R. C. Sproul, Arminianism, and Semi-Pelagianism

R. C. Sproul, Arminianism, and Semi-Pelagianism February 22, 2013

R. C. Sproul, Arminianism, and Semi-Pelagianism

Many years ago, as I was emerging out of my fundamentalist-Pentecostal cocoon into the larger world of evangelicalism (during seminary studies at an evangelical Baptist seminary) I was helped by the writings and teaching of several leading Reformed evangelical theologians. James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and publisher of Eternity magazine, was one of them. Not only did I read his books and articles in Eternity; I also studied under him at seminary. He took a sabbatical from his pulpit to teach homiletics at my seminary—something nobody at that seminary seems to remember! But I still have the sermons I wrote for his class and his handwritten notes on them. (He gave them good marks.)

Another Reformed evangelical theologian who helped me was R. C. Sproul who wrote many articles for Eternity (a now defunct magazine I have discussed here before as especially helpful to me during my student years and the first publisher of my own writings—two book reviews written when I was still in seminary). Of course I knew Sproul was a Calvinist, but so were some of my close relatives. Back then there was no hostility between evangelical Arminians and evangelical Calvinists. While in seminary I served on staff of an independent Pentecostal-charismatic church that was thoroughly Arminian. We worked in close cooperation with Reformed churches on evangelistic and other endeavors. We sometimes joked with each other about our theological differences, but there was no sense from either side that one was “more Christian” or even “more evangelical” than the other.

While in seminary I found my interests focusing on Christian history and especially historical theology and I learned, among other things, that something called “semi-Pelagianism” is a heresy. The Second Council of Orange condemned it as such in 529. Even then, of course, I 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).

I think it was while reading Louis Berkhof’s systematic theology that I first encountered the idea that semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism might be lumped together. That was during seminary. But it wasn’t until I was in my doctoral studies that I first encountered a blatant identification of Arminianism as semi-Pelagianism. I was serving as youth minister and director of Christian education at a Presbyterian church and teaching an adult Sunday School class. Most of the people in the class had grown up Presbyterian. I chose to have them read and discuss Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie Jr.’s (that’s a man) Christian Doctrine—a fine one volume presentation of basic Christian doctrine from a Reformed perspective. There I ran into it—James Arminius used as the example of a semi-Pelagian view of election. I knew he was wrong about that and told the class, but they were hardly interested as none of them believed in election anyway! (This was a “northern Presbyterian church” in the deep South and most of the good folks were not Calvinists in spite of the Westminster Confession of Faith.)

When I began teaching theology at an evangelical Baptist college I used Guthrie’s book as a primary text in an introduction to doctrine course. It was so readable and full of good illustrations that I thought students would like it and I could correct his errors in my lectures—which I did. But every semester I became more annoyed at his use of Arminius as the example of semi-Pelagianism that I considered using some other textbook. Eventually someone edited Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology (three volumes to one) and I began using that. When I ran into Guthrie at a professional society meeting, I very respectfully confronted him about his error. He said I should write to him about it and he would consider changing it as he worked on a revision that was already in progress. I did that and the revision treated the subject somewhat better although not entirely to my satisfaction.

Throughout the 1990s I kept hearing rumblings about a new stirring of Calvinism among young evangelicals and I began to experience it among my students, many of whom were attending Bethlehem Baptist Church pastored by John Piper. I received the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine in 1992. It was dedicated to criticizing Arminian theology and many of the authors identified it as semi-Pelagian. I wrote a letter to the editor (Michael Horton) arguing that true Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism and he published it with a lengthy response. That began our now twenty-plus year conversation about this.

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.

I began to formulate a plan to write a book about true, classical Arminian theology. Several publishers expressed interest in it and I went with my friends at InterVarsity Press. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities has been well-received both here in the U.S. and in other countries. It is being translated into Portugese for the Brazilian evangelical audience this year. I continue to receive e-mails from around the world thanking me for writing it—some of them from Calvinists who admit that reading it convinced them that Arminianism is not what they had thought.

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.)

I am convinced that the identification of Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism has become a major polemical tool in the current resurgence of Calvinism among especially American (now spreading to other counties) young Christians. In other words, Sproul and other influential Calvinists present only two options: Calvinism and semi-Pelagianism and label the latter a denial of salvation by grace alone.

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.

According to historical theologian Rebecca Harden Weaver of Union Presbyterian Seminary (Virginia), whose book Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Mercer University Press, 1996) is the only English language monograph dedicated solely to semi-Pelagianism that I am aware of, “semi-Pelagianism” is tied inextricably to the teachings of Gallic monastic critics of Augustine and most importantly (prototypically) John Cassian. Cassian and certain other Gallic monks (“Masillians”) argued that although God may initiate salvation with grace, for many people the initiative is theirs toward God. That is, God waits to see the “exercise of a good will” before responding with grace. This is what was condemned (along with predestination to evil) at Orange in 529.

“Semi-Pelagianism,” then, is the view that “The beginning of faith may have its source in the human agent, although it will not always have its source there.” Furthermore, to compound Cassian’s non-Augustinian view of free will and human initiative in salvation, he taught that “The free will, even in its fallen condition, is not totally unable to will the good” and “the emphasis [of Cassian’s doctrine] falls on vigilance, unceasing struggle, in the attainment of salvation.”

This is the standard definition/description of semi-Pelagianism. But in some Reformed circles it has been broadened out to include any and every denial of the irresistible efficacy of grace (for the elect). That’s too broad and it departs from historical tradition in identifying what semi-Pelagianism is. That would be like me using “supralapsarian” to describe all denials of free will. I would be quickly challenged and corrected by especially infralapsarians like Sproul.

I was disappointed that Sproul did not respond to my book. He asked for a copy of it and I sent it with the intention that he would read it and respond. It’s been almost five years now. Perhaps life circumstances have prevented it, but I would like very much to know what other Calvinists who have misrepresented Arminianism in the same manner have to say about my book and its central argument that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism.

In the book I quote numerous Arminian theologians, from Arminius himself to Thomas Oden, to show that all classical Arminians believe that the initiative in salvation is God’s grace (prevenient grace) and that any good humans do, including the first exercise of a good will toward God, is so enabled by grace that there is no room for boasting.

Of course, even Calvinists who come to admit that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism will reject it. But my personal project in all this has not been to convert Calvinists to Arminianism; it has been to get them and Arminians to recognize what Arminianism really is in contrast to the widespread misinterpretations and misrepresentations of it.

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  • Fred Karlson

    Thank you so much for all you do Roger. Your writings have meant a lot to me in my interpretation of Arminius and Wesley, and all those who follow them. Your writings are very clear and well supported. They go along way in a field of evangelical authors who seem almost always to support the Calvinist interpretation of the Scriptures, and who do tend to distort and twist the views of those who disagree. I was surprised recently when I read the one volume version of Bavinck’s sytematic theology. While he seemed so careful and insightful in his studies, I got the impression that he had never read the works of Arminius. This was a big disappointment to me. I am glad for other Reformed writers, like Richard Muller, who seriously takes the time to read widely and is careful and nuanced in what he says.

  • Roger writes,
    “In other words, Sproul and other influential Calvinists present only two options: Calvinism and semi-Pelagianism and label the latter a denial of salvation by grace alone.”

    What bothers me is limiting the choices to Calvinism and Arminianism. There is a version of Augustinianism that affirms monegerism while holding to the resistibility of grace and the possibility of falling from grace (many Lutherans). This is the view to which I hold and the view I discern in the writings of Donald Bloesch. It bothers me when Calvinists lump monergistic Lutherans with them. There’s a big difference. Things like universal atonement, God’s real desire that all be saved, God being truly being present in his word for all people, emphasis on love of God rather than the sovereignty of God. Makes all the difference in the world.

    • rogereolson

      Once one steps away from any attempt at logical consistency into the realm of paradoxes there can be a plethora of possible choices. I loved Bloesch, but he frustrated me with his cavalier attitude toward logic.

      • When I think of Bloesch (and conservative Lutherans like Pieper and Mueller who do the same thing at this point) I think of someone who is refusing to flatten the Bible out to get logical consistency. I just reread Bloesch’s “The Struggle of Prayer” in preparation for a sermon. I could see what he was doing there, trying to do justice to the fullness of biblical teaching by bringing together two seemingly opposing truths that together express more of the truth than when they are kept apart.

        • rogereolson

          Don and I discussed this. I told him a paradox is always a task for further thought. He disagreed. But the problem is, a paradox embraced is permission to others to embrace their own paradoxes. Once paradoxes are allowed to stand without attempts to resolve them, anything goes.

          • You say, Once paradoxes are allowed to stand without attempts to resolve them, anything goes.

            When evangelicals abandon this common sense observation and embrace mystery and paradox, I fear for the next generation. The doctrinal and lifestyle chaos won’t be at all subtle.

  • James Petticrew

    I actually blame Jim Packer with the rise in anti Arminian polemic

    “First, it should be observed that 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.)”

    • rogereolson

      He certainly contributed to it. One has to wonder if he even read Arminius or the Remonstrant Confession of 1621.

      • James Petticrew

        I heard him preach several times and for someone who liked to talk about the “doctrines of grace” he was decidedly lacking in grace when talking about Wesleyans and Arminians.

  • John Gorveatte

    Dr. Olson,

    I, too, have experienced from some of my better Calvinist friends this assumption that Pelagius and Arminius taught the “same thing”, in a blatant denial of salvation by faith and God’s grace alone. Do you think that this misrepresentation comes from a lack of theological education in Arminian circles to stand up confidently against this claim or is it the clamoring of mainstream Calvinism?

    Thanks for your consideration,

    • rogereolson

      Theologically astute Arminians have not been very vocal in their own defense–until recently. And the most vocal Arminians have often been satisfied to stay within their Wesleyan or Church of Christ or Free Will Baptist subcultures. The “mainstream” evangelical publishers pretty much ignored them. I think that is beginning to change. If I have contributed to that, I’m satisfied. I hope more of them will come out into the wider evangelical world and speak up with a strong, informed, Arminian voice. Throughout most of evangelical history (I mean the post-WW2 evangelical movement) some form of Reformed theology has been treated as normative for evangelical thought. Even Arminians like Thiessen (Wheaton) joined the Reformed attack on Arminianism. I think that was the only way to join the mainstream evangelical “club.” I still find that many evangelicals assume I’m Wesleyan when I say I’m Arminian. The vast majority of evangelical scholars are totally unaware of non-Wesleyan Arminians until you mention Free Will Baptists, non-Wesleyan Pentecostals, Independent Christians. Then they say “Oh, yes, I guess I’ve heard of that.” Some years ago I had a conversation with the president of a leading evangelical seminary about all this. He informed me imperiously that there are “Reformed Pentecostals” and “Wesleyan Pentecostals” and that the former are non-Arminian. In spite of his wide, even vast, knowledge of evangelicalism and evangelical theology he was blissfully unaware that “Reformed” attached to “Pentecostal” does NOT mean “Calvinist.” It ONLY means “non-Wesleyan.” A better term for it would be “Baptistic Pentecostal.” So the reasons are many but you put your finger on two of them and I’ve here agreed and given some supportive details.

      • Sean

        In spite of his wide, even vast, knowledge of evangelicalism and evangelical theology he was blissfully unaware that “Reformed” attached to “Pentecostal” does NOT mean “Calvinist.” It ONLY means “non-Wesleyan.” A better term for it would be “Baptistic Pentecostal.”
        Thank you for writing that! This particular one drives me crazy, and I’ve seen it a lot in recent years by authors who should know better. There were a lot movements that contributed to the rise of Pentecostalism, but Calvinism really wasn’t one of them. All the Assemblies of God theology works I have, for example, are thoroughly Arminian, at least where they do engage the concerned soteriological issues.
        BTW, if Pentecostals are considered evangelicals, then evangelicalism is overwhelmingly Arminian because we utterly dwarf the Reformed in terms of adherents. I find it amusing, in an ironic way, that when many evangelical leaders want to show the size and importance of the movement, we are included in its membership, but when it comes to theological matters, we are held at arms length–“barely saved,” as I think Sproul has been quoted as saying.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, a terrible irony. I have also noticed it.

  • Kevin McKee

    Thank you for a clear and precise discussion of the distortions of the “young Calvinists”. Now I guess I need to go out and find a copy of your book, I am intrigued. I need to start to see if it has been converted to an e-book.

  • Dr. Olson, though I have previously told you this, it is worth repeating that your book on Arminian theology is excellent. I had absorbed a lot of Calvinistic theology over the years, but be began to question it some years ago, and ended up turning from it . After having done so, I read your book on Arminianism. I liked it so well that I have read it at least twice, and often tell others to read it. If Calvinists open-mindedly read the book, they will learn that they have been seriously misled about Arminianism. Also, your book called “Against Calvinism” is a must read. I have read it twice, too. Now I call myself an Arminian who believes in eternal security.

    • rogereolson

      Welcome to the club! It’s probably a small one. The vast majority of Baptists who are not Calvinists and who believe in eternal security are probably really semi-Pelagians. 🙂

      • Ha! Ha! No hitting below the belt, Dr. Olson. Just because I sometimes favorably quote authors who might be semi-Pelagians doesn’t mean I am one.

  • It’s just hard for me to read the Bible, to look at myself (as well as others) and come up with any other idea than what the Bible already tells us. That being that we are dead in our sins and trespasses. That no one seeks for God, or is good. That we are born not of the will of man….but of God. Even Jesus said, “no one CAN come to me except he be compelled by the Spirit.”

    To ascribe a characteristic or ability to man that rightfully only belongs to God, is dangerously teetering on blasphemy.

    As Luther rightly said, “our wills our bound to sin”. If you haven’t read, “The Bondage of the Will”, I would highly recommend it.


    • rogereolson

      If you haven’t read Erasmus’ side of the debate with Luther, you should. I highly recommend it. What translation is your quote from? No English translation I know translates the verse that way. The Greek word you translate “compelled” does not necessarily mean that at all. I deal with this in Against Calvinism. Read it.

      • Aaron

        Is Erasmus some what a semi-pelagian?

        • rogereolson

          I have perused his book (to which Luther responded with On the Bondage of the Will) looking for clear proof of semi-Pelagianism without success. Unless, of course, one defines it the way Sproul and many others define it.

  • J.E. Edwards

    I know this part of the conversation is revolving around the effectuality of grace. However, I’ve already added my part many times on posts past. Roger, in the comments I’ve read on this post, you’re the only one to refer to finally falling away or eternal security. That was only a passing comment. How much do you think the mentality of Arminians (that believe) actually being able to finally fall away or lose your salvation enters the thoughts of the Calvinists you’ve already mentioned? Do you think they are trying to somehow justify how it’s possible for someone to lose their salvation and yet their works still account for nothing? I don’t think I’ve seen any recent posts regarding the eternal security nature of salvation. From what I’ve read here, I get the feeling that isn’t one of the tenets of Arminianism that you cling to. How would a classic Arminian reconcile salvation by grace, not works, yet you can lose your salvation?

    • rogereolson

      No classical Arminian I know would seriously say (mean) that a truly saved person can “lose” their salvation. The Wesleyan doctrine (also held by Free Will Baptists and most Pentecostals) is that grace is “amissable”–can be rejected. The point is that grace is a relationship, not a condition. A relationship can be rejected. Many, perhaps most, Baptists are Arminians who believe in “inamissable grace”–that grace once received unto salvation cannot be “lost” (rejected). Arminius and the earliest Remonstrants claimed that Scripture is not sufficiently clear about this to form a definite belief. In other words, they left it in the realm of opinion.

  • Dr. Olson, You mention the ‘church of Christ’ above in one of your comments in regards to being Arminian and (presumably) not semi-Pelagian. While I completely agree that Arminians are not semi-Pelagian, I disagree that most ‘Church of Christ’ are Arminian. I suggest this because of the great consensus among that group against any notion of ‘original sin’ (not to mention their disavowal of any confessions, like that of the Remonstrants of 1621). A quick internet search will bring up a myriad of Church of Christ periodicals, sermons, and the like against anything like a ‘sinful nature’. For them, all sin is merely specific acts of willful disobedience done by responsible individuals.

    Again, I agree with you that ‘Arminian’ should not be equated with semi-Pelagianism, and I would offer that slippery-slope arguments that suggest one leads to the other are also suspect. But that being said, I do believe that Pelagianism, semi- or not, is alive and well today with many. For some reason people cannot stand the notion of the depravity of mankind—perhaps because of the logical implication some make when starting from this premise. I wish, more in line with N.T. Wright, that we could instead talk about an ‘original exile’. Perhaps the problem with both Calvinism and Arminian theology is their individualist tendencies…?! I don’t know…

  • Jon Altman

    Millsaps College (a United Methodist institution) was trying to comply with Title IX in athletics when I was a student there in the late 1970’s. In 1978 they started a women’s basketball team. For some reason they hired as a coach a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, an institution started in Jackson, MS by the Presbyterian Church in America. The coach was a VERY odd man in many ways, but one of the oddest was a talk he gave to the evangelical student group then loosely affiliated with Intervarsity. He talked about “Pelagians” and “Wesleyans” as synonymous. He was so persistent about spreading his views that the (United Methodist Clergy) Dean had to bar him from campus unless he was actually coaching the women’s basketball team.

  • Steve Rogers

    ” The Second Council of Orange condemned it as such in 529.” And here we are 1500 years later still in disagreement over aspects of this controversy. Perhaps we would be better served if we recognized those old council decisions as the mere opinions of power sanctioned influencers of their time and cease citing them as authorities in present conversations. Surely what Paul said about looking through a darkened glass and therefore knowing in part was also true of the Second Council of Orange as it is for us today.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I have always wondered why high Calvinists like to cite a Catholic synod 1500 years old especially when it condemned belief in “predestination to evil.”

  • Jon Altman

    The point of the above story is that both the theological and culture “wars” were brewing in the late 1970’s.

  • I’ve almost finished Tom McCall and Keith Stanglin’s new book, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford, 2012) for a review in Trinity Journal. This careful book should serve to correct misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Arminius’s own theology, as your book has of Arminian theology more generally. Hopefully it will get the wide reading it deserves. I would be interested in your thoughts on it sometime; maybe a blog post/series?

    • rogereolson

      The book is supposed to be on its way to me from the publisher (but this has been promised before). You can be sure I will review it when I receive it. The only thing is, I probably shouldn’t say too much until I’ve delivered my public review of it at AAR in Baltimore in November (at a joint session of the Evangelical Theology Group and the Relational Theology Group).

    • David Martinez

      I’m halfway through it and I love it. By the way, a book that came out around the same time is “Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments” by W. Stephen Gunter. I haven’t read it yet but I had a lengthy conversation with the author last year in California (which is when I found out about the book) and he was a very kind and knowledgable brother in Christ. 🙂

  • Chuck

    I know you didn’t recommend Carl Trueman’s “The Creedal Imperative” but I read it anyway. 😉 It had some worthwhile things to say but one thing I found irritating was the implication, by way of referring to Reformed thought as anti-Pelagian, that other schools of thought (wink, wink, Arminian) are Pelagian. Maybe I was just over-sensitive to his style but that’s what I understood him to be saying without coming right out and saying it. I was so annoyed I even thought of writing to the publisher who, I felt, should have been more diligent in keeping that kind of thing out of their books.

  • Joseph O.

    Two questions: Am I a semi-P. if I believe that all initiatives of salvation are recognized as within God’s domain but that this includes His active preservation of the wills of His creation through the fall so that, though not being able to carry out our wills in an unaided fashion, we can at least choose the good (or choose Him)?

    If the answer is yes to question one, why is semi-P. regarded as a heresy? What difference does it make if God gets all the glory through preserving dimensions of His own creation or gets the glory through prevenient grace? Why is more glory ascribed through a re-creation (prevenient grace), rather than a preservation of creation. Human boasting is logically excluded in both.

    • rogereolson

      The issue is whether prevenient grace is regarded as part of the natural equipment of the human person or a supernatural gift. Rahner called it a “supernatural existential” to make clear it is not part of man’s natural equipment.

  • Bev Mitchell

    You make it very clear how a specific, unacceptable position can be hijacked and subtly expanded to construct a straw man that can then be used to attack a rival position (or to advance one’s own preferred position). I wonder if more emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this would not have helped over the centuries, and could help now. Here is what I am getting at.

    It seems reasonable to view the Holy Spirit as God at work in the world. It also seems right to equate (or to virtually equate) the Holy Spirit, Grace and Love as they are meant to be by the Father. So, where is Grace, where is Love? To limit their reach in any way would limit God as Father. So Grace (as prevenient, for example) is always available to all, in all situations – which is much the same as saying that the Holy Spirit is available, or the Love of God is available. How could it be otherwise when God is Father, Spirit, Love and Grace.

    This is well developed with examples and Scripture backup by Amos Yong in his “Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace”. With the Holy Spirit at work throughout humanity, it’s easy to see how the necessary Grace to believe is also available. We can resist being moved by that Grace, but we can also not resist. With this thinking we can also see all good things, all acts of Love as Spirit engendered even while being delivered by humans.

    As Yong suggests: “…the Spirit works through human physiology (the visceral and embodied aspect), psychology (the cognitive dimension), and affectivity (the emotional and passionate) domain. …….. in order to save human bodies, renew human thinking, reorient human desire, and, ultimately, redeem human life.”

    • rogereolson

      As I just wrote to another commenter, it seems to me the crucial issue is whether prevenient grace is supernatural or regarded as part of the human being’s natural equipment/endowment. Semi-Pelagianism is the view that the fallen human person, without any supernatural aid, can exercise a good will toward God and that God indeed waits for that before extending grace. Anything else would not be real, historical semi-Pelagianism.

  • Dr. Olson, I want to encourage your readers to read volume two of “The Works Of Arminius.” I started with volume two because of the subjects it deals with. I have read most of it, and profited from it in a number of ways. Among other things, it introduces one to Arminius’s thinking in his own words in his own books, instead of only reading quotes from him in other books. I have the 3 volume set, but it can be read on various websites, too.

    • rogereolson

      Well, yes, it goes without saying…. I also urge interested readers to look into Arminius’ own works. But most will not. That’s why I wrote Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. It contains numerous quotes from Arminius and Arminian theologians. If someone wants the best summary of Arminius’ thought about God’s sovereignty (providence and predestination) in his own words I recommend they read his “A Letter to Hippolytus A Collibus.”

  • Elliott Scott

    Have any prominent Calvinists acknowledged that Arminianism is not semi-Pelagianism? Your friend Horton, perhaps?

    • rogereolson

      I believe he has acknowledged that, but I can’t remember exactly when or where.

    • AvidReader

      I think it’s safe to say Mark Driscoll is considered a prominent Calvinist. I was pleasantly surprised by his treatment of both Armininianism and Calvinism in his book, “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe”. On p. 267-268 he outlines 5 views on atonement: Universalism, Pelagianism, Unlimited Atonement (which he ties to Arminianism, even referencing prevenient grace), Limited Atonement, and Unlimited-Limited Atonement. He says the first 2 are unbiblical and unacceptable and then, “We are left with 3 options for Christians regarding the question of who Jesus died for. All 3 positions are within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy”. A fair treatment of Arminianism that doesn’t lump it with semi-Pelagianism. This is a great example of what Roger has pleaded for: expressing a contrary position as its proponents would express it. Really wish more Calvinists would do as Driscoll does in this book.

  • Aaron

    So … Sproul is either ignorant of what he is teaching or being blatantly deceitful?

    • rogereolson

      He simply chooses to define “semi-Pelagianism” his own way–a way shared by most Reformed theologians–that is historically-theologically incorrect.

  • This is one of the better posts on-line in defense of Classical Arminianism not being semi-Pelagianism, and I thank you for writing it!

  • The Old Adam,

    It’s just hard for me to read the Bible, to look at myself (as well as others) and come up with any other idea than what the Bible already tells us.

    It’s hard for you to read the Bible in any other Calvinistic manner because you are operating and interpreting Scripture through a Calvinistic hermeneutic. No one interprets the Bible purely objectively — not you, not me, no one. Arminians read the same exact verses you read and do conclude with Calvinism. This, I write, as a former Calvinist.

    To ascribe a characteristic or ability to man that rightfully only belongs to God, is dangerously teetering on blasphemy.

    Yet, Classical Arminians ascribe ability to God; but ability is not tantamount to irresistibility.

    I think the more we are honest about our biblical convictions and interpretations — those being derived from hermeneutics and not from pure objectivity, which is an impossibility, for only God is purely objective — the better Calvinists and Arminians will get along.

    • William,

      For the record, The Old Adam, is a Lutheran not a Calvinist.

      I hope you’ve been well.

      • Mark,

        (Blush …) Thank you. Does that make him a four-point Calvinist? (Joke)

  • The Old Adam,

    *Correction* Arminians read the same exact verses you read and do not conclude with Calvinism.

  • rvs

    Erasmus–yes! I read this above with much interest, and I have discovered as well that Calvinists (if I might generalize) tend not to want to hear any sort of news that challenges. Even fun banter is quickly met with a grave expression. Grave. Dignified. Austere. There is an adolescent male vibe emanating from the Calvinist project (again, I generalize; I know several warm, intellectually adventuresome Calvinists, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule).

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Olson,

    Have you read Carl Trueman’s review of your book? I was wondering what you thought of it?

    • rogereolson

      I have not. I don’t even know who Carl Trueman is. I’ve learned here that he has some connection with Westminster Theological Seminary. My dialogue partner at Westminster (California campus) is Mike Horton. I can’t imagine Trueman has anything to say that Mike hasn’t said to me! 🙂

  • Please direct me to some of your work or others that show the differences of Arminians and Wesleyan-Arminians. Thanks for your works of academic service.
    Fletcher Law

    • rogereolson

      I’ve addressed the differences here before. They are simple. Classical, “Reformed” Arminians (a misnomer, perhaps) do not believe in entire sanctification/Christian perfection. Ironically, Arminius did. Also, many non-Wesleyan Arminians (especially among Baptists) embrace “eternal security” (perhaps inconsistently) whereas all Wesleyans deny it (so far as I know). But on the crucial questions of soteriology (prevenient grace, free will, corporate election, universal atonement) we agree.

      • David Martinez

        Do you remember what the title is of the blog you wrote in which you discuss the difference between Wesleyan and Classical? I would like to read that blog.

        By the way, Is the Governmental Atonement view connected with either side of Arminianism or are there people in both Wesleyan and Classical camps who believe in it? I’m struggling with my own view on the atonement… do you recommend any books that deal with the different views of atonement?

        • rogereolson

          There are so many. Nearly all ignore the governmental theory. I strongly recommend Across the Spectrum by Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd. It covers a large number of controversial doctrinal issues fairly presenting all sides and giving the reasons for and against them. As I recall, the chapter on atonement does include the governmental theory. (My copy is not at hand, so I can’t check it right now.) There are several “views” books published by Christian publishers that cover atonement theories. They’re all worthy.

  • Josué de Oliveira

    It is very good to know that your book is being translated to portuguese and that brazilian readers will have a chance to take a look at it. I count myself as one of them. Your explanations about classical arminianism have been really helpfull for me in these two years I’ve been struggling with the issues of election, predestination etc. So it’s great news that we’ll have good material about classical arminianism here in Brazil. 🙂

    And, just for the record (cuz now I’m very curious), do you know witch publishing house will be lauching your book in Brazil?

    • rogereolson

      Editora Reflexao.

  • I just read Erasmus “Julius excluded from Heaven” and am doing a paper on Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Luther confuses me. If Luther believes in the possibility of falling from grace/forfeiting salvation, how would we reconcile that with Luther’s view of predestination and that there is NO such thing as free will? The more I read Luther the less I like him…..
    I am a United Methodist Seminarian. I finished my M.A. already and am working on the M.Div. So I am not an expert but I am not a theological novice. I like Arminianism much better than Calvinism, in all honesty I find Calvinism detestable. A God that predestines people to heaven or hell apart from any free response to his offer of love sounds monstrous to me. Yet Arminianism seems to fall short as well. I enjoyed your book on Arminianism but I am drawn to Open theism. Of course all of this is a journey and I am a work in progress.
    Jason D. Greene M.A. (Religion)

    • rogereolson

      Luther did not believe in predestination–at least not in the Calvinist sense of a divine decree that selects certain people to be saved before they even exist. He did believe in irresistible grace, though (monergism). Like Augustine, he thought it possible for a person once saved to reject grace. Luther was no slave to consistency. He believed whatever he thought the Bible taught (unless it was in James).

  • Rick

    Would you say Sproul (and others) are addressing “contemporary Arminianism/Weslyians”, rather than classic Arminianism?
    Keith Drury wrote:
    “John Wesley…has considerable differences from contemporary Wesleyans. John Wesley agrees with contemporary Wesleyans that God gives to every person the gift of prevenient grace and that prevenient grace makes possible the potential for every person to be saved. However, Wesley disagrees with contemporary Wesleyans on two intertwined and important matters as well: the basic nature of prevenient grace and when a person can be saved.
    Contemporary Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism either implies or explicitly teaches that faith is an inherent power within human beings as a result of the prevenient grace given to all of humanity. As such, human beings have the ability in any given moment to exercise their will to believe the Gospel and be saved….Thus, faith and a personal response to the Gospel, is primarily something a person does. They believe. They decide. They receive. To contemporary Wesleyans human beings have this power to decide as a result of prevenient grace—a blanket of grace given to all humans everywhere enabling them to move toward God and exercise faith in any given moment.
    Wesley disagrees. This contemporary understanding is a fundamental misappropriation of Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace. Prevenient grace, to Wesley is primarily a restoration of humanity’s responsiveness to grace not the granting of the power to believe. To Wesley prevenient grace brings to power to respond to grace, not the power to believe.”

    • rogereolson

      Again, the key issue is whether prevenient grace is a supernatural gift that constitutes God’s initiative or whether ability to exercise a good will toward God is part of the person’s natural equipment. Which contemporary Wesleyan theologians does Drury cite to support his claim?

  • John


    “Semi-Pelagianism,” then, is the view that “The beginning of faith may have its source in the human agent, although it will not always have its source there.”

    Honest question here. I am having a hard time seeing the big “heresy” if this is a correct definition of semi-pelagianism. Couldn’t a non-believer, sensing an emptiness in their lives, visit a church, hear the good news of Jesus Christ and respond in faith? Isn’t that a semi-pelagian scenario?

    Thanks, John

    • rogereolson

      You are talking about what happens empirically. The issue is a theological one. An orthodox perspective is that God drew that person to himself through prevenient grace–whether he or she felt it as such or not. Scripture clearly says that no one seeks after God.

      • John


        I’m trying to wrestle with these issues on a logical basis, so does the belief in the existence of God require a act of grace from God? If someone can belief in the existence of God without His initiative why can’t that person seek Him? Hebrews 11:6

        • rogereolson

          Even Calvin believed in a “sensus divinus”–a natural sense of God’s existence. But, following Romans 1, he argued that it always results in idolatry, not discovery of the true God in a saving way (without the intervention of supernatural grace).

          • John


            Thank you for your attention to my questions. I have a deep family history in the Assemblies of God (but not currently in the fellowship) but until recently I’ve noticed my theology is facing more and more challenges from those that are influenced by Calvinist doctrine, although they never seem to identify themselves as Calvinists.

            Does God grant prevenient grace to all? Is the conviction of sin an act of prevenient grace or can the Holy Spirit convict a non-believer of sin, and the non-believer resist repentance? Can prevenient grace abide in person for a life-time with continued resistance? or would the HS ultimately cease to work on that person?

            Thanks again, John

          • rogereolson

            I don’t know the answers to all your questions. I only know we are told in Scripture that faith comes by hearing (the Word of God, the gospel). How God works prevenient grace in people’s lives beyond that is unknown to me.

  • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

    I found this page interesting in regard to the Lutheran view of TULIP:


    • rogereolson

      I couldn’t tell from that whether the writer (blogger) is ELCA or LC-MS (or some other kind of Lutheran). The one point where I would disagree (based on a lot of reading of Lutheran theology and interacting with Lutheran speakers who come to my classes) is whether grace is resistible. I think it’s more complicated than the blogger says.

  • Dear Roger,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post. The one thing that all Christians ought to love is historical/theological accuracy and nothing less. It is bothersome to me to follow a scholar’s footnotes to find that his source does not support what he is saying. I mention no names, I accuse no one mentioned in this post either. But in my personal study, I see this too frequently and is not the exception or rare mistake that it should be. This is not to mention bad exegesis by brothers who, quite frankly, ought to know better.

    Your mention of the critical spirits between the two camps. This has certainly heightened since the 90s. I honestly became a Calvinist by reading the word in the mid-90s, didn’t know of Piper. Later a friend dropped off “Knowing God” by JI Packer for me to read, it was good, stretched me and made me think and I suppose it came into play in my theological stance. About 6 months later I went to Bible college, about 6 months after that I first heard of John Piper, et al. At that point, as a Calvinist I was in the minority, big time. But by my later years in an MDiv. program, some 6 years later, the Arminian perspective seemed to wane the minority and Calvinism was gaining popularity. Now, I’ve spoke with some who seem to be separatists in this area. It is like a new form of Fundamentalism for some. Anyway, I find it interesting to see.

    Thanks again and I want to get a copy of your book on Arminianism.

  • Jim G.


    For a great treatment of the SP controversy, I’d recommend “Gratia et Certamen” by Donato Ogliari. Although the title is in Latin, the book is in English. It will be the standard by which all historical treatments of the SP controversy will be measured. It is excellent.

    Jim G.

  • Anthony

    I am sorry for entering the conversation of this post late but I would like to express the fact that one of my professors here at Gordon-Conwell is a 5th century patristics scholar of the history of doctrine and he is planning on starting a book on the semi-pelagian controversy of the late 5th and 6th centuries. He believes that the semi-pelagian controversy is a misrepresentation of most of the so-called semi-pelagians of Cassian and others and believes that they have been misread. He has already written a few books on patristic theology but I won’t reveal his name since he has not started the book yet. He believes that Semi-Pelagianism is an unhelpful term and should be thrown out and the figure (I can’t remember his name, but he he not unknown to theologians) that exhibits Semi-Pelagian tendencies has never been translated (until now – he recently finished translating the Latin into English). I am excited to read what he has to say. He calls himself a moderate Calvinist but says that he is more semi-Augustinian (he doesn’t like that term either) or Barthian when it comes to election.

    • Anthony

      correction-“He believes that Semi-Pelagianism is an unhelpful term and should be thrown out and the figure (I can’t remember his name, but he *is* not unknown to theologians) that exhibits Semi-Pelagian tendencies has never *even* been translated (until now – he recently finished translating the Latin into English).”

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for whetting our appetites. We will watch for the book. Of course, many people have argued that semi-Pelagianism is better termed semi-Augustinianism.

      • Anthony

        Yeah, I have seen that conflation as well (not that it is wrong). My issues with the term Semi-Pelagianism is that I have a hard time finding Theologies and Dictionaries that agree with what the term means. When I asked the Professor I mentioned, he said that he doesn’t like the term because it is used as a conversation stopper. I have to agree with him. Can I ask you a question Dr. Olson? This is a little off topic but I have little exposure to Wesley’s Arminianism as I am much more familiar with Arminius and have read a lot about his theology and biography. I have heard it said that Wesley and Arminius are not very different when it comes to prevenient grace, but I have heard the claim that Wesley’s view of Prevenient grace is that God makes people’s wills change from being inclined against Him to indifferent and therefore capable of choosing God (making it sound like now people can choose on their own, without an encounter with the Holy Spirit because their wills have been made indifferent). If that is true then he is definitely not like Arminius. But I don’t know if that is true or not. Did Wesley describe the will as “indifferent” after prevenient grace? For me, prevenient grace is such that “at some point in everyone’s life” the Holy Spirit makes an encounter with persons in such a way as to allow them the opportunity to respond freely (incompatibilistically). This would make the choice of salvation synergistic (a cooperation between God and man) but such that man has no room to boast because without that encounter (including the enabling power) there would be no grace or salvation (I have read Oden’s Classic Christianity and I plan on reading Thomas Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace, but I haven’t yet). Can you clear up my misunderstanding of Wesley?

        • Anthony

          by the way, my tradition is The Christian and Missionary Alliance (Keswick).

          • Anthony

            I believe it is Faustus of Riez who my professor recently translated. He thinks that Faustus is the closest to being called a true Semi-Pelagian while Cassian has been misread and did not intend to be interpreted the way he has been interpretted. You (Dr. Olson) recognized this possibility in your Story of Christian Theology book (Pg. 282). Your historical theology is the best book I have seen in its category, by the way. Thank you for writing it. I can’t seem to find historical theology books that deal with the full scope of issues like yours, even better than Mcgrath’s in my opinion.

          • rogereolson

            Now you’ve done it! My head is swelled up. I’ll have to pray for humility now. Seriously–thanks. I appreciate your appreciation of the book. It has been generally well-received. One reason I wrote it was to provide an alternative “take” on historical theology to the overwhelmingly Lutheran and Reformed treatments (among Protestants). Most of the available texts in historical theology (several of which I used in my classes before writing my own) almost totally ignored or misrepresented the Anabaptists, Pietists and Arminians.

        • rogereolson

          I can’t because I’m not sure it is a misunderstanding. I’ll look into it when I have the time. Oden is publishing a four volume set of “John Wesley’s Teachings” (Zondervan). I’m sure I’ll find the answer somewhere in there. Or perhaps a Wesley scholar here can explain the answer to this.

          • Anthony

            Thank you! Do you believe that prevenient grace is a matter of merely making the will indifferent?

          • rogereolson

            I do not. It is a drawing, but not an irresistible one.

  • Tony Pounders

    Dr. Olson,

    Have you seen this book – Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall? It is receiving good reviews.

    • rogereolson

      I have it but have not yet read it. I’ll be reviewing it publicly later this year.

      • Anthony

        Keith Stanglin is the current leading Arminius Scholar today. He did his dissertation on Arminius’ view assurance. I read the book and heard lectures by many Arminius scholars who agree with his level of expertise. I was excited to finally be able to read a clearly written and understandable exposition of Arminius’ theology in this new book.

  • Kara

    Hello. I just wanted to lend another perspective if that’s ok. First, thank you for the article. I was searching “is Semi-pelagianism heretical” and came across it. I, too, was under the impression that Semi-pelagianiam and Arminianism were in the same category, and I think I got that impression from the Sproul series on “What is Reformed Theology”, although going back to listen to it again, he actually compares “Augustinians” and “Non- Augustinians”. It is a little confusing though. (which is why I’m still searching for some answers).

    I grew up Assemblies of God. And I can honestly say that I didn’t learn much theology. It was more about emotion. I didn’t even know what Calvinism or Arminianism was, nor did I know that the A/G are Arminian. However, as a young adult, I would argue with people (because, I guess somewhere along the way I learned it) that if we didn’t get to “choose” God, then it “wasn’t fair”. In my limited knowledge, this view is heretical and would be classified as semi-pelagianism, but , of course, I didn’t know that then. My family (who are still Assemblies) say “God looked down the corridors of time and saw who would choose him, and those are the elect.” I’m assuming that is more the traditional Arminian view.?

    The problem I’m having is that I don’t see the difference. If God sees who will choose Him, to me, that’s the same as the heretical “man chooses God” of semi-pelagianism. Either way, man is choosing God, and that is clearly not Biblical. Maybe I’m missing some “fine print” details that separate heresy from legitimate. But I really don’t understand. And I think that a lot of people would group those together because they really don’t see a difference.

    Also, just a few thoughts about your comment: “I am convinced that the identification of Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism has become a major polemical tool in the current resurgence of Calvinism among especially American” I , obviously, don’t know why others “converted” to Calvinism, but I do know that I “converted” long before I even knew what Calvinism was. I only recently began studying Arminianism and Semi-pelagianism. So I can say with all honesty that the fact that some teachers have lumped the two together had absolutely NO bearing on my “conversion” to Calvinism (and I didn’t even know it was Calvinism at the time)

    Long story, really short… I was a false convert… in church my whole life… remember…not a lot of theology, lots of emotion in the A/G. I was a whitewashed tomb, self-righteous, but thought I was saved because I said the sinners prayer “hundreds of times”. In fact I told my husband I was more saved than he was when he questioned me once. Oh, I was genuine, but I was genuinely deceived into thinking I was good and I loved God.

    One day, a couple months after my 30 birthday, God, in His mercy, saved me (for real). And it was nothing that I did. He pursued me and He opened my blind eyes. (Obviously, there’s a lot of detail to my salvation experience that is too much to type). But the sin I once loved (and didn’t even know was sin), I now hated. There was a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and a peace that truly passes understanding. I was born again not by anything I could have done. If I could have chosen God, I would have a long time ago… in fact, I thought I did.

    And that was the beginning of my “conversion” to Reformed theology (or Calvinism, of sorts), and all I knew was that God was Holy, I was a self-righteous sinner, and nothing I did or could have done aided in anyway in my new birth. God saved me… the end. And I am overwhelmed and humbled by that daily!!!

    Once I really started reading my Bible, I started seeing major inconsistencies in what the Bible says and what is being practiced and taught in the American “mainstream” churches. It wasn’t until I ran across the Paul Washer “shocking youth message” 3 years after my salvation that I thought “Finally!!! Someone is saying what the Bible is saying!” I literally thought it was just me and Paul Washer. We were the only ones in the whole world that took the Bible seriously. I soon discovered, to my delight, that there are a whole group of people who take the Bible, sin, God’s sovereignty, the biblical church model, etc… seriously! And 9 times out of 10 those people call themselves Reformed.

    And that was my journey to Reformed (and Calvinism). Before I even knew any theological terms, I knew that these people more often than any other “denomination” I’ve encountered, take the Bible seriously and they live it out too! And that’s what I was looking for. So my journey has literally been lead by God from day one, from a false convert in the A/G to saved by God’s grace and Calvinist.

    I think Sproul nailed it on the head when he cited the main difference in Reformed and other protestant denominations… “the 5 solas and our doctrine of God”. The Reformed, in my opinion, have the highest opinion of God of any other denominations, which is exactly where the Bible has Him. When a person has a right view of God, they can have a proper view of themselves and fully grasp the beauty of the gospel.

    I hope that helps to just hear a testimony and to gain another perspective.

    God’s peace-

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t like to argue against people’s spiritual experiences, but I have to question your conclusion about the God of Calvinism. You don’t even mention the issue of reprobation. The God of Calvinism not only saved you without your help; he also (according to Sproul and other Calvinists) predestined the sins of others and predestined them to hell. Don’t tell me they deserve it. Explain to me why they deserve it when their condition (hell-bound sinners) is God’s decision more than theirs.

  • Nucc3 .

    Have you heard of Moderate Calvinists? We’ve been labelled as anywhere between Arminians, Pelagianists, and even semi-Pelagianists. Are you familiar with the works of Ravi Zacharias, or Norman Geisler?

    • Roger Olson

      Have you read Against Calvinism? I deal with the subject there. Yes, of course. My protest is against “Five pointers” especially. I’m not sure non-five pointers are real Calvinists, though.