Are Arminians Semi-Pelagian?

Given the fact that a certain Calvinist has recently asserted as much and refused to receive correction on the matter, I thought it would be helpful to direct anyone interested to the following excellent article on the subject at SEA:

Are Arminians Semi-Pelagian?

We can also add the following quote by Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams:

Does the antipathy between Calvinism and Arminianism suggest that Pelagius, the arch-opposite of Augustine, is the proper ancestor of Arminianism?  Calvinists have often sought to paint Arminianism in Pelagian colors.  Associating your opponent with a position that the historic faith has repeatedly judged heretical can only help one’s cause.  However, the allegation that Arminianism is Pelagian is unfortunate and indeed unwarranted.  From Jacob Arminius and the ‘Remonstrance Articles’ on, the Arminian tradition has affirmed the corruption of the will by sin and the necessity of grace for redemption.  Arminianism is not Pelagianism….The Semi-Pelagians thought of salvation as beginning with human beings.  We must first seek God; and his grace is a response to that seeking.  The Arminians of the seventeenth century, however, held that the human will has been so corrupted by sin that a person cannot seek God without the enablement of grace.  They therefore affirmed the necessity and priority of grace in redemption.  Grace must go before a person’s response to the gospel.  This suggests that Arminianism is closer to Semi-Augustinianism than it is to Semi-Pelagianism or Pelagianism. (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 39)

At least there are some scholarly Calvinists out there who are more interested in accuracy than smear tactics.

7 thoughts on “Are Arminians Semi-Pelagian?

  1. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
    (Exodus 20:16)
    This certain Calvinist violates the Law of God. I hope he fears God.

  2. The main difference between Semi-pelagianism and Arminianism is that for classical semi-pelagians “prevenient grace” was only necessary for “some” or “most” people, whereas, in Arminianism “prevenient grace” is necessary for “all men”.


  3. Dear Ben,

    I finally bit the bullet and bought Pelagius: Life and Letters. (I was under the impression I had ordered a book by the same author, but on the letters or Pelagius and Pelagians.) I hear so much claimed about Pelagius that I decided I ought to find out what his actual writings state. I know this much–it seems generally conceded that much of what Pelagius stood for has come to us through the lens of source persons antipathetic toward him. That makes me a little nervous, knowing how, if the definition of Arminians were primarily defined by what Calvinists would give it (in a hypothetical scenario in which nearly all of Arminian writings would have been lost) , history would all but conclude that Arminianism was the preaching of a works-based salvation.

    Anyhow, just thought I’d mention it. It’s quite a tome.

  4. Ben,

    Below are some revealing, if disturbing, quotes from Pelagius and (further below) from one of his disciples, probably Celestius. Author B. R. Rees points out that “pelagianism” was never really a movement, and that the pioneers of “pelagianism” did not all think the same. The following quotes are from the treatise On Virginity, and generally attributed by modern scholars to Pelagius. Numbers in parenthesis following the quotes refer to the particular point in the treatise, not the entire point. Says Pelagius:

    For unless I am greatly mistaken, the integrity of chastity is maintained for the sake of the reward of the heavenly kingdom, which it is quite certain no one is able to attain without meriting eternal life.(1)

    But scripture testifies that eternal life cannot be merited save by complete observance of the divine commandments, when it says: If you wish to come to life, keep the commandments (Mt. 19:17). Therefore no one has that life, unless he has kept all the commandments of the law, and the man who does not have that life cannot be a possessor of the heavenly kingdom, in which it is the living, not the dead, who shall reign.(2)

    If you want to fulfil the divine advice, then, above all else, keep the commandments: f you wish to attain the reward for chastity, you have to hold on to the things which will entitle you to merit life, so that your chastity may be of the sort that can be rewarded. For just as observance of the commandments bestows life, so, on the other hand, transgression of them produces death, and the man who has been doomed to die because of his disobedience cannot hope for the crown awarded for virginity nor can he expect to be rewarded for chastity, when once his punishment has been settled.(3)

    There are three virtues which qualify one for entry into the kingdom of heaven: the first is chastity, the second rejection of the world and the third righteousness …” “Again, rejection of the world is demanded so that righteousness may be maintained, something which is difficult to fulfil for those who are involved in activities connected with worldly goods and mundane pleasures….And if he possesses the first and second but lacks the third, that is righteousness, he labours in vain, since the first two are especially required for the sake of the third.”(5)

    Righteousness then is, quite simply, not to sin, and not to sin is to keep the commandments of the law. Keeping these commandments is ensured in two ways, by doing nothing which is forbidden and by striving to fulfil everything which is commanded…”(6)

    Here are some quotes from On the Divine Law, which B.R. Rees attributes to Pelagius:

    I want now to enable you to know in full what I believe you already recognize in part, that it was for this purpose that our Lord, the Word of God, came down from heaven, namely, that through his assumption of our human nature the human race, left prostrate from the time of Adam, might be raised up in Christ, and the new man rewarded for his obedience with salvation as great as the perdition that once befell him through disobedience.”(1.1)

    “…and we undoubtedly are the church, if we live without fault and blemish…”(1.2)

    It is folly for a man who has been wholly destroyed to desire to be partly saved, a man who, with his whole salvation in his power…” “Now I do not want anyone to make grace graceless heedlessly and on the pretext of ignorance, lest he turn his faith into a stumbling block and the true cause of his salvation become the occasion for his death and destruction: if the reasoning behind this matter of grace is pursued in moderation, then and then only will it be an aid to life for a man instead of hurling him down to death, as it might perhaps have done because of his thoughtlessness.(2.2); (next section immediately follows)

    Grace indeed freely discharges sins, but with the consent and choice of the believer, as Philip proves to the eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles, saying: If you believe with all your heart, you can (Acts 8:37).(2.3)

    Those who have been redeemed by Christ’s passion through his dutifulness to his Father have been redeemed to this end that, by keeping the laws of their Redeemer, they may prepare themselves for the life laid up for them in heaven, and there they may in no way be said to arrive redeemed, unless they follow the commands laid upon those who seek to obey, as it is written: If you would enter life, keep the commandments (Mt. 19:17)…”(4.2)

    Ben, here is a quote which Rees apparently attributes to Celestius, a disciple of Pelagius. It repeats, I think, the very error of the Galatians in Paul’s time:

    Faith is an aid in ridding us of sin, not in committing it more freely — that is to say, it releases us from sins already committed but does not grant pardon and immunity for those which we commit in future. So, if a man sins after gaining faith and receiving the holy laver, let him no longer hope for pardon through faith alone, as he did before baptism, but let him rather entreat it with weeping and wailing, with abstinence and fasting, even with sackcloth and ashes, and all manner of lamentation.(3.2)

    Ben, let me mention a few other things I think worth noting. Somewhere in Rees’ book I believe it says that Pelagius believed in the possibility of living a sinless life. However, I found one passage, at least, which suggests he did not ever think the sinless life actually ever happened. In his letter to a girl named Demetrius, whose mother had asked Pelagius’ advice on the occasion of her daughter’s decision to forego an imminent marriage in favor of a life of chastity, Pelagius writes “As long as we are in this body, we should never believe that we have attained perfection,…”(27.3)

    Finally, Ben, Rees make the familiar point that it is victors who write the history of the times, but he points out that Pelagius’ condemnation was far from an automatic given during the tumultuous events (around 415 A.D.). Says B.R. Rees:

    In his treatise On the Good of Widowhood Augustine thought it necessary to warn Juliana against listening to the ‘tittle-tattle of certain men, enemies of grace, who try to defend the freedom of the human will.’ She does not appear to have taken kindly to the suggestion that the great house of the Anicii might be in danger of becoming tainted with heresy, and pointed out that it had never been involved in any heresy of real importance, distinguishing between such heresies, e.g. on the nature of the Trinity, and others concerned with trivia. Now this was something which Augustine could not afford to let go without comment, knowing, as he did, of Pelagius’ earlier association with the Anicii and of the importance of keeping up the pressure on his potential supporters at a crucial time when the outcome of the pelagian controversy was still so delicately balanced that the loss of a few influential patrons could make all the difference to either side.

    All in all, then, Ben, what I gather here and from other parts of Rees’ book, is that Augustine’s opposition to Pelagius was upon the two-fold charge of endorsing free will and justification by Law. At one point Augustine writes to a supporter and mentions that he hopes Pelagius understands his meaning when, near the end of a letter, he had written to ask Pelagius to pray that God would make him [Augustine] the kind of Christian he needed to be. But as Rees point out, it appears the point was lost on Pelagius, who produced Augustine’s letter as a character reference during an encounter with authorities.

    Anyway, Ben, as far as I can tell, and as the above quotes show, Pelagius erred greatly in assuming that salvation was through obedience to the Law. Some of his statements remind me of the Catholic conflation of grace and works. But insofar as Augustine opposed Pelagius for believing in free will, it must be remembered that Augustine objected to the idea of human freedom in toto. Thus the oft cited “Pelagian error” we read of, esp. in Calvinist blogs, seems to me somewhat omissive of Augustine’s other and equal concern that Pelagius was teaching salvation through obedience to the commandments, i.e., through the Law. For Augustine, of course, even the belief in human freedom and therefore of one’s (free) consent to the gospel would have presumably constituted a work. But, having said that, I do think Augustine focused more on Pelagius’ emphasis on obedience to the Law than Calvinists do today, who seem to chiefly emphasize Pelagius’ belief in human freedom.

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