Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher



January 2014



Is Synergism Necessarily Semi-Pelagian?

Written by , Posted in History, Theology

It is with great hesitation that I break with my usual practice and blog about a topic related to Calvinism and Arminianism. Anytime someone blogs on this subject, an angel loses its wings. I want to apologize, in advance, to the poor angel who is now grounded because of this post.

Several years ago, I was reading a book by a well-known Reformed theologian with a significant following. In his treatise, he argued that early Arminianism was a revival of semi-Pelagianism; the latter is a heresy that was condemned in the sixth century at the Council of Orange (529). More recently, I was listening to a different Reformed scholar teach on the debate between the Calvinists and Remonstrants that led to the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619. This second brother made exactly the same argument: Arminianism represents a revival of semi-Pelagianism. Their point, of course, is that Arminianism is at least borderline heretical and that Calvinism, as understood by the scholars in question, is more or less the same thing as the gospel.

As a historical theologian, this sort of argumentation drives me bananas. The scholars in question, each of whom holds a prestigious Ph.D. and has taught for many years in more than one theological seminary, ought to know better. I think it is at least possible that their polemics ran ahead of their scholarship in this particular case. Unfortunately, this sort of approach is even worse at the popular level. Who hasn’t read a highly caffeinated Reformed blogger at one time or another who basically draws a (barely) dotted line from “two-point” Calvinism, to Arminianism, to semi-Pelagianism, to Pelagianism?

Now I know that Arminians do this same sort of thing sometimes. Amyraldianism is just a poor man’s version of Calvinism, which in turn is just a Christianized version of fatalism, which makes Calvinism similar to Islam. Yep, I’ve heard that one before, also from folks who ought to know better. But since the Calvinists own the internet, which God predestined Al Gore to invent just for them, I want to focus this particular post on offenders who are more Reformed in their inclinations.

Arminians are soteriological synergists. They believe that men and women cooperate with God’s grace in their conversion. God’s grace is prior to conversion, and no person takes the “first step” toward God in his or her salvation. Nevertheless, regeneration is the result of a human response to God’s gracious initiative. This is different than monergism, which is affirmed by Calvinists. In monergism, God is the only actor in human conversion, regenerating the dead heart and granting the ability to believe. For the monergist, men and women don’t cooperative with God’s grace–salvation is a work of God from beginning to end.

John Cassian (c. 360-435)

Though Arminians are synergists, they are not semi-Pelagians, even though the latter are also synergists. Semi-Pelagians believe that original sin, though real, does not impair human ability to believe. Therefore, we take the “first step” toward God when we believe. God then responds to our faith by giving us the grace that completes our conversion. This is not what Arminians believe. This is not what “two-point” Calvinists believe. This is not what “Traditionalists” in the Southern Baptist Convention believe. None of these latter groups, all of whom affirm synergism, believes that we up and decide to trust in Christ and then God responds by giving us saving grace. Instead, they argue–like Calvinists–that God graciously initiates our salvation and is involved in every step of conversion, even if they nuance matters differently than monergistic believers. Synergism is not necessarily semi-Pelagianism, in much the same way that monergism is not necessarly fatalism.

To be clear, I am not saying that semi-Pelagianism is not a real danger. I have heard preachers say semi-Pelagian(ish) things in their sermons. For example, I have heard many preachers say things like, “God has done all he is going to do at the cross, and now he is waiting for you to respond. It’s all up to you. If you choose to believe, he will give you grace and save you.” That certainly smacks of semi-Pelagianism, mixed with a dose of revivalism. It makes it sound as though God is waiting idly by to respond to our free will decisions. This sort of preaching is a real problem, sometimes among Southern Baptists, and we ought to be constantly on guard that we are not slipping into human-centered gospel presentations.

And yet, even when I hear this sort of rhetoric, I highly doubt it is convictional semi-Pelagianism as much as it is theological sloppiness–not an uncommon thing among even the most educated and erudite preachers. Almost certainly the brother who spoke such things would deny semi-Pelagianism if you explained it and contrasted it with other views. There is about a 3% chance he would respond, “Yep, I’m totally a semi-Pelagian. John Cassian is my homeboy.” This preacher doesn’t need to be demonized with a label that only sticks if you squint–he needs to be gently corrected in a real conversation by someone who cares about him as a brother in Christ and values his ministry as a preacher.

For a helpful, brief resource on the differences between Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism, check out this insightful post by Marc Cortez. In the interest of full disclosure, it was reading Cortez’s post that inspired me to write my own thoughts on this topic.

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