he always associated with prevenient grace – I would say a stronger emphasis on the Spirit than most Western theologians.

      That is funny about the google ad – some computer was reading my posts and thought that would be appropriate!

  6. I am confused by your comment about Roger Olson’s book. I have been reading R.C. Sproul’s book on Reformed Theology which has set me upon this path of investigation. Olson has a blog about some of his journey and his interact with Sproul over this subject matter.

    Are you saying Olson’s book is bad or good and is Olson full of hot air or a good authority on the subject matter?

    • Hello Dennis,
      I see how my wording was vague. What I meant was that Olson’s book provides lots of examples of people claiming that Arminianism is Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. But Olson provides the examples so that he can refute them. Olson’s book is very good for clearing up some of these misunderstandings and responding from the Arminan side.

  7. Thank you for your response. I have never been much into theology until I had to study it in my CPM Courses. I am really intrigued by the many schools (opinions) of thought about interpretation of the Word of God. I wonder if God knew it would be such a mystery to humanity? Probably He did, right.

    Thanks again for the clarification.

    • Thanks Dennis. Yes, that is part of what makes theology interesting, and necessary! Scripture speaks clearly on the core of the gospel, but our interpretations vary on many other points. We wouldn’t need theology if everyone read the Bible in the same way.

  8. The main points of contention between Calvinism and Arminianism are Sovereignty and Predestination (election), predestination dependent upon sovereignty, though, so it is really only one issue. Omniscience and omnipotence are the components essential to God’s sovereignty goes without saying, but I will say it so we can keep it in mind. When God created the Alpha He also created the Omega and everything in between, like the Alpha and Omega, was called forth by God, that no detail would escape the “created deliberately by God” label. Created by God, sustained by God and intimately known by God for God’s sole Purpose in every instant of time as a whole. That being the case, if God has unlimited Sovereignty then it is inescapable that before the foundation of the World the elect of God were known by God and specifically, for His own mysterious purposes, were granted eternal life as sons and friends of God specifically formed and trained to proven characters for certain roles that give Glory to God in the way He has specified for you to provide it. It is axiomatic that there are no coincidences and chance in God’s creation as each event is chipped in stone for eternity.

  9. Classic redefining of terms and misrepresentation of what monergists are saying when they call arminian/Wesleyan semi-pelagian. We are full aware you guys believe in preveniant grace. monergism: man is so dead God must pull him out of the pit of sin and raise him to newness of life, giving him a nature of repentance/belief. Got not only provides the ladder out of the pit of sin, that man is so dead he will not choose the ladder, but drags man out and raises him to life. Pelagianism: man is alive/healthy in the pit of sin and God has given him the tools to build a ladder to pull himself out and repent/believe in his own accord. Semi-pelagianism: man is utterly sick and incapable to function in the pit. He does not have the tools to build a ladder or get out of the pit of sin at all. God provides the ladder and the ability to (preveniant grace) freely choose the ladder of salvation out of the pit. Of course this is an illustration and all illustrations will lack in some form or another. But the illustrations stands and illustrates the differences of the positions and the incoherence of redifining the terms in such a manner.

    • Hi Jake – thanks for your comment. My point is that what you’ve described in the last part of your illustration is not semi-pelagianism. As I said above, semi-pelagianism was a historical position from the early church that proposed that humans had to take the first step toward God with unaided free will, before God would respond with grace. In your illustration you referred to God providing the ability freely choose the ladder – that’s not semi-pelagianism. This is important because semi-pelagianism was condemned as a heresy in the early church, so we should be specific in our use of the term and not redefine it.

      I think I’d object to the ladder idea in any case; faith is the only condition of salvation, whereas the ladder makes it seem like there is a lot of work to be done to get out of the pit. Christ has done the work; the condition of appropriating salvation is faith alone. Even to know we are sinners is God’s work in our heart; the question is a) whether God is drawing all people and b) whether he is drawing people irresistibly. That is why I don’t personally advocate the language of “choice” for talking about conversion, though I know many Wesleyans frame it that way. I’d rather say we have the ability to resist God’s grace, and when we do come to faith we are yielding to the Spirit. I’ve written about that here:


  10. Concerning original sin ….
    Adam didn’t become a sinnner by sinning: he sinned because he (already) was a sinner from the beginning.

    So he proved he was a sinner, by sinning. What better proof could he provide?

    When Jesus said a good tree doesn’t bring forth bad fruit, He meant it. If Adam were good from the beginning, it would not have been any more possible for him to sin than it would have been for Christ to sin.

    But unlike Christ, Adam was not God, and because we know that “there is none good but God”, we uinderstand that Adam was of necessity a sinner from the beginning, and as such stood in stark contrast with Christ who was/is God.

    Accordingly, the doctrine of original sin is, although well-intentioned, unwittingly blasphemous in that it implies that in the beginning there were two who were goiod, God and Adam. But when Christ said there is none good but God, it is clear that He meant that there never had been anyone good but God, and that there never can be, not even if one is created by God.

    And so “orginal sin” is better termed “original sinner”. And because we all were in that original sinner, we too sinned along with him; moreover, we would have done the same as he had we been in his place, for the children are not greater than the parents. In this sense Adam’s sin was our sin.

    The doctrine of the “fall” then is actually incorrect: man didn’t fall from righteousness, but merely from innocence, the point being that the very reason he fell from innocence was that he was not righteous.

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