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Our Collective Faith 10


Pelagianism is the favorite term thrown around by many today when the intent is to label a theologian as heretical. In the 9th chp of  Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe we are treated by Nicholas Adams (Anglican theologian at Edinburgh) to a discussion of Pelagianism.


Pelagianism “implicitly denies the existence of original sin and asserts that people can take the initial steps towards salvation by their own efforts, choosing the good by virtue of their created natures” (91).  Augustine, once again, was the opponent of Pelagius and Pelagianism was officially denounced by Zosimus, the bishop of Rome in 418 AD.

Where do you see Pelagianism today?

Pelagius was intelligent and used the Scriptures to great effect, and this leads Adams to reflect on how we are to respond to heresies: we can annihilate the opponents and their views (misquote, exaggerate, discredit character, and tell the whole story through our own lens). Or we could take the ideas head-on. This is how Augustine approached Pelagius.

Adams contends that Pelagius wanted to be right about the relationship of sin and grace, terms that were not as clear then as they are today. Augustine teaches that everyone is a sinner — by birth and behavior. Adams, unhelpfully I think, delves into Paul’s use of Psalm 14 and Augustine’s use of Romans 3 and on seeing the whole and trying to say too much and not saying enough, and could have helped us right here by spending more time on Augustine and Pelagius.

Not the best chp in this book. Instead of dealing with the concrete issues of Augustine and Pelagius, and how each conceived of the relationship of sin and grace (Augustine — work of God through and through; Pelagius — some kind of synergism or worse), he spends time discoursing about the discourse.

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Mike Clawson

posted April 16, 2009 at 1:09 am

we can annihilate the opponents and their views (misquote, exaggerate, discredit character, and tell the whole story through our own lens). Or we could take the ideas head-on. This is how Augustine approached Pelagius.

That’s probably claiming too much. We don’t actually know if Augustine treated Pelagius’ ideas fairly or not since we don’t have access to Pelagius himself. All we have is Pelagius as interpreted and refuted by Augustine.
Since I’m personally not such a big fan of Augustine’s ideas about original sin (yeah, yeah, I know that makes me a heretic… whatever) my sense is that Pelagius generally gets a bad rap and he probably had some very legitimate concerns about the implications of Augustine’s theology. Not to mention the fact that, at a synod in Jerusalem, Pelagius himself rejected the extreme interpretations Augustine had put on his teachings, and the fact that Pelagius’ eventual condemnation was all wrapped up in Imperial/Papal politics and the final rejection of his teachings at the Council of Ephesus in 431 was forced through by Rome without any discussion.

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John from Oz

posted April 16, 2009 at 2:55 am

Please consider the following excerpts from Christianity Today which featured an Eastern Orthodox take on the issue. (URL above)
“To enter into Orthodox sensibilities, it will be helpful to recall that events that profoundly shaped western Christianity never affected the east. This is partly due to the linguistic and geographic barriers that largely prevented Latin theology from influencing the east, and vice versa, but is also due to cultural differences and even political struggles. There was no Pelagian controversy in the east…”
“…without a Pelagian controversy, the conviction that every individual is morally and spiritually helpless never took hold of the Eastern Christian imagination. Further, without an Augustine who wrote graphically about hell, or an Anselm who sharpened the west’s understanding of sin as a capital crime (a far more punitive view than Augustine ever imagined), fear of divine wrath and the consequent need to soothe the terrified consciences of those who despaired of their eternal future did not become a driving force behind either theology or piety. Salvation remained participation in God’s restoration of the world, as it had been in the patristic age, rather than becoming individual rescue from hell, as it did in the second millennium in the west. God and “man” were not at odds with one another quite the way they became in the medieval west.”

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Derek Leman

posted April 16, 2009 at 9:31 am

I also think this definition of Pelagianism is subtly wrong. Of course man can begin to follow a path of virtue without some prior enabling by God. Billions of non-followers of Jesus are just as capable to selfless acts.
Pelagianism is not about beginnings, it seems to me, but ends. It is the idea that we can achieve ourselves the consummation of human goodness only God can effect in us. Perhaps the author was led astray by Augustine’s flawed approach. I appreciate Augustine but he was wrong about many things and original sin is not necessarily the critical point at which Pelagianism is wrong.
Where is Pelagianism today? Any movement which does not seek or believe in the sole ability of God to change us from our mixed state of sin and goodness into the perfect, consummated humans we were made to be.

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posted April 16, 2009 at 9:53 am

Well, I know little of Eastern Orthodox faith, but the bits that I hear (like John’s comment in #2) make me appreciate it more and more. I’d love to see a book some time titled ‘Christian allergic reactions: how over-reactions hurt the Church and how to avoid them.’
Even though we all give ourselves more credit than we ought, especially when things seem to go well, I see much more allergic reaction to Pelagius than the disease itself. For example, there are any number of direct quotations of Jesus, James, or John that, when repeated today will trigger many in the Body to start thinking (or even say), “Intruder! Heresy! Qualify or expel! Qualify or expel!” Again, it’s not the quotes or ideas of Pelagius that illicit this reaction, but quotes from Jesus, James, John and even Paul as they relate to the synergy of divine and human action, and its necessity. I think much of the evangelical church that I’ve grown up with has developed an allergy to Pelagius, causing it to mistakenly treat some of its own Lord and apostles as an outside threat.

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Virgil Vaduva

posted April 16, 2009 at 10:14 am

It’s interesting how “Pelagianism” does not stand at odds with “Augustinianism” in those conversations regarding heresies – the reason seems to be in who won the argument, with the help of government officials, of course.
Ironically, Pelagius’ argument re: original sin was not new even at the time, especially for Jewish/Eastern Christians. With the argument being paralleled again by Calvin and Castellio / Servetus (who ended up getting killed by Calvin over “heresy”), it continues today as well, mostly on the reformed side of things.
In Eastern Orthodoxy, the idea that all mankind has inherited original sin through birth is foreign and unacceptable, just as it is to Jewish folks. Because both Augustine and Calvin have taken an overly physical approach to eternal torment, they have also taken a physical approach to original sin: sexual intercourse is evil and it allows for the propagation of sin.
In my opinion, the debate is not as much over original sin as it is over the nature of sin and whether or not is a spiritual matter affecting relationships between the creator and creation, or physical matter which supposedly changed the very nature of atoms, cells and the way in which the universe operates.

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posted April 16, 2009 at 10:20 am

T and John of oz, i like the eastern orthodox’s understanding. it makes sense of the biblical story. i see Christ as the new source of life, the vine and the branches analogy Jesus used, through faith we are united with Christ and capable of participating with Christ in God’s restoration of the world.
Sin is taken care of in Christ… original or otherwise. union with christ is key in transformation.

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posted April 16, 2009 at 11:03 am

Yes. I like the focus of that analogy as well: fruitful living, in intimate and dependent union with Christ (and his other branches). Beautiful picture. Apart from that kind of union with Christ: fruitless and withering life. The focus is the union.

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posted April 16, 2009 at 11:04 am

I can see that many of the commenters here know far more than I do about Pelagius. I particularly appreciate the nuance of Mike C. and John from Oz.
I have a question that I do not see addressed here. That is, in Stephen Lawhead’s book PATRICK, Pelagius and Patrick, both presented as Celts vs. Rome, are presented as believing that the Barbarians were able to be converted, while Augustine and Rome believed that they must first become civilized before they could receive the gospel. Is or was this a real issue in the Church, merely a Roman prejudice, or not at all real?
I am interested in this from a historical perspective as a US Historian and from a missiological perspective as I think of historic American approaches to African Americans and Native Americans.

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Scott M

posted April 16, 2009 at 11:16 am

I’ve read a fair amount about Pelagius and this controversy. There’s a lot about it out there, though not much of the actual writings and teachings since those were largely destroyed. I do think the summary does get some things wrong. The African synods, largely following the lead of Augustine, did have issues with Pelagius’ denial of the idea of inherited guilt and his support for the free will of man. But neither of those were the basis for the rejection of pelagianism by the ecumenical council with the support of the Eastern bishops. (It’s unclear whether or not Pelagius actually ascribed to pelagianism. As with some others, it may be that he was tainted by the excesses of his disciples who took things much farther than he intended or desired.) In fact, on those counts Pelagius had been affirmed as orthodox by at least two Eastern synods even as he was denounced by African synods.
The teaching that shifted him into the category of heretic was the denial of our need for grace. He basically took his teaching to the point that everything we ought to do we are capable of doing. Grace, if you follow Jesus and receive, just makes things easier. I’m heavily paraphrasing the way I’ve internalized it, of course. But that’s what I made of it. The affirmation of the importance and freedom of the human will is strongly emphasized by, for instance, St. John Chrysostom and many others. There is nothing unorthodox about that belief. Similarly, the idea of inherited guilt has never been adopted in the East. There is nothing ever condemned about heretical in that belief. It was the denial of the human need for the grace and energies of God that was heretical. Our will is free. Our will is important. But just as with Adam, our will fails. It is not sufficient. Had it been sufficient there would have been no need for the Incarnation.

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posted April 16, 2009 at 11:39 am

Derek and Scott M,
I enjoy reading your posts on this site! Too often you two beat me to posting and already say anything I could contribute (and often more).
As to the question, where do you see pelagianism today? Well, for me, as a Wesleyan-Arminian in the Nazarene Church, I’d say i find it often in Nazarene Churches and (in places) in the entire seeker-sensitive movement. I feel like so often those of us who believe in free will tend to make the same mistake Pelagian did… and leave out the fact that we drastically need God for far more than a ticket punched for heaven. We need him for everything, His grace is the only thing that is sufficient for all of our needs.

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posted April 16, 2009 at 11:43 am

Randy #9-
Although not specifically dealing with Pelagius, George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, deals with the missiological issue you asked about.
Hunter states that the Roman model was:
“presentation”, then “decision”, then fellowship.
He says that on the other hand, the Celtic model was:
“fellowship, “ministry and conversation”, and then “belief & invitation to commitment”
Here is Dan Kimball’s look at how it can be applied today:
Here is a review of the book:
In regards to Pelagianism, some have said Pelagianism was present in the Celtic church (especially the early years), while others contend the Celtic church strongly opposed it.

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Jon Wasson

posted April 16, 2009 at 2:56 pm

@Derek Leman
you said:
“Pelagianism is not about beginnings, it seems to me, but ends. It is the idea that we can achieve ourselves the consummation of human goodness only God can effect in us. Perhaps the author was led astray by Augustine’s flawed approach. I appreciate Augustine but he was wrong about many things and original sin is not necessarily the critical point at which Pelagianism is wrong.”
If original sin is not the critical point at with Pelaguis was wrong? It seems that this is exactly where he gets off track. Would love to hear what you are thinking there. I appreciated the rest of what you were saying.

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John from Oz

posted April 16, 2009 at 8:54 pm

It seems to me the that the free will discussion needs to be qualified by some such recognition that this is how we are created by God. The idea that unaided by God, the individual can achieve human perfection, misses the point. We are made for union with God. Whether we call it “grace” or not, the relationship between the Father and each other as daughters/sons, expressed and fulfilled what each brings to sharing of love and creativity – seems to me – the essence of the matter.
It seems also that arraigned against individual identity and development, are over-powering forces (familial, societal, political, spiritual – the NT categories of “the world, the flesh and the devil”) which, like a raging sea, would sweep the puny individual mercilessly away into oblivion, despair or madness. This – rather than inherited sin and culpability – is where we need to be saved.
An Anglican canticle has it, “When they were ready to perish, you saved your disciples: we look to you to come to our help.” As Jesus (Saviour) said, “Fear not I have overcome the world.”

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posted April 16, 2009 at 10:58 pm

It’s important to keep in mind that much of where Augustine ended up is not where he intended to go. In many ways he painted himself into a corner by his heavy emphasis on the centrality of the Church and its acting.
This wasn’t a guy who set out to damn unbaptized babies or to lay the ground work for Reformed theology.
It’s important to really look at Augustine’s philosophical/cultural context.
As important as his thought is and has been, we ought to really encourage a critical re-appropriation of him while bracketing Calvin, et. al.

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Derek Leman

posted April 17, 2009 at 9:46 am

I am no Augustine scholar but have read a good bit and took a class at Emory in the late 90’s. My sense is that Augustine reacted to theology sometimes and created something for expedience rather than for reasons of positive discernment of the Bible’s theology. Augustine was enamored with the idea of the sins of his youth and appalled by Pelagius’ tendency to see humans responsible with little or no need for grace. I think his version of Original Sin was cooked up in response to Pelagius rather than through a careful reading of Biblical Theology.
It is not that I don’t believe in Original Sin. I do. But not the way Augustine expounded on it. Our innate rebellion and inability to achieve ideal righteousness is tempered by the existence of God’s image in us, which is capable to true good. We innately have the divine power of good by virtue of our creation and I object to people overlooking this. God gave us grace when he created us and it has not run out. Yet we are unable to complete what God began, since he did not make us complete in the beginning. We need much further grace to become the consummated full humans God intended. Thus, it is more about ends than beginnings.

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Dan Martin

posted April 22, 2009 at 4:41 pm

So Scot, let’s tease this out a little further. Several people have suggested (as I read their comments, and I tend to agree) that Pelagianism as heresy may have as much to do with how Augustine defined (and perhaps, oversimplified or caricatured) the now-lost (rather, destroyed) writings of Pelagius himself. We are therefore left with a “heresy” that may or may not have been Pelagius’ doctrine. In the extreme it suggests that we can bootstrap our own salvation. This, I and most if not all commenters here, disavow.
But in the less-extreme form, many who are uncomfortable with the doctrine of Original Sin, particularly as it interacts with the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity, also get labeled (often by Calvinists) as “Pelagian.” I find myself in this latter category.
Where do you land, and how do you see this continuum?

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