American Christianity and Semi-Pelagianism

American Christianity and Semi-Pelagianism February 20, 2011

I have agreed with my Calvinist friends (such as Mike Horton) that American Christianity is by-and-large Semi-Pelagian.  Where I tend to disagree with them is that this is the same as Arminianism.  I have demonstrated conclusively in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities that Arminianism is not Semi-Pelagian.

What is Semi-Pelagianism?  It s a technical term used in the discipline of historical theology for the teaching of the “Massilians” John Cassian, Faustus of Riez and Vincent of Lyons (and others such as possibly Prosper of Aquitaine) that the initiative in salvation is on the human side even though full salvation can only be by God’s grace.

Cassian termed the initiative in salvation “exercising a good will toward God” and argued that God awaits it before he offers grace.

Semi-Pelagianism, then, is denial of prevenient grace.  Classical Arminianism is, of course, all about prevenient grace.  My friend Stan Grenz described it using four words: conviction, calling, enabling and enlightening.  (There is no order to these; they are simultaneous in the work of prevenient grace.)  These are all the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and without them no one seeks God.  This is classical Arminianism.  It is very different from Semi-Pelagianism which, I argue, is the folk religion of American Christianity.

My evidence for this is based on almost 30 years of teaching theology in three Christian universities (on the graduate and undergraduate levels).  Almost inevitably, when I explain classical Arminianism some students exclaim “That sounds like Calvinism!  How is it different?”  Of course, it’s easy to explain the difference, but to Semi-Pelagians Calvinism and Arminianism sound alike because of the emphasis on total depravity and prevenient grace.  (On crucial difference, of course, is that Arminianism regards prevenient grace as resistible while Calvinism believes it is irresistible.)

As an Arminian, I feel no need to apologize for this situation.  Some trace it back to Charles Finney, the great evangelist of the Second Great Awakening.  Calvinists especially like to categorize him as an Arminian, but I don’t claim him as a true Arminian.  He did not believe in total depravity or the absolute necessity of supernatural prevenient grace.  For him, prevenient grace (and thus God’s initiative) is in the reasonable appeal of the gospel to the intellect. 

The situation is that most American Christian churches (including evangelical ones) are EITHER Calvinist or Semi-Pelagian by default.  I say “by default” because it isn’t intentional; non-Calvinists simply haven’t been taught differently.  The vast majority of Christians in America think these are the only two alternatives.  If we Arminians have anything to apologize for, I guess it would be doing a poor job of getting our message out.  But, then, we get all too little help from major organs of opinion-making such as Christian magazines. 

I call Semi-Pelagianism the default theology of American Christianity.  One of my main purposes for writing Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities was to correct those who think they are Arminian when they are really Semi-Pelagian.  The other, of course, was to correct Calvinists who accuse Arminianism of being Semi-Pelagian.

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  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    Magazines?! Never would have thought of that! In my opinion I would say it is the pastor’s fault. I have been to both Bible college and seminary (3 seminaries to be exact) and I have seen rampant cheating and plagiarism due mostly to laziness. This produces pastors who are ill-prepared to handle tough questions and argue fairly simple doctrines. They do not even read their Bibles!!

  • Aaron

    Dr. Olson,

    Do you know where the official Eastern Orthodox view stands in relation to this? It seems like their articulation of Salvation seems to be more on the semi-pelagian side but I have not read enough to know? And the Eastern church was not present during the councils that decided on Semi-pelagian as being heresy so they might argue that those were not true ecumenical counsels. Any thoughts?

    • My professor of historical theology during my post-seminary graduate studies was Eastern Orthodox and insisted the EO church(es) have no sympathy with either Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, but he also criticized Augustine’s doctrines of original sin and predestination. I guess the EO folks see their own theology as fitting somewhere between semi-Pelagianism and Augustinian-Calvinism. I wonder if it’s something like Arminianism without the Protestant emphasis on justification by grace through faith alone? Sometimes It’s difficult to tell exactly what “the” EO position is on some doctrinal issue developed and debated in the West.

      • Flavio Cardoso

        Dr. Olson,

        I’ve read a lot of books written by eastern orthodox authors, regarding their mystical tradition (pray, contemplation, hesychasm etc.). I realized that they have a beautiful tradition, and a lot of things to teach us, evangelicals, about pray.

        Regarding soteriology, it seems to me that they’re really semi-pelagians, because they stress the goodness of creation, instead of stressing the consequences of the fall. They also stress that human race still have the image and likeness of God. So it’s hard to understand how they could handle with total depravity.

        In one of the books I read, named “Being Still: Reflections on an Ancient Mystical Tradition”, there is a chapter about John Cassian, which is one of the few western fathers they venerate. Indeed, he’s called “saint” by the eastern church, even without being formally canonized. He was heavily commited to the teachings of eastern fathers, and his opposition against Augustine intended to preserve what he considered as orthodoxy.

        All of these books made me meditative. The eastern orthodox seems to be semi-pelagians. The roman catholic, although condemned the semi-pelagianism, in fact embraced a semi-pelagian soteriology. And the evangelical people are, in fact, semi-pelagians, opposing the mainstream theological teachings.

        Did such an heresy became the standard soteriology in the christianity? In this case, who is the heretic: the semi-pelagians, or the others? How bad is the semi-pelagianism? Is “Total Depravity” another Augustine’s innovation? Are we combating against the Holy Spirit?

        I would appreciate your comments.

        • This is a tricky historical-theological question and thorny problem to solve. To the best of my knowledge (and my main professor of historical theology in my doctoral studies was EO), the EO Church(es) does not teach semi-Pelagianism. Neither does the RC Church. However, from a Protestant perspective, both SEEM to fall into or at leat too close to that heresy. So do most lay Protestants and many pastors as well. As I said, it seems to be the default theology of American Christianity and perhaps of world Christianity in general. What’s wrong with it? Both Psalm 14 and Romans 3 say that no one seeks after God.

          • JohnM

            In view of Romans 3, what are we to make of Hebrews 11:6 that says in part God “is a rewarder of those who seek Him”? Is this apparent contradiction solved by understanding the seekers in Hebrews as people who are already believers? Should prevenient grace be assumed to be behind the very seeking? Those are a couple thoughts I had, but I ‘d appreciate yours.

          • Yes, prevenient grace is the basis of the seeking.

  • Micah Wood

    Roger, thank you for posting this. This really clears up my thinking about Arminian theology vs. Calvinism. I was hesitant to investigate Arminian theology too deeply because I had a misconception about it’s stance on \prevenient grace.\ After reading this, I’m hungry to really search out more. Thank you.

  • CarolJean

    Does the doctrine of original sin and total depravity entail that infants are damned?

    • Not according to Ulrich Zwingli, the real father of the Reformed movement. Probably not according to most Lutherans. Certainly not according to most (if not all) Arminians. As for classical Calvinists–I think they are split on that. Of course no Christian group thinks that ALL infants who die are damned. I take your question to mean infants who are neither baptized nor “in the covenant.”

    • Kevin

      The covenantal family is a blessed unit compared to a secular family. Even when children have not made a profession of faith, if they die, it’s easy to assume the Lord protects the children of a covenantal family. Not only that but infants outside the covenantal family, can be saved through general revelation – so long as they didn’t reject general revelation. If you’ve ever seen the awe and wonder of a child – experiencing the world… whether it be snow for the first time… rain… etc… I find few toddlers who would actually be in rejection of general revelation. So we can assume through the writings of Paul (especially later chapters in Roman) we can be hopeful for their salvation through Christ.

  • JohnM

    Have I ever been a Semi-Pelagian? I don’t know, maybe. It’s not like prevenient grace is a phrase I ever heard in any of the (many) Baptist churches I’ve attended. Total depravity is something I associated with Calvinism until fairly recently, that being another term not much used in non-Calvinist evangelical churches.

    I do know I’ve come to see gaps and inconsistencies in the mainstream (if I may) evangelical doctrine I was taught. Furthermore, when I consider contemporary pop theology (which isn’t even up to the standards of what I learned) I understand the appeal of Calvinism. At least it doesn’t seem silly. However, Calvinism has it’s own problems and the appeal is limited, so, I find myself tuned in here 🙂

    • Kevin

      I’m glad the Lord is challenging your faith at this time. I would say some issues of Calvinism are “in house issues”. For example and this article touches on it… Election while popular in Calvinism, no Calvinist would reasonably say is more important then understanding your total depravity. How you stand before an all Holy God – unable to merit salvation through works. Now that’s Total Depravity, a little more broadly defined then most Calvinists would state it, but I do agree with the general idea of this post… In essence Total Depravity between Calvinism and Arminianism are not at massive theological odds with each other.

      Semi-Pelagianism however is contrary to Total Depravity… and Arminians, Calvinists, Calvary Chapel Churches, etc… need to be united in showing the folly of “meritous grace”. Grace can’t be a free gift, if we can reasonably achieve any expectation of it within ourselves – outside of Christ (Romans 4).

  • Bob

    So, a Calvinist, an Arminian, and a Dispensationalist walk into a bar (sorry! couldn’t resist!) seeking converts. Each of them finds one receptive soul and brings that fortunate person to a conviction of sin and a sincere conversion. What did each of the three witnessing Christians say? Did each say something different, or did they all say the same thing? What did each of the three converts say — were their answers all the same or subtly different, somehow? Are all of the three conversions “valid” (pardon the Catholic terminology)? If the three witnesses all said the same thing and the converts all said the same thing and the conversions are all genuine, what difference does the theological orientation of the witnesses make? Or does the difference come in the quality of church life realized after regeneration, i.e., in the stage of sanctification? I realize that this question sounds rather pharasaical, but I’m genuinely curious. Perhaps, Dr. Olson, you address this in your book.

    Truth in advertising: I’m coming from a liberal perspective here, and I think popular liberal piety, which is very widespread, has its own version of semi-Pelagianism, based on the idea that you’ve got to get up and do something for humanity or for the planet, without investigating too critically what that something is, and the discipline that you exercise, in and of itself, will open you up to spiritual benefits. I think this leads to social and political harm just as surely as do some of the colorful right wing ideas from the Dispensationalist camp.

  • Roger, I’ve been loving your blog (big fan of your myths book too). You mentioned in this post that Classical Arminianism is all about Prevenient Grace. Do you have any posts where you have Biblically substantiated the doctrine of prevenient grace? Calvinists are quick to say that it is foreign from Scripture and yet they also preach a prevenient grace of the irresistable variety which makes the charge, to my ears, fall flat. And yet, it would still be nice to see the supportive texts.

    Thank you sir!

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    I believe what you meant to say in response to Rey Reynoso was “the supportive texts are the same ones used by Calvinists for ‘common grace'”

    • Actually not. Calvinists believe in prevenient grace also. The difference is for them it is irresistible by the elect and fully regenerative. However, I understand your concern because “prevenient grace” has come to be used almost exclusively of Arminianism’s enabling grace.

  • Vance

    I certainly believe in prevenient grace, but I’m not sure that Scripture clearly distinguishes it from so-called natural ability. Here’s what I mean: I don’t have anything that was not given to me, including any talents and abilities I may have. Even if I developed certain skills, I have to credit God for giving me the ability to develop those skills, whether that ability was inherited from my parents or supernaturally given to me, for it was God who created genetics and all other “natural” functions. So if God calls me through His Word, and I respond positively to His call because I’m “naturally” wise enough to make the right decision, why is that NOT prevenient grace, since my “natural” wisdom ultimately originated with God anyway? Also, couldn’t prevenient grace include divine intervention in creating circumstances that would get the desired response to particular individuals? Or is it exclusively the Holy Spirit acting *directly* on the mind of the individual? Are some people not “naturally,” by virtue of their mental “wiring,” able to receive the gospel? It would seem so–but isn’t that still prevenient grace?

    • Therein lies the difference between soteriological orthodoxy and heresy. The undivided church condemned Pelagius’ idea that people can obey God naturally, without any supernatural aid, and the Western church condemend the semi-Pelagian idea that people can initiate their own salvation without supernatural grace. (See the acts of the Council of Ephesus, 431 AD and the Second Synod of Orange, 527 AD.) I believe both decisions were correct biblically. Romans 1 makes clear that the natural person, apart from supernatural assisting grace does not seek God and cannot please God.

      • Vance

        I’m not so sure there is anyone who has been given the label “Semi-Pelagian” believes that people can initiate their own salvation without supernatural aid. It’s just that they believe “supernatural aid” consists of the gospel message itself. And that is the question. Is supernatural aid the action of the Holy Spirit upon the human mind, enabling it to receive the gospel? Or is it simply the gospel itself? Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the *power of God* for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Rom 1:16). Since Paul calls the gospel the “power of God for salvation,” it seems to me that there is something supernatural about the gospel message itself–it is supernatural in origin, and the message is about the most wonderful supernatural actions of all history. The natural mind, even at its best, could never figure out a way to accomplish what the gospel can accomplish. The Synod of Orange, in dealing with Semi-Pelagianism, said that grace preceded the beginning of faith. Of course it does! If you don’t have the gospel–if Christ had not come and died for us and made salvation possible–there would be nothing to have faith in.

  • Mr. Olson,

    I could say that in semi-Pelagianism God responds to man in Arminianism man responds to God?

    Embrace of one of his apprentices, Brazil.

  • JG

    Dear Dr. Olson,

    I ask this question with all sincerity. Can you write about the biblical case for total depravity, as understood by both Calvinists and classical Arminians. Why do we believe that human do not or cannot seek God?

    I know that the Bible says all over the place that man is sinful, prone to evil, cannot keep God’s commands, etc. But in my mind that is different than saying a person cannot choose/seek God. It seems to me that most people muddle those two different things.

    As far as a biblical basis for the latter-that Christians cannot seek/choose God-the only thing that comes to mind is Romans 3:11. But if that is all we find, it’s a pretty flimsy basis for a doctrine, especially since I question whether the statement should be taken in an absolute sense.

    Does it simply come down to passages like John 6, where Jesus states that, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”?

    If there is such a limited basis for that view of depravity, why are we so surprised that most Christians (the “folk-religionists”) have missed this doctrine?

    Thanks for helping both Calvinists and Arminians understand theology better!

    • I find it interesting to be caught between two views, both attacking what I consider a very moderate, but orthodox, theological position. From the “right,” so to speak, comes the accusation by Calvinists that Arminians don’t “really” believe in total depravity but only in a “hypothetical” depravity. From the “left,” so to speak, comes the accusation by non-Calvinists that Arminians take total depravity too seriously! I agree with my Calvinist and Lutheran friends that IF we say humans can reach out to God on their own, apart from any supernatural assistance, then humans get some of the glory (merit) for their own salvation.

      • John I.

        Would crying out to God for rescue be considered a “work” or a “self-glory”? It seems that tormented people can cry out in agony and despair without being held to do anything to effect (not affect) their salvation. Does a drowning person get any credit for crying out “Help!”? Or is the very recognition of one’s situation a work of prevenient grace?


      • JG

        I regret that it seems you took my question as an attack. I meant no such malice. I want to be biblical (!) more than anything, and the Calvinist and classical Arminian version of total depravity (which includes the inability to seek God) is biblical, then I am on board.

        Do you know of any article or book I can read that makes the case not just for humans being sinful and incapable of keeping God’s commands, but in particular the case for humans not being able to seek God (which I see as slightly different).


        • One of the best books on original sin and depravity is by one of my theological heroes Bernard Ramm: Offense to Reason: The Theology of Sin (Harper & Row, 1985).

          • JG

            Thanks. I’ll check into it.

        • Steve W

          In your search for biblical evidence of man’s depravity, I would suggest the following merit consideration: Adam did not go seeking God after his sin. God came seeking him. God’s pronouncement regarding the human race in Genesis 6:5 includes every thought, characterized by Him as only evil continually. Psalm 14:1-4 expands on Gen. 6:5, and the last phrase of v. 4 is “and call not upon the Lord”. Jer 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it” Isaiah 1:5,6 paints a graphic picture of the sinful condition. Jesus points to the source of defilement as a matter of the heart in Matt 15:19,20. Even church members in Laodicea apparently could not realize how depraved they were without the remedies offered by the True and Faithful witness. He took the initiative to knock (Rev 3:14-22). Ephesians 2:1-8 describes a wonderful transition from describing fallen mankind as dead in sin, and by nature children of wrath, to what grace can do. Titus 2:11-14, and 3:3-7 are in a similar vein. Finally, if John chapter one teaches anything in the first 17 verses, it is prevenient grace in action.
          “Oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be”

  • Steve Lemke

    Good insights, Roger. I agree about the semi-Pelagian notions of American culture, especially in the “saved by good works” notions of civil religion. On semi-Pelagianism, the best book I know is Rebecca Harden Weaver’s Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy

    • Thanks. I’ve referred to that book in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.

  • Steve Dal

    Thanks for the outline Roger I find it really helpful to try to calrify just exactly what people mean when they say I am Arminian. Often I find both Calvinists and Arminians don’t have a grasp of what it is they are claiming to be exactly.

  • Mike Christensen

    Dr. Olson’s thoughts on this topic have spiked my interest since I have studied these issues as an Arminian (maybe I’m a semi-Pelagian?) at a Reformed seminary.
    As a preliminary, it seems the more I study the more I see that theologians forget that most of the time they are filling in the blanks–they philosophize/theologize (with liberality) on certain verses or concepts in Scripture, but write as if their musings are TRUTH and all others who disagree are at least wrong, and at most heretical. God help us.

    Let’s look at your distinction between semi-Pelagiansims (SP) and Arminianism (Ar). Arminians believe in total depravity and the need for prevenient grace in order for persons to respond freely to the gospel, illustrated by such verses as John 6:43-44. Semi-Pelagians, like Finney, would probably say God never allowed us to be brought down by total depravity (we are only morally depraved, not physically), therefore we don’t need extra help from
    God to respond–God has already “graced” us by not permitting total depravity! (This seems to also be the general view of those followers of Arminius, Phillipp van Limborch and Simon Episcopius). God’s grace operates in both views, but in different ways. SP’s might say Ar’s created a problem (total depravity) and then solved it (prev. grace), and would counter that there is no need for a solution to a problem that never was. Both get to the point that the person is ABLE to respond to the gospel. As SP’s look at Ar’s, they might say the grace was not to deprave humans in the first place!

    How do SP’s interpret the drawing of God in John 6? I don’t know–they might interpret it like Finney. Does God draw all people to himself? Surely the whole Bible testifies to that. Does that drawing overcome some inherent depravity? That, fellow theologians, is an educated guess and is up for debate. Let us use language like, “This is the conclusion I have come to after considering the biblical evidence.” not “This is the way it is.” My own study of Scripture, my own self-perceptions, and my observations of human behavior have lead me to believe the Ar or SP conclusion on this issue is LIKELY correct. Arminians–let’s not poo-poo the SP’s–they may be more correct than you are!

    As a philosophy of religion and a theology student, I love to debate these type of issues. We need more thinking within Christianity. However, when all of that is done, maybe we evangelicals ought to emphasize the things we have in common doctrinally, such as the NAE statement of faith, agree to disagree on certain issues beyond that, and present a unified front to the world who needs to see love and unity from the church if they are ever to be attracted to our Savior.

    • rogereolson

      Amen to that last paragraph especially. As a classical Arminian I find it helpful to criticize semi-Pelagianism when talking especially to Reformed people. They almost always think Arminianism is the same as semi-Pelagianism. I can show them they’re wrong. But, also, I think scripture is clear that humans, in their natural, fallen state, do not ever seek God. Therefore, since many people do seek God the Bible must mean “unless they are liberated (from bondage of the will) by grace.” I really don’t know many people today who would label themselves semi-Pelagian. It seems to be the default theology of most American Christians, but I can’t think of any theologian who actually champions it. I agree that Limborch was a semi-Pelagian. Whether Finney was depends on which book (or even which part of a book) you read by him. I’m convinced Episcopius was not a semi-Pelagian.