Four Views of Salvation, Part 3: Other Views of Salvation on the Spectrum


Previous article in this series: Four Views of Salvation, Part 2: Semi-Augustinianism and Augustinianism.

III. Other Views of Salvation on the Spectrum

The four positions examined so far represent different points found in a spectrum of soteriological understanding. On one end of the spectrum is Pelagianism which sees salvation as a human monergism; there is no original sin and salvation is entirely the work of humanity. On the other end of the spectrum is a divine monergism — Augustinianism; humanity is completely dead spiritually, possessing no internal resources to contribute to personal salvation. Therefore, if humanity is to be saved, God must do all of the work. In the middle of the spectrum are different soteriological synergisms; humanity and God working in cooperation with one another. Those synergisms closer to the human monergism side of the spectrum place greater emphasis on what human beings contribute to salvation or on the human initiative in salvation, as seen in Semi-Pelagianism. Synergisms that are closer to the divine monergism side of the spectrum place their focus on divine action or divine initiative, as seen in the semi-Augustinian view.

At this point, to see the spectrum more clearly, other views of how people are saved need to be addressed. What has been presented so far are simply four positions on the spectrum. These are not the only views, however. In what follows, theological positions that fall in between the four major views will be presented. Specifically, three more positions will be presented. The first is a mediating position between Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, called softer Semi-Pelagianism; the second is a mediating position between Semi-Pelagianism and Semi-Augustinianism, called softer Semi-Augustinianism, but could be called a harder Semi-Pelagianism; the third is a mediating position between Semi-Augustinianism and Augustinianism, called a softer Augustinianism. Hopefully, these additional views will help develop the spectrum more fully.

A. Softer Semi-Pelagianism

Historically, in evangelicalism there have been people and movements who have argued against any doctrine of inherited or original sin. They have argued that people are born into this life like Adam and Eve before the Fall in the Garden. What sets them apart from the Pelagian view is that they believe all human beings inevitably sin and require the atoning work of Jesus Christ applied to their lives. Human beings cannot atone for their sins. They take seriously Paul’s teaching, “For the wages of sin is death…” However, sin in their lives does not take away from humanity their free will, or take it away completely. All human beings have the internal resources within themselves to begin to move toward God, repent, and exercise faith to believe the Gospel. As such, they are Pelagian in their understanding of original sin, but they are Semi-Pelagian in their understanding of the necessity of the atoning work of Christ for salvation, once a person has sinned.

Nineteenth-century revivalist Charles G. Finney held understandings similar to a softer semi-Pelagianism.

Such an understanding of salvation would fall somewhere between Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. For our purposes, we will call it a softer form of Semi-Pelagianism. Examples of this understanding abound. Historically, people like the great Baptist John Smyth and nineteenth-century revivalist Charles G. Finney held understandings similar to what has been stated (although with different emphases). Likewise, many ministers in the Churches of Christ/Independent Christian Churches teach this perspective, and some theologians in Open theist circles are teaching this view. All people and Christian traditions holding a form of soft Semi-Pelagianism reject as unbiblical the traditional doctrine of original sin as articulated in the various traditions of the Church, yet recognize human sin and the need for the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

B. Softer Semi-Augustinianism (Harder Semi-Pelagianism?)

In contrast to John Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace, many contemporary Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicals and traditions either imply or explicitly teach that as a result of prevenient grace given to all humanity, the ability to move toward God, repent, and exercise faith is an inherent power within every human being. As such, human beings have the ability in any given moment to exercise their will to believe the Gospel and be saved. From this perspective, people at any time may hear the Gospel, weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the argument offered, and choose to follow Christ. Thus, faith and a personal response to the Gospel is primarily something people do. They believe. They decide. They receive. To contemporary Wesleyans, human beings have this power to decide as a result of prevenient grace—a blanket of grace given to all humans everywhere, enabling them to move toward God and exercise faith in any given moment.

The teaching of many contemporary Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicals pragmatically places them in the Semi-Pelagian camp.

Wesleyan-Arminian theologians and traditions holding this view acknowledge “total depravity” and the state of “natural humanity” as spiritually dead to God, thoroughly corrupt, and absolutely dependent upon God’s initiative in the work of salvation. However, they believe God has taken that initiative through prevenient grace given to all, defining prevenient grace as stated above. As such, this teaching pragmatically places people in the Semi-Pelagian camp; people can initiate a move toward God at any time, but only as a result of God’s initiative of prevenient grace. Thus, theologically this moves them closer to Semi-Augustinianism. For our purposes, this Wesleyan understanding is placed between the Semi-Pelagian and the Semi-Augustinian positions as representative of a soft Semi-Augustinianism, but some might argue that this is a harder form of semi-Pelagianism.

Examples of this form of Wesleyan-Arminianism, softer Semi-Augustinianism, would include The Wesleyan Church and The Nazarene Churches, at least as stated in their Articles of Religion addressing prevenient grace.

For Wesley prevenient grace in itself does not restore to people the ability to exercise faith, much less repentance—these are works of God, not of men and women.

As a note here, John Wesley would disagree with prevenient grace so defined. This contemporary understanding is a fundamental misappropriation of Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace. To Wesley prevenient grace given to all humanity brings the power to respond to grace, not the power to believe. Wesley would say that as a result of prevenient grace human beings are able to cooperate with further offers of grace by God—not that they have the power to believe whenever they hear the gospel. For Wesley prevenient grace in itself does not restore to people the ability to exercise faith, much less repentance—these are works of God, not of men and women. Prevenient grace enables a person to cooperate with further works of divine grace made available through the means of grace: grace that convicts a person of sin, convinces a person of the need for Christ, and creates saving faith.

Chris Bounds
Chris Bounds
Chris Bounds is Professor of Christian Doctrine at IWU and former Scholar in Residence/Professor of Theology/Gardner Professor for the Promotion of Holiness at Asbury University. He was awarded his M. Phil. in 1994 and Ph. D. in 1997 from Drew University with a focus in systematic theology.