Theological Dictionary Roulette – Semi-Pelagianism

It’s Friday and time for another exercise of random theological awesomeness. Each Friday, I’ll open the Evangelical Theological Dictionary to a random page and point to a random term and write a 500-word post about it. This is a fun way to preserve some of the terms that have given shape to our faith communities throughout the centuries.

Today’s topic: Semi-Pelagianism (not to be confused with Pelagianism, got that?)

Pelagianism is a theological term coined after the extreme teachings of Pelagius (5th century) which viewed the primacy of human will over God’s intervention with divine grace. Pelagius was condemned by the church as a heretic not once, but twice. I bet his parents were a bit embarrassed.

Semi-Pelagianism was first used to describe the theology of Jesuit Luis Molina by the 1577 Lutheran Formula of Concord document. Molina, and others, would’ve preferred to have been called “Semi-Augustinians,” instead of having any connection to Pelagius.

Augustine, a direct opponent of Pelagius, believed that humans were totally depraved and therefore unable to make a move towards God without God’s intervention. Therefore, if God had to move first, one could suggest that those who were not elected by God to begin with, and did not receive God’s intervention are left in their own sin, without hope.

The semi-Pelagian sentiment has been around some time, even before Molina in the 16th century. Some as early as John Cassian (5th century) could be associated with this nuanced perspective between Augustine on the one side and Pelagius on the other. Cassian suggested that Augustine’s view of election was too wooden, too new and did not keep within the tenor of the faithful tradition. Cassian, and others, believed that, in a mystery, God’s grace and human free will worked together in the salvation event.

Semi-Pelagians would suggest that God’s love extends to all the world and that human will must move towards God in response, rather than the Augustinian view of God’s election.

I’ve appreciated some of these nuanced views between Election and Free Will. In the very least, it energizes a vibrant discussion that we’ve had in our tradition for centuries, now. This discussion moves beyond Bible School classrooms or theological discussion boards. Christians through the ages have tried to reconcile both a God who is sovereign over all and who seems to allow humans to make seismic decisions for ourselves.

A pro-Augustine camp would seek to uphold the priority of God’s sovereignty, all-the-while, know that they have a ghastly Problem of Evil argument to wrestle with.

A Semi-Pelagian proponent, however, has to wrestle with the idea of God’s sovereignty somehow having to come into submission under the decision of the human’s will.

 

To put it another way, both sides of this argument have to live with the tension of scope and effect:

Augustinians limit the scope of God’s salvation (only for the elect) but experience a profound depth to the effect of salvation (once saved, always saved).

Semi-Pelagians will limit the effect of salvation (human free will moves me towards God and can move me away from God, too) but experience a profound scope of salvation (God’s grace extends to all)

 

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