Over at The Gospel Coalition Australia, a friend, Matthew Payne, had an article posted up titled ‘The Prodigial Arminian?’. In which, he unpacks a thoroughly Calvinistic understanding of the parable of ‘the Prodigal Son’. However before proceeding to do so, he states:
I’ve heard it said that Jesus’ famous parable ‘the Prodigal Son’ teaches Arminianism (Luke 15:11-32). That is, rather than reflecting the Bible’s teaching on God predestining people to salvation it teaches free-will. The Son rejected his father and ran away. He squandered his inheritance and found himself in hardship, but eventually decided that he should return to his father. The father passively sits at home, powerless to intervene. It’s a story (we are told) about free will and how all sinners are able to return to God in their own strength if that’s what they decide to do.
But is this Arminianism? Is there free-will here?
I have a lot of respect for Matthew, he is both knowledgeable and articulate. I also agree with Matthew’s thoroughly Calvinistic outline of regeneration in the article. Yet, I think the article misses its mark in his portrayal of Arminianism. While as a Reformed Baptist, I have no specific love for the Arminian soteriological position, I do think that the caricature is not of Arminianism at all, but rather Pelagianism.
Both Classical Arminianism, as articulated by Jacobus Arminius (1559-1609) and Simon Episcopius (1583-1643), and Wesleyan Arminianism, as articulated by John Wesley (1703-1791), would find issue with the above framing of their position. Notably, a) that people, represented by the son in the parable, have free-will to turn to God on their own strength (the doctrine of Total Depravity); and b) that God, represented by the father, is powerless to intervene in the life of the Son (the doctrine of God’s Sovereignty, specifically in Salvation).
A. Man’s Depravity
Both forms of Arminianism outlined above would hold to a strong understanding of man’s inherent inability to turn to God. Arminius in the 7th portion of his 11th Disputation, On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers, writes:
“In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete anything, but without me ye can do nothing.” That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.”https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.v.xii.html
This is affirmed by his most well-known student, Episcopius, who adds in the ‘Confessions of Faith of those called Arminians’: “Man hath not saving faith of or from himself; nor is he born again or converted by the power of his own free will: seeing in the state of sin he cannot so much as think much less will or do any good which is indeed savingly good…of or from himself: but it is necessary that he be regenerated and wholly renewed of God in Christ by the Word of the gospel and by the virtue of the Holy Spirit in conjunction therewith: to wit, in understanding, affections, will, and all his powers and faculties, that he may be able rightly to understand, meditate on, will and perform these things that are savingly good.”Simon Episcopius, Confessions of Faith of those called Arminians or, a Declaration of the opinions and Doctrines of the Ministers and Pastors which in the United Provinces Are Known by the Name of … Continue reading
The reality is that Arminius and his early followers thoroughly believed that man’s free-will did not leave the fall intact. Rather, to further quote Arminius, the “mind of man, in this state, is dark, destitute of the saving knowledge of God, and, according to the Apostle, incapable of those things which belong to the Spirit of God.” Such is Arminius’ strong description as to the fallen nature of man’s will that Moses Stuart, the 19th century Reformed theologian, once stated that “the most thorough advocate of total depravity will scarcely venture to go father in regard to unregenerate man than Arminius does”.https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-arminians-should-celebrate-reformation-500/
Whilst it is true that later Remonstrant theologians, notably from Philipp van Limborch (1633-1712) onwards, moved away from Arminius’ and Episcopius’ position on Total Depravity, and specifically the fallen state of the will. Not all who supposedly held to an Arminian position did. Indeed, the Wesleyan form of Arminianism was demonstrably consistent with Arminius’ own teaching, as made evident in Wesley’s tract, ‘What is an Arminian?’. Wherein, he attempts to make it precisely clear as to what an Arminian believes. When addressing five positions that the Arminians have been charged with, including denying original sin, he states: “With regard to the two first of these charges, they plead, Not Guilty. They are entirely false. No man that ever lived, not John Calvin himself, ever asserted either original sin, or justification by faith, in more strong, more clear and express terms, than Arminius has done. These two points, therefore, are to be set out of the question: In these both parties agree. In this respect, there is not a hair’s breadth difference between Mr. Wesley and Mr. Whitefield.”https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/The-Wesleys-and-Their-Times/What-Is-an-Arminian
Elsewhere, where upon preaching original sin, Wesley further explains that Christianity declares that ““all men are conceived in sin,” and “shapen in wickedness;” — that hence there is in every man a “carnal mind, which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to” his “law;” and which so infects the whole soul, that “there dwelleth in” him, “in his flesh,” in his natural state, “no good thing;” but “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil,” only evil, and that “continually.””http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/sermons.v.xliv.html#v.xliv-p0.3
The above clearly outlines why the Calvinist authors of Why I Am Not An Arminian, Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, could say with confidence that “Arminians together with Calvinists alike believe in total depravity.”Robert Person and Michael Williams, Why I Am Not An Arminian (2004), p.163. This is because Arminius, Episcopius, and Wesley were hardly alone. There have been many other later Arminian theologians who have also held to this same understanding and articulation of man’s depravity and fallen will as that first articulated by Arminius. Indeed, such an anthropological perspective, especially regarding humanity’s total depravity, is just one small piece of the common theological ground shared by both Arminianism and Reformed theology. Yet, what about God’s Sovereignty, specifically as it regards to salvation?
B. God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
This is the other issue that must be clarified. Whilst it is true that there are very real differences between the Reformed and Arminian positions in regard to this doctrine, and we cannot minimise that, yet at the same time we must be careful to fairly represent the position being targeted. Thus, if Arminians hold to the human will being under bondage to a fallen state, as demonstrated above, how can they believe that God is powerless to intervene? The answer is, unsurprisingly, they don’t!
Instead, the Classical Arminian position necessitates the intervention of God upon the fallen man, in order that man be saved. Peterson and Williams aptly explain: “The Arminians of the seventeenth century, however, held that the human will has been so corrupted by sin that a person cannot seek grace without the enablement of grace. They therefore affirmed the necessity and priority of grace in redemption. Grace must go before a person’s response to the gospel. This suggests that Arminianism is to closer to Semi-Augustinianism than it is to Semi-Pelagianism or Pelagianism.”Ibid, p.39.
This enablement of grace being the Arminian concept of prevenient grace, or preceding grace. A grace that God bestows onto fallen men which, as the late Wesleyan Theologian Thomas Oden states, “enable[s] one to choose further to cooperate with saving grace. By offering the will the restored capacity to respond to grace, the person then may freely and increasingly become an active, willing participant in receiving the conditions for justification.”Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity (1994), p.243.
Notwithstanding my own disagreement on how grace works on the life in the believer, it is evident that for Classical Arminianism, there is a necessary requisite of this grace in the life of the believer. It is something needed for man’s faculties to become freed so that they are able to seek, or respond to, God. Whilst the concept of prevenient grace isn’t as strongly fleshed out in Arminius’ treatises as opposed to Wesley’s, he notes the necessity of this grace for the believer when he states: “Therefore, if ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3:17); and if ‘the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36) it follows, that our will is not free from the first fall. That is, it is not free to good, unless it be made free by the Son through the Spirit.”https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.v.xii.html Elsewhere Arminius states: “Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good without Grace. That I may not be said, like Pelagius, to practice delusion with regard to the word “Grace,” I mean by it that which is the Grace of Christ and which belongs to regeneration.”https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works2.ix.vi.html
Wesley adds: “Faith is the work of God and the duty of man. It is not the effort of any or all of our natural faculties, but is wrought in us (be it swiftly or slowly) by the Spirit of God. And because of this, salvation or forgiveness or deliverance is based on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.”John Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. N. Curnock (1938), vol. II, p.338.
Subsequently, both Arminius and Wesley held to an understanding that God’s intervention and power was an absolute requirement for man to become a believer. Such enabling grace only occurring through the work of the Holy Spirit upon the person. Yet, what about the Arminian’s emphasis on man’s free agency? In a way, Arminius, Wesley, and others, held that prevenient grace was irresistible. As preceding grace is only made effectual through the subordination of man’s free, fallen, agency to God’s act. Outside of that, whilst man retained a free moral agency, or a free-will, it was one still constrained under the bondage of sin.
It is only after the bestowal of prevenient grace where people are restored to an almost-Edenic state of ability and be able, in this case, to either accept or resist God’s saving grace. Yet, and I cannot emphasis this enough, the ability to accept and subsist in God’s saving grace through faith is something seen in Classical Arminianism as an act of God in two distinct ways. The first, being an acknowledgement that faith itself is a gift from God. Arminius was adamant that faith “is a gracious and gratuitous gift of God, bestowed according to the administration of the means necessary to conduce to the end, that is, according to such an administration as the justice of God requires, either towards the side of mercy or towards that of severity.”http://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works2.ix.viii.xix.html
To which, Wesley also adds: ““For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves.” Of yourselves cometh neither your faith nor your salvation: “it is the gift of God;” the free, undeserved gift; the faith through which ye are saved, as well as the salvation which he of his own good pleasure, his mere favour, annexes thereto. That ye believe, is one instance of his grace; that believing ye are saved, another.”http://www.mun.ca/rels/meth/texts/wesley/sermon1.html
The second, being that the very ability to subsist by faith is also something that could only be achieved through the reliance on God’s grace, as rendered through the Spirit. Something Arminius outlines when talking about the aftermath of saving grace upon a person: “When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine grace.”https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.iii.vi.iii.html
Indeed, to emphasis this point, elsewhere he states: “In this manner, I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good, and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation, without this preventing and exciting, this following and co-operating grace.”https://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works1.iii.vi.iv.html
Likewise, this understanding is evident in Wesley’s thoughts as well, wherein he adds: “The same free grace continues to us, at this day, life, and breath, and all things. For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand. “All our works, Thou, O God, hast wrought in us.” These, therefore, are so many more instances of free mercy: and whatever righteousness may be found in man, this is also the gift of God.”http://www.mun.ca/rels/meth/texts/wesley/sermon1.html
Consequently, as we can see from within the main theological tangents of Arminianism, man was held to be much more than simply impaired by sin, but rather he was totally devastated by it. It is only through God’s first step of prevenient grace that man is held to able to be in a position in which he could, potentially, co-operate with God’s saving grace through faith. Yet, even then, at almost every point, Arminius and Wesley both, attempt to argue that it is only through God’s grace that they can subsist in the Christian life through faith. This is not to say that the Arminian position does not present very real anthropological challenges, but what the above, I hope, evidences is that Classical, or proper, Arminianism, as also collaborated by Wesley, does not hold to either an explicitly optimistic position regarding man’s ability, nor does it intentionally seek to make anything other than God the author and perfecter of Salvation. Even if does, by a logical outworking, open a rabbit hole regarding the problematic issues with synergistic salvation (which isn’t the intent of this post to tackle!)
Arminian, (Semi-)Pelagian: A Matter of Semantics?
This brings me back to the challenges presented in the opening depiction. Does this portray an Arminian, of the proper theological sense as outlined above? I don’t believe it does. Whilst no doubt there are people who profess themselves to be Arminians who do hold to a position akin to Matthew’s depiction, they would find themselves outside Arminian orthodoxy and instead find themselves in a theological tangent some refer to as ‘Arminianism of the Head’ . A position which is tremendously more aligned to Pelagianistic thought than to actual Arminianism.
Indeed, anybody who holds to an optimistic anthropological position where they would believe that their ‘following’ or ‘returning to’ God is act driven by their own ability and devoid, or lacking, of God’s gracious intervention is nothing more than a Pelagian, or semi-Pelagian at best. As such an understanding is at complete odds to the theological framework represented and laid out in the works of both Arminius and Wesley.
But what is the difference? An excellent and immensely helpful outline of the differences is provided by Michael Patton, where he outlines the differences between Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism: “Pelagianism is the belief that man is born morally neutral. As well, Pelagianism teaches that man’s will is neutral from birth. Therefore, according to Pelagianism, man does not need the grace of God to live according to his will. Arminianism, on the other hand, believes that man is completely dependent upon God’s grace in order to be saved… Unlike Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism is the belief that man is born in a state of moral brokenness but, in his natural state, is still able to call upon God for aid. Arminianism, on the other hand (and like Calvinism), does not believe that man can do any good whatsoever outside of God’s intervention. Man, in his natural state, is at enmity with God. It is only the prevenient grace of God that gives man the ability to call on Him for mercy.”http://credohouse.org/blog/twelve-myths-about-arminianism
Is this all just a matter of semantics? Arminian, (Semi-)Pelagian? Potato, Potatoe? Hopefully at this point, everything you’ve read clearly illustrates to you that this isn’t. There is an immense theological gulf between the Arminian and the (Semi-)Pelagian. One sees man as totally wretched and depraved, unable to seek God of their own accord, and certainly not without God’s grace. The other sees man as merely impaired by sin, at best, but still able to turn to God of their own accord. In one, we would hold much common ground, whereas in the other we would shy away from their heterodoxy.
This is why we need to take increasing care to ensure our theological depictions of opposing theological beliefs are fair and balanced. Classical Arminians who would hold to Arminius’ or Wesley’s positions, as I have sketched out above, are dear evangelical brothers who, whilst they certainly err in areas, are not Pelagians or even Semi-Pelagians, nor should we treat them as being ‘close enough’. Instead and perhaps, we could learn from one of the best documented engagements between a Calvinist and Arminian, Charles Simeon, and John Wesley:
Charles Simeon: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
John Wesley: Yes, I do indeed.
Simeon: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Wesley: Yes, solely through Christ.
Simeon: But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
Wesley: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
Simeon: Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
Simeon: What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
Wesley: Yes, altogether.
Simeon: And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
Wesley: Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
Simeon: Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things where in we agree.https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-250-yr-old-model-how-calvinist-simeon-related-to-wesley