Challies: Defending Arminians Unfair to Their Accusers

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.

17 thoughts on “Challies: Defending Arminians Unfair to Their Accusers

  1. Ben,

    I was hoping that you could help me understand Points 3 & 4 better. I understand that Arminians are not Pelagians but I fail to see the difference with the Calvinist doctrine on this. It seems to me that they are both saying that God has to rebirth one to where they can have the right understanding to make THE choice?

    I see the difference then in one side says you then can reject it and the other side saying no you can not reject it.

    I have asked this question before on another blog, but I still need to see it better I suppose.


  2. Good post. I think there is a vicious cycle at work here. Calvinists learn about Arminianism from other Calvinists who have learned from other Calvinists, ad nauseum… And those who claim to have converted Calvinism from Arminianism were more times than not, never actually Arminians. They only claim the title for their former selves because they are under the impression that there are only two options and if you aren’t a Calvinist then you are by default an Arminian.

    Challies’ appeal to authority seems par for the course with Calvinists — how many times have you been referred to Frame, or Piper, or Sproul, or White, or Boettner, etc.? I stopped counting after the umpteenth time…

    In response to the question asked about the articles of the Remonstrance, I think it would be proper to interpret them as exalting God’s grace over human freedom. It is the prevenient grace of God that enables a man to respond to the Gospel. The reference to John 15 in Art. III is speaking post-conversion — it is not saying that a man must be regenerated in order to believe.

    That’s my 2¢ worth.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your replies. I do not consider myself a Calvinist or Arminian at this time. I had never given it much thought and did not know of the difference until recently. It is very confusing though for a lay person to understand. It seems that everyone throws out their favorite proof texts and nothing is ever really accomplished.

    I have to admit though that it is very fascinating to learn about all of this. it makes one understand their faith a little better. It is good to have people like you guys that speak equally as passionately as the other side does.


    PS. I will try to read some of Episcopius when I get some free time.

  4. Nick’s observation is exactly right. The articles of the Remonstrance asserted that while man did indeed have free will to reject God’s grace, it was only by God’s grace that man could believe at all, which fits very well with the biblical record:

    “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:44

    “…exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace” Acts 18:27b

    The defining characteristic of Semipelagianism was that willingness on fallen man’s part to believe preceded God’s grace and call, thus man effectively calls himself unto salvation rather than God doing so. The Remonstrants recognized this error and thoroughly denounced it in their articles. Note that the articles speak only of God’s grace, not regeneration as preceding faith.

  5. Thanks, JC, for the link. Good post here.

    You may be interested in my exegetical work on the primary Calvinist proof passages: Ephesians 1 and 2, Romans 9, and John 6.

    It’s all collected at as well. To me, the historical and philosophical arguments are interesting, but ultimately it’s about what Scripture says. We don’t have to concede exegesis to Calvinists. Far from it. It is impossible, for example, to read Paul’s OT quotes in Romans 9 in their OT contexts (in other words, understand them as Paul understood them), and come to the conclusions that Calvinists do with this passage.

  6. Magnus,

    First, I need to clarify that I did not write this post. JC has just joined Arminian Perspectives and is the writer of this post.

    I personally have not read enough of the Remonstrants to know what they meant by the language in Article 4. I do know, however, that Arminius believed that faith must precede regeneration and I am quite certain that Simon Episcopius [who probably drafted the Articles] believed the same. This is a matter that I will need to look into more when I get the chance. I admit that the language is confusing.

    I think there are two possibilities without having looked very deeply into the issue. The fisrt possibility comes close to what you expressed. The Remonstrants wanted to make it very clear that the work of the Holy Spirit which some men resist is a regenerating work. When men “resist the Holy Spirit” they are not resisting some sort of common grace with no intentions of saving, but they are, in fact, resisting the genuine efforts of the Holy Spirit to bring them to faith and repentance.

    The second possibility is that the Remonstrants had not thought carefully about the implications or felt the ordo salutis was not as important as Calvinists did. For them the main issues were the scope and nature of the atonement, and the question of whether salvation and election were conditional or unconditional.

    I would recommend looking at the writings of Simon Episcopius on line to see what he had to say about it. He is quoted extensively in “Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities” by Roger Olson. I do not have his book with me as I am at the Library [and not one which carries the book], but he may address the very issue you are concerned about.

    In the end, I look to Scripture for the answers primarily, and it is no secret that I find serious exegetical and theological problems with the Calvinist teaching that regeneration precedes faith. This has been the postion of all Arminian theologians that I have read, including Arminius, though he often used similar language to that used in the fourth Article.

    God Bless,

  7. Challies’ appeal to authority seems par for the course with Calvinists — how many times have you been referred to Frame, or Piper, or Sproul, or White, or Boettner, etc.? I stopped counting after the umpteenth time…


    Have you read my post “Debate Tips For Calvinists”? I address this very same tactic.

  8. Alot of people misunderstand. I find this is true not only for Calvinists but for Arminians as well. John Cassian only tought that “some” people’s will was able to preceed the Grace of God.

    Other than that what he had to say about the issue was “orthodox” christian teaching.

    This is what most people don’t know and this is what people need to know if they are going to talk about “semi-pelagianism”

    INLOVE Jnorm

  9. Also in regards to exegesis in regards to Paul’s quotes of the Old Testament in the book of Romans…..including Romans chapter 9. Most of those quotes came from the LXX text. (the septuigent text)

    So it would be wise to look at the LXX when looking at Paul’s Old Testament quotes.

  10. WELCOME BACK! You were missed.

    This was an excellent post. Really. I agree with your comments and think that you are dead on.
    Way to go.


  11. I really enjoy this blog and have learned a lot from it. I have just ordered Olsen’s book, which was actually recommended on a great site run by a Calvinist! The site is Partchment and Pen, which involves a lot of discussions on Calvinist topics (although that is not its exclusive topic), and right now there is a lively discussion on Olsen. I would highly recommend it, and you could really add to the discussion there:

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