Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism… Oh My!

There are a few terms that get thrown around (wrongly) in Reformed conversations, and as a result, we often bear false witness against our brothers unintentionally (or intentionally!). As Reformed Christians (or any Christians really), we ought to be concerned for God’s Law, and the 9th commandment exhorts us to speak truthfully, particularly as it relates to our neighbors.

What I find though, is that these terms are usually misapplied out of confusion over what they actually mean. This is sometimes exacerbated by the fact that popular Reformed teachers sometimes use them to describe the practical or logical implications of other positions, particularly the Arminian position.

I wanted to make a brief post to serve as a reference in the future, of exactly what these terms mean and where they came from. I’ll give a summary and quick comparison at the end of the post.

Pelagianism

Pelagius was a British monk who clashed with of Hippo during the 5th century. He was what is historically known as a rigorist, meaning that he believed that the Church had grown lax in relation to moral virtue and obedience to God’s Law (he was probably right). However, the theological solution to this was deeply misguided.

Pelagius argued, from the book of no less, that humans did not inherit any of the guilt or corruption of Adam’s first transgression. There was no fundamental change to nature or moral status of Adam’s progeny, and they merely sinned as a matter of following the bad example set before them (initially by Adam, and subsequently by other humans).

This led him to a position where he believed that humans began their lives in a state of moral uprightness and that they could merit salvation unaided by grace. While it is a little unclear in Pelagius’ writings what exactly it is that grace does for humans, it appears that the death of Christ served as a sort of moral example and grace was helpful for righteous living, but not ultimately necessary.

Semi-Pelagianism

Augustine was a well-known figure in both the Western and Eastern Churches. Although there is some debate regarding how much of Augustine’s theology was adopted initially in the East, it is clear in the West that he won the day. Pelagius was soundly defeated, and by the close of the controversy, no one wanted to hold or be associated with his view.

However, there were some who desired to hold a mediate position between Augustine (who affirmed the total depravity of the human person), and Pelagius. This position would become the dominant view in the Roman Catholic Church of the Medieval period, and would ultimately be dogmatized by the Papacy in the Canons of Trent, and remains the official dogmatic position of Rome to this day.

This view holds that although all humans who descend from Adam by ordinary generation inherit the consequent corruption (but not necessarily the guilt), this corruption does not extend to the whole man. There remains a part of the human person who is not corrupt.

, the result of this is that Semi-Pelagians hold that the human person must choose to follow God by engaging the unfallen faculty which remains within them. As a result, God will extend grace to further sanctify that person. The person now further engages their will (which is now more sanctified) to follow God, and God responds with further grace, creating a positive feedback cycle that will result in final justification and glorification.

Arminianism

In the era following work of in Geneva and the surrounding cantons, there arose a group known as the Remonstrants. This group, which was comprised of the followers of Jacob Arminius and was located in the Netherlands, rejected certain vital doctrines of the Reformed movements. Namely, they believed that salvation was genuinely open to all persons and that God’s election of individuals was determined by means of prescience.

One doctrine that they did not reject, which will be surprising to many, is Total Depravity. Jacob Arminius, the Arminian Remonstrants, and those following after them (eg John Wesley) believed that all persons descending from Adam by ordinary generation inherited a corruption which was extended throughout the whole man (although, not necessarily the guilt of Adam’s first transgression). However, they also believed that God has extended prevenient or preparatory grace to all men such that this total depravity was in part reversed. To those who engage their restored faculty to follow Christ God extends saving grace.

Apt and Inapt Comparisons

I rarely see Arminians called full on Pelagians, and when I do it is usually a matter of inflammatory rhetoric… or just plain sloppy language.

However, I commonly see them accused of Semi-Pelagianism. This is still not usually correct, but it is a much closer comparison. Arminianism holds that humans are in the same state as Semi-Pelagianism does. That is, all humans are in a state where there is an unfallen faculty by which the human person can engage their will to follow Christ. Where they disagree, however, is the cause of that unfallen faculty. As noted above, Arminians believe that this faculty remains intact because God has restored it in all humans, and the act of will is a response to God’s grace. Semi-Pelagians on the other hand, believe that this faculty remains intact because the corruption of Adam’s nature, and the subsequent inheritance of that nature, was not complete. The human person must choose to follow God apart from any specific extension of grace on God’s part, and God then responds to that grace. This is what most popular Reformed teachers are referring to when they compare Arminians and Semi-Pelagians to each other, noting that although the way that the two positions arrive at their conclusion is different… the concluding position is the same: All humans choose to follow —or reject— God by means of some unfallen faculty.

Additionally, there are some Semi-Pelagian implications which flow from the Prescience View of Election. Namely, that God elects based on his foreknowledge of which humans will respond to the Gospel, and then determines to grant those humans special grace in order to bring about that response. The issue, however, is that God is considering them apart from his gracious acts, and thus the decision to follow him that he is foreknowing, is a decision that is unaided by his grace.

Summary

Next time you want to call someone (historically or contemporarily) a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian, think through these categories.

Pelagianism: Man does not inherit any guilt or corruption from Adam, and each human is born in the exact same condition that Adam was prior to the Fall. Man can not only begin the process of salvation but can complete it entirely unaided by God’s grace.

Semi-Pelagianism: Man inherits the corruption (but not necessarily the guilt) of Adam’s fall, however, this fall is not total and there remains a faculty in humans which is the same as Adam’s prior to the Fall. Man must begin the process of salvation unaided by God’s grace, but God’s grace is necessary to complete it.

Arminianism: Man inherits the corruption (but not necessarily the guilt) of Adam’s fall, and this corruption extends throughout the whole man. There is no unfallen faculty within humans. However, God extends prevenient or preparatory grace to all men and restores some faculty in all to a state of spiritual integrity. Man is then free to respond to this grace, or reject it. God must begin the process of salvation, and man must respond in faith to grace. God’s grace is necessary throughout the entire process of salvation, which cannot be initiated or completed without it. Likewise, although man does not initiate the process of salvation, it cannot be completed without man’s contribution.

: Man inherits both the corruption and guilt of Adam’s fall, and this corruption extends throughout the whole man. God extends saving grace only to specific persons, initiating and completing the entire process of salvation, in which Man is a passive recipient.