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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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