Augustine: A Saint of Insurmountable Influence

Augustine: A Saint of Insurmountable Influence

            Augustine of Hippo has been called “the most influential theologian in the entire Western church, both Protestant and Catholic” (Gonzalez 216). While the fourth and fifth century (354-430 A.D.) Christian is now with the Lord, his efforts still impact modern day Christianity (Portalié). Christopher Dawson from St. Augustine: His Age, Life, and Thoughts writes, “However far we have traveled since the fifth century and however much we have learnt from other teachers, the work of St. Augustine still remains an inalienable part of our spiritual heritage” (39). The life and events associated with Augustine certainly reveal practical knowledge of early Christianity. Particularly, it is beneficial to examine his conversion, which reveals the persistent and unfathomable grace of God. Additionally, the theology and writings of Augustine can shape one’s interpretation of Scripture and view of God. After carefully evaluating the life, events, and theology that relate to Augustine, it is very reasonable to conclude that no other post-apostolic man has proven to be more influential to what is now modern-day Christianity.

John 3:6 confirms, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Leading up to the regeneration and massive spiritual impact of Augustine involves religious experimentation, worldliness, and a burdened desire for peace with God. Augustine was born in Tagaste, a beautiful and thriving city of North Africa during the middle of the fourth century (Gnayalloor 3). Historians and readers alike often confirm the same self-professed conclusion that Augustine’s family was “not rich” (Portalié). While they were probably not heavily wealthy, Jacob Gnayalloor infers that because Patricius, Augustine’s father, owned at least twenty-five acres of land, he was qualified for membership on the city council (4). Furthermore, while Patricius for much of his life held to the belief of paganism, Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a Catholic Christian (4). It is helpful to remember, that at this time period, the Roman emperor Constantine had already made his efforts in dismissing paganism, and implementing Christianity (4). Though she is quite often overlooked, Monica was a tremendous person of influence, not only in Augustine’s life, but a woman for many Christians to strive in imitation. First Peter 3:1 says, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” Reverend Jacob Gnayalloor writes, “Patricius was not faithful to his wife, but the pagans of those days were accustomed to polygamy and did not consider this a serious moral offense” (4). It is incredible to see the perseverance and agape love that Monica displayed, which according to some sources, eventually led to the conversion of Patricius (Portalié). While Augustine did not live in the greatest of homes, he benefited especially from his mother’s godly influence, eventually leading to his own conversion.

Scholastically, Augustine had several influences through education from his childhood. First of all, he had the privilege of receiving “Christian education” from an early age (Portalié). However, Augustine described his early education as “a prison,” for “he loved games and was fond of the sports of his contemporaries” (Gnayalloor 8-9). Despite his early frustrations, Augustine’s leadership and intellect was eventually manifested. His parents were desirous of the best possible education and proceeded in sending Augustine to a school in Madaura, a successful town at that time, located between Hippo and Theveste (10-11). While in Madaura, Augustine, to his disliking, read the works of Homer but also developed a strong interest in love stories, particularly poetry of Virgil (12). Once completing his education in Madaura, Augustine returned home, hoping to pursue further education. Augustine especially dreamed of studying rhetoric at Carthage, but was financially unable to pursue higher education at that time (13). Though Augustine probably benefited from his childhood education, his life was about to take a turn for the worst.

After earning enough money, Augustine proceeded to Carthage. Unfortunately, the city of Carthage was pagan around the time of A.D. 370, and faced struggles such as “licentiousness of other students, the theatres, the intoxication of his literary success, and a proud desire always to be first” (Portalié). On the account of hearing her son’s sinful behavior, Monica had pleaded with Augustine to refrain from his actions, especially his association with certain women (Gnayalloor 13). However, Augustine trusted that following his mother’s instructions would cost him the great popularity that he received at Carthage (14). In fact, “Augustine and his friends prided themselves upon their misconduct and perpetrated sins for the sake of notoriety” (14). Before long, Augustine had developed sexual relations with a woman he had not married and birthed a child named Adeodatus (Gonzalez 208). Additionally, Augustine and his friends took part in other sexual pleasures that Carthage had to offer. For example, the “heavenly Virgin Venus” festival incorporated the exhibiting of the immoral statue of Venus publicly, while girls danced naked in front of men (Gnayalloor 19). Without a doubt, at this point in his life, Augustine was indeed spiritually “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In fact, Augustine stated in his Confessions, “For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God; yet, through that famine I was not hungered; but was without all longing for incorruptible sustenance, not because filled therewith, but the more empty, the more I loathed it” (13). His life goes to show that God’s grace is able to cover a multitude of sins, even pride and sexual immorality.

While continuing his education at Carthage, and getting well-acquainted with the pleasures the city had to offer, certain potential hindrances arose. At the time of Augustine’s life while at Carthage, he was met with financial difficulties. Not long after his arrival at Carthage, Augustine’s father had died (Gnayalloor 21). Fortunately, Augustine was able to receive financial aid from a man named Romanianus, providing enough money for him to continue in his education (22). Though continuing in studies led to valuable interactions, such as reading the Holy Scriptures, his education also provided stepping stones for a further rebellion from the one true God.

Though Augustine’s brilliance of rhetoric, scholarship, and influences were things of great desire to many people of the late fourth century, they were also greatly responsible for his early rejection of Christianity. Nearing the end of his education at Carthage, Augustine began to study Cicero’s Hortensius (Gnayalloor 23). Reading Hortensius brought forth different consequences. For example, Augustine stated in his Confessions, “This book altered my affections, and turned my prayers to Thyself, O Lord; and made me have other purposes and desires” (18). In other words, Cicero’s philosophies influenced Augustine in ways that caused him to ponder the reality of a divine being, particularly the God of the Holy Scriptures. However, after reading Cicero’s literature, pagan writings, and the Bible, the “prosaic language” of the Holy Scriptures did not seem to hold to as high of a standard in language as did Hortensius (Gnayalloor 24). Therefore, instead of drawing closer to the God of the universe, Augustine was left in disbelief (24).

Flirting with pagan philosophies and rejecting Biblical truth, Augustine eventually became entangled with the religion of Manicheism. In the year 373, not only did Augustine fall for this heresy, but he led his friend Honoratus astray as well (Portalié). Essentially, Manicheism is a fusion of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, and even Christianity (Gnayalloor 25). The religion was started by a man called Manus, or sometimes Mani, who was the son of a pagan priest and attempted to become a “Christ” (Gnayalloor 24; Portalie). The first fault of the religion is the fact that they horribly misconstrue the source of all things. Manicheism, like many similar religions, teaches that God is both good and evil (Breshears and Driscoll 153). Some teachings of Manicheism include: the battle between good and evil is eternal and will always remain active, God created the first man who was a spirit, God sent His own soul into the world to assist the first man, and material is evil but spirits are good (Gnayalloor 25). The only way for one to achieve salvation is to separate the spirit from the material until he is finally prepared for the realm of pure light (Gonzalez 208). Furthermore, Jesus, who apparently came from the sun, was the redeemer of imprisoned souls, but according to Manicheism doctrine, there was never an incarnation or a death and resurrection (25). Finally, Manicheism professes that Jesus’ teachings were not intelligible, and thus people needed the Holy Spirit who is Manus (25).

In the case of Augustine, historians are not certain who actually introduced him to this religion. Yet, Augustine was not fully convinced of this philosophical religion, though he did spend nine years studying Manicheism (Gonzalez 210). Eventually, Augustine had developed irresolvable questions pertaining to Manicheism which many teachers could not appease. As a last resort, Augustine listened to the great Manichean teacher Faustus to perhaps reconcile some questions about the religion (210). To Augustine’s disfavor, Faustus was not convincing whatsoever and further left him with an unquenchable thirst for the truth.

Proceeding Augustine’s relationship with Manicheism came the introduction to the religion of Neo-Platonism. In accordance with his change of religion, Augustine also had a change of residence for he accepted a job teaching rhetoric in Milan, a city in Italy (Portalié). The school in Milan was actually his second teaching position, for Augustine had a short stint in Tagaste that was cut short due to financial problems (Gonzalez 210). The philosophical religion of Neo-Platonism teaches “through a combination of study, discipline, and mystical contemplation,” one can “reach the ineffable One, the source of all being” (210). Though the roots originate from the ideas of Plato, the first true Neo-Platonist is considered to be a man named Plotinus who lived from 204-270 ( Contrary to Manicheism, Neo-Platonism resolves that evil does not originate from a deity, but rather is accomplished by a progressive straying from the One, or in Christian Neo-Platonism, from God (Gonzalez 210). To Augustine, the reconciliation of sources of evil started to make sense. Additionally, though Neo-Platonism does not incorporate the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the philosophies started to point Augustine in a more Biblical direction of theology.

It was at the Italian city of Milan where Augustine’s faith finally found place of rest, following the burdensome path of previous philosophical and religious disappointments. Although Augustine developed a curiosity for Neo-Platonism, Ambrose of Milan was the man who essentially influenced him to eventually convert to Christianity (Portalié). Encouraged by his mother, Augustine went to hear the preaching of Ambrose who was significantly talented in rhetoric (Gonzalez 211). Aside from the content, Augustine was actually originally more intrigued by the style of presentation due to his profession (211). However, the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Conviction dwelled in the heart of Augustine as he struggled with abandoning his pleasures to wholeheartedly follow Jesus Christ (Gnayalloor 56). Upon studying the Scriptures and the company of friends also converting to Christianity, Augustine would likewise become convinced of this faith. In particular, a famous Roman philosopher Marius Victorinus and two civil servants who were greatly influenced by Athanasius were the primary converts of importance (Gonzalez 211). Finally, Augustine repented and became a Christian at the garden of Milan in September of 386 (Portalié). This glorious moment led to a Christian who accomplished much for the glory of God.

The post-conversion events of Augustine were quite significant and heavily affected the rest of his life. First, both Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose of Milan (Gonzalez 211). Before long, Augustine quit his professor position and left to go to Tagaste, North Africa to spend in a life of Monasticism (221-212). Along with Augustine came Monica, Adeodatus, and a group of friends; however, their plans were interrupted at the seaport of Ostia when Monica developed a sickness and soon died (212). Augustine had a tremendous respect and love for his mother, devoting an entire chapter in his Confessions about her (100-117). Upon his mother’s death, Augustine confidently wrote, “Of this we were assured on good grounds, the testimony of her good conversation and her faith unfeigned” (112). Additionally, Augustine rested assured not just in his mother’s faith, but in the work of Jesus Christ by writing, “For she will not answer that she owes nothing, lest she be convicted and seized by the crafty accuser: but she will answer, that her sins are forgiven her by Him, to whom none can repay that price, which He, who owed nothing, paid for us” (117). Though confident in their eternal hope, Augustine, his son, and companions remained idle for several months before finally arriving in Tagaste (Gonzalez 212). Once arriving, Augustine sold much of his property and gave money to the poor, while he and his son moved to Cassiciacum, Italy (212). However, more death approached his family with the passing of Adeodatus shortly after their arrival (212). Despite many trials, Augustine continued in his intentions to live a life of study and contemplation.

Despite the plans of Augustine to complete the rest of his life in Cassiciacum, God used scenarios in his life to lead him to the town of Hippo. On a trip to Hippo, Augustine was meeting with a friend to encourage him to join the community in Cassiciacum (Gonzalez 212). While at Hippo, Augustine attended a church service led by bishop Valerius who was in great need of a man to assist him in his congregational and missionary work (Gnayalloor 82-83). To Augustine’s surprise, Valerius preached a sermon on the issue of God providing more priests for ministry in Hippo (83). At the completion of the service, the people started shouting “Augustine, a priest! Augustine, a priest!” (83) Soon, Augustine was ordained as a priest, and four years later received the position of bishop (Gonzalez 212). According to Justo Gonzalez, the reasoning for pronouncing Augustine as a bishop was to make certain that he would not be taken as a bishop for another church (212). After all, once a man became a bishop, it was essentially guaranteed that he would remain in that authority for a lifetime (212). His preparations for life-long contemplation were replaced with plans for being a pastor and theologian. Indeed, for the sake of other Christians and even unbelievers, these changes turned out to be a significant blessing in disguise.

Aside from leading a flock of believers as bishop of Hippo, Augustine left a tremendous impact on the world through his theological insights and defense of Christianity. Getting started in the battle of apologetics, Augustine quickly gathered Biblical truths and data to refute the heretical religion of Manicheism. Not only was Augustine skilled in his speaking ability, but now also in his knowledge of theology. Augustine sought to discover and defend the origins of evil, especially since that was his struggle during his lifetime as a Manicheist. According to Justo Gonzalez, Augustine became the “champion of the freedom of the will,” and thus was able to successfully refute the Manicheism heresies (213). Augustine proposed that evil is not a “substance,” but is simply “a decision, a direction, a negation of good” (213). Furthermore, Augustine stated in his book The City of God that “sin is caused not by the flesh, but by the soul, and that the corruption contracted from sin is not sin, but sin’s punishment” (443). Additionally, Augustine continued in his thoughts that man can be “restored only by its Author” (457). Modern day Christians are greatly benefited from Augustine’s hamartiology and beliefs on free will. In particular Gerry Breshears and Mark Driscoll believe similarly that the free will of man involved with sin and eternal punishment concludes that man freely chooses to sin, and essentially also chooses hell (429). In addition to his writings, Augustine was also able to publicly refute the Manicheism heresies. He refuted Mani in 397, Faustus in 400, Felix in 404, Secundinus in 405, and others as well (Portalié). What was once a hindrance to Augustine’s salvation was finally a defeated opponent, due to the fact that he was born again and wielded the power of God.

Another significant heresy that opposed Augustine was the issue of Donatism. While the most serious threats of Manicheism were based on doctrine, Donatism was a very dangerous threat to Catholic Christians socially due to persecution (Gnayalloor 97). Dangerous organizations in connection with Donatism included the “Young Fighters for Christ” and “circumcellions” (Gonzalez 214; Gnayalloor 97). With the Donatist movement centered in North Africa, Augustine dealt with them frequently (Gonzalez 213). While Donatism was a religious group which caused several different problems that questioned doctrines of Christology and Hamartiology, the main focus of discussion in North Africa concerned the “holiness of the hierarchy” (Portalié). Particularly, many Donatists had questioned whether or not the ordinations of bishops were valid (Gonzalez 213). Augustine replied that the virtue of the bishop, though it is important for the health of the church, does not nullify or qualify a certain action, with baptism being an example (213). In other words, one who is baptized by a sinful bishop is still legitimately baptized. Finally, in 411 at a conference in Carthage, with 286 Catholics and 279 Donatists, the Catholics were pronounced victorious by Proconsul Marcellinus and eventually led to the termination of Donatism (Portalié).

Yet another significant heresy refuted by Augustine was against perhaps his most renowned opponent Pelagius. Paul Enns defines Pelagainism as “the view taught by Pelagius that every soul was created directly by God and therefore innocent. Man, therefore, had the ability to initiate salvation by himself” (643). Additionally, Jacob Gnayalloor writes, “Pelagius taught that man is created mortal, that there is no original sin, that man can attain his end without God’s help” (108). It is very clear to see that Pelagianism was a very serious heresy that ignored the majestic grace of God. Pelagianism, though most harshly affecting Africa, started in Europe until it quickly spread to Africa (108). Pelagius was a British monk who became quite popular in his theology and simply viewed the Christian life as a battle to overcome sin and attain salvation (Gonzalez 214). It is quite evident that Pelagius formulated his own thoughts about God apart from Scripture, and therefore his contradictions of clear Biblical truths certified him as a heretic. The Apostle Paul could not make God’s message of salvation clearer by stating, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Those who opposed Pelagianism were quick to respond, and thus this heresy was evaluated and condemned in 412 at Carthage, reconfirmed in 417 at Carthage and Mileve by Pope Innocent I, and finally in 418 at Rome by Pope Zosimus (Portalié). By the year 426 the view of “Semi-Pelagianism” arose, which was a middle-ground approach to both Augustine’s and Pelagius’ views of salvation (Portalié). Paul Enns defines “Semi-Pelagianism” as “the view stressing both the grace of God and the free will of man. Man is seen as contributing with God in salvation. This view is embodied in Roman Catholicism” (647). On the contrary, Augustine developed the understanding of the doctrine of “irresistible grace.” Enns defines “irresistible grace” as “God’s sovereign work in effectively calling some to salvation. None of those whom God calls can reject His call” (636). Eventually, the Synod of Orange declared in 529 that Augustine’s view of grace, to an extent, was Biblical and that Pelagianism should be rejected (Gonzalez 215). Overall, it is possible to say that Pelagianism was defeated because the Augustinian or Semi-Pelagian views became more commonly accepted. However, Pelagianism is still actively involved in countless religions. Though other religions do not claim to be “Christian,” the same view of man working for salvation while removing Jesus is constantly evident. On the contrary, authentic Christianity declares that Jesus, God in human flesh, has come to the world to offer grace to people lost in sin (John 1:17).

Even in his final years of life, Augustine battled heresies, all while continuing to fulfill his duties as bishop of Hippo. In particular, there was a political uproar which intertwined with Arianism (Portalié). Count Boniface had led a revolt in Africa, only to be opposed by the Goths, under the command of Emperor Placidia (Portalié). Additionally, Count Boniface found assistance with the Vandals, who happened to be entirely Arian (Portalié). Augustine continued to defend his faith against yet another heresy while trying to maintain political peace (Portalié). Unfortunately, there was little resolve and as Justo Gonzalez says, “Augustine’s work was the last glimmer of a dying age” (216). At the age of seventy-six, Augustine was overtaken by a fatal illness and died soon afterward in the year 430 (Portalié). Despite his death, Augustine’s influence has lived on in immense proportions. For example, Augustine was the most quoted theologian throughout the entire Middle Ages (Gonzalez 216). Furthermore, while he was one of the “great doctors” of Roman Catholicism, he was also the favorite theologian among the Protestant reformers (216). Augustine certainly lived a life worthy of great honor and importance.

Overall, after evaluating the life, events, and theology of Augustine, one can receive a great blessing from studying such an influential Christian. It is not farfetched to denote Augustine as “undoubtedly the greatest theologian between Paul and Martin Luther” (Enns 424). In fact, due to the overwhelming influence that Augustine had on Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, it would seem reasonable that no other Christian has been more significant in Christianity. Though not all of his influences were necessarily doctrinally appropriate, such as transubstantiation, it is inescapable to not come to the conclusion that Augustine’s influence was massive (427). Above all else, what is perhaps most substantial about Augustine is the fact that his theology matched his life. In the realm of theology, the “Augustinian View” is defined as “All mankind participated in Adam’s sin since each person was seminally present in Adam. All human beings, therefore, are charged individually with sin and death” (629). However, the grace of God, according to Augustine is “irresistible” and first initiated by God (Gonzalez 215). Likewise, salvation can never be earned, but can be only a gift from God. Augustine was a great example of his own theological beliefs, since he flirted with the evils of the world but was changed by the grace of God. Truly, Augustine was a man of incredible intelligence and powerful courage, but also had the humility to recognize his frailty before a holy God. There may never be a Christian with a more powerful testimony, brilliant theology, or penetrating influence on Christianity as Augustine.

Works Cited

Augustine. The City of God. New York: The Modern Library, 1950. Print.

Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977. Print.

Breshears, Gerry and Mark Driscoll. Doctrine. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010. Print.

Dawson, Christopher. “St. Augustine and His Age.” St. Augustine: His Age, Life, and Thought.

6th ed. Cleveland: Word, 1964. 15-39. Print.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody, 1989. Print.

“Glossary Definition: Neoplatonism.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 1995. Web. 26 June

2011. <;.

Gnayalloor, Jacob. Augustine, Saint for Today. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1965. Print.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Peabody: Prince Press, 2004. Print.

The Holy Bible. Crossway. 2007. Print. English Standard Vers.

Portalié, Eugène. “Life of St. Augustine of Hippo.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New

York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Web. 5 Jun. 2011.


Distinguishing Classical Arminianism from Semi-Pelagianism



“Professor Olson, I’m sorry to say this, but you’re not a Christian.”[1] These were the alarming words from a student to author and professor, Roger Olson, an Arminian theologian. When Olson asked the student “why,” the young scholar replied, “Because my pastor says Arminians aren’t Christians.”[2] Undoubtedly, the theological system of Arminianism has been labeled with quite a few alarming statements, perhaps some being true, while others have been misappropriate. A frequent conception of Arminian theology is to equate semi-Pelagianism with Arminianism as being synonymous. The responsibility for twenty-first century Christians, then, is to examine the evidence of what truly consists of Arminian doctrine, namely the propositions of Arminius and of those who have espoused the same, or at least similar, theology. Presently, many Christians are led to believe that Arminianism inherently is a system that upholds the doctrine of “free will” as the “guiding motif.”[3] Thus, leading many to believe that Arminianism could be properly equated with semi-Pelagianism or even Pelagianism.[4] Needless to say, it is pertinent to sufficiently examine the theology of Jacobus Arminius in order to arrive at what Arminianism actually teaches.[5] After doing so, it will be shown that evidence very clearly reveals that Arminianism is noticeably different from semi-Pelagianism; thus, the roots from contemporary misconceptions will also be exposed to properly comprehend the teachings of the Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius.

The Life of Jacobus Arminius

The story of Arminianism begins with, of course, its founder, Jacob (also translated as James) Arminius, though his name is sometimes cited as Jakob Hermansz/Harmensz.[6] He was born in 1559 in Oudewater, Holland, and was the son of an armor designer, Hermand Jacobszoon.[7] Tragically, his father died around the time of his birth, and not much is known about his mother, Engeltje.[8] Arminius, with a widowed mother, and several known siblings, suffered another tragedy in his early life when his mother and all of his siblings were murdered in the “massacre of Oudewater in 1575.”[9] A year later, Arminius enrolled at the University of Leiden, which is where it was possible that his name was Latinized from Jakob Hermansz to Jacobus Arminius.[10] He pursued further studies in 1582 at the Geneva Academy, headed by John Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza, but left a year later due to theological controversies.[11] Arminius went on to Amsterdam and then became an ordained minister in that city by 1588.[12] However, in 1603, Arminius became a professor at Leiden where he worked alongside of the Dutch Calvinist, Francis Gomar, who was frequently critical of the theological persuasions of Arminius, and did so until Arminius’s death in 1609.[13] Specifically, Gomar disagreed with Arminius over the doctrines of God’s divine decrees in election and reprobation, though many theological opponents of Arminius accused him of Pelagianism and even Socinianism.[14] Evidently, Arminian theology has consistently heard rather strong critiques and accusations from others, even from its inception with Arminius. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to observe the common suppositions put forth by those who discuss the theology of Arminianism.

Conceptions of Classical Arminianism

            While the Calvinist “TULIP” acronym is commonly used for articulating soteriological doctrine, the “five points” actually came as a response to Arminius’s followers’ theological writings called “the Remonstrance.” Roger Olson explains, “The Remonstrance was prepared by forty-three or so (the exact number is debated) Dutch Reformed pastors and theologians after Arminius’s death in 1609. It was presented in 1610 to a conference of church and state leaders at Gouda, Holland, to explain Arminian doctrine. It focuses mainly on issues of salvation and especially predestination.”[15] To counter these Arminian claims, Calvinists issued the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619.[16] Surprisingly, while the main tenets of the Remonstrance were critiqued by the Synod, there is simply no proof that the acronym “TULIP” was ever even used before the twentieth century.[17] Nevertheless, it is important to note that the history of Arminianism traveled from Arminius, through the Remonstrance advocates, and then into other various circles. Therefore, it is important to focus attention primarily on five doctrines that are heavily debated with both Calvinist and Arminian theologians: (1) Total Depravity, (2) Unconditional/Conditional Election, (3) The Nature of the Atonement[18] (4) Irresistible/Resistible Grace (5) Perseverance of the Saints. Before doing so, it is relevant to consider the words from Charles Hodge, “It was not until the Remonstrants in Holland, under the teaching of Arminius, rejected the Church doctrine of original sin, of the inability of fallen man to anything spiritually good, the sovereignty of God in election, and the perseverance of the saints, that the doctrine that the atonement had a special reference to the people of God was rejected.”[19] History will now speak for itself as to which of these claims are true, false, and up for debate.

Historical Observations from Arminian Data

A.           Depravity

Arminian scholar, Roger Olson, defends himself and Arminianism with this claim: “Arminians…emphatically do not deny total depravity (even if they prefer another term to denote human spiritual helplessness) or the absolute necessity of supernatural grace for even the first exercise of a good will toward God.”[20] Olson’s assertion would, of course, just be wishful thinking if no proof could be found, but history does indeed align with what he is saying. Jacobus Arminius spoke these words in his Works: “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.”[21] Additionally, one of his closest followers, Simon Episcopius, said:

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.[22]

Later Arminians, such as H. Orton Wiley, have spoken in perfect harmony with Arminius as well, saying, “Depravity is total in that it affects the entire being of man.”[23] Even the Calvinists who wrote the book Why I Am Not an Arminian have concluded, “Arminians together with Calvinists alike believe in total depravity.”[24]

After such reports of documented evidence stating that Classical Arminians have espoused the doctrine of Total Depravity, the question that begs to be asked is, “How did the misconceptions arise?” While much could be observed, there are two major reasons for the misappropriating of the Arminian doctrine of depravity throughout the past few centuries.        (1) Theologians in times past have adopted the title “Arminian” while they themselves have taken the liberty to step away from Arminius’s primary convictions of Total Depravity. Evidence points to Philip Limborch, a seventeenth-century Remonstrant leader, as being responsible for defecting from Arminius. John Mark Hicks comments, “For Limborch man is only deprived of the knowledge which informs the intellect, but the will is fully capable within itself, if it is informed by the intellect, to will and perform anything good.”[25] Likewise, in the nineteenth-century came evangelist Charles Finney. In denying original sin, Finney stated man does not “have a nature sinful in itself, but merely that before regeneration they are universally and morally depraved, that this is their natural, as opposed to their regenerate state.”[26] Finney would therefore align himself, based on his teachings, with the doctrine of semi-Pelagianism.[27] Thus, the confusion in contemporary theological discussions is a strong result of Limborch and Finney, though many others have followed down the same path as well. (2) Theologians have also misunderstood the Arminian doctrine of “Prevenient Grace.” More will be said on this doctrine later on, but the simplest explanation is that Classical Arminians teach “divine/human” synergism, while semi-Pelagians hold to “human/divine” synergism. The difference between the two is that the former teaches that God initiates the salvation process by a work of the Holy Spirit, enabling people to willingly cooperate and respond to the salvation invitation. However, the latter considers the faith of man necessary to initiate the salvation process, apart from prevenient grace.[28] It can be concluded, then, that unfortunately many people have been falsely persuaded to believe that Classical Arminianism is congruent with semi-Pelagianism due to an incomplete overview of what is genuinely “Arminian” doctrine.

B.           Election and Predestination

A major division line between a Calvinist and Arminian is based on the doctrine of election, namely “Conditional” (Arminianism) or “Unconditional” (Calvinism/Modified Calvinism). According to Roger Olson, “Classical Arminianism teaches that predestination is simply God’s determination (decree) to save through Christ all who freely respond to God’s offer of free grace by repenting of sin and believing (trusting) in Christ. It includes God’s foreknowledge of who will so respond. It does not include a selection of certain people to salvation [unconditional election], let alone to damnation.”[29] However, he distinguishes the doctrine of “predestination” with “election,” which is “corporate.”[30] Jacobus Arminius was certainly not opposed to predestination (in his preferred terms), and stated, “[Predestination is] the foundation of Christianity, and of salvation and its certainty.”[31] In defining the doctrine of predestination, he writes, “[Predestination] is the decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which he resolved within himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of his own glorious grace, believers on whom he had decreed to bestow faith.”[32] He then writes that God’s decree to elect “has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing [prevenient] grace, believe, and through his subsequent grace would persevere…he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.”[33] Therefore while most claims against Arminianism relate to Total Depravity and the resistibility of grace, it is clear to see that Arminius’s understanding of election was God’s choice, not man’s – even though, to Arminius, God’s choice was based on foreseen faith – nor did he pronounce all to be elect, namely universalism.[34]

C.          The Nature of the Atonement

When it comes to the doctrine of atonement, the critical issue that needs to be addressed is Arminius’s view of the nature of the atonement, either substitutionary atonement or the “governmental theory.”[35] To put the matter simply, the historical debate over which view Arminius held to is quite chaotic. Yet, tracing the evidence throughout history will reveal the answer sufficiently. In his Works, Arminius responds to the criticisms of William Perkins, including issues relating to the atonement. In defending his understanding of the atonement, Arminius writes, “The death and suffering of Christ…is reconciliation with God, obtainment from God of remission, justification, and redemption; by which it is effected that God may now be able, as Justice, to which satisfaction has been made, interposes no obstacle, to remit sins and to bestow the spirit of grace upon sinful men.”[36] Arminius makes things even clearer when he states that when Christ died on the cross he provided redemption while “suffering the punishment due to them.”[37] It seems to be quite clear that Arminius held to a substitutionary atonement view. The discussion on Arminius’s view of the atonement, of course, does not end with the very words he has spoken.

An early supporter of the Remonstrants, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), propagated the “governmental theory.”[38] Remonstrant proponent (though full of deviations from Arminius’s doctrines), Philip Limborch, espoused the “governmental theory” as well.[39] Likewise, Charles Finney, who was definitely semi-Pelagian or worse stated, “The atonement of Christ was intended as a satisfaction of public justice.”[40] It is also helpful to note that John Miley, though he personally held to the governmental theory, resolved, “Arminius himself maintained both penal substitution and a real conditionality of forgiveness.”[41] To make matters difficult, however, H. Orton Wiley, “mistakenly attributed the beginning of the governmental theory to Arminius.”[42] Fortunately, there are many Arminian voices that defend Arminius’s atonement position and personally believe it themselves. These include: John Wesley, Richard Watson, William Burton Pope, Thomas Summers, and Thomas Oden.[43] Therefore, after observing the wide range of opinion and deviations from Arminius’s theology, it would be most reasonable to conclude that the “moral government” theory of the atonement is not distinctly “Arminian” and should be classified as a theory formulated by Hugo Grotius instead.

D.         Resistibility of the Holy Spirit

It is quite possible that the key to understanding Arminian doctrine is to understand the doctrine of “prevenient grace.” Arminius states this claim:

In his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. 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.[44]

What truly separates Classical Arminians from semi-Pelagians such as Charles Finny, who, according to Roger Olson, denied prevenient grace, is that this work of the Holy Spirit “makes repentance and faith possible.”[45] And, if not understood properly, Arminianism can easily appear to be a soteriology that does not require God’s initiation. In this particular area of doctrine, Philip Limborch once again deviates from Arminius, and consequently is responsible for more theological disorder. This time, Limborch, who already weakened the view of total depravity, confused prevenient grace with common grace.[46] It would appear that even Henry Thiessen made the same mistake as Limborch, but after observing his explanation and context, that possibility should be rejected. Thiessen proposes, “Common grace is not sufficient for salvation, yet it reveals the goodness of God to all sinful creatures. This is true, but why stop there? We believe that the common grace also restores to the sinner the ability to make a favorable response to God. In other words, we hold that God, in His grace, makes it possible for all men to be saved.”[47] He further clarifies, “It does not mean that prevenient grace enables a man to change the permanent bent of his will in the direction of God; nor that he can quit all sin and make himself acceptable to God. It does mean that he can make an initial response to God, as a result of which God can give him repentance and faith.”[48] Therefore, it must be concluded that the Arminian position of understanding “prevenient grace” rejects the notion that man’s will is free and able to respond in saving faith by his own doing. There is certainly, as H. Orton Wiley states, “The co-operation of the human will” involved in responding to God’s message of salvation, but “that every movement of the soul toward God is initiated by divine grace.”[49] With the available evidence known, it seems to be that a portion of the confusion about linking semi-Pelagianism to Arminianism is simply a result of ignorance to the writings and theology of Arminius and many of his followers, with the exception of Limborch and those who followed with his much more optimistic view of free will.

E.          Perseverance of the Saints

On the final doctrine of examination, the perseverance of the saints, arriving at a strong conclusion of genuine Arminian theology will be a little more difficult. However, there have been erroneous and poor claims concerning Arminianism and the security of the believer (perseverance of the saints) as well that require a response. In Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology, he surveys the “Arminian” view of security. First of all, he commits the fallacy of attributing Arminius’s view of total depravity as being a “pollution” and not “total.”[50] But then he says, “Arminianism clearly teaches that a believer may lose his salvation.”[51] He proceeds to quote Arminius, “I never taught that a true believer can either totally or finally fall away from the faith and perish; yet I will not conceal that there are passages of Scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect.”[52] First of all, this is not a “clear” teaching of a Christian losing salvation, for Arminius “never taught” conditional perseverance (loss of salvation). Additionally, Ryrie fails to include in his book what Arminius articulates just two sentences later. Arminius says, “On the other hand, certain passages are produced for the contrary doctrine [of unconditional perseverance] which are worthy of much consideration.”[53] What can be synthesized, then, of Arminius’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints (whether salvation can be lost or not) is that he “never settled the matter. His strongest statement about it was that ‘I should not readily dare to say that true and saving faith may finally and totally fall away.’”[54] Olson also writes, “Methodists and all their offshoots followed the Remonstrants and Wesley, who believed total apostasy is a possibility, while many Baptists followed Arminius or even held onto the Calvinist’s perseverance.”[55] If anything, it would be best to simply be cautious about attributing the doctrine of conditional perseverance (potential to lose salvation) to Arminian theology. While Arminius was not dogmatic about his position, it would be incorrect to assume that all Arminians believe they can lose their salvation.


While certainly much more could be said of Arminianism and its distinctions from semi-Pelagianism, the evidence presented has proposed several reasons why the two systems of theology are to remain separate. Additionally, there can be plenty of application drawn from studying the claims regarding Arminianism, though just three will be presented for succinctness. First of all, the distortion of theological movements can be a result of either internal or external error. That is, “internally” anyone can assume the title of “Arminian” while straying from major tenets of the originator, namely Jacobus Arminius.[56] And externally, opponents and skeptics can misinterpret or misapply the originator and his followers.[57] Secondly, a lesson to be learned is that tracing history back to the beginning is necessary for accurate theological discussions. For example, “It is no fairer to blame Arminius or Arminianism for the later Remonstransts’ defection than to blame Calvin or Calvinism for Schleiermacher’s departure from Orthodoxy.”[58] Finally, doing sufficient research on a certain theological system will make for much more intellectually honest and respectable discussions with opposing viewpoints. What has been presented and established is that Arminianism is distinct from semi-Pelagianism. What is left to be discussed afterwards, however, is whether or not Arminianism is biblically accurate. After all, the Bible is the source of which all theology should be derived; and thus, studying Arminius (or for that matter, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Edwards and all others in church history) and his writings should propel all listeners to compare his writings with biblical exegesis for the goal of accurate theology and the glory of God.

[1] Roger Olson, Aminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rick Rithie, “A Lutheran Response to Arminianism,” Modern Reformation 1 (1992): 9.

[4] Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17-18, explains the difference between these two heresies, “[Pelagianism] denies original sin and elevates natural and moral human ability to live spiritually fulfilled lives. The latter [semi-Pelagianism] embraces a modified version of original sin but believes that humans have the ability, even in their natural or fallen state, to initiate salvation by exercising a good will toward God.”

[5] It should be noted that this research is not a defense of proving Arminian theology to be the most valid theological system, nor is it an attack on Calvinism/Moderate Calvinism. Instead, this research is simply attempting to give Arminianism an academically and historically honest overview in order to clear up popular misconceptions for the purpose of discussing theology more accurately.

[6] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 108.

[7] Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971), 26-27.

[8] Ibid, 26.

[9] Ibid. 25.

[10] J. D. Douglas, Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell. Who’s Who in Christian History. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 36.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cross and Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church, 108.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Douglas, Comfort, and Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History?, 36.

[15] Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 31.

[16] Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 20.

[17] Ibid., 26.

[18] The debate between “limited” and “unlimited” atonement could be considered another controversy related to the subject at hand. However, many professing Calvinists also hold to unlimited atonement. For this reason, and for sake of space, only the “nature” of the atonement will be addressed.

[19] Charles Hodge, vol. 2, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 548.

[20] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17.

[21] Jacobus Arminius, Works, trans. James Nichols(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956), 2:192.

[22] Simon Episcopius, Confessions of Faith of Those Called Arminians (London: Heart & Bible, 1684), 118.

[23] H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 1941), 2:98.

[24] Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove: Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 163.

[25] John Mark Hicks, The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Arminianism (Ph.D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), 34.

[26] Charles Finney, Finney’s Lectures on Systematic Theology, ed. J.H. Fairchild (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1878), 245.

[27] See Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Vol. 3 (Detroit, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 38. McCune writes, “This [view] holds that man has some natural ability, perhaps some faint natural desires to be saved, and God through the Spirit joins in and helps man to Christ.” Also, it is clear that Finney even maintains ideas of full Pelagianism, namely the denial of a sin nature. Wayne Grudem writes in his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), that the “Pelagian position rejects the doctrine of ‘inherited sin’ (or ‘original sin’) and maintains that sin consists only in separate sinful acts” (pg. 499).

[28] See Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17-18 for a proper distinction between views of synergism and how prevenient grace, according to his theology, is necessary for the salvation of totally depraved (by nature and choice) people.

[29] Ibid., 37.

[30] Ibid. Olson adds, “Election is…God’s determination of Christ to be the Savior of that group of people who repent and believe (Eph 1).” Italics added.

[31] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 1:248.

[32] Ibid., 565.

[33] Ibid.,248.

[34] The reason why this last point concerning universalism was included is because historically, there have been professing “Arminians” who have drifted from Orthodoxy into liberalism, particularly “Socinianism” and “Unitarian Universalism.” Certainly these unorthodox “drifters” were not Classical Arminians by any means, but were essentially products of Enlightenment thinking. See Michael Horton, For Calvinism, 34. Roger Olson even agrees; see Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 17.

[35] According to Grudem, the governmental theory “holds that God did not actually have to require payment for sin, but since he was omnipotent God, he could have set aside that requirement and simply forgiven sins without the payment of a penalty…Thus Christ did not exactly pay the penalty for the actual sins of any people, but simply suffered to show that when God’s laws are broken there must be some penalty paid.” (Systematic Theology, 582)

[36] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 3:352-353.

[37] Quoted in Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 229.

[38] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 229.

[39] Ibid., 230-231.

[40] Charles Finney, Finney’s Systematic Theology, 207.

[41] John Miley, Systematic Theology, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1989), 2:68.

[42] H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, 2:252.

[43] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 231-241.

[44] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 1:252.

[45] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 27, 35.

[46] Ibid., 148.

[47] Henry Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology, 7th ed.(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 155.

[48] Ibid., 156. From Thiessen’s writings, it would perhaps be acceptable to summarize his understanding of prevenient as grace as having two levels, or that there is a “special” kind of what he calls “common grace.” For example, he exchanges the phrase “common grace” with “prevenient grace” as he continues on in his argument. Most certainly, Thiessen is not semi-Pelagian in his theology, particularly in man’s depraved condition and in his ability to respond to God without prevenient grace. Whereas Limborch, at least from secondary sources, does not quite reach a point of a special divine grace, namely the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin and initiation of the salvation offer by means of restoring the will to making a soteriological decision.

[49] H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology, 2:356.

[50] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1999), 381.

[51] Ibid. Italics added.

[52] Jacobus Arminius, Works, 1:254.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 187. Quotation includes Jacobus Arminius, Works, 3:454.

[55] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, 187.

[56] Examples that have been included are Philip Limborch, Hugo Grotius, Charles Finney, and on certain points, even H. Orton Wiley and John Miley, though plenty of others could be cited as well.

[57] See the quote from Charles Hodge on page six for an excellent example.

[58] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology, 24.