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“A Comparison of Systems”

September 2, 2015 Leave a comment

by A. A. Hodge (1823-1886)

1. What, in general, was the state of theological thought during the first three centuries?

During the first three hundred years which elapsed after the death of the apostle John the speculative minds of the church were principally engaged in defending the truth of Christianity against unbelievers — in combating the Gnostic heresies generated by the leaven of Oriental philosophy — and in settling definitely the questions which were evolved in the controversies concerning the Persons of the Trinity. It does not appear that any definite and consistent statements were made in that age, as to the origin, nature, and consequences of human sin; nor as to the nature and effects of divine grace; nor of the nature of the redemptive work of Christ, or of the method of its application by the Holy Spirit, or of its appropriation by faith. As a general fact it may be stated, that, as a result of the great influence of Origen, the Fathers of the Greek Church pretty unanimously settled down upon a loose Semi-Pelagianism, denying the guilt of original sin, and maintaining the ability of the sinner to predispose himself for, and to cooperate with divine grace. And this has continued the character of the Greek Anthropology to the present day. The same attributes characterized the speculations of the earliest writers of the Western Church also, but during the third and fourth centuries there appeared a marked tendency among the Latin Fathers to those more correct views afterwards triumphantly vindicated by the great Augustine. This tendency may be traced most clearly in the writings of Tertullian of Carthage, who died circum. 220, and Hilary of Poitiers (368) and Ambrose of Milan (397).

 

 

 

Read the entire article here.

Prevenient Grace and Semi-Pelagianism Pt 1

June 30, 2014 1 comment

A consistent charge against Arminianism is that it is a form of semi-Pelagianism. Arminians consistently deny this charge and so it warrants an examination. This paper seeks to examine the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace and to demonstrate that it supports the charge of semi- Pelagianism. In the course of the examination, I hope to show that the doctrine of prevenient grace does not bear the weight of the biblical evidence against it.

Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism

The Pelagianism controversy in the early 5th century pitted the teachings of Augustine’s view of divine grace against that of Pelagius. Basically Pelagianism is understood as teaching that the natural man has “the capacity of self-determination by asserting the possibility of achieving sinless perfection in this life without grace.”1 In popular terms, Pelagianism would be the purest form of salvation by works. Pelagianism denies the doctrine of Original Sin and therefore of the depravity of man. It affirms free will in the libertarian sense in which man has a natural capacity to choose contrary to all possible factors that might otherwise determine one’s choices. Thus, it denies that God determines or decrees the actions of men. This would violate human liberty. Subsequently, the internal work of divine grace is not necessary in order to procure acceptance before God who demands moral perfection as a prerequisite of salvation.2 In affirming libertarian free will, Pelagianism asserts that man has the ability to act with sinless perfection if he so chooses. This is an absolute sort of anthropocentric construct and as such is rejected as heretical by all orthodox Christians including Arminians.

In the wake of the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy Semi-Pelagianism took hold in several quarters by a number of theologians. It was regarded as a middle ground between Augustine and Pelagius and his followers. However, the term semi-Pelagianism was not used until the 16th century Reformation.3 In contrast to Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism states that man is affected by the fall of Adam, but that his free will is retained so that while he is inclined toward sinful behavior, he is not in full bondage to sin. John Cassian, the principal proponent of semi- Pelagianism, states, “There are by nature some seeds of goodness in every soul implanted by the kindness of the Creator.”4 Although, divine grace is necessary for salvation, that grace is resistible due to our natural freedom to choose contrary to its influence. Cassian and other semi- Pelagians rejected Pelagianism as heretical but felt Augustine’s doctrine of unconditional election and predestination went too far in combating Pelagius’ error. Augustine regarded the semi-Pelagians as brothers in Christ. Likewise, the charge from Calvinists that Arminianism is semi-Pelagian, while a serious charge, is not intended to consign Arminianism to heresy. Calvinists who do so have been unfair to the genuine teachings of Arminians.5

In order to be saved, semi-Pelagianism gives priority to the initiation of faith via one’s free will, the latter being regarded as a gift of God’s grace to all men. This in turn provokes God to supply further helping grace that the person must cooperate with in order for his faith to have a saving character to it. The capacity one has in exercising faith is the degree to which God will supply grace toward salvation.6 There is a balance between the human initiative and the subsequent divine initiative.7 Rebecca Weaver says concerning John Cassian:

“Human dependence on grace meant for Cassian that at every stage of the process of salvation grace must be operative; however, the freedom of the human will meant that grace must function in such a way as not to deprive the will of its freedom to choose. The operation of grace as conceived by Cassian, therefore, is highly variegated. God interacts with the multitude of individual persons in the multitude of ways necessary to assist them toward salvation while at the same time preserving their freedom. The notion of grace as variegated was important to Cassian’s position, for it served to protect the self-initiating character of the human will.8”

There seems to be some debate in defining the parameters of what semi-Pelagianism espouses. Our concern here focuses upon the priority of grace versus free will. For example, Roger Olson quoting Nazarene theologian Orton Wiley states in essence that semi-Pelagianism teaches that in the partial depraved nature of man, he makes the first move toward God in procuring salvation but then needs divine grace to move further. The initiating act of man provokes God’s response with the necessary grace to complete salvation.9 Thus, semi- Pelagianism would teach that man initiates the process of salvation and God responds by supplying the necessary grace to help the process along. In contrast, Classical and Wesleyan Arminians argue that God must first initiate the process via prevenient grace and then man responds. In either case, there seems to be no debate that whoever initiates the process, man or God, that a cooperative effort is necessary. Thus, both positions affirm a synergistic view of salvation.

In an article written by the staff of Modern Reformation, a Calvinistic journal, the authors make a distinction between semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism.10 In a helpful chart they categorize both as forms of synergism. However, they make the same distinction that Olson and other Arminians make, that in Semi-pelagianism man takes the initiative in salvation and in Arminianism, God takes the initiative. In either case, grace and man’s free will cooperate in the procurement of salvation. In their chart they make a distinction between 2 types of monergism. On the one hand, there is the monergism which teaches that God alone initiates and completes salvation. This is consistent with the teaching of the Augustinian/ Calvinist understanding of soteriology. On the other hand, there is the monergism of Pelagianism in which man alone initiates and completes salvation. In between these two poles exists various forms of synergism. The authors place Arminianism closer to that of the Augustinian/ Calvinist side and semi- Pelagianism closer to the Pelagian side. The closer one comes to the theocentric monergism of Augustine and Calvin the greater the affirmation of Original Sin and human inability. The closer one comes to the anthropocentric monergism of Pelagius the greater the denial of Original Sin and human inability. Although there is some merit to the distinctions the chart makes under the rubric of synergism between Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism, it would seem the distinctions are more sharply made than the evidence may warrant.

It must be agreed that Arminianism affirms in principle a similar view of Original Sin and human inability that the Augustinian/ Calvinist tradition teaches. Furthermore, there is no doubt that Arminianism teaches the priority of divine grace working inwardly to initiate the process leading to salvation. However, it is not equally clear that semi-Pelagianism consistently affirms that man always is the first to initiate the first move towards God. Historical scholarship has taken note of this. Jaroslav Pelikan indicates that semi-Pelagians believed that sometimes faith preceded the supply of grace and at other times grace preceded the exercise of faith.11 This is confirmed by Weaver’s study. She states that for Cassian, “In the case of some persons, grace will assist the will that already desires the good, whereas in the case of others, grace will arouse the will to good when it is not so inclined.”12 In either case, faith is always exercised via the free will of man by either cooperating with or resisting the grace of God and that seems to be the main point of semi-Pelagiansim. However, as will be argued, the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace in terms of its practical outworking is not a one-time static event, but an ongoing and successive process whereby the unbeliever is drawn by stages to the culminating point of exercising saving faith. Yet, all along that process, the unbeliever must continually cooperate with grace in order to procure more grace. In this sense, Arminianism concurs with the semi-Pelagian notion that free will triggers the grace of God whether strictly in the initiation of the process or according to their view of prevenient grace in the continuing invocation of further supplies of grace.

Scott Christensen-Prevenient Grace and Semi-Pelagianism

 

 

1 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 313.
2 Pelagius affirmed the grace of God but that it was an external grace in the form of God’s moral law. It has no necessary influence on whether one chooses to obey it or not.
3 For more on the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian controversy see R. C. Sproul, Wiling to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), especially chapters 1, 2 and 3.
4 Quoted in Pelikan, Catholic Tradition, p. 323-24.
5 Some of the reason for this stems from the departure of Classical and Wesleyan Arminianism by influential figures like Charles Finney whose theology was much more in line with Pelagianism. His subsequent influence on Evangelical Christianity has been debilitating in a pervasive way. See Sproul, Willing to Believe, p. 169-85.
6 Ibid., p. 324.
7Rebecca Weaver, Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1996), p. 72.
8 Ibid.
9 Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006), p. 30.
10 “Grace, Sin and the Will: The Structure of the Debate” Modern Reformation 21:1 (Jan-Feb. 2012), p. 12-17.
11 Catholic Tradition, p. 324.
12 Divine Grace, .p. 72.

A Brief Definition of Calvinism

March 24, 2014 2 comments

Every so often I will get an email or comment on my blog, that will seek to warn me of God’s impending judgment, if I continue to use the term ‘Calvinism’ to describe my theological views concerning scripture. This email will invoke 1 Corinthians 1:11-13 against me and state that we are not to divide ourselves into different sects by being followers of certain men of whom God called out. Now I do agree that it is divisive to separate into different groups and claim to be this man’s disciple or that man’s disciple. This is what Paul was addressing in the letter to the Corinthians. Nevertheless, those who send these emails have no understanding what it means when I use the term ‘Calvinism.’

There are three definitions that one could use when using the term Calvinism. In a short Pdf by Ben Dally he identifies three concepts that people think of when the term ‘Calvinism’ is used:

“To begin, “Calvinism” represents different things in the minds of different people. For some, the term denotes simply what is contained in the writings of John Calvin himself, primarily as expressed in his final edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, his expansive biblical commentary, and his other treatises on various subjects and pieces of correspondence. To others, Calvinism is primarily to be understood as the doctrinal system espoused by those who deem themselves the “Reformed” churches in distinction from Lutheranism, Anabaptism, and other progeny of what might be loosely grouped together under the term “Protestant.” This generally coherent doctrinal system (though certainly not entirely uniform in every detail), as expressed in various Reformed formulas and confessions, is primarily acknowledged to have been derived from the teachings of John Calvin. Perhaps its most general (and most well known) formulation was composed at the Synod of Dort in 1618, in response to the Five Points of Arminianism derived from the teachings of Jacobus Arminius and his followers. A third and perhaps the most broad definition of Calvinism, according to B. B. Warfield, is “the entire body of conceptions, theological, ethical, philosophical, social, political, which, under the influence of the master mind of John Calvin, raised itself to dominance in the Protestant lands of the post-Reformation age, and has left a permanent mark not only upon the thought of mankind, but upon the life-history of men, the social order of civilized peoples, and even the political organization of States.” 5 Obviously there is great overlap among these three definitions; however, for sake of clarity and for the purpose of this article, Calvinism will be defined in accordance with the second definition given above, most popularly known as TULIP, the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or the doctrines of grace. We will briefly define and expound these points and then trace some of the practical implications of these basic Calvinistic propositions.” 1

 

I also use the second definition of Calvinism given by Dally in the quote above. To me Calvinism is a theological system and not merely an idolatrous term that seeks to provoke men to bow at the altar of a certain man. As one who identifies themselves as a Reformed Baptist, I hold to much of what Calvinism teaches. Calvinism could easily be called Augustinianism, Paulinism, or Christianity. When I use the term Calvinism I am not bowing down to a man, who was a great theologian, but rather identifying my theological convictions over and against erroneous views which have arisen within Christianity known as Pelagianism, Cassianism, Arminianism, and Roman Catholicism.

 

Augustus Toplady stated concerning Calvinism:

“Time has been when the Calvinistic doctrines were considered and defended as the Palladium of our Established Church; by her bishops and clergy, by the universities, and the whole body of the laity. It was (during the reigns of Edward VI, Queen Elizabeth, James I, and the greater part of Charles I) as difficult to meet with a clergyman who did not preach the doctrines of the Church of England, as it is now to find one who does. We have generally forsaken the principles of the Reformation, and Ichabod, or ‘the glory is departed,’ has been written on most of our pulpits and church-doors ever since.” 2

 

Charles Spurgeon stated concerning Calvinism:

“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.

There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrines of grace than I do, and if any man asks me whether I am ashamed to be called a Calvinist, I answer I wish to be called nothing but a Christian; but if you ask me, do I hold the doctrinal views which were held by John Calvin, I reply, I do in the main hold them, and rejoice to avow it.

But far be it from me even to imagine that Zion contains none but Calvinistic Christians within her walls, or that there are none saved who do not hold our views. I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of Heaven.” 3

 

So for those who do not know what the term ‘Calvinism’ means, I suggest they download the Pdf below and read Dally’s definition of the term.

 

(1) A Brief Definition of Calvinism by Ben Dally

 

(2) The Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner-Quoted from the preface of Zanchius’ Predestination Pg. 16

 

(3) A Defense of Calvinism by Charles H. Spurgeon