SGBC Modesto

Pelagianism Heresy

February 26, 2024 by

William Heinrich

Pelagius was a British monk who lived around 354-418 A.D.  He taught a creationist view of the soul of man.  He reasoned since each soul was created by God then man does not participate in original sin.  He became well known for his instruction that “Ought equals can”.  Therefore God may only require of us what we are freely able to do.

At the same time Augustine taught man was a “lump of sin”, born sinful and was in Adam.  From his teaching came the rhyme “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all”.  Augustine taught total depravity as total inability.  When man sins he is doing what comes naturally from a depraved nature.

Pelagius was a strong moralist and deeply concerned about Christian behavior and strongly held to human responsibility.  He took exception to Augustine’s well known prayer “Give what you command and command what you will”.  To Pelagius it stripped away human freedom and hence moral responsibility.  However, Augustine simply believed that apart from the grace of God’s enablement, a totally depraved man will utterly fail his moral responsibilities.

Pelagius believed if God is absolutely sovereign then humans would only be puppets.  For God to be just, humans must have a free will.  To have a truly free will he must be just like Adam before he sinned.  Therefore he denied the doctrine of original sin.  This led him to believe that man without sin in his beginning has no need of grace.  Pelagius taught that man not only does not need grace but can apart from grace keep God’s commandments without sinning.

Pelagians even went so far as to consider it unjust for Christ to have suffered vicariously for sinners.  He said, “How can one righteous person suffer for others, especially the unrighteous?”

The responses of the church to Pelagianism have been repeated and consistent.

A. The council’s of Carthage 412, 416 and 418: “All condemned his doctrine”

B. The counsel of Ephesus  431: “Pelagianism was anathematized”

C. The Council of Orange  529: “They condemned Pelagianism unequivitably”

D. The Council of Trent 1546: “Condemned Pelagius in five chapters”

E. Second Helvetc 1561/66  (Swiss-German): “Condemned his teachings”

F. Augsburg Confession 1530  (Lutheran): “Condemned his teachings”

G. Galliean confession  1559  (French): “Condemned his teachings”

H. Belgic confession  1561 (French, Dutch, German): “Condemned his teachings”

I. The Angelican Articles  1571 (English): “Condemned his teachings”

J. Synod of Dordt  1618, 1619  (Dutch, German, French): “Condemned his teachings”

Traditionally Pelagius has been considered an arch-heretic in the western church.  Yet in the days after the reformation, a very similar teaching called Arminianism arose.  Like the controversy of the 3rd and 4th centuries between the teachings of Pelagius and Augustine so it was in the 16th and 17th centuries between the teachings of Calvin and Arminius.

At the Synod of Dordt 1618-19, they stated that Arminianism was a “brand of the Pelagianism Heresy”.  This is a serious claim based mostly on the Arminian false teaching that man has a “free will.” The seriousness of this claim not only rests on 5-point Arminians but also 3- and 4-point Calvinists of our day.

No doubt this article can serve to do more than just teach history.  Most of today’s Christianity holds the Pelagianist/ Arminianism view of free will that has been severely condemned for hundreds of years in church history.  History has called those who hold to most of the Augustine/Calvin theology but that man has a free will, “Semi-Pelagians”.  They were also called “semi-Augustinians” by a few writers.  We can learn from history if we will listen to it.  Things do not go from bad to good, but from good to bad.  We are all a part of a post evolution culture that has failed to awaken us to the doctrinal slippage that has taken place.  I say all this to say that all Arminians and one, two, three and four point Calvinists would have been condemned at the Synod of Dordt as a brand of “Pelagianism Heresy”.  How can a thinking Christian shrug that off without a thorough investigation to get a full answer to the question of why.