Synergism is not semi-Pelagianism

During the interaction with N.T. Wright at the last ETS plenary session, Tom Schreiner casually tossed out the all-too-common assertion that synergism is semi-Pelagian. 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).

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, primarily associated with certain monastic groups in the 5th and early-6th centuries, and 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. Here it is important that we define our terms. I understand the terms as follows

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 since salvation is achievable by the human person alone.
  2. Semi-Pelagians are synergists since the salvation process requires the cooperative interaction of both divine and human.
  3. Synergists are not Pelagians and are not necessarily semi-Pelagian since 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.

So, 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, please take this as a plea to all monergists – please stop making the claim that synergism simply is semi-Pelagian. That claim is neither historically nor theologically correct.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 20, 2010, in Historical Theology, Salvation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

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

  2. 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.

    • Marc,

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

      • 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.

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