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The Fall of Adam Part 2: Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism

Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

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Agustian and Pelagius

What effect has the sin of Adam had upon the rest of humanity? As we said in part one, there are only three possibilities. The Fall could have no effect, it could have a partial effect or it could have a total effect. In part one of this series, we dealt with the beliefs of Pelagius who said that the Fall had no effect upon the posterity of Adam. In this article, we will consider those who said that the Fall had a partial effect upon humanity.

In the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, it was made very clear that the Pelagian position was not supported by Scripture. What Augustine said was that the Fall of Adam had a complete and devastating effect upon man. So great was the effect of the Fall, that man was no longer able to exercise his will in any obedience to God, apart from supernatural grace. And when God gives this grace, He only gives it to a limited number of men and the grace is always effective in that it results in men repenting and believing.

Some in the Church found themselves in an uncomfortable position. It was clear that Pelagius was wrong but they also felt that Augustine had gone too far. They could not accept that man had no ability of his own to obey the commands of God, especially the commands to repent and believe. The conundrum was that the Bible teaches that the Fall does corrupt men with a sin nature.

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John Cassian

John Cassian (AD 360 – 435) taught that the Fall of Adam did have an effect upon the posterity of Adam, but that effect was not a total one. There was left in man some innate ability to obey God. However, this ability was not sufficient enough to overcome the total effect of sin. The grace of God was needed for man to be completely free and forgiven of his sin. While Augustine said that it was the grace of God that preceded men’s choice to obey, Cassian said that the grace of God was given when men chose to obey. It was this grace that then would completely deliver them and free them from sin.

It is human nature to seek a compromise between two difficult positions, and that is what Cassian and his followers tried to do. Their position was labeled “Semi-Pelagian” because, like the beliefs of Pelagius, they held that man could obey and repent of his own power. Both positions said that there was in man enough goodness to obey. The Semi-Pelagians did desire to include the grace of God in their scheme but this grace was not true grace. Grace, by definition, is favor given by God that is not deserved by man. By placing grace as a response of God to the obedience of man they made grace a payment or reward. It was no longer unmerited. What they labeled as grace was not grace. Semi-Pelagianism was condemned and rejected at the Council of Orange in 529 A.D.

I must note, that there are more than a few people today who believe and teach Semi-Pelagianism. They do not use this title and most likely, have no idea where the ideas originated. In an attempt to escape the concept of predestination as put forth by Augustine, they postulate a situation in which the Fall affected man to some extent, and even to a great degree, but left his free will and ability to do good intact.

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Arminianism

We must fast-forward to the Protestant Reformation to see the formulation of the third position that says man's will is able to obey God. The original Reformers are drawing their beliefs from Scripture and agree, at least in their view of man and salvation, with Augustine. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others conclude that man is without the ability to will to obey God and be pleasing to God.

Jacob Arminius was trained in Leiden and Geneva. Like the Semi-Pelagians, he believed in the effects of the Fall and the need for God’s grace, but he also believed that man had a will that was good enough to be able to choose God on its own power. Calvinists believe that the Scripture is clear that God elects men before creation. Arminius rejected this assertion. He said, “the scriptures know no election by which God precisely and absolutely has determined to save anyone without having first considered him as a believer.”[1]

He goes on to say that if God had decreed all that would occur in the world then God would be the author of sin. It is important to note that Arminius does not deny the Fall nor the effects of the Fall. He believes and agrees with the Calvinists that Adam sinned of his own will and that sin has affected humanity. However, God corrected the Fall in some measure. God “has determined to bestow on man sufficient grace by which he may believe.”[2] This idea is further developed later by others and comes to be called “Prevenient Grace.”

Prevenient Grace is the concept that after the Fall, God granted a measure of grace to all who would be born after Adam. This grace did not remove all the effects of the Fall but was sufficient to restore the will of men so that they could believe and obey God.




COMING SOON: PART 3 Calvinism

Footnotes

[1] Deputies of the Synod, to Their Lordships the Curators of the University of Leyden, for the Purpose of Obtaining an Answer to each of them from the Professors of Divinity; and the Replies which James Arminius Gave to them, in November 1605, with Other Nine Opposite Questions; Arminius Answer to Question 1.

[2] ibid., Question 5.

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