Recently, Tim Challies did a review of Roger E. Olson’s Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities,
He cites a paragraph from the book:
“When conservative theologians declare that synergism is a heresy, they are usually referring to these two Pelagian forms of synergism. Classical Arminians agree. This is a major theme of this book. Contrary to confused critics, classical Arminianism is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian! But it is synergistic. Arminianism is evangelical synergism as opposed to heretical, humanistic synergism.”
To which Challies responds,
“Such claims always make me nervous. Much like those who hold to Open Theism or the New Perspective on Paul, their claims depend on suggesting that other theologians of the past and present just haven’t properly understood. When Steve Lawson, R.C. Sproul and countless others have examined Arminianism and declared it to be Semi-Pelagian, they just haven’t quite understood the details. They unfairly typified Arminianism, confusing it with Semi-Pelagianism. Or so men like Olson have to conclude. Careful and skilled researchers that they are, I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion. To redefine Arminianism before defending it seems more than a little disingenuous.”
Keith Schooley points out Challies’ mischaracterization of Arminianism at on his blog; what I wish to address is Timmy’s accusation that Olson is being unfair and his reasoning for doing so.
First let’s look at the accusation that Arminianism is Semi-Pelagian. I’ve written on this subject before, but to recap: What exactly is Semipelagianism?
[Semi-Pelagianism], while not denying the necessity of Grace for salvation, maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that Grace supervened only later.
(Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F.L. Cross, Oxford Univ. Press, rev. 1983, p.1258)
[Speaking of Semipelagianism] An early theology which accepted original sin, but taught that a person could initiate faith in God first, and God would grant the grace for one do continue on.
(A Handbook of Theological Terms, Harvey, Van A., p.218-219)
Easy enough. Semipelagianism says that God’s grace is needed to be saved (as opposed to full Pelagianism which denies this), but man takes the first steps towards salvation apart from the grace of God. Both Pelagianism and Semipelagianism are heresies, so for someone to be a Semipelagian necessarily entails that he or she be a heretic. Thus when Calvinists identify anyone who disagrees with their theology as a Semipelagian, they are effectively saying that such a person is a heretic, making this label an oft-employed bludgeon against Arminians and other Non-Calvinists. But what exactly is actually taught in classical Arminianism? Does it line up with Semipelagian doctrine?
“That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of an by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.” “
Article 3 of the Remonstrance
“That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ, but respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.”
Article 4 of the Remonstrance
Man “has not saving grace of himself,” and God’s grace is “the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good.” Thus from virtually its very inception Arminianism strongly distinguishes itself from the ancient heresies of Pelagius and Cassian by directly contradicting their defining points of doctrine. The only major common denominator is that all three belief systems espouse some measure of free will, but it is the belief that free will enables man to come to Christ apart from God’s grace that makes Pelagianism/Semipelagianism heretical; free will by the Arminianism definition is still in bondage apart from the grace of God. So why do many Calvinists such as Lawson and Sproul try to equate Arminianism with the Pelagian heresy? It’s simple. They’ve been so thoroughly entrenched in Calvinist dogma that they will make any accusation or slander, regardless or merit or truthfulness, in a panickingly confused and fanatical attempt to color all of their opponents as heretics. There’s simply no way around it, Reformed scholars who make this accusation about classical Arminians are either impetuous liars who are guilty of the worst kind of blatant equivocation, or simply ignorant of basic doctrinal terms and history. It being quite obvious upon examination that many of the more educated in their number are either raving madmen or among the most terrible of fact-checkers, the blundering false allegations made by many of the elite of Reformed Theology cast serious doubt upon their objectivity and basic interpretation of facts as well as their general abilities as biblical expositors. The judgment of the venerable heroes of their doctrinal system being called into serious question as well as the loss of their favorite club to bash Arminians over the head with is too much for many of Calvin’s disciples to deal with rationally. Challies retreats straight into the la-la land of faulty appeal to authority, asserting that Sproul and Lawson simply couldn’t have been wrong. Sorry Timmy: Facts are facts, Sproul’s a quack (at least in this matter). Then in one of the single dumbest statements ever written (yes, even on the internet), he states, “…I think this is unfair and uncharitable to the large number of Reformed scholars who, based on honest assessment, have reached such a conclusion.”
Yeah, how dare that Olson contend that he and other Arminians aren’t heretics! That’s completely insensitive to the hard-working Calvinists who for years have striven to sustain their damning allegation!
Defense: “So you see lady and gentlemen of the jury, my client was nowhere near the scene of the slaying, he was over 200 miles away at the time as can be verified by footage from CNN, as well as several hundred eyewitnesses…”
Prosecution: “Objection your honor! The defense’s claim that his client is not guilty is both rude and unfair to the very capable staff of the prosecuting party that have put such earnest effort into indicting this man.”
What kind of brainwashing is needed for a man to accuse another of heresy, and then unfairness to his accusers for issuing an intelligible defense? That’s the absolute pinnacle of egocentrism and arrogance. Such theological prejudice and conceit fueled Calvin’s Geneva. His theology bred the same prejudice into his followers in the Netherlands, which sparked their cognitively diseased attempt to condemn any opposing views, culminating in their persecution of the Dutch Arminians and their sympathizers (including the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt). And as Challies succinctly demonstrates, that same blind prejudice is exactly what the swing towards militant Reformed Theology is breeding in its adherents today. Defense rests.
Clarification: I am not indicting all Calvinists as errantly accusing all Arminians of Semipelagianism. Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams both examine the issue much more objectively and reach a conclusion about Arminianism quite contrary to Sproul’s in their work, Why I am Not an Arminian. Perhaps Challies will take them to task next for being ‘unfair and uncharitable.’ Examination fueled by intellectual honesty rather than the militant prejudice befits children of God, and our assessments of what is fair and unfair should be determined by the God’s word and fact, not hero-worship of some faddish authors.