Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

11 Feb 2015

On Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom: Defining the Historical Positions


A few months ago Bill Combs and I released a pair of blog posts that raised ire among some of our readers relative to the debate concerning divine sovereignty and human freedom. One of the barriers to fruitful dialogue that emerged in the ensuing discussion was one of definition—a failure to define historical positions in ways mutually acceptable to all participants in the debate. This failure has the potential to lead first to equivocation, then misrepresentation, followed by ad hominem attack, and even charges of heresy. This is unfortunate.

The following is a faithful attempt not (1) to debate the question or (2) to attach labels to people who don’t like to be labeled. Rather, it is an attempt to faithfully describe six key positions using historical descriptions (though not necessarily labels) that proponents of each position (whether historical or modern) can embrace:

  • A Pelagian is one who believes that man needs no assistance to come to God. By his own unaided power any man can avoid the pitfalls that ensnared Adam and generate all the faith and action necessary to follow Christ’s superior example and so be accepted by God. This belief was condemned as heresy at the 15th Council of Carthage in A.D. 418. This position is rare among evangelicals, and the label should not be assigned lightly.
  • A Semi-Pelagian is one who believes that every man, though weakened by the Fall, yet retains the ability, based on the power of choice granted him in the imago dei, to make a divinely unaided and a priori contribution of faith leading to his own justification. Any divine grace offered thereafter is truly grace, but grace of an a posteriori nature. This belief was condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Orange in A.D. 529.

NOTE: The term semi-Pelagian is unknown in antiquity, first appearing formally as a pejorative label for the 16th-century teachings of Luis de Molina, or what is sometimes known as Molinism—teachings that generally (though not perfectly) resemble the ancient position condemned at Orange. Some have suggested that the label Massilianism (a term that reflects the geographic center of the more ancient position) is more accurate, but it has not caught on. The result is a real historical position with definite modern representatives, but one with no label other than a pejorative that modern proponents of the position do not accept. This is a conundrum with no clear resolution; still, any suggestion that the historical position is imaginary because of the absence of a mutually agreeable label is unacceptable. The historical position described above does exist today, irrespective of the elusiveness of a label. The term should not be used, however (as it often is), in a historically inaccurate way to discredit those who hold to the Arminian position.

  • An Arminian is one who believes that man, though rendered totally depraved by the Fall, receives from God the non-efficacious power of alternative choice via prevenient grace either (1) at birth or (2) through the hearing of the Gospel. Thus aided by God, any man may, without compulsion, either reject or embrace Christ. If a man chooses to embrace Christ, this faith event triggers additional divine graces (the anachronistic grace of election based on God’s prior knowledge of the faith event, and the subsequent graces of justification and sanctification).

NOTE: Arminianism has never uniformly taught that the believer may lose his salvation. Instead, the question remains an open one, both historically (see the words of Arminius himself and the Five Articles of the Remonstrance) and also today (see the doctrinal standards of the modern-day Society for Evangelical Arminians and the representative words of Roger Olson, arguably the foremost Arminian of our day). All this goes to suggest that the question of eternal security should not be treated as a defining issue for the position here described. To do so without qualification is to introduce a red herring.

  • A Moderate Calvinist is one who believes that all men are rendered totally depraved by the Fall, but that God, in accordance with his pre-temporal and unconditional electing decree, issues efficacious grace to his elect alone so that they may then exercise faith unto a regeneration and justification that can never be forfeited.
  • A Full or Historic Calvinist is one who believes that all men are rendered totally depraved by the Fall, but that God, in accordance with his pre-temporal and unconditional electing decree, efficaciously regenerates his elect, creating “new creatures” who gladly exercise faith unto a justification that can never be forfeited.

NOTE: Calvinism has never uniformly taught a definite or “limited” atonement. The question remains an open one that has long been the topic of intramural debate among Calvinists (see, e.g., the historical canons of Dordt and this recent contribution to the debate). Again, all this goes to suggest that the extent of the atonement should not be treated as a defining issue in describing the Calvinist position.

  • A Hyper-Calvinist is one that holds to the immediately preceding position, but teaches additionally that (1) believers have no responsibility to indiscriminately call the lost to repent and believe in Christ for salvation and/or that (2) unbelievers have no duty to repent and believe in Christ for salvation.

NOTE: Few believers ascribe to the label hyper-Calvinist; like the label semi-Pelagian, it is uniformly pejorative. However, it is a historical position with modern proponents: the position cannot be rendered imaginary due to the elusiveness of a label. The term should not be used, however (as it often is), in a historically inaccurate way to discredit those who hold to the Calvinist position.

Conclusion: The question whether a modern position may be logically crafted so as to present a viable via media or whether elements of these historical positions may be so combined as to offer a viable hybrid position will be graciously left open today. What is hoped, however, is that the historical parameters of the debate have been faithfully delineated.

21 Responses

  1. paul

    The difference between a moderate Calvinist and a full Calvinist is not limited atonement but rather whether regeneration precedes faith. Is that a correct understanding of your posting?

  2. In what category would you place the following statement?

    Article Eight: The Free Will of Man
    We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.
    We deny that the decision of faith is an act of God rather than a response of the person. We deny that there is an “effectual call” for certain people that is different from a “general call” to any person who hears and understands the Gospel.
    Genesis 1:26-28; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 2 Samuel 24:13-14; Esther 3:12-14; Matthew 7:13-14; 11:20-24; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 9:23-24; 13:34; 15:17-20; Romans 10:9-10; Titus 2:12; Revelation 22:17

    David R. Brumbelow

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    That didn’t take long. 🙂

    My answer is that I’m not sure Calvin ever set out to answer the question of the extent of the atonement, so it’s hard for me to include it as a necessary tenet of the Calvinist system. Having said this, I think that (1) the preponderance of evidence points to Calvin holding to a limited atonement, that (2) a limited atonement position is the position most consonant with what I’ve called “full or historic Calvinism,” and that (3) belief in a general atonement is much more common among moderate Calvinists.

    In no sense am I suggesting that holding to a limited atonement renders one a Hyper-Calvinist. That isn’t historically sustainable.

  4. As you noted, many people use Semi-Pelagian and Arminian interchangeably. It might be helpful to identify some real, somewhat recent Semi-Pelagians and show how they differ theologically from some real modern day Arminians. I realize that putting labels on real people can get one in hot water but I’m not suggesting this to stir up controversy but to help further explain.

    And I didn’t see anything in here about Biblicist.  🙂

  5. Scott Christensen

    In my research on this matter (for a book soon to be published by P&R), I am not aware of any scholar currently who self-identifies as a semi-pelagian. The Arminian position on depravity is virtually identical to the Calvinist position. However, prevenient grace mitigates the effects of depravity by universally restoring man’s libertarian freedom (i.e. the ability of contrary choice that allows resistance to further effusions of divine saving grace). Some Arminians believe prevenient grace is supplied prior to saving grace upon hearing the gospel (which in that case it would not be universal), but it seems the standard position is that it is supplied universally at birth. The latter is the more consistent position because libertarian freedom is regarded as essential for human responsibility. The main thing that distinguishes the Arminian position from classic semi-pelagianism is that in semi-pelagianism divine grace is not necessary for libertarian freedom to obtain. IOW, depravity has not rendered our natural libertarian freedom null and void.

  6. Brian

    Interesting article and comments. I notice that you did not answer Paul’s question about regeneration preceding faith. I too am interested in your answer.
    I am rather dismayed with your unanswer to Andy about a Biblicist. No, all cannot be Biblicists (now each may think they are a Biblicist but what you may think about yourself and your beliefs doesn’t necessarily make it so). God teaches only one position for all His doctrines that He has put in His Blessed Book. Man has created multiple views, not God. Don’t know how Andy would define Biblicist but I define him as one whose beliefs are derived solely from the Scriptures, not from men’s thoughts about the Scriptures. As such, I don’t find myself in any of your positions.

  7. A Biblicist is someone whose theology fits roughly into one of the categories defined by Mark above, but who does not appreciate the label given to that category.

  8. David Szweda

    You state that Calvinism has never taught definite atonement. Would you say that John Owen’s work was a definitive work on the subject of definite atonement, and that this has held as a standard for a number of centuries?

  9. Do you (the author(s) view Romans 8:29-30 as a sequential order of elements of salvation?

    Also, I think a more helpful (albeit techical) approach is via ordo salutis or lapsarianism.

    But helpful article, and I appreciated it!

  10. Mark Snoeberger


    My statement that “we’re all biblicists” was tongue-in-cheek–often a foolish move. Be assured that I’m not giving way to postmodernism. The reason I made the statement is that every historical category reflected here began with believers faithfully attempting to discover what the Bible says about the topic. Calvinists are not Calvinists because they view Calvin as their final authority; they are Calvinists because they believe that historic Calvinism accurately reflects what the Bible says. Arminians are not Arminians because they view Arminius as their final authority; they are Arminians because they believe that historic Arminianism accurately reflects what the Bible says. And so forth. All of them take their cues from the Bible and attempt to be biblically faithful. Obviously, not all of them succeed (a point you make well); still, they are all equally ‘biblicists’ in that they all view the Bible as their final authority.

    You may believe earnestly that you have harmonized the biblical data better than any of the models listed above. And in fact you may have succeeded. It’s not my point to analyze your position or to force you into one of these six categories. That’s beyond the pale of this post. Still, if we are consistent with our use of terms, your claim to the label “biblicist” is no greater than that of any of these historical figures. You are instead a “Brianist,” who believes no more and no less than “What Brian thinks the Bible says about this topic.” I respect this, but I don’t regard your belief structure as any more “biblicist” than “What Calvin thinks the Bible says about this topic,” “What Arminius thinks the Bible says about this topic” or “What Snoeberger thinks the Bible says about this topic.” It is in this sense (and in this sense only) that I reaffirm that we are all on equal ground as “biblicists.”

    Please let me reiterate that I am not trying to suggest that this is a comprehensive list of options. Nor am I trying to slap labels onto people who eschew historical labels. It is quite possible that, given time, “Brianism” will someday join this list. Until then, my goal is simply to define carefully the historical categories so that when we do use them, we use them accurately and with integrity. Nothing more.

  11. Mark Snoeberger


    There are two historical options for the distinction between “moderate” and “full” Calvinism: (1) the relationship of regeneration to faith and (2) the intent/extent of the atonement (the latter closely related to but not identical with the order of the decrees that Jim raised). And it could be both.

    The tension here is that “moderate” and “full” Calvinism are not fixed historical categories in the same sense as the other categories. They are modern appellations used disparately to carve out intramural differences within the broader category of Calvinism.

    I locked on to the first (the relationship of regeneration to faith) because the post topic had to do primarily with the intersection of sovereignty and freedom, and this fit the bill better on this score.

    Hope this helps.

  12. Mark Snoeberger

    Hmmm. Suddenly got a bunch of posts out of order. Real quick:

    David Brumbelow: I’ll let you decide your answer based on the historical data. As I’ve said a couple of times, I really have no intention of putting labels on people who eschew labels.

    Scott Christensen: Spot on. You said it better than I could. Looking forward to your book.

    David Szweda: I never said that “Calvinism has never taught definite atonement.” I said that “Calvinism has never UNIFORMLY taught a definite or limited atonement.” Really important qualifier left out here. As I later explained, I don’t think Calvin ever set out to answer the question of the extent of the atonement (though I think the preponderance of evidence leans to his embrace of a definite atonement). I see definite atonement as an important (and arguably necessary) implication of Calvin’s soteriology, but not a seminal tenet on the same level as the other four “points.” A moderate Calvinist can discard the doctrine and still claim to be, I think, a true Calvinist. But others are more rigid than I. Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.

  13. David Szweda


    You are right, I meant to go back and try to edit the posts but I couldn’t. I would argue that what we call Calvinism, was not really fully architected by Calvin. I view it as a model that was developed from some of Calvin’s views. Hopefully that gives you a bit of background from where I was coming from. So I agree, I don’t think that Calvin set out to answer this.

    And I am definitely not trying to pick things apart here. When Calvin died in 1564, the concept of “Calvinism” definitely wasn’t a structured ideology. My view was that when John Owen published his work, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” in 1648, that this work finally codified what we view as Calvinism and definite atonement. And that because of the stature of this book, that definite atonement became inextricably linked and embedded “Calvinism. J.I. Packer’s seminal introduction to the book in 1958 further indicated that this work was really the pinnacle of Calvinism and definite atonement.

    I would argue that the publication of the book less than 100 years after Calvin and having a stature of the what is considered the pinnacle work in this space for the last 350 years, would by default uniformly tie it to Calvinism. There is no doubt that there Calvinist that do not hold to definite atonement, but I would say that would be the minority, or at least not aligned to this work.

    Maybe I am way off here. Regardless, love the article and the definitions!

  14. Your blind spot regarding Lutheranism and historical positions might be understandable the first go-round but a second time is at best nonfeasance. Your narrative, here, about historical positions is extremely provincial and manifests too small a circle of consideration.

    Among certain kinds of evangelical Calvinists this taxonomy certainly gets self-congratulating applause but it fails, even with the claims of not wishing to introduce pejoratives and labels which are, while disclaiming their embrace, employed anyway.

    Again, when Luther posted his 95 thesis and produced much of his work, Calvin was a boy and an adolescent. The Book of Concord and its expression on divine sovereignty and the human will is born of the fruit of Luther who predates Calvin. But I suppose this might mess with those self-serving pejorative labels you are trying to avoid.

    I won’t look for this to be posted but who knows but at least you will have read it.

  15. It seems that this list excludes many who believes that salvation comes by more than faith alone, for example, the RC position or the baptism required for salvation position? Or do those fit on Pelagian or Semi-pelagian categories?

  16. Mark Snoeberger


    Yes, there are other positions, including those that deny sola fide/gratia. And I think also that there is merit to your suggestion that, once having declared semi-Pelagianism a heresy, Romanism has circled back around to embrace it afresh.

    My guiding concern in this thread has been Protestant expressions, so I did not mention this in my initial post. But you make some good complementary observations.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I was just trying to be sure I understood. I hope I didn’t come across argumentative or questioning you.

      So it seems the “arminians” at my local church are effectively 3 point Calvinists who hold to prevenient grace which they seem to believe along with total depravity without any cognitive dissonance on their part. They deny Definite Atonement and Effectual Calling while verbally confirming the other three ‘usual points.’

      Not that it matters, but I like to understand things academically. I appreciate you spelling out the difference in Arminian and Semi-pelagian – I never understood that until today.

  17. Just curious Michael, you said they are effectively 3 point Calvinists. I presume you mean they hold to Total Depravity (albeit offset by prevenient grace) and Perseverance of the Saints. The third presumably must be Unconditional Election but that too would involve cognitive dissonance, would it not? In other words, aren’t they really just Arminian.