The Pelagian Heresy Part I

By John Wilson
A heresy, while usually having the best of intentions, is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes, or distorts the Christian Faith rather than preserving it. So why do heresies arise in the church? Could they be God’s way of raising up stalwarts like Martin Luther to defend the faith and to help pass down and formulate the doctrines that Jesus and Paul taught in the Scriptures? After all, one of the challenges confronting the early church was the consolidation of its beliefs. Since I am a firm believer in Sola Scriptura, meaning that the Scriptures alone are authoritative because they are God’s Word (no matter what the pope or other church leader says), I believe studying church history will help us interpret the Scriptures by asking the questions: What did the Christians believe who founded this country? Or What has the orthodox church historically taught on a certain doctrine? This should help guide us (not authoritatively) on some of the tougher, murkier passages in the Bible to keep us from embracing and teaching heretical doctrines.
So what was the Pelagian heresy and why have most Americans never heard of it? It started when a British Monk named Pelagius had issues with a book written by a North African bishop named Augustine. Augustine was considered the greatest of all the Fathers of the Church during the Middle Ages and is best remembered by his contributions in the area of Soteriology (how we are saved by God). In Augustine’s book called “Confessions”, Augustine’s famous prayer to God is: “My whole hope is only in your mercy. Grant what you command and command what you will.” This started a heated debate in the church with Pelagius and his teachings being called heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. So why was Pelagius declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus? In short, he rejected the doctrines of Original Sin, Substitutionary Atonement and Justification by Faith. Pelagius taught that if God called humans to live moral lives, Pelagius thought, it should be within their power to carry out such commands. Thus, Pelagius taught that humans by nature are born with as a “clean slate” and only become wicked after committing individual acts of sin. He reasoned that humans have the same free will Adam possessed before the fall and still possess the ability to please God without the aid of the Holy Spirit. He taught that their environment makes them bad, not original sin (Adam’s imputed guilt). About 100 years later, Cassian repackaged some of Pelagius’ doctrines and formulated the doctrinal system what is known as Semi-pelagianism. These doctrines were also declared heresy at the Council of Orange in 529 AD. Semi-Pelagianism, which is alive and running rampant in the churches of America today, teaches that although humans are fallen and possess a “sinful nature” they are still good enough to be able to lay a hold of the grace of God through their own “free will.” It teaches that we cooperate with God in the salvation of our souls, with our vote being the deciding factor. In order for mankind to do this, semi-pelagianians teach that we are born basically good and initiate salvation by making the first step towards God then He will do the rest of the work to save us. Why is this relevant to you? Let me be frank, most professing Christians in America are semi-pelagians and they do not know that their belief system has been declared heresy in 529 AD and they have never usually even heard of this term. Semi-pelagianism was the predominant theology of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant Reformation. What the Catholic church was basically doing was telling the people if you pay this indulgence then your sins are forgiven and if you fight in this crusade then you are going to heaven. Currently, most churches in America are teaching its people that if you walk down this ailse, if you sign this VBS card, if you pray this prayer, then your sins are forgiven and God has saved you. It is semi-pelagian doctrine repackaged. What are its consequences? It was Billy Graham himself that said at least 75% of all Southern Baptists who attend on Sunday mornings are not born again. We as professing Christians have lost the doctrine that Salvation is from the Lord and to be saved we need a new heart. It is Abraham Kuyper who said: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.” I believe it is our Christian duty to point out heresy so that the truth is proclaimed and can be passed down to future generations.
So what does the Bible teach about the condition of Adam and Eve after the fall? In Genesis 3, something dramatic happened that ruins the idea that we are born with the same “free will” and innocence as Adam and Eve had before the fall. The Scriptures teach that our will is not free (2 Timothy 2:26, Eph 2:1-2), it is in bondage to sin (Romans 6). Yet, we are not robots and you have the “free will” to stop reading this blog, but you do not have the free will or ability to please God (Romans 8:7) and obey His commandments because your nature is enslaved to sin, meaning it has a tendency to sin and has a bias towards sin. To illustrate this point, think about what every creature ate in the Garden of Eden BEFORE the fall (nuts, berries, veggies!). Now, after the fall, let’s give a vulture two choices between 1) a nice, crisp romaine salad with cranberries, pecans, and Balsamic Vinaigrette dressing and 2) a dead, rotting piece of road-kill. What do you think the vulture will choose every single time to eat? It will choose the road-kill because something has occurred with the fall of man in Genesis 3. All of creation is groining and longing for the day that this curse is conquered when our King returns and inaugurates the new heavens and new earth. The root of the problem in Pelagius’ belief system was his denial of Original Sin, which is part of Adam’s curse that is passed on to all his offspring and what we will talk about in Part II next time.

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One comment

  1. Roger Pyle Jr · · Reply

    I am glad someone is studying church history before Luther. There is alot I think we can learn from the Catholic and Orthodox church since that is all there was before Luther. As a Pentecostal, I have in the past looked at Catholicism as weird, strange, and mostly dead. However, in the past few months I begun to realize that the (catholic) Church was not completely messed up for 1600 years and then all of a sudden fixed by Luther. In fact, Luther was even through his own comments very mixed up through alot of his life. He did do a good thing and point out wrongs of the Church like money indulgences. But Catholics today laugh at us Protestants because they see something similar happening with us with the begging of money on Christian TV in exchange for being “blessed”. But the Church has always been made of people and therefore not perfect. Austustine was definately a good Catholic to quote and it is awesome how God used the (Catholic) Church councils to weed out heresy. Thank God for grace, mercy, love, and the blood of Jesus to cleanse us from all sin. There is definately heretical thought in the world that trying to be good is good enough, but we all need the blood of Jesus to cleanse us from original sin. That is my teo cents for now. Thanks Ben for opening a good descussion.

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