by Mark Snoeberger

A few months ago Bill Combs and I released a pair of blog posts that raised ire among some of our readers relative to the debate concerning divine sovereignty and human freedom. One of the barriers to fruitful dialogue that emerged in the ensuing discussion was one of definition—a failure to define historical positions in ways mutually acceptable to all participants in the debate. This failure has the potential to lead first to equivocation, then misrepresentation, followed by ad hominem attack, and even charges of heresy. This is unfortunate.

The following is a faithful attempt not (1) to debate the question or (2) to attach labels to people who don’t like to be labeled. Rather, it is an attempt to faithfully describe six key positions using historical descriptions (though not necessarily labels) that proponents of each position (whether historical or modern) can embrace:

  • A Pelagian is one who believes that man needs no assistance to come to God. By his own unaided power any man can avoid the pitfalls that ensnared Adam and generate all the faith and action necessary to follow Christ’s superior example and so be accepted by God. This belief was condemned as heresy at the 15th Council of Carthage in A.D. 418. This position is rare among evangelicals, and the label should not be assigned lightly.
  • A Semi-Pelagian is one who believes that every man, though weakened by the Fall, yet retains the ability, based on the power of choice granted him in the imago dei, to make a divinely unaided and a priori contribution of faith leading to his own justification. Any divine grace offered thereafter is truly grace, but grace of an a posteriori nature. This belief was condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Orange in A.D. 529.

NOTE: The term semi-Pelagian is unknown in antiquity, first appearing formally as a pejorative label for the 16th-century teachings of Luis de Molina, or what is sometimes known as Molinism—teachings that generally (though not perfectly) resemble the ancient position condemned at Orange. Some have suggested that the label Massilianism (a term that reflects the geographic center of the more ancient position) is more accurate, but it has not caught on. The result is a real historical position with definite modern representatives, but one with no label other than a pejorative that modern proponents of the position do not accept. This is a conundrum with no clear resolution; still, any suggestion that the historical position is imaginary because of the absence of a mutually agreeable label is unacceptable. The historical position described above does exist today, irrespective of the elusiveness of a label. The term should not be used, however (as it often is), in a historically inaccurate way to discredit those who hold to the Arminian position.

  • An Arminian is one who believes that man, though rendered totally depraved by the Fall, receives from God the non-efficacious power of alternative choice via prevenient grace either (1) at birth or (2) through the hearing of the Gospel. Thus aided by God, any man may, without compulsion, either reject or embrace Christ. If a man chooses to embrace Christ, this faith event triggers additional divine graces (the anachronistic grace of election based on God’s prior knowledge of the faith event, and the subsequent graces of justification and sanctification).

NOTE: Arminianism has never uniformly taught that the believer may lose his salvation. Instead, the question remains an open one, both historically (see the words of Arminius himself and the Five Articles of the Remonstrance) and also today (see the doctrinal standards of the modern-day Society for Evangelical Arminians and the representative words of Roger Olson, arguably the foremost Arminian of our day). All this goes to suggest that the question of eternal security should not be treated as a defining issue for the position here described. To do so without qualification is to introduce a red herring.

  • A Moderate Calvinist is one who believes that all men are rendered totally depraved by the Fall, but that God, in accordance with his pre-temporal and unconditional electing decree, issues efficacious grace to his elect alone so that they may then exercise faith unto a regeneration and justification that can never be forfeited.
  • A Full or Historic Calvinist is one who believes that all men are rendered totally depraved by the Fall, but that God, in accordance with his pre-temporal and unconditional electing decree, efficaciously regenerates his elect, creating “new creatures” who gladly exercise faith unto a justification that can never be forfeited.

NOTE: Calvinism has never uniformly taught a definite or “limited” atonement. The question remains an open one that has long been the topic of intramural debate among Calvinists (see, e.g., the historical canons of Dordt and this recent contribution to the debate). Again, all this goes to suggest that the extent of the atonement should not be treated as a defining issue in describing the Calvinist position.

  • A Hyper-Calvinist is one that holds to the immediately preceding position, but teaches additionally that (1) believers have no responsibility to indiscriminately call the lost to repent and believe in Christ for salvation and/or that (2) unbelievers have no duty to repent and believe in Christ for salvation.

NOTE: Few believers ascribe to the label hyper-Calvinist; like the label semi-Pelagian, it is uniformly pejorative. However, it is a historical position with modern proponents: the position cannot be rendered imaginary due to the elusiveness of a label. The term should not be used, however (as it often is), in a historically inaccurate way to discredit those who hold to the Calvinist position.

Conclusion: The question whether a modern position may be logically crafted so as to present a viable via media or whether elements of these historical positions may be so combined as to offer a viable hybrid position will be graciously left open today. What is hoped, however, is that the historical parameters of the debate have been faithfully delineated.