When asked the difference between Arminianism and Pelagianism, I always have trouble knowing exactly where to start. It is a bit like being asked about the difference between Republicanism and Monarchy: the simple answer being “Everything!”1 However, for some reason, we Arminians still get asked this a lot. So here is, what I hope to be, a comprehensive answer.
Some Historical Context
First of all, what do the terms Arminianism and Pelagianism even mean? People sometimes attempt to define terms like this in such a way as to support their own position. To avoid doing so, I always try to ground my definitions historically.
So first, Pelagianism. Pelagius was a 5th century monk and exegete who theologically articulated a common aristocratic lay belief that was common in Rome at the time. The position was primarily ascetic, meaning that it focused on obtaining virtue, the avoidance of vices, and the abandonment of comfort. Therefore, it isn’t a wonder that the principle emphasis of Pelagius was to inspire people to be good. He was practical in focus, valuing the utility of a doctrine over consistency with orthodoxy. Unsurprisingly, Pelagius ended up abandoning certain important Christian truths to succeed. Pelagius ended up butting heads with the great theologian Augustine of Hippo. Though he historically vanishes before the matter is fully settled, Pelagius’s teachings were condemned at the council of Ephesus in 343 AD.2
However the beliefs, or beliefs like it, were still popular in Britain. Eventually another group, led by John Cassian, rose up which was uncomfortable with some of the extreme teachings of Augustine. While they did not allign themselves with Pelagius, they were still inspired by some of the popular teaching in Gaul and Britain which inspired Pelagius. However, Cassian was much more careful to align his teachings with traditional views of the church. The teachings of Cassian were eventually called Semi-pelagianism, though he would have abhorred the title. While Cassian was never condemned as a heretic3, Semi-pelagianism was rejected at the Synod of Orange and is generally considered to be heretical.
However, when Augustine’s defenders debated with Cassian and his followers, they didn’t defend Augustine’s more extreme views on providence, and instead merely defended his main points about human depravity and the prominence of grace. Though some refer to this group simply as Augustinian, others, such as myself, refer to them as the Semi-augustinians. It was the Semi-augustinian teaching that was accepted by the Synod of Orange and has been the primary orthodox view of the church ever since.
Now, to define Arminianism. Arminianism is basically Protestant Semi-augustianism. In other words, we differ from the Semi-augustianians about as much as Calvinists differ from Augustine himself, and for the same reasons. Arminianism, to me, should be defined in reference to the 16th century theologian Jacobus Arminius. His teaching was summed up in the 5 Articles of Remonstrance of 1610 shortly after his death.4 Since I’ll be going into doctrine below, I won’t do so here. But it suffices to say that his teaching was very similar to the teaching affirmed at Orange.
Concepts in Play
Ok, so if we are going to look at the differences, let’s look at what theological questions are being debated.
- How God rules over the world (Providence)
- The nature of sin (Depravity)
- The conditionality of salvation (Election)
- The role of grace (Prevenient Grace)
- The nature of the atonement (Atonement)
So let’s look at each of these in turn and see how Arminians, Pelagians, and Semipelagians look at these issues differently.
This is worth mentioning first since this will be the only thing that these three are close on. All three positions reject the notion of determinism (the idea that everything that happens must have happened, or was the direct will of God). This comes with the idea of libertarian free will (LFW). LFW and determinism are opposite philosophical ideas.6 LFW is the belief that a person is capable of doing something other than what they did. So if I have pizza today, it was possible that I could have eaten something else, like a cheeseburger. Another way of saying it is that if we have all of the knowledge of the states prior to a particular decision, we couldn’t know with 100% certainty what would happen, kind of like quantum mechanics. However, the probability isn’t satisfied randomly, but rather directed by our spirit.
However, while we may agree with the idea of LFW, we tend to think about it differently. Arminianism is centered on the belief of God’s goodness. So, for us, LFW is primarily a theodical concept (theodicy being the defense of God’s goodness). In other words, LFW is a conclusion that we reach in order to protect God from the accusation that He created evil, or that He does evil. In fact, in my experience knowledgeable Arminians rarely talk about LFW outside of theodicy. When talking about salvation or morality, we are more likely to talk about faith or grace.
Not so with Pelagians. Pelagianism is primarily concerned with the management of morality. So the Pelagian is more focused on how LFW gives us the power to do what is good. Now I can’t comment on Pelagians in terms of experience since there are very few actual Pelagians. However, I do find this to be true of most Semi-pelagians that I meet. Their focus is on using our wills to gain control of our lives and actions.
The biggest difference is our views on depravity. Pelagians believe that humans are born morally neutral or good. Sin is something that we have to learn. As such, it is up to the person to choose the good and avoid what is wicked. Semipelagians agree on this point, though sometimes they will admit to some damage or disability that exists in our souls, hindering the good. In other words, they often do believe in a sin nature. But still, they believe we are born capable of doing good.
Arminians couldn’t disagree more. We believe in the idea that humans are born depraved: inclined towards what is evil, sinful, or selfish. We vary in how we express this depravity, but all Arminians believe in it. I, personally, prefer the term Total Depravity to describe my view of it, agreeing with the Remonstrants:
“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 and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is)”
While much of our differences are caused by the differences in our focus, it is this point which causes most of the differences theologically. The ramifications of this difference cannot be understated.
As you may recall, Pelagianism is primarily concerned with encouraging good morals. It is little wonder then that its view on salvation is legalistic. They believe that in order to be saved, one must live according to God’s law. Those who live good lives will be saved, and those who fail to will be condemned.
The Semipelagian is also legalist. However, unlike the Pelagian, they don’t believe in moral perfection, but a striving for moral perfection. Those that seek the Lord will be given assistance to do what is right, and then be saved. However we must take the initiative and invite God into our lives first.
In Arminianism, there are two main perspectives7 on election, but for the sake of space I’m going to stress what they have in common. All Arminians believe that election is conditioned on faith in Jesus Christ. Now, faith isn’t the same thing as simple belief. It is not that I believe that Jesus is the Christ; it is that I believe in Jesus who is the Christ. It isn’t what you do, or what you know; it’s who you know. It is simple trust and dependence on Christ that brings salvation, so that no man may boast. For if you boast in faith, you don’t have faith, just as if you boast in humility, you don’t have humility. So it isn’t by our actions, or our accomplishments, that we are saved, but by being in the presence of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.
Another major point of divergence is our understanding of grace. All Christians, from Pelagians to Calvinists believe that God bestows grace on us before we are saved (prevenient). Where we all differ is what the act(s) of grace is which comes before salvation.
Pelagians have the most unusual understanding of this. For them, God’s prevenient grace is that He created us with free will and a morally neutral nature. Now, from my perspective, this can’t be grace. A father isn’t gracious for giving birth to his son; he is gracious for buying his son a car after he wrecked the last one. Such an understanding, to me, is explaining away a biblical word because it doesn’t work with one’s theology.
Semipelagians are… better? In Semipelagianism, while we are born neutral, or partially disabled, God’s law is so strict that it is impossible to live up to it. Therefore, God’s prevenient grace is giving humans the strength to do what is right, if they call on Him.
However, Arminians see God as far more active in the lives of His children, and less obsessed with moral perfection. Rather we see prevenient grace as something that comes before we do anything at all. Prevenient grace is the first act of God within each person’s life. It is the continual sustaining of each person throughout their fallen lives, and the drawing of each person to the knowledge of His Son. Pelagians think God is gracious for making us. Semipelagians think God is gracious for helping us. We believe God is gracious for reaching out to us when we were still enemies.
Now, Arminians believe in the substitutionary atonement theory.8 In this view, Christ took our place on the cross for our sins. The exact description of how this works has varied in Arminian thought,9 but the effect has not: we are sinful people, and the death of Christ takes our sins away and justifies us. Once Christ’s blood is upon us, we are fully and completely justified.10
Semipelagianism on the other hand is all over the place. On one end of the scale, I’ve met many who have the same view of the atonement as us. On the other end I’ve seen many who believe that the cross only takes away the sin nature, and then it is up to us to live better lives. And, of course, I’ve seen everything in between.
However, the Pelagian view is quite radical. They believe in something called the Examplar view. On this view, Christ’s death on the cross is an example for us to look to. His self sacrifice is the ultimate demonstration of the Christian ethic and the principle inspiration for living a moral life. Now in reality, it is all of that, but it is not only that. In fact, this is probably the part of full Pelagianism that bothers me the most.
I hope this brief comparison of these belief systems is helpful for those who honestly seek understanding.11 But I would like to conclude with few words about why it is important for us as Arminians, and also Calvinists, to understand what Pelagianism and Semipelagianism mean.
We are often libeled, slandered, and belied by being called Semi-pelagian. Often this is by Calvinists who either don’t understand what Arminians believe, or what Semi-pelagianism is.12 Because of this, many of my Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ have treated the term like a kind of bogeyman. They have sympathized with anyone who is ever called the term. Brethren, don’t fall for this. Semi-pelagianism is a real thing, and a heretical position. Don’t allow the misuse of the term to water it down to meaninglessness. In his letters, Screwtape once told his nephew that you should never attack the idea, but attack the word. For if you remove the word from the vocabulary, or change the meaning of the word, then people will simply forget about the idea. If we forget about the error that is true Semi-pelagianism, the church becomes vulnerable to it.
And to Calvinists, be sure to use terms correctly. Many of you do of course, but call out those of your number who do not. For the reasons I stated above, it is imperative that we do not water down such terms. But also, to do so, even in ignorance, is a lie. Whether you are telling a lie or spreading a lie you think is true, remember where lies come from. Truth is sufficient reason to portray your opponents accurately, especially those who are brothers and sisters with you in the Lord.
So let us pray for unity and clarity within the body, and true lines of demarcation. And let us seek truth so that we may know the one who is the source of all truth and goodness. Amen.
1 Where Pelagianism=Monarchy, Arminianism=Republicanism, and Determinism=Anarchist Libertarianism. Not in idealogy of course; strickly in terms of their positions on the scale. Well…no, NM, I’m over-thinking this.
2 That’s right. AD. None of that CE or BCE malarky. If I can tolerate months named after Roman gods and week days names after Norse gods, you can handle two letters that reference Jesus Christ.
3 Indeed, his writing on monasticism is still highly regarded by the RCC, for what that’s worth.
4 See here for my analysis of that document and here for SEA’s synopsis of the Arminian FACTS.
5 All the comments here about motivation are, of course, in regards to the general. Different people within any movement are going to have their own reasons and motivations.
6 Note that both are equally philosophical. Sometimes the world favors one of these views over the other, but we shouldn’t let the world control our thinking. Whether we believe in something because the world does, or whether we don’t believe in something because the world does, we are still keeping the world in the driver seat. While LFW is more popular now, determinism was what was popular in the early 20th century. The world is fickle; the Word is not.
7These two perspectives are foreseen election and corporate election. The first focuses on how God knew each and every person who would have faith, and then chose them. The second focuses on Christ being the head of the people of God, and anyone who is with that head receives what the head has. I, personally, hold to the latter.
8 We did have a brief flirtation with something called the “governmental atonement theory” which was based on 16th and 17th century political theory, but it has mostly died out since those political theories have died out. However, even this view was substitutionary in a certain sense.
9 I would emphasize the sacrificial nature of this. Christ’s death works in the same manner as the sacrifices in the Old Testament. Therefore, in some sense, our sins are put on Him, and then destroyed with His death.
10 So fully and perfectly efficacious, for those that are romantically attracted to that word.
11 And for those of you not honestly seeking, I hope I’ve given you something enjoyable to scoff at. Scoffing is fun, so go have a good scoff, and God bless you.
12 Or both.