Pelagianism

Pelagianism is another term that you sometimes see referenced in theological discussions. It teaches the same idea as we believe that men are not born in sin, but rather choose to disobey. Pelagianism teaches that man is born pure. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man is sick. Probably semi-Pelagianism is closer to what we believe than straight Pelagianism, for the fact that every man has sinned (Rom 3:23, I Ki 8:46, Isa 53:6) points conclusively to an inherent moral weakness in man. Only Jesus, born free from the Adamic curse (Gen 3:17), was able to overcome the fatal tendency in men to gravitate toward sin like moths to a flame. I believe men have moral weakness because of God’s curse. God cursed the ground in Gen 3:17, but man is taken from the ground (“out of it [the ground] wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”-Gen 3:19). Hence, God cursed man by reference to what man is made from. The ground was cursed for Adam’s sake; however, Jesus was not of Adam but of God and was therefore not under Adam’s curse. Therefore men are born upright (Ecc 7:29) and do not inherit the sins of their fathers (Ezek 18:20), but, like sheep, all men have gone astray (Isa 53:6) because of the weakness of the flesh they inherit as a result of the curse (Mt 26:41, Rom 8:3).

Modern Calvinism, like ancient Augustinianism from which is it derived, promotes moral laxity. Therefore, the need for teaching personal accountability to day is as strong as it was in the fourth century when Augustine and Pelagian lived. Calvin’s exaggerated view of human weakness is utilized as an excuse for moral laxity (“I can’t help it, so why try?”), and God’s sovereign grace is used as an excuse for moral fatalism, that is, God is sovereign and will save whomever He chooses no matter what they may or may not do.

Pelagianism Defined
Pelagianism was a 4th-century doctrine taught by Pelagius and his followers which stressed that humans have the ability to fulfill the commands of God apart from Sovereign grace, and which denies original sin. A reference to Pelagius appeared in a recent popular movie, King Authur. Pelagius’ teachings were opposed by the Church and its leading figure (Augustine) in particular. Pelagian was a British theologian who taught in Rome beginning in the late fourth century. Augustine of Hippo bitterly opposed him in theological debates and even had him declared a heretic by a local council. However, Pelagius was vindicated by higher church authorities. It does not appear that Pelagius was ever actually declared a heretic by the church.

Semi-Pelagianism was a view later proposed by John Cassian. His doctrine was a compromise between the Pelagian view and the Augustinian view. He believed that man was not dead in trespass and sin, but was sick and weakened by it. Man was only weakened by the fall and therefore man had the ability to save himself by accepting or rejecting of his own will Christ’s offer of grace. Pelagius himself was excommunicated (and then exonerated), and his theology condemned (and approved) by a series of church councils, though the issues of the doctrine of free will have remained a sore point for the theologians even to our day. The three views of man’s depravity are: St. Augustine regards natural man as dead, Pelagius regards him as alive and well, and Cassian regards him as being merely sick. Augustine’s position is the only one that leans entirely on the Sovereign mercies of God.

Pelagius was motivated by a passion for the moral purity of ALL Christians, not merely for an ascetic elite. And in the context of the newly Christianized Roman Empire, this was a timely message. By the time of Pelagius, Christianity had become not only permissible, but socially advantageous – leading, of course, to a great number of merely nominal Christians. Exacerbating this problem, to Pelagius’ mind, was an exaggerated view of human weakness taught by the church, which he saw utilized as an excuse for moral laxity.

Pelagius was outraged by this moral complacency. To combat it, he fervently insisted on the ability of every man to avoid sin if he so wished, and denied that man’s wickedness could be blamed on either human nature or God. This led to a strict moral rigorism – since we can avoid sin, we must do so. Thus Pelagius focused his attention on practicalities that assist in living the moral life – penance for forgiveness, discipline to undo bad habits, and teaching, revelations, and exhortation to assist perseverance in good works.

Pelagianism from http://www.kencollins.com/glossary/theology.htm

Pelagianism is a doctrine that is named after Pelagius, a British theologian who taught in Rome beginning in the late fourth century. Augustine of Hippo bitterly opposed him in theological debates and even had him declared a heretic by a local council. However, Pelagius was vindicated by higher church authorities. It does not appear that Pelagius was ever actually declared a heretic by the church.

No Christian theologian or sect has ever systematically advocated Pelagianism (?), though perhaps individuals have fallen into it inadvertently. During the Protestant Reformation, Lutherans accused the Roman Catholic Church of Pelagianism, but they have since retracted the accusation.

Pelagianism denies original sin, teaching that each person is born without sin but recapitulates Adam’s fall. It also teaches that human beings can take the first steps toward salvation through works, apart from God’s grace. The Council of Orange condemned Pelagianism as a heresy in AD 529.

About James Johnson

Bible student for 60 years. Preacher of the gospel for over 40 years. Author of commentary on Revelation, All Power to the Lamb. Married with children. Worked in aerospace and computer engineering for over 40 years.
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