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)


Theological Dictionary Roulette: Perfectionism

Each Friday, I’ll add a post on the blog that tries to highlight theological words from my Christian heritage. I’ll do this by taking out my copy of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. I will open the book to a random page, close my eyes, and then point to a word. I will then make a short post about that word. I call this “Theological Dictionary Roulette.”

Today’s word: Perfectionism

Perfection is a Bible word, showing up in the OT and even in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says,

“Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

The original language of the Bible sketches a startling idea about perfection, that it has less to do with “making every free throw or ace-ing every test.” The word means, “integrity, uncalculating, sincere, simple,” values that people crave even in our modern, advanced, hyper-connected world.

In NT Greek it carries a similar meaning to telos, or “reaching an end or goal.” Perfection is about reaching a desired end, even if there are bumps along the way while we get there.

Perfectionism as a theological idea has had a checkered history. On the one hand, Christian Platonists, Monastics, and Pietists sought to follow Jesus whole-heartedly, taking the Matthew 5:48 command seriously. For the most part, this pursuit has been pure and at other times, some unneeded restrictions had been placed on the Christian life that we chuckle at now. The heart was in the right place but the application could get wonky, at times.

On the other hand, others in the Christian tradition rejected the thought of perfection, insisting that the Christian is deeply flawed, even after an experience of regeneration. Jesus command in Matthew 5:48, then, is not meant to be kept but serves as an impossible standard to remind us that we don’t measure up and that we rest on God’s sheer grace is Christ.

The question remains, then, is there a way to inspire a Christian to a depth with Christ without unrealistic (and helpful) demands and without insisting that the Christian is one his/her own in working out their salvation? (Phil. 2:12-13)

I have found it helpful to look at the issue of holiness/perfection with the idea of “wholeness.”

We should ask ourselves, “Am I a whole person? Would my inner and external life be congruent? Would people in every area of my life sketch a similar picture of who I am? Do I have one self or multiple selves, some of which would not get along if they had to run next to one another on the treadmills at the gym?”

The process of wholeness takes both effort from within ourselves and help from God. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we embrace an axiom that says, “Work as if it depends upon you, but pray as if it depends on God.” Such ideas are probably inspirational, but ultimately short-circuits itself.

I’d rather rely upon Dallas Willard’s claim, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.” For I am convinced that the grace to give the effort is first a work from God and that God delights in our thoughtful intentions of following in the way of Jesus.


Theological Dictionary Roulette

So, I thought it would be fun to put up a post every so often where I just allow the Theological Dictionary to open at a random page and do a short write up about something from that page. Let’s just see what happens.

Note: I am using the 2nd edition of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology for these posts, for better or for worse.

Today’s entry: Elemental Spirits

The most famous reference for elemental spirits is in Galatians, as Paul is communicating themes such as gospel, justification, etc. As Paul is addressing his non-Jewish audience (and their plight that Jesus can rescue them from) Paul uses the term “elemental spirits”. (see Galatians 4:3, 9)

Elemental spirits (GK – stoicheia) can refer to “basics” whether the ABC’s as the basics for language or the basic elements of the world (at least in the biblical mind: earth, air, water, and fire).

Paul has an interesting situation in Galatia. He presents a common message of Christ to those inside and outside of the Jewish story. Paul, as a Jew, innately knows how his observance of Torah and the “works of the Law” that were used as identity markers for the covenant people were only temporary, for the righteousness of God (God’s commitment to his rescue plan) came to a stunning climax in Christ. To appeal to the works of the Law as identity markers was to cling to a weaker measure. This weakness is non other than slavery that Jesus can rescue Israel from.

But what about those who were not familiar with Torah? Didn’t they have to become Jews in order to be in God’s covenant family? That appears to be the plot of Galatians (and other NT books, particularly the writings of Paul). That appears to be the issue for these Galatians. Paul came among them (non-Jews) and did not make them become Jews in order to be in God’s family. (Which was an atom bomb of an idea at this point, by the way) As non-Jews, Paul described their plight in a non-Jewish framework.

Paul uses the term “elemental spirits”, or a way of worshipping that made them “weak and miserable.” (Galatians 4:9) Perhaps Paul is referring to pagan practices and rituals that his audience assumed would help set them free, but in reality, continued to enslave them.

We can poke fun at what these “elemental spirits” may have been, but let’s not be too quick to judge. The same elemental spirits are at work today, they just have different names. Maybe it is the tax-bracket, job, house, acclaim, significant other, respect that we seek in order that we can grasp a sense of freedom. Does it really free us, or do we simply acquire a new set of chains, a new cell, a new sense of bondage?

Paul declares that Christ sets us free from slavery and its many forms. This freedom, however, binds us together. Paul shares that we must give ourselves to the “law of Christ” which is to bear one another’s burdens, (Galatians 6:2) for, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)