Thursday, September 13, 2012

Semi-Pelagian or Synergism?

I was asked to respond to an article posted by a Calvinist in CDF

Is Roman Catholicism Semi-Pelagian?

Brief Definitions:
A heresy in which salvation is by Man's effort alone and God's grace is only present through giving us an example to follow

sw: Not really the topic we're discussing.

1) a heresy in which grace is not necessary for the initial stage of salvation and will be imparted after the person has come to faith in Christ

sw: I'm OK with that definition, it's in agreement with what I posted earlier - though I'd use "justification" instead of "salvation" there.

2) (small letters) any system which has pelagian tendencies, i.e. ascribing to salvation any effort on Man's part

sw: That's getting a bit too lose with the terminology.  Semipelagianism is more accurately the first definition, and it can be the second one too so long as we're talking the initial stage of justification.

Man and God working together towards the individual's salvation

sw: This is the more accurate terminology to describe the Catholic view.  Protestants, especially Calvinists, will see this as heresy, but in reality (as we shall see later) this synergy is actually quite scriptural and straight out of the Pauline epistles which Calvinists like to run to.

Salvation being the work of God alone

sw: Monergism is the opposite of what we're discussing, and is heretically wrong.  The version of "Semi-Pelagianism" which this article refers to is more in line with "Synergism" than that which is defined as "Semi-Pelagianism."  To embrace Monergism to the exclusion of Synergism is where this becomes heretical.  Certainly God does work in the salvation of Man, but God does not work alone in this (see below).
Regarding Roman Catholic soteriology, it has been shown in the article 'Differences between Pelagianism, its derivatives and Christianity' that Roman Catholic soteriology is aberrational and heretical. Informed Christians from the Reformation onwards have referred to Roman Catholic soteriology as semi-pelagian. Is this statement true, especially since Rome in its early stages have denounced the error of Semi-Pelagianism as heresy in the Council of Orange (1)?

sw: The statement is not true because, as we shall see, Semi-Pelagian does not mean what the anti-Catholics say it means.  They didn't define the heresy and defend the Church against it for it came about 1000 years before there was a cult called "Reformed" and it was the Catholic Church which defined the term, thus we rightfully reject the novel definition of the "Reformed."

To answer this question, we must first define our terms. As stated above, Semi-Pelagianism was denounced as a heresy by the incipient Roman Catholic church during the Council of Orange of 529 AD. In this sense, Roman Catholicism should be distinct from Semi Pelagianism. Analysis of their respective soteriologies does confirm that they are different from each other. Whereas Semi-Pelagianism maintain that a person can initially come to God without God's grace, Roman Catholicism does say that God's grace must operate initially in order for a person to be saved. Thus, in this matter, it is true that Roman Catholicism ≠ Semi-Pelagianism.

sw: This is Semi-Pelagianism, and yes, it is not Catholicism.

However, there is another sense in which the term semi-pelagianism is used. Using Pelagianism as the root word, semi-pelagianism implies a theology that is partly Pelagian in its essence. It is this definition in which the term semi-pelagianism is used by most Christians in reference to Rome.

sw:  The term "most Christians" is a bit deceiving, since "most Christians" are Catholics.  That being said, this miniority group of Christians have taken the name of defined heresy and redefined it to suit their needs.  

The essence of Pelagianism is the idea of Man working out his salvation.

sw: The "essence" of Pelagianism is that Man brings himself to salvation - without the assistance of God.

Thus, anything which could be legitimately called semi-pelagian would of necessity involve Man playing some part in his/her salvation. This would thus be known as synergism, where God and Man work together for the latter's salvation. Thus, in Reformed circles, semi-pelagianism has a broader meaning of any system of theology that is synergistic in nature, as opposed to the more rigid definition of the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism which was specifically condemned by the Council of Orange and by both Christianity and Roman Catholicism alike.

sw: The definition used here does fit Synergism - and not Semi-Pelagianism.  Many non-Catholics have jumped upon the term Semi-Pelagian and wrongly use it - and even when corrected (or admit it themselves, as even this article has just done) they go back to defending their position that Catholicism is Semi-Pelagian.  They are simply wrong and apparently with too much pride to admit it.  Where Synergism may fit, Semi-Pelagianism certainly does not.

Using this broader definition of semi-pelagianism, Roman Catholicism IS semi-pelagian. This is because in Roman Catholicism, Man needs to cooperate with God to work out his salvation.

sw: This "broader definition" is not accurately Semi-Pelagianism - it is Synergism.  Words mean things.  It was the Catholic Church which defined what Semi-Pelagianism is - not Protestants over 1000 years later. 

This is seen in the 6th Session of the Council of Trent, On Justification (2):
CANON IV.- If anyone says that man's free will moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God's call and action, in no way cooperates toward disposing and preparing itself to obtain the grace of justification, that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive, let him be anathema.
Also, this could be clearly seen in CHAPTER V of the same session of the Council of Trent: On the necessity, in adults, of preparation for Justification, and whence it proceeds
The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. (Emphasis added)
From this, we can see that according to Rome, Man must cooperate with God in order for him/her to be saved, therefore part of salvation is the work of Man in cooperating with God. This is made all the more evident when Rome declares that the grace of God is resistible ('... he is able to reject it...'), which implies that it is the part which is cooperating is the autonomous human will.

sw: Catholicism does not deny, and in fact does embrace the scriptural truth that we must "work out our salvation in fear and trembling," (Phil 2:12), that we cannot treat our salvation any differently than St. Paul who said "But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway" (1 Cor. 9:27). If we don't DO something and cooperate with God's Grace - we stand in danger of being that castaway, even as St. Paul feared becoming.

This is synergism and Roman Catholicism is therefore semi-pelagian in the broad usage of the word. Therefore, websites which deny this is therefore either ignorant or misinformed about the usage of the word in Christian Reformed circles, whether willfully or not.

sw: OK, the key here is "the usage of the word in Christian Reformed circles."  It really then has nothing to do with the REAL meaning of the terms here - but the redefinition of Semi-Pelagian by those who call themselves "Reformed."  Synergism is not Semi-Pelagianism.  Equivocating the terms and expected us to just accept it is just insulting to the intelligence of those who know that words mean things - not to mention that these "Reformed" are redefining OUR definition of Semi-Pelagian in order for them to use this "label" in debate to make it sound like Catholics on one hand rejected the heresy, but on the other embrace it, but this redefinition of terms isn't going to fly amongst those who actually understand the terminology.

sw: Jimmy Akin has an excellent article on this, and I recommend the whole article(3), but let me excerpt a little here:

This is denounced as the evil doctrine of "synergism" because it claims that we work (-ergo) with (syn-) God—a horrifyingly blasphemous statement to Calvinist ears. which is ironic because the New Testament several times uses the very term "synergize" (Gk, sunergeo) with respect to God's action and ours. I'm sorry, but the Bible is a synergist book because it in the most literal sense possible it uses synergist language. You can't denounce the language of synergism without denouncing the language of the Bible.
(Quoting Protestant theologian, Dale Moody) "The best translation of Romans 8:28 that we have noted . . . says God 'cooperates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose.' This is just right, the way the Greek reads, but this understanding has been denounced as synergism. The Greek word for 'work with' is synergei, and from this word synergism was formed. It is strange indeed to hear people declaring they believe in the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture, yet at the same time they denounce this verb! They seem to find an increase in zeal as they butt their heads in an obstinate way against the very language of the Bible. What really do they mean when they speak of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, if the words of the Bible are forbidden?" (The Word of Truth, 342)
However, Paul goes beyond Romans 8:28 into a verse that would make a Calvinist even more uncomfortable:
"Working together with (sunergountes) him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Corinthians 6:1).
Here we have not only the language of men working with God (as opposed to God working with men), but Paul adds to this the exhortation not to accept the grace of God in vain, which means that the grace of God can be accepted in vain. In order to do a full exegesis of this we would have to show what grace is being talked about, whether it is the offer or the reality of salvation, but no matter what the answer to that question is, this verse says something that Calvinist language is not going to like, because it means it is either possible to accept the grace of salvation at one time and then have it to be vain or it means that it is possible to accept the grace of the offer of salvation and have it be vain because you fail to cooperate with the offer, which means that this grace is not irresistible. Of course, Calvinists have long differentiated between the internal and the external call of God, but in order to keep from talking about God's grace being resistible (and thus potentially "failing," "being frustrated," or "made vain"), but the point is that even if this verse did refer to the external call of God, it would still show that some of God's graces can be accepted but then made vain.
Besides using the verb "synergize" (sunergeo, the verb used in different forms in the three preceding verses) Paul even uses the more "shocking" term "synergist" (sunergos) or "co-laborer" with respect to himself and God, saying: "For we are God's fellow workers (sunergoi); you are God's field, God's building" (1 Corinthians 3:9).

sw:  In closing, Synergism - which the Calvinist rejects, is precisely what Scripture tells us to embrace!  God's Grace precedes any cooperation with God, for we cannot cooperate with that which He has not first given to us.  We cannot achieve or attain Grace on our own (Pelagianism) it must come from God and then we can have this synergy (Synergism) with Him and His Grace.

[1] Canons of the Council of Orange
[2] The Canons and Decrees of the sacred and ecumenical Council of Trent: The sixth session. Taken from

(links changed to the ACTS website)
Adding my reference to Jimmy Akin:
[3] Akin, Jimmy, "Resisting and Cooperating with God"   also here:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for addressing this article.  However, I don't know if anyone should dignify that blog owner's articles or treat them with any kind of credibility.  I gave "the Calvinist" more credit than that.  I see, after investigating the fanatical site the Calvinist culled this article from, that the author is a fanatical, anti-Catholic bigot who actually knows nothing of the teachings of the Church.  He writes articles mixing his own definitions and opinions, with out of context Scripture, out of context quotes from Church councils, and examples from outside of Christianity to develop a warped, fictitious view of the Church from which to judge Catholics.


Keep in mind while posting:
1) Please respond ON TOPIC to the article at hand.
2) Posts more than 4 weeks old are set to automatically save new comments for moderation - so your comment may not show up immediately if you're responding to an older post.
3) The "Spam Filter" is on - and randomly messages get caught in that filter. I have no control over which messages get caught in the spam filter and those that do must wait for me to mark them as "not spam." A message caught by the spam filter may show up for a moment, making you think it posted, and then disappear. Do not assume I have deleted your comment, it's probably just the spam filter and it will show up.