Ten Things You Should Know about Pelagius and Pelagianism

Article by Dr. Sam Storms (original source here)

1. We know very little about Pelagius (350-425) prior to his conflict with Augustine.
Evidently he was a British monk who taught for a short time in Rome toward the close of the 4th century. He fled to North Africa in 410 (preceding the invasion of the Goths) and there engaged in his dispute with Augustine, the famous Bishop of Hippo. He later went to Palestine and then disappeared from history.

2. Pelagius was a prolific author who preferred written treatises and rebuttals to open verbal confrontation.
His writings reflect his excellent education and were characterized by clarity of thought and devotional tones throughout. They centered primarily in ethics and religious piety. The hallmark of the Pelagian literature was the insistence that all believers were morally obligated to high ethical ideals, not just the clergy.

3. He wrote several scholarly commentaries on the Pauline epistles as well as a number of letters during the course of the controversy, few of which have survived.
Included among his works are The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart, Virginity, The Law, and Faith in the Trinity (an anti-Arian treatise). His two most influential works are his De Natura and his treatise on Free Will. This latter work, which survives only in fragments today, contains four points of emphasis:

a. Men are born morally neutral with an equal capacity for either good or evil.
b. Whereas previously he spoke of divine grace as merely providing help, here he seems to assert it is necessary for salvation.
c. He finally admits that Adam’s sin did adversely affect his posterity, but only by way of setting a bad example.
d. He discusses certain texts in Paul that appear to say we are driven to sin by the corruption of our flesh, a doctrine he rejects.

4. Pelagius was first and foremost a moralist.
It is important to keep this in mind as a foundational assumption in all of Pelagius’ thinking. He was concerned above all else with right conduct. He was especially hostile to what he perceived to be the tendency of grace to grant a license for sin (cf. Rom. 5:21-6:2). Consider the following statement:

Whenever I am called upon to speak upon moral training and the course of holy living, I am accustomed first to display the power and quality of human nature and show what it is able to accomplish, and then from this to incite the mind of the hearer to (some) forms of virtue, lest it profit nothing to summon to those things which it would have thought to be impossible for it.1

5. Pelagius believed that the soul of man by creation is neither holy nor sinful.
According to Pelagius, Adam was not created holy. He was not constitutionally inclined either toward good or evil. He was morally indifferent or neutral. In this state of moral equilibrium, Adam was no more disposed to good than to evil. Pelagius argued that if Adam had possessed any moral character prior to moral action, his moral responsibility would be destroyed. Continue reading

Pelagianism: The Religion of Natural Man

horton_michael_0Article by Dr. Michael Horton, a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.

We possess neither the ability, free will, power, nor the righteousness to repair ourselves and escape the wrath of God. It must all be God’s work, Christ’s work, or there is no salvation.

Cicero observed of his own civilization that people thank the gods for their material prosperity, but never for their virtue, for this is their own doing. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield considered Pelagianism “the rehabilitation of that heathen view of the world,” and concluded with characteristic clarity, “There are fundamentally only two doctrines of salvation: that salvation is from God, and that salvation is from ourselves. The former is the doctrine of common Christianity; the latter is the doctrine of universal heathenism.”1

But Warfield’s sharp criticisms are consistent with the witness of the church ever since Pelagius and his disciples championed the heresy. St. Jerome, the fourth century Latin father, called it “the heresy of Pythagoras and Zeno,” as in general paganism rested on the fundamental conviction that human beings have it within their power to save themselves. What, then, was Pelagianism and how did it get started?

First, this heresy originated with the first human couple, as we shall see soon. It was actually defined and labeled in the fifth century, when a British monk came to Rome. Immediately, Pelagius was deeply impressed with the immorality of this center of Christendom, and he set out to reform the morals of clergy and laity alike. This moral campaign required a great deal of energy and Pelagius found many supporters and admirers for his cause. The only thing that seemed to stand in his way was the emphasis that emanated particularly from the influential African bishop, Augustine. Augustine taught that human beings, because they are born in original sin, are incapable of saving themselves. Apart from God’s grace, it is impossible for a person to obey or even to seek God. Representing the entire race, Adam sinned against God. This resulted in the total corruption of every human being since, so that our very wills are in bondage to our sinful condition. Only God’s grace, which he bestows freely as he pleases upon his elect, is credited with the salvation of human beings.

In sharp contrast, Pelagius was driven by moral concerns and his theology was calculated to provide the most fuel for moral and social improvement. Augustine’s emphasis on human helplessness and divine grace would surely paralyze the pursuit of moral improvement, since people could sin with impunity, fatalistically concluding, “I couldn’t help it; I’m a sinner.” So Pelagius countered by rejecting original sin. According to Pelagius, Adam was merely a bad example, not the father of our sinful condition-we are sinners because we sin-rather than vice versa. Consequently, of course, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, was a good example. Salvation is a matter chiefly of following Christ instead of Adam, rather than being transferred from the condemnation and corruption of Adam’s race and placed “in Christ,” clothed in his righteousness and made alive by his gracious gift. What men and women need is moral direction, not a new birth; therefore, Pelagius saw salvation in purely naturalistic terms-the progress of human nature from sinful behavior to holy behavior, by following the example of Christ. Continue reading


Sproul Jr In an article entitled “Pelagianism: Self-Righteousness” Dr. R. C. Sproul, Jr writes:

Pelagianism is an ancient error built on man’s self-righteousness. Though roundly condemned when it began, it’s still with us.


I suspect that when we are finally ready to wrap up all the “-ism Fridays,” all the –isms that we end up doing, that this for many of us may very well be the most obscure -ism that we will cover because I’d like to talk today about Pelagianism.

Unless you’re some sort of theology wonk, you probably have never heard of Pelagius. Pelagius was a British monk who lived in the fourth century who came onto the radar of the church when he determined to publicly grumble about the prayer of another believer. That other believer was none other than St. Augustine.

Now, St. Augustine is, in my judgment and I would suspect in the judgment of anybody with any sense of sanity, the greatest theologian of the first millennium of the church era. Augustine was perhaps the greatest theologian ever. And so Pelagius was rather bold in striking up his beef with Augustine. What was the prayer that Augustine pray? He prayed this way, “oh Lord, command what thou wilt and grant what thou doest command.” In this prayer, Augustine was acknowledging God’s sovereign authority. That God has the ability, the liberty, the authority to impose obligation on us. Command what thou will – “God, you are our God, I am at your service, I am your servant, I am your creature, whatever you want to command, I know that is what I have an obligation to do.” And that part of the prayer did not upset Pelagius. Rather, what upset him with the second part, “…grant what thou doest command.”

Augustine is praying to his Maker, “you do whatever you want, you command whatever you want but please give me the ability to do what it is you command me to do.” That is what got in Pelagius’ craw. Pelagius argued that it would be immoral, wrong of God to command that which we do not innately, inherently, have the ability to do on our own.

In making that objection, Pelagius fired a shot across the bow of the doctrine of original sin. And, to his credit, he recognized that that was what he was doing. In defense of his own position Pelagius reached the necessary conclusions that flowed out of it. One conclusion being that there is no such thing as original sin. Now, please understand that “original sin” is not the story of what happened to Adam and Eve, rather it is the doctrine of the fruit of Adam and Eve’s sin.

Original sin holds that because Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they became fallen creatures and that the fallen nature, that inclination towards evil was passed on to all of humanity that would flow from them ever afterwards. That all of us (of course with the exception of Jesus who was conceived of the Holy Spirit) that all of us are born in sin, we were conceived in unrighteousness, that the imaginations of our heart and minds are wicked from our youths, that we are sinners from the beginning. We are in fact slaves to sin.

Pelagius said, “nope, we are born like a blank slate, a tabula rasa. There is no impact of Adam and Eve’s sin upon us. This means of course that we not only innately have the ability to embrace the work of Christ for us, but we have the innate ability to not need the work of Christ for us. Pelagius not only affirmed that we would come to faith in Christ out of an island of righteousness in ourselves, but he also affirmed that we don’t even need faith in Christ because faith in for Christ is for sinners and we can of our own goodness obey the will God.

Happily, Pelagius’ error was roundly condemned by the Early Church in an ecumenical council. The perspective of Augustine was affirmed and defended by the Church and became the doctrine of the Church at least until hundreds and hundreds of years later. In fact “Augustinianism,” even though it is a part of the history of the Roman Catholic Church, is rightly understood as another nickname for what we might call Calvinism or Reformed Theology. Indeed, if you read through the corpus of Calvin you find that Calvin quotes Augustine not only more than any other scholar, but he quotes Augustine more than all other authorities combined.

Augustine is truly the father of the Reformation. On the shoulders of Augustine stood such giants as Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Knox, and Farel. It is on Augustine’s shoulders that these giants stood. And it was Augustine who wisely, faithfully, truthfully first slew that ancient version of theological liberalism that we call Pelagianism.

Pelagianism is not completely gone, it is still with us here in different forms, but it began with Augustine and Pelagius. It was condemned then and it must be condemned now. We need to reject Pelagianism and give thanks for the biblical doctrine of Augustinianism.

Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Semi-semi-Pelagianism

Two articles by Turretinfan:

Article 1

Occasionally people will complain that the term “semi-pelagianism” gets thrown around too freely. As an antidote, here are some comments from noted historian Philip Schaff:

Semi-Pelagianism is a somewhat vague and indefinite attempt at reconciliation, hovering midway between the sharply marked systems of Pelagius and Augustine, taking off the edge of each, and inclining now to the one, now to the other. The name was introduced during the scholastic age, but the system of doctrine, in all essential points, was formed in Southern France in the fifth century, during the latter years of Augustine’s life and soon after his death. It proceeded from the combined influence of the pre-Augustinian synergism and monastic legalism. Its leading idea is, that divine grace and the human will jointly accomplish the work of conversion and sanctification, and that ordinarily man must take the first step. It rejects the Pelagian doctrine of the moral roundness of man, but rejects also the Augustinian doctrine of the entire corruption and bondage of the natural man, and substitutes the idea of a diseased or crippled state of the voluntary power. It disowns the Pelagian conception of grace as a mere external auxiliary; but also, quite as decidedly, the Augustinian doctrines of the sovereignty, irresistibleness, and limitation of grace; and affirms the necessity and the internal operation of grace with and through human agency, a general atonement through Christ, and a predestination to salvation conditioned by the foreknowledge of faith. The union of the Pelagian and Augustinian elements thus attempted is not, however, an inward organic coalescence, but rather a mechanical and arbitrary combination, which really satisfies neither the one interest nor the other, but commonly leans to the Pelagian side.

For this reason it admirably suited the legalistic and ascetic piety of the middle age, and indeed always remained within the pale of the Catholic church, and never produced a separate sect.

We glance now at the main features of the origin and progress of this school.

The Pelagian system had been vanquished by Augustine, and rejected and condemned as heresy by the church. This result, however, did not in itself necessarily imply the complete approval of the Augustinian system. Many, even opponents of Pelagius, recoiled from a position so wide of the older fathers as Augustine’s doctrines of the bondage of man and the absolute election of grace, and preferred a middle ground. Continue reading