Synergism is not semi-Pelagianism

I often hear people suggest that any theology suggesting that humans “cooperate” with God’s grace in the process of salvation (synergism) is essentially the same as the heresy of semi-Pelagianism–i.e. the idea that human effort plays at least some role in initiating salvation. Implicit behind the claim  seems to be the  idea that anything other than pure monergism is borderline heresy. It’s not quite rampant heresy (Pelagianism), but it’s really close (semi-Pelagianism).

synergy with white paper tears

There are both historical and theological reasons for rejecting this claim. Historically, we should at least recognize that semi-Pelagianism was a movement that arose after the time of Pelagius, was primarily associated with certain monastic groups in the 5th and early-6th centuries, and was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Orange  (529). So, historically speaking, if you call someone a semi-Pelagian, you actually are calling him/her a heretic – not just a near-heretic.

Theologically, it is not true that synergists are necessarily semi-Pelagian. And here it’s important that we define our terms.

Pelagian: any system in which the human person is capable of achieving salvation entirely on his/her own with no divine assistance other than common grace (i.e. the grace necessary for any being to exist).

Semi-Pelagian: any system in which the process of salvation is initiated by the human person apart from any grace other than common grace, but in which the process of salvation is synergistically completed by the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.

Synergism: any system that affirms some kind of cooperative interaction between the divine and the human in the process of salvation

Based on these definitions, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. Pelagians are not synergists:  On their view, salvation is achievable by the human person alone.
  1. Semi-Pelagians are synergists: For them, the salvation process requires the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.
  1. But synergists are not Pelagians and they are not necessarily semi-Pelagian: It is entirely possible for one to affirm the cooperative interaction of both divine and human while still affirming that the process of salvation begins entirely with God’s salvific (not common) grace. For example, the idea of “prevenient” grace holds that no human is capable of initiating salvation, but that God’s grace “goes before” and enables humans to respond rightly. Regardless of what you think about this approach, it affirms both that God’s grace initiates salvation (it “goes before”) and that the human person must cooperate by responding. Thus it is synergistic but neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian.

Using these (admittedly cursory) definitions, we can say that a number of very prominent soteriologies are synergistic but not semi-Pelagian (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Wesleyan, etc.). When theologians make blanket statements to the effect that all synergists are semi-Pelagian, they (hopefully unwittingly) question the orthodoxy of vast swaths of Christianity, including nearly all of the Church Fathers.

So take this as a plea to all monergists. Please stop claiming that synergism simply is semi-Pelagian. That claim is neither historically nor theologically correct.

Comments

comments

21 Responses to “Synergism is not semi-Pelagianism”

  1. irishanglican ~ Fr. Robert November 20, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    Indeed semi-Pelagianism is often hard to see and thus define. But it can be very real! Would you agree Marc?

  2. Marc Cortez November 20, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    Fr. Robert, I would definitely agree. I think semi-Pelagianism is alive and well in the world, and it has become an especially attractive option in much of popular evangelicalism. I just don’t think we should equate it with semi-Pelagianism.

    • irishanglican ~ Fr. Robert November 21, 2010 at 11:15 am #

      Marc,

      I think I get your point, but semi-Pelagianism as an “attractive option”? Could you explain?

      • Marc Cortez November 21, 2010 at 11:46 am #

        Thanks for asking. I only meant that semi-Pelagianism is the kind of view that many people will find appealing – we always like to think that salvation ultimately depends on us. So, I didn’t mean to suggest that it’s “attractive” in the sense of being a good option worth checking out.

        • TK Jaros February 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

          Hi Marc! A wonderful distinction. I consider myself a semi-pelagian and am pursuing becoming a theologian. Applying to PhD programs currently.

          • Marc Cortez February 23, 2012 at 6:37 am #

            I usually hear more from people who are synergists and don’t that to be confused with semi-Pelagianism. It’s interesting to hear from someone moving in the other direction. Good luck with your doctoral pursuits.

  3. rey April 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    Who cares whether Synergism is semi-Pelagianism or not? When will silly Prots grow up and stop treating the names of old theologians like the plague or the boogey-man just because some absolutely authorityless Catholic council condemned them back in the dark ages? Its time to grow up and quit bowing to the Pope already. Pelagius was a good theologian, the best, and its only your desire to kiss the Pope’s ring that makes you say otherwise.

    • Tim Nissly January 27, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

      Um…have you read many theologians? Pelagius was hardly the best and still he was also wrong on soteriology. I think you need another cup of coffee. And why would anyone in their right mind kiss the popes ring? :)

  4. Bradley November 16, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    Marc,

    I like your plea in this post. I have made similar pleas myself, though not concerning this exact issue (e.g. http://theophilogue.com/tag/pat-robertson-repudiates-the-gospel/).

    All too often zealous evangelicals, though they have every intention to make the most subtle distinctions in parsing their own theology when “heresy” or “orthodoxy” is at stake, lack appreciation for such subtle distinctions in the theology of others. Anything that’s not exactly like “our” brand of theology is seen in one color only—red—indicating it needs to be charged at with horns. I would be willing to bet, however, that how one defines such important theological terms will forever be disputed because of how much is at stake.

    I really appreciate the spirit of this post, however, and will be dropping in from time to time now to check out your posts!

    Pax,

    Bradley

  5. Jon November 28, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Very good insight. We are far too black-and-white in our categories/labels. And the fathers of the earlier ancient church did not even think according to these ideas. Much of what we say about them is anachronistic.

  6. Josh January 15, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    I find these discussions interesting. They often become a semantic war. The same is the case with ‘sovereignty’. People define these words narrowly, then bash anyone with differing views claiming they dont believe in sovereignty or grace etc.

    The very framing of calvinism as the ‘doctrines of grace’ is an example.

  7. Patrick Stitt January 15, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    Great article but Pelagians don’t believe that human can be saved by their own efforts. They recognize that they need the grace of God. They just teach that there is no spiritual force that prohibits someone from being saved or doing good (eg. Adam’s sin, sinful nature).

    They’re often accused of that but it has never been taught by any pelagian ever.

    • Marc Cortez January 16, 2014 at 5:44 am #

      Yes, that was what I meant when I referred to “common grace” above. In the Pelagian system, everything necessary for salvation is already included in the grace of creation. Individuals do not need an additional “special grace” to overcome the impact of the fall before they can be saved.

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